Art and Architecture: Prehistoric Belief Systems

Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Editor: Leslie Ross. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Origins and Development

The term prehistory is used to refer to time periods before written records exist or during which written records were not created. It is a rather controversial and problematic term, however, because writing systems were invented or came into use at different times in various areas of the world, so the chronological time span for prehistory can vary a great deal between different world regions. Prehistory can refer not only to time periods before specific cultures developed their own writing systems, but also to time periods before written records were produced by other people about these world regions and cultures. In that sense, in some regions of the world (such as parts of the Americas, Oceania, and Africa), the prehistoric period can be said to have lasted well into the modern era and to have concluded only via contact with Europeans or other writing-producing outsiders.

Although it is clear that the term prehistory cannot and does not mean that no history existed before writing systems were invented or used in different world regions, the designations prehistory and prehistoric were first used by scholars in the 19th century who placed a great deal of emphasis on the presence of written language as an indication of cultural advances. More recent scholarship has questioned the assumptions that written language is a more important source of information about cultures than nonwritten oral traditions, and that the presence of a developed writing system is a necessary indicator of cultural development. It is always wise to remember that not all of the world’s writing systems have been deciphered and also that our perceptions of what constitutes writing are challenged by seemingly illegible texts. In particular, there is some intense scholarly disagreement about the interpretation of a number of ancient artifacts, primarily incised clay tablets and other examples of pottery, found in southeastern Europe, dating to ca. 5000 BCE, which bear what appear to be graphic markings or protowriting systems. The fact that these symbols or signs remain undeciphered by no means indicates their lack of meaning or possible function as conveyors of information. Whether or not these prehistoric signs can be seen as prewriting, or as complete (but as yet undeciphered) writing systems is a matter of debate.

Nevertheless, in spite of these definitional issues, the term prehistory is generally understood to refer to a number of different eras of human habitation on earth, the evidence for which comes primarily from archaeological material, not from any decipherable written records produced at the time. “Prehistory is a kind of floating scale that refers in any given region to the period of human occupation before which there is literacy, and thus textual records.” The study of prehistory thus involves some special challenges that are rather different from those encountered in studies of time periods for which contemporary written, documentary evidence exists. It is also wise to remember that prehistory (no matter how defined) actually encompasses a substantial and vast time span of human presence on earth—many, many millennia longer than is covered by historical eras.

The archaeological material that exists to indicate human presence on earth varies widely in type as well as presumed dating range from region to region of the world, although it is generally believed that humankind originated in Africa some millions of years ago. The evolution of humans is often traced through a series of phrases (Homo habilis, Homo erectus) ultimately resulting in Homo sapiens, the ancestor of modern humans. The vast periods of prehistory are often divided up into several phases: The Stone Age (Paleolithic, Neolithic and Mesolithic), Bronze Age, and Iron Age (with dates differing from region to region of the world). The terms Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age were developed by early archaeologists to refer primarily to the use of tools and metal production techniques developed during these periods, although as is more commonly understood now, this varies greatly between different world regions.

Because the evidence for prehistoric humans is primarily archaeological and not supported by contemporary written documents, any discussion of prehistoric belief systems tends to be extremely speculative. Some areas of the world are populated by cultures that still appear to retain vestiges of very ancient primal (or first) traditions. Information about prehistoric religious beliefs may indeed be gleaned from studies of these traditional cultures, but caution in interpretation needs to be exercised too. “Scholars continue to use ethnographic analogies to explain possible belief systems … without the necessary critical distance. As a result, the presumed religion in Paleolithic times partly resembles the mentality of arctic peoples, and partly resembles the beliefs of Australian aborigines, according to the experience and research interests of the scholar.” Ethnographic study of the current religious beliefs and practices of various indigenous cultures may provide a useful lens with which to study the prehistoric past, but care must be taken care in the comparative analyses of these materials as well.

Principal Beliefs and Key Practices

One of the greatest challenges facing scholars of prehistory involves the interpretation of visual material evidence. Although there is absolutely no lack of material to be analyzed (ranging from paintings and engravings on rock, large- and small-scale carvings, and architectural constructions as well), questions about the meaning, functions, and symbolism of this material have provided copious fodder for diverse approaches and interpretative strategies. This is especially the case with objects to which religious meanings have been attributed. One common assumption is that peoples of the Paleolithic period (or Stone Age, approximately 40,000-10,000 BCE) were occupied or motivated by religious concerns to some significant degree and that this is evidenced in the visual arts produced by these ancient peoples. Many scholars agree “that prehistoric art is not unmotivated: it responds to religious preoccupations, it is the expression of, or in support of, myths.”

Scholarly attention has been devoted especially to the numerous examples of engraved and painted rock surfaces found in areas of Africa and Europe. Some of these examples have recently been dated to as early as 28,000 BCE. In this period when humans were largely occupied with hunter-gatherer activities (basic subsistence modes), they also appear to have taken a significant amount of time to paint and carve images on rock surfaces, often deep within the caves in the entrances of which they may or may not have dwelled.

The prehistoric paintings and engravings found in caves in southern France and northern Spain have been especially often featured in discussions of prehistoric religion. The naturally occurring geological cave formations were generally not physically altered in any way (by digging deeper, adding more passages, or enlarging the interior spaces) but were very richly embellished with paintings and carvings in often very deep spaces, extremely difficult to access. It would seem clear that the creation of these prehistoric cave paintings and engravings represented an extremely significant activity for these early peoples. But what, exactly, do the subjects and symbols mean?

The most common subjects found in hundreds of examples of prehistoric cave art are animals, such as horses, bison, deer, and other species including the ibex and mammoth. Many of these animals feature in smaller-scale objects as well, such as carved or engraved objects of stone and horn. Sometimes human figures are found, as are figures that combine both human and animal features. Additionally, other nonfigurative signs or markings are extremely common: geometric shapes, ladder designs, and various other symbols. Some images seem easily recognizable to modern viewers, as specific types or species of animals, whole other forms are extremely difficult to decipher. The animals are generally represented in profile; some show varying degrees of realism and detail; others are presented in more abstract or schematized fashions. The irregular contours of the rock surfaces also played an important role in the placement and forms of the images. The process of simply identifying the images has occupied scholars for many decades.

There are different levels of interpretation … the identity of the image; its literal meaning; and its symbolic meaning. The assumptions involved in each of these categories are cumulative. Naturally, all guesses at meaning depend upon the validity of the initial identification of the motifs—which, for the most part, we are unable to verify. What modern humans—whether rock art researchers or indigenous people—think is depicted in prehistoric art is always interesting, but reveals more about the interpreters than about the art.

Several theories have been proposed to explain the meaning of the subjects and symbols depicted in these prehistoric caves. Very few scholars believe that these images have no meaning at all. Some scholars believe that the creation of this animal imagery represented a magical attempt to ensure and increase the number of animals for the food supply necessary for these peoples, that is to say, that the depiction of animals would guarantee their continued presence. Other scholars believe that the paintings and carvings were actively employed in pseudo-hunting rituals, that they were used as religio-magical-pedagogical teaching devices in which ancient peoples enacted hunting activities in a ritualistic fashion. But, because some evidence shows that several of the species of animals depicted in cave art were not, in fact, primary or common sources of food for ancient humans, this theory has been subject to debate. Some scholars believe that the animals served as totems—symbolizing the ancestors of families, clans, or groups. Other scholars have proposed that the cave art was used for initiation ceremonies, providing information about critical survival skills to members of clans, tribes, or family groups. Much recent scholarship has linked the cave art to shamanistic practices—attempts to control, communicate with, and deal with the shared life forces of humans, animals, and the natural world.

Not one of these many theories can be proven. The function of the caves and their art may have varied greatly between regions and time periods. Determining the specific meaning and intentionality of much prehistoric art is extremely challenging. Although it seems logical to assume that a meaning must be inherent—that there is no doubt that the caves and the subjects depicted within them represented extremely significant aspects of the lives and belief systems of prehistoric peoples—what these beliefs actually were remains a matter of great speculation.

Because caves appear mysterious and menacing places to us, there has long been a tendency to associate their art with secret, esoteric, exclusive rites redolent of fear and awe…. Why should art have been placed in such inaccessible locations? Deep caves are strange environments … To enter a deep cave is to leave the everyday world and cross a boundary into the unknown—a supernatural underworld. It is easy to imagine that caves therefore symbolized transitions in human life and could be used for rituals linked with those transitions … Or perhaps it was felt that by entering this world one could better communicate or summon up the supernatural forces which dwelt there, and hence the images were made to reach and compel those forces. Cave decoration certainly requires strong motivation, since it involves negotiating such obstacles and taking both equipment and illumination into the site.

Small figurines, carved from stone, bone, antler, ivory, and clay are also frequently found during the Paleolithic and later periods. Many have been found within caves and pits; others are clearly associated with burials. Both animal and human (male, female, and non-gender-specific) figurines are common. Among the most well-known and frequently reproduced as illustrations in both scholarly and popular texts are the so-called Venus figurines, which are clearly female. They are often, but not always, depicted with exaggerated indications of female sexual features and reproductive abilities. Much scholarship has been devoted to these ancient objects, and highly lively debates continue to take place today regarding their purpose and function, who made them, and what motivated their creation. Most agree that the child-bearing and life-giving significance of the female logically appears to have been of some importance for prehistoric peoples. This, in turn, has also led many scholars to identify a wide-spread devotion to a general goddess figure in prehistory.

The scholarly as well as popular literature devoted to the goddess of prehistory has burgeoned dramatically in the later 20th century, reflective of the feminist movement generally and the resultant academic reassessment of the ways in which history and prehistory have been written about and understood. Viewpoints range widely—if not sometimes wildly—from those desiring to boldly reinstate the mother-goddess figure (and her nurturing matriarchal values) to her rightful position in not only prehistory but also the modern world, to those who take a more cautious view about the assessment and interpretation of evidence.  It is an ongoing and very lively debate—and one which will doubtless continue to be transformed with new viewpoints reflective of the decades to come. For many, there seems little doubt that worship of a goddess/earth mother/fertility figure is indicated by the archaeological evidence from prehistory, although the exact nature and identification of the goddess or goddesses and the rituals carried out for worship remain somewhat speculative. Indeed, much disagreement exists about the motivations behind the creation of the figurines, as well as the use of the term “fertility figures” to describe these varied objects.

At different periods in prehistory, it appears that peoples in various world regions began to shift gradually from the hunter-gatherer mode to the agricultural mode or to combine hunting-and-gathering with more settled farming practices. Again, the dates for the adoption of agricultural practices, and the degree to which these replaced or supplemented previous modes of subsistence, vary greatly. Nevertheless, the development of agricultural practices certainly resulted in a more settled lifestyle among many ancient cultural groups and seems also to have resulted in even greater attention being paid to the construction of larger and permanent architectural monuments. Religious significance has been attached to many of these monuments, including the early temple/shrine structures of the Maltese islands, as well as the numerous megalithic (large stone) constructions of virtually worldwide distribution. Many believe that the impressive carved megaliths at the site of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey date to as early as ca. 10,000 BCE and thus represent the very earliest example of a human-built religious center, constructed by nomadic peoples in a largely pre-agricultural period. All of these examples provide important materials for study and assessment of prehistoric belief systems, especially as manifested in the form of human-built architectural constructions.

In particular, the many ancient examples of standing stones (or menhirs) that appear in circles, pairs, short single rows, and multiple avenues have long attracted scholarly and popular attention because of their frequently impressive size and enigmatic function. Some of the best-known examples occur in the British Isles and on the European continent, such as the multiple row alignments at Carnac in Brittany (northern France), which have been dated to ca. 3000-2000 BCE. The site of Stonehenge in England is also one of the most well-known and oft-studied of these examples. While the motivations for the placement and erection of these types of large stone monuments remain unknown, many theories have been advanced as to their purpose and function.

Large stones capped or roofed with stone slabs (often called dolmens) also exist in great numbers and are generally understood to have functioned as prehistoric tombs. This certainly seems to indicate that death—and some means of recognizing and enshrining the deceased—were important concerns in later prehistory. More monumental tombs, such as the one impressively large passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland (ca. 3000-2500 BCE) also include examples of extensively decorated carved stones both on the interior and exterior. Circles, lozenges, triangles, and spiral motifs are dominant; many have speculated that the designs have astronomical significance or otherwise refer to cycles of life and time.

Although we lack contemporary written documents from the prehistoric periods, it does seems clear, from the archaeological evidence, that ancient peoples were concerned with issues of life, death, food, and health—and that they approached these concerns in ways that were not always or exclusively utilitarian. The animals painted and carved in prehistoric caves may indeed represent or symbolize some of the basic food sources for early peoples, but the extreme care, attention to detail, and physical difficulties surmounted by prehistoric people to visually embody these animals in the interiors of deep and dark caves seem evidence of—if not a codified belief system—at very least an attempt to honor, placate, assuage, or encourage the forces of the natural world that surrounded them. Survival and food sources are closely related concerns, which also appear to be evidenced by the early fertility or goddess figurines as well as the later large stone monuments that may have been designed to chart seasons of the year for the planting and tending of crops. The attention given by later prehistoric peoples to human death (via burials, cremations, and grave goods interred at burial sites) also seems to indicate that early people regarded death (as well as birth) as a significant event too, and one that was due some attention in a ritual format.

Nevertheless, “the question of the origin of religion is still unsolved.” Although many scholars believe that religion was “a part of human nature from the very beginning,” others feel that the archaeological evidence simply does not support this claim. Even so, “the opinion that Paleolithic man already had a complicated religion, with certain notions of the holy and various rituals, can be found in nearly every religious reference work.” It is wise to remember that the span of prehistory is extremely vast and that while evidence of religious belief is indeed indicated during the late Paleolithic period (especially in the form of burials, assumed to be evidence of a belief in the afterlife or spirit world), one must exercise caution in reading too far back into prehistory for the origins of practices that developed later.

Traditional Art and Architectural Forms

Because the span covered by prehistory is so great, and varies so widely in different world regions, prehistoric art exists in many different forms and materials. It must be immediately noted, however, that the definition of art is among the many terminological challenges faced by students of prehistory. This is especially the case when dealing with extremely ancient materials—such as the painted images and carved objects that provide the very earliest evidences of what appear to be art-making activities by humans. Much intriguing scholarship has been devoted to analyses of the minds of ancient humans, the cognitive and creative processes that resulted in the initial creation of visual images. But because the meanings and functions of these very ancient images and objects are often elusive, many scholars caution against the use of the term art to describe them. For modern audiences, art may have a variety of meanings—ranging from the expression of personal creativity on the part of specially gifted individuals, to works which express the community values and concerns of groups of people at different periods, to objects that are created for sale or display in galleries and museums.

It is always important to be reminded that art is not a strictly defined term that concisely and consistently refers only to specific forms of visual expression, such as the traditional categories of architecture, painting, and sculpture, as generally studied by art historians, or nonpermanent forms of artistic expression such as dance, masking performances, and music, such as studied by anthropologists and ethnographers. The term art can encompass an enormous range of forms—and can be used for objects or experiences that range from the permanent to the transitory, from the utilitarian to the seemingly unnecessary. If we accept that art—in its widest definition—involves the creation of visual and performance modes that express the values and concerns of groups of people at different periods in time, we may be somewhat better positioned in our attempts to understand the surviving art of prehistoric periods.

Of course, it is also critical to recall that the surviving material evidence from prehistory, although copious, is doubtless only a very small fraction of what once existed. The surviving objects of study are only those that were created from relatively durable materials, whereas the objects produced of more ephemeral or organic materials have long perished. It is thus quite impossible to reconstruct a complete picture of prehistoric art or religion simply based on the surviving material.

Durable rock carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings on rock (pictographs) provide a major portion of the materials available for scholars of prehistory. The animals, other figures, and graphic symbols characteristic of prehistoric rock art were created by engraving, carving, and painting with mineral-based pigments. The painting may have been done with brushes made of animal hair, or by spraying the pigments (through a tube or by mouth) directly onto the rock surfaces. Ladders or some forms of scaffolding must have been used to reach the upper wall levels and ceilings of caves and upper level wall surfaces.

The most ancient examples of prehistoric rock art have been found in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Relatively much more recent examples exist also in copious numbers in the Americas, in Africa, and in Australia especially, where many aboriginal peoples continue to closely guard their heritage and practice this form of art. The ancient peoples (from Africa, via Asia) who arrived to and populated Australia in the Paleolithic period are the ultimate ancestors of the many Australian aboriginal groups today. The old rock paintings of Australia, and the recorded accounts about their origins and meanings, are important to consider here. According to some traditions, the sprit beings who created the earth in the Dreamtime (see chapter 7) also created the first examples of visual imagery. So the images found in rock art, as well as more modern bark painting, in Australia reflect these ancient guidelines and symbols that were set down in the long-ago past.

Images of spirit beings often feature in many examples of Australian rock art, such as the Wandjina figures depicted in the example shown in Figure 1.5, from the Kimberly region of northwestern Australia, which probably dates originally to ca. 1300 BCE. The Wandjina “are said to have come out of the sea and the sky, to have created features of the landscape and then to have been absorbed into the walls of rock shelters in the territories of different clans.” These beings are generally depicted with extremely large eyes, no mouths, and with haloes surrounding their heads. Although these images are of great antiquity, the aboriginal clans with whom specific examples are associated have continued to tend and care for the images over the centuries by regular repainting, “making the paintings equally part of the present and the past.” Thus, in some regions of the world, such as Australia, it could be said that prehistoric religious art is still being produced today.

Rock engravings and paintings of even more modern antiquity in Africa and the Americas also bespeak these ancient roots. Rock paintings created by the San (or Sandawe) peoples of southern and southeastern Africa are generally agreed to have ancient origins but are notoriously hard to date, as is generally the case with much prehistoric art. Although the images of hunters and prey found in many of these ancient Paleolithic, and more recent, African examples have been avidly studied especially within the context of San shamanistic practices of more modern times, the ultimate antiquity of these symbols and forms as well as the antiquity of beliefs surrounding them is challenging to determine. Some of the most ancient examples of African rock art have been dated to ca. 25,000 BCE, whereas other examples are relatively much more recent. Much rock art from the Americas is similarly difficult to date and contains elusive meanings that are not necessarily explicated by the oral traditions surrounding these works. Important examples of prehistoric rock art abound in many world regions. Scholars continue to explore these challenging and intriguing arenas.

Figurines and larger sculptural works from the prehistoric periods were shaped and carved, via sawing or grinding with stone or metal tools (as developed by various dates), further enriched (via incision or engraving or painting), and appear in both relief and three-dimensional forms. Many works of terracotta (clay) were produced in the ancient Mediterranean world, such as the modeled clay figurines from Cyprus. Many works were also produced in stone, such as the carved marble figures from the Cycladic islands.

The terracotta statuette illustrated here from the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been dated to ca. 1450-1200 BCE. Several such examples have been found, especially within tombs. Large-hipped female figures are frequent and often show exaggerated eyes and prominent beak-like noses. They are thus generally described as “bird-headed women” or “women with bird faces.” They may be shown with arms crossed or placed on their hips or torsos, with laterally projecting hairdos or enlarged ears enriched with looped terracotta earrings. Several examples depict the women carrying or cradling babies. Many scholars have associated these figures with fertility and regeneration, thus their placement within tombs is believed to indicate concerns with renewal of life, if not also a belief in the afterlife. Other evidence from ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age Cyprus, in the form of terracotta models of shrines/sanctuaries, plus materials from tomb excavations, appears to indicate a religious preoccupation with fertility and renewal, including practices of animal sacrifice and other ceremonial offerings. The terracotta works from ancient Cyprus demonstrate a distinctive style and “show what today appears to be a playfulness and pleasure in creating complex forms with elaborate decoration.”

The older Cycladic example shown here has been dated to ca. 2700-2500 BCE and is typical of many other ancient marble figurines from this Aegean region. These early Cycladic figures, as well, show a highly distinctive and immediately recognizable style, the development of which took place over many centuries during the Neolithic period and early Bronze Age. Several different types of statues were produced, including seated male figures playing harps and other musical instruments, voluptuous and rounded female figures, violin-shaped figures, as well as the relatively slim and schematized nude female figures most often featured in studies of Cycladic art. These range in size from small figurines of 8 to 10 inches in height to larger statues of many feet tall. Typically, the figures show flattened faces with long, vertical, projecting noses, elongated necks, small breast mounds, and triangular pubic areas indicated by carved incisions. The legs may be joined together or partially separated, and the arms are often positioned across the torsos.

A religious significance is generally assumed for these statues. They have often been termed “idols” or “fertility figures.” Many have been found in association with graves, while taller examples (too large for typical burial practices) may have functioned as cult statues in shrines or other venues. Their exact purpose and use is unclear. It is wise to remember that, lacking written records,

It is virtually impossible for us to comprehend the intent of the prehistoric carvers … we can only hypothesize about the language of the ancient Cycladic islanders, how they perceived themselves, their world, and their cosmos, and the meaning or significance they attributed to the marble artifacts they left behind. What is certain, however, is that these objects were important to the Bronze Age people in and around the Cyclades, as excavated examples come from contexts spanning more than six hundred years.

The geometric abstraction and clarity of these minimal, schematic forms has had special appeal to many modern viewers, and much has been written about their remarkable visual impact, artistic restraint, and formal technique. Indeed, a number of important early 20th-century artists were much inspired by their encounters with “the clean lines and supple, abstract, but still human forms” of early Cycladic art. “For many modern viewers, the stark, unadorned surfaces of nearly all of the objects seem consistent with the minimal definition of their forms, leading to the supposition that their modern appearance closely resembled their original state.”

Several recent researchers have, however, shifted the focus of scholarship on these ancient Cycladic works by drawing particular attention to the traces of mineral and vegetable pigments frequently found on these examples. Although this painted evidence has always been visible to some degree, modern scientific analysis techniques have greatly increased the awareness of the extent to which these objects were originally painted. Rather than being stark, unadorned, proto-modern works, it seems now clearer that these figures were originally much more richly embellished with boldly painted eyes and other facial features, plus details of jewelry and costume.

Many, if not most, Cycladic figures were decorated with one or more colors, in patterns that do not necessarily emphasize or enhance their sculptural forms. And just as the idea of bright colors applied to the sculptures and architecture of Archaic and Classical Greece was at first difficult to accept, so elaborate painting on the smooth forms of Early Cycladic sculpted marbles definitely changes the way one thinks about these objects and the people who created them.

This again provides an extremely useful reminder of the many challenges involved with the study and interpretation of prehistoric art. Modern viewers of these ancient objects may simply not be seeing, or accurately imagining, their original appearances. This may hamper the interpretative understanding of the meaning, context, and purpose of the objects. At the same time, this is also a very exciting reminder of how continued scholarship serves to ever change, augment, and increase our knowledge and perceptions of prehistory.


Mnajdra Temple complex, Malta, ca. 3300-2500 BCE

The Maltese archipelago consists of several islands located in the Mediterranean Sea between Italy and north Africa. The islands are extremely rich in remarkable prehistoric remains, some dating from as early as the fifth and fourth millennia BCE. These remains include pottery and sculpture as well as numerous architectural structures, generally described as temples. These ancient temples are believed to be among the earliest free-standing examples of religious architecture in the world. Some of the structures are single buildings; others are architectural complexes that include several temples. In all, there are over 20 temples on the islands, including major examples such as Mnajdra, Hagar Qim, and Tarxien on the island of Malta, and Ggantija on the island of Gozo.

Although much scholarly attention has been devoted to the Maltese temples, especially since the mid-19th century, early archaeologists were unclear as to the date of the structures, and most believed them to have been constructed by the Phoenicians, who were active in the Mediterranean world during the first millennium BCE and who were present on the Maltese islands in the seventh century BCE. Further archaeological work in the mid- to late 20th century, however, has determined the much greater antiquity of these important and unique structures. They are now dated largely to the mid-fourth through mid-third millennia BCE.

The monuments are unusual in that they appear not to have been influenced by other cultures or to have significantly influenced the architectural constructions of later cultures in the Mediterranean world. They are built of large limestone slabs using post-and-lintel as well as corbel construction techniques (layering projecting stones to form arches and vaults.) Most of the temples have enclosed courtyards with entrances leading into central areas from which three or more semicircular lobes or apselike chambers project. This lobed, trefoil, or cloverleaf plan is uniquely typical of Maltese temples. Several scholars have proposed that their shape mirrors the bulbous forms seen in numerous carved stone female figures also associated with the temples.

Free-standing carved stone blocks found in the temples are believed to have been used as altars. Animal bones found in excavations have led scholars to assume that animal sacrifices were practiced. The structures appear not to have served as burial sites because human bones have customarily not been found in the excavations. Cemeteries and funerary complexes also have been excavated on the Maltese islands, but they are generally separate and removed from the temples. Some of the temples include relief carvings of animals (goats, sheep, pigs, fish, and bulls) plus various spiral designs. Several include interior benches and hearths. “The interiors of temples are relatively small, and it is thought that they were used mostly by religious specialists and officials, with larger congregations of the community taking place outdoors on the paved courtyards in front of temples.”

The architectural complexity, unique floor plans, and dominance of carved stone female figures found in association with these temples have led many to believe that prehistoric religion on Malta centered on goddess worship, a theme that many feel permeated Neolithic cultures in other world regions as well. “Central to this culture is veneration of the Goddess-Creator in all her aspects, the major aspects being the birth-giver, the fertility-giver, the life- or nourishment-giver and protectress, and the death-wielder.” Others, however, are far less convinced that the Maltese temples give evidence of ancient goddess worship.

Overall, responses to the Maltese temples and their related art may be seen as intriguing reflections of the changing interpretative strategies that have been, and continue to be, employed in studies of prehistoric art. It is always wise to remember that “any interpretation of the past is a social product which has more to do with the historical moment in which it is produced than the period to which it refers.” The Maltese temples provide an especially fascinating study of such reinterpretation. The temples today have become important centers of tourism, especially for goddess pilgrims who visit in great numbers to reconnect with the ancient matriarchal past. The popular and archaeological discourses about the Maltese temples thus tend to diverge in some significant ways, reflecting different agendas and variant modes of understanding prehistory. For adherents of the goddess movement, the Maltese temples and their related art stand as signal proof of the prepatriarchal harmony of ancient female-centered cultures. Others, opposed to this view, see “no conclusive evidence that Malta was ever [a] a matristic Goddess-worshiping utopia.” Even so, the antiquity and importance of the temples themselves is not a matter of dispute, and “whatever other agendas each group has, a crucially important shared agenda is the preservation of the sites.”

Stonehenge, England, ca. 3000-1500 BCE

Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in southern England, is certainly one of the most well-known and well-studied examples of a specific type of prehistoric megalithic (large stone) monument. Scholars have determined that there was a very long process of construction and use of Stonehenge (approximately 3000-1500 BCE), with many additions and alterations made to the site during three distinct phases of building and renovation. The monument consists of a number of large upright standing stones (menhirs), enclosed within a circular ditch (or henge) with a series of 56 burial pits on the interior of the ditch. Many archaeologists believe that the stones replaced an earlier timber structure on the site, which served as a type of mortuary chapel for corpses awaiting burial. The large sarcen (sandstone) menhirs, many of which are still upright today, were set up ca. 2000 BCE and arranged in a circle forming a complete ring with a continuous set of lintel stones. Although there are numerous other examples of prehistoric stone circles (widely distributed throughout the world), Stonehenge is unique in the fact that the builders shaped the huge stones with notches/joints in mortise-and-tenon fashion so that the monumental lintel stones fit neatly into slots carved on the tops of the giant uprights. Within the sarsen circle are five trilithons (two upright stones sharing a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe shape. The tallest is about 25 feet in height. In addition, bluestones (so named because they take on a bluish tone when wet) were added in a later phase, and a large altar stone was set up close to the center of the circle. The bluestones were transported to the site from Wales (about 190 miles away) via water and overland dragging, while the sandstones were dragged to the site from about 15 miles away.

Clearly, the efforts entailed to create, maintain, and renovate this monument over thousands of years are evidence that Stonehenge was of extreme significance for the prehistoric peoples of the region. However, interpretations of the function and purpose of Stonehenge have ranged widely, if not wildly, through centuries of scholarship. A number of scholars currently agree that Stonehenge primarily, if not originally, served as a monumental observatory for charting the seasons of the year by indicating the summer and winter solstices. The midsummer sun rises over a specific stone, and several stones are also aligned to the midwinter sunset. This archaeo-astronomical aspect of Stonehenge has attracted the greatest attention in late 20th-century technology-based scholarship, although other theories about Stonehenge (as a site for ancient Druid rituals, as a marker of territory, as a solar temple for worship of the sun god) have been proposed.

As with all examples of art and architectural forms from prehistory, the lack of written records makes it difficult to do anything other than purely speculate about purpose and function. The logical tendency is to assume that Stonehenge had a religious or ritual function of some sort—but the exact nature of this will doubtless continue to be explored by generations of scholars and enthusiasts in the future.

Minoan Snake Goddess, ca. 1600 BCE

This small (13½ inches high) glazed earthenware statuette is one of the most frequently reproduced images of ancient religious art. The object was discovered in the early 20th century during the excavations undertaken by the British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), at the site of the great Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. Evans’s pioneering work at Knossos, his nomenclature of the Minoan civilization (after the legendary King Minos of Knossos), the chronology he developed for the various phases of this civilization (ca. 3500/3000-ca. 1050 BCE), and his theories about and reconstructions of Minoan art and architecture have provided the foundations for subsequent scholarly work as well as intense dispute about this ancient culture.

The Minoans appear to have been a prosperous and peaceful civilization who engaged in trade and commerce with other ancient peoples in the Aegean and Mediterranean world, notably the Egyptian, Syrian, and Cycladic cultures. The Minoans were great builders, and a number of impressive residential and ceremonial centers (or palaces, Knossos being the largest) were constructed beginning ca. 2000 BCE. Frescoes, pottery, metalwork, engraved seals, figurines of animals and humans in clay and ivory, jewelry of gold, bronze, and gemstones all survive in abundance and give evidence of a high degree of sophistication and skill with art production in a wide range of media.

Much scholarship has been devoted to the topic of Minoan religion, based on numerous representations in Minoan art of scenes involving god and goddess figures, priest and priestess figures, worshippers, ritual offerings, and processions. Objects that appear to be cultic/ceremonial in nature have been found in abundance not only in the several palaces but also in caves and sanctuaries located in the hills and mountains. Altars and offering tables, votive figurines, ritual libation vessels, and symbols such as double-axes, bull’s horns, and heraldic animals are the most common forms in the artistic vocabulary of Minoan ritual practices. Some scholars believe that Minoan palaces were deliberately laid out and oriented toward the peak sanctuaries in the neighboring mountains where caves devoted to worship of a nature or fertility goddess were located.

Whether as Mistress of the Animals, Goddess of Nature, Fertility Goddess, Bird Goddess, or Water Goddess—solo or accompanied by a Warrior/Hunter God—the female goddess figure dominates the imagery of Minoan religious art. Whether she is one goddess with several different aspects or several different goddesses is unclear.

The glazed earthenware statuette of the Snake Goddess in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete, demonstrates many aspects of her traditional imagery. On engraved seals, wall paintings, and in other media, the same forms appear: the long flounced skirt, narrow waist, tall silhouette, and bared breasts. When the figurine was found in the early excavations at Knossos, it was broken in several places. The head of the figure and the head of the one original snake were missing as well as most of the figure’s left arm. These missing pieces were created and attached to the figurine by an early 20th-century artist/conservator employed by Sir Arthur Evans. Although the head is not original, the beret/cap and cat/feline form atop the beret were found in the excavations (although not with the figurine) and were attached to the reconstructed head to make up the ensemble as it exists today.

In spite of the frequency with which this image is reproduced, the Snake Goddess per se is otherwise a relatively rare subject in Minoan art. Several other statuettes do exist of similar figures with outstretched arms twined with snakes, but several of these are modern forgeries loosely based on this one reconstructed example and a few other examples with secure ancient origin. Although there seems “ample archaeological evidence for a predominant female deity (or deities) on Crete,” the attention given to the cult of the Snake Goddess in particular has tended to overshadow and dominate the discussion. It is wise to remember that for the periods of prehistory without written sources, much remains a matter of speculation. Indeed, “until Minoan writing is deciphered, the precise nature of early Cretan religion must remain uncertain.”