In courses I teach on the history of religion, I stress art work and architecture as intrinsic parts of religion and spirituality. For literate cultures this is often obvious – places of worship or meditation [in the case of Buddhist temples] are highly decorated in a manner that reinforces beliefs. The architecture of these buildings is also what the historian William Westfall called a ‘sermon in stone‘.
I am cautious, however, and have some latent doubts when I post material on non-literate societies. Cave paintings are a good case in point. Are paintings of animals examples of what used to be called sympathetic magic? That is, were they painted to aid in the hunt? Or were just examples of a human love of representation … of art?
I like to watch an English show called Time Team, where archaeologists have three days to unearth and interpret remains in the British Isles. I am surprised at how many times the interpretations require so much imagination where corroborating evidence is absent.
This all reminds me that in the study of religion in history, an open mind must be cultivated and an agility in dropping pet theories maintained.