Pilgrimage

The term pilgrimage tends to be applied to journeys in search of spiritual fulfillment made in historical and modern times, particularly in the context of global faiths such as Christianity and Islam. However, the idea of mystical journeys that are undertaken exceptionally—representing a complete break from familiar places and/or practices—may well be more widely applicable to peoples in the past, and even in prehistory. Of course, such an experience can be totally individual and personal, but it is very often motivated by the perceived need to be in a particular place to undertake one or more specific acts of idolatry, and very often at a particular time. If similar ideological perceptions are widely shared, then mass pilgrimages can easily result. Small-scale, and even individual, acts of reverence in the past could have resulted in the placing of votive offerings that are discoverable by ar-chaeologists—a possible example is the "formal" deposits found in the ditch and postholes of the early earth and timber circle at Stonehenge in England; however, mass pilgrimages seem most likely to be archaeologically visible. How do we recognize potential places of pilgrimage? And how do we proceed to address the questions of who came to them, from where, when, and why?

Answering even the first of these questions is a task that is far from straightforward. It seems clear that for a place to become the focus for pilgrimage, it must be exceptional in people's minds. This idea is fine as far as it goes, but a place could have been seen as exceptional for a whole variety of reasons that could apply equally well to distinctive natural places or to human constructions on any scale. Just because a place was large and important enough to have attracted mass gatherings does not mean that we would necessarily wish to describe it as a pilgrimage center—consider trading centers on market day; nor does a place need to be remote or to attract participants from great distances in order to qualify (a good example is the peak sanctuaries of Minoan Crete). Nonetheless, evidence of religious or ritualistic activity and participation from afar are key indicators for the archaeologist, and a place of pilgrimage may be more obvious archaeologically if these pilgrims from afar deposited "foreign" artifacts that can be convincingly interpreted as cult objects or votive offerings.

Another characteristic aspect of pilgrimage is the journey itself. The act of making a pilgrimage can be as important as the place finally reached, and the idea of pilgrimages in the distant past may be supported by the existence of "formalized" routes of approach or by sets of shrines strung out along routes through the landscape. A possible example of the former is the enigmatic Cursus Monuments of Neolithic Britain, whose low earthen ditches and banks could have prescribed movement at special times or for special purposes without constraining it at other times, given (as seems likely) that they were easily walked across. Elsewhere, and later, stone and timber avenues may have served a similar purpose. Such arguments are more convincing when the formal route in question leads directly to an obvious can didate for a pilgrimage center, as did the three-kilometer-long avenue that led up to Stonehenge in the late second millennium b.c.e. Far away in space and time, the impracticality for normal purposes of many of the roads and trackways converging upon Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, around the eleventh century C.E. implies that their function was largely symbolic and adds strength to arguments that Chaco was a huge pilgrimage center, its Great Houses full to capacity only at certain times. Likewise, the ceremonial complex of Cahuachi in the valley south of the Nasca pampa in Peru has been interpreted as a focus for pilgrimage, and it is possible that some of the famous geoglyphs—long straight lines running across the arid pampas surrounding the site—could have been ritualistic paths of approach.

One of the most important aspects of many pilgrimages is timing. Many places acquire particular significance and are seen as charged with particular sacred power at certain times. Astronomical phenomena such as sunrise alignments and shadow hierophanies are often of key importance in this context—witness the modern crowds eager to view the equinox hiero-phany at Kukulcan in Mexico, midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge, or midwinter sunrise at Newgrange in Ireland. (These examples also demonstrate that such practices do not necessarily bear any relation to the actual original intention of the builders—as opposed to the perceived or assumed intention—something that may well have also been true in the past when people ascribed sacred significance to even older monuments.) If such phenomena inspired mass pilgrimages, then an interesting question arises: how did people from afar know when to set out?

A possible answer is that they observed the stars. The heliacal rising or setting of a prominent star or asterism can, for example, provide a sure way of determining the time of year to within a few days, even if there are periods of bad weather. If the astronomical event in question occurred sufficiently far ahead of the sacred ceremony (which might itself have been triggered by an astronomical event), then each pilgrim would have sufficient time to prepare for and make the journey. For example, the Delphic oracle in ancient Greece was originally only available for consultation on one day in the year. It has been suggested that the trigger, both for the oracle itself and for pilgrims to set out, was the first pre-dawn appearance of the constellation Delphinus. At Delphi itself, however, the heliacal rise of Delphinus was considerably delayed owing to the high eastern horizon, giving pilgrims time to arrive there.

The Thornborough henges in northern England demonstrate how various strands of evidence can be brought together to make a plausible argument for a prehistoric site being a pilgrimage center. These include a concentration of non-local flints that suggest a mass influx of people from a considerable distance, and repeated alignments upon the rising position of

Orion's belt and Sirius (which reflect their changing position over many centuries), suggesting that ceremonial activity here might have been directly related to these two prominent objects in the sky. It makes sense that a major ceremony would have been held in the early autumn, when the harvest was completed but before the onset of cold weather. The heliacal rising of Orion's belt and Sirius took place some three weeks apart in the late summer and early autumn. The first appearance of Orion's belt could have provided the sign for pilgrims to set out on their journey, while the subsequent appearance of Sirius provided the signal for the festivities to begin.

Although the term pilgrimage is broad and in some ways ill-defined, the past is undoubtedly full of instances where large numbers of people—often coming from large distances—converged on sacred places at particular times. Where this happened, watching the skies would have provided an easy and reliable way for pilgrims to judge when to commence their journeys. Pilgrimages of this type, even in prehistory, may be detectable by carefully combining evidence from archaeology and archaeoastronomy.

See also:

Equinoxes.

Chaco Meridian; Cursus Monuments; Kukulcan; Minoan Temples and

Tombs; Nasca Lines and Figures; Newgrange; Stonehenge; Thornborough.

Heliacal Rise; Solstices.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F., ed. The Lines of Nazca, 207-244. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1990.

Barba de Pina Chan, Beatriz, ed. Caminos Terrestres al Cielo. Mexico City: INAH, 1998. [In Spanish.]

Carlson, John, ed. Pilgrimage and the Ritual Landscape in Pre-Columbian America. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, in press.

Gibson, Alex, and Derek Simpson, eds. Prehistoric Ritual and Religion, 14-31. Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

Malville, J. McKim, and Nancy J. Malville. "Pilgrimage and Astronomy in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico." In D. P. Dubey, ed., Pilgrimage Studies: The Power of Sacred Places, 206-241. Allahabad, India: Society of Pilgrimage Studies, 2000.

Renfrew, Colin, ed. The Prehistory of Orkney, 243-261. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.

Ritchie, Anna, ed. Neolithic Orkney in its European Context, 31-46. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000.

Smith, A.T., and A. Brookes, eds. Holy Ground: Theoretical Issues Relating to the Landscape and Material Culture of Ritual Space, 9-20, 91-97. Oxford: Archaeopress (BAR International Series 956), 2001.

Stopford, Jennifer, ed. Pilgrimage Explored, 1-23. Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 1999.

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