Saturday, 4 October 2014

New Publication: "The Goddess Frig: Reassessing an Anglo-Saxon Deity" in Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural

Apologies for posting again so soon after my previous post (and on a rather similar topic to boot), but I've just come upon some news that – for myself at least – is tremendously exciting. The Pennsylvania State University Press have recently published the latest edition of Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural (vol. 3, no. 2), which is devoted to the theme of “Old Gods and Ancient Ones”. As those familiar with me and my work can testify, I have a great fascination for the deities of the past and the manner in which they have been received, interpreted, and venerated once again by people in the present. As such, after reading the journal's initial call for papers I submitted a piece for consideration – “The Goddess Frig: Reassessing an Anglo-Saxon Deity” – which I'm pleased to say was scrutinised by two peer-reviewers, deemed worthy of publication, and is now available for others to read! Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the paper critically examines what we know about this Early Medieval deity, and (more importantly) what we think we know about her. As I put it in the paper's abstract:

This article critically examines the evidence for the existence of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frig, exploring toponyms, day names, Old English textual sources, archaeology, and comparisons with continental Germanic mythologies. Challenging previous assertions that she was the consort of the god Woden and was associated with love and motherhood, it furthermore contends that this scholarly misinterpretation of the deity has had wider repercussions, affecting the way that contemporary Pagans interpret this particular divinity. Ultimately, it argues that far less can be said about Frig with any certainty than has been previously supposed, suggesting that a case can even be made that she had never existed as a deity in Anglo-Saxon England at all.

For me, the particular importance of this work is twofold. First, I think it is one of my two best publications, in terms of how it is written and its potential impact and influence. Second, it represents my first research-based publication within the fields of Anglo-Saxon and Early Medieval Studies, an area that I am now devoting increasing amounts of time to as a result of my doctoral studies in Early Medieval archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology (which I started last week!). I'm afraid that the publishers aren't handing out free copies, but for those interested individuals with institutional access, you can download a PDF from either ProjectMuse or JSTOR.

New publication: Book review of Bintley and Shapland's "Trees and Timber in Anglo-Saxon England" for Time and Mind.

Academic publishers Taylor & Francis have just brought out the latest edition of Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture (vol. 7, iss. 3). Aside from the fact that it's a really interesting and thought-provoking journal in general, I would also recommend this edition as it contains a new book review authored by yours truly. The review in question is devoted to Michael D.J. Bintley and Michael G. Shapland's edited volume on Trees and Timber in Anglo-Saxon England, published last year by Oxford University Press; a pioneering anthology exploring both the symbolic/ritualistic and pragmatic role that wood played in this period. For those interested (and who have institutional or other such access to the journal), check out the review here.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Request from Dmitry Galtsin

Head honcho of The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies and the face behind the Letter from Hardscrabble Creek blog, Chas S. Clifton - whom I interviewed here back in December 2012 - has just asked me to pass on this link to an indiegogo appeal from Dmitry Galtsin, a researcher in the Rare Books Department of the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Galtsin has had a paper on “The Divine Feminine in the Silver Age of Russian Culture and Beyond” accepted by the American Academy of Religion for their annual conference, which is due to take place in San Diego, California in November. Problematically, Galtsin finds himself unable to pay the $1300 to cover his expenses, and is thus hoping that sympathetic people across the world will help contribute to this sum. Although scholars of Pagan studies on the whole don't seem to be a particularly wealthy bunch, they should nevertheless recognise the importance of building a dialogue between scholars operating in the Western world and their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, in order to better understand and appreciate the growing multiplicity that exists within the phenomenon of contemporary Paganism. Arguably this is even more important in the current climate of growing political tensions between NATO and Russia.

Friday, 19 September 2014

An Interview with Dr. Dylan Burns

A few months ago I attended the "New Antiquities" conference over at the Free University of Berlin, co-organised by Dr. Dylan Burns (see his academia.edu profile), who has kindly agreed to be this month's interviewee here at Albion Calling! Currently a research associate at Leipzig University in Germany, Dr. Burns is a specialist in the ancient religions that we now know as Gnosticism, having previously gained a PhD studying the subject at Yale University. As well as having produced a variety of research articles on the subject, his first book, Apocalypse of the Alien God, has recently been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Furthermore, he is a co-director and founding member of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism, and takes an active interest in contemporary religious usages of ancient Gnostic texts. Here, he talks about his life and career, and gives us an insight into a fascinating area of study that I must admit to knowing very little about.

Image provided by Dr. Burns
EDW: Born in the city of Rochester, New York, you were then raised in Jacksonville, Florida and Boulder, Colorado by Zen Buddhist parents. This being the case, I'd like to ask what the formative influences were that led to you becoming an academic specialist in religious studies and focusing your research on the enigmatic field of “Gnosticism?

DB: My parents met as very serious students of the early wave of Sanbo-Kyodan Zen that was transplanted to the United States in the 1960s. It is a structured, hierarchical, and patriarchal lay tradition, but also emphasizes independence, particularly as a path to powerful experiences of personal insight (kenshō). For many years I thought Zen had little effect on my upbringing. Yet when I was 25, I read a monastic text in Coptic—the Rules of Pachomius, I believe—and it hit me: “hey! These people are just like my parents!” So it was through my study of Christian monasticism that I realized that monastic elements of Zen had formed the contours of our home life. Yet I have also been circumambulating the fringes of Judaism and Christianity as long as I can remember: My mother is of Jewish ethnicity (her father fled Germany in 1938) and all my maternal aunts and cousins are practicing Jews. On the other hand, I attended Christian elementary schools as a boy, so I had to learn to pray, sing hymns at chapel, and, of course, read and discuss the Bible.

As a teenager in Boulder, Colorado, I devoted myself to learning about East Asian languages and literature, especially Japanese. Yet when I got to college, and I was forced to drop my Japanese course, due to a chance (providential?) scheduling conflict. The only class I could fit into the newly-empty slot was “Worlds of Early Christianity,” a topic in which I thought I had no interest whatsoever. At the end of the second week, the lecture on the Fourth Gospel segued into the Apocryphon of John and the Gnostic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It completely blew my mind. I walked out of that hall and knew that I wanted to study Gnosticism. To my parents’ horror, I quit Japanese, and began studying Greek, German, and topics in Religious Studies. They’ve forgiven me, not least because Gnosticism, in the words of Dr. Michael Kaler, was like a “paranoid Buddhism”—although I would say “paranoid Zen”! It was a school of thought that arose within a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal tradition, but seems to have attracted individuals who distrusted some of these hierarchies, instead emphasizing moments of awareness, and acknowledging the alienation that an insightful human being can experience in this chaotic world. So of course I found myself interested in Gnosticism! It’s a convoluted path to Nag Hammadi, but it’s mine. 

EDW: After gaining a BA in religion from Reed College, Portland in 2003, and then an MA in religious studies from the University of Amsterdam in 2004, you went on to gain your PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2011; what was it that your doctoral research devoted to ?

DB: Despite my “conversion” to Gnostic studies, in my Bachelor’s studies I focused on Greek literature and philosophy—particularly a technical, later school of Greek thought often called “Neoplatonism.” In Amsterdam I explored other ancient religious and philosophical currents which are associated with Neoplatonism but do not fit well into our tidy category of “academic” philosophy, such as theurgy, the Hermetic literature, and Gnosticism. Thus I was brought back to the Nag Hammadi texts, which are replete with all kinds of Gnostic, Hermetic, Platonic, and apocalyptic literature. I went to Yale to acquire the requisite training one needs to become a Nag Hammadi specialist, diving into Biblical studies, theology, church history, Roman history, and, of course, languages dead and alive, particularly Coptic (the final stage of ancient Egyptian, in which the Nag Hammadi texts are written) and Greek. 

EDW: Although you were born, bred, and (predominantly) educated in the United States, you have since crossed the pond to join us here in Europe, taking up a position at Leipzig University in Germany. How did this international career trajectory come to pass and do you feel that there is a noticeable difference between the academic cultures of the two continents ?

DB: I went to Amsterdam for my MA for two reasons: I had been told it was a place where I could pursue my study of Neoplatonism from the standpoint of ancient religions (rather than academic philosophy), and because, at the time (2003), it was very affordable indeed when compared to American MA programs. There and later, in my doctoral studies, I noticed that scholars from the Continent had a distinct advantage over most Anglophones in terms of their mastery of research languages, especially the ancient ones we need to understand our primary sources. I figured the best way to overcome my linguistic failings was to spend some time living and working abroad. Between my time in the Netherlands and then as an exchange student in Heidelberg, Germany (2009–10), I found I enjoyed many aspects of daily life in Europe, and I forged many strong friendships throughout Central and Northern Europe. So when I finished my doctoral studies in 2011, I was very happy to take up European postdoctoral work, first in Copenhagen and now in Leipzig.

There are so many differences between academic lives on the two sides of the pond, and within Europe itself. Each nation’s academic culture has its advantages and disadvantages. Many of the clichés are true: teaching is increasingly all-important in the USA, while technical skills and research are generally prized more in Europe; hierarchy is generally a bigger deal on the Continent, while American professors are very often on a first-name basis with their students and colleagues. Unfortunately, the serious problems plaguing academic culture are universal. Wherever you go, humanities are being defunded, and long-term positions in the university are increasingly hard to find. Nobody is really quite sure what the “right” career path looks like anymore. Here a larger socioeconomic difference between Europe and the USA must be noted: strong social welfare systems mitigate the risk of pursuing a career in the humanities, just as with art and music. If your postdoc or adjunct position leaves you out in the cold, you’re in less trouble here than there. 

EDW: Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania Press brought out your first solo book, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. Could you tell us more about this project and how you came about authoring it ?

DB: Even during my BA years I was interested in the relationship between myth and philosophy—more specifically, of philosophizing through narrative. Later, I read about the so-called “Platonizing” Sethian apocalypses of Nag Hammadi—texts that use the genre and literary traditions of Jewish apocalypses (i.e., revelatory narratives like Daniel or 1 Enoch), but whose content is replete with the jargon and conceptual framework of later Platonism (what is often called “Neoplatonism”). This is a sui generis literature that at once tastes intensely of two worlds of thought mutually exclusive for most scholars: technical Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian pseudepigrapha. I wanted to understand why on earth someone would write a “Platonizing” apocalypse. In Apocalypse of the Alien God, I offer an answer to this question, and evaluate the significance of this rather bizarre literature for the history of philosophy and religion—and they are significant, as these texts contributed enormously to the “parting of the ways” between Christian and non-Christian (or “Pagan,” if you will) Platonists. After the “Platonizing” apocalypses circulated in a third-century philosophical seminar and caused a fuss, non-Christian Platonists came to distinguish themselves entirely from their Christian counterparts both on philosophical grounds and as a social enterprise. In terms of intellectual history, I argue, this is when Pagan and Christian worldviews split for good. Conversely, this Sethian literature belongs to a distinct Gnostic literary tradition whose origins and contours I call into question, particularly regarding its relationship to Jewish mystical literature. So these “Platonizing” apocalypses are interesting for historians of Judaism, as well. 

EDW: You have also looked to some extent at some of the modern movements which are sometimes covered under the broad category of “Neo-Gnosticism”, publishing a paper examining New Age and Neo-Gnostic commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas. Do you have a particular research interest in the Neo-Gnostic movement and how do you see this as relating to the study of ancient Gnosticism ?

DB: Neo-Gnosticism (perhaps “contemporary Gnosticism” is a better term for it?) is a great, undiscovered country just crying for doctoral students to map it out. Academic study of it is practically non-existent, although it is beginning to pop up on the radars of scholars in several disciplines, notably New Religious Movements and Western Esotericism. How it relates to the study of ancient Gnosticism is complex. Many of my colleagues in Nag Hammadi Studies are ambivalent about the fact that there exist many people who consume the translations and studies we produce in the service of their personal spiritual edification. The roots of this ambivalence are diverse—some dislike “Neo-Gnosticism” due to their own religious or ideological proclivities, while others distance themselves from popular scholarship in hopes of seeming more technically astute—but it is all very silly, because the popular interest in Gnostic literature (for whatever reason) is one of the primary reasons that Gnosticism is a subject that merits historical study in the first place! Professional scholars with technical knowledge about ancient Gnosticism and Nag Hammadi have enormous potential to contribute to the study of how these ideas and texts are being received and used today. It is my hope that they will use this potential, ideally in concert with their colleagues who work on contemporary religious life. Co-organizing the New Antiquities workshop was an attempt to build a little momentum in that direction. 

EDW: What projects are you currently working on, and are there others on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?

DB: Aside from the usual studies on Gnosticism, Nag Hammadi, and the apocalypses, I have three projects in development. One is a book project that I began during my postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, which will deal with the emergence of what I would call a particularly Christian concept of divine providence in the first three centuries CE. Providence is a fascinating concept, because it is used to articulate fundamental philosophical problems of human existence—our experiences of a personal relationship with god, of evil, of free will. I have several studies on this in the pipeline, and hope to publish a book in the next few years. I am also editing two collections of essays. The first is an issue of Aries: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, which will address the problem of “esotericism and antiquity.” It is my hope that the issue will clarify, through case studies, whether or not the term “esotericism” is useful for scholars in ancient studies, and, conversely, what scholars of Western Esotericism can learn from specialists in antiquity. The second collection of essays will be the volume of papers from the New Antiquities conference (discussed below). 

EDW: You are a founding member, and current co-director (along with Sarah Veale) of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism (NSEA), one of the various thematic networks that is associated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). What brought about the formation of the NSEA and how did you come to be co-director ? Furthermore, what do you see as the importance of its role in encouraging the investigation of such ancient esoteric currents as Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Hermetism ?

DB:Western Esotericism” as a phenomenon could be largely described as emerging from the modern reception history of a very particular body of ancient Platonic and Gnostic literature, yet very few students of Western Esotericism have taken much time to read this material extensively, much less in the original languages. So NSEA was founded initially as a way to just take stock of who was interested in scholarship on Esotericism but also working on antiquity, and get people connected. This remains one of its two chief purposes. The other purpose came about later, when Dr. Egil Asprem [EDW: who was interviewed here in November 2013] put me in touch with Sarah Veale, a plucky student of the classics with a strong background in web design, and thus ancientesotericism.org was born. The goal for the site is to serve as a research portal to the dizzying array of online tools one can use to study ancient materials associated with “Western Esotericism,” whether we are talking about Gnostic texts, magical papyri, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. My guess is that there are lots of people out there who would like to go a little deeper into these and other subjects, but are a little bewildered as to where to begin, or whose bookmarks are out-of-date—so my hope is that the site gives them a leg up. I certainly learn a lot just by updating it. We also post information about pertinent conferences and publications. 

EDW: In June 2014 you co-organised a workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin with Almut-Barbara Renger on the subject of “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond. I of course was at that conference, and have offered my reflections on it elsewhere on my blog. What brought about the decision to organise it and what do you hope that it achieved ?

DB: Reception-history of antiquity is Prof. Renger’s specialty, so I was intrigued by this when we first met, given my longstanding interest in the popular reception of the Nag Hammadi literature. I was hoping to gather people working on contemporary alternative religious groups who authorize themselves with reference to ancient Mediterranean religions (e.g., “Neo-Pagans” and “Neo-Gnostics,” amongst others), and to begin a conversation about such phenomena and where they come from. I was happy to discover that many who participated in the workshop also had some (at times strong) background in philology and/or archaeology, which meant that we were often able to get into technical details about the ancient sources themselves even as we discussed how modern practitioners deal with them. Needless to say, I also learned a lot myself, as much regarding the reception of scholarship in archaeology in contemporary Pagan religion, as regarding Neo-Gnosticism. These and related trajectories of research have potential to be very fruitful indeed, so it was—and remains—exciting to pursue them along with the other participants in the workshop. 

EDW: I like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see the future of their subject heading. That being the case, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the future of research into Gnosticism and the Western esotericism(s) of antiquity, as well as the study of “Neo-Gnosticisms?

DB: We are witnessing the early stages of a growth spurt in each of these subfields. “Gnosticism” as a field suffered something of a “Nag Hammadi hangover” in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but now there are many, many younger scholars working with the topic with great energy and insight. Old paradigms are being reformulated or overturned outright, even as new texts are being discovered and edited. “Esotericism” in antiquity, meanwhile, is only just becoming something people are talking about, since scholarship on Western Esotericism has focused almost entirely on the Renaissance and beyond. Yet it is my sense that there is a great interest amongst scholars dealing with ancient sources in formulating an efficacious use for the term “esoteric” to deal with some of the sources we work on which just happen to be instrumental to the development of the currents that some would say fall under the rubric of “Esotericism” today. Conversely, others are interested in showing why “esotericism” is the wrong word to talk about certain ancient currents sometimes referred to as “esoteric.” So that conversation is just starting up. As for “Neo-Gnosticism,” the sky’s the limit, but if it is to really take off, I imagine we would have to see some serious collaborative work between the historians of antiquity, on the one hand, and anthropologists and historians of new religions movements, on the other. In the words of David St. Hubbins: And why not? 

EDW: Thank you Dylan for this wonderful interview; I wish you all the best in future!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Upcoming Event: Lecture on Kenneth Anger, Aleister Crowley, and Egyptology at the Petrie Museum, Thursday 6 November.

Back in October of last year I attended the UCL conference on “Monstrous Antiquities: Archaeology and the Uncanny in Popular Culture”, where I presented a paper on the subject of “Archaeology and Occultism in the Work of Kenneth Anger”.  In this I examined how the renowned American experimental film-maker utilised past societies in proselytizing for the occult religion of Thelema, founded in 1904 by the (in)famous British esotericist Aleister Crowley.  In doing so, Anger made repeated use of archaeological material, particularly that associated with Ancient Egypt, and thus much of his ouevre represents a fascination avant-garde example of what has usually been termed "Egyptomania."  I'm pleased to say that enough people found my paper to be of sufficient interest that I have been subsequently invited to give a lecture on this subject for the nearby Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in Bloomsbury, Central London as part of their "Petrie Film Club Presents" series.

The Petrie Museum; image by LordHarris.
Scheduled for Thursday 06th November at 6pm, I will be introducing a screening of Anger's seminal film Lucifer Rising (1980), an exposition of Thelemite theology that was filmed at such archaeological sites as Luxor, Karnak, Avebury, and Externsteine.  Those interestested in coming along must obtain a ticket beforehand, and should be directed over to the Museum's events page, where all the necessary information can be found; tickets themselves can be obtained through Eventbrite hereAdmittance is free, although a donation of £5 is requested.  Unfortunately, I am given to understand that no under-18s will be permitted entry, presumably because there are a few instances of nudity in the film.  If you live in the London area and have an interest in Crowleyanity, Egyptomania, or experimental cinema - or of course the mix of all three - then I would warmly welcome you to come along !

Friday, 5 September 2014

New Publication: Book review of Marco Pasi's "Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics" for the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review

This afternoon I was pleasantly surprised to discover that back in the spring, one of my short writings had seen publication, completely unbeknownst to me at the time. This particular contribution to the realms of scholarship constitutes a book review of Dr. Marco Pasi's Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics (Acumen, 2014) which I undertook earlier in the year for the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR) an ever growing outlet for scholars specialising in the study of new religious movements. It has appeared in volume 5, number 1 of the ASRR, an edition otherwise devoted to alternative spiritual movements in Israel, which was guest edited by Israeli doctoral candidate Shai Feraro (whom I interviewed here at Albion Calling last month). 

Although my personal research interests have so far focused on many of those figures whom followed in Aleister Crowley's wake, from the early pioneers of Wicca to the experimental film-maker Kenneth Anger, I nevertheless find the self-professed "Great Beast" to be a fascinating figure in and of himself. Long derided as a dangerous and/or deluded oddity best forgotten by serious scholars, recent reassessments by academics operating within the study of Western esotericism have come to recognise that Crowley is truly deserving of further investigation, particularly given his significant influence over not only esoteric and occult currents but also the wider Western counter-culture throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Regular readers might remember that last month I announced that I had reviewed two other recent publications on Crowley for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies: Tobias Churton's Aleister Crowley: The Biography and Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr's Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism. Almost seventy years after his death, people are talking about him in ever greater numbers, and that's something that needs exploring.

Those interested in my review of Pasi's book can find it over at the ASRR web page here. Unfortunately ASRR's publishers, Metapress Essential, do not provide access to their book reviews for free, and thus anyone wishing to read it will have to pay to download that single piece (for $30.00!) or subscribe to the journal outright. Hopefully however, many of those with such an interest will be able to gain access to this (excellent) journal through subscriptions held by university libraries that they may be affiliated with.  And if not, don't forget to recommend that your librarian gets a subscription!

Monday, 25 August 2014

An Interview with Professor Timothy Insoll

This week here at Albion Calling I am very fortunate to have with me an archaeologist whose work on the study of religion and ritual has long inspired me, Professor Timothy Insoll of the University of Manchester (check out his personal website here and university page here). Insoll's regional focus has been on Bahrain and Western Africa, where he has been involved in excavations in both Mali and Ghana; more recently he has turned his attentions to the eastern side of the continent to undertake investigations in Ethiopia. In doing so, he has investigated not only the "indigenous" pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religious systems and ritual practices of the continent but also the later archaeology of Islam, on the subject of which he is a well-known expert. In this interview, we discuss his career and research, as well as some of his many important publications, and the role that archaeology has to play in the scholarly investigation and interpretation of ritual and religion.

EDW: Having attained an undergraduate degree from the University of Sheffield in 1992, you went on to complete your doctoral research and then a research fellowship at St. John's College, Cambridge, for which you looked at the archaeology of Gao, capital of the Songhai Empire in West Africa, and authored The Archaeology of Islam. In 1998 you were appointed lecturer in archaeology at the University of Manchester, becoming a senior lecturer and then a reader in 2004; you were subsequently awarded a personal chair in 2005, and have remained there ever since. What were the formative influences that led you in the direction of archaeology and academia, and what inspired you to focus your research on both the archaeology of Sub-Saharan Africa and the archaeology of ritual and religion to start with ?

TI: When I was a small boy I confused dinosaurs and archaeology so that was probably my formative influence, though I rectified this after writing to the Young Archaeologists Club and getting a nice encouraging response from Kate Pretty. Many of my relatives also grew up or served abroad during the time of the British Empire so this must also have influenced me in the direction of non-European archaeology, and when I started my undergraduate studies I realised that sub-Saharan Africa was both one of the least archaeologically investigated parts of the world, and also the most interesting. So this sealed it, so to speak, geographically – though I am also interested in Arabia and India. Why ritual and religion? Because it too is fascinating and again offered opportunities to explore diverse material encompassing the whole gamut of archaeology from seeds to landscapes. I was also brought up as a Catholic so religion was always a part of my life.

EDW: Something that I have found particularly interesting has been your recent work with the University of Ghana's Benjamin Kankpeyeng and Samuel Nkumbaan in studying the Koma Mounds of Northern Ghana. As part of this, in 2010–11 you excavated a number of figurines that were interned along with human remains in mounds dating to 600–1200 CE; these have been identified as serving a religious function as “ancestral” figurines. Could you give us a bit of background on this fascinating project, and what do you see as the place of archaeology in understanding the pre- and non-Islamic indigenous belief systems of Western Africa ?

TI: Ben Kankpeyeng has run the Koma Land project for a number of years. He invited me to participate after we had worked together in the Tong Hills on shrines, sacrifice and ritual practice there from both ethnographic and archaeological perspectives. The Koma material was in many ways more challenging as it lacked the ethnographic dimension for the people that made the clay figurines you referred to have disappeared. So it is strictly ‘archaeological’, there are no analogies that can be drawn upon in the same way that we could in using Talensi practices to begin to understand aspects of the Tong Hills archaeology. Because most indigenous religions were within pre-literate contexts, archaeology is crucial for understanding their history and development, and change over time. The latter is particularly significant as there has been a tendency to view African indigenous religions as timeless, because of the dominance of social anthropology sources. Whereas, archaeology indicates that there could be both foundational stability as well as change as past peoples reacted to different events, circumstances, opportunities, and materiality.

We tried exploring this in an exhibition on the Koma figurines, “Fragmentary Ancestors”, that was held in Manchester Museum and which has now transferred to the National Museum in Accra. Curating this permitted the interrogation of the role of the figurines and why people made them for several hundred years between c. AD 600 – 1400. Many were purposefully broken perhaps because they were intimately linked to personhood of varied forms. The resources of Manchester University are also allowing us to look inside the figurines through CT scanning and to complete DNA analysis – work in progress.

Images copyright Blackwell and CUP
EDW: You've also established yourself as one of the world's foremost specialists in the archaeology of Islam, having authored such tomes as The Archaeology of Islam (Blackwell, 1999) and The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2003). This is of course a vast and fascinating area of enquiry, so it would be interesting to hear how you set about embarking on researching this ambitious topic ?  

TI: Islamic archaeology was then largely, but not entirely, rooted in Art History and old-fashioned notions of data collection without interpretation. As an adjunct research focus was often upon the upper echelons of society, rulers, urban elites, palaces and cities. Social archaeology was lacking, as was a more representative Islamic archaeology that acknowledged the diversity of the Muslim community. Hence I wrote The Archaeology of Islam as a way to begin to redress this, slightly provocative perhaps, but Ian Hodder’s “Social Archaeology” series was then blossoming under Blackwell, and I aimed the book at that. For three years during my Research Fellowship in Cambridge I got to read on relevant archaeology and anthropology, as well as travel extensively collecting material. I think archaeology focused on Islam is now changing. New journals such as the Journal of Islamic Archaeology have appeared that have a broader more inclusive and theoretically aware focus, and material routinely analysed elsewhere, such as faunal remains, is now not discarded but treated, as it should be, as a source of information on past lifeways.

EDW: You've also done a lot of work on the archaeology of Bahrain, having co-authored An Archaeological Guide to Bahrain with Rachel Maclean (Archaeopress, 2011) and The Land of Enki in the Islamic Era (Kegal Paul, 2005). You are currently involved in a project compiling the island's Islamic funerary inscriptions, and another studying the Bilad al-Qadim area in anticipation of the construction of a new visitor centre at the Al-Khamic Mosque. How did you come to be involved in the archaeology of Bahrain and what is it that so intrigues you about it ?
Images copyright Archaeopress and Kegan Paul
TI: Bahrain allowed me to put into practice some of the theoretical points made in The Archaeology of Islam and to provide a comparison with material I had collected in Mali and Eritrea, as discussed in The Archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. But it also snowballed, as research has a tendency to do and Rachel (my wife) and I have had the opportunity to curate a new museum at the site we worked at in Bahrain. This has given us opportunities to explore how to present and interpret archaeology in a rapidly changing society that is composed of both Sunni and Shi’a, as well as non-Muslims, and to involve the local community in the process. It has been fascinating, and yes the archaeology of Bahrain is intriguing for there is so much within this small island sitting in the Arabian Gulf. There are literally layers upon layers of archaeology around and on which modern life has to sit. Though I do also sometimes worry at the pace at which the archaeology is being lost as development proceeds at an astounding pace.

EDW: You've just come back from an excavation in Ethiopia; could you tell us about the project that you have got going on over there ?

TI: The Ethiopia project is in its early stages. Last year I was collecting with a former PhD student of mine, Tim Clack, data on how the Mursi ethno-linguistic group in the southwest physically modify their cattle through branding and horn shaping. This has helped in interpreting images in Ethiopian rock art of similarly modified cattle that in the past were either neglected or described as abstract. The results of this research are published in the next issue of Antiquity. This summer’s fieldwork was in eastern Ethiopia and involved test-excavation and survey of abandoned urban sites, burial tumuli, and in the city of Harar to begin to explore themes such as myth, ethnicity and identity and how it links to Islamisation, and trade and identity.

EDW: Your book Archaeology, Ritual, Religion (Routledge, 2004) is the definitive textbook on the subject of the archaeology of religion and ritual; ten years on from its first publication it still constitutes an absolute must-read for anyone getting into the subject. What made you decide to author it and what do you hope that it has achieved ?

TI: Thank you. Archaeology, Ritual, Religion was a book that I had to write and was the easiest so far to do because I just sat down and wrote it. I wish I could say that other books were that enjoyable or easy to write, but I can’t – they have been hard work! I hope that it has shown that we cannot neglect religion and ritual in archaeological contexts – or at least the potential for their former existence. I think again archaeology has changed over the past decade and archaeologists (I won’t name names) who then did not acknowledge ‘religion’ or mis-categorised ‘ritual’ now do address both. 

Images copyright Routledge and OUP.


EDW: In 2011 Oxford University Press (OUP) brought out a hefty anthology which you had edited titled The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. It's a really valuable volume for the sheer scope of contributions contained within it, from those examining the evidence for ritual behaviour in the Palaeolithic to those dealing with the cultic practices of the Inca and on to the contemporary Pagan uses of archaeological monuments. What brought about this particular project, and what do you see as the future for endeavours such as this which bring together archaeologists of religion and ritual whose chronological and geographical specialisms vary widely ?

TI: Editing that Handbook was a lot of work. I am now editing another, the Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines. I think there is value in these projects if they are comprehensive enough and if the differing perspectives of the authors are respected and indeed encouraged. No one is ever going to agree and nor should they in dealing with such complex and elusive subjects based on archaeological materials. Having all these different regions, periods, perspectives and specialisms under one cover is valuable for it enables you to realise human ingenuity over time in materialising and conceptualising relationships with ritual, religion, spirituality, the divine. We are also fortunate that OUP is willing to take on such projects and I fear that in a decade from now publishers might be less willing to do so, certainly in a print form.

EDW: The academic field of religious studies has for decades been influenced by anthropology, sociology, and psychology; by comparison, archaeology seems to have exerted very little influence. Do you think that archaeologists are finally having their voice heard among scholars of religion ? Furthermore, how do you think that archaeologists of religion and ritual should go about interacting with our colleagues studying these subjects from other disciplinary perspectives ?

TI: I do think archaeology is now contributing to religious studies in ways that a few years ago it did not. Journals such as Material Religion actively encourage archaeological contributions, and based upon changes in my correspondence again over the past few years scholars of religion are engaging with archaeologists and realising that we do have something to offer – even if it is only data that they can reinterpret. How should we interact with these colleagues? As equals, but also through not exclusively guarding our material and thinking somehow that because it is archaeology, only archaeologists can interpret it. Think of how we routinely use other sources such as ethnography.

EDW: Have you got any projects or publications on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for ?

TI: My new book, Material Explorations in African Archaeology, which is in press, also with OUP. This provides an examination of materiality in African archaeology through exploring concepts of material agency and material engagement and entanglement in relation to how these can be manifest via persons, animals, objects, substances, and contexts.

EDW: I always like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my guest where they think that their field is headed in the coming years and decades. That being the case, I'd like to ask you where you see the archaeology of ritual and religion progressing in future ?

TI: A difficult question to answer but I believe that for varied reasons, good and bad, ‘religion’ is much more prominent that it was 10 to 20 years ago. Hence for the archaeology of ritual and religion this could be a good thing in increasing awareness and research, but we do have to respect the right of archaeologists to work on all sorts of sites and to recover and interpret material that can challenge established beliefs and practices.
EDW: Thank you so much, Professor Insoll, for taking the time to give us an insight into your work and views on the archaeology of religion and ritual. I wish you all the best in future.