1. Education
K. Kris Hirst

Shamans and Archaeology

By April 6, 2009

Follow me on:

What are the archaeological signatures of shamans? An interesting paper by Christine VanPool appearing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology in the nearish future gives us a framework for answering that question.

Bronze Age Tanum Rock Art (Sweden), images enhanced with chalk water
Bronze Age Tanum Rock Art (Sweden), images enhanced with chalk water Photo by

First VanPool provides a useful delineation of the cultural traits of shamans and priests, which I've used to build a couple of detailed definitions (here: Priest and Shaman). In brief, though, the way VanPool sees it, shamans and priests are two ends of a continuum of religious specialists.

What are Religious Specialists?

Religious specialists are those people in a given society who have a connection to the deities who control things humans cannot. Religious specialists are classed by dry-as-dust archaeologists as "craft specialists", and the presence of craft specialists—people with assigned part time or full time jobs including crop tending and child care and pot making and flint knapping and tending to the religious needs of a society—is one of those characteristics of complex societies that anthropologists (and archaeologists) use to discuss how people organize themselves.

Shamans, associated with hunter-gatherer societies, may be part-time specialists, with a practice that primarily focuses on the problems of the individual. Shamans use private spaces for connecting with the underworld and actually become spiritual creatures themselves, using altered states of consciousness to connect to the other world.

Priests, on the other hand, are generally associated with agricultural societies. They have a more formalized role, and work full time at their craft; they work for the goals of the entire society. Priests follow a liturgical text and calendar, and use public spaces for publicly-attended communication with the underworld. Priests are representatives of the gods, not the gods themselves, and they don't typically use altered states of consciousness to speak to them.

VanPool points out that the two categories are created by archaeologists and anthropologists, and are not mutually exclusive in real-life applications—you can have both types of specialists in a given society. Some societies have shaman-priests who combine traits of both. Further, many native religions were greatly impacted by colonization and missionaries, creating a great loss of diversity; but colonization, agricultural complexity and even urbanization does not necessarily entail a complete shift away from shamanism.

Identifying Religious Specialists

The Oneota Birdman or Hawkman.
The Oneota Birdman or Hawkman is a half-man, half-bird image that appears in Oneota iconography, and is variously interpreted.
Image Credit: redrafted by Kris Hirst

Typically, archaeologists have used the presence of a ritual-specific artifact or a rock art drawing of an anthropomorphic creature with animal characteristics to tentatively suggest the presence of a shaman within a given society. VanPool makes a cogent argument that by now anthropologists have identified a suite of cross-cultural traits that can be identified archaeologically and thus used to confidently argue for shamanism as a practice at an archaeological site or set of sites.

These traits include evidence of the use of hallucinogens (seeds, plant residues, or identifying the specific chemicals) to achieve altered states of consciousness and entopic imagery—grids, stars, spirals—on rock art or on ceramic vessels; evidence of pilgrimages or pilgrimage routes; anthropomorphic images; animal fetishes; crystals; drums and rattles; incense; temporary altars; effigy pipes, and the like. It is only with a combination of traits, says VanPool, that we can confidently hypothesize a shamanistic element in our archaeological past.

Further Reading

VanPool, Christine. 2009. The signs of the sacred: Identifying shamans using archaeological evidence. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28(2):177-190.

PS. I used the present tense for discussing priests and shamans in this essay, although I'm mostly talking about archaeological evidence of past societies. I did that on purpose (although I thought about it for quite a while), because anthropology is an ongoing process and we humans today are walking around with the history of our past embedded in our own societies and genes. The past is both a complete stranger and closely related to us—I like to think of her as our great-grandmother—and it's best to remember that when we can.


April 6, 2009 at 7:21 pm
(1) anon says:

A study of the origin and use of the term “shaman” in English language might prove more enlightening for understanding cultural history and popular literature than prehistory. Assumptions about the past are truly limited and very much defined by ‘present’ time. When knowledge was less likely the realm of specialists, modern specialist categories may not apply.

I would have greater confidence in a publication about “shaman” if it integrated identifying teachers, mayors, fire fighters and police, etc., rather than only focus on mystical, imaginative interpretations of past roles, interpretations dependent on present concepts.

April 7, 2009 at 9:25 am
(2) Richard A. Diehl says:

I look forward to reading this article although your summary is quite enlightening in itself. I have been interested in this topic for many years and am grappling with it today in my class on the Anthropology of the Amazon. One of the books siting in my To-read Pile is Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: the Origin of Creativity and Belief by David S. Whitley. Have you read it? First I need to finish The Lost City of Z.


April 7, 2009 at 3:37 pm
(3) Paula says:

Good summary and a fascinating article. One point VanPool makes that I think can’t be overemphasized: “Physiological uniformity and the structure of the human neurophysiologic system limit the ways that ASC [altered states of consciousness] is achieved and experienced cross-culturally.” In other words, just because there are resemblances between the imagery used to represent shamanic states in (say) Siberia and the Mayan world, that doesn’t mean that there was a direct INFLUENCE of one on the other. (Some incredible nonsense has been written based on that assumption!)

April 8, 2009 at 8:26 am
(4) Ran says:

I think this statement, “These traits include evidence of the use of hallucinogens (seeds, plant residues, or identifying the specific chemicals) to achieve altered states of consciousness ” places an over emphasis on the use of entheogens for trance induction, where I have learned from Michael Harner that drumming is actually the primary means with only a few exceptions.

April 8, 2009 at 2:58 pm
(5) Ian Ragsdale says:

I agree with anon on several points; the word “shaman” in English originally referred to a particular role in a particular Eurasian culture zone. To go by that definition, calling similar practitioners in Africa, Australia, or the Americas “shamans” is incorrect. However, language is always changing, and so these days “shaman” is allowed to have a broader definition.

I also think it is a good point that modern Western society still has roles similar to the shaman and priest function as here defined by anthropology. It would be interesting to see a text elucidating connections between “shaman,” “priest,” and modern Western occupations like doctor or politician.

April 9, 2009 at 10:26 pm
(6) Greg Laden says:

The latest Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival, which includes this post, is HERE. Please check it out.

April 10, 2009 at 2:15 am
(7) Loki says:

To quote Jack Nicholson “I don’t want to have a semantic argument, I just want the toast.” Let me clear some of this up for you. The term shaman comes from the Tungus culture in Siberia. More importantly, you don’t have to argue whether one culture influenced another, because entoptic phenomenon is universal and limited to about 10 different variations. That means it doesn’t matter if you are a Tungus shaman seeing intertwined snakes, a yogi from india seeing ida and pingala coiling around shushumna, an ayahausquero in Ecuador, or an ancient Egyptian drawing the caduecus of Hermes, or a Jewish kabbalist with the 3 pillars of the tree of life. You can trance dance, drum, take hallucinogens, or meditate, in any time period and have the same experience with the same symbolism, because “altered states” are an ENLARGEMENT of consciousness, a fuller experience of existence. Call it raising the Kundalini, or the lightning strike, or the pierced man, the fact is this experience is open to everyone not just specialists, and would might be a damn sight better at bringing the world together than religions, people who argue over words, and worry about if we are just forcing our present ideas upon vanished cultures. Try it for yourself, then talk. Until you have some experience of it, you are like a babbling infant.

April 14, 2009 at 9:50 am
(8) dochaux says:

I’ve not attended any of Harner’s shamanism workshops, so I don’t know whether this is a New Age enterprise or an anthropologically extrapolated attempt to re-create shamanistic ceremonies.
Most of the traditional entheogens cannot be legally possessed or used in the US, so if Harner cannot access them on a regular basis, it might be understandable that he emphasizes drumming and de-emphasizes the importance of botanical sacraments.
Most who have ever used entheogens in a traditional setting would not make that mistake. Drumming (and chanting) does indeed accompany shamanistic rituals all over the world; drumming is also a familiar part of our ordinary world experience. The entheogens, particularly the tryptamines (e.g. ayahuasca, teonanacatl) and phenethylamines (e.g. peyote) produce experiences very unlike our usual consensual reality. They form a core contributor to shamanic practices, and without them a vital dimension is not merely absent, but unconceived.

April 14, 2009 at 5:13 pm
(9) Paula says:

While the Swedish rock-art image at the top of the article is striking, I was horrified to note that it has been “enhanced with chalk water.” As someone with quite a bit of experience in recording rock art, I was taught from Day One that you do NOT put chalk, water, or any other “enhancement” on rock art. Chalk can cause chemical reactions that will destroy the rock, and even water can interfere with analysis of the surface in a dry climate. The only nondestructive way to photograph rock art is to wait for the light to hit it at a good angle.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>
Top Related Searches
  • shamans
  • archaeology
  • ©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.