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Religious and Insular Identities in Context: An Introduction

Giorgos Papantoniou
Athanasios K. Vionis
2 and
Christine E. Morris
Department of Classics, Trinity College Dublin, D02 PN40 Dublin, Ireland
Archaeological Research Unit, University of Cyprus, Nicosia 1678, Cyprus
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2022, 13(10), 903;
Submission received: 16 September 2022 / Accepted: 20 September 2022 / Published: 27 September 2022


The introductory article offers a general overview of the highly complicated concept of insularity as discussed variously in historical and archaeological discourse. It also provides a context of sacred landscapes and religious identities, when discussed in relation to insularity. Finally, it outlines the general themes discussed in this Special Issue and situates the Unlocking Sacred Landscapes (UnSaLa) research network and the current volume in the context of the current state-of-art.

1. Introduction

‘Island archaeology’ emerged as a defined field during the 1970s, with many critiques and developments continuing to the present day. Historians and archaeologists have attempted to bring together issues of identities, insularities, and connectivities both in large and self-contained islands in terms of natural resources, but also in smaller island societies with limited resources. Within a wider field of rethinking the premises, agendas, and practices of island archaeology, an examination of how insularity has influenced the shape of historical events at a regional level with a focus on the domain of religion and its interaction with insularity remains a desideratum.
Inserting religion within a landscape perspective via an integrated approach, which carefully considers temporality, spatiality and materiality, the Unlocking Sacred Landscapes Network invites in this Special Issue historians and archaeologists to examine the function of religion in maintaining ‘social power’ (with the term including and considering both elite/official and non-elite/popular ideologies and cosmologies) in both large and smaller island societies.

2. Island Archaeology and Insular Identities

Some concepts of ‘insularity’ should be considered in order to rethink and appreciate the dynamics of insular communities, before we attempt to connect the concept with that of sacred landscapes. Broodbank (2000) and Rainbird (2007) establish an intellectual framework for ‘island archaeology’, while a number of other scholars before and after them have significantly contributed to setting the scene, developing the concept, and examining island communities as active agents in island life (Evans 1973, 1977; Patton 1996; Royle 2001; Boomert and Bright 2007). As the aim of this article is not to provide a historiography of research related to the concept, we cite here some recent works that summarise the history of scholarship and the debate (Dawson 2019a; Ontiveros and Florit 2019; Gordon and Kouremenos 2020; Terrell 2020; Dierksmeier et al. 2021; Leppard et al. 2021). These are valuable attempts at rethinking the premises, agendas, and practices of island archaeology and insularity in the discussion of historical periods.
Scholars working mainly with prehistoric and Late Bronze Age periods attempted at bringing together issues of identities, insularities, and Mediterranean connectivities, while scholars working with later periods in the Mediterranean are now more often influenced by such processes (Horden and Purcell 2000, 2019; Broodbank 2013; cf. e.g., Constantakopoulou 2007; Knapp 2008; Papantoniou 2013; Cherry and Leppard 2015; Hadjikyriacou 2018; Kouremenos 2018; Dawson 2019b; Kouremenos and Gordon 2020). Certain scholars, for example, have seen the small Aegean islands as territories of ‘safety’, away from the centre and the oppression of empires, functioning both as places of exile (Malamut 1988, p. 175) and as a ‘zone of interaction’ between antagonistic empires, i.e., the Byzantines and the Arabs (Vionis and Papantoniou 2019a, p. 277) during the Early Middle Ages. A similar picture emerges in the case of Cyprus in the early seventh century AD, when the island seems spiritually connected with external trends by receiving religious exiles from neighbouring Christian lands (Tannous 2018, pp. 33–34), while at the same time it appears to play a central role as a ‘buffer zone’ (extending from the Cyclades islands to the Eastern Mediterranean) between Byzantium and the Caliphate (Vionis 2013, pp. 116–17). The sea and the special natural and anthropogenic features of each island played a crucial role in shaping their particularity, individuality, and distinct identity, rendering them ‘closed’ as well as ‘open’ and interacting entities.
Cyprus, Crete, Sardinia, and Malta, all large and self-contained islands in terms of natural resources which are discussed in this volume, may be very different from other smaller island societies in the Aegean and Scottish archipelagos, also discussed in this volume. Nonetheless, as traditionally the island’s culture has primarily been seen in terms of ‘acculturation’ and ‘emulation’, we still need to follow Broodbank’s (2000, p. 1) analysis and shift our focus from current interpretative paradigms, largely characterised by adaptive models and simple, static concepts of insularity, towards more complex and culturally driven perspectives that recognise “the extent to which islanders have consciously fashioned and refashioned, their own identities and worlds”. Inter-island and island: mainland relations, maritime connectivity of things and people, insular definitions of centrality and marginality, ideological values, and islanders’ views of their insularity and identity, are crucial in rethinking island cultures in relation to social change, colonisation, and interaction across the water and along lines of sight or mutual visibility (Broodbank 2000, p. 1; Horden and Purcell 2000, pp. 124–32). One of the most important features of islands is their diversity and, as Broodbank (2000, p. 7) notes, this is why plurality in interpretative approaches is also needed. Islands have periodically been characterised as predominantly bounded, conservative, and closed systems (Evans 1973), open and receptive to outside ideas (Kirch 1986), or between involution and cosmopolitanism, archaism and innovation (Braudel 1972, pp. 149–50). As Broodbank’s (2000, p. 19) analysis has suggested “the answer is in fact ‘all and none of these’, or (better still) ‘it depends when, how and for whom’”. “For a brightest future surely lies in the development of an island archaeology…that explores how island space, environment, time and culture can be most convincingly woven together into island history” (Broodbank 2000, p. 32).

3. Sacred Landscapes and Religious Identities

The placement of religiosity in a Mediterranean landscape perspective can be achieved by integrating data types and different theoretical approaches and by exploring additional dimensions such as the influence of mythology, emotional and sensory elements, and the blending and fusion of religions and political ideologies (Papantoniou et al. 2019, pp. ix–x, with references). Thus, material evidence allows us to identify sacred space in a given territory and to reconstruct sacred landscapes in which natural and/or manmade features were endowed with religious meaning. In addition, we can investigate how different cultures, in our case different island entities, saw the relationship between natural elements, human constructions, and the supernatural, how the environment was changed or manipulated to construct a sacred landscape, how the ‘acculturation’ process or forms of interpretatio religiosa resulted in changes to the sacred landscapes and how the sacred landscape can be used to express forms of cultural or religious ‘resistance’ against domination.
The significance of meanings and functions of Mediterranean islands’ ritual and religion have usually been perceived in a twofold way: either as largely static, almost ahistorical, or as fully and suddenly adhering to a Hellenic, Roman, or Christian religious koine. This could be linked with the conservative role often attributed both to islands and religion in modern western societies. Another key factor for the generation of such assumptions is the way in which Mediterranean archaeology, as a discipline, has usually been subsumed within the influence of Anatolian, Italic, Classical Greek, Roman or Byzantine archaeology, for example, both in terms of content and as archaeological practice in approach and methods. A very welcome development in recent years, however, has been the number of conference meetings, publications, and projects which have considered Mediterranean sacred space from a richer range of perspectives (sacred archaeology, the notion of the religious landscape, sanctuary as a localised space, perception, experience, connectivity, naming and mapping the gods, lived religion, etc.), both for Antiquity and for the Late Antique, Medieval and post-Medieval world (Papantoniou et al. 2019, p. x, with references).
Inserting Mediterranean insularity and religiosity within a landscape perspective via an integrated approach, which carefully considers temporality and materiality next to spatiality, we can bridge the barriers and misconceptions between those of us working with cultural-historical, positivistic and post-positivistic approaches. Emphasising the potential of landscape studies to be truly unifying, as well as the function of religion in maintaining ‘social power’ (with the term including and considering both elite/official and non-elite/popular ideologies and cosmologies) in a Mediterranean context is exactly the aim of the Unlocking Sacred Landscapes (UnSaLa) network: that is, to ‘unlock’ sacred landscapes and religion by locating them within their social context and their own longue durée, having no constraints in using all possible methods in order to achieve the best possible holistic approach (Papantoniou et al. 2019).

4. Unlocking Sacred Landscapes: Religious and Insular Identities in Context

This Special Issue is the third and final volume in a trilogy of collective peer-reviewed works of this phase of the UnSaLa research network (first volume: Papantoniou et al. 2019; second volume: Papantoniou et al. 2020). This final volume has encompassed various approaches both to ritual space and to artefacts relating to ritual practice and cults involving islandscapes (including landscapes and seascapes). The terms ritual and cult have been used broadly to include sanctuaries, temples, and churches as well as the domestic and funerary spheres of life. We particularly welcomed articles with a strong methodological and theoretical focus. Although the main focus of the Network is the Mediterranean region, as in the second volume on digital humanities and ritual space, we also warmly welcomed relevant contributions from colleagues working in other areas of the world, with a view to stimulating wider methodological dialogues and comparative approaches. The chronological range was also open, ranging from prehistory to the recent past and inclusive of ethnography, ethnoarchaeology, and cultural heritage studies.
Since an abstract precedes each contribution, it is unnecessary to summarise the contents and impact of each article in this Special Issue. In particular, we welcomed contributions dealing with historical and culturally driven perspectives that recognise the complexities of island religious systems as well as the active role of the islanders in constructing their own religious identities, irrespective of emulation and acculturation. The authors were asked to consider inter-island and island/mainland relations, maritime connectivity of things and people, and ideological values in relation to religious change, as well as the relation between island space and environment in the performance and maintenance of spiritual lives. We believe that the authors have, for example, successfully addressed the interrelation between official, popular and personal identities, including ritual healing and magic in island societies. However, many of the individual articles touch on more than one of these general structural themes and, of course, the topics themselves have significant points of dialogue and intersection. Holistic analyses related to ritual space and/or its associated material assemblages in island societies, as set in the two previous UnSaLa volumes, have proved to be a rich and healthy approach to interpretative pluralism. As noted above, bringing together issues of identities, insularities, and Mediterranean connectivities has only recently begun to develop in Mediterranean archaeologies of the later periods, particularly those of the eastern Mediterranean and/or the Byzantine period and the High Middle Ages (Vionis and Papantoniou 2019b, p. 12, with references). Thus, in the printed version of this volume, we decided to reverse the chronological order, starting from the most recent past and going back to prehistory, to give voice to bring to the forefront these new approaches to these later periods and to break the long-entrenched divide between the prehistoric and historic periods of the Mediterranean’s past and the scholarly approaches brought to bear on each. The day may finally have come when research on later periods may also inform prehistoric research, beyond a merely ethnographic analogy approach.

Author Contributions

All the authors have contributed equally to the preparation of this manuscript. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Republic of Cyprus through the Research and Innovation Foundation (Project: UnSaLa-CY, EXCELLENCE/1216/0362).


The vision of UnSaLa would not have been materialised without the generosity of the Irish Research Council (Government of Ireland ‘New Foundations’ Scheme 2014), the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute, the Anastasios G. Leventis Foundation, the Society for Promotion of Hellenic Studies, and the Centre for the Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies, Trinity College Dublin, the Research Training Group 1878: Archaeology of Pre-Modern Economies of the Universities of Bonn and Cologne, funded by the German Research Foundation, and the European Regional Development Fund and the Republic of Cyprus through the Research and Innovation Foundation (Project: UnSaLa-CY, EXCELLENCE/1216/0362).

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Papantoniou, G.; Vionis, A.K.; Morris, C.E. Religious and Insular Identities in Context: An Introduction. Religions 2022, 13, 903.

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Papantoniou G, Vionis AK, Morris CE. Religious and Insular Identities in Context: An Introduction. Religions. 2022; 13(10):903.

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Papantoniou, Giorgos, Athanasios K. Vionis, and Christine E. Morris. 2022. "Religious and Insular Identities in Context: An Introduction" Religions 13, no. 10: 903.

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