Exploring the Roots of Religion

The most important record of religious history resides not in books and sacred texts but buried in the earth. Ancient graves, statues, temples, standing stones, sacrificial offerings, and places of initiation all bear witness to the universal human quest for spiritual power and understanding. Since the beginnings of scientific archaeology in the 18th century, excavators have been discovering and interpreting evidence ranging from tiny goddess figurines carved from mammoth ivory to entire sacred landscapes, such as the Giza plateau in Egypt. The millennial of human experience that preceded the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago is only accessible to us through archaeology. And even for more recent religions and cults, the “testimony of the spade” provides an essential perspective that enhances our understanding of the literary tradition.

Archaeology provides evidence that is very different in nature from historical writings. With aerial reconnaissance and remote sensing technology, archaeologists relocate lost temples and other cult sites. With trowels and brushes, they gently remove the dust of ages from buried sites and artifacts. And with space-age laboratory techniques, they analyze the residues left by royal funeral feast as well as the last meals of sacrificial victims.

Some 30,000 years before scribes made the fist religious writings, Ice Age peoples of Europe and the Near East were creating shrines in caves, modeling images of divinities and shamans, and using art and music in ceremonies. Even earlier, in the time of the Neanderthals, some of the tribe’s deceased were laid in their graves with flowers, possibly symbolizing resurrection after death. The first theme of our course, “In the Beginning,” explores these earliest religious rites and the beliefs that inspired them, right down to the time of the first farmers and the construction of the first megalithic monuments.

Next we devote six of our lectures to the ritual activity that seems to lie at the very core of religion worldwide-namely burial of the dead, under the theme “Quest of the Afterlife.” Beginning with the simple pit tombs of ordinary villagers in predynastic Egypt, whose bodies were naturally mummified in the dry of sand of the Sahara, we move forward in time to the extraordinary graves of wealthy monarchs like the Viking queen Asa, whose elaborate, treasure-filled tomb shows that at least some of our ancestors believed that you can take it with you. We also examine ambitious funeral architecture from Petra in Jordan to Easter Island in the Pacific and include a visit to the enigmatic burial mounds of prehistoric North America.

Another universal element in religion is ritual: the performance of traditional actions that range from dances to foretelling the future. Although such activities may seem ephemeral, they often leave clear traces in the archaeological record. Our third theme, “Reconstructing Ancient Rituals,” starts with a survey of the fertility cults of warriors and farmers in Bronze Age Scandinavia. Then we move on to Minoan bull dancing, Chinese and Greek divination, and Mayan ball games and human sacrifices. We conclude by examining a tour de force of scientific archaeology that has reconstructed, hour by hour, the last day in the life of a Celtic prince, possibly a Druid, who was sacrificed and buried in a bog at the time of the Roman conquest of Britain.

This grisly ritual leads us into our fourth theme, “Lost Gods and Fallen Temples,” where human sacrifice becomes almost routine as part of the nearly superhuman efforts to glorify divine monarchs through monumental architecture, impressive ceremony, and above all spectacular funeral rites. The kings and queens of Ur in Mesopotamia (hometown of the biblical Abraham), the pharaohs of Egypt, the emperors of China and Rome, and the royalty of the ancient Americas have all left indelible marks of their status as gods, rather than as mere mortals.

The penultimate theme of the course, “Sacred Landscapes,” offers a tour of some of earth’s most famous ancient sites: Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, and others. These great achievements of ancient engineers in fact functioned as ceremonial centers, and it is our mission to understand the full range of remains at each site and to reconstruct the religious beliefs  and worldviews that impelled ancient peoples in every corner of the globe to invest much vast expenditures of time, wealth, human power, and technical ingenuity to create stages for their religious rites and earthly images of the sacred cosmos. We also explore lesser-known ceremonial centers such as Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest and the Ajanta Caves of India.

In our final group of six lectures, under the theme “Communities of the Spirit,” we consider a number of extinct religions in their totality. The best known of these is unquestionably the early monotheistic cult of the heretic, Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, who closed the temples of Ra and the other traditional gods and tried to impose the worship of a single god, Aten, throughout his kingdom. Similar grandeur attends the discoveries of the center for Aztec religious life at the Templo Mayor in Mexico city (formerly the Aztecs city of Tenochtítlan), where recent excavations have brought to light a series of pyramids, offerings, and artworks that span the entire period of Aztec domination in Mesoamerica. The search for the ancient Persian cult of Mithras take us deep underground to the buried chapels of this worshippers  throughout the Roman Empire, while the city of Jenne-jeno in Africa yields evidence of a cult in which craftworkers, specifically ironsmiths, were regarded as diviners and religious leaders. Finally, viewing earth from space, we close with the mystery of the Nazca Desert in Peru, where gigantic images of animals and other designs laid our over great distances still defy the efforts of archaeologists to unlock their secrets.

Although this course focuses primarily on religions that belong to the ancient world, we will often pause to consider how archaeological finds shed unexpected light on the origins and rituals of such modern religions as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Even today, most people’s religious experience is shaped not by theological creeds but by enduring traditions rooted in the remote past.