Most large research grants are won at the price of months of application writing. The first idea has to be transformed into work packages, each scheduled and costed separately, with pages and pages added on pathways to impact, on deliverables, on ethical approval, expert reports and much more.

Not so, the Annaliese Maier Research Prize awarded to Professor Greg Woolf in 2014 by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Named after the great Enlightenment explorer and naturalist, the foundation exists to promote collaboration between German scholars and researchers from overseas.

“It was an enormous privilege to be awarded the prize and an extraordinary opportunity too,” said Professor Woolf, director of the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

The award is granted to outstanding humanities scholars and social scientists on the nomination of a German colleague, in this case Professor Jörg Rüpke of the University of Erfurt’s Max Weber College. All that was needed was an agreed field of collaboration, and a commitment to involve younger researchers in the project’s activities.

The two scholars had worked together in the past on various projects but the prize allowed them to open up new areas of work. Professor Rüpke is one of the leading exponents of combining religious history and social theory, and had been working for some years on the idea of ‘Lived Ancient Religion’, approaching ancient rituals in terms of the experience of participants rather than through institutions, laws and myths.

Archaeology of cult and ‘Lived Ancient Religion’

Professor Woolf, who has a longstanding interest in the impact of the material world on human experience, explained that out of the “encounter between the archaeology of cult and Lived Ancient Religion was born The Sanctuary Project”.

“We set out to explore how the physical setting of ritual shaped religious experience and how sanctuaries stored information and passed it on from one generation to another. The key idea is that in a world in which few can read or write, a world without organised religions or sacred texts, the real problem is not to explain religious change. It is to explain religious stability. Some ancient sanctuaries were in use for an enormously long period of time.”

He added: “Olympia was the centre of games in honour of Zeus for more than a thousand years. Many sites were elaborated and developed generation after generation. Places and especially physical structures were the real repositories of religious knowledge, the places where each new generation learned about the gods and how to worship them. This perspective involves thinking of religion not as a set of rules or beliefs, but as a set of routines and practices, learned patterns of behaviour and the sensations they evoked again and again.”

Investing in a new generation of research

Big research grants can be used in one of two ways. One can either do one very expensive thing on a grand scale, or fund a bundle of smaller investigations. Professor Woolf and his colleagues decided that their project was better approached from several directions.

They ran a preliminary workshop bringing together prehistorians, historians of religion and specialists in different regions to compare their views, and funded conferences involving specialists in Judaism and early Christianity. There was also a meeting on sensory experiences in ancient religion, and a big closing conference with papers dealing with all parts of the classical world.

In addition, said Professor Woolf, “We funded a PhD student and two postdoctoral researchers. We ran a graduate school and several events bringing more junior scholars together, and had events in Erfurt, London, Madrid and Manchester, each with slightly different memberships to build networks. I travelled to Germany several times a year to take part in events there.”

The Sanctuary Project ended on the 31 July 2019, but there will be quite a legacy. Several volumes of papers are in production, and Professors Rüpke and Woolf are editing a handbook which will present a new view of Roman religion informed by the project.

“The most important legacy is the networks of researchers that have been built up across Europe and beyond,” said Professor Woolf. “This is how we store knowledge and pass it on. We are very grateful for the generosity of the Humboldt Foundation and the impact this will have on the next generation of research in this area.”

More details about Sanctuary Project is available here  and on the Universität Erfurt’s website.

Cover image: Temple of Zeus at Olympia_Andy Montgomery CC BY-SA