Distant deities, central places – reconsidering the ‘extra-urban’ sanctuary – April 2023

Sanctuaries located at a distance from major centres of population in the ancient world are conveniently labelled by scholars as ‘extra-urban’. Most scholars have an idea as to what kind of sanctuary this indicates. But how accurate is this image? How has the designation of ‘extra-urban’ steered our thinking about these special places of cult? What implications does the term bring with it, and what other dynamics might be left out of the picture?

Thomas Cole, ‘The Temple of Segesta with the Artist Sketching’, oil on canvas, 49.85 x 76.52cm, c.1842 – Museum of Fine Arts Boston –https://collections.mfa.org/objects/33070

These are questions that a couple of colleagues and myself have wrestled with for some time in our research. Axel Frejman, who has studied Labraunda, among other sanctuaries, and I have especially been discussing this for some years, and this led to the Complexity at Sacred Sites workshop in Uppsala in November 2022. This was intended as a step towards an international conference in 2023. Floris van den Eijnde joined our team, he investigates among others the sacred landscape of Attica.

Together, and with substantial support from the Riksbankens Jubileumsfonds, we organized a conference last April via the Swedish Institute at Athens under the title Distant Deities, Central Places – Reconsidering the ‘Extra-urban’ Sanctuary. The central aim was to address the questions above by reconsidering the terminology that we use to describe and discuss sanctuaries with our colleagues, but also by realigning our thinking about places of cults, and our positioning of them in the divine and human landscape.

We were able to attract an international group scholars, at different career stages, who addressed topics ranging from the Bronze Age to the imperial period, and from Italy in the West to Syria in the East, with approaches that questioned terminologies and theories while being substantiated with case studies and a spectrum of empirical evidence – as the programme flyer indicates.

Distant Deities, Central Places – 4-6 April 2023, Athens – programme

We were very pleased at the richness of the papers, which no doubt raised some eyebrows – Delphi as a very urban sanctuary, the Artemision at Amarynthos, or Kakopetria-Agilades on Cyprus as vitally central places of connections, the networks of Minoan peak sanctuaries, and cave shrines connecting maritime sites along the coast of the Ionian islands, to name just a few. The broad range of topics and approaches allowed us all to draw some comparisons between cultures, places, and over time. In short, the different papers showed us how truly complex sanctuaries beyond the boundaries of the urban nucleus can be, and the many functions that they can fulfil simultaneously, spilling well outside the confines that our scholarly frameworks often squeeze them into.

We were very fortunate to have Jenny Wallensten, the director of the Swedish Institute at Athens, make arrangements for the conference to be held in the lecture hall of the Italian Archaeological School at Athens, the same venue as the workshops organized by Robin Hägg on Greek religion several years before. The conference proceedings will be published in the same series, on Greek religion, Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae 4˚ series.

Complexity at sacred sites – Uppsala workshop follow-up

More than a place of worship: complexity at sacred sites in the ancient world
8 December 2022 – Uppsala University

Asklepieion of Kos (photo: Christina Williamson 2019)

In December 2022, a workshop on the complexities of sacred space was organized by Christina Williamson and Axel Frejman at Uppsala University, see previous blog. The aim was to approach the magnitude of meaning at sanctuaries by transcending the regular disciplinary boundaries by engaging scholars from Groningen and Uppsala from different areas – theology, archaeology, and ancient history – who use both textual and material culture to understand their functions. A secondary aim of the workshop was to give early career scholars from Groningen an international venue to present their work, expand their networks, and inspire them to move beyond the confines of their disciplines in their approaches. The workshop, which took place on 8 December from 13.15-17.00 in a lecture hall in the new Blåsenhus building of Uppsala University, was also made available online so that members of CRASIS and the partners in the ENLIGHT program could join in, as well as other interested persons.

Three scholars from Groningen and two from Uppsala presented and exchanged ideas with an international audience. After an opening by Christina Williamson (associate professor ancient history, Groningen), who presented the aims of the workshop, Axel Frejman (postdoc archaeology, Uppsala) chaired the rest of the afternoon. Adam Wiznura (PhD ancient history, Groningen) began the session with a paper entitled ‘Problematizing sacred space: The Thessalian sanctuary of Athena Itonia’, in which he focused on the votive practices and shifting scopes of the shrine of Athena Itonia regarding local versus Thessalian identities. In his paper ‘Memories of holiness and contested claims: The case of the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem’, Håkan Bengtsson (associate professor theology, Uppsala) unfolded many of the layers of religious and political meanings of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, demonstrating how it is contested space. Temporal complexities were the topic of the paper of Christina Williamson, ‘Sanctuaries as complex timescapes: The Asklepieion of Pergamon’, in which she discussed elite, private, and civic perspectives of time that interacted at the Asklepieion in Pergamon. Sacred complexities are at the heart of the PhD project of Pim Schievink (PhD ancient history, Groningen), who focused on the Koan Asklepieion as a complex space in which healing rituals intermingled with honors bestowed on the elite, recognition of the ephebes, representation of civic tribes, and movement in his paper ‘Constructing the sacred on Kos: Voices, practices, and experiences in the Asklepieion of Kos during the Hellenistic period’. Gunnel Ekroth (full professor classical archaeology and ancient history, Uppsala) closed the workshop with a presentation of the results of her ‘Temenos’ project, in her paper entitled ‘What’s in a name? Temenos and hieron as designations of sacred space’. She urged us to look through the blank spaces on the plans of sanctuaries in addressing the many different types of contexts in which the concepts of temenos and hieron are applied. The papers were all well received and followed by engaging discussions from scholars at all levels. The three delegates from Groningen were moreover treated to a tour of the extensive archaeological collection at Uppsala University, and visited the ancient site at nearby Gamla Uppsala, a historically complex sacred space in its own right.

Pim and Adam at Gamla Uppsala (photo: Christina Williamson)

The workshop was organized in the context of a research fellowship for Christina Williamson at Uppsala University, and was funded by the interdisciplinary research network CRASIS, in Groningen as well as ENLIGHT (Groningen), the department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala., at Uppsala University, and especially the interdisciplinary research network, AGORA,

Axel Frejman and Christina Williamson developed this workshop as a step towards a major international conference that they are co-organizing (with Floris van den Eijnde, Utrecht) on sanctuaries in the ancient world, to be held at the Swedish Institute in Athens, 5-8 April 2023, under the title ‘Distant deities, central places: Reconsidering the “extra-urban” sanctuary’.

Workshop in Uppsala – 8 December 2022 – Complexity of Sacred Spaces

As part of my research fellowship in Uppsala, I am co-organizing, with Axel Frejman and Gunnel Ekroth, an informal afternoon workshop under the title More Than a Place of Worship: Complexity at Sacred Sites in the Ancient World. This will be held on 8 December 2022, in Uppsala, at the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History.

Sanctuaries in the ancient world are often considered for their rituals, their monumental architecture, or their political dynamics, but rarely are they understood as highly layered spaces that fulfilled a variety of meanings for a variety of users, with a variety of motives. Such complexity shows the real magnitude of these religious sites, yet this is often overlooked as scholarly studies tend to focus on single types of sources or aspects. This workshop aims to transcend the regular disciplinary boundaries by engaging scholars at different stages in their careers from Groningen and Uppsala and from different areas – theology, archaeology, and ancient history – who use both textual and material culture to understand the multifarious functions of sanctuaries.


  • 13:15-13:30 – Intro
  • 13:30-14:00 – Adam Wiznura (PhD Ancient History, Groningen), ‘Problematizing sacred space: The Thessalian sanctuary of Athena Itonia
  • 14:00-14:30 – Håkan Bengtsson (Associate Professor, Theology, Uppsala),  ‘Memories of holiness and contested claims: The case of the Temple Mount / Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem
  • 14:30-15:00 – Christina Williamson (Associate Professor, Ancient History, Groningen), ‘Sanctuaries as complex timescapes: The Asklepieion of Pergamon
  • 15:00-15:30 – FIKA – coffee break
  • 15:30-16:00 – Pim Schievink (PhD Ancient History, Groningen) ‘Constructing the sacred on Kos: Voices, practices, and experiences in the Asklepieion of Kos during the Hellenistic period’
  • 16:00-16:30 – Gunnel Ekroth (Full Professor, Classical Archaeology, Uppsala), ‘What’s in a name? Temenos and hieron as designations of sacred space
  • 16:30-17:00 – discussion
  • 17:00 – ?? Drinks and buffet dinner in Engelska Parken

This workshop is sponsored by AGORA, the Uppsala research network for archaeology and ancient history, the ENLIGHT (Groningen) inter-university organization, CRASIS, the Groningen research network for culture, religion, and society in antiquity, and the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala.

If you would like to join online, please contact us for the zoom link at: complexsacredsites@gmail.com