Monday, February 08, 2016

Review of Laneri (ed.), Defining the Sacred

Nicola Laneri (ed.), Defining the Sacred: Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion in the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow, 2015. Pp. ix, 186. ISBN 9781782976790. $50.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir, Bar-Ilan University (

The volume under review is an excellent collection of studies on the archaeology of religion in the ancient Near East, dealing with various cultures, finds, issues and periods, ranging from the early Neolithic period until the Iron Age, and while mostly within the realm of the “classical” ancient Near East, includes a study on ancient Turkmenistan. Most of the papers were originally presented at a session on the archaeology of the ancient Near East at the 8th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East which was held in Warsaw in 2012. To this several papers were added to broaden the topics and periods covered in the volume.

The first chapter (“Introduction: Investigating archaeological approaches to the study of religious practices and beliefs,” pp. 1-10), by the volume’s editor, Nicola Laneri, provides an overview and introduction to the volume. In the chapter, Laneri very discusses and summarizes issues such as: what is religion?; an overview of the archaeology of religion; previous studies on the archaeology of religion in the ancient Near East; and a general overview of the papers in the volume. One thing that would have improved this introduction, and in particular the discussion of the definition of religion and the archaeology of religion, would have been some reference to those who question the very definitions of religion as used in modern research as formulations based on modern western perceptions of the topic that are perhaps not always relevant for the study of ancient, non-western cultures (e.g. C. Martin, “Delimiting Religion”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 21/2 [2009], 157-176).
Most of the essays are about the pre-biblical period, but this one is of interest:
In “Where to Worship? Religion in Iron II Israel and Judah” (pp. 90-101), Beth Alpert Nakhai, discusses the types (national, community, personal) and locations of worship in Iron Age II (10th-6th cent. BCE) Israel and Judah. Differentiating between the various contexts, she attempts to place these within the context of the political and societal developments of this period, such as the formation of two distinct kingdoms, religious reformations, etc. While the overall scheme that she provides seems very likely, the newly published Iron IIA-B temple found at Moza (see S. Kisilevitz. 2015. The Iron IIA Judahite Temple at Tel Moza. Tel Aviv 42: 147-164), just outside of Jerusalem, may call into question some of her (and other scholars’) suggestions regarding the lack of temples in non-urban contexts in Iron Age Judah.