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, please click here.

Programme details

1. 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

2. The evolution of religion

  • Evolution of religion timeline
  • Defining symbolism
  • The evolution of symbolic behaviour
  • The evolution of religious behaviour

3. Mortuary rituals

  • Inhumation
  • Excarnation
  • Cremation
  • Mummification
  • The mummies of Cladh Hallan
  • Mortuary cannibalism

 4. Domestic rituals

  • The Maori meeting-house
  • Foundation offerings
  • The house of the dead
  • The death of the house

 5. Totemism, animism and shamanism

  • Totemism
  • Animism and shamanism
  • The Upton Lovell shaman
  • Medicines and narcotics
  • Bronze Age shamans of Central Asia
  • Shamans of the Arctic

6. Fertility cults

  • Palaeolithic ‘Venus figurines’
  • Neolithic ‘fertility figurines’
  • The Mother Goddess in Neolithic Malta
  • Fertility rituals among the Naga headhunters

7. Ancestor cults

  • Archaeology of the Dreaming
  • Masks and figures
  • Ancestor cults in prehistory
  • Landscapes of the ancestors
  • The island of the ancestors

8. 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

9. Cosmology and astronomy

  • Prehistoric observatories
  • The Nebra sky-disc
  • The Anasazi
  • The Moundbuilders
  • Prehistoric astronomy – fact or fiction?
  • The sun cult in Peru

10. Deities

  • Gifts for the gods: votive offerings
  • Gifts for the gods: human sacrifice
  • The Bird Goddess
  • The Snake Goddess
  • Goddesses of war and hunting
  • Cernunnos

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 (Little, Brown, 1999) ISBN 9780738201412

Please ensure you are able to access copies of any required textbooks prior to enrolling on a course.


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 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 £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

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. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:


Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Francesca Fulminante

After a PhD from Cambridge University (2008) and post-doctoral positions at excellent Universities and Institutes across Europe, including a Marie Curie Sklodowska Fellowship at the University of Roma Tre (2014-2016), Francesca Fulminante is now Senior Researcher and Lecturer both in the UK (University of Bristol and UCL) and Italy (University Roma Tre). Her research investigates Mediterranean urbanization during the first Millennium BCE with a focus on central Italy (Le Sepolture Principesche, L’Erma di Bretschneider 2003 and The Urbanization of Rome, CUP 2014). She has contributed to many excavations (Rome, Veii, Pompeii, Crustumerium, Colle di Marzo). She published extensively on macro-economic, social, and productive aspects of urbanization such as social stratification, reflected in burial practices, settlement centralization, transportation networks and political agency or community practices in smelting techniques. She has also investigated and published on more intimate and individual subjects such as breastfeeding/child-rearing practices and gender issues in first millennium BCE Italy and more widely in the Mediterranean. In 2020-21, at the Max Weber Kollegium, she has worked with the Urbanity and Religion cluster, led by Jörg Rüpke and Susanne Rau, to investigate the complex relationship between religious agency and urban settings in Early Iron Age central Italy to teas out if and how, paraphrasing a famous sentence of Francois de Polignac, “the city contributed to the rise of the sanctuary, or the sanctuary contributed to the rise of the city?" 

Course aims

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.

Course objectives

  • 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.

Teaching methods

  •  Guided reading of texts
  •  Group discussions of particular issues
  •  Questions to be answered in personal folders

Learning outcomes

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 methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link: https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/about/english-language-requirements


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

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.