Ritual and Religion in Prehistory (Online)

Course summary

  • Mon 18 Sep 2017 to Fri 01 Dec 2017
  • Online
  • From £260.00
  • 10 CATS points
  • Course code O17P310AHV
  • onlinecourses@conted.ox.ac.uk
  • Applications being accepted

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.

Programme details

  • Introduction to the study of prehistoric ritual and religion
  • The evolution of religion
  •  Mortuary rituals
  •  Domestic rituals
  •  Totemism, animism and shamanism
  •  Fertility cults
  •  Ancestor cults
  •  Case study: Prehistoric ritual and religion at Stonehenge
  •  Cosmology and astronomy
  •  Deities

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.

Recommended reading

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.

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.


Home/EU Fee: £260.00
Non-EU Fee: £295.00
Take this course for CATS points: £10.00


Dr Sarah Milliken


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.

The course:

  • 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

Teaching 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

Assessment for this course is based on two written assignments - one short assignment due half way through the course and one longer assignment due at the end of the course. Students will have about two weeks to complete each assignment.

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.