New book news: Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy

Readers of The Votives Project might be interested to learn about the publication of a new book by one of the website’s co-founders. Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy (Routledge, 2021) by Emma-Jayne Graham focuses on ancient material religion, and among other things chapters feature discussions of sanctuaries and anatomical votives in ancient Italy, as well as other objects connected to ritual communication with the divine. Read on for a summary, a short extract, and information about a 20% discount!


This book examines the ways in which lived religion in Roman Italy involved personal and communal experiences of the religious agency generated when ritualised activities caused human and more-than-human things to become bundled together into relational assemblages. Drawing upon broadly posthumanist and new materialist theories concerning the thingliness of things, it sets out to re-evaluate the role of the material world within Roman religion and to offer new perspectives on the formation of multi-scalar forms of ancient religious knowledge. It explores what happens when a materially informed approach is systematically applied to the investigation of typical questions about Roman religion such as: What did Romans understand ‘religion’ to mean? What did religious experiences allow people to understand about the material world and their own place within it? How were experiences of ritual connected with shared beliefs or concepts about the relationship between the mortal and divine worlds? How was divinity constructed and perceived? To answer these questions, it gathers and evaluates archaeological evidence associated with a series of case studies. Each of these focuses on a key component of the ritualised assemblages shown to have produced Roman religious agency – place, objects, bodies, and divinity – and centres on an examination of experiences of lived religion as it related to the contexts of monumentalised sanctuaries, cult instruments used in public sacrifice, anatomical votive offerings, cult images and the qualities of divinity, and magic as a situationally specific form of religious knowledge. By breaking down and then reconstructing the ritualised assemblages that generated and sustained Roman religion, this book makes the case for adopting a material approach to the study of ancient lived religion.

A short extract from the book …

From individual to communal bodies

Even if the activities performed as part of a ritual act of dedication were largely prescribed by distal religious knowledge concerning its do ut des nature, and despite the fact that the mould-made origin of the objects discussed here caused some of them to be almost identical in physical form, when ritualised behaviour obliged them to combine with the material bodies, memories, sensory capacities, expectations, hopes, and physical movements of individual human dedicants, votive cult practices produced a spectrum of lived experiences of religious agency. In turn, these constructed subtly nuanced proximal forms of knowledge concerning an individual’s body and their place in a complex world comprising mortals, gods, and other things. Nevertheless, the knowledge produced by these experiences was also rationalised in relation to existing understandings of how this religious world (p. 136) worked and how to maintain it. Distal forms of knowledge were, after all, necessary for structuring the performance of these ritualised activities and for bringing people to a location which exhibited traces of similar activities enacted by other members of their community. Much as votive cult was performed and thereby lived on an individual level, it might also be closely entwined with the production of shared communal forms of religious knowledge too.

At Pantanacci, it appears that dedicants interacted with and rearranged previously dedicated offerings. Items were sometimes ‘stacked’ (e.g. a mask inserted into the concave section of a swaddled baby), and the excavators suggested that the niches and cavities into which they were inserted were selected in order to facilitate a sort of grouping together of similar types of object (Attenni and Ghini 2014, p. 156). There was certainly an inclination towards augmenting or otherwise altering the material qualities of offerings of all types in order to make them into something other than they were before they were dedicated. This includes filling or covering ceramic vessels with clay and actively encouraging spring water to continually wash over some of the miniature ceramic vessels. From the early published data about the site it is not clear when these interventions took place, but it is probable that it was part of the act of dedication itself – although, of course, the stacking of anatomical votives would only have been possible if there was already an item to add to or ‘enhance’, unless we are to imagine offerings of very different type being made at the same time by the same person. In effect, these equally religiously ritualised actions created new and unique things as well as new assemblages of things, assemblages that extended beyond the personal one-to-one of anatomical body part and its respective living counterpart to combine multiple more-than-human and human things into new configurations.

The augmentation of one type of body or body part with another provides an interesting contrast to attempts evident from elsewhere in the cave to segregate different types of model by grouping them together, suggesting that there were a number of potential actions available to the community who worshipped there, as well as different interpretations of what was appropriate for particular circumstances. Nevertheless, this range of contrasting actions also points towards the performance of a series of communal acts, or at least the decision to engage actively with the actions of other members of the dedicatory community and the things that they had left behind. This raises a new set of questions. Did people return regularly to make repeated offerings, choosing to physically join together or otherwise associate these separate dedications? Did people actively seek out their own previous offerings or those of family, friends, or perhaps even strangers? To what extent did petitioners know whose offering belonged to whom when they were largely identical in appearance? What happens to the distinct material affordances of a model of one body part when it assembles with those of another? These questions cannot be answered based on the evidence from Pantanacci, but they resonate with many of the observations already made in this chapter, re-emphasising the transformative agency of ritualised activities that brought together people and material things. At the very least, the significance of such agency to those who frequented the cave appears to have been closely connected (p. 137) to the reassembling of things and the very physical joining of one body with another in order to create a new, composite one. In many ways these composite bodies remained incomplete and fragmentary, but they were physically and conceptually united in perpetuity as new thingly “bodies”. These choices also stress how ritualised assemblages featuring votives might be endlessly changeable, their reconfiguration offering new opportunities for the production and experience of different forms of lived religion suitable to different situations or the needs of the wider dedicatory community.

Graham, E-J. (2021) Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy. Abingdon, Routledge, pp. 135-7.

If you are interested in reading more, the book is available as hardback and in ebook form on the Routledge website. See the flyer below for more details, and enter the code HUT20 at checkout for a 20% discount.

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