Ritual and Religion in Prehistory (Online)
How can we begin to understand the spiritual lives of people in the distant past? When do religious ideologies first appear on the human evolutionary timescale? How can we recognise and interpret ancient myth and ritual from the burial mounds, temples, art and artefacts left by our prehistoric ancestors? Using key concepts drawn from anthropology, these and many other questions will be examined as we take a global view of the archaeological evidence for prehistoric rituals and religion.
Religion is concerned with an intangible system of belief, whilst archaeology is the interpretation of the past from surviving material evidence, whether in the form of sites or objects. By taking examples from across the world and from different periods of prehistory, we shall examine ways in which tangible archaeological evidence demonstrates ritual activity and sacred tradition. We shall look at rituals of death such as cremation, mummification and cannibalism; shamanistic practices as shown in rock art from Kazakhstan to cave art in France and Spain: fertility cult figurines from Austria to Malta; masks and skulls in ancestor worship; Stonehenge in a ritual landscape; cosmology through the sun cult of Peru to a 7000 year old observatory in Germany. All this and more will be explored and illuminated through the archaeological evidence of past cultures
For information on how the courses work, and a link to our course demonstration site, please click here.
Introduction to the study of prehistoric ritual and religion
- Defining ritual and religion
- The anthropology of religion
- The intangible nature of ritual and religion
- The multifaceted nature of religions
- Excavating prehistoric ritual and religion
The evolution of religion
- Evolution of religion timeline
- Defining symbolism
- The evolution of symbolic behaviour
- The evolution of religious behaviour
- The mummies of Cladh Hallan
- Mortuary cannibalism
- The Maori meeting-house
- Foundation offerings
- The house of the dead
- The death of the house
Totemism, animism and shamanism
- Animism and shamanism
- The Upton Lovell shaman
- Medicines and narcotics
- Bronze Age shamans of Central Asia
- Shamans of the Arctic
- Palaeolithic ‘Venus figurines’
- Neolithic ‘fertility figurines’
- The Mother Goddess in Neolithic Malta
- Fertility rituals among the Naga headhunters
- Archaeology of the Dreaming
- Masks and figures
- Ancestor cults in prehistory
- Landscapes of the ancestors
- The island of the ancestors
Case study: Prehistoric ritual and religion at Stonehenge
- The Stonehenge landscape
- People at Stonehenge
- Stones for the ancestors
- Midwinter festivals
- The ritual settlement at Durrington Walls
Cosmology and astronomy
- Prehistoric observatories
- The Nebra sky-disc
- The Anasazi
- The Moundbuilders
- Prehistoric astronomy – fact or fiction?
- The sun cult in Peru
- Gifts for the gods: votive offerings
- Gifts for the gods: human sacrifice
- The Bird Goddess
- The Snake Goddess
- Goddesses of war and hunting
We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.
To participate in the course you will need to have regular access to the Internet and you will need to buy the following textbook:
Fagan, B., From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites (Perseus, 1999) ISBN 0738201413
To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £10 fee.
For more information on CATS point please click on the link below: http://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/studentsupport/faq/cats.php
Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.
Assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail.
All students who successfully complete this course, whether registered for credit or not, are eligible for a Certificate of Completion. Completion consists of submitting both course assignments and actively participating in the course forums. Certificates will be available, online, for those who qualify after the course finishes.
This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.
Home/EU Fee: £260.00
Non-EU Fee: £295.00
Take this course for CATS points: £10.00
Dr Sarah Milliken
This course aims to provide an introduction to ritual and religion in prehistoric times, focusing on the archaeological evidence and the techniques and sources that are used to interpret it.
- Introduces the techniques and sources that archaeologists use to interpret evidence of past beliefs and rituals
- Presents a series of case studies which illustrate religion and ritual practice in the prehistoric past.
- Encourages students to share ideas and develop critical arguments.
- Guided reading of texts
- Group discussions of particular issues
- Questions to be answered in personal folders
By the end of the course you will:
- Know when religious ideologies first appeared on the human evolutionary timescale.
- Understand diversity of religious practice in the prehistoric past.
- Understand the techniques and sources that archaeologists use to interpret evidence of past beliefs and rituals.
- Be able to think critically.
- Be able to present facts and arguments in a reasoned manner.
Assessment for this course is based on two written assignments - one short assignment of 500 words due half way through the course and one longer assignment of 1500 words due at the end of the course.
Assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail.
Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please contact us to obtain an application form.
Level and demands
FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.
Terms and conditions
Terms and conditions for applicants and students on this course
Sources of funding
Information on financial support