skip to content

Department of Archaeology


Roots of Spirituality Project

As archaeology is the study of past societies through their material culture, the archaeological study of religion is by definition intimately concerned with the relationship between material culture and religious practice and belief. This relationship has formed the underlying rationale for the "Roots of Spirituality" project at the McDonald Institute, run by Prof. Colin Renfrew and Dr. Iain Morley, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

The aim of the project is to investigate aspects of human behaviour manifest in the archaeological record which give indications of the early occurrence and development of aspects of religious practices and belief. The diversity of religious practices and beliefs means that there are numerous aspects which may manifest themselves archaeologically, but this diversity also creates the problem of defining and recognising such evidence.

For this reason the project has chosen to focus on the early occurrence of certain behaviours which might be considered to be component parts of what we typically identify as religious practice and belief, and to ask how these behaviours come to play a significant part in such systems. Two main themes have been addressed by the project so far, each of which culminated in a symposium involving contributions from 25 or so invited international academics from the fields of archaeology, anthropology and theology. The first focused on the relationship between the emergence of the use of figurative representation and the development of spiritual belief systems. The second was concerned with the relationship between the development of measuring systems and of cosmological understandings of the world.


"Image and imagination: material beginnings — the global prehistory of figurative representation" was convened in September 2005, and took a world view on early figuration. The participants considered the earliest and then subsequent occurrences of figurative representation in different regions, including Europe, Mesoamerica, South America, Africa, India, China, the Near East and Australia, and how they relate to the presence and development of religious and ritual practices. It is in the development of figurative representation — taken to include anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and therianthropic (combined) imagery, in parietal art and in the round — that we may find the foundations of religious iconicity. Some such representations relate to notions of ancestors — a different dimension of spirituality — and some may relate to portraits of living individuals, linked with the formation of new ideas of personal identity. This is a major and rich area for research, strongly rooted in the archaeological record, which leads directly to many questions relevant to the archaeology of ritual and religion.

The written contributions of the nearly 30 participants in the symposium are brought together in a volume entitled "Image and Imagination — the global prehistory of figurative representation" and published by the McDonald Institute Monographs series this month (November 2007). Themes such as the roles of imagery in the definition of identity, the importance of the creation process itself in the meaning of imagery, the relationship between representation and narrative, and the role of representations in mediating relations between the quotidian and super-natural realms, are just some of the themes discussed in the volume.


The second research symposium, entitled "Measuring the World and Beyond — the archaeology of early quantification and cosmology", was convened in September 2006. The aim of this symposium was to consider, on a cross-cultural basis, the origins and early development of counting and of measurement in a number of different areas of the world, using the available archaeological evidence. The construction of measurement systems implies the construction of new means for recognising and engaging with the material world, and in a broader sense for cognising and explaining the world. It is in this process that certain aspects both of spirituality and of more specific conceptions of early religions must emerge. The symposium again took a world view of the question, with contributions considering the evidence for quantification and cosmological activities in many different regions, including Europe, Mesoamerica, South America, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Foci of the symposium included the early incidence of measures of mass, length, volume, units, number, counting and computation as well as architecture, planning and design, and the relation of many of these behaviours to ritual practices in the very different cultures concerned. Much of the relationship with ritual and religion emerges with consideration of transitions from terrestrial measure to concepts of time, cycles, and the attendant cosmological considerations of the celestial and supernatural.

Like "Image and Imagination", the written products of "Measuring the World and Beyond" will be published as a volume, in 2008.


A third volume, entitled "Becoming Human: Innovation in Material and Spiritual Cultures" will also be published in 2008, by Cambridge University Press. This is based on a symposium held in Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France, and focuses specifically on the Palaeolithic archaeological record and the relationship between the emergence of symbolic behaviours and 'spiritual' understandings of the world amongst early humans. This, like the others, is edited by Renfrew and Morley and published under the banner of the Roots of Spirituality project.


Colin Renfrew and Iain Morley gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the John Templeton Foundation, the British Academy, the McDonald Institute and, in the formative stages of the project, the advice and contributions of Chris Scarre (McDonald Institute, now Durham), Richard Lesure (UCLA), Lynn Meskell (Stanford), Koji Mizoguchi (Kyushu), and Paul Wason (John Templeton Foundation).

Project Tags

Powered by Drupal