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Archaeology of Ritual

Course Times & Enrolment

(Code AC092-204) • (0 classes) Course location to be confirmed •
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Course Summary

This course uses case studies from the British, European and Near Eastern prehistory to explore this particular domain of archaeology: the archaeology of ritual. Theoretical approaches are offered to the students as tools for them to explore identified ritual practices which are then reviewed and analysed. Through this process important archaeological sites are examined.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No prior knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. Introduction to the Archaeology of Ritual and discussion of key concepts: what is ritual; magic; religion?

2. The Birth of the Gods in the Near East. Why there? Why then? Analysis of the rise of the first proto-religious systems.

3. Animism, totemism, shamanism. Main case studies: Star Carr, Vedbaek.

4. Megalithic Monuments; astronomical alignments, and ritual landscapes. Main case studies: Gobekli Tepe; Stone Henge, Ring of Brodgar, Thornborough.

5. Mortuary ritual: inhumation, cremation, excarnation, disarticulation. Main case studies Catal Hoyuk; the Mylouthkia Wells; Tomb of the Eagles, Newgrange.

6. Ancestor’s cult, memory and commemoration, ritual feasting and sensory archaeology. Main case studies: Tell Aswad, Ain Ghazal, Yiftahel, Lascaux

7. Sacrifice, votive deposits and structured deposition. Case studies: hoards, bog bodies, and pits.

8. Ritual economies and trade; ideas trade through objects exchange. Case studies: stone axes and adze blades in Europe; obsidian in the Near East.

9. Ritual as a process; rites of passage, rites of intensification. Main case studies: Cursus monuments, Dolmen and Barrows

10. Ritual transformations; when do rituals fail?

Teaching method(s)

Lecture based with class discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Understand theories on ritual practices and be able to critically evaluate them.

  • Understand the complexities and issues that archaeology faces in regards to this subject.

  • Explain key concepts of the archaeology of ritual.

  • Demonstrate knowledge of major archaeological discoveries relating to ritual practices.

  • Demonstration knowledge of ritual practices in prehistory.

  • Recognise contemporaneous key elements of modern ritual practices and identify their function within a modern society.


Core Readings


  • Bell, C., 1997. Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

  • Insoll, T., 2004. Archaeology, Ritual, Religion. Routledge, Londong and New York.

  • Pals, D.l L., 1996. Seven Theories of Religion. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.


  • Bell, C., 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.

  • Cauvin J., 2000. The Birth of Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. Translated by Trevor Watkins. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

  • Durkheim, E., 2001. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. A new translation by Carol Cosman. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

  • Kyriakidis, E., ed. 2007. The Archaeology of Ritual. Cotsen Advanced Seminars 3. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles.

  • Mithen, S., 2005.The Prehistory of the Mind. A Phoenix paperback, Orion Books Ltd, London

Web Sources

Class Handouts

Handouts will be provided.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.