Hybridity in Byzantine Archaeology

August 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking about hybridity in Late Antique and Byzantine material culture for the past 4 or 5 years.  I started to try to articulate some of my conclusions in 2008 and in a stalled paper that I presented a few times, tried to develop into an article, and then left half-formed deep in some corner of my hard-drive.

More recently I’ve decided to write up a short article on the topic for a volume that I’m editing on Method and Theory in Byzantine Archaeology.  While I have some of the basic ideas pulled together, I have only managed to erect a very basic framework for my observations.

Byzantine archaeology deserves to engage the ideas of hybridity in a more theoretically robust way because discussions of cultural exchange are already so central to how we understand the significance of Byzantium in the greater narrative of national, Western and even World history. As many scholars have seen Byzantium as sitting outside the master narrative of the West – with its emphasis on earlier cultures representing clear stages in a development toward our modern world, Byzantine culture appears as a static and potentially inert body of cultural characteristics that functioned primarily to absorb features from other societies and pass them on.

As such hybridity in the discourse of Byzantine archaeology manifests itself in two mains ways:

1. Byzantium as Colonizer. As the Byzantine State sought to project authority across the Eastern Mediterranean, it refracted into a myriad of region styles as the practices of the Byzantine capital projected against the traditions, resources, and requirements of “local” practice. Like so many interpretative paradigms established to evaluate the limits and extent of an imperial power’s influence, the question of regionalism and regional styles in Byzantine architecture, art, and decoration has become an important avenue for understand both the character of the so-called “Byzantine commonwealth” and the significance of the capital and its patrons as producers of cultural and political power.

On Cyprus, the juxtaposition of imported Proconessian marble columns at the basilicas of Ay. Georgios – Peyias and the limestone vaulting at the nearby and contemporary basilicas at Polis reflects the interplay between the wider Aegean world and local traditions. The limits to how far external traditions could penetrate the Cypriot landscape and how they influenced the development of local “regional” styles of building, for example, not only forms a key debate among contemporary archaeologists, but also represents a tool for recognizing Byzantine culture. The hybridity of the Byzantine periphery required scholars to define the essential characteristics of the Byzantine capital, identify “the other”, and make arguments for how the two responded to one another in a colonial encounter.

Column

2. Byzantium as Colonized. With the arrival of the Crusaders in the East, the Byzantine state had to endure a period of colonization by Western Frankish powers.  Scholars have already applied the term hybridity to the results of this period of intense cultural contact. While scholars have yet to apply this term with its full post-colonial coloration, they have nevertheless recognized the contact between two essentialized cultures – the west and Byzantium. The resulting hybrid which sought to deploy features associated with both cultures in a strategic way, formed the foundation for the Late Byzantine cultural flourishing and exerted significant influence on the development of West.

The instability of the Fanco-Byzantine hybrid and its threatening position in relation to our own cultural expectations has rarely been engaged explicitly. Implicitly, however, our inability to understand, for example, the “Byzantine” church at Merbaka which may have been built by a local (albeit idiosyncratic) Frankish aristocrat, likely represents an intense discomfort associated with the fluid nature of identity in societies deeply invested in dynamic, hybrid, forms of expression.

These two features of Byzantine culture do not stand as independent past realities, but already exist as core features of the discourse in Byzantine archaeology. The place of Byzantium outside of the master narrative of the West contributed to efforts to essentialize Byzantium (and associate it with the Oriental “Other”). This facilitated efforts to consider Byzantine material culture as capable of producing hybrids with both regional styles and the styles of the “colonizing” West.

The added complication to this is the position of Byzantium as a contributing component of Greek nationalism, for example. In this context, Byzantium is bot

§ 2 Responses to Hybridity in Byzantine Archaeology

  • Kostis Kourelis says:

    As the years pass, I become more convinced of the colonial nature of the term. That’s why I like Young’s “Colonial Desire.” It assumes a biological independence of species or genera imposed on culture that seems forced onto premodern contexts. I don’t want to loose that strong definition of “hybrid” with its ethical dimension of miscegination. If you get too loose, the bag gets filled with hybrids from the Parthenon and the Corinthian order to fortune cookies and hoodies. So, to use the notion hybrid in Byzantium, we would need to ask (in a Foucaultian way), what were the biological boundaries? I think they were pretty slippery anyway. We’re fighting a notion as old as modernity itself, that Byzantium is a hybrid of East and West. It’s that third category that the West can tap into whenever necessary.

  • Bill Caraher says:

    Kostis,

    I actually think that the appeal of Byzantium as a component of hybridity is the ease with which it fulfills essentialized notions of culture. Because it as already regarded (at least by most scholars) as outside of the master narrative, it becomes easy to regard Byzantium as static.

    Then, you can ask the question, where are its boundaries (in time, space, extent, influence, character) in a biological and discursive sense. It is neatly bounded so that it can be contained and rendered safe.

    As it is forced to hybridize with the West, with regional styles, within modern narratives of nationalism, the idea of Byzantium becomes more troubling (think: uncanny). The boundaries of an essential view of the Byzantine break down and the hybrid Byzantium becomes threatening. It’s really in this threatening place of Byzantium that we discover what makes the idea of Byzantium so compelling.

    Bill

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