Distant Deities, Central Places

Conference Paper

Session 3: Comparative Angles
Friday 2023-04-07
13:30 | 18:00

Understanding rural and Extra-urban sanctuaries in ancient Mediterranean communities: A view from the Italian peninsula

Tesse Stek (Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome), 2023-04-07, Time: 16:00 - 16:40


As in other Mediterranean areas, the Italian peninsula is dotted with a large number of cult sites, many of them located outside urbanized areas. In several waves of monumentalisation, cult sites are (re)built in stone, and as such visually stand out from the rural landscapes that surround them in the present day. Various models for interpreting the role of these sanctuaries in ancient communities have been proposed. However, the ideal models are often derived from other historical contexts, and have therefore strongly steered the interpretation in certain directions, obscuring other viable explanations. For instance, for the Italian peninsula, the Roman conquest has played a prominent role in our thinking about the role of sanctuaries, often resulting in a binary view discerning developed, city-state sacred landscapes on the one hand and primitive, tribal sacred landscapes on the other.

A key difficulty regards defining the cult communities that belonged to the sanctuaries. Our knowledge of the wider social and spatial context of sanctuaries is usually limited, which means that we have to combine all available types of information, from the literary sources and epigraphy to architecture and objects, but also to landscape archaeology, in order to reconstruct the functioning of these cult sites in antiquity.

Case-studies from a range of different historical contexts including the Italic, Apennine area, early Roman colonial settlements, as well as Rome itself demonstrate the particular methodological challenges in understanding the role of these ‘extra-urban’ sanctuaries. Yet, they also seem to point to some common characteristics. Together with the other participants of the conference, I hope to identify potential biases in our datasets, and, consequently, discuss whether or not the Italian situation is unique within the wider Mediterranean area.


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