Wednesday, June 26, 2013

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”

A review of Kytmannow, T. 2008. Portal Tombs in the Landscape: the chronology, morphology and landscape setting of the portal tomb of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. Oxford: BAR British Series 455.

Rena Maguire

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I have never liked the traditional implication that portal tombs were in some way inferior to court, passage and wedge tombs. Archaeology may have ‘trends’ and fads but there are some areas of study which seem to be the academic equivalent of the little black dress – eternally in fashion. The gleaming white stones of Newgrange always generates the megalithic sexy. It would appear that a single chamber, a pair of side stones and a capstone get you nowhere in the research stakes. Not very fair on the stark, elegant portal tombs which are no less wonderful for their simplicity.

Raftery (1951) theorised that the portal tomb was a degenerated court cairn, last in the chronological line of the great Neolithic monuments. Archaeologically, it seems to have been a case of giving a dog a bad name as serious studies involving portal tombs have been scant. Dr Tatjana Kytmannow’s research and subsequent publication ‘Portal Tombs in the Landscape: the chronology, morphology and landscape setting of the portal tomb of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall’ (2008) is a timely, important, and welcome addition to academic knowledge of the Neolithic period.

Kytmannow writes accessibly and succinctly, tackling thorny issues from the first chapter. No, there has not been any major study of the portal tomb, least of all one that analyses distribution, landscape, morphology, anomalies and chronology. Yes, there most certainly are major issues with past chronologies offered for the portal tomb, not just in Ireland, but in Cornwall and Wales. The research questions posed are straightforward and pertinent, with chronology as the most important. Archaeological interpretation is useless unless we can place the feature or artefact within an accurate temporal context.

No-one has previously challenged the theories of Raftery (1951) and O Nuallain (1983). The chapter dealing with the history of past research left me feeling frustrated; how the portal tomb was consigned to a late period of the Neolithic, and remained generally unquestioned, probably because most were too scared to go academically head to head with some of the giants of 1950s Irish archaeology. Valuable work was carried out from the 1990s onwards by the ubiquitous Alison Sheridan (2003), Elizabeth Shee-Twohig (1990) as well as Schulting and Whittle (2003). Much of this appears to have created the impetus to allow the development and refinement of Kytmannow’s research.

Kytmannow asks the right questions, the ones we should have been asking, and not accepting answers from the past - how early or late should we place the portal tomb in the chronological development of megalithic structures? How long did they remain as important ritual foci within the landscape? Just how simple is the construction of the portal tomb? Are there regional variations? What is the nature of the interaction between megalith and landscape? Can that interaction tell us anything of beliefs and cosmologies of those early times? Is there any pattern across Ireland, Wales and Cornwall which may indicate the role played by these enigmatic structures?

If you like solid archaeology built up with common sense, this volume will please you immensely. Kytmannow acknowledges that phenomenology is too subjective a method to utilise on the study of megaliths. It is irrelevant how many wooden door frames modern theorists raise on stone circles on windswept moorland – when used solely to analyse distant prehistory, it is the equivalent of seeing shapes in clouds; everyone will see something different according to their own perceptions of the world. This is not to mention the more prosaic concern that the landscape we see may be very different than that of the Mesolithic or Neolithic. As someone who places a high value on good old environmental and landscape archaeology, I found myself sitting nodding sagely with each cautionary point Kytmannow made.

My criticism of the morphology chapter is purely aesthetic. The pictures are so plentiful of each variation of portal tomb, and their cup, ring and squiggle markings, I ached for them to be in colour. I found myself getting slightly distracted from the technical information because of the quality of the images, many of which are stunning. I suspect if they were in colour it would have taken me a very long time to read the publication, as I’d be poring over the photos of cairns and cup marks! That being said, it is one of the most thought provoking chapters within the volume. The analysis of colour symbolism, stone materials used and general chaîne opératoire leaves the reader wanting an entire book to develop the ideas further.

New calibrated date ranges are offered for seven of the Irish portal tombs, taken from radiocarbon dating on deposits of human bone within the structures. Kytmannow correctly points out that all dates obtained must be classified as termini ante quos, and do not provide an absolute chronology for megalithic construction. Bayesian models applied to the new spectrum of dates suggest that the portal tomb was no ‘Johnny come lately’ in the archaeological record, indicating construction during the Early Neolithic period, c. 4000 BC–3800 BC, with regular use for over 500 years. Some portal tombs display evidence of continuity of use, albeit sporadically, into the Bronze Age. One of the sites mentioned, Drumanone, got me quite excited as my own research indicates that this particular portal tomb (referred to by 19th century antiquarians as the cromlech of Diarmuid and Grainne) was still a relevant ritual site into the Iron Age (Maguire 2013, in press).

The dates suggested by Kytmannow’s stringent research would indicate that court tombs and portal tombs were pretty much contemporaneous with each other, which would account for the hybridisation of some portal tombs which appear to contain aspects of the multi-chambered court cairn structures. Examples such as Ballykeel, in Armagh, and Cerrig Y Gof in Wales, both discussed comprehensively in Chapter 5, provoke many questions in the readers mind. As the portal tomb is obviously not a sloppy de-evolution of the court cairn, but a statement of monumentality in its own right, can these hybrid structures offer an insight into early Neolithic intercommunity (or even possible gender related) relationships? To me at least, they deserve a whole separate study of their own.

I relished the clear-eyed logical methodology employed in the analysis of the portal tomb within both micro and macro-regions. In both Ireland and Wales, the portal tomb appears to be a reinforcement of the Neolithic maritime aversion (Richards & Schulting 2006), as direct views of the sea are avoided where possible. It is not surprising that the diets of the portal tomb users do not include fish. Portal tombs are monuments of the pastoralist, placed parallel to small bodies of water such as streams and springs. These are monuments placed on light soils, on boundaries between fields and uplands, wildflower- rich heavens for the dead, where they can observe the seasonal agricultural cycle, from a safe distance, perhaps? The location of portal tombs to sparkling, mobile water couldn’t help but make me wonder if this was the genesis of the pan-European cult of water worship, and wetland deposition which would commence by the Early Bronze Age.

There are tantalising suggestions of funerary rituals far removed from the hoary old chestnuts of fertility and sun deities: there is the implication that the ceramics placed in portal tombs were not specially made for the deceased to take with them into the Great Beyond. It would appear from the abrasions and wear on the basic carinated ware that most specimens had been broken elsewhere, and lay ‘dead’ in a rubbish pile before being brought into the portal tomb to join other dead things. This appears to apply to the debitage and lithics interred within the great stones too. These are not grave goods as we understand them. These are part of some ritualisation we have not examined to the lengths it deserves.

Dr Kytmannow offers her own criticism of the volume - it is an old fashioned study, she states, which is reliant on practical archaeology. I do not find this a valid critique, but something which many should emulate. My own small criticisms have little to do with the text, but more the presentation of images. I maintain this volume would best be done justice with colour plates. This would sort out the pie-chart issue of two sets of data both represented by plain glossy white paper, which is a bit confusing at times in such a data rich manuscript.

Kytmannow leaves us begging for more, which is absolutely no bad thing in the academic world. Personally, I want a volume examining the relationships between Neolithic settlements and portal tombs. I want more on the portal tombs which display the characteristics of court tombs. Lets be honest - I’m such a brat, I just want more of all the moments in the book which offer glimpses of an Early Neolithic that differs from our simplistic view of a complex society calling to mind the Hartley quote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I think this work will become increasingly important as more hardy souls choose to break with the past and look at scientific evidence, facts, and figures. There is much to delight anyone with a passion for the past here. Dr Kytmannow deserves congratulations on a quietly powerful piece of research. Highly recommended reading indeed.


Maguire, R. 2013 ‘Asking Y: The use and possible European origins of the Irish Y-shaped pendant’’ in press.

O Nuallain, S. 1983 ‘Irish Portal Tombs: Topography, Siting and Distribution’. JRSAI 113, 75-105.

Raftery, J. 1951 Prehistoric Ireland. London: Batsford Press.

Shee-Twohig, E. 1990 Irish Megalithic Tombs. Princes Riseborough: Shire Publications.

Richards, M. & Schulting, R. 2006 ‘Touch not the fish: the Mesolithic-Neolithic change of diet and its significance’ Antiquity 80 (308), 444 - 456.

Schulting, R. & Whittle, A. 2003 ‘Construction and primary use of chambered tombs in England, Wales and Scotland’ in Burenhult, E. (ed.) Stones and Bones: Formal disposal of the dead in Atlantic Europe during the Mesolithic/Neolithic interface 6000 - 3000 BC. Oxford: BAR International Series 1201. 73-76.

Sheridan, A. 2003 ‘The Chronology of Irish Megalithic Tombs’ in Burenhult, E. (ed.) Stones and Bones: Formal disposal of the dead in Atlantic Europe during the Mesolithic/Neolithic interface 6000 - 3000 BC. Oxford: BAR International Series 1201. 69-73. 

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Friday, June 14, 2013

George and the Giant Archaeological Theory

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It’s odd how disparate threads of ideas can swirl about in your head … often for quite some time before coalescing into something completely different.

Let me explain how I got to today’s topic …

It must be a couple of years ago that I first happened upon the “The Photographic Archive of Irish Archaeology” Facebook page. It is a page dedicated to making available the unofficial photos from excavations – the ones that never make it into the publications, but are still such a rich source of social history of our profession. I thought it was a fantastic idea, and have contributed some photographs from my own collection – and intend to contribute more when I have the opportunity. Somewhere along the way it struck me that something similar, collecting the oral histories of these projects would be a good idea … if incredibly difficult to implement.

Round Tower at Scattery Island, Co. Clare. NUIG Arch Soc tour 1996
Now another thread of an idea … when my late friend, mentor, and frequent sparring-partner, Prof. Etienne Rynne passed away there were a number of obituaries and tributes in the press. These included a piece in Antiquity and one in The Irish Times (also available here). Both obituaries are fine so far as they go: a rather bloodless collection of dates, positions held, and scholarly works produced. Only the Irish Times piece, quoting the man himself, showed something of his character. It struck me that so many of the stories that surrounded 'the Prof' will, like Roy Batty’s ‘tears in rain’ be slowly lost as they will never be written down for future generations to enjoy. Some such stories and anecdotes give genuine insights into his personality and (partly) explain how he simultaneously managed to create both adoring acolytes and bile-filled detractors. The loss of some of this corpus of ‘meta heritage’ is probably for the best … some drunken nights come unbidden to my mind: after hours in Garvey’s Bar with ‘the Prof’ and Leo Swan holding forth on the (then) unpublished findings from Donegore Hill, Co. Antrim … or having to nearly carry a certain (and also, lamentably, late) Iron Age specialist out of the Skeffington Arms Hotel after a lecture to the student body. One day I may be induced to actually write some of these tales down … but it is not this day!

Now for the last thread in this unusual mix … a friend of mine is a mature student, just finishing a degree course at one of our more prestigious universities. Her tales of her (frequently unhappy) dealings with other, but significantly younger, students made me think back to my own time in university. I was definitely in the ‘younger’ category and the mature students seemed like beasts from another planet. From a distance they appeared pretty … how can I say it? … dull? … boring? … not proper student material at all! They were all so serious and deeply committed to studying hard … oh! … it made my head ache just to think of them! Not too long into my first term, I realised that I’m actually pretty blind and equally deaf and – as much fun as sitting inconspicuously at the back was – I could neither see nor hear our lecturers. Quite reluctantly, I began a slow move forward through the ranks of seating until I found myself in the front row. I could now see and hear the teaching staff … but I was also in the company of these magnificent fossils (in a way that only a 30 something can appear old to a gauche 18 year old). Despite my preconceptions, they were not really like what I had imagined. True, they were committed to getting a degree with a vigour and dedication largely outside my comprehension … but they were also friendly, welcoming, and eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. I can only claim to have benefited from this kindness and from their example. In one case I remember struggling to find the time to read the core texts for a course on Victorian English literature. This was partly because I spent so much time reading archaeology books … and partly because I was (and remain) incredibly lazy. One of these more ‘chronologically advanced’ students not only had read all of the course texts, but had a decent familiarity with the majority of works by Dickens, Lamb, Ruskin, etc. along with having read numerous books of literary criticism about and around these authors.  Better still, all of this accumulated wisdom was freely given … or nearly freely given … I bought a number of cups of terrible university coffee and my good friend provided me with enough pointers to write a decent(ish) essay. Without the help of all of these mature students, I honestly doubt that I would have left university with a degree … much less a pretty good one! To any of those reading this now – more than two decades later – you had my thanks way back then and you still have it today. To students of the ‘younger variety’ I say this: cop yourselves on and appreciate all the members of the student body – the mature students have plenty to teach you, too! 

But, still, this is not what I want to write about today.

I want to write about a different type of mature student.

I want to write about George.

Out of respect for the man, I will not reveal his full name here. However, if you were around University College Galway in the late ‘80s and early 90s you already know who I’m talking about. George was the nightmare mature student. Highly opinionated, interruptive in class … frequently ‘factually unencumbered’. George had a giant moustache and equally impressive beer gut.  He drove (and frequently camped out in) a vast, beat-up, old Jaguar with a ‘rendezvous with destiny’ bumper sticker on the back. He was vehemently anti-British to the point of despising English literature (he was frequently heard to declaim that ‘Shakespeare was nothing more than a common thief’). He repeatedly failed his way through a three year degree course that had, by the time I encountered him, taken half a decade to get to second year. If the rumours were to be believed, the history department only consented to grant him a pass on the condition that he agree not to take history again … ever! He was also a Vietnam veteran. To a lot of kids like myself, brought up on the glut of bad 1980s Vietnam War movies, George had something enticing about him: a real live guy who’d fought in ‘Nam … seriously, what was not to like? I, like a lot of other eager young acolytes, found out to our cost that George wasn’t too interested in telling stories about the fighting being sprayed with Agent Orange, and the sundry brutalities of conflict. Instead, he preferred to tell tales – often accompanied by proof in the form of fading Polaroid photos – of his many and varied romps through all the brothels, cathouses, and associated dens of iniquity that south-east Asia had to offer. These densely pornographic tales are of the type that can safely be allowed to pass away from history – or my memory, at any rate – without being any loss to scholarship or the world at large.

The combination and intermingling of the threads within my thoughts … mature students … recording those stories that are infrequently written down and all too easily pass beyond recollection … bringing the spotlight on a character that would be ill-served by a bare-bones obituary when his time comes … all these together led me to remember that George had a vast repertoire of wild and often ill-informed theories and opinions. In class he once suggested to the great John Waddell that we should break away from the well-attested Three Age System and rename the Irish Bronze Age the ‘Gold Age’ because of the finds of lunulae, torcs, gorgets etc. In another class he argued that Martin Luther obviously wasn’t convinced he was on the right track with the whole ‘Reformation thing’ as he didn’t abandon all the traditional religious sacraments, instead retaining some as an ‘insurance policy’. In one of my first public speaking outings (at an AYIA conference in Galway) he loudly harangued me from the audience about the lack of conservation facilities owned by the NMI. Seeing as my chosen topic was the burgeoning of underwater archaeology in Ireland (this was the 1980s, remember), I was rather thrown that he sprung this tangential topic on me. Afterwards he said: “I was just trying to help ya out, buddy, but you weren’t goin’ for it”. Thanks George! Thanks so much!

After all these years one of George’s great and amazing theories still brings a smile to my face. I recently told the story to a colleague of mine … his response was: “Now, that’s the type of thing you should put in that blog of yours! People would read that!” As George used to say: this will totally change how we look at the Irish Early Christian period, buddy …

Right! If you’re unfamiliar with the Irish Early Christian period … it’s all changed now (and all the cool kids call it ‘Early Medieval’ anyway), but back then it was pretty simple: the monks were in the monasteries and the secular community were in their defended settlements, called ringforts (you can find my bizarrely huge (and terribly outdated) MA thesis on the topic: here). Besides the churches themselves, two of the main components of the ‘classic’ Irish monastery were the round tower and the High Cross. (To see how the scholarship on this theory has changed dramatically, check out my review of a 2010 INSTAR conference: here)

High Cross at Moone. Image © 2012 Pip Powell
One of the aspects of the High Cross is that they frequently included panels depicting religious scenes, most likely intended for use as teaching aids for an unlettered congregation. While some would appear to be simple allegories from the bible, such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (at Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh, among others), others are more complex. For example, on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly, one of the panels ostensibly depicts Christ rising from the tomb, with two Roman guards to the left of the frame, so soundly asleep that they are touching foreheads. However, these are no ordinary Romans! There’s a contemporary twist! The nasty Romans are actually shown with pointy Viking helmets … the bad guys from way back then in Judea are not dissimilar from the bad buys now roaming the Irish countryside in search of plunder – those naughty Vikings! Similarly, the good guys – Jesus, the Apostles, assorted Saints etc. are frequently depicted in Irish dress, sometimes even sporting a distinctive penannular brooch. That’s all well and good until you come to the wonderful 8th or 9th century High Cross at Moone, Co. Kildare. If you’re not familiar with it you’d consider it somewhat ‘stylised’, perhaps you’d even go as far as to just blurt out that it’s awful ‘flat’ looking. St Anthony, eternally enduring temptation, looks pretty flat. Daniel in the lion’s den … fairly two-dimensional. The Holy Family on the flight into Egypt … lacking in depth! Even the loaves and fishes … distinctly on the thin side … flatbread and flatfish! But above all one full side of the base is taken up by the twelve apostles, laid out, head-to-toe, in three rows of four. Flattest of all … twelve Mr. Flatty McFlat-Flats! Archaeologists are a pretty argumentative lot, but you’ll probably not receive too much in the way of contradiction if you claimed that the figures at Moone are probably the most stylised depictions of the human form in the High Cross tradition.

Keep that idea in your head for a moment as we take a quick (figurative) romp through the Irish round tower …

Round towers: Tall, thin, generally pointy tops. The Wiki article says: “Though there is no certain agreement as to their purpose, it is thought they were principally bell towers, places of refuge, or a combination of these.” The ‘places of refuge’ idea has had a long period of popularity, and is only recently coming under increased scrutiny and assault. The old idea was that the placement of the entrance at first-floor level (rather than at ground level) on most sites meant that these were places of refuge for both monks and their valuables. The lofty entrances could have been accessed by rope ladders that could have been pulled up after the retreating monks as the marauding Vikings drew near.

High Cross at Moone. Image © 2012 Pip Powell
So far, so totally normal. Here’s where George’s wonderful, beautiful, and totally mad, theory tales off – in every sense. George asked one simple question: what is the archaeological evidence for these alleged rope ladders? Do any survive? Are there depictions or descriptions of them surviving in any place? I’m sure that better researched and more level-headed bloggers could answer this with greater aplomb than I (Vox Hiberionacum, I’m looking at you!). George’s assessment of the evidence was that there was none, and he may well have been right!

George’s simple, elegant, and totally mad idea was: pole vaulters! Yes, Early Christian monks were pole vaulters … they pole vaulted into those high-up doorways to escape the advancing (and quite perplexed) Vikings. That’s what the apparent absence of rope ladders leads you to! Woe unto him that should attempt to inject logic here and ask for evidence from George. In a number of cases where the areas in front of round towers had been excavated they uncovered the remains of stake-holes. To anyone who has spent some time in field archaeology, stake-holes can be a blessing or a curse … with enough of them you can (hopefully) create a nice dot-to-dot outline of a house or some other structure … but more often than not they’re just a random scattering of small features. To George these were the best possible evidence! Obviously, they were the sites of the ‘box’ into which the vaulter aimed the pole to gain sufficient purchase and become airborne. Rather than having a bar to overcome, the intrepid monastic type had a much more difficult task of aiming for the limited aperture of the round tower door.

Being a monk back then took great skill and dedication – the copying of illuminated manuscripts, the varied forms of penance, and (of course) the incessant praying. To this litany, George added pole vault practice. Like any athletic endeavour, gaining skill and accuracy takes patience, practice, and (presumably) many failures.

Those many failures …
All those times when the young monks thought they were going to make it right to the door of the round tower … but didn’t …

That kind of damage would build up over time … wouldn’t it?

George’s elegant solution to this was that we already have a depiction of what real Irish monks looked like back then … there on the High Cross at Moone! All that time spent going ‘splat’ into the sides of round towers took its toll and left monks with distinctive flattened faces. Rather than being stylised representations of the twelve apostles, this one scene is the only one that shows us Irish monks of the Early Christian period as they truly were!

I’ve always laughed at this wonderful, but terribly silly, theory …

Except …
                … well …
                                … it’s just that …
                                                … doesn’t Matthew in the Book of Durrow
                                                                … doesn’t he start to look just a little …
                                                                                … flat? …

Update: June 15 2013.
Less than 24 hours after posting this piece, the wonderful Vox Hiberionacum has returned with a reply that is both better researched and funnier than mine. I commend to you his post: Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair: Rappelling Round Towers in Medieval Ireland.

*           *           *

For anyone wishing to take up the banner and create an oral history of Irish archaeology, please feel free to run with the idea. Unfortunately, I’ve more than enough projects to keep me occupied for the foreseeable future. It’s all yours! Go for it! … While I would not like to exert undue influence on the structure of such an endeavour … a ‘30 year rule’, similar to that imposed on the release of cabinet papers may be a necessary precaution!

I last saw George just before my final exams in 1991. He said to a small group of us: ‘this summer we’re all going to be BAs … you’ll all have your degrees and I’ll be BA on a beach somewhere … that’s right! I’ll be Bare Assed on a beach! Damn Right, baby!’ The most recent reference I can find to him on the internet is from 2009. I’ve no idea whether he’s still amongst us or has gone to whatever awaits beyond. If you’re still about, sir, I salute you and wish you every good luck!

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Divine kings and sacred spaces: power and religion in Hellenistic Syria (301-64 BC)

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While this blog normally concentrates on matters archaeological and Irish, I do welcome the opportunity to do something different from time to time. In 2010, my good friend Nick Wright completed his PhD, “Religion in Seleukid Syria: gods at the crossroads (301-64 BC)”, at the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University. Last year a revised version of the thesis was accepted by Archaeopress for publication in BAR’s International Series. Nick has a provided this extended abstract as an introduction to the book. He skilfully weaves together the disparate strands of the surviving evidence to produce a thoughtful, nuanced, synthesis of the place of religious practice within the Seleukid dynasty. If you like this synopsis, please go and check out the book itself at the BAR website.

*             *             *

Nicholas L. Wright Divine kings and sacred spaces: power and religion in Hellenistic Syria (301-64 BC). Oxford: Archaeopress, BAR International Series 2450 (2012). Pp. xi + 167. ISBN 978-1-4073-1054-1. £32.00.

The volume takes an integrative approach to the study of Hellenistic cult and cultic practices across the Levant during the period of domination by the Seleukid dynasty (i.e. 301-64 BC). At its height, the empire of the Seleukid dynasty controlled a vast territory stretching from the Aegean Sea to beyond the Oxus River and from Armenia to the Sinai Peninsula. The heart of the empire, if not its centre, was the Syrian littoral, the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates which connected its eastern domain with the wider Hellenistic world. For 250 years, the Seleukid kings and their Greco-Macedonian elite built cities and fortresses, raised massive armies and patronised temples but, with the exception of a handful of sites, there is little archaeological evidence to show for this once mighty empire. The scant literary references are generally hostile, painting the Seleukid regime as everything from xenophobic Hellenes, effeminate eastern barbarians or cruel and impious tyrants. The kings were shown as easily outwitted and their servants cowardly. This bias has naturally found its way into much of the modern literature regarding the Seleukid state. Substantially based on my PhD research, Religion in Hellenistic Syria will approach one of the most prominent aspects of the Seleukid state: the interplay between the state and different religious groups, from a post-colonial perspective.

The monograph employs a synthesis of archaeological, numismatic, and historical evidence in order to establish an overview of ‘religion’ in a period which is often under-represented in standard historical accounts, both ancient and modern. The volume discusses religious beliefs and practices on two principal levels, that of the state, and that of the individual communities which made up the state. The investigation of state attitudes towards religion investigates the manipulation of both Hellenic and indigenous beliefs by the king and his court in order to secure support among the military and the wider populace. It also places the establishment of the royal cult within this framework and illustrates how and why members of the royal family attained godhead in their own lifetime. With respect to individual communities, the volume presents a series of case studies that explore the evidence for religious activity at a local and regional level. Principally taking the form of the specific buildings studies, it also encompassing issues of religious festivals and ritual activity where the evidence allows.

The investigation of Syrian cult under the Seleukids has three principal outcomes: it documents one of the most significant aspects within the fabric of past communities; it outlines the development of religious practices and expression in the region which was the birthplace of the modern world’s three most influential monotheistic religions; and the research methodology allows religion to be used as a lens through which the wider processes of acculturation and rejection within a colonial context may be explored – processes which continue to effect our own increasingly cosmopolitan world.

Divine kings and sacred spaces is divided into three unequal parts dealing with the historical and cultural environment of Hellenistic Syria based largely on historical accounts (chapter 1), an assessment of the Seleukid state’s attitude towards religion and its uses as seen through the numismatic and epigraphic record (chapters 2-3) and a discussion of cultic practice and belief using archaeological evidence from identifiable cult sites from the Hellenistic period.

The introduction provides a brief overview of the state of Seleukid studies, highlighting the theoretical differences between colonial and post-colonial approaches to the study of an imperial system.

Chapter 1: A Macedonian hegemony
Chapter 1 outlines the geography of greater Syria in the Hellenistic period, discussing briefly the settlement patterns that existed prior to the Macedonian conquest. It then provides a historical narrative of the Hellenistic occupation of, and the continued Seleukid control over, Syria. It includes a brief enquiry into the nature of the perceived ethnic groupings within the region in the Hellenistic period and how these may have influenced the assimilation or rejection of religious beliefs.

Chapter 2: State patronage of religion
A more comprehensive consideration of religion under the Seleukids follows in chapter 2 which begins with a review of the various Greek and non-Greek deities patronised by the Seleukid kings. The evidence for this chapter is heavily numismatic and so it includes a discussion on the impact of numismatic iconography. Finally, the relationship between the Seleukid administration and religious groups and centres in Syria and the level of state control are considered.

Chapter 3: Divine kings
In chapter 3 the analysis of the relationship between religion and state continues with a discussion of the development of the royal cult in which the kings initially received posthumous deification but which, over the course of the dynasty’s history, grew to include the worship of the living king along with his queen and their living children. As part of the investigation, both the royal titulature and officially ordained iconography are discussed.

Chapter 4: Sacred spaces – north Syria
Devolving from a state to a regional level, the ‘popular’ worship conducted at various northern Levantine sites, both civic and rural, will be investigated in chapter 4. The depth of the discussion necessarily varies from site to site in accordance with the quality and quantity of the evidence. At most sites, a combination of archaeological and other evidence is available which enables a synthetic reconstruction of the nature of the cult. However, no sites allow an unhindered view of religious activity as it occurred on a day-to-day basis and the sites must be used to complement one another. The sites discussed in these terms are the ‘Charonion’ at Antioch, the Doric temple at Seleukeia-Pieria, the temple complex of Zeus at Baitokaike, the Jebel Khalid Area B temple and the sanctuary of the Syrian Gods at Hierapolis-Bambyke.

Chapter 5: Sacred spaces – Phoenicia and Koile-Syria
Chapter 5 follows the same format as the preceding chapter, discussing worship conducted at sites in central and southern Levant. The sites which form the basis of this discussion are Umm el-Amed, Damascus, the Panion on Mount Hermon, Gadara, Gerasa and Tel Beersheba. As in chapter 4, the evidence is synthesised to provide an overview of religious practice and belief in the region.

Chapter 6: Cultic administration
The relationship between the Seleukid administration and the variegated religious groups and centres in Syria and the differing levels of state control are considered in chapter 6 along with an overview of sacrificial ritual and sacred dining.

Concluding thoughts
The concluding chapter evaluates the available evidence and attempts to determine the nature of religious belief and practice in Syria during the period of Seleukid control.

In writing Divine kings and sacred spaces, I have compiled a body of research that will benefit the wider community of scholars interested in aspects of the Hellenistic world. The book synthesises evidence drawn from different aspects of ancient world studies, principally archaeology, numismatics and ancient history. However, in order to cater for a multidisciplinary readership I have avoided, where possible, the overuse of specialised terminology or jargon while trying not to undermine the complex issues discussed. The book is written in such a way as to provide an accessible, regional and cultural study for an undergraduate audience with enough detail to prove useful for postgraduate studies and professional academics. By bridging the gap between archaeology, numismatics and ancient history, this book provides both an archaeological and historical analysis of the subject matter.

No other books deal with the subject of Hellenistic Syrian religion in a comparable manner. The two most relevant volumes are Susan Downey’s Mesopotamian religious architecture: Alexander through the Parthians (1988, Princeton University Press – out of print) and Per Bilde et al. (eds.) Religion and religious practice in the Seleucid kingdom (1990, Aarhus University Press). The Downey monograph, although dealing with comparable evidence, concentrates on the neighbouring region of Mesopotamia and there is no overlap in material. The two volumes are therefore complementary rather than in competition. The collection of essays edited by Bilde et al. exists as the only focused study of Seleukid religion. However, the evidence employed throughout the volume is heavy weighed towards literary sources rather than material culture. The compilation fails to fully divulge a proper understanding of the role of religion at its numerous social or political levels under the Seleukid kings and only deals with the region of Syria in a peripheral manner.

There are several other volumes which deal more broadly with the subject of Hellenistic religion, see for example Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman age (2002, Eedermans Publishing), Miller et al., Hellenistic Religion (2009, VDM), or Martin, Hellenistic religions: an introduction (1987, Oxford University Press). Where these volumes deal with religion in Syria at all, they suffer for the same problems stated above – the discussions of the Syrian region, with the exception of Judaea, are treated as a periphery of the Hellenistic world and are largely based on literary evidence. The discussions are therefore coloured by the inherent bias of the ancient sources. None of these volumes provide a comprehensive overview of religious belief or practice in Hellenistic Syria.

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