Building Belief: From Symbolism to Social Organization in Early Bronze Age Eurasia (3500-2400 BC)

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This dissertation is a multi-scalar inquiry into the religious practices of the Early Bronze Age horizon known as the Kura-Araxes (ca. 3500-2400 BC). At its height, the Kura-Araxes was arguably the most widespread cultural horizon in the ancient Near East, spreading from the South Caucasus throughout Southwest Asia. Previous scholarship addressed the content and composition of the culture: its geographical parameters, chronology, and material dimensions. However, it remains undertheorized how – and why – these communities spread over such an expansive territory without political institutions of coercion. I argue that religion played a pivotal role in this emergence, maintenance, and expansion.In this study, religion is understood as a material process, mediated by places, things, and practices. Through a comparative evaluation of the two primary sites of Kura-Araxes religious practice, mortuary and household domains, this work illustrates how religion operates through the material world. I draw upon data from my excavations at the site of Gegharot in Armenia as well as comparative materials from Azerbaijan, Eastern Anatolia, Georgia, Iran, and Israel to illustrate how Kura-Araxes belief systems resulted in a specific, reproducible material order. This order, discernible in the architecture of domestic and mortuary spaces as well as of the iconography adorning artifacts within these contexts, facilitated patterned interactions within these communities. It also supported a distinct ontology. Ultimately, my analyses suggest that equality, as a social value, political status, and material condition, is the product of religious traditions and everyday action. Through a practice- based approach, this investigation departs from conventional approaches to prehistoric religion by shifting attention away from concerns about what religion is towards context-specific investigations of what religion does. The Kura-Araxes example demonstrates that religion is not something static, but rather the result of collective practices that define, solicit, and materially engage ontological others often equated with the “sacred.” Investigating these practices at the site, regional, and cultural level, I show how religious practices fostered distinct relationships between humans and non-human actors – they made that which is invisible real to the senses. Ritualized practices then were instrumental in not only disseminating Kura-Araxes relations of value, but also in constituting identity and shaping political subjectivity.

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475 pages


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Ancient Near East; Bronze Age; Materiality; Religion; Social Theory; South Caucasus


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Union Local


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Smith, Adam

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Fiskesjo, Magnus
Khatchadourian, Lori

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Ph. D., Anthropology

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International


dissertation or thesis

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