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Material Culture of Ancient Religion


Admission requirements

This course is part of the MA History Programme. Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Greek and Roman religions are often understood and described in modern scholarship as “embedded” in all aspects of ancient society. And because religion permeated all facets of life in the Greek and Roman worlds, it is hardly surprising that traces of religious thought and practice can be found virtually everywhere. Many various genres of material objects – altars, votive offerings, amulets, curse tablets and magical dolls, oracular tablets, the so-called Orphic-Bacchic lamellae, cultic incense burners, purification water basins, vases, figurines, gems, and plaques – not only bear witness to the remarkable and fundamental role played by religion in the life of ancient communities, but can also reveal a great deal about the experiences and impressions of Greek and Roman religions. The very construction of gods as super-human beings and all forms of communication with them were not only using, but were shaped by, the material basis to these activities. If, as has recently been argued, material objects have agency, i.e. can affect people and elicit human action, we need to rethink the question of how and to what extend have religious experiences, sensations and actions of people in the ancient world been delineated and enhanced by the atifacts they used in cultic context? And more generally, how can the study of material culture expand our understanding of religious practices and beliefs in the ancient Greek and Roman world?

This course will offer a practical guide on how to use material objects as a source for the study of Greek and Roman religions. Students will learn how to find, read and interpret various genres of artifacts. Knowledge of the Greek or Latin language is not required.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  2. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  3. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  4. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  5. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  6. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  7. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  8. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtracks as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following; in the specialisation Ancient History: unification processes in the Graece-Roman world, 400 BC-400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history;

  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following; in the specialisation Ancient History: the comparative method; application of socio-economic methods; specialized source knowledge, in particular of documentary sources.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Workshop

The student:

  1. will get acquainted with the characteristics and development of different genres of ancient material culture;

  2. will acquire knowledge of and insight into the theories, apparatus, research methods and techniques of material culture analysis;

  3. will be able to apply the acquired knowledge and research skills in her/his/their research.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Workshop (compulsory attendance)

This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Entry test
    measured learning objectives

  • Written paper (ca. 2.000-2.500 words, (ResMA/10 ects students ca. 5.000 words), based on research in primary sources)
    measured learning objectives: 1-13

  • Weekly writing assignments (artifacts analysis, short essays)
    measured learning objectives: 1-13

  • Participation (Discussions in class)
    measured learning objectives: 1-13


  • Written paper: 50%

  • Weekly assignments: 30%

  • Participation: 15%

  • Entry test: 5%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

  • R. Raja, J. Rüpke (eds.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World (Chichester; Malden, MA; Oxford 2015).

Other relevant literature will be provided during the course, but must also be searched by the students themselves as part of training in relevant professional skills.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.


This course also welcomes students from other MA programmes, in particular Religious Studies, and Classics and Ancient Civilizations.