Thanks to modern science, we now know more about religious history than ever: Scientific archaeology began in the 18th century, and since then excavators have been discovering and interpreting evidence, ranging from tiny goddess figurines carved from mammoth ivory to entire sacred landscapes, such as at the Giza plateau in Egypt. The archeological evidence enhances and corrects our knowledge derived from books and other preserved objects. Ancient graves, statues, temples, stones, sacrificial offerings, or places of initiation - they all express the universal human search for spiritual power and understanding. Archaeology provides evidence that is very different from historical writings like the Bible or the Vedas. Modern technology enables us to find more places than ever, and unlock their secrets like never before. With airplanes, satellites, or underground radar, archaeologists find lost temples and other cult sites. And with advanced scientific and medical techniques, they can analyze the residues left by funeral feasts, or the last meals of sacrificial victims. They can reconstruct medical histories, or genetically trace the journeys of ancient people.
The millennia of human experience that preceded the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago is only accessible to us through archaeology. Some 30,000 years before the first religious writings were made, Ice Age peoples of Europe and the Near East were creating shrines in caves, modeling images of divinities and shamans, and using art and music in ceremonies. Even earlier, in the time of the Neanderthals, some of the tribe’s deceased were buried with flowers, possibly symbolizing resurrection after death.
What do we learn from archaeological discoveries about religion? We discover that religious practices occupy a central place in most cultures and civilizations. It seems that religious belief is deeply embedded into human consciousness. Religion appears in specific manifestations across widely separated times and places. Mystical meaning is assigned to caves; earth mounds are erected, megaliths are carved, and pyramids are built as gateways for the afterlife. Sacred enclosures like temples, and even whole landscapes like valleys or mountains, serve as places that allow a special connection to the heavens, or as the endpoints of journeys that open the mind to religious experiences. Many civilizations developed rituals for the burial of the dead; human sacrifices are wide-spread, and elaborate rituals are developed in order to honor the rulers. Across cultures, temples are housing images of gods; and religious specialists like shamans or priests exist everywhere. Ancient traditions outlive the religions from which they originated - they are woven into the fabric of later religious experience, art, and traditions. Archaeology shows how religion exists at the core of every society’s perception of its own identity.
The following timeline is adapted and modified from John Hale: Exploring the Roots of Religion, Chantilly, Va. 2009. Dates are approximate.
Timeline of Ancient Sacred Sites
Before Common Era (B.C.)
45,000 Neanderthal groups inhabit Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq and bury their dead in pits. Shanidar is the earliest positively identified site of ancient religious ritual.
25,000 Hunting groups in South Africa, ancestors of the modern San, create their rock art.
16,000 Cro-Magnon hunters of the Upper Paleolithic era create religious paintings and small Venus figurines in Lascaux cave in France.
9000 At Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey, a hunting community begins to erect stone temples like those later found on Malta.
7500 A Neolithic society of hunters, herders, and horticulturalists creates a pueblo-type community at Çatalhöyök in south central Turkey (Anatolia). By 6500 B.C. the inhabitants were creating masterpieces of religious art and interring their dead beneath the floors of their houses.
4500 The tradition of raising megalithic monuments begins in Atlantic Europe.
3800–2500 Neolithic seafarers and farmers create stone temples to the Mother Goddess on the island of Malta.
2550 The Great Pyramid is completed at Giza, Egypt.
2500 Pu-abi is buried at Ur, Sumeria (southern Iraq).
2500–2300 At Stonehenge, a circle of stones are added to a complex of circular ditches and post holes that had already been the target of ritual activity for about 700 years.
2000 A Bronze Age society erects the first palace or ceremonial center at Knossos. The original palace burned in about 1700 B.C. The grand New Palace flourished until about 1350 B.C. The site was abandoned after 1200 B.C.
1350 Amenhotep IV takes the name Akhenaten and converts Egypt to the monotheistic worship of Aten. This faith dominates Egypt for a single generation.
1300–1050 The Shang dynasty is established and rules an extensive territory from their capital at Anyang, China.
1000 In Bronze Age Scandinavia, a society of farmers and warriors records their elaborate religious rituals in petroglyphs.
432 The Parthenon is built on the Acropolis in Athens, which had already seen a millennium of royal and ceremonial use. Its importance as a religious site would continue down to modern times.
300 The oracular shrine of the Greek god Apollo at Klaros, Asia Minor, begins its slow rise to fame and fortune; the Nabateans, who built the city of Petra, begin a lucrative four-century rule over the caravan routes between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; Jenne-jeno (Old Jenne), where the ironworkers formed a religious elite, is established along the Niger River in Mali.
221 China is unified under Qin Shi Huangdi, now known as the First Emperor.
100 The Hopewell cult appears in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys of North America, creating numerous ceremonial sites over the next 500 years.
68 With Roman legions about to crush the Jewish Revolt, the sectarian group that had inhabited Qumran for over a century (perhaps the Essenes) hid their sacred scrolls in the surrounding caves and abandoned the site.
100 At Lindow Moss, England, a healthy and high-ranking Celtic male aged about 25, possibly a Druid, submitted to a sacrificial death and burial in bog.
200 Rome has become a multicultural city where many different faiths and cults are practiced, including Mithraism, Christianity, Judaism, the cult of Isis, and occult rites of magic and sorcery.
300–900 Teotihuacan, northeast of modern Mexico City, dominates Mesoamerica.
400 At Ajanta in central India, quarrymen and sculptors enlarged an earlier set of Buddhist monastic dwellings to create the Ajanta Caves. The site was used for about a century.
450 Zoroastrian magi establish a holy city at Takht-i Sulaiman in northern Iran.
500 On the north coast of Peru, the “Lord of Sipán” is buried with finely wrought gold ornaments and eight human sacrifices.
600 The Nazca of Peru’s coastal desert come to the climax of some 500 years of creating large-scale images and gigantic line drawings in the desert.
675 At Palenque in eastern Mexico, a ruler named Pacal or Pakal (“Shield”) begins work on the stepped stone pyramid that would later hold his sarcophagus.
700–1130 Period of the Anasazi settlement at Chaco Canyon in modern New Mexico.
700–1500 Period of erecting large stone heads, known as moai, on Easter Island.
834 At Oseberg, near Oslo in Norway, a Viking queen and a female attendant are given a rich and elaborate burial in a big sea-going ship.
900 Mississippian people establish a great center at Cahokia, across the river from modern St. Louis. The site reached its climax between 1100 and 1200 A.D.
1000 The Anasazi begin to create ceremonial centers on a large scale at sites such as Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.
1113–1150 Khmer king Suryavarman II builds the gigantic Hindu temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
1450 The Inca ruler Pachacuti builds Machu Picchu, partly as a royal estate and retreat, partly as a ceremonial center, or huaca.