Is archaeology academic liturgy?

An archeological site in the ancient Roman city of Pollentia (iStock).

Visitors to the site of the ancient Roman city of Pollentia during the month of July at any point in the last five years would have seen a peculiar scene. Professors, graduate and undergraduate students and a selection of high school students from across several disciplines and countries were all cutting inch-thick layers of dirt with construction tools in the hot island sun off the coast of Spain. Portuguese professors specializing in ancient pottery helped U.S. high school students lift buckets of dirt from ancient graves. Graduate students held remote sensing equipment as U.S. college students flew drones over the massive collection of diggers. The process might seem foreign to some, but to those who sacrificed their lower backs and bank accounts to dig at the site year after year, there was something substantial worth coming back for.

Archeology is an exhausting dance, but it maintains a clear rhythm. From every early morning spent moving tools to a new dig site, to every late afternoon scraping dirt from shards of ancient pottery, the process repeats itself with a hypnotic sameness. The process rarely wavers from small, similar iterations of this cycle, sometimes involving a novel tool or a quick new process for an hour or two, but the days always find their way back to the familiar rhythm.


The University of Portland, where one of us is a professor and the other a recent graduate, is a Catholic liberal arts university located in Portland, Ore. Like many Christian institutions of higher education, its mission statement emphasizes educating the whole person:

As a diverse community of scholars dedicated to excellence and innovation, we pursue teaching and learning, faith and formation, service and leadership in the classroom, residence halls, and the world. Because we value the development of the whole person, the University honors faith and reason as ways of knowing, promotes ethical reflection, and prepares people who respond to the needs of the world and its human family.

One could argue that scholars (both faculty and students) charged with scientific research are serving the university’s mission by “pursuing teaching and learning” and using “reason as a way of knowing.” However, when the ritual nature of this scientific inquiry is recognized, we are also able to say that rituals of scientific research are pursuits of “faith and formation” that use both “faith and reason as ways of knowing, promote ethical reflections, and prepare people to respond to the needs of the world and its human family.”

It is an unfortunate but common misconception that campus ministry, theology departments and service-learning centers hold a monopoly on the moral and spiritual formation of students and faculty. Recognizing the ritual nature of scientific inquiry will allow universities to undertake that inquiry in a manner that better serves its mission.

Archeology is an exhausting dance, but it maintains a clear rhythm. From every early morning spent moving tools to a new dig site, to every late afternoon scraping dirt from shards of ancient pottery, the process repeats itself with a hypnotic sameness.

Seeing Archaeology as Academic Liturgy

One of the most fruitful ways to understand the religious rituals performed by communities, more commonly known as liturgies, is by examining how such rituals function in the lives of those who celebrate them. Many liturgical theologians concern themselves with what qualifies as a liturgy. For example, according to liturgical theologian Frank Senn, “a liturgy is a communal ritual response to the sacred through activity reflecting praise, thanksgiving, supplication, or repentance.” However, in order to see the relationship between the archaeological excavation taking place in Pollentia and the liturgies of Christian worship, we want to maintain our focus on the function of liturgies.

Senn points out that liturgies are communal acts of worship (i.e., expressions of praise) and privileged places of God’s communication. “That is, God works through these rites….Liturgy is not only the assembly’s public work or service to God (worship proper), it is also God’s public work or service to the assembly.” In other words, through liturgies, human beings both express love for God and learn something from God. Liturgies are conversations by which humans relate to and communicate with the transcendent mystery many religious people call ‘God.’ By using their minds and bodies to celebrate liturgies, human beings experience divine mystery.

Returning to Senn’s words, liturgies are a “response to the sacred.” Hence, the experience of mystery in liturgy is then the occasion for the next liturgy. While each liturgy is important on its own, together they form a pattern that constitutes an ongoing and formative conversation that spans the history of the Christian religion.

As an ongoing and formative conversation between scientists and mystery, archaeological excavation is an academic liturgy that (1) provides an experience of mystery to those who search in the earth, and (2) cultivates an ongoing relationship with that transcendent mystery. Therefore, we would argue that embodied scientific inquiry, like the archaeological excavation that takes place each summer as a part of the University of Portland’s Pollentia Undergraduate Research Expedition (UP PURE), can be more accurately understood as a liturgy.

At universities across the world, researchers (students and faculty alike) use their bodies to search for truth. In digging for new information and insights, archaeologists are seeking for a hypothesized truth, but they are also deepening their relationship to a transcendent Truth. When a researcher discovers new data, that information instantly becomes the source of new questions and new excavations. This is an inexhaustible process whereby human desire for new knowledge is recognized to be a relationship with a perpetually transcendent truth, a relationship with mystery. Digging for and unearthing an artifact is, potentially, a moment of encounter with mystery. Hence, while scientific inquiry is a process of discovery meant to yield new and useful data, the embodied processes of inquiry often take on the role of liturgy, particularly because these liturgies function to form the people who participate in research. The liturgy of archaeology allows researchers to experience mystery.

Our point here is not to suggest that the archaeological work being done at Pollentia is, unbeknownst to the people digging, an act of Christian liturgy. It is certainly not the same as liturgical worship celebrated by Christian communities. For instance, archaeological excavation lacks the explicit praise, thanksgiving, supplication and repentance that would normally allow it to qualify as liturgy. However, we do believe that archaeological excavation is an academic liturgy. While the data (i.e. the information that archaeologists unearth) is incredibly valuable for gaining insight, the encounter with mystery (i.e. inexhaustible truth) and the virtues (i.e. dispositions) acquired by means of the academic liturgy are equally valuable. Specifically, this academic liturgy functions to form human beings who desire and seek the Mystery of transcendent Truth so that they can respond and relate to that Mystery.

In digging for new information and insights, archaeologists are seeking for a hypothesized truth, but they are also deepening their relationship to a transcendent Truth.

Archaeology as Formation

Jonathan Wiley had this to say after spending the summer of 2017 at Pollentia:

I would not be truthful without admitting that in the midst of what is best described as mind-numbing repetition, there initially arose negative internal conflict. Jealousy festered when I heard another group up the hill screaming and laughing in joy after finding a Roman coin. Impatience started to rear its head as I quantified the depth that was carefully excavated that day in apprehensive precision without reward, and realize it could have been done hastily with a shovel in a matter of moments. Discontentment gnawed at the back of my mind as my tired, sunburned body wished to be elsewhere, and mirages of pitchers of sangria started to materialize near the horizon. 
Despite these nagging restless tendencies, there is something crucial about the simple actions themselves. After several weeks of digging in a very small location, I began to calm many of those undesirable traits. I realized something peculiar about my attitude on the way to work in the morning. I was starting to like it. 
I loved straightening walls. I loved picking until I needed to lay down. I loved the giggling that arose from mistranslated attempts at flirting with our Spanish partners, or the sly sabotage of an adjacent site’s dirt bucket. I was starting to become conscious of the autopilot nature of the work that I was doing, and started to spend those mind-numbing moments fully engrossed in the task at hand, instead of ruminating on the discomfort. The mindful focus was not an intentional cognitive switch, but rather a realization of a process that had arisen from my work. In the midst of the hard work I was feeling my way along the growing connection between my physical body and mind. As one grew stronger, the other was tested in a similar manner.
I started to think about the men and women in my life who were engaged in tasks that seemed from an outside perspective to be mind numbing. Simple processes like spending hours in a lab late at night flipping a spectrometer on and off, or downloading Kestrel data sets over and over again. Putting an engine back together in a shop, or mowing fields and fields of grass. There was something formative about the simple processes, and in my sunbaked mind the man sitting in the riding lawn mower started to look a lot more like a Buddha.

Liturgies have effects on the people who perform them. The liturgical activities humans undertake are the means by which their identities (i.e., beliefs and values) are slowly but powerfully formed. And yet, the phrase “going through the motions” springs to mind any time we find ourselves caught in an activity we have done so many times that it seems to have lost all meaning or purpose. For many Christians, “going through the motions” is an honest way of describing their experience of worship.

Scientific research, as academic liturgy, can also fall prey to a sense of “going through the motions” if not carried out with proper self-awareness. Recognizing the formative nature of liturgy allows scientific inquiry to be intentionally carried out as an endeavor by which to strengthen beliefs and values rather than simply, “going through the motions.” Research is not valuable merely because of the information it provides. More fundamentally, these liturgies are crucial to cultivating a seeking community. The liturgies cultivate the community’s relationship to transcendent truth. Understanding embodied scientific inquiry as a liturgy helps avoid the utilitarian outlook that would mistake the sought-after truth as solely an imminent and temporarily unknown fact. Sought-after facts may be the material reality of scientific research, but that is merely the beginning. Facts unearthed in the process of discovery always point beyond themselves to further questions, deeper knowledge, and ultimately transcendent truth.

A medieval axiom about the liturgies known as sacraments states: sacramenta sunt propter homines (the sacraments are for people). Even when our liturgies focus our bodies and minds on the mystery that is external to ourselves, the liturgy is still primarily about transforming the people that embody the liturgy. Of course, that does not mean that the mystery does not matter. In order to transform us, the ritual must orient us toward mystery and place us into relationship with mystery. Archaeology as academic liturgy is a discipline of digging for the truths of history that hold the mystery of who we truly are. It places the bodies of scientists into the dirt to search carefully and slowly engage their minds in the process of discovery and transforms them into people who search for mystery. Morally put, it forms them into people who respond to the dual threats of ignorance and apathy. Archeology is about mystery, but it is for people. The processes of digging, washing, sifting, etc., utilize and transform the researchers’ own minds and bodies as much as the processes are transforming the landscape of a dig site and the historical picture of Christian antiquity.

In archeology, the knowledge unearthed in the process of digging becomes the occasion to keep digging. Like the liturgies of Christian worship, scientific inquiry is an ongoing conversation through which human beings cultivate their relationship with an inexhaustible mystery that is always transcendent but can be found whenever and wherever we look if we have the discipline to search. Scientific inquiry is an academic liturgy whereby scholars are formed into searchers who cultivate the human relationship with mystery.

The Latin word for worship is cultus. It is the root of the word ‘cultivate.’ The cult of Christianity is a communal series of liturgies through which humans cultivate their relationship with God. The cult of academia is a communal series of academic liturgies through which humans cultivate their relationship with (i.e., their fidelity to, hope in, and love for) mystery. From the standpoint of an institution of higher education, academic liturgies are an essential part of cultivating mystery. From the standpoint of faith, academic liturgies are an essential part of encountering God.

The liturgical activities humans undertake are the means by which their identities (i.e., beliefs and values) are slowly but powerfully formed.

Academic Liturgy and Mission

Wiley also noted the following about his experience at Pollentia:

I would visit the sites that I worked in after hours before my journey home, hopping a chain-link fence and walking down the quarter mile path. There were no tourists walking around, or archeologists. Just holes. It felt odd, looking down deep rectangular chunks of missing earth. There was an overwhelming feeling of success that I carried, however, as I walked over ground undoubtedly soaked through with my sweat from the preceding weeks. I wasn’t taking home Roman artifacts, or large scientific research opportunities. Instead, I began to wonder if the purpose of my time spent digging was not in pursuit of information, but of transformation.  
There were fantastic discoveries elsewhere in the site. Coins stacked in piles at the research lab, pottery shards from ancient civilizations were reconstructed with scotch tape and marked with identification numbers. Fully intact skeletons were recovered, with their eye sockets filled with dirt. However, my greatest discovery was the importance of listening. Even in the simplest of human tasks, there was beauty to be seen and lessons to be learned. I felt like I had strengthened an ongoing dialogue between the way that my body moved and ached, and the way that my mind grew and changed. As I climbed back out of the chain-link fence that evening to finish packing I was smiling.
Scientific inquiry at institutions of higher education is often seen primarily as an undertaking for the purpose of discovery and acquiring further knowledge. Rarely is research viewed as an academic liturgy that has a formative effect on the moral and spiritual identities of researchers. However, if we choose to see embodied scientific inquiry as academic liturgy, we are better able to describe how these scientific rituals function in ways that are integral to the religious mission of Christian institutions of higher education. To be more precise, because academic liturgies constitute an embodied and formative conversation with mystery, scientific research is in direct service of the religious mission of Catholic institutions of higher education.

Might archaeological excavations be structured with an awareness of the intellectual, moral and spiritual formation they entail?

When students and faculty are not solely concerned with the data a research project will produce, but intentionally plan their research with an awareness of how the process will affect themselves as researchers, they might intentionally design, carry out and reflect on the research process with moral and spiritual formation in mind. While we are certainly not suggesting that scientific research should begin integrating religious terminology, we are proposing that researchers create space for intentional reflection on the effects of their research.

Might archaeological excavations be structured with an awareness of the intellectual, moral and spiritual formation they entail? Can university laboratories be shaped and regulated in ways that cultivate a sense of awe and desire for mystery? We believe they can. However, what precisely these practices might look like can only be arrived at through interdisciplinary conversation. If academic liturgies are going to best serve the mission of Christian universities, we must be willing to have these conversations. We must choose to see scientific research for the spiritually and morally formative endeavor that it is. When the liturgical nature of scientific inquiry is recognized, we are also able to say that these academic liturgies are pursuits of “faith and formation” that use both “faith and reason as ways of knowing, promote ethical reflections, and prepare people to respond to the needs of the world and its human family.”

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