Archaeological evidence for shamans’ worldview and landscape

The new publication of Oxbow Books, ‘Lands of the Shamans’, authored by Emília Pásztor from Hungary, combines a series of case studies in which shamanism is studied from an archaeological point of view. Historically, shamanism has been mainly studied from the viewpoint of anthropology, but in the last two decades the topic emerges more and more in archaeological studies. The selected case studies come from Europe, North America and Asia.

A shamanic ritual can be described as a way special individuals enter into an altered state of consciousness in order to interact with the spirit world. These ‘shamans’ are able to channel the energies from the spiritual world into the present world of mortals, and use these as healing or manipulative powers.

Western anthropologists first applied the term “shamanism” in their scientific descriptions of ancient religions in Asia. While observing and studying more religious traditions across the world, the definition of Shamanism evolved and encompassed more religious similar practices found outside Asia, that is Africa, Australia and America.

Popular topic in archaeology

Since 20 years, the subject of shamanism is becoming an increasingly popular topic in archaeology. Siberian shamanism is the oldest shamanist practice ever found by scientists. According to Russian scientists, shamanism dates back to the Neolithic, 5000-6000 BP, but probably much earlier, where science cannot provide evidence for. Archaeologists were mainly focused on all kind of artefacts, such as amulets and jewellery. In this book, the focus is on the landscape as a scene for ritual practices.

When I bought this book, I hoped to find a collection of (types of) landscapes having a special meaning in shaman culture. Which characteristics made up their sacred meaning and what does it mean nowadays, in the 21st century? Sometimes we are confronted with this in political discussions. An example is the ‘sacred’ landscape of the Sioux Indians in the Standing Rock reserve in the USA, under threat of large infrastructural works (Dakota Access Pipeline) by the shale gas industry. “Sacred” here is associated with environmental concerns.

Hoard deposition in the Bronze Age

Answers to these actual and political questions are not to be found in this book, which has a more academic angle. I have selected one chapter and give a summary, so as to make the subject more accessible. This chapter is about hoard deposition in the Carpathian Basin (Pannonian Plain) in Central Europe, a sediment-filled basin roughly in-between the Alps and the Carpathian Mountains.

The relation between Bronze Age people and their landscape in this area has been studied via an investigation of (ritual) deposits of artefacts. As many deposits in Europe are found in wet places, such as swamps (the most popular ritual deposit-sites), rivers and lakes, archaeologists conclude the hoards were part of ritual offerings. However, in the Carpathian Basin, Bronze Age people – believed to have been worshipping an animistic spiritual belief system – chose higher places such as hilltops and hillsides. This reflects that worship of spirits was not unified and varied a great deal over Europe.

European depositions more common in open nature

The author, Emília Pásztor, also describes deposits in other sacred places, which always have a twofold function, ritual and social. Sacred places around the world in a natural setting can be mountains, mountain peaks and strangely shaped rocks, lakes, rivers, springs and forests. The geographical distributions varies with the dominant landscape.

Ritual deposition reached its peak by the Late Bronze Age, the author concludes. Though there is no general rule for these European deposits, the ones found in the open nature are more common compared to sites in the Mediterranean and the Near East, where temples and other edifices are more popular locations.

Lands of the Shamans: Archaeology, Cosmology and Landscape. Eds.: Dragoş Gheorghiu, George Nash, Herman Bender & Emília Pásztor. ISBN: 9781785709548 Published by Oxbow Books, 2018. Language: English. 288 p.

Featured image credit: CC0 BY Sergei Ivanovich Borisov


Annemieke van Roekel

Geoscience journalist and chief editor at Gea Magazine
Annemieke van Roekel is a geoscience journalist and chief editor for Gea Magazine, a Dutch magazine published by Stichting GEA, a foundation for amateur-geologists. She started as an environmental science journalist and works now as a geoscience journalist & editor, preferring the fields of palaeontology, volcanism and general geology and landscapes. She also writes reportages while travelling along the Atlantic Coast and that’s why she developed an interest in archaeology in coastal areas as well. Further outreach of her activities is focused on educational city walks in Amsterdam, leading small groups along fossil-rich architecture, which hides a great geological story.
Annemieke van Roekel

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