The Sanctuary Project |


Sanctuaries are common – perhaps universal – products of human societies. First attested in the Upper Paleolithic, the first sanctuaries appear at roughly the same time as evidence for ritual, art and music. As sites of material accumulation and symbolic investment they feature prominently in the archaeological record. And because they contain much of the early evidence for the cognitive activities of anatomically modern humans they have also been central to recent debates on the archaeology of mind.

Sanctuaries also have an important place in the history of religions, even if only a few studies, such as Jonathan Z. Smith’s To take place, have set them in the centre of the enquiry. By sanctuary is understood not just any site of ritual activity which in most societies was very widespread, taking place in domestic and funerary contexts, in connection with feasting and social rites of passage and so on.  Sanctuaries are rather places that are permanently special, even when no rituals are taking place. Some historically and ethnographically attested societies treat sanctuaries as places where divine beings are particularly accessible, where individual humans might encounter them in dreams, prophesies or theophanies, locations of communal ceremonial, and even as places in some sense inhabited by gods and marked by divine action.

The sanctuaries of the ancient world have received a good deal of attention from archaeologists and historians of religion. Many of these studies are focused on architectural elaborations. Some deal with sanctuaries as locations for ceremonies, stages for Festkultur and meeting places for communities. More recently studies have explored how communities come into being and reproduce themselves through the construction, elaboration and use of common sanctuaries; the connection of sanctuary building with state formation and inter-state diplomacy; and the archaeological traces of specific ritual actions.

The Sanctuary Project will build on studies of this kind but has a different focus, one that in which religious action is centred. We aim to explore the part sanctuaries played in creating the religious experience of ancient worshippers. In effect we shall ask How sanctuaries worked in ancient religious systems?