University of London

The Sanctuary Project


Description and organization

A programme of research funded by the award of an Anneliese Maier Prize to Professor Greg Woolf by the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation on the nomination of Professor Dr. Jörg Rüpke of the Max Weber Center of the University of Erfurt.

Participants: Csaba Szabo – doctoral student


This research programme asks how sanctuaries formed human experience and religious knowledge in the ancient world.

Specifically we aim is to establish conversations between a range of different disciplines including prehistoric and classical archaeology, social anthropology and ancient history, art history, Jewish and early Christian studies, and the history of religions.

We also aim to encourage young researchers to engage in cross-disciplinary collaborations and to familiarize themselves with other intellectual traditions. We therefore seek a double outcome:

  • A better, more rounded, set of understandings of the religious function of sanctuaries, especially in the classical world;
  • A cadre of young researchers more able to pursue and generate cross disciplinary investigations of this kind.


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?

Intellectual underpinnings

The project is conceived of as a nexus between three bodies of research and two existing research collaborations.

  1. The work of cognitive archaeology in interpreting the role of the earliest known sanctuaries, those created in the upper Paleolithic cave systems in France and Spain. The work of Lewis-Williams, Mithen and others has drawn on the art and organization of these sanctuaries to probe issues of human cognition, of social memory and of symbolic storage. This work in turn has inspired responses building on ideas of the extended mind and distributed personhood, and the ArcCog project based at Liverpool and Nottingham. We aim to explore how these debates might illuminate and be illuminated by considerations of classical sanctuaries.
  2. Connected to this is work on object agency emerging from anthropologists including Nicholas Thomas and Alfred Gell and archaeologists such as Chris Gosden and Clive Gamble. This explores the power of images and other objects to act on humans, and can be connected with the debates over the role of images in classical sanctuaries, debates to which Mylonopolous and Gordon at Erfurt and Elsner at Oxford have made important contributions.
  3. The spatial organization of sanctuaries, marked by the contributions of John Scheid, William van Andringa and Tesse Stek provides a means of accessing routinized and ritualized action as well as the social relations established (repeatedly) between gods and humans (in the emic perspective) or human and object agents (in an etic perspective).

The two existing collaborative networks:

  1. A very new line of work on the lived experience of ancient religion, work conducted primarily in Erfurt under the leadership of Jörg Rüpke, and drawing in an international team of collaborators. This work, currently funded by an ERC grant (LAR), seeks to explore religious experience and action beginning from the perspective of human actors rather than social institutions.
  2. The CURERE network led by Dr Katell Berthelot (CNRS, Aix) and Jonathan Price (Tel Aviv) is a group of rabbinical scholars, experts in Jewish history and in classical history that meets once or twice a year to develop an interdisciplinary dialogue between these disciplines.


Scoping Workshop ‘Defining Sanctuaries’

A scoping workshop was held at the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt on 27th-28th April 2015 on the theme of defining sanctuaries. Our discussion was led by four experts each approaching the subject from a different disciplinary perspective.

(Text by the organizers)


For further inquiries please contact:

Prof. Dr. Jörg Rüpke

Prof. Greg Woolf

(Texte des organisateurs)


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