Tuesday, in our first official class in the Anthropology 395: Heritage Archaeology course we covered a lot more than I expected and perhaps was prepared for. We not only covered in lecture the various aspects of the course, such as monument measurement and mapping, but we also met our teammates, and worked on a Google Fusion table.

Later, we went on a field trip to the Emanu-El Congregation Synagogue to meet the rabbi, and to learn about the history of the cemetery we will be working in, and about Jewish death and burial customs. Seeing as how it’s a monument mapping and preservation course, all very fitting.

But the point of this blog post is not to give you the in-and-outs, because that’s already been done. The point of this post, instead, is to broach the topic of religion, and particularly, religion in the context of academia and archaeology.

Apart from Dr. McGuire’s course this summer, I am also currently taking a course on the sociology of religion, and between my first lecture in the course yesterday, and the rabbi’s speech today, I became acutely aware of something that we, as Westerners, academics, and people living in our time period tend to forget. The word “religion” is a new one.

The word “religion” as we understand it and use it, according to Dawson and Theissen, arose out of Enlightenment philosophy, and it arose during the 17th and 18th centuries. Monks and priests would have been considered religious, but the average population did not consider themselves religious, or belonging to a religion (1).

But, you say, this is an archaeology blog; where is the archaeology?

“Got a problem with archaeologists?” (2,3)

Returning to the rabbi’s speech earlier today, he made a point of talking about how the synagogue was a place of worship, a place of weddings and celebrations, that a synagogue is an important centre in Jewish faith.

The thought then following all of this, and in connection with archaeology and the upcoming project revolved around not only how we view the dead, but how the dead would have viewed themselves. As academics in a functionally secular society, I find that we treat religions as labels, something to identify other people and ourselves. ‘We are studying XYZ, who follow religion XYZ,’ which seems to be a fundamental thing, treating religion like an object, or a label. But the question I’m left asking is: would XYZ say that they follow said religion, or would they kind of look at you like you’re bonkers.

Because maybe to them, said religion is not “a religion,” but part of everyday life: it’s living, being, and dying. And as academics, how does that shift our view of things? If religion is not something which we can separate from day-to-day life, how do we capture it? And if all we have are monuments to the dead to better understand the lives of the deceased, how do we best understand?

I feel it then becomes our responsibility as archaeology students as we move through these monuments to not treat religion as an object which can be peeled away from the people on the monuments. Neither can we ignore the role of Judaism in the lives and deaths of the people we study. Our responsibility is to remove the idea of religion as object/label, and to view religion as life, and a way of being, and an integral part of death and dying. That as we further endeavor to catalogue the monuments of Emanu-El, we must seek to not treat religion only as a signifier of where they were buried, or why they were buried one way, but as part of a multifaceted examination of the cemetery.

Written by Taylor


  1. Dawson, Lorna and Joel Thiessen. 2014. The Sociology of Religion: A Canadian Perspective. Ontario: Oxford University Press. Pg. 33
  2. (Picture) Doctor Who, Season 8, Episode 6. Retrieved from http://i1.wp.com/www.tor.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/riversong1.jpg?fit=475%2C%209999&crop=0%2C0%2C100%2C268px
  3. (Quote) Doctor Who. Season 4, Episode 8. Confirmed by http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1208129/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu