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. 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, some of his many important publications, and archaeology’s role 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 wrote 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.

EDW: You've also established yourself as one of the world’s foremost specialists in the archaeology of Islam, having written The Archaeology of Islam (Blackwell, 1999) and The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2003). This is 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?

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.

EDW: In 2011 Oxford University Press 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 in Europe. 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.

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