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Exploring the Roots of Religion

Learn the sacred secrets behind Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the Acropolis, and other mysterious ancient sites from a practicing archaeologist.
Exploring the Roots of Religion is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 79.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Think of it as a primer This is a great starter course on many civilizations throughout the world. Ostensibly, what ties it all together is a theme of religion-- beginnings, temples, oracles, etc. Because so many different civilizations are covered, details are by necessity rather limited. Do as I am-- find those episodes that have a special interest to you and then look up courses on those individual civilizations that will dig deeper into each. About the only places not covered is Japan and possibly Russia. Africa gets the short end of the stick and could have used a couple more episodes devoted to tribes throughout the continent. But thats a minor quibble.
Date published: 2024-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Overview and Inner view of Religions As a survey, this overview covered many different religions with a discussion of artifacts as well as the impetus for these artifacts. Religions were related to cultures, to surroundings and images recovered in archaeology. The breadth of the lectures was wonderful. As an inner view into religions Prof. Hale compared themes and focuses as shown in sacred places and spaces. He took themes and showed how they ran through many different religions. I found his lectures a joy to listen to as he related information and insights accompanied by pictures and photos. I highly recommend this series.
Date published: 2024-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Made me think about what constitutes religion. Timing turned out to be excellent because I'm planning to visit caves with paintings in Spain and France.
Date published: 2024-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Like a Great Book What a presentation of religions around the world! I have enjoyed viewing these thirty-six lectures over the past two weeks. Each time that I sat down to watch a lecture or two, I seemed to watch three or four, like a great book that I just couldn't put down. If you have an interest in history, I highly recommend this course to you. My only concern (as a long time history teacher) was the professor's final lecture when he quoted from Sir Walter Raleigh and misidentified him and his ship with Sir Francis Drake.
Date published: 2024-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Archaeological insights into religion This was an excellent course, looking at the long history of religion in human cultures through the lens of archaeology. The professor was very careful to explain what could and could not be inferred from the examination of cave paintings, megalithic structures, burial mounds, pyramids, and the like. His enthusiasm and expertise shown through. I appreciated that he provided historical context for each of the buildings, etc., as that made it easier to understand how these things came to be and how they were used. He made an excellent connection between the diverse material relics and commonalities among human religious longings.
Date published: 2023-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from this particular course, roots of religion, is fabulous, very thought provoking. the professor is just wonderful, thanks
Date published: 2021-12-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent introduction Very interesting series of lectures, many about pre-historic peoples for whom we rely upon archeological (and not written) evidence about their practices. One might wish for a more forceful thesis about the importance of religion, which he treats as almost an afterthought in the final lecture.
Date published: 2021-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course Very informative & Interesting. I listened to it about a year ago, so cannot write much now.
Date published: 2021-04-04
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Experience the thrill of discovery and learn the sacred secrets behind Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the Acropolis, and other mysterious ancient locales. Join practicing archaeologist and award-winning Professor John R. Hale as he shows you how sacred buildings, complexes, tomb structures, artwork, and more have provided us with unparalleled knowledge about early spiritual practices and beliefs from around the world.


John R. Hale

The most important record of religious history resides not in books and sacred texts but buried in the earth.


University of Louisville
Dr. John R. Hale is the Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He earned his B.A. at Yale University and his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. Professor Hale teaches introductory courses on archaeology, as well as more specialized courses on the Bronze Age, the ancient Greeks, the Roman world, Celtic cultures, the Vikings, and nautical and underwater archaeology. An accomplished instructor, Professor Hale is also an archaeologist with more than 30 years of fieldwork experience. He has excavated at a Romano-British town in Lincolnshire, England, and at the Roman Villa of Torre de Palma in Portugal. Among other places, he has carried out interdisciplinary studies of ancient oracle sites in Greece and Turkey, including the famous Delphic oracle, and participated in an undersea search in Greek waters for lost fleets from the time of the Persian Wars. Professor Hale has received many awards for distinguished teaching, including the Panhellenic Teacher of the Year Award and the Delphi Center Award. His writing has been published in the journals Antiquity, The Classical Bulletin, the Journal of Roman Archaeology, and Scientific American.

By This Professor

The Art of Public Speaking
The Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul
Exploring the Roots of Religion
Exploring the Roots of Religion


The Roots of Religious Experience

01: The Roots of Religious Experience

This introductory lecture lays the groundwork for the archaeological adventures ahead. Professor Hale provides you with key definitions that will be of use throughout the course, briefly overviews the intriguing sites and religions that await, and reveals the importance of combing through the remains of these ancient faiths.

32 min
Neanderthal Burials at Shanidar

02: Neanderthal Burials at Shanidar

Visit the oldest religious site that we can vividly reconstruct: Shanidar Cave. Here, archaeologists uncovered a nearly 45,000-year-old burial site that provided a wealth of information on the cultural and religious practices of the Neanderthals—a controversial finding that revolutionized our understanding of our ancestors.

31 min
Hunting Magic in Sacred Caves

03: Hunting Magic in Sacred Caves

With their breathtaking paintings, prehistoric caves such as Lascaux mark an important new element in the development of human religion: the designation of a particular site as "sacred." In this lecture, Professor Hale walks you through some of these caves and helps make sense of their mysterious imagery.

30 min
Myths of the Shaman

04: Myths of the Shaman

Explore another example of early religious artwork, this time on rocks in the Kalahari Desert. Learn what these fascinating images reveal about the ancient shamanistic practices and beliefs of the San people—specifically their belief in animism, in which every element of the environment is endowed with its own spirit and identity.

30 min
Realm of the Mother Goddess

05: Realm of the Mother Goddess

While excavating at a site in Turkey, archaeologists uncovered the enthroned figure of the Mother Goddess, one of the first representations of a single deity in history. Who was this Venus-like goddess? And what purpose did she serve in the religious life of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic community?

31 min
Mysteries of the Megaliths

06: Mysteries of the Megaliths

Travel to a rocky region in France that is home to the world's most extraordinary collection of megalithic monuments. Not only do these breathtaking stone structures serve as memorials for the dead, they reflect Neolithic attempts to express a grand cosmic vision in stone—one that presages Stonehenge.

31 min
Towers and Tombs of Sumeria

07: Towers and Tombs of Sumeria

Begin a six-lecture examination of burial customs, the most primordial element of religious practice. Your first stop: extensive cemeteries and a royal burial pit uncovered at the site of the ancient biblical city of Ur. This remarkable discovery reveals countless insights into ancient Sumerian views of the afterlife.

31 min
Tomb of the First Emperor of China

08: Tomb of the First Emperor of China

Peer inside the final resting place of Qin Shihuangdi: China's first emperor. His immense tomb—protected by a mass of life-sized terra cotta figures of men and horses—combines the desire to create a monument for everlasting worship with the desire to retain kingly attributes in the afterlife.

30 min
Feasting with the Dead at Petra

09: Feasting with the Dead at Petra

In contrast with the royal burial sites of the previous two lectures are the tombs and mausoleums of ordinary families in Petra, Jordan—one of the world's most famous archaeological sites. In this lecture, Professor Hale takes you on a detailed tour of these sacred spaces, laid out to resemble feasting halls.

30 min
Druid Sacrifice at Lindow Moss?

10: Druid Sacrifice at Lindow Moss?

Meet the Lindow Man, the preserved body of a young Celtic man that dates back to the A.D.E. 1st or 2nd century. Follow along with archaeologists as they use revolutionary scientific techniques to discover that this 25-year-old was not murdered but was instead the sacrificial victim for a religious rite.

31 min
Honoring Ancestors in Ancient Ohio

11: Honoring Ancestors in Ancient Ohio

Walk through the structures of Mound City, the site of the religious Hopewell cult that originated in what is now south-central Ohio. Beneath these mounds, archaeologists found large ceremonial houses where members of the cult would gather to honor their dead in elaborate ceremonies.

30 min
A Viking Queen Sails to Eternity

12: A Viking Queen Sails to Eternity

Conclude your look at the burial of the dead with a trip to an archaeological site in Norway. As you study the remains of a royal Viking burial ship intended for a queen, you strengthen your understanding of how this civilization launched its royalty into the mysteries of the afterlife.

30 min
Dancing with Bulls at Knossos

13: Dancing with Bulls at Knossos

In 1900, the famed archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating the Greek site of the palace of Knossos. What he found, among other things, was a grand fresco of men and women dancing with a bull. Here, discover the spiritual meaning behind this mysterious ancient ceremony.

31 min
Oracle Bones in Ancient China

14: Oracle Bones in Ancient China

Journey back to Bronze-Age China and examine divination rituals that employed the use of oracle bones: fragments of ancient animal bones inscribed with Chinese characters. Also, learn what fascinating information archaeologists and scholars gleaned from a detailed study of these curious bone fragments.

30 min
Sun and Sexuality in Early Scandinavia

15: Sun and Sexuality in Early Scandinavia

While modern religions remove sexuality from their communal religious rituals, ancient Scandinavian communities gave sexuality a prominent role in their religious practices. Learn what petroglyphs—pictures on stone first studied in the 19th century—reveal about the fertility rites of these intriguing peoples.

30 min
Apollo Speaks at Klaros

16: Apollo Speaks at Klaros

From about 300 B.C.E. to A.D.E. 200, the oracle at Klaros was the most frequently consulted oracle in the classical world. In this lecture, investigate how recent archaeological work has provided us with a richly detailed look at what exactly went on during these mysterious divination ceremonies.

31 min
Chalice of Blood in Ancient Peru

17: Chalice of Blood in Ancient Peru

Explore the idea of human sacrifice, a startling aspect of ancient religions. When archaeologists studied painted scenes on pots used by the Moche people of South America, they found depictions of priests engaged in a bloody sacrificial ceremony. Remains found at a later 1991 excavation in Peru matched the figures from these pots.

30 min
Decoding Rituals at Palenque

18: Decoding Rituals at Palenque

Rituals held at the Mayan ceremonial center in Palenque embraced many aspects of those covered in earlier lectures. Professor Hale discusses a variety of intriguing Mayan rituals, including sacred ball games that symbolized cosmic battles and fertility rites that involved both prayers and human sacrifice.

31 min
Temple of the Goddess on Malta

19: Temple of the Goddess on Malta

Between 1915 and 1919, a Maltese archaeologist excavated a massive, eight-foot-tall stone monument to a female deity. Just who was this commanding figure? Discover the intriguing answer in this lecture, which takes you back to the very origins of the concept of godhood.

30 min
The Aten-Monotheism in Egypt

20: The Aten-Monotheism in Egypt

During the 18th dynasty, the pharaoh Akhenaten revolutionized the polytheistic Egyptian faith by promoting the worship of a single god, Aten. Examine the story of this experiment in ancient monotheism through the hieroglyphic records discovered on tomb and temple reliefs from sites at Tell el Amarna and Luxor.

30 min
Deities of the Acropolis

21: Deities of the Acropolis

Contrary to popular belief, the Athenian Acropolis was home to more gods than just Athena. Tour the grounds of this popular archaeological site, encounter the roster of deities who populated the Acropolis throughout its early history, and discover the intricate link between Athenian religion and statehood.

32 min
Gods and Pyramids at Teotihuacan

22: Gods and Pyramids at Teotihuacan

Here, visit the remains of Teotihuacan, the ancient Mexican "City of Gods." By examining the iconography of this prosperous and powerful city, gain insights into its god Quetzalcoatl, its twin pyramids dedicated to the sun and moon, and a mysterious cave that has provided archaeologists with new lines of inquiry.

31 min
Sacred City on the Mississippi

23: Sacred City on the Mississippi

Another urban center—located right in our own backyard—is Cahokia, a mound site in Illinois created by a Native American chiefdom between A.D.E. 900 and 1200. Climb to the summit of "Monk's Mound," a 100-foot-high square pyramid that contains startling evidence of how these people worshiped their central sun deity.

30 min
Sun and Shadow at Machu Picchu

24: Sun and Shadow at Machu Picchu

Travel to Machu Picchu, the famous abandoned city in the clouds first discovered by famed archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. With Professor Hale as your guide, learn the truth about the importance of religion in Inca society and locate where evidence of the sun god appears around this astounding site.

30 min
Celestial Gateway at Giza

25: Celestial Gateway at Giza

The Great Pyramids at Giza, built during the 4th Egyptian dynasty, are the only one of the ancient world's seven wonders to remain standing. What religious beliefs inspired their creation? And what meaning can you find encoded within the vast mortuary landscape they dominate even today?

31 min
Cosmic Hub at Stonehenge

26: Cosmic Hub at Stonehenge

Equally as famous and mysterious as the Giza pyramids is Stonehenge: the iconic Neolithic and Bronze Age structure that represents the pinnacle of the megalithic tradition. Explore the history of this impressive wonder and mull over various interpretations archaeologists have put forth about this sacred landscape's true purpose.

30 min
Desert Lines at Nazca

27: Desert Lines at Nazca

Created by the Nazca people in the early 1st millennium A.D.E., the Nazca Lines are more than 100 gigantic "line drawings" that span hundreds of miles along the Peruvian desert. Professor Hale reveals how these abstract symbols and realistic figures were created and explains the possible religious meanings behind the world's largest sacred site.

30 min
Skywatchers at Chaco Canyon

28: Skywatchers at Chaco Canyon

Discover the secrets of Chaco Canyon, an ancient Native American complex located in northwestern New Mexico. In addition to investigating its ancient roads, irrigation systems, and 800-room houses for storing ritual equipment, look inside the site's sacred meeting places—which contained supposed access points to the underworld.

30 min
Mountain of the Gods at Angkor

29: Mountain of the Gods at Angkor

Investigate the religious symbolism behind Angkor Wat, the iconic temple designed to venerate the Hindu god Vishnu and serve as a mausoleum for the warrior-king Suryavarman II. Built between 1113 and 1150, the temple would later be stripped of its Hindu images and become venerated by Buddhists.

30 min
The Stone Heads of Easter Island

30: The Stone Heads of Easter Island

In this lecture, travel to Easter Island and study the more than 700 giant stone heads (moai) that dot the landscape and have captivated the world for centuries. Learn how these megaliths were created, the purpose they served in religious rituals, and the reasons they were mysteriously abandoned.

30 min
Tending Zoroaster's Sacred Fire in Iran

31: Tending Zoroaster's Sacred Fire in Iran

Zoroastrianism is among the world's oldest "revealed" religions and became recognized by three great holy fires that symbolized the power of the fire-god Ahura-Mazda. Peer over the shoulders of archaeologists as they sort through the ruins of an ancient city known as Adur Gushnasp.

30 min
Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran

32: Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran

In the 1940s, young sheepherders made a startling discovery: a collection of several hundred scrolls from an ancient Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Here, explore the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and examine the numerous insights they provide into early religious reform movements.

30 min
Taking Religions Underground at Rome

33: Taking Religions Underground at Rome

Descend into the catacombs and chambers that lay underneath the city of ancient Rome and were home to the cult of Mithraism and early Christianity. Archaeological evidence illustrates why, among Rome's many competing religious groups that practiced their faith underground, Christianity eventually emerged triumphant.

31 min
Forging Iron at Jenne-jeno on the Niger

34: Forging Iron at Jenne-jeno on the Niger

Before the rise of Islam, regions of West Africa were home to a religious cult whose members were united only by their occupation: blacksmithing. Discover how the work of archaeologists in the 1970s unearthed the remains of Jenne-jeno ("old Jenne"), an ancient city where this intriguing faith once flourished.

30 min
Carving Monasteries at Ajanta in India

35: Carving Monasteries at Ajanta in India

Walk through an ancient Buddhist monastery carved into the hills of India's Deccan Plateau. The treasure trove of paintings, sculptures, inscriptions, and humble cells provide a breathtaking perspective on the lives and beliefs of the monks who populated the Ajanta Caves.

31 min
Faiths Lost and Found

36: Faiths Lost and Found

Conclude the course by revisiting key questions with the knowledge you've learned. What are the common threads between ancient faiths? Why has religion served as such a cohesive force in human society? And finally: What does archaeology reveal about religious impulses that theological studies cannot?

33 min