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The religions of prehistoric Europe and


the study of prehistoric religion
Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen and David A. Warburton

In this chapter we take the liberty of looking critically at the contributions of the first
section of this book. We do so on the assumption that crossing disciplinary borders is
difficult: archaeologists have difficulties in discussing religion since religion is assumed
to take place in the mind (in the form of ideas and thoughts, and thus in a form which
is completely inaccessible in prehistory). Likewise, scholars of religion have difficulties
speaking about prehistory, since they have no methodological tools for dealing with material culture (at least without any textual or verbal support whatsoever).
Furthermore, there are other issues which do not normally appear to be problematic
in the study of religion. When studying known religions, there is no danger of confusing
science and religion, and little of confounding myth and history. Given the neglect of
material culture, the importance of art is likewise minimal. In these chapters we have seen
how mankind gradually developed a capacity for artistic expression and later exploited
iconography to depict the course of the sun. In these pages, religion was associated with
social changes and group identities, without any gods. Yet according to the study of religion, religion and its elements are clearly a world apart so far in fact, that Pascal Boyer
(2001) can propose that religious thought is by nature counterintuitive. In fact, these issues
of religion, art, history, society and science are tangled when trying to understand
development of the state in the Near Eastern Bronze Age, and become far more so when
trying to isolate religion in prehistory.
The preceding chapters presented a series of different archaeological viewpoints on
religion. The presentations reflect two different realities. First, it is a fact that (a) somewhere in the course of the last few million years religion came into existence, and only
archaeologists using material culture can tackle this problem since the gods and burial
rituals are clearly already present before writing appears and thus antedate the dawn of
history; thus the roots of religion clearly existed before history began. Yet the relation
between the earliest recognizable form of religion and modern understandings of religion
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means that discerning the moment of the appearance of religion is fraught with danger:
there is virtually no way of knowing how and when this happened.
The second difficulty is related to the first, and is twofold since (b) archaeologists are not
scholars of religion, but (c) they are the only ones with access to the material. Therefore,
their voices are essential. There is thus the problem itself that it is (d) far from certain
that there were any prehistoric religions, and (e) it is not clear how to approach them (as
archaeologists or students of religion), if there were any. Equally serious are the challenges
that (f) even many of those archaeologists who contend that there might have been prehistoric religions are persuaded that they cannot be scientifically studied, and in any case (g)
any interpretation advanced is not only subject to debate as new evidence is produced, but
also open to dispute by colleagues with different views. Given the facts that (h) reading the
material is very complicated, (i) that this particular material can never speak for itself
and finally (j) that in archaeology it is generally assumed that theories come from outside
the discipline, it is questionable just how much can be done.
For these reasons, our aim was to present different views, being as up-to-date and
scholarly as possible while also eclipsing our own views. In this chapter, we do not aim
to present our version,1 but rather to give our general impression of the methodological
aspects of the project. The usual definitions of religion stress transempirical entities, ritual
and myth. Our own work convinces us that physical paraphernalia and architecture should
also be included comprehensively for all religions and all periods covered by the study of
religion. These material aspects not only correspond to the reality of religion as a universal
phenomenon, but are also the only means of approaching religion in prehistory as the
language-based sources are by definition absent. However, this argument is part of a larger
discussion about the nature of the sources which can be used for the study of religion.
Our problem here is that for prehistory we have nothing else, and here it is important to
understand how archaeologists work.
In Nordbladhs presentation, we have an ideal introduction to the reality of archaeological work: drawing on material on the one hand and on theoretical approaches from
other disciplines on the other hand. Nordbladh worked with rock art: a category so frequently interpreted in religious terms that a discussion of religion is unavoidable. This
is also clear in Kristiansens discussion of theoretical perspectives. He likewise takes the
study of rock art as his point of departure because this is the field consisting of images
that has been perceived as obviously being religion: a prehistoric parallel to church
frescoes, a preliminary form of writing, a representation of belief. Early on, Nordbladh
questioned interpretations which simply assume religion. Instead, he investigated the
possibilities of applying semiotics to archaeology. Just as Nordbladh ultimately abandoned these efforts, Hodder later likewise abandoned his efforts at using literary theory:
both discovered that prehistoric archaeologists cannot work with theories developed in
disciplines relying on texts. It follows that Nordbladh argues that interpretations may be
better if not constrained by the concept of religion. Nordbladh like Damm, Petrasch
and Hodder does not want to project modern conceptions on to a past where realities
were probably quite different. He was at a loss to know how to proceed, finding existing
theory inadequate.
DErrico does not begin with theory, but rather with the material, and draws conclusions from the material. His goal is not to apply anthropological theories or approaches
based on the study of religion, but instead he aims at letting the material tell its own tale.

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Thus, the interpretation or model is based on his interpretations of the significance of his
precise observations of the archaeological material. He endeavours to demonstrate that
there is early evidence for deliberate human creativity in the sense of symbolism, and
to relate this to both religion and the history of the human species. Significantly, his own
logic seems to lead to the conclusion that the foundations of religion might antedate the
human species. However, he merely puts a question mark on the issue.
Anati agrees with dErrico in tracing religion or symbolling back to the Middle
Palaeolithic, but goes further in his interpretations, suggesting not only a vague symbolling but cult and belief in the Middle Palaeolithic, and cult, belief, myth, initiation and
shamanism in the Upper Palaeolithic. His central thought is that there was one single
prehistoric religion which lay at the origin of all later religions. These conclusions
are reached on the basis of a comparison between the archaeological material and ethnographic reports on modern hunter-gatherers, on the assumption that the latter represent
an image of religion as it also looked in the Palaeolithic, having preserved an archetypal
relation to the world that most peoples in the Western world have lost or suppressed. Thus,
Anati interprets his material from the perspective that there is a kernel in the human,
still expressed in some art and some kinds of religion. This contrasts with dErrico, who
interprets his material in the sense that the symbolling human has only slowly come into
being, through continuous development.
Anatis approach builds on specific interpretations of ethnographic material, assuming the value of ethnographical parallels to prehistoric hunter-gatherers. In fact, Anatis
conclusions are similar to those of Mithen (1996) who uses a cognitive approach: both
argue for the emergence of religion being closely associated with the emergence of anatomically modern humans. In this sense, their objective is quite close to one of the fundamental assumptions of the academic study of religion: that humans alone are religious
(an assumption which dErricos work throws into question). These methodologies differ
from the approaches of the other authors represented here.
Both in terms of methodology and conclusions, DErricos interpretations seem to fit
well with those of Hodder, the two together suggesting that changes came through the
production of things. This means that religion must be understood as part of a historical
process, resulting directly from the human confrontation with human material culture.
For the earliest period, there is very little material, and there is not much evidence of
change and thus dErrico cannot advance much beyond the optimistically positivist
conclusions discussed here. While the field appears ripe for speculation leading in different directions, dErrico demonstrates that one can work in a methodological fashion to
achieve results which are probably at once indisputable and probably the limit of what can
be suggested from the Palaeolithic. The implications of this work are extremely important,
as they suggest that painstaking detailed studies can lead to conclusions which dismiss
the arguments based upon extrapolating from informed speculation (as practised by, e.g.,
Lewis-Williams 2002) or mere cognitive capacities (as practised by, e.g., Mithen) and open
the way to legitimate speculation about religion in the Palaeolithic.
Dealing with the more recent Neolithic, Damm, Petrasch and Hodder have more material and remain very close to it: cautious about material outside their own area of expertise, and avoiding hasty conclusions incorporating concepts from a religious framework
dominated by texts and where funerary practices play a very small role. Yet even so, theory
plays a role in their thoughts.

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Damm works with the Fennoscandian region where figurines are absent; Petrasch
deals with central Europe where figurines dominate. Damm interprets the absence of
figurines as the absence of personified gods. Petrasch understands the figurines as being
made to resemble concrete human individuals. Petrasch assumes that cult (implying a
place and a figure of veneration) is a universal human phenomenon. This corresponds to
Leroi-Gourhans conception of the Palaeolithic (Leroi-Gourhan 1964), represented here
by Anati (except that Leroi-Gourhan spoke about religions of the Palaeolithic in the
plural rather than the singular). Damm contends the opposite: that cult is a phenomenon
of the agricultural way of life. That their interpretations vary so greatly can be traced back
to (a) the fact that their material and its geographical context differ, but also (b) the fact
that they have different theoretical approaches.
Whereas the work of most of the scholars represented here is more at home in archaeological discourse, Hodders work should appeal immediately to students of religion because
it draws so strongly on the material, and concludes in a terminology accompanied by a
methodology familiar to students of religion. Of fundamental importance is that, regardless of what it was, early religion was an anchor of the home, structuring space, things
and people. In this sense, Hodders analysis may hint at useful new ways of approaching
religion.
However, from the archaeological standpoint, Hodders approach is quite weak since
even before recent discoveries in Anatolia suggested that monumental religions antedated
the Neolithic, Cauvin (1997, 2000) had argued that the Neolithic was the result of cognitive
changes which preceded the Neolithic. Thus, on the historical level one must distinguish
between the intellectual value of Hodders ideas, on the one hand, and the difficulties of
understanding the developments on the other. Hodder misses the issue by assuming that
the Neolithic simply happened, since it was clearly dependent upon a change which took
place in the Near East, and was spread from there by migration. This means that Hodder
is not even attempting to account for fundamental changes.
Furthermore, it must be noted that celebrating Hodders recent book as a pioneer effort
in the cooperation between archaeologists and scholars of religion as the publishers
do is an exaggeration, overlooking earlier initiatives including, for example, Steinsland
(1986), Larsson and Wyszomirska (1989) and Bredholt Christensen and Sveen (1998)
which antedate his effort by a decade (quite aside from P. Wilson 1988, which he likewise
continues to neglect). However, Hodders goal is not providing a survey of the literature
so much as offering his own latest interpretations.
And finally, in dismissing the role of atal Hyk in the development of religion,
Hodder has achieved something more than an own goal. Together with the failure to
incorporate the scholarly works of others and the reluctance to understand the overall
development of the Epipalaeolithic and the Neolithic, Hodders contribution is ultimately
doomed to be marginal. The issue will be in distinguishing whether religion emerged
from the Palaeolithic or from the Bronze Age onwards, effectively eclipsing Hodders
argument. In this sense, using a methodology familiar to scholars of religion, he misses
the question archaeologists face.
Kauls contribution on the Bronze Age is a daring attempt to propose the actual reconstruction of what can be viewed as a religion involving the three essential elements of
religion: mythology, ritual and sacred architecture. Kaul has no doubt that there was religion with myth and transempirical powers in the Nordic Bronze Age society, and that the

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material allows us to work with this religion. Significantly, Kaul alone has represented the
whole solar cycle, which is never represented in toto in Bronze Age contexts. Individual
incidents were illustrated, but not as a complete mythic cycle.
Kristiansen and Larsson (2005: 353) have suggested that Kauls approach dismisses the
Bronze Age Nordic religion as obsolete and primitive (cf. also Melheim 2006: 115).
Yet, there is no reason to infer that this cyclic or cosmotheistic world-view should be
classified as primitive. The basic structure of the central myth of the voyage of the sun has
some striking similarities with the basics of the religion of ancient Egypt a religion that
we do not regard as particularly primitive. However, the Egyptian material (upon which
Kaul draws extensively in other contexts) can be seen in another light: following Assmanns
interpretation, the Egyptian solar cosmology was a process, not a myth.
Although he identifies myth as being religious, Kaul distinguishes religion and ritual.
In this sense, he seems to suggest that the ritual actions need not be interpreted in a religious framework.
Kristiansens theoretical contribution to this book is anchored in his interpretation of
the Bronze Age. Kristiansen works with Ohlmarks, using an interpretation of Scandinavian
rock art in a perspective which is thoroughly at home in the history of religion, and
does not include central Europe alone, but also the civilizations of the Near East and
Mediterranean with their written sources.
Kristiansens theoretical observations lead to his part on the religion of Bronze Age in
the sense that he introduces people who were ahead of their time: those interpreting
the content of the rock art were suppressed by the positivism of the New Archaeology.
Yet like this earlier tradition, Kristiansen interprets south Scandinavian rock art with the
aid of written evidence from the cultures of Egypt and the Near East. Thus, Kristiansen
in fact revives interpretations that for many years have been considered old-fashioned
because they build on material coming from outside of the Scandinavian area itself. This is
contrary to the New Archaeology, whose device was always to interpret a complex within
the framework of the context itself. Kristiansens interpretations may therefore to some
seem a regression. He himself seems to attempt to anticipate the critique by referring to
Ohlmarks.
Whereas Kaul and Nordbladh do not speak of gods in the south Scandinavian Bronze
Age, Kristiansen does. It is important to note that with or without gods, the glimpses of
the cosmology and mythology of the Nordic Bronze Age provide an image of a codified, complex and advanced religion. In many religions, including the Egyptian, divine
powers or gods can take differing forms: human, animal or hybrid. In fact, what characterizes a god is precisely this mystical ability to change appearances. Thus there are curious
parallels.
Yet there is a completely different genre of monument which should also be taken into
consideration. Stonehenge demonstrates that Bronze Age Europeans had an understanding
of the solar and lunar cycles, based on an annual cycle. Evidently the ancient Scandinavians
shared an understanding of the solar cycle. In Scandinavia this was, however, expressed
differently, and partially using iconography depicting metaphorical images of incidents in
the solar cycle. Yet the Scandinavian version appears to be based on a daily system whereas
Stonehenge is based on an annual system. Thus the annual cycle of Stonehenge differs
strikingly from the daily cycle of Egypt (which seems to be what Kaul sees in Scandinavia)
and the Egyptians were ultimately obliged to abandon their scientific observations due

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to their inability to master the annual cycle. Curiously, the second and third millennium
evidence from Egypt suggests a scientific observational approach which was abandoned
in the first millennium, as all the elements were associated with what we term religion. Is
this the history of science or that of religion? The earliest Egyptian astronomical observations and the evidence of Stonehenge would imply that it is science (and even more
so when compared to such inadequate explanations as those found in the Old and New
Testaments), combined with religion. If we assume that religion as we know it is evolving,
we could argue that the scientific elements of cosmology had not yet been expressed in
coherent mythic form in the Nordic Bronze Age. This might actually provide a hint about
the point of divergence in the two traditions.
This brings us back to another real problem, namely that we have no guidelines for how
to read the prehistoric material sources. One of Petraschs points is that in his view, religion
did not play as large a role in the Neolithic as it came to do later. One way of interpreting
this is that what the archaeological material shows us is probably not religion and religious
expressions as we have known them for the past 2000 years, but rather the inception and
beginnings of a phenomenon ultimately leading to those phenomena that scholars of
religion and anthropologists have identified in their material from later times as being
such, for example rites de passage, initiation, shamanism, and so on. Another possible
interpretation is that if Petrasch is correct about the ancestor cults it is possible that
one can also note another divergence, namely that of history (understood as ancestors) and
cult (as related to religion and ritual). The result could be that one might begin to be able
to identify the emergence of several different cognitive phenomena, phenomena which
eventually split off from religion or from which religion emerged. Yet, the only means
of approaching these questions is to follow the rigorous methods of dErrico.
Hodders recent U-turn suggests that dErrico is following a more coherent path in
pursuing the origins of religion. However, dErricos methodology would not really satisfy
those familiar with material from the Near Eastern Bronze Age and classical antiquity. This
leads to the question of whether Hodder has actually found a new way of studying religion,
independent of text, an issue which dErrico does not really view as part of his project.
Were one to respond positively (with reservations), this is not because of Hodder (2010a).
Here, Hodder now states that In house-based societies, houses are religion (2010c: 345),
yet it was precisely this thought that was already present in The Domestication of Europe
(1990) where Hodder originally showed how religion can be found in the material, without
using the word religion.
All of the contributions here could point in the direction that there are important areas
of religion that have been ignored by the study of religion because the forms of expression
are non-verbal. In general these could be dismissed as being issues related to archaeology
and prehistory, issues demanding that archaeology develop new methodologies. However,
we argue that, in general, it is not merely a simple matter of stressing that archaeological
material poses questions differing from those posed by and to textual material. We suggest
that, in general, archaeological issues actually force a confrontation in the study of religion,
one that faces issues which are easily avoided in studies based on verbal sources. It is a
question of defining and recognizing religion. Thus, one can argue that these chapters
pose some questions about methodology and theory.
However, these questions pale into insignificance when facing the fundamental issue of
specifying exactly where religion appears. Was religion already present in the Palaeolithic?

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Did some fundamental change take place in the Neolithic? Or was the Neolithic only the
basis for what happened later in the Bronze and Iron Ages? The question can thus be
shifted from archaeological methodology to the centre of the study of religion.
NOTE

1. For our own take on these issues see e.g. Bredholt Christensen & Warburton (2002); Warburton ([2004]
2008, 2010); Bredholt Christensen (2010).

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