Archaeology’s Rediscovery of Religion

One of the most remarkable changes in archaeology in the 20th century has been its rediscovery of religion as a distinct field of inquiry. This change in attitude to the investigation of religion has occurred in direct contradiction to one of the key philosophical tenets underpinning the attitude towards science and religion of atheist polemicists such as Richard Dawkins. Archaeology’s rediscovery of religion thus marks the fall of one of the major philosophical supports for atheist worldview, while the stifling of proper scientific investigation of the religious beliefs of previous ages through their material culture because of the influence of this worldview demonstrates that atheist theorising has acted in this particular instance as an obstacle to scientific research.

The philosophical theory in question was the Logical Positivism of the Vienna school. As articulated in the 1930s, this held that all statements, rather than referring to an objective reality, were in fact descriptions of one’s own subjective state. Thus if someone said ‘it is hot’, what they really meant was not that it was objectively hot, but they felt hot. The Vienna Circle were ardent materialists who wished to uphold science’s position as the true method of describing reality against metaphysics. Metaphysics, they held, was nonsensical. Any language used of God was incoherent and thus meaningless. The world could only be investigated and described using the methodology of science.

The result of this was that during the heyday of Logical Positivism, roughly from the 1930s to the 1950s, there was a tendency in archaeology to eschew rigorously religion as a separate topic of investigation. Nothing could be said about the beliefs of past societies, and archaeology consisted to a large extent of the cataloguing of artefacts according to type, without considering the wider cultural, ideological or psychological factors affecting the manufacture of the item.

This began to change in the mid-20th century with Christopher Hawkes’ ‘ladder of inference’. This was a conceptual ladder which ranked the inferences that could be made about a past society from its archaeological evidence according to the ease with which such inferences could be made. At the bottom rung – the easiest level of inference – was technical processes. Next up were ‘subsistence economics’, then social and political institutions. On the top rung, representing the most difficult level of interpretation, was ‘religious institutions and spiritual life’. Hawkes’ diagram of the levels of difficulty in interpreting the archaeological evidence, although categorising religion as the most difficult societal process to interpret, nevertheless showed that it was possible and made the archaeological investigation of religion more respectable.

More recently, developments within Processual and Post-Processual archaeology have led to the further rediscovery of religion as an area for archaeological investigation. The Processual archaeologist Lewis Binford recognised that religion was a distinct field of inquiry, but considered it a part of ideology. However, Processual archaeologists largely ignored religion as a superfluous area of research outside of the main concerns of archaeology, which were held to be about technology and subsistence. Religion was classified as part of ‘palaeopsychology’. However, the development of cognitive processualism, which is the attempt to enter the minds of past societies and recover their worldview, following the ideas of such cultural historians and philosophers as R.G. Collingwood and Benedetto Croce, has led to religion again emerging as a distinct area of archaeological investigation. Colin Renfew, for example, has argued that archaeology can examine cult and ritual through archaeological artefacts concerned with the focussing of attention, the boundary zone between this world and the otherworld, the presence of the deity and participation and offering. 1

This development has not gone uncontested, however, and there are still archaeologists such as Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley who continue to see religion as part of ‘ritual’ or the ‘symbolic’ dimensions of material culture. This can have some odd consequences, however. One of the criticisms of Ian Hodder’s 1990 book, The Domestication of Europe, was that some of the material he described as merely ‘ritual’ and ‘symbolic’ was indeed best understood as religious. However, despite this religion has nevertheless re-emerged as a distinct and respectable area of study for archaeologists.

Archaeologists interested in the study of religion are also particularly aware of the subjective nature of interpretation in this area. Some of the suspicion within archaeology towards the investigation of religion comes from the spurious recreations of palaeolithic and neolithic religion based on an overenthusiasic interpretation of the evidence, or applying modern conceptual categories to ancient artefacts. They are also aware that much depends on the individual archaeologist’s attitude to religion in his interpretation of the evidence: ‘Yet, equally, factors such as the perspective of the archaeologists writing about the archaeology of cult and religion must also be isolated as a potentially relevant factor. So that if religion is perhaps not of importance to the individuals themselves, this will inevitable be refelcted within the archaeological interpretations as well.’ 3 Thus a secular individual is as likely to misinterpret the evidence as a religious person.

While this doesn’t mean that the archaeologists investigating the religions of previous ages are themselves religious – indeed, many, perhaps most, are not – it does mean that religion has been increasingly established as a respectable area of archaeological inquiry against the Logical Positivist position that no statements about the religious beliefs of previous ages could be made. This has a particular relevance in other areas of the debate between science and religion. For example, despite the fall of Logical Positivism, many of the New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins hold philosophical positions strongly reminiscent of it. Like the Logical Positivists, Dawkins seems to feel that metaphysics is nonsense, and that only empirical science can meaningfully describe reality. He is equally dismissive of religious language, and has written articles for atheist and Humanist magazines attacking it as meaningless. Apart from the fact that the Logical Positivism supporting this view is now rejected, there is a real irony here. Dawkins prides himself as a defender of scientific inquiry, yet the Logical Positivist attitudes he endorses and articulates were themselves an obstacle to scientists investigating religion from an archaeological perspective. One of the philosophical supports for Dawkins’ atheism, rather than assisting science, has really acted against it. Thus, one could be justified in stating that rather than supporting science and understanding, when it comes to the archaeological investigation of religion, atheism has in fact been an obstacle, a role atheists usually ascribe to religion.


1. Timothy Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: The Key Concepts (London, Routledge 2005), p. 47.

2. Timothy Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: The Key Concepts (London, Routledge 2005), p. 47.

Timothy Insoll, ‘Archaeology of Cult and Religion’ in Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: The Key Concepts (London, Routledge 2005), pp. 47-8.

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4 Responses to “Archaeology’s Rediscovery of Religion”

  1. Biscuitnapper Says:

    Absolutely fascinating. Thanks for posting.

  2. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Biscuitnapper. I’m really glad you liked it and found it interesting! 🙂

  3. How can archaeology help us understand the recent past? | DEC20 Says:

    […] as the 20th century progressed, changes can be seen; some online discussions can be found, e.g. here, here, and here. See Giles and Rees Jones 2011, […]

  4. Agnes Says:

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