Sacred Landscapes: Creation, Manipulation & Transformation
5th-7th May 2014

Aims and Objectives

Many studies on ancient cults focus on individual sites, deities or cult places, but they often ignore the wider environment. Why did people choose a particular geographical location? What makes a geographical feature ‘sacred’ and how was this sacred space demarcated from the profane? The sacred landscape is not simply what we see, but a way of seeing: we see it with our eyes but interpret it with our mind. Landscape is therefore a cultural construct which gives meaning to places and reflect human memory. Religious signs, rituals, etiological myths, theonyms and epithets, as well as human constructions (e.g. architecture) together create a web of ciphers and symbols that make up the sacred landscape of a region, creating a text or narrative of a sacred landscape invested with meaning.

Here we also need to consider how the landscape might have been manipulated: this is most notable when contrasting the sacred rivers, springs and hills in the Iron Age with the subsequent monumentalisation beyond recognition of the same sites in the Roman period; human manipulation is a process we can recognise in many periods, like Delphi’s gradual transformation from a natural sanctuary to an architectural sanctuary. Topographically conspicuous sites were often considered ‘sacred’ over many centuries despite changing religious understandings, necessitating adaptations to the cult, and finally leading to the Christianisation of the sacred landscape.

This is only one small aspect relating to the sacred landscape’s transformation which might have been triggered by changing societal, cultural and political structures. For example, the municipalisation and urbanisation of the Roman provinces led to a profound re-organisation of the sacred landscape, creating a network of cult places in any one community:
(1) the towns develop into religious centres, surrounded by countless suburban cult places, often in conspicuous locations (e.g., overlooking the town);
(2) focus points for rural communities were created, both for vici and dispersed settlements, by the civitas / colonia / municipium and/or by rural inhabitants, both of elite and sub-elite status,
(3) frontier sanctuaries marked the boundaries of the new Roman-style territories,
(4) some of the pre-existing sanctuaries were monumentalised if they could be instrumentalised to assist the coherence of the newly founded civitates;
(5) we also need to consider more individualistic countertrends, opposing the official ‘civic’ or ‘polis’ narrative, for example when individuals worshipped new sacred sites and monumentalised them.
In addition, there is an imperial discourse: in the Roman empire many pre-Roman sites became associated with Roman deities (e.g. Jupiter and the Alps, replacing ‘indigenous’ deities like Poeninus) and the imperial cult.

We also find this in a Greek context when a Greek mythical, religious narrative was used to legitimise military and cultural expansion. Furthermore, the increasing ‘globalisation’ in the Mediterranean world led to the introduction of new deities and cults that might profoundly affect the nature of the sacred landscape: for the goddess Isis, for example, we often find sanctuaries in conspicuous topographical locations, dominating the urban and rural landscape.

We also have to investigate how entire landscapes were invested with meaning. Mountains, rivers and springs were ‘sacralised’, for example by being associated with particular myths, heroes and deities; very often there are only hints to suggest these ‘sacralisations’, like the choice of epithets in votive inscriptions. In the Greek East, for example, we can recognise in our literary, epigraphic and archaeological sources how essential natural features, like rivers and mountains, were for people’s identity; as anthropomorphic deities they were worshipped because they protected the inhabitants of a polis and generated prosperity; rivers and mountains became a fictional space in which important origin myths, like Zeus’ or Dionysos’ birth, could be situated. The creation and re-interpretation of the sacred landscape can thus become fundamental aspects of people’s identity.

This also leads us to issues of visibility and intervisibility of sites: how do the cult places of particular gods and goddesses relate to each other? Last not least, it is essential to aim for a better understanding of how the individual social agent might have experienced the sacred landscape and how his/her experience of the landscape might have been shaped and influenced by architecture, sacred geometry/astronomy, processions, territoriality (i.e. access restrictions), and many more – features that were consciously employed by religious circles and by the ruling or land-owning elites.

The aim of this interdisciplinary conference is a better understanding of these phenomenona since neither the methodology and theoretical approaches, nor the archaeological, epigraphic, literary and numismatic evidence have been profoundly discussed and analysed in any other study in this large chronological horizon. The focus of the conference will be on Antiquity, but comparative studies from other periods and cultures will be essential to re-think our understandings and methodologies of sacred landscapes.