Heiki Valk. Sacred natural places as archaeological objects


Most Estonian sacred natural places obtained their sacred or ritualistic meaning before the 18th century, which enables us to interpret them unambiguously as archaeological monuments. However, the group of sites has been largely neglected in Estonian archaeology so far because the sites date to a rather late period and are characterized by rich folk tradition and lack of intensive cultural layers. Nevertheless, sacred natural places are archaeological sites with a high research potential for settlement and landscape archaeology, as well as for archaeology of religion. The present article highlights some following research issues which might be considered in the future.

Temporal dimension of sacred places. When did natural places first appear in the cultural context and became sacred? The location of scared places in relation to some other monuments that are easier to date (cemeteries, settlements, and hillforts) should be studied, but excavations can also provide necessary data. Sacred sites evidently span different historical periods, ranging from prehistory to the Middle Ages and the Early Modern times.

The main groups of sacred places, their meaning and functions. Attention should be paid to differences in the function of sites (sacrificial, votive, healing, and ritual sites) and to ref lections of sacredness and religious syncretism. Most beliefs that have been preserved in folk and written materials might pre-date the 18th century, that is, the period studied by archaeology. The meaning of sites, however, may have changed in the course of time. Especially communal rites may have disappeared earlier than the individual ones, related to healing.

Hinterlands of sacred places, their place in the settlement pattern and on ritual landscapes. Of interest might be relationship between sacred places and settlement units at the broad regional level and at the level of groups of villages and certain single settlement units (villages, farmsteads). Also respective changes in the course of time must not be neglected.

Sacred places as elements of a network of sites with religious and ritual meaning. Which are the relations between sites of central and local importance, relations to cemeteries and rural chapels and churches (starting from the Christianization)? The unverified claim presented by O. Loorits in the early 1930s that groves are former cemeteries should be reviewed.

Reasons for choosing the location of holy sites. Why did people consider the particular sites special or holy? Which factors influenced the choice of sites? What was the role of topographical and other natural anomalies?

The above questions can be solved only by obtaining a composite picture of the location and number of sacred natural places by compiling a database of available information, undertaking extensive field inventories of sites, and analysing thoroughly the data.

Heiki Valk