Big Questions and Next Directions in Byzantine Archaeology

March 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

At the end of next week I am heading to the Joukowsky Institute at Brown University to contribute to a symposium on “Big Questions and Next Directions in the Archaeology of Greece“. My paper will look at Byzantine Archaeology. With only 15-20 minutes, there are limits to what I can say. Moreover, I can’t say that I follow closely the newest contributions from every angle related to Byzantine archaeology. Like most scholars, I have tended to diversify my portfolio beyond the limits of Early Christian and Byzantine Greece while still investing time in areas related to core research interest both in Greece and elsewhere.

That all being said, I do intend to make a few key points:

1. I’ll begin with a brief observation that Byzantine archaeology has generally remained ambivalent toward debates in mainstream “world archaeology”. With notable exceptions, Byzantine archaeologists of Greece barely raised an eyebrow in the direction of processualism and have studiously avoided post-processualism or any other post-structure theorizing. The main focus of Byzantine archaeology continues to be the typological study of monuments, urban areas, fortifications, imported pottery and fine ware, and the interplay of texts and objects.  

2. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and that we aren’t becoming more aware of the limits of traditional approaches to Byzantine archaeology. Indeed, over the past 40 years, archaeologists interested in the Byzantine period have used dendrochronology, intensive pedestrian survey, energetics in Byzantine architecture, remote sensing, and other scientific practices to produce new knowledge about Byzantium, but, in general, these contributions have remained isolated and not been integrated into the master narrative of Byzantine Greece. There is, however, a foundation for the meaningful expansion of the archaeological data that informs our understanding of Byzantine Greece. For example, continuous revision of ceramic typologies produced through stratigraphic excavation at Corinth, Athens, and Sparta has already begun to produce new chronological, economic, and architectural insights.

3. At present, my main interest is in the archaeology of architecture in Greece and Cyprus. As a rule, the study of Early Christian and Byzantine monuments in Greece has focused on the production of neat floor plans and elevations. Architectural historians then organized these plans and elevations into typologies, compared various typological difference to one another, and presented arguments relating differences in plans and elevations to regional trends, liturgical practices, and chronology. I did some of this in my dissertation, and, in many ways, this method reflects the nature of our evidence for the Byzantine period. Considering the number of known buildings of Early Christian date in Greece, it is remarkable how few have received systematic archaeological publication; many were not excavated according to stratigraphic methods.

The future of Byzantine archaeology and architecture in Greece involves the study of Byzantine architecture through the results of careful, stratigraphic excavation. Attention to stratigraphy will not only transform the rather static and typologically bounded floor plans into more temporally dynamic spaces, but also grant agency to the individuals who both built and used these monuments. Greater attention to the distribution of finds, architectural stratigraphy, evidence for building practices and maintenance rituals, will shift attention to the “everyday” practices that fueled the Byzantine economy, informed local identities, and created the monumental landscape.

4. A more archaeological approach to Byzantine architecture need not involve new excavations. Renewed attention to archaeological “legacy data” produced by earlier excavations may offer insights into the transformation and use of Early Christian and Byzantine monuments. In fact, many Byzantine archaeologists maintained far better records from their excavations than ever saw publication. Attention to Byzantine monuments documented during excavations focused on earlier materials – e.g. excavators removed Byzantine period structures from sites like Corinth and Olympia as they uncovered earlier levels – holds forth the potential to reveal significant insights into the structure of Byzantine communities. Recent efforts at Athens and Corinth to make this data available in digital forms will expand the number of scholars who have access to the history of these sites and hopefully increase the pace of research.

At the same time, Byzantine archaeologists have a responsibility to make their work available promptly and, whenever possible, in digital form. Moving away from a proprietary notion of archaeological data toward a collaborative model will help produce the kind of (relatively) “big data” is available to address questions of regional economies, large-scale change in settlement patterns, and, of course, ceramic typologies and chronology.

5. Finally, if renewed attention to legacy data and architecture is to have an impact on our understanding of the Byzantine world, we cannot lose sight of the transdisciplinary natural of Byzantine studies. Like its cousin, Classical Archaeology, Byzantine archaeology has long availed itself to texts to inform its main research questions. To continue this tradition, however, we must ground our analysis in integrative approaches to the Byzantine world which facilitate a true dialogue between archaeological remains and textual accounts (rather than one remaining slavishly dependent on the other). The notion of a Byzantine landscape provides an important interpretative field for exploring the relationship between texts and archaeology in a Byzantine context. The idea of the landscape allows for the coexistence of monuments, settlements, survey results, and textual accounts without reducing any one object to dependency on the other. Moreover, recent work on landscape has increasingly recognized the productive tension created by various narratives. Taskscapes, for example, that represent the processes involved in the construction of a church might well be overwritten by hagiographic narratives that located holy sites in the life and travels of a saint. The distribution of local settlements might challenge narratives of abandonment that conform to political or military goals. Artifacts of resistance might provide contrasting perspectives on otherwise triumphant narratives. Landscapes need not always capture tension between text and material culture. The presence of seemingly isolated churches might challenge views of settlement based on nucleated habitation. Soundscapes, view sheds, and the faint evidence for paths and roads, connect communities and monuments in ways that defy perspectives informed by modern efficiencies and topography and contribute to producing evidence for a Byzantine experience.

The future of Byzantine archaeology is in interrogating the methods and results of the rich tradition of archaeological practice in Greece and leveraging the growing body of conceptual literature grounded in world archaeology.  

§ One Response to Big Questions and Next Directions in Byzantine Archaeology

  • Christos G. Makrypoulias says:

    “The main focus of Byzantine archaeology continues to be the typological study of monuments, urban areas, fortifications, imported pottery and fine ware, and the interplay of texts and objects.” We should be so lucky! I remember (vaguely) my undergraduate days at the University of Ioannina, when Byzantine Archaeology was tantamaount to History of Byzantine Art. It seemed that almost every course offered was about the stylistic analysis of some form of visual art (icons, frescoes, mosaics, manuscript illuminations etc.). Interesting stuff and competently taught, but the approach was hopelessly outdated. It was then that I realized Byzantine Archaeology is too important to be left to the archaeologists and that we historians should step in (“snickers mischievously”).

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