Things Fall Apart

April 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

I know I’m a few weeks late on this, but I heard that Chinua Achebe died on March 21st. His greatest novel, Things Fall Apart, inspired my dissertation research. 

As most readers of this blog know, I wrote my dissertation (defended 10 years ago!) on Early Christian basilicas in Central and Southern Greece. In Achebe’s novel the building and development of the little church in the Evil Forest represented the intrusion of the colonial of the missionary. Achebe is explicit. With the church came government, the disruption of traditional life, and ultimately spiritual and physical violence.  

At the beginning of Chatper 16:

“When nearly two years later, Obierika paid another visit to his friend in exile the circumstances were less than happy. The missionaries had come to Umuofia. They had built their church there, won a handful of converts, and were already sending evangelists to the surrounding towns and villages.”

Chapter 17:

“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, the interpreter, who was now in charge of the infant congregation. The white man had gone back to Umuofia, where he built his headquarters and from where he paid regular visits to Mr. Kiaga’s congregation at Mbanta.

“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, “and we want you all to come in every seventh day to worship the true God.”

On the following Sunday, Nwoye passed and repassed the little red-earth and thatch building without summoning enough courage to enter. He heard the voice of singing and although it came from a handful of men it was loud and confident. Their church stood on a circular clearing that looked like the open mouth of the Evil Forest. Was it waiting to snap its teeth together? After passing and re-passing by the church, Nwoye returned home.”

And in Chapter 22, Achebe moves toward the climax of the novel with the church at the center:

“The band of egwugwu moved like a furious whirlwind to Enoch’s compound and with machete and fire reduced it to a desolate heap. And from there they made for the church, intoxicated with destruction.

Mr. Smith was in his church when he heard the masked spirits coming. He walked quietly to the door which commanded the approach to the church compound, and stood there. But when the first three or four egwugwu appeared on the church compound he nearly bolted. He overcame this impulse and instead of running away he went down the two steps that led up to the church and walked towards the approaching spirits.”

—-

I won’t try to intervene in Achebe’s carefully constructed allegory other than to make the rather facile observation that the church building was power for the missionaries and the destruction of the church was colonial resistance. The architecture itself created conversion and colonial change.

Re-imagining the Basilica at EF2 at Polis-Chrysochous

February 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

As readers of this blog know, I am involved with some great scholars on a long term research project at the site of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. To date our work has primarily focused on the basilica-style church in the area of EF.2. The church was built toward the end of the 5th or beginning of the 6th century and then stood for half a millennium (or there abouts). The church stood in an area that was a center of activity from the Hellenistic period, a busy intersection in Roman times, and continued to support houses, burials, and manufacturing into the Byzantine epoch.   

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The church is a wild and sexy thing. During its hard life, it saw numerous architectural interventions ranging from what might have been an almost total reconstruction to slight structural and aesthetic tweaks. Traditional architectural history attempts to document the life of a building like this in terms of coherent phases that then collate with larger narratives of architectural development typically on a regional or even trans-Mediterranean scale. Our church is a reluctant partner in this kind of undertaking.

Any effort to push the buttresses, wall-thickenings, reconstructions, re-uses, floors, fills, and other evidence for architectural modification into well-defined phases has so far met with total frustration. This is not to say that the church did not see major episodes of modification, but that final plan of the church came about as much through a series of minor architectural responses as to major cohesive interventions.  

The resulting image of our church is less a testimony to the orderly progress of regional styles as the industrious work of a community. And we submitted an abstract to the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research to this effect: 

Re-imagining the Basilica at EF2 at Polis-Chrysochous

Bill Caraher, University of North Dakota
Amy Papalexandrou, Independent Scholar (Austin, Texas)

Over the last four study seasons, a “Medieval Team” consisting of Amy Papalexandrou, Bill Caraher, Scott Moore, Brandon Olson, and Sarah Lepinski have worked to document the basilica style church at the site of EF.2 at Polis-Chrysochous. This building and its immediate vicinity were excavated over a 25 year period beginning in the early 1980s. While excavators successfully articulated the architecture, they made little headway unpacking the complex stratigraphy of this part of the site. To do this, our project has created a relational database that integrates transcribed notebook information, inventoried finds, and context pottery. We complemented this archaeological data with renewed study, documentation, and imaging of the architectural remains to create a substantially revised phase plan for this building. This work makes a significant contribution to history of Early Christian and Medieval architecture on Cyprus by reinforcing the dynamism of Christian architecture and establishing that the transition from wood-roofed to vaulted basilicas can dates to earlier than previously expected. Moreover, these conclusions also provide a useful opportunity to reflect upon the potential to integrate new imaging technology with models for digitizing legacy data and integrating it with new analysis.

Negotiating Clerical Authority in Late Roman Italy

January 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

I spent part of the weekend finishing up Kristina Sessa brilliant new book on the formation of Papal authority in Late Antique Italy: K. Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere. (Cambridge 2012). As readers of this blog know, I have been fascinated with authority for years and Sessa’s book offers just the kind of sophisticated perspective to capture my attention. She outlined how expectations from the domestic sphere shaped and were shaped by the expanding power of the bishop. The book oozed with post-structuralism (although it was not explicitly framed this way) especially the work of P. Bourdieu. Domestic expectations formed the habitus within which episcopal authority negotiated its place in Late Roman society. 

The bishop drew heavily on the existing discourse of authority to position himself at the head of his flock in Italy. His efforts were manifest in his sermons, letters, and other texts which preserved the delicate dance between emerging episcopal authority and longstanding practices among the proud, if besieged, elite of the Late Roman West. The bishop partially defined his authority over his flock as the elite landowner and paterfamilias of the Christian community. This responsibility included care over the church’s resources, lands, and dependents as well as the involvement in the life of Christians in Italy. 

The bishop, however, did not merely adopt a traditional elite position in the Roman social order as if this kind of simple replacement was possible among elites understandably reluctant to cede authority. The Roman bishop adopted both traditional elite language of authority and subtly transformed it by replacing familiar familial social expectations with a new language of Christian stewardship over the earthly affairs. Stewardship emphasized the temporary character of earthly authority particularly over wealth. This required earthly elites to accept a demotion from absolute control over all his possessions to subordination to the bishop as the representative of the Christian God. Just as the bishop was God’s steward on earth, so the Roman elite stoop subordinate to the bishop at least in matters of salvation (and by extension many aspects of every day life). The intersection of the cosmic hierarchy and the earthly hierarchy placed the Roman elite in a position of authority, but also in a position of moral responsibility over their dependents and possessions just as the bishop carried out the work of God. Thus the bishop negotiated an important shift in Late Antique habitus by articulating key aspects of elite authority in Christian terms and locating social practice within a new set of cosmic relationships and expectations that, in turn, imposed new rules and obligations.

(Because this blog is all about me, I want to point out there that Sessa makes a far more sophisticated and clever version of the argument that I attempted to make in my dissertation. I attempted to show that the reorganization of social space within Early Christian basilicas both drew upon well-known rituals and social practices, but inscribed them within a new Christian cosmology. This enabled the rise of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Greece as Greek society renegotiated traditional forms according to a new set of rules.) 

The rest of the book is every bit as cool as Sessa described how the bishop of Rome put his newly articulated authority into use. Like so much scholarship these days, Sessa is deeply interested in understand how ecclesiastical authority penetrated longstanding elite patterns. She looks at how bishops became involved in marital issues, the relationship between landowners and slaves, and the family economy. As ecclesiastical elite exerted a growing influence over all aspects of religious practice, the traditional involvement of the paterfamilias over religions worship in the home eroded. This included some of the tricky issues surrounding worship at home that Kim Bowes treats at some length in her book  (my reflections on it here).

The control over the location and authority of the liturgy seems to have been central to ecclesiastical authority. If the liturgy was the primary means that the Christian community gained access to God, then the control over this mediating act was central to projecting authority over the community. 

A Few Observations on Early Christian Baptisteries

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

I spent a little time over the last few days reading the most recent volume of the Journal of Early Christian Studies which was a volume length consideration of Everett Ferguson’s massive, recent book Baptism in the Early Church (2009). Robin Jensen (Grand Forks native, I must add) contributed a lengthy article titled: “Material and Documentary Evidence for the Practice of Early Christian Baptism“. 

There is no way to do justice to Jensen’s elegant summary of the main literary and material evidence for baptism (and it is complemented by Ferguson’s reply later in the volume).

1. Diversity. In general, Jensen argues for the diversity of baptismal practice. Her argument rests on the architecture of the fonts, the rituals described in the texts, and the depictions in art which  show not only variation in the symbolic understanding of baptismal rituals, but also the rituals themselves. The most obvious variations come in whether the baptismal candidate is immersed or simply sprinkled with water. As Ferguson’s reply reflects, the variation in practices continues to spur debate. My inclination is to agree with Jensen and to see liturgical practice are largely non-uniform across the Early Christian Mediterranean and that this variation is captured in regional architectural differences as well as variation in the ancient texts. Ferguson admits in his response to preferring evidence from texts to material evidence, and Jensen, it would seem, preferred archaeology to texts. This approach makes sense for her argument for diversity in practice; archaeological and architectural remains have a far wider chronological and spatial distribution across the Mediterranean than our limited corpus of textual evidence. In fact, based on the diversity present in the design of fonts alone, it is almost inconceivable that the actual moment of baptism did not see at least the variation necessary to accommodate the practical reality of different font designs. (As an aside, I was disappointed that Jensen didn’t introduce some of her most controversial arguments here including her suggestion that re-baptism may have occurred at certain martyr shines.) 

2. Nature. One of the more interesting little arguments that Jensen makes in her treatment of archaeological and decorative evidence for baptism is that the baptismal fonts were sometimes adapted to evoke the original outdoor setting for the rite. In fact, she notes a device in Milan that “simulated rain falling into a pool.” (p. 380). The natural context for baptism surely evoked scenes from the New Testament where baptisms all took place outside or the pastoral settings in the Psalms that are regularly invoked in the inscriptions associated with baptisteries. Moreover, the use of mechanical means to conjure up outdoors settings brings together the use of vegetative imagery in mosaics around the font, the starry night in the domed roofs of baptistery buildings, and the need for cool, flowing water to evoke an idyllic Christian landscape of rebirth. (What she does not note, however, is that in some places in the Eastern Mediterranean (Kourion and Lechaion in Greece come immediately to mind), baptisteries were equipped with small furnaces to warm the water. It would be interesting to reflect on this variation in practice.)

3. Baths, Baptism, and Martyrs. One of the most intriguing observations offered by Jensen was the parallel between baptisteries and baths. The need for water made it the location of baptisteries near on atop the site of earlier baths not unusual. The parallel between bathing and washing clean the taint of sin is obvious as well. What is perhaps not so obvious is the link between martyrdom and bath buildings. There are a number of stories that recount the imprisonment of a saint in a bath with the most famous (to me) being the story of Ay. Demetrios of Thessaloniki. In fact, the great church of Ay. Demetrios stands atop a bath building where the saint was said to be imprisoned. One example does not make a very convincing argument, but it is intriguing to imagine the complex intersection of narratives that made vivid the intersection of bathing, baptism and martyrdom.

 

A Little Story about Local History

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Yesterday I received an handwritten letter from an older woman who lives in California. She grew up in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. This fall, she returned to town to revisit some of her past, particularly, (as her letter says) the happy times. On her itinerary was the Grand Forks First Church of God where her brother had been married on a snowy Christmas day in early 1950s. The church has also hosted a going-away party for her brother when he went into the Air Force and it was where he received his call to join the ministry. She even recalled the name of the charismatic preacher, Reverend Ray Finley and his successor Rev. Cecil Evans. Finley’s efforts ensured that the church survived a devastating fire in the March 1944. 

When she visited town, she was not able to find the little white church on 3rd and Walnut Street and she soon learned that the church has been torn down a few months before.  She says in her letter that she was heartbroken. She contacted me because someone has mentioned to her that I might have some information about the church. She had no idea that the church was over 100 years old.

Needless to say, two copies of Chris Price’s The Old Church on Walnut Street: A Story of Immigrants and Evangelicals are now in the mail to her.

While some sense of modesty made me a bit reluctant to share this story on the blog (and, yes, I realize the irony of this statement), I decided to post it because it speaks so eloquently as to how individual buildings and neighborhoods serve to locate memories. Our rapidly changing urban landscape puts ever increasingly pressure on us to find ways to preserve these places of memory whether in brick, mortar, and wood-frame form or as texts, photographs, and plans. The letter that I received yesterday provided a very real experience to confirm that investing in the preserving the past will make a difference to real people. (In my 15 years of studying Late Antique churches, never once has someone from Late Antiquity taken the time to thank me or even politely as about my work (most of them, of course, have been dead for 1500 years).)

Moreover, this work is relatively easy to do. Our book took less than 9 months to bring it from a chat over a few beers to text, plans, and paper. With all due respect to Chris Price’s efforts, the result book will never win a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize. It has, however, served its function. In my 20 some years as a professional historian, I’ve never been as pleased to share my work as I was the send those two copies of The Old Church on Walnut Street to someone who I’ve never met in California.

Archaeological “Signatures” of Byzantine Churches

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

This springs Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium is titled Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Reflections and Approaches. The symposium will feature speakers covering a range of topics central to discussions about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. My paper is among the last of the symposium and in a session called “Reading the Data/Reading the Future”.

I need to have abstract for my talk which is tentative titled “Looking across Chronological Boundaries”. The goal of the talk will be to bring together some of my work (largely with Tim Gregory and David Pettegrew) that explores post-Byzantine archaeological sites and consider how what we’ve learned in this work can inform out study of Byzantine sites in a survey context. 

Readers of this blog are familiar with my work at the early modern site of Lakka Skoutara in the Eastern Corinthia. Here’s a link to our most recent paper.

You may be less familiar with some of my work with David Pettegrew and Tim Gregory in 2001 on the island of Kythera where we collected surface data from around a series of still standing Byzantine churches. The results told us little about the landscape around these churches during the Byzantine period, but shed some significant light on formation processes around these occasionally used monuments in the Greek countryside. Like our work around the deteriorating houses in Lakka Skoutara, our work around these churches revealed a countryside that was in constant transformation. 

The evidence for the constant transformation of the landscape pushes us to see even the surface record as the product of a series of complex formation processes rather than a palimpsest awaiting our careful gaze to produce a complete but occluded text. The remains in the countryside preserve a complex record of processes.

 

Two Church Plans

October 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sometimes I don’t mind spending a morning with Adobe Illustrator (although most days it’s a special kind of torture). So I did that yesterday. 

The first image is a simplified plan of an Early Christian basilica in Greece. It is loosely based on a plan of Nikopolis Alpha, but I cut out some of the ancillary rooms joining the narthex. 

Figure1 Caraher

I also used the Illustrator to sketch a plan of the church at Kalpsi in Eurytania. This church has a spectacular group of mosaic pavements with dedicatory inscriptions. For my purposes, I was only really interested in the location of dedicatory inscriptions so I decided to create a sketch plan. I think it works for a very simplified representation of where the inscriptions appeared.

Figure2 Caraher

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How’s that for a Thursday morning before a day filled with grading and grant writing?

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