As a structural archaeologist, I am comfortable discussing the architectural needs and formalities of a residence suitable for those Gods who like that sort of thing, but problems arise with their communications, which have often proved to be a somewhat unreliable source of information. In the past, Gods tended to speak to individuals when they are on their own; we know this because from the Early Bronze Age onwards accounts of these conversations were written down, so we can glimpse of how they wanted society to be organised, and what they regarded as their legitimate business interests.
If you start from the position that history is a subset of archaeology that deals with specialist forms of physical evidence inscribed with text, it makes no sense to draw a line around certain artefacts and treat them differently, but I am happy to leave them to those with specialist skills; archaeology always needs people to sit in the site hut and study the finds. This boundary between the prehistoric and historic represents a quantum leap in understanding, because they can tell us what they thought, or what they want us to believe they were thinking, or perhaps what they wanted others to think.
Archaeology has got a lot to be grateful to the Gods for, since they have been constant companions for the cultures we study, inspiring many of the our most magnificent finds, and just as significantly, many of the people who went looking for them and funded the excavations. Ironically, the intensity of interest engendered by the Supernatural has driven research by generations of archaeologists to the point that we can now understand our own past, without the help of the Gods.
One potential intersection between Gods and archaeology is issues created by finding dead bodies, above and beyond the hassle they create in terms of technical, legal and logistic issues, in certain cultural contexts can be complex and political. We have had an interesting dispute over the remains from Stonehenge, with Neopagans trying to lay claim to advocacy for the mortal remains of the pre-Christian world. in much the same way that many have been posthumously baptised into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the new cottage industry of ancestral research has much to be grateful to the Angel Maroni.
Archaeology ascribes much significance to burial practices as indicative of the development of ideas about an afterlife, and we can be fairly sure that Palaeolithic humans were burying their dead, but the jury is out on Neanderthal belief. Luckily, it is an area I have never had to deal with, probably because when the opportunity arose, I used the industry term “stiff” in front of a mixed interview panel, although this might be a myth. Depending on age, there are 270 to 206 bones in the Human body, all of which have to be accounted for and recorded. Some anthropologists love this treatment of the dead stuff, I am more than happy to put it in a box send it to someone else and move on, while they may have been in the ground a long time, I would contend that peoples brief lives in and around buildings is the interesting bit.
However, museums have always been well stocked with kit originally intended for an afterlife where status was important. Luckily, most of the graves I have excavated were those of very early Christians, which were empty apart from a chemical signature, which is not uncommon; in archaeology there is no box to tick for resurrected.
It’s alright, I’m an archaeologist.
It has long been my practice when approached by evangelicals and similar to say “It’s alright I’m an archaeologist”, - using the resultant confusion to escape. It is not something they are prepared for, and it also works well as a response to most openers used by sales people.
While it usually does the trick, the persistent will soon discover my original degree is Archaeology with Philosophy, Psychology, Geology and Ancient History, none of which encourages a magical view of the past. Just for the record, it is my understanding that archaeology does not support or verify the existence of any particular Gods, which surprisingly, is contrary to what many scholars believe. As popular entertainment will verify archaeologists are not the sort to be easily intimidated by ancient Gods, sifting through the wreckage of their temples does take the gloss off their wrath. Even if one of us achieves all archaeologists dream and find the Arc of the Covenant, complete with radiant tablets of stone, it would not prove Moses wrote them; although it might precipitate the end of the world, but that's what being an archaeologists is all about; health and safety.
Nor am I going to be impressed by a tautology like “Prehistoric cosmology” any more than I would give credence to a creationist; critical thinking is a transferable skill. “Prehistoric” means pre- historic or before written records, so we cannot legitimately have a discourse based on the “perceptions” of the participants in the preliterate past. You cannot read the minds of the dead, even “in theory” or on the basis of; “if we could - this is what they would say”. “Ideas” for which we have no relevant data or evidence, and cannot conceivably be tested, are not really theories but articles of faith.
To accept ideas like Iron Age Building Cosmology you would have to believe in some special revelatory processes, similar to those used by Gods to communicate their ideas. The problem with this type of guess work about Prehistoric perception is that it takes ideas and projects them onto the past, rather than working by deduction from the evidence. Fundamentally, it is the difference between astrology and astronomy or religion and science. To understand why this distinction was once considered important we have to go back to the enlightenment, over three centuries ago.
Cogito ergo sum
Many an undergraduate philosophy course starts with something like Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1643, although not normally in its original Latin; he is an individual whose view of the world [or “cosmology”] we can be reasonably confident discussing. Descartes was an Enlightenment figure, who was important in the development of the mathematics of archaeological planning. He is probably best known as the originator of the phrase Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am; this comes from his Meditations which contains two important ideas fundamental to understanding archaeology, as well other things like science; doubt and belief.
Recently, I demonstrated that the Roman “Turf Wall” could not have been made of turf by using the only scientific aspect of the evidence presented in the recent peer reviewed English Heritage excavation report, which reached the opposite conclusion by simply ignoring the data that did not fit the presumption of a structure made from turves.
This inability to question our own presumptions and those of others is partially a result of using a methodology that defines relationships and significance on the basis of superficial similarities. In this way, and by ignoring the majority of excavated evidence, British Iron Age archaeology has faithfully reproduced the results of its type site at Little Woodbury for nearly eighty years.
By looking for what other people found and understood, we mitigate against difference in favour of uniformity. Archaeology can thus be reduced to a tick box culture of simplistic concepts by which we can strip and record without recourse to excavation, or the need for a “none of the above” box.
While being unable to verify the participation of any particular Gods or even humans, Archaeology provides a perfectly satisfactory Bronze Age context for the Homeric epic, set in this strategically important location. However, History does illustrate how myths propagate, with Virgil's Aeneid, linking the foundation of Rome, and probably the Julio-Claudian dynasty, to the Trojan War through the character of the Trojan Prince Aeneas, who was also was an ancestor of Brutus the first King of the Britons, whose arrival in Britain is attested by a stone on Fore Street in Totnes, Devon.
It is not until the invention of writing and the creation of devotional literature in the Bronze Age that we start to see what people might believe. For convenience, I will use the term “devotional literature” in its widest since, covering all religious writings, which in reality has a variety of forms with varying factual content and perceived cultural legitimacy. A lot of this material recounts conversations between human characters and super natural beings in as variety of forms and contexts, the veracity of which is difficult to verify archaeologically.
In addition, a non-material concept like an Angel or afterlife present problems for translators; a lot of ancient writings are accounts and lists, which are easier to read if not very interesting. However, they do remind us that religion was part of system that mobilised whole populations around their Gods.
We marvel at Egyptian temples, but not necessarily at the system that could concentrate such vast amounts of wealth at the disposal of their Gods. Civilisation, as we have tended to define it, was a product of small group of people persuading everyone else to work for their benefit, and religion was the tool they used.
There is a marked, but perfectly reasonable tendency for societies to make Gods in their own image, which is the principle interest in their devotional literature, although until comparatively recently, written texts are the province of small elite, most people believed what they were told, which is not necessarily the same thing. While Gods seem to have been free to move about, it becomes impractical to organise their worship if they can be contacted just anywhere, they need a house or some agreed fixed point of contact. Hosting a God is a significant franchise; brand loyalty is imprinted in childhood, and often rigorously enforced. Depending on the track record of your Gods, sacrifice can be seen as a preventative measure, to ward off some impending doom, or gratitude for the services rendered and continued success bringing doom to others. Sacrifice in the approved manner could deter gods from, going rogue, which is why it is such an imperative; if you stopped the world might end badly.
While the world is clearly full of dangers and the fear of death is perfectly reasonable, our empirical mechanistic view of the world works perfectly well most of the time. Daily life is usually safe and predictable, that is what makes it possible, so the profane is important if only to highlight the sacred. As I have discussed in relation to Vitruvius, rationality was important for practical matters, so we should not project an idea of religious naivety and superstition on the past.
Ego-Video Liber Deorum
However, Archaeology is one of those subject where a single find or site can radically change ideas about ancient culture; So what interests me in the 2.8 m tall, [perhaps originally 5.3 m], Mesolithic wooden statue from bog near Shigir in Siberia, is that in addition to the main head it has six other smaller faces carved on the front and back. I would argue that we are at least entitled to note these seven faces, and discuss them with reference to cosmologies we understand from later periods, although beyond this, it would be unwise to speculate about what they believed about them. Generally, we can observe Gods have a fairly parochial view, so Neolithic deities address Neolithic issues. In these ancient stories we can see the issues of the transition to a Neolithic lifestyle, pastoralism, cereal farming, urbanisation, and even an underlying sense of change from a lost earlier age.
The Holy Land
All the points I have made about belief and doubt take on greater significance when we discuss certain fairly specific classes of archaeological material, which has prompted its own specialist schools of archaeology, and the term Biblical Archaeology. As a result in the Bible Lands, especially the Holy Land, archaeologists have probably moved more dirt per square mile than anywhere else on earth.
This was Iron Age Devotional literature describing events in the Bronze Age; it was not produced in a vacuum, to be relevant it draw on the past and reflect a present where refugees were returning to the area following the collapse of the Babylonian Empire in 586. It integrated the writings from the now defunct northern state of Israel with those from Judah to ensure the authorities in Jerusalem complete control of religious and civic matters in the new state.
The objective was to establish a single God that could only be properly worshipped in Jerusalem, which in practical terms meant sacrificing animals, which was one of the primary ways religion was monetised.
To this end, a glorious and heroic past was created for Jerusalem; the real and imagined disasters of history were recast as a failure to follow this [new] tradition. Whatever the spiritual qualities of this God, in common with many Gods, he could only really be found at home in his temple at Jerusalem.
Gods like blood, and lots of it. In the good old days Gods wanted things killed in return for their favour, blood and more blood was the currency universally accepted, while this frowned on as old fashioned, killing it is still regarded as a legitimate form of worship for contemporary followers of Gods. It is important to understand that people being killed by priests would be human sacrifice, so traditionally the civil authorities had to do the killing on behalf of Gods
Despite initial imagined success, biblical archaeology has failed to support the Pentateuch’s version of the Bronze Age created by the priests in Jerusalem, because in reality this area was generally dominated by the empires to either side, and is by ancient standards, well documented. For archaeology, Moses, even, some might argue Solomon and David, are no more real than Brutus the first king of Britain, which is not to say these characters did not have historical cores, but their role in history could not have been as described, which amounts the same thing.
By this period of the Iron Age archaeology and history converge in this part of the world as over time the Persian Empire was taken over by the Greeks, and then by the Romans ruling through client kings like Herod the Great (73-4 BC), who were already part of the international elite from the Greek world.
Empires are complex places, where in the competitive world of Gods, there are manifest winners and losers, but client kingdoms needed their client religion to function. Polytheism was a more flexible approach, it had common routes allowing for mix and matching, it even would allow that for a view that all Gods were the reflection of one underlying reality, [Henotheism].
So having supernatural beings in charge of an Empire was an important part of the story, not just for the winners but also for the losers.
Render unto Caesar
On 15 March 44 BC Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated at the age of 55, less than two years later he was formally deified as Divus Iulius by Roman Senate on 1 January 42 BC. Caesar Octavian, henceforth became Divi filius ("Son of a god"), later in 13BC, as the Emperor Augustus, he united religious and political power by becoming Pontifex Maximus or chief priest of Rome.
The Roman Pantheon was on the up, and the new Julio-Claudian brand was backed by serious earthly muscle, if you were de facto the most powerful individual on earth, who is going to quibble about calling yourself a God?
The grim reality of a competitive, if somewhat rigged market in Gods, first under the Greeks and then the Romans, ideas about nature of God, saviours, and temples get overtaken by events. When the end of the world failed to materialise, just more Romans, which for many cultures amounted to the same thing, there was an explosion in new devotional literature and gods.
This continued until the early forth century when Roman emperors opted for standardisation, backing a new imperial monopoly based around a Christian cannon of Latin devotional literature.
That would be an ecumenical matter
Thus, even as early 4th century Romans went looking for, and found most of the sacred sites mentioned in their texts; it could be argued that this was the beginnings of archaeology, in that, we are still awaiting the final report 1600 years later. The Holy Land was up and running as a commercial enterprise.
These excavations produced finds including bits of the cross, nails, and other ironmongery, evidence that has been long since discredited, although the remains of a shroud has fought a remarkable rear-guard action.
What later archaeologists went looking for and found were texts, although the two most important discoveries, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Nag Hammadii documents were found by accident. In some ways Biblical archaeology went in search for an historical Christ, but the further back it dug the deeper the mystery became, to the point where some are even prepared to question the underlying assumption about what it is they were looking for. Interestingly, what has been uncovered is what the early church fathers had effectively buried, a wide diversity of devotional literature like texts from Nag Hammadii in Egypt which appear to represent a Gnostic view of God, one of the dozens of groups whose ideas and books did not make it, except as a footnote in later books about heresy.
Way beyond the Tradition that you might be taught at school or discuss in church, at the cutting edge of archaeological scholarship there is actually a debate about the Historicity of Jesus, because unlike the Divine Julius, it is possible to argue we don’t really have any independent sources for his life in the first third of the C1st. The consensus view among specialists is that he was a real person around whom a body of later literature grew up probably from an aural tradition. But there is a logical governor on the consensus, this person has to have been special enough to start a movement, but not so special as to attract attention of the contemporary historians and commentators of the Period.
A minimalist view would be that all the Gospel narratives are copied from and develop the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, without the need for lost sources such as Q, noting that Paul makes no reference to this later biography.
A Devil's Advocate
It can be argued that the only primary source is a short literary account of the ministry and death of a Jesus of Nazareth written in Greek by unknown author with poor knowledge of the geography and religious culture of the area. It is an account of a peaceful messiah, tolerant of the Romans, but who is opposed to the practices of the Jerusalem temple, and, warning of a coming catastrophe, is cruelly put to death at the behest of the Jewish religious authorities, only for the body to disappear from its tomb. It is well written, full of Allegory, illusions and typology, but it originated not from Hebrew tradition, but from the Greek speaking diaspora, with the author of Mark’s Gospel probably based in Rome.
Currently, at the most brutally rational side of the argument is Richard Carrier, who argues that by the normal standards of History, no case for the Historical Jesus can be made, concluding he was he was mythical, a God that was given an earthly biography, a process known as euhemerism.
Thus, unlike the Divine Julius, who had a life and became a god, he argues that Christ was a supernatural being who was later given an earthly biography by the author of Mark. This idea is not new and was developed in the C19th by a variety of scholars unhappy with supernatural explanations, and looking for a rational account of history. This mythicist argument would also note that in the wider context, many gods in this period were based around mystery cults, with personal saviour gods or children of Gods, that undergo a passion to achieve victory over death which they share with their followers. In an empire, where by definition most people and their Gods start out as losers, many could relate to a message of a suffering of an righteousness man and the futility of resistance. Unlike some its predecessors, it was portable, simple for anyone to join and did not involve genital mutilation or dietary restrictions.
The idea Jesus of Nazareth is a non-historical figure might seem shocking,but can be sustained because outside a later literary tradition created by the anonymous author of Mark, there is no incontrovertible evidence. We can plot the synoptic literary trajectory that propelled the Human with supernatural powers into a supernatural being; Archaeology has to bail out fairly early on. While nautical archaeologists might disagree, walking on water is not something that need concern us, but the idea that “.. the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose . . ”, would have serious implications for the archaeological record, and we can’t take that lying down.
Outside of a “traditional” gospel framework there are no real dots to join, so that you can add as much mystery, conspiracy, divinity or mythicism to support a wide variety of identities of a Christ, including real historical candidates from the many better documented Gods and Messiahs in this period. As an archaeologist, I was quite interested in the Talpiot Tomb; here at least was a real historical family tomb with named individuals. However, for biblical scholars, and for a whole raft of reasons, this was the wrong type of evidence, not least is that the last thing people were actually looking for was a body. Outside of independent textural evidence, a box of bones with a name on it is about as good it gets in archaeology.
I believe that History is a cocked-up attempt at conspiracy, and those that can, will tend to drive events in the direction of their pecuniary interest. It is written by the winners who can write, and with state backing, by the end of the fourth century imperial power set about destroying the houses of rival Gods, killing their priests, and burning their devotional literature. While the scribes in Jerusalem had created a Glorious past, Christian Historians created the reverse, a history of martyrdom and suffering, making the conversion of the empire even more miraculous.
If we look at the Catholic Church, we see that for over a millennium after the collapse of the Western Empire Rome remained a centre of power with its own independent Latin speaking transnational culture; it was generally more stable than the secular establishments which it legitimated. The powers assumed by Augustus centralising the regulation of Gods were still based in Rome, and even today official are writing biography of pontiffs detailing the supernatural events associated with them. However, the idea of devotional literature being created in an imperial court setting, runs contrary to the notion that it was written by bearded men in caves or monastic cells.
Whatever the inherent powers or qualities of Gods, they have remarkably poor record as sources of information about the past, although some are well read, their prescience has to be questioned, since they did to see archaeology coming. Even as late as September 1823, the Angel Maroni had ideas about the history of Native Americans, which subsequent archaeology has shown to be erroneous. Since, I graduated, 35 years ago, there have only been 6 years when Gods had not claimed the world was going to end, which is a success rate of 17 %, which is a pretty low score on a Yes/No question.
However, archaeology would not be where it is today without the Gods, and should appreciate the funding and interest they generate. Perhaps it does us no harm when archaeological discoveries contradicting opinions expressed by Gods are described as controversial. Despite a poor track record, the wisdom imparted by Angels is by its nature construed as authoritative, which has resulted series of spirited and often ingenious attempts to resolve problems by fitting the archaeology around a devotional narrative.
No amount of digging can prove that a supernatural being promised territory to a particular group of people in the Bronze Age, but archaeology can help explain why a group of priests in the Iron Age might want to write such a story down. A variety of competing political and religious interests backed early archaeology, but as with many things, the Nazi party's racially motivated archaeology represents a nadir; sadly, it would be easy to draw some uncomfortable parallels with contemporary misuse of archaeology for political purposes.
Much poor archaeology results from looking for something specific, or having too narrowly defined objectives and not understanding the concept of doubt. Apart from creating a huge geographical bias in our understanding, Biblical Archaeology, despite the inherent partiality in the initial premise, has acquitted itself reasonably well. Despite their best efforts Franciscan archaeologists have failed to find a first century Nazareth, which has in no way affected the commercial interests of the area, there are never any shortage of people prepared to give their life savings to visit sacred rocks, rivers, temples and tombs; many regional economies are dependent on the supernatural. The Gods of Egypt, with significant foresight had stone houses built, which thanks in part to archaeology, still function remarkably well, drawing considerable income into the region.
The idea of a God suffering a passion, explicit in the Atra Hasis tradition, where Geshtu-E died so that we might live; guilt over a suffering or dead god is a familiar part of the toolkit. Gods have always known how to make people, particularly children feel bad about themselves. Guilt gives them a stick with which they can beat themselves for a lifetime; children frighten easily and putting the fear of Gods into them usually ensures a lifetime of obedient brand loyalty. We should not be surprised that information imparted by an angel that life is better after you are dead can be drilled into children and even adults to the point where they are willing to kill not just other people, but even themselves. Tragically, History, even today, is still being driven by these paranormal communications; enlightenment is not a one way process, and if you invite them, the Gods will happily take you back to the dark ages; they have traditionally appreciated Blood, although preferably all over the walls of someone else's temple.
On a more mundane level, as an archaeologist there is lot I could say about passion and suffering; I know absolutely that mechanical structures can be described by maths, this is not a belief, I think of it as an understanding; but I found myself at an institution where revelatory Prehistoric cosmologies trump 300 years of post-enlightenment thinking. While they can relieve people of their money and a career, at least they can’t burn you. While at a bottom feeding Russel Group University like Newcastle you can’t necessarily expect intelligence, some rudimentary standard of education, and perhaps some understanding of academic method would have been nice, at least at Professorial level. Both the early Church fathers and modern academics are members of institutions with the power to make the past in their own image, both are apparently infallible and you can’t sue either for false prospectus or conspiracy to defraud; Caveat Emptor.
Alternative less partial takes on Gods, including their own words, are available in all good book shops and Some Free on line. A list of Devotional Literature considered sacred: