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Archaeology and New or Alternative Religious Movements

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

New and alternative religious movements make copious use of ancient symbols, beliefs, and practices. From the use of the Egyptian ankh in the Western occult tradition to the creation of Neo-Pagan Druidic orders and identities, these symbols, beliefs, and practices hold potent meanings to those who employ them today—meanings that are grounded in a perceived authenticity derived from their antiquity. The act of reuse, however, resituates and thereby alters the meanings and significance of these things. For many archaeologists, this shift in meaning creates a tension with the representations of ancient cultures as produced by the academy. Our session will explore this tension through analyses of newly creative or appropriative religious and spiritual behaviors involving archaeological materials, as well as the ramifications of these acts for public archaeology.

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  • Documents (9)


  • Archaeological Patrimony, Spirituality, and the Construction of a New Indigenous Class in Highland Bolivia (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Isabel Scarborough.

    The ancient citadel and urban center of Tiwanaku (c. AD 300–1100) in Bolivia’s highland plateau is a notable archaeological site that has been deployed in nation-building discourses by both Bolivia’s white minority and its indigenous majority since the inception of this small Andean republic. With the approaching bicentennial of the country’s independence from Spain, Tiwanaku has become the symbolic center from which a new generation of upwardly mobile indigenous business and political leaders...

  • Digging into the Supernatural World. Cinema's Intrinsically Religious Depiction of Archaeology. (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Peter Hiscock.

    Over the last half century film makers have created hundreds of movies about archaeologists. Many of these films present narratives that are located in supernatural worlds and explicitly religious in character. Within these supernatural and extraterrestrial stories, archaeologists are positioned as mage or priest, the individuals with the knowledge to release magic into the world or to prevent release. These fictional representations of archaeologists as active participants in supernatural...

  • Esoteric Spiritualties and Archaeology: Bridging alternative understandings of the ancient world (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT David Anderson.

    Practitioners of esoteric religious traditions express profound interest in the ancient world as a source of wisdom. Yet the view of the ancient world forwarded by these groups is often one that archaeologists struggle to understand. It is a worldview that blends perceived ancient traditions from a variety of cultures into a new milieu that results in practices such as Kemetic Yoga and beliefs in Atlantis as a spiritual home for all humanity. This paper will focus on a case study of the beliefs,...

  • The Highest Common Factor: Heterodox Archaeology and the Perennialist Milieu (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Kevin Whitesides.

    Introducing a 1944 translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Aldous Huxley concisely described what he called The Perennial Philosophy. Despite the apparently distinct cultures of the world, he said, "beneath the confusion of tongues and myths, of local histories and particularist doctrines, there remains a Highest Common Factor." This perception of an underlying unity among the "higher religions" of the world has led Perennialists to feel a greater sense of ownership and hence freedom in interpreting...

  • "Hindutva's Rediscovery/Appropriation of its Ancient Past (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Cynthia Humes.

    Religious proponents are increasingly challenging academic research on India and its religious past. Book burnings, petitions, and even riots, have resulted when religious adherents have felt maligned by the scholarship of academic archaeologists and historians. In my presentation, I will introduce and clarify the complicated history and major debates regarding key archaeological finds in South Asia. In particular, I will discuss debates regarding the history of the "Aryan" and the ...

  • Ritual and Rag Trees in Contemporary Ireland (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Jennifer Shaffer Foster.

    In Celtic countries, early Christianity was syncretized with pre-existing religious beliefs and rituals, some of which were maintained and modified through the centuries, while others were subsequently adopted but understood as ancient or essential. One ritual practice inhabiting the border of Christian and non-Christian tradition is seen in the Irish rag tree, a hawthorn with strips of cloth hanging from the branches, often located at holy wells or other Early Medieval ecclesiastical sites....

  • "That Box is Haunted!": English Paranormal Investigating and the Immateriality of the Past (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Michele Hanks.

    Since the late 1990s, paranormal investigating has emerged as a popular means of seeking knowledge of the ghostly or paranormal in England. Paranormal investigators are self-fashioned experts who aim to balance scientistic and spiritual perspectives in hopes of proving or disproving the existence of ghosts from an objective perspective. They dedicate significant amounts of their leisure time to reading about, talking about, and researching ghosts or the paranormal. English paranormal...

  • This Way to the Sacrificial Table: The Mystification of the Mundane in the Archaeological Record (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Kenneth Feder.

    In the Martian Chronicles, author Ray Bradbury describes the ruins of an ancient Martian city in this way: "Perfect, faultless, in ruins, yes, but perfect, nonetheless." The notion that archaeological sites are perfect, precisely because of an appearance of decay, resides at the center of a worldview in which the archaeological record is inherently mysterious, removed from any connection to the mundane world of hunting camps, farmsteads, and industrial complexes of ordinary human beings. In this...

  • Witches and Aliens: How an Archaeologist Inspired Two New Religious Movements (2017)
    Citation DOCUMENT Jeb Card.

    Egyptologist and Folklorist Margaret Murray was a major figure in the creation of professional archaeology in the United Kingdom, President of the Folklore Society, and advocate for women’s rights in higher education. However, another major part of her legacy was the mainstream acceptance of the concept of the "witch-cult," a hidden ancient religion dating back to the Pleistocene but continuing until at least the seventeenth century when it was persecuted by witch-hunters. Historians have...

Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America