ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Sacred architecture: archaeological and anthropological perspectives
Location Arch & Anth M1
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 09:00


Richard Irvine (The Open University)
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Short Abstract

This panel seeks to find points of connection between scholars in Archaeology and Anthropology who have examined in detail the religious buildings that people have constructed and inhabited.

Long Abstract

Many of our fieldsites are marked and shaped by buildings constructed in order to express and mediate the religious practice of social groups and individuals. Churches, monasteries, shrines, and other buildings of these types, transform the landscapes in which many of us work, and the social effects of these sites can continue long after they cease to be used for their original purpose. How should we approach these structures? Can religious buildings, the ways they are built, and the architectural form they take, help us to understand the religious practice and beliefs of individuals and groups? What is the impact of religious architecture on the people who use and inhabit these buildings? How do the populations who live near such buildings interact with these sites? And what is the impact of religious architecture when the buildings are no longer inhabited, as in the case of redundant churches and abandoned monasteries?

This panel hopes to find points of connection and shared interest between scholars in Archaeology and Anthropology who have examined in detail the religious buildings people have constructed and inhabited. Contributors to the panel are invited to share specific case studies of religious architecture, buildings that have been used for a religious purpose, and the ways in which religious buildings have impacted upon social life. The aim is to think comparatively as a panel about what we can learn from buildings used for a religious purpose, and to think about this across a range of geographical, historical, and religious settings.

Discussant: Caroline Humphrey

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Doorways to the divine: the use of space in contemporary religious buildings

Author: Nick Hanks (English Heritage)


This is a study of the use of space in eight buildings around Bristol, England, used by Anglican Christians, Ba'hais, Buddhists, Druids, Hindus, Muslims, Reform Jews, and Sikhs. Each was visited and a user of the space interviewed. The spaces were sketch-planned and recorded as permeability maps after Hillier and Hanson (1984) as a way of exploring the interaction between the ritual behaviour, the space and the material culture. Various aspects of these buildings are examined: the adaptation of the pre-existing buildings; the role of the reception spaces in preparation and the separation of strangers; how the community spaces make connections and containment of the culture; the arrangement of the main ritual space and the activities carried out there; the physical actions of participants; the use of space and objects; and how the ritual focus is the centre of the attentional focus behaviour necessary for ritual. However, the study also examines why the visual access to it is restricted, and how the ritual focus is implied as a liminal gateway to hidden layers of permeability beyond, hence making religious buildings incomplete structures. The study concludes with a model of the structure of religious buildings based on those examined in this study, which parallels that of Turner's (1982) model for ritual practice.

Meeting at Atagartis. Ancient Syrian sanctuaries as places of cult, resting and meeting in multifunctional rooms

Author: Julian Buchmann (Rostock University)


Rooms of bi- and triclinia shape can be seen in a multitude of sanctuaries from Greece to Jordan, on Cyprus, in Iraq or in Turkey and in Syria. In the ancient Syrian city of Dura-Europos at the Euphrates, a number of Syrian and Phoenician sanctuaries were discovered among others like an early church, a synagogue and a Mithraeum. The sanctuaries of the Syrian and Phoenician deities are part of my dissertation, which is in progress. Comparing the partially well preserved and documented findings out of the sanctuaries of Dura-Europos with others along Near Eastern ancient trade routes, some similarities become apparent. Rooms lined up with benches of stone at the walls can be found in a variety of sanctuaries at different places. Usually, it is assumed that these rooms were reserved for the priests and served for ritual banquets, which followed the victims. The latter took place on the altar in the open courtyard of the sanctuaries. But in many cases, neither an altar, nor the function of the banqueting rooms can be verified. The paper will focus on the question, which purposes these special rooms inside the sanctuaries served, considering the needs of an ancient passenger or inhabitant of a city, where a number of sanctuaries was built like at Dura-Europos.

The architecture of stability: the case of an English Benedictine monastery

Author: Richard Irvine (The Open University)


Benedictine monks make a commitment to stability: they invest themselves in their new religious household and tie their own individual development to the life of that household. The entire religious 'life cycle' of the monk, from his clothing upon entering the monastery, to his burial in the monastic cemetery, can be contained within the accommodation of the monastery grounds. I suggest then that the monastic life should be understood as a commitment to place. In this context of commitment to place, the architecture of the monastic household becomes a question of key significance. In this paper, I will draw on the case of an English Benedictine monastery where I carried out a year's ethnographic fieldwork. I will look at how the monastery makes visible the commitment to stability by connecting the different stages of the monk's life cycle, and also the different elements of the monks' daily life, within the same complex. The buildings of the monastery contain the sleeping quarters, the place for prayer, for study, for eating, for relaxation. In such a context, the sacred and the banal are enclosed and connected within the same set of buildings. Yet these buildings are not, I would argue, a quarantine, or a means of containing the community as separate from society. Through the guest wing and through the architectural witness of the Abbey church, visitors are built into the structure of the monastery, and the monastery communicates its way of life to the wider society within which it exists.

The normative order of space: the palatial settings as theatres for a sacred language and social production and reproduction.

Author: Noach Vander Beken (Heidelberg University (Germany))


Architecture and the Minoan palaces are as cultural artefacts strongly embedded with symbolism. The use of the building in terms of regulating interaction and communication makes them "Theatres" for performative action. Three important elements are central to evaluate the palace and it's surrounding to find out in which ways architecture as a cultural environment works normative and transmits a Sacred language to the level of the entire community. Firstly, we have to accept that architecture is an expressive medium, whereby the builders/inhabitants exploit the different layers of façade, interior and structure, as a medium for expression. They affect the way both visitors and inhabitants perceive their surroundings and potentially engage them into dialogues with others sharing the space. Secondly, these spaces are filled up with meaning, and are used as a "sacred" language, as visual representations of information physically represented in the architectural environment. This Sacred language is transmitted/communicated through redundant behaviour in the form of performances/processions and forms the most important medium to express asymmetric power relations. Thirdly, they are also responsive; it is an environment that interacts with the people who are present in it. My basic arguments can be summarized in three statements: (1) The Palatial settings are as cultural constructs imbued with a normative "sacred" language; (2) The nature of the deeper meaning of the architectural constellation informed prehistoric societies about the basis of social order, norms and values; and (3) it is possible for Minoan archaeologists to make limited, but significant, inferences about the basis of social order from analyses of prehistoric architecture. In this way, the Palaces will be investigated in order to derive as much evidence as possible that speaks in favour that the architectural layout of the Palaces forms the sacred language that enhances the normative structures in Minoan society.

The ritual coming of age and its social implications in the Bronze Age society of Thera: a case study of building Xesté 3, Akrotiri

Author: Ute Günkel-Maschek (University of Heidelberg)


This paper will present the ceremonial building Xesté 3 from Bronze Age Akrotiri (Thera) as a case study on the interaction between architecture and iconography. It will focus on the social implications that can be derived from the spatial arrangement and the iconographic programme of mural paintings.

The layout of the building comprises several architectural features that are taken from Minoan 'palatial' architecture. These are used to create a specific circulation pattern with multiple possibilities of movement throughout the building. The pictorial programme decorating the eastern part of the building, however, subdivides the complex set of rooms and passageways creating exclusive circulation areas for males or females. The upper floor, thus, becomes a female area whereas the male area predominates on the ground floor, the 'Lustral Basin' being the only exception.

Some of the wall paintings depict in a very detailed manner the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood of both sexes, those of the female initiates being under the auspices of an enthroned goddess. From the spatial arrangement - the male and the female areas visually converge in the Eastern wall of the sunken area of the 'Lustral Basin' - and from specific pictorial elements it may be concluded that the ritualised coming of age ends up with sexual intercourse.

Additional paintings may be related to a broader set of gender-specific ideas and concepts and, thus, form an adequate and supplementing framework for both the ritual activities taking place within the building and the social meanings associated with these activities.

Making sense of emperor worship: the sensory experience of sacrifice at the temple of Domitian in Ephesus

Author: Candace Weddle (University of Southern California; Koc University Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations)


The urban landscape of late 1st century C.E. Ephesus in Asia Minor was dominated by a temple to the Roman emperor Domitian. Built high on an artificial platform, the visual impact of the building complex and the religious and political implications of its location and decoration have been much-discussed by archaeologists and art historians. However, no one has analyzed the impact of the blood sacrifices carried out on the altar in front of the temple - the sights, sounds and smells of the ritual slaughter and their sensory effects on the city's inhabitants. In antiquity, a temple building denoted the presence and prestige of a deity, but it was the aural and, especially, the olfactory aspects of the sacrificial act that were of greatest importance in expressing society's relationship to the god. A thorough understanding of the sensory elements of ancient sacrifice is vital if we are to fully appreciate the implications of sacrificial practice.

Ancient sources record as many as 144 bulls offered in a single day in the rites of Roman emperor worship; it is difficult for scholars to conceive of such a spectacle. I will analyze my experience of the slaughter of large numbers of bovines during the Islamic Kurban Bayram sacrifices in Istanbul to make suggestions concerning the sensory elements of sacrifice in imperial Ephesus. This is not a comparative religion project, but an auto-ethnographic attempt to understand the sensory impact of ancient sacrifice in a way that exceeds the limitations of traditional archaeological and literary research.

The role of a pilgrimage site's spatial structures in the construction of the sacred: the case of Padre Pio and the shrine of Santa Maria delle Grazie

Author: Evgenia Mesaritou (University of Toronto, University of Cyprus)


Eade and Sallnow (1991) propose we see pilgrimage sites as 'religious voids', deriving their power not only from their own religious significance, but also from their character as a platform able to accommodate the different and often conflicting meanings and practices that officials and pilgrims alike bring to the shrine . While agreeing with Eade and Sallnow on the issue of multiple discourses, Coleman and Elsner (1998) revise the idea of the 'religious void', stressing that this, "[…] is in fact full- crowded with material props, holy objects and […] pilgrims" (ibid:49). Drawing from De Certeau's theories on everyday practices, in this paper I will illustrate the role of the material and spatial context of pilgrimage in the construction of the sacred, making use of ethnographic data gathered during fieldwork at the site of Padre Pio's tomb, the shrine of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In the first part I will argue that the shrine's managers are able to promote an official discourse about the sanctity of Padre Pio through the organization and symbolic investment of the shrine's spatial structures, guiding both the movement of the shrine's visitors and their readings of the site. In the second, I will argue that despite their disadvantageous position in the process whereby the sacred is constructed, the shrine visitors are able to communicate their own views, through the consumption, utilization and appropriation of the shrine's structures, re-defining at times through their devotional practices officially produced meanings.