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.

Thursday 21 August 2014

An Interview with Shai Feraro

Hello and welcome to Albion Calling; this week I have Shai Feraro, a doctoral student at Israel’s Tel Aviv University with me (check out his profile). Feraro is a historian who is currently exploring the role of women in the British esoteric and Pagan subcultures from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth-century, and has also edited a recent issue of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review devoted to the alternative spiritualities of his home country. We discuss such issues as the place of Paganism in Israel, the impact of the academic boycott, and developments in the study of modern Paganism.

EDW: Your main area of research has been in the field of Pagan studies, an interdisciplinary approach to the academic study of contemporary Paganism. What was it that led you into studying this particular subject? Do you have a personal background in the Israeli Pagan movement or are you, like myself, an interested outsider?

SF: My interest in Paganism, both in general and in Israel in particular, is that of a sympathetic outsider. How did I come across it? Well, it is a long-but-interesting story (I think), with several twists and turns: in the latter half of 2008 I was finishing my Bachelor's Degree in History and Asian Studies at the University of Haifa, and had made up my mind to start my Graduate studies there. I needed an idea for an exciting MA thesis. During this period I was playing a computer game called Return to Castle Wolfenstein, in which you play an American operative who tries to stop the Nazis from raising demons to their cause etc. It then suddenly hit me that this game, coupled with movies such as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, were merely echoes in popular culture of the very real fascination that some important Nazi figures had for occult matters. I therefore decided to write a thesis on this subject, which, as I soon learned, was covered very well in books such as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism. Soon afterwards, however, I deserted the idea, because the prospect of devoting at least two years to the study of the German language before even starting my research into the relevant primary sources was too daunting for me. I then decided to switch my fascination with the occult to an English-speaking country - a move which allowed me to begin my research right away.

With that vague concept in mind, I went to England in order to clear my head before the start of my MA studies. While trekking in the Lake District, as part of the 192-mile Coast to Coast Walk, I underwent a deep and moving experience as I was travelling past the Helm Crag ridge and down to Grasmere village. A week and a half later, while in London, I visited the British Museum. After leaving the Museum, I decided to look for a nearby tube station, and walked via Museum Street, where (surprise, surprise) I came across the famous Atlantis Bookshop, of which I had no prior knowledge. I stepped inside, and browsed through the various books on display. Before long I was exploring the shelves on ‘Wicca, Witchcraft & Paganism’ and on ‘Women’s Spirituality’, excited as if I’ve found some long-lost treasure. I bought a few books, and started writing my MA thesis on the development of the American Feminist Spirituality Movement during the 1970s-1980s.

Half way through writing my thesis I met the woman who would become my wife - Tom. We met through an online dating site called JDate (that’s Jewish Date) after studying together in the same University department (Asian Studies) for 3 years and not knowing each other at all (I was in Chinese studies, she was in Japanese, two circles that hardly intermixed in that department for some reason). And so it happened that on our first date, while I was rambling on about my research into feminist Witchcraft, I mentioned Starhawk. Tom immediately stopped me and asked “How do you know Starhawk?” Shockingly I asked “wait... You know of Starhawk??? How?”. “I have her books. I dabbled in Witchcraft when I was a teenager.” Later on, when I decided to start researching - independently from my PhD - the Israeli Pagan community, it was Tom who first introduced me to some of her friends from the Witchcraft bookshop in which she worked as a teenager. I’m ever grateful to Israeli Pagans for accepting me so wholeheartedly into their gatherings and rituals, for opening up their hearts to me during interviews and unofficial conversations, and for the deep and profound friendships I developed with some of them. While my MA and PhD research deal with contemporary Paganism from an historical angle, researching Israeli Paganism gave me the opportunity to experience Paganism as a lived religion and social movement. This is something I could never have experienced strictly as an historian.

EDW: You are currently engaged in a PhD at Tel Aviv University. Could you tell us more about this current doctoral research project and its findings? 

SF: My PhD dissertation deals with women’s involvement in British Magical and Pagan groups, c. 1888 - c. 1988. I start by touching upon Helena Blavatsky, who - unlike the Victorian Spiritualists - was considered a spiritual leader in her own right instead of a mere vessel for the channeling of spirits. Then I move on to Anna Kingsford and her Hermetic Society, followed by a discussion of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the women who played important roles within it. I then move on to Aleister Crowley’s writings during the Edwardian and Inter-war periods, coupled with Dion Fortune’s 1930s novels, followed by Gerald Gardner and the early Wiccans of the 1950s-1960s.  As mentioned above, I wrote my MA thesis on the effects of radical and cultural feminisms on the formation and ideology of the American Feminist Spirituality movement during the 1970s-1980s. I started my PhD in the hope of understanding how these developments influenced British Wiccans and other Pagans during the same period. Scholars of contemporary Paganism agree that Wiccan practices and ideology were influenced by Second Wave feminism as a result of Wicca’s “emigration” to the United States. The influence of radical and spiritual feminist ideas on 1970s–1980s British Paganism, however, is an under-researched area. A commonly held view (to which Ronald Hutton’s chapter on “Uncle Sam and the Goddess” in his The Triumph of the Moon [1999] is a notable exception) is that British Wicca was not affected by feminist developments in the United States, and that radical (and spiritual) feminism’s influence on the British Pagan scene during this period was negligible. My dissertation will be the first to examine this subject and focus on it from an historical perspective. The research shows that contrary to prevailing views, contact and cross-fertilization between British Wiccans and Goddess Feminists did exist in said period and contributed to the shaping of contemporary British Paganism. I hope I managed to give a taste of this recently when I presented a case study focusing on Goddess Feminist Monica Sjöö in which I analyzed her role as a bridge between Radical and Spiritual Feminism and British Wiccans during the 1970s-1980s.

EDW: Your research has examined contemporary Paganism not only in Israel but also in the United States and United Kingdom. What is it about the Israeli Pagan scene which differentiates it from that elsewhere in the (Western) world?

SF: I have found that while there are many similarities between Israeli and overseas Pagans, Israeli Pagans cannot help but be shaped by the country's unique politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. While Israeli Pagans long for the opportunity to come out of the so-called ‘broom closet’, they constantly fear the perceived negative consequences of such an exposure and see the bond between (Jewish) religion and the state in Israel as a main factor in the intolerance and even persecution that they expect to encounter from the government and from Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In Israel, one can be recognized as either religious, secular or spiritual (meaning generic New-Age with Judaic overtones, which can be termed Jew-Age), but there is no room for Israeli Pagans to describe themselves as religious and at the same time not Jewish. Ergo, an Israeli Pagan of Jewish descent that takes his/her religion seriously and asserts her now non-Jewish religious identity simply has no place in Israeli society’s religious discourse. Indeed, Marianna Ruah-Midbar and Adam Klin Oron have noted recently that “Upon its arrival in Israel, the New Age encounters a local characteristic substantially different from those prevalent in other European societies, which are Christian in origin.” In Israeli society, Jewish identity is considered to be a privileged one.  In my articles I try to understand what happens when Israelis of Jewish descent choose to shed this privilege-laden identity in favor of one which is seen as inferior (if not illegitimate) in the eyes of mainstream Israeli society.

One might expect that Israel’s different climate to that of Northern and Western Europe (while in Britain winter connotes with death, in the Middle East it is a time of rejuvenation) and the availability of a local Canaanite pantheon to work with, will push the majority of Israeli Pagans towards Canaanite Reconstructionism. In reality, while some in the community are interested in Canaanite deities and sometimes try to adapt the Wiccanate template to local climate and mythologies, very few choose to commit to Canaanite Reconstructionism as their main spiritual path. While some modern and contemporary Western European nations, such as Britain, Ireland or Iceland have embraced their ‘Celtic’ or Nordic past and utilized figures such as the Druids as focal points for the kindling of patriotic sentiments, the situation in modern Israeli society is a mirrored image. Israeli Jews – whether secular or religious – are not brought up to feel any sort of kinship with the tribes and nations which inhabited historical Canaan. On the contrary, the extinction of the Canaanites by the Israelites is celebrated in Bible lessons administered in the country’s formal education system as a triumph of Jewish monotheism over idolatry, witchcraft and paganism. This is further illustrated in the fact that while a cultural and ideological movement dubbed “Canaanism” by its detractors did climax during the 1940s in British Mandate Palestine, it was considered incompatible with mainstream Zionism and declined after the founding of the state of Israel. Following a recent visit to Israel, Ronald Hutton noted that “Israeli Pagans are clearly at present in a double bind, whereby if they follow non-Israeli traditions such as Wicca and Druidry, they are accused of importing alien beliefs, while if they revive aspects of the ancient native religion, they are accused of bringing back the ancient evil against which true religion originally defined itself.”

EDW: Something that I think is notable is that you are a male who is studying forms of feminist spirituality; as far as I am aware, you are the first to do so within the field of Pagan studies. That, no doubt, has both advantages and disadvantages. Do you feel that this has impacted your research in any way?

SF: Well, my research into the experiences of Israeli Pagan women in Israeli Women’s Spirituality festivals and workshops was obviously shaped by my inability to venture into festival and workshop ground as participant-observer. This is something that I, of course, totally understand, and I support the need for ‘women-only’ spaces (this is not to suggest that my support is in any way needed or relevant to the women active in these spaces). The real problem was that participant-observer research into these venues by Israeli female academics simply does not exist either. I therefore decided to write an exploratory article, which will focus almost entirely on the interviews I carried out with Israeli Pagan women, and which will serve at the same time as a call for female Israeli scholars to carry out the studies needed in order to establish the field in Israeli academia. However, I think that my position as a male might have been a silver lining too, as some of my interviewees might have found it easier to share their criticisms of the Israeli Women’s Spirituality scene with a male than with a female researcher. Although normally people voice their criticism only inside the group, a talk with an outsider (who - being a male - could never take part in the movement himself) can sometimes allow a member to talk about things she would never dare to share with her fellows.

Now, as an historian in training I have found that being a male studying feminist spiritualities - which is what I’ve been doing in my MA thesis (and to some degree in my PhD dissertation) – isn’t necessarily problematic. Meaning, that as long as you try to provide an historical analysis of feminist spirituality and its sources of inspiration instead of presuming to write how one should ‘do’ feminist spirituality, I don’t see a complication. Difficulties could still arise even when conducting research into books and archives, though: in my research into the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Britain (as part of my PhD work) there was a specific archive that maintained a policy that some WLM magazines which were published as ‘women only’ during the 1970s-1980s will remain sealed from me. I of course respected their decision, but came to the conclusion that a minimum historical distance already exists, and thereafter read these magazines in a different archive which had no such restrictions policy.

There is at least one other male researcher who dedicated his scholarly attention to Goddess Spirituality. This is Paul Reid-Bowen, who wrote a PhD dissertation on Goddess thealogy (supervised by Melissa Raphael and later published as Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy by Ashgate). Writing about thealogy can be a tricky business for a male scholar, and is loaded with controversy. Reid-Bowen is of course aware of this. See his chapter “Reflexive Transformations: Research Comments on Me(n), Feminist Philosophy and the Thealogical Imagination” in Ursula King and Tina Beattie’s Gender, Religion and Diversity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (London: Continuum, 2005). Writing from intellectual history and discourse analysis angles, I have been spared facing the dilemmas Paul faces as a male thealogian.

EDW: Recently, you have taken on the mantle of Special Editor for volume 5, issue 1 of the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR), a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to new religious movements. This particular issue is devoted to alternative spiritual movements in Israel, and contains both an introduction and a research paper by yourself. How did this opportunity arise and what do you hope will be the impact of this special issue?

SF: I met James R. Lewis - editor of the ASRR - twice when he participated in the yearly Israeli Conferences for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality. My role as conference coordinator gave us the opportunity to chat and I told Jim about my research on Israeli Pagans. This led me to submit an article to the ASRR on the experiences of Israeli Pagan women at local women’s spirituality festivals and workshops. Jim then said I should try and put together a special issue on contemporary Israeli spirituality. I’m glad to have been given this opportunity, learning the challenges and gains of the editing process so early in the academic game. This issue is only the second of its kind to have been published so far. Israel is home to a bustling scene of New Age and alternative spiritualities, with only a fraction of these represented in this special issue. Global New Age discourse is thus adapted in many cases into an Israeli ‘Jew Age’ through the use of Jewish symbols and practices. This ‘Jew Age’ spirituality is a direct outcome of Israel’s unique and complicated politics of identity as the nation state of the Jewish people. The articles in this issue can therefore supply researchers with a glimpse into the ways in which New Age and alternative spiritualities – produced in Western countries with a predominantly Protestant or secular culture – transform and adapt themselves in Israel.

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

SF: I still have several more articles I wish to publish on the Israeli Pagan community before trying to write a book on Israeli Pagans. These articles will focus on the Mabon community festival (now held for the 4th year in a row), on the emergence of Canaanite Reconstructionism among Israeli Pagans, on Israeli Pagan pilgrims-tourists to Glastonbury and other Pagan sites in the UK, and on findings from the Israeli Pagan Survey I initiated. This survey was modeled almost in its entirety on Helen Berger’s Pagan Census Revisited, and Helen and I are also working together on comparing the information from both of these surveys. I also hope to research the Northern Traditions, and particularly the adherents’ views on feminism and gender issues during the 1970s-1980s.

In my Post-doctoral research, however, I’m going to focus on a totally different subject. For a while now I felt torn between my wish to continue writing about Paganism in my Post-Doc as well, and between my hopes for securing an academic post after finishing the Postdoctoral project. I have thought long and hard about this, and came to the conclusion that while I love this field of study and plan to continue working on it for many years to come, my Post-Doc project itself must involve a subject completely unrelated to Paganism or contemporary spirituality in general. This will hopefully improve my relevancy when I apply for academic posts in the future. I hope to focus on the influence of American feminist writings and American expatriates living in Britain on the development of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain during the late 1960s - late 1980s. This will be done through archival research and oral history, while emphasizing the plurality of the movement, its various strands and divisions. With any luck I’ll be starting my post-doc in the UK during autumn 2015, and we’ll be able to find the time to sit and talk shop over a pint (or several).

EDW: When notifying other scholars of your recent ASRR issue over at the Academic Study of Magic list serve, you faced calls from one anonymous figure who suggested that your publications should be ignored as part of the wider academic boycott of Israel that various activists have called for. I’d be interested in hearing your personal take on it; as an Israeli academic have you felt that this boycott has caused problems in interacting with the international academic community?

SF: The incident you are referring to was the first time I experienced the implications of the boycott movement on a very personal level. I had heard about it before, of course, but never encountered any problem during the many conferences in which I presented my papers during the last two years in places such as Britain, the United States, Ireland and Sweden. Very few of the academics I met during these conferences brought up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in our conversations, and for those who did - it was probably the first opportunity for them to hear about it from the point of view of an Israeli who is not Anti/Post-Zionist. I thought that posting information about ASRR’s Israel Issue during the latest Gaza conflict might incur a negative reaction by someone, and was therefore not surprised - only a little disappointed. Well, a little is an understatement. I spent long months working on this special issue, and actually felt hurt and outraged at the prospect of it being banned by my colleagues around the world.

As I wrote in reaction to the boycott call by that anonymous subscriber, I think the academic boycott of Israel is truly misguided, assuming that its goal is to help bring peace to the Middle East and aid in the foundation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. You see, in Israel, us academics usually come from the left side of the political map, and are one of the forces calling for peace and a two-state solution, with an independent Palestine next to Israel. This is not to suggest that there are no right-wing scholars in Israeli universities, because this is obviously not the case, but still, the "academic=leftist" paradigm is so fixated in the public mind here, that a certain right-wing group has published a report which stated that (in their view) there is a significant gap between the Israeli public’s views on nationality and Zionism and the intellectual discourse promoted by Political Science departments in Israeli universities. This group, which is active in university campuses here, also maintains lists of Israeli academics that they deem to be ‘too leftist.’.  It is so sad that while many in Israel’s extreme right view us as ‘traitors,’ some of our brothers and sisters in the academic profession abroad try to boycott us, thereby actually silencing a major voice for change within Israel.

Furthermore, it seems that these calls for academic boycott are highly selective. I don’t hear of anyone calling for an academic boycott of Israel as a so-called “Apartheid State” (a claim which is simply false) while at the same time calling for an academic boycott against actual dictatorships such as Syria (its dictator, President Assad, has massacred close to 200,000 of his own citizens during the last two years), or countries like Saudi Arabia (where women are stoned to death if it is suspected that they committed adultery) and Iran. A few days ago I googled “academic boycott” and added Israel and China to the search. It turns out that there are more than twice the web pages (572,000 to 228,000) mentioning an academic boycott of Israel then those mentioning an academic boycott of China. Something just doesn’t add up here. Well, it actually does: obviously it is much easier signaling out a small country like Israel than rich and/or huge countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and China, who control so many assets in the UK and contribute large sums of money to academic institutions there.

EDW: Where do you see the future of research into Israeli Paganism heading in the coming decades? Connected to this, what do you see as the future for the field of Pagan studies more widely, both in Israel and across the world?

SF: It is hard to say. My studies into Israeli Paganism were by no means the first. An interesting and pioneering MA thesis was written by Rinat Korvet as early as 2008 on “Internet Usage Patterns among Israeli Neo-Pagan Believers.” She presented her findings during the 1st Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spirituality back in 2009, but later chose not to follow an academic career as a researcher. My colleague, Orly Salinas Mizrahi, published an MA thesis on “Processes of Identity Formation and Belief Alteration in Israeli Pagans” in 2010, but subsequently felt that its contents were too sensitive and might be used to ‘out’ - or even physically or financially hurt - Israeli Pagans by local fundamentalists, and ordered her university library to restrict all access to it. She is now in the final stages of working on a PhD dissertation on seasonal and life-cycle ritual amongst Israeli Pagans, which will be accessed freely by those interested in reading it. Orly however has no interest in an academic career as well, and has written these works after already retiring from a career in design.

This leaves me as the only researcher of Israeli Pagans who is hell bent on making it up the academic ladder (my colleague Hili Ratzon, a graduate student, is also writing on Paganism, but mostly on overseas Pagans). I’ve been trying to work towards the development and legitimization of the field in Israel to the best of my abilities as a humble PhD student with no funds or academic political power at my disposal. In addition to publishing articles on the subject, for the past four years I’ve made sure to organize sessions on Contemporary Paganism as part of the Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Religion and Spirituality. I hope these will help establish Pagan Studies as a legitimate field among Israeli scholars and students of contemporary spirituality. So far there are no established scholars here who take up the subject, but there has been some activity on the grassroots level. In recent years I have been approached by several students who wanted to write seminary papers on the subject, and I hope some of them might decide one day to proceed to writing theses and dissertations on Paganism in Israel and overseas. I’m focusing all my energy in maximizing my (slim) chances of securing an academic post in a local university. This will greatly enhance my ability to make Pagan studies visible in Israeli academia.

Zooming out to a more global view, I think that Pagan Studies is still in a very young and fragile state. We need more young researchers with permanent academic posts, in order to make up for the retirement of those who pioneered the field, which will become more noticeable in the next decade. Keeping The Pomegranate active, publishing books and anthologies and holding conferences and sessions is important, as well as making the best of critiques of our fledgling academic field. However there are some important areas in which we still fall behind - such as the founding of academic departments and/or research centers, as well as the forming of a learned society. When attending conferences and workshops set up by the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) in the United States, and especially the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE) and its related networks in Israel and in other parts of the world, I sometimes can’t help but wonder - what are we [as Pagan studies scholars] missing? Perhaps we should have more chats with our Western Esotericist ‘cousins’ and try to work out how to emulate their success in recent years and ensure the growth and proliferation of Pagan Studies for the years to come.

EDW: Thank you so much Shai for what has been a fascinating insight into your work and the place of Paganism in Israel. Best of luck with the future, and I look forward to the prospect of you moving here to London!

Friday 8 August 2014

An Interview with Dr. Ian Evans

Today here at Albion Calling I am fortunate to have Dr. Ian Evans with me from all the way over in Australia. Dr Evans is an expert not only in Australian architectural heritage but has also completed a doctorate focused on the enigmatic subject of deliberately concealed objects – shoes, dead cats, and other such items placed in the roofs and walls of buildings, apparently with apotropaic or protective intent. He tells us more about the fascinating way in which these forms of British folk magic were carried to Australia and what they reveal about vernacular practices among the country’s colonists.

[EDW] You are widely known in Australia as an architectural historian and heritage preservation campaigner, having published at least fifteen books on the subject since the late 1970s. Your approach to the study of folk magical items therefore emerges from this particular background, and it would be interesting to learn a bit more about these formative influences and how you came to take an interest in such things.

[IE] I spent many years researching the historical background to the houses constructed in Australia after the arrival of the Europeans in 1788. Much of my research was carried out in the Mitchell and State Libraries in Sydney where a great many of the 19th and early 20th century books and catalogues used by British architects, builders and tradesmen were held. In doing so, I was able to understand how they had worked and the materials and techniques they had employed. I wondered sometimes about the lives and thoughts of the people who, over many years, occupied the houses I visited. But there seemed to be no way to read their minds by contemplating the masonry, hardware, light fittings and decorative elements with which their houses had been constructed and furnished. So in the course of writing books on the history and conservation of old houses I spent many years inspecting them with not the faintest idea of the ancient ritual that had been practiced within many of them.

A woman's shoe from the 1920s, found in Burwood, Sydney.
The manner in which it was concealed suggested a link to the electricity supply.

[EDW] In 2010 you submitted your doctoral thesis on “Touching Magic: Deliberately Concealed Objects in Old Australian Houses and Buildings” at the University of Newcastle. It is now available to download for free at your account. What led to your decision to embark on your dissertation and could you give my readers an overview of what it contained?

[IE] I had been aware of the practice of concealing objects, including shoes, cats, garments etc in buildings in England but had thought that this custom had died out by the 18th century. I had lunch with two colleagues in London in 2002 and when this subject was discussed was very surprised to learn that, far from dying out, objects had continued to be secreted in houses and other buildings throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I was convinced that if the practice was continuing at the time that Australia was being colonized it had to have been carried to the Australian colonies as part of the cultural baggage of settlers, convicts and the military. Generations of historians had toiled away in the documents that record the history of Australia without becoming aware of the role of folk magic in the life of Australians. Focusing my research on the material culture of folk magic provided a new tool with which to reveal previously unknown information about Australians in the period from 1788 to about 1940.

I quickly realized that giving this finding an academic imprimatur would be essential to its acceptance. Accordingly, I made arrangements to work on a degree through the University of Newcastle, NSW. In this work I examined the role of cunning men and women in the UK, the European continent and in North America. I found that Australian concealments were quite common and comparatively easy to find and identify. The thesis contains a good deal of historical background, most of it set in the UK, as well as an inventory of finds of concealed objects in Australia. The thesis also touches upon the use of apotropaic marks such as hexafoils which were intended to deter evil spiritual beings from entering houses. These are fairly common in England and I’ve now discovered a number of them in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland.

A convict's shirt concealed in a staircase at Sydney's Hyde Park Barracks

[EDW] Research by individuals like Ralph Merrifield and Brian Hoggard (whom I interviewed here last August) has explored the archaeological evidence for folk magical practices in Britain, and so I’d be very interested to hear more about the similarities, and the differences, with those present in Australia?

[IE] There are many similarities and some differences, mostly resulting from concealments made in the time before the European discovery of Australia. But the generalisation is true: the objects found in Australian buildings are largely the same as those that come to light in the UK, Europe and North America and which come from the same period in time. They are found in the same places in buildings and are the same kind of object, in particular shoes, garments, domestic artifacts and cats.

The concealment of shoes in buildings has provided us with a kind of catalogue of Australian footwear in the period before about 1935. Additionally, the degree of wear of many of the shoes of children, which were clearly passed on down through several members of a family, has suggested a level of poverty beyond that which generally applies today. The ritual has also given us the only surviving examples of the garments of convicts. So there are important social consequences of this ritual, reaching from the past to the present day and providing us with information and artifacts that are available nowhere else.

A pair of children's boots from the 1880s concealed beneath
the floor of a house in Goulburn, New South Wales.

[EDW] Since at least the 1970s, historians like Keith Thomas and Owen Davies have examined the textual evidence for folk magic in post-medieval Britain, although I’m unsure as to whether anything similar has been done on the Australian evidence. Your work has been primarily archaeological in that it has focused on the evidence from material culture, but have you made use of historical documentation and if so, do the two sources accord with one another?

[IE] The problem with this question, and it’s a really intriguing issue, is that there is no historical documentation about the folk magic ritual of concealing objects in buildings. It appears to have been a practice that was widely known but which, it seems, never entered the printed record. This is true not only of the UK but also North America and other places where this branch of folk magic was practiced. So, in Australia, there was nothing in the texts: no books, no memoirs, no journal articles. People appear to have been extremely reluctant to write about it. It was not until the early twentieth century that a couple of postcards were produced in which old boots were depicted as charms that would bring good luck. This seems to have been the first printed record alluding to the ritual. Other folk magic practices were widely known and were described in books and journals. But concealments were not noticed by folk magic researchers or historians who mostly conducted their research among written documents.

[EDW] Your thesis focused on the period prior to 1930, but I wondered if you were aware of, or had looked at, evidence for similar practices after that date. The impact of the Second World War might have sparked changes, and then from the 1950s you had forms of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft appearing in the country, both home-grown, as in the case of Rosaleen Norton, and imported, with the arrival of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Furthermore, you also had the impact of widescale non-British migration to Australia, which may have brought new forms of vernacular magic to the country. Had you any thoughts or comments on these phenomena?

[IE] The ritual that I’ve described in my thesis appears to have faded out in the 1930s, although it is possible that it continued on a smaller scale into the 1940s. And the end of this ritual marked the close of my research project. I have not pursued any of the matters that you raise in this question. My intent was to reveal an important aspect of life in Australia which was previously unknown. Concealments reveal the hopes and fears of people at a time when lives were often ended by illnesses and diseases which today are successfully treated by a visit to a general practitioner. Large families were common in the 19th century but parents knew that there was a good chance that not all of their children would survive to maturity. When a remote and seemingly uncaring God permitted children to die many people turned to magic and in this way took fate into their own hands. This was my particular interest and as it was a new field of research, with no documents available, it consumed all of my time and energy.

A dead cat concealed beneath the hall floor at a house built
c.1910 in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.

[EDW] I’ve seen that your research has attracted interest from such press sources as the BBC World Service (here), so I wanted to ask you more about the response to your discoveries, both within academia and wider Australian society? Various academics who have studied magic in Western contexts have described facing cynicism from colleagues who do not see such subjects as being worthy of research; have you experienced anything like that? Conversely, have you encountered enthusiasm, for instance from contemporary magical practitioners or local history societies?

[IE] I think there is a feeling among certain sections of academia that folk magic is of no consequence. This attitude ignores the fact that the widespread prevalence of magic rituals gives us insight into the thoughts of people whose lives were lived in fear of death. It is now clear that a great many houses contained, and still contain, concealments. Many of these objects, in particular shoes, can be dated, providing the opportunity to cross-reference finds with records of the occupants of buildings. In this way, patterns of belief can be revealed and in many cases traced back to areas of England from where so many of Australia’s settlers came. Thus, Australian research can illuminate those areas of England where magic thrived. I think it is not uncommon for academics in particular fields to lack interest in other areas of study. There has been some interest from local historical societies but not much contact from contemporary magical practitioners.

Tradesman's shoes concealed beneath the panelling of the eleventh-floor
boardroom of the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne, built in 1932.

[EDW] I always like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see their field as progressing (or indeed regressing) in the coming decades. With that being the case, I’d like to ask you where to see the future of research into folk magic and its material evidence heading, both in Australia and elsewhere?

[IE] I think there is much more to discover in the years ahead. The research I’ve done merely opens a window on the past. There is much more to be seen through that window and many opportunities for further academic study to be conducted. This applies to the UK, North America, Australia and other countries where British people settled, carrying with them ancient beliefs that survived into the modern world. In Australia, people were driving motorcars and listening to jazz music on their radios while a ritual that stretched into the distant past was still being practiced. We need to know more about this. It’s a lost and secret history and it can only be revived by understanding the material culture that is locked away within the fabric of old houses and other buildings.

[EDW] Thank you so much, Dr. Evans, for talking with me here at Albion Calling today. This is a fascinating subject and I hope that many of my readers will take the opportunity to read your PhD thesis, which you have kindly made available for free online. All the best for the future.