Religion, History, and Place in the Origin of Settled Life

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Ian Hodder
  • Louisville, CO: 
    University Press of Colorado
    , July
     306 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For Religion, History, and Place in the Origin of Settled Life, Ian Hodder compiled and edited a robust collection of studies by various authors. Each author or group of authors was given a chapter in which to present their expertise regarding the central theme of the book. This theme was designated as “history making,” particularly in regard to the lives of the people in the Levant and Anatolia, from the Epipaleolithic Period through the Neolithic. In particular, the sites of C᷂atalhöyük, Göbleki Tepe, the Central Zagos, Aşikli Höyük, and Körtik Tepe were discussed in depth. Together, the authors weave a connection between archaeological data and (potentially) socio-religious patterns which were intentionally performed to connect people with their past.

Some buildings within these sites appear to be especially meaningful to their culture as the level of repetition and particularity, such as inhouse burials and decorative bucrania, suggest. These buildings are described as “history houses.”  They were constructed directly on top of previous structures, sometimes repeatedly, often with walls, hearths, and other features reproduced in the same location. For some of these sites there is an apparent practical reason for this behavior; however, the book focuses on the repetitions that seem to have non-practical reasons.

These repetitive constructions are thought to have occurred for one of two reasons: 1) habitual activities and memory of construction and 2) “commemorative behavior in which people consciously build social memories and historical links into the past.” (7). By looking at these archaeological sites 3-dimensionally (both figuratively and literally through 3D imaging software), one can see a deeper connection each occupation layer had with the one (or perhaps several) before it. Although architecture is an excellent example of this connection to the past, it can also be seen occurring in similar repetitions at nomadic sites, before sedentism and agriculture began.  

It must be acknowledged that humans are deeply rooted in routine and habits and this provides a strong psychological connection to repetition. It should not be assumed that all non-practical, repetitive behavior is spiritually significant.  However, the authors seem to take care not to inappropriately assume what is religious in nature and what might be merely habitual. They present a strong case, through the various studies in each chapter, that there seems to be a deep meaning to many of the activities in which these ancient cultures engaged. Some of these activities cannot be explained pragmatically or by psychological routine. One peculiar practice discussed in the book is the removal and redistribution of human skulls, placed within walls and floors, throughout the Neolithic Near East. Another fascinating and curious practice at C᷂atalhöyük was placing multiple tools, in different stages of wear, in a house before it was deliberately burned. These and other activities are given as examples of deliberate “history making” among these ancient peoples.

A reoccurring subject in the book is the effective use of 3D modeling, computer simulation, and other software to help analyze and present information collected by scientists in the field. It may be helpful for readers not overly knowledgeable about these Near Eastern sites to read chapter 10 first. This chapter provides more graphics than is typical in other chapters and informs readers where to find 3D models and other graphic information online to help visual topics discussed elsewhere in the book.

One of the projects discussed is “The Primary Role of Religion in the Origin of Settled Life: The Evidence from C᷂atalhöyük and the Middle East,” summarized in chapter 1 by the chapter’s authors and project participants F. LeRon Shults and Wesley J. Wildman. The central hypothesis of this study is that religion helped develop sedentary civilizations because it provided “historical depth and attachment to place” (34).  Part of this study used the Neolithic Social Investment Model (NSIM) computer simulation, which suggested that religion was fundamental in establishing high-investment civilizations. Additionally, both symbols and religion would have helped band together separate groups of people, a feat needed to (1) create mating and trade connections; and (2) deal with the stress of a densely populated, sedentary lifestyle as opposed to a less populated, nomadic lifestyle.

Another area of discussion is how every day domestic life may have been, at least partially, ritualistic. Chapter 9 explains the unique way artifacts were placed in a building and then the whole structure deliberately burned, which seemed to indicate that they were “manifestations of the routines of daily life” (253). Hearths were discussed in detail in chapter 7 and their potential connection to ritualistic behavior as they are “the principal ritual features at Aşikli” (196) and they are present, along with ritual features, in all houses at C᷂atalhöyük.

The book is highly detailed in scientific data, which may make it challenging for the typical “lay reader.” However, it does provide a good look at the tedious, technically demanding work archaeologists must go through before presenting facts and theories. It makes a good read for those wanting a deep study of the Neolithic Near East and the latest technological assets being utilized in archaeology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

April Lynn Downey is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ian Hodder is the Dunlevie Family Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. His previous books include Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things and The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük.


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