U. Graven Artefacts: Archaeologies of Monotheism

Organizer: Darryl Wilkinson, Columbia University

Sunday, May 8th
10:00 – 12:30
Kroeber 155


Seen from the perspective of their sacred texts, the major monotheist traditions can often appear quite divergent; even discordant. However, when approached through the lens of their non-textual material culture, the parallels and continuities that exist are often brought into much sharper relief. More coherent than the archaeology of “religion”, monotheism unites a wide variety of sects and traditions that although different in many respects, still share a deep genealogical relationship and many fundamental logics. Moreover, as a category, monotheism is less restricted and offers an inherently more comparative outlook than the archaeological study of the individual traditions themselves. Unlike most universal categories (e.g., religion, ritual), monotheism is one that is used primarily by monotheists themselves, both as a means of self-definition as well as to exclude others. Although this likely presents its own problems, this session aims to explore if a shift towards such “emic” categories might also be theoretically productive and provocative.     Papers are especially sought in relation to the following themes: 1) Issues of mediation and materiality 2) Tensions between the necessarily worldly basis of religion and the transcendent nature of the divine 3) The role of sacred space where texts are the primary religious media 4) Interactions with temporality and history 5) Monotheism in the colonial encounter. Papers that cut across and/or challenge these themes are of course welcome as well. Monotheism inherently transcends the modern/ancient divide that pervades archaeological analysis and papers are sought in relation to all time periods.


Is Materiality to Immateriality, as the Devil is to God?

Darryl Wilkinson, Columbia University, darryl.wilkinson@gmail.com

This introductory paper outlines what it might mean to take monotheism as an object of archaeological enquiry. How in particular does monotheism differ from other categories like “religion,”Christianity,” or “Islam?” It also stands in critical perspective towards much of the underlying assumptions of archaeological/anthropological literatures where the classification of societies into monotheistic and polytheistic is commonly taken as an analytical, objective account of what people “believe.” Here, rather than taking monotheism as a mere category or a purely discursive object, it is argued that it exists as a deeply material predicament that archaeologists are perhaps uniquely placed to explore.

Images of Deferral:  The Monotheistic Ethics of Coptic Orthodox Sainthood

Angie Heo, Barnard College, Columbia University, adh2132@columbia.edu

This paper examines the practical ethics of Coptic Orthodox intercession through image replication and saintly recognition. Its aim is twofold: 1) to provide comparative perspectives on Christian and Muslim forms of sainthood in North Africa/ Middle East, and; 2) to analyze the Coptic Orthodox ethics of saintly mediation, as a monotheistic practice, through the ordering of the material imagination. It explores how the imitation of saints structures the ways in which holy images are reproduced through acts of deferral, disappearance, and delayed recognition. It thus outlines the ethical stakes involved in the material passage of devotion and veneration.

Faith, Practice, and Slavery: Quakerism and the Enslaved on a Caribbean Plantation

John Chenoweth, University of California, Berkeley, chenoweth@berkeley.edu

Quakerism embraces a version of monotheism that sees the entire world as a context for spiritual negotiation, and so Quakerism can be expected to have many impacts on archaeologically visible practice. In the end, it was created through a negotiation of written texts, individual practice, and social forces at work in local contexts. This paper considers a site where Quakerism and a community of Quakers were created in daily practice in a context very different from its usual ones in the US Northeast and England: a Caribbean plantation home to Quaker owners and the enslaved people they held.

The Delorian Critique: Monotheism and Native America

Severin Fowles, Barnard College, Columbia University, sfowles@barnard.edu

Monotheism gains its rhetorical purchase through exclusionary comparisons with what it is not. Classically, biblical monotheists drew blunt contrasts between the universal truth of their church and the consequent falsity of paganism. To this, modern scholarship offers refinements: biblical monotheism, some suggest, is distinguished by its historicity in contrast to the mythic denials of history in traditional religions; others argue that the monotheists’ focus on transcendence fundamentally opposes the immanence of the animist world. In the 1970s, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote back against such monotheistic distinctions on behalf of Native America. Here, I argue for renewed engagement with Deloria’s critique.

The Golden Pillar: A Slippery Pole Between Transcendence and Immanence

Anand Taneja, Columbia University, avt2109@columbia.edu

Monotheism, in popular understandings, is often linked to transcendence, to the presence of a divinity outside of the material world. However, divinity is often experienced as immanent by those who consider themselves (and are considered by others as) monotheists, and this immanence often manifests itself in particular material forms. This paper is concerned with Islamic ritual practices current around a second century BC pillar in the heart of contemporary Delhi. Dwelling on these practices and their histories, this paper will argue that the experience of the transcendent sacred cannot be divorced from very particular, local histories and their material anchors.

Missing God’s Signs: Archaeological Oversights and Other Incompatibilities with the Muslim World

Ian Straughn, Brown University, ian_straughn@brown.edi

God’s use of creation as a way to communicate with believers defines a persistent theme within the Islamic tradition.  Divine constitution of the material world as signs (ayat) and lessons (ibar) that articulate the unity of creation and the agentive role of the Creator form a cosmology whose underlying theological principles have important implications for the archaeological record. This is particularly noticeable in the ways that Muslims have understood the ruins of former peoples and civilizations. Engagement with sites and their archaeological traces becomes framed within the unfolding of the monotheistic tradition, culminating in Islam, and as a vehicle for ethical material practice.