Shadows and Solid Things: Religion and Archaeology in the Atlantic World

Kristofer Stinson

Advisor: Lincoln A. Mullen, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, John Turner

Horizon Hall, #3223
April 19, 2024, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


My dissertation examines the relationship between religion and archaeology in Britain and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pulling together travel narratives written by early archaeologists, newspaper accounts, and the material artifacts and excavated sites themselves, I show how archaeology, which allowed investigators to determine the historicity of ancient places and texts, implicated religious beliefs. With the Bible, Herodotus, and Homer in one hand and a shovel in the other, many archaeologists set off to prove that these works were history in the most real sense. Yet what they found often left them with more questions than answers. I argue that the rise of archaeology challenged the literal interpretation of ancient texts, including the Bible, even as it formed a new kind of “empirical literalism” that prioritized material presence above all. As such, archaeology became the ultimate mediator between myth and history in a way that had previously been the function of ancient texts like the Bible. The histories of religion and archaeology have largely been kept apart by scholars while even fewer have included early America in the story of archaeology. I address both gaps in scholarship by expanding the scope of both Methodist and early American studies to include archaeological excavations. Doing so also impacts our understanding of religion in America by illustrating that the story of archaeology was thoroughly religious. As such, I complicate notions of religious enchantment by deploying more recent scholarship on archaeology that emphasizes “presence” rather than “absence,” as seen in the works of Jennifer Wallace and Karen Bassi. Their discussion of presence, I suggest, should be paired with the work of religious scholars such as James Turner and Robert Orsi to provide a more accurate account of early archaeology as both a scientific and religious operation.

The early-modern world was one of ancient stories – a world of “shadows.” Thanks to a potent blend of forces that scholars have labeled “classicism” and “primitivism” people across the Atlantic and beyond turned to ancient texts for guidance and instruction regarding both how the world once was and how the world should be. These ancient stories were not only authoritative but were, in many instances, sacred, forming a veritable canon in both schools and churches. Readers in the United States and Britain approached their ancient stories with a posture of trust that reflected a pervasive literalism that treated ancient texts as history. Specifically, it formed a sense that the places they read about existed beyond their libraries, beyond their armchairs, and beyond their sanctuaries, in the real world. Ultimately, these ancient texts were authoritative because readers trusted that they were real – trusted that they were history and not mere myth (Chapter 1).

Yet thanks to the newly developing science that would come to be “archaeology,” the early modern world was also increasingly a world of “solid things.” The central question became how might shadows and solid things interact? How might the sacred stories of antiquity be affected by the discoveries archaeologists were making? Indeed, beginning with the excavations at Herculaneum in the early eighteenth century, contemporaries were convinced that these were questions in need of answers (Chapter 2). The next several decades served to shape the relationship between texts and archaeology in various ways, with each harboring distinctly religious implications. In Egypt, it became clear with such artifacts as the Rosetta Stone that archaeology would serve to reveal new truths that went beyond people’s established canons, giving voice to peoples long voiceless (Chapter 3). In Babylon, archaeology served to illustrate these canons more fully, helping to indicate to readers when stories were to be taken literally and when, perhaps, they were not quite “history” as contemporaries understood it (Chapter 4). Finally, in the Holy Land, as the American Edward

Robinson crafted a new subfield of archaeology known as “biblical archaeology,” archaeology came to mediate between fiction and fact, myth and history – shadows and solid things (Chapter 5).




Chapter 1: Shadows as Solid Things

Chapter 2: The Incarnation of Classicism

Chapter 3: The Land of Egypt

Chapter 4: By the Rivers of Babylon

Chapter 5: Holy Ground

Epilogue: Faith of Stones