Sunday, November 2, 2008

Archaeology of Religion

This coming Friday I will be teaching the fifth in a series of six classes at the Anne Arundel County Senior Center at the old Bates School in Annapolis. The subject is the archaeology of religion, or more specifically, how archaeologists collect and interpret evidence of past belief systems. One of the advantages of teaching (it ain't the money) is that it forces the instructor to think about issues from a perspective different from that of the researcher. Religion in Port Tobacco is a subject about which the project team has given some thought but, to date, few resources.

We know that there was a series of Anglican/Episcopal churches in town throughout most if not all of Port Tobacco's existence. We know that there was a small Baptist congregation that used the south wing of the courthouse in the early 20th century, after the main part of the courthouse burned in 1892. And we know about the Jesuit mission established several miles to the south at what is now St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church. But here are a few things that we do not know about the practice of organized religion in and around Port Tobacco:
  1. What other Christian denominations were present?
  2. What non-Christian religious practices were publicly or clandestinely observed, including those of the local Indians, enslaved Africans, and non-Christians from the Eastern hemisphere?
  3. Did organized religion play an integrative or divisive role in Port Tobacco society? For example, in the years prior to the American Revolution, there were animosities between the English colonists (most at least nominally Anglicans) and Scots factors and merchants who controlled much of the credit and trade (and who, we might expect, were largely Presbyterians). To what extent might those animosities have been expressed through congregational membership and competing religious services?
  4. How can we explore these and other issues archaeologically?
The problem confronted by archaeologists is that we are quite adept at identifying and interpreting the secular aspects of everyday life in ancient societies. It is, after all, a relatively simple matter of reconstructing past dietary patterns from the bones and burned plant matter recovered from archaeological deposits; but how does the analyst identify belief systems, especially when the people who held those beliefs may not have fully understood them themselves? I'll post the answer to that question just as soon as I figure it out.


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