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Ritual, Religion, Belief and Place Research Group

A research group of the Department of Archaeology.

The emergence of a growing density of cross-period research focused on material aspects of religion and ritual has given rise to a new research group that is setting a fresh agenda for the future for how archaeologists use material culture to understand the religious and spiritual beliefs and practices of past populations. This is a key Durham research strength with over 30 members of the department actively engaged in research and fieldwork relating to aspects of religion, ritual and belief in past societies. From the ancient sacred potency of caves, rivers and springs, to the creation and building of elaborate monuments and structures for worship and ritual; our research ranges over 16 countries, from Sri Lanka to Turkey, Malta and Sweden, touching upon every major era from Neolithic to the Early Modern.

New methods, approaches and technologies are being employed alongside cutting-edge theoretical interpretative frameworks to explore the sensory qualities of special places and sacred environments; the architecture of religious experience; monasticism as a global phenomenon; the material expressions of religious competition and conflict; the relationship between the natural environment and beliefs and superstitions and the use of material culture in the creation and signaling of religious identity, and sacred discourses of sanctity and power.

  • The theme of monasticism east and west, for example, brings together the research and projects of Robin Coningham on Buddhist Monasticism, Anna Leone on early Christian monasticism in North Africa, Chris Gerrard on the Knights Templars in Spain and David Petts, Rosemary Cramp and Sarah Semple and others on the early Christian monastic sites landscapes of Britain and the North East. Research and field investigation on variety of projects is revealing the potency of the monastic enterprise as a means of shaping landscapes and controlling natural resources, and creating interconnected intellectual communities.
  • The repercussions of religious conflict and competition form a component in the research of Pamela Graves on Iconoclasm and the Reformation and in the work of Anna Leone and others on the redistribution and recycling of Roman stone work and sculpture, or spolia, in the shaping of new material and intellectual agendas in early Christian societies. Conversely the use and circulation of objects, artefacts and fragments as a means of moulding and shaping identity and creating relationships, in the work of John Chapman, serves to redefine how we should view the use and distribution and disposal of whole and partial objects by past societies as a signature of negotiated religious identities.
  • The potency of the natural world and its influences on prehistoric and historic societies has provided another rich theme, and includes work on the role of light in the shaping of religious ritual and architecture in Byzantium by Claire Nesbitt and in Ancient Egypt by Penny Wilson; the sensory qualities of sacred and religious places in prehistoric Malta by Robin Skeates, and the efficacy of the natural environment, the coastal scene and water, in the shaping of Neolithic sacred landscapes in Brittany and the Channel Islands by Chris Scarre.

These are but three, of wide variety of themes that can be found within the research of this grouping. Staff and PhD students are working together on an extensive array of topics including exploring and mapping ancestral and supernatural landscapes; the ritual deposition and circulation of objects; the use of architecture in the shaping of religious experience; and the connections between secular and religious power as expressed through monumental architecture and other forms of material culture; whilst active field projects by staff and by our commercial unit are revealing new insights into cremation and funerary rituals in early medieval societies; the role of architecture in the shaping of local belief and religion; the effects of monasticism on landscape and people; and the use of sculpture and sculptural motifs as a means of establishing identity and power.

Past and current research projects include: Early Christian Monasticism in North Africa; Lumbini, Nepal: the Birthplace of the Buddha; The Prior’s Lodgings, Durham Cathedral; Mapping Early Christianity in Western Normandy; Island of the Dead: The Buried Neolthic Landscape of Herm; Space, Place and Performance: Perspectives on Assembly in Sweden; One Monastery in Two Places: Wearmouth and Jarrow in their Landscape Context; The Hospitaller Preceptory at Ambel, Zaragoza, Spain.

Projects and fieldwork are supported by grants and funding awarded from a wide range of external bodies including English Heritage; the British Academy; Humanities in Europe Research Awards; AHRC; Prehistoric Society; UNESCO; Leverhulme; Society of Antiquaries; The Headley Trust; and the Academy of Finland.

This research group welcomes enquiries from prospective PhD students who, in the first instance, should contact the member of staff most relevant to their research proposal.


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