Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.06

Nicola Laneri (ed.), Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East.   Oxford:  Oxbow, 2015.  Pp. ix, 186.  ISBN 9781782976790.  $50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir, Bar-Ilan University (

The volume under review is an excellent collection of studies on the archaeology of religion in the ancient Near East, dealing with various cultures, finds, issues and periods, ranging from the early Neolithic period until the Iron Age, and while mostly within the realm of the “classical” ancient Near East, includes a study on ancient Turkmenistan. Most of the papers were originally presented at a session on the archaeology of the ancient Near East at the 8th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East which was held in Warsaw in 2012. To this several papers were added to broaden the topics and periods covered in the volume.

The first chapter (“Introduction: Investigating archaeological approaches to the study of religious practices and beliefs,” pp. 1-10), by the volume’s editor, Nicola Laneri, provides an overview and introduction to the volume. In the chapter, Laneri very discusses and summarizes issues such as: what is religion?; an overview of the archaeology of religion; previous studies on the archaeology of religion in the ancient Near East; and a general overview of the papers in the volume. One thing that would have improved this introduction, and in particular the discussion of the definition of religion and the archaeology of religion, would have been some reference to those who question the very definitions of religion as used in modern research as formulations based on modern western perceptions of the topic that are perhaps not always relevant for the study of ancient, non-western cultures (e.g. C. Martin, “Delimiting Religion”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 21/2 [2009], 157-176).

Following the introductory chapter, the book is divided into three parts.

Part I (“Sacred Nature”) includes the following studies:

Nadezah Dubova (“Animal Burials and their Cult in Margiana”, pp. 13-23) reports on intriguing finds from western Turkmenistan, at the little known site of Gonur Tepe. At this site there are several score animal burials, relating, most probably to cult of the elites at the site, which date, roughly, to the 2nd millennium BCE. While the culture at this site is poorly known, and the specific meaning of these burials are far from understood, this interesting study brings to the forefront an aspect of cultures of the periphery of the ancient near east which was previously unknown.

The next chapter (“Identifying sacrifice in Bronze Age Near Eastern iconography”, pp. 24-37, by Laerke Recht) is an attempt to classify and identify depictions of cultic sacrifice in various (mainly Mesopotamian) ancient Near Eastern art, while aware that her suggestions are preliminary at best. Unfortunately, in her introductory discussion of sacrifice in general and the ancient Near East in particular, she does not refer to the excellent collection of studies that was published quite recently (Porter, A., and Schwartz, G. M., eds. 2012. Sacred Killing: The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns).

In a fascinating study, Steve Rosen (“Cult and the Rise of Desert Pastoralism: A case study from the Negev”, pp. 38-47) discusses the evidence for and significance of the appearance of cult in the desert peripheries of the Southern Levant during the Neolithic period. Rosen posits that the appearance of cultic praxis in these societies, and in particular various types of built remains, can be connected to the transition from hunter and gatherer modes of subsistence, to that of the adoption of domesticated goat and the transition to pastoral socio-economic lifestyles.

In “Thoughts on Material Expressions on Cultic Practices: Standing Stone Monuments of Early Bronze Age in the Southern Levant” (pp. 48-59), Ann Andersson discusses the commonly found phenomenon of standing stone cultic monuments in the Early Bronze Age southern Levant. Andersson concentrates primarily on such monuments in Transjordan (and in particular at the site of Dhra’ in Jordan), with some reference to other areas in the southern Levant. She suggests that all these monuments are in fact related to cultic activities – and are functionally and symbolically connected to contemporaneous cultic open-air sites, structures and compounds, all part of a larger “ceremonial landscape”. While this study does provide a good overview of the this phenomenon during the Early Bronze Age, I believe relating this to the appearance of standing stones and other megalithic phenomena in earlier periods in the southern Levant might have been of importance.

Pascal Butterlin, in “Late Chalcolithic Mesopotamia: towards a definition of sacred space and its evolution” (pp. 60-72), provides a detailed discussion, with nice comparative views, of the development and change in urban “sacred space” in 5th and 4th millennium BCE Mesopotamia and Susiana. Importantly, he stresses not only the well-known evidence of societal developments at this stage, but many cycles of building, crisis and rebuilding.

The second part of the book is entitled “Housing the God”, in which the following papers are included:

In a very strong paper, Oliver Dietrich and Jens Notroff (“A sanctuary, or so fair a house? In defense of an archaeology of cult at Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe”, pp. 75-89) defend the identification of the early Neolithic site Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, as a cult-related sanctuary, and not, as some critics (especially Banning) have suggested that these unique structures were large scale domestic structures. Using Colin Renfrew’s well-known list of archaeological indicators of cult, they demonstrate that all the evidence points (and if I may add, not surprisingly) to a cultic interpretation of the buildings.

In “Where to Worship? Religion in Iron II Israel and Judah” (pp. 90-101), Beth Alpert Nakhai, discusses the types (national, community, personal) and locations of worship in Iron Age II (10th-6th cent. BCE) Israel and Judah. Differentiating between the various contexts, she attempts to place these within the context of the political and societal developments of this period, such as the formation of two distinct kingdoms, religious reformations, etc. While the overall scheme that she provides seems very likely, the newly published Iron IIA-B temple found at Moza (see S. Kisilevitz. 2015. The Iron IIA Judahite Temple at Tel Moza. Tel Aviv 42: 147-164), just outside of Jerusalem, may call into question some of her (and other scholars’) suggestions regarding the lack of temples in non-urban contexts in Iron Age Judah.

Stefano Valentini (“Communal places of worship: Ritual activities and ritualized ideology during the Early Bronze Age Jezirah”, pp. 102-117), using architectural, artefactual (pottery, figurines, glyptics) tries to understand the ideology behind the ritual practice in the Early Bronze Age Jazirah, in northern Mesopotamia.

In “Open spaces around the temples and their ritual use: archaeological evidence from the Bronze and Iron Age Levant” (pp. 118-133), Stefania Mazzoni stresses the important cultic function, often missed by scholars, of the open spaces in the vicinity of temples, and in particular of the so-called “in antis” plan. Drawing on examples from Bronze and Iron Age Syria in particular, including her excavations at Tel Afis, she demonstrates the archaeological evidence of these open cultic spaces.

Amalia Catagnoti (“Ritual Circumambulations in the Syro-Mesopotamian Cuneiform Texts: An Overview”, pp. 134-141) provides a brief survey for the evidence of cultic circumambulations in the Mesopotamian cuneiform texts spanning the mid-3rd to early 2nd millennium BCE.

A study by Lica Romana of the “lifecycle” of the “Temple of the Rock” from Early Bronze Age Ebla, serves as an example of ritual cycles of temples in the northern Levant and Mesopotamia (“A Temple Lifecycle: Rituals of Construction, Restoration, and Destruction of Some ED Mesopotamian and Syrian Sacred Buildings”, pp. 142-150). These “lifecycles” are demonstrated through the author’s interpretation of the stratification of two favissae that are associated with this temple, in which various events and functions are identified.

The third and final part of the volume (“The Materialization of Religious Beliefs and Practices”) contains the following studies:

In “Religion as practice in Neolithic societies” (pp. 153-161), Trevor Watkins provides an excellent overview of the appearance of ritual and cult in the early Neolithic period in the Near East, and how it is intimately connected to the various socio-economic developments during this cardinal stage of human culture.

Milena Gosic and Isaac Gilead (“Casting the sacred: Chalcolithic metallurgy and ritual in the southern Levant”, pp. 161-175) discuss the deeply embedded ritual significance that can be seen in Chalcolithic metallurgy, exemplified by the finds from the Nahal Mishmar cave. In fact they suggest that the introduction of metallurgy in the late Chalcolithic and its symbolic and technological significance play a major role in that cultural period.

In the chapter “How better understanding of ritual practices can help the comprehension of religious feelings?” (pp. 176-183), Laura Battini attempts to test the validity of the commonly held view that one should distinguish between official and private religious practice and belief. Using various material, iconographic and textual examples from Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, she believes that such a division between the official and private may be, more than anything else, a reflection of our modern perceptions.

In the final chapter of the volume, Daniel Snell (“Archaeological Correlates of Pious Societies”, pp. 184-186), provides very brief comments on the contents of this volume, attempting to define cross-cultural archaeological evidence of piety. All told, this is a very useful and interesting volume, which collects a diverse group of studies on various cultures, periods and issues, and from, at times, very different perspectives, on the archaeology of religion in the ancient Near East. The editor and the contributors are to be thanked for this important collection.

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