December 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
The past few weeks I’ve worked on a top secret Early Christian Archaeology project (which is not particularly related to this past from several years ago). As part of that project, my collaborator and I began to think about the term Early Christian Christian archaeology in an Anglo-American academic context, and we both came to the conclusion that, while common the scholarship elsewhere in the world, it is relatively rare among English speaking scholars. Indeed, looking at a Google Ngram for the term, we can see that it is not only rare, but has only begun to appear quite recently.
The spike that appears in the mid-1970s derives primarily from a small number of works that appeared between 1965 and 1975. Most of these books looked at the archaeology of the Early Christian period in the U.K. (and one particular book A.C. Thomas’s Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain (1971). The continued growth in the term Early Christian Archaeology in more recent decades derives in large part from the growing interest in the archaeology of Late Antiquity and the appearance of William Frend’s book The Archaeology of Early Christianity (1996) which explores the history of the discipline. Among European scholars, the Early Christian period encompasses the first five centuries of our era. A similar trend is evident in the following Ngram that queries Late Antiquity, Late Roman, and Late Antique.
In contrast, Christian Archaeology, in contrast, was a term with greater currency in the 19th century driven by the first generation of professional archaeologists who brought scientific methods to the study of both the Bible and Christian antiquity more generally.
A similar, if somewhat busier graph appears for the phrase Biblical Archaeology which obviously encompasses the archaeology of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
As I have noted elsewhere the practice of Biblical and, to some extent, Early Christian archaeology are interesting because texts explicitly (in the case of Biblical archaeology at least) drive the narrative. This locates archaeological practices in particular relationship to the textual and material culture of the past and opens the door to some significant rumination on archaeological and historical epistemology. Texts and religion emerge as independent variables that define both the practice of archaeology as well as the questions that we ask of the archaeology. The concomitant rise in interest in Early Christian Archaeology (as well as its longs standing roots in 19th century questions of historical and “scientific” validation of Biblical accounts) and in more substantial conversations concerning the nature of archaeology as discipline suggests a field ripe for renewed critique.
October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment
This past week, I’ve begun to think again about Corinthian fortifications for the introduction to a volume of re-prints on the Corinthian countryside. The fortifications represent over 2000 years of continuous strategical importance to this corridor that links southern and central Greece as well as the Adriatic and Aegean basins on the Mediterranean. Beginning in the Hellenistic period and continuing through to the Italian and German occupations of Greece, fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth was a significant concern for both local residents and occupying powers. The episodes of fortification range from the massive Hexamilion wall and Isthmia fortress to modest earthen barriers or field stone enceintes. The published fortifications have generally appeared in Hesperia or in the volumes of the Isthmia or Corinth excavation series. To date, however, there has been little in the way of integrative study of these fortifications across the entire region for any particular period or from a diachronic perspective that emphasizes persistent understandings of the Corinthian landscape.
The study of fortification in Corinthia centers on five major, deeply interrelated, issues.
1. Permanent or Contingent. The best known fortification in the Corinthia to scholars of the ancient world is on that has left very little material evidence: the famous transisthmian wall described by Herodotus (8.40). This fortification typified the contingent, emergency work of fortifying the Isthmus as a way to protect the Peloponnesus from threats from the north. The frantic repairs reported in the Byzantine period to the Hexamilion wall represent another episode of short term work designed to address the vulnerability of the open Corinthian plain to forces moving south. The rubble fortifications along Mt. Oneion (pdf, pdf) and on Geranion represented smaller scale efforts to augment the natural boundaries of the Isthmus corridor for defensive purposes. These fortifications took advantage of material at hand and the ceramic evidence and historical situations that would contextualize, at least, the hastily erected fortifications on Mt. Oneion.
More permanent fortification include not only the impressive fortifications around Corinth and its acropolis Acrocorinth, but also the massive Hexamilion wall, the long walls linking Corinth to its western port of Lechaion, the substantial Hellenistic wall published by James Wiseman (pdf), and various towers of Hellenistic and Venetian date (pdf). While these fortifications may have emerged in response to particular threat, they nevertheless represent a significant investment in the landscape suggesting that the occasion for their construction was part of a larger , systemic effort to fortify the Peloponnesus or the vulnerable communities in the Corinthia.
2. Internal or External. We know that many of the fortifications built in the Corinthia stood not to protect Corinthian lands or residents, but rather to protect polities in the Peloponnesus. The mighty Hexamilion wall, for example, stood to fortify the Peloponnesus and left exposed stretches of the Isthmia plain. Efforts to fortify Mt. Oneion in the Venetian and the Hellenistic periods (pdf) likewise left the Isthmia plain unprotected and mainly served to prevent movement south into the Peloponnesus.
Other fortifications, however, clearly served to protect Corinthian territory. The towers at places like Are Bartze in the southeastern Corinthia, the fortifications at Ayia Paraskevi, or the towers at Stanotopi (pdf) and Ano Vayia all likely served to protect Corinthian interests rather than those of an invading power. The substantial Hellenistic wall documented by Wiseman (pdf), for example, appears to bisect some of the most productive and densely built up areas of the Isthmus making it difficult to assign to either the Corinthian state or an external power. In contrast, the reinforced concrete fortifications erected by the Germans and Italians during the Second World War served the obvious interests of an external power.
3. Local or Regional. A key element to understanding the fortifications is determining whether they served to protect a particular region in the Corinthia or were part of a larger systematic network of fortification designed to protect the entire Corinthia (comparable to, say, Ober’s arguments for Fortress Attica). This issue is closely tied to the function of fortifications and whether the fortifications were erected by local authorities or the Corinthian state and fundamental views on how ancient fortifications functioned. It is hard to imagine isolated towers at Are Bartze (for example) or even at Ano Vayia contributing to a completely integrated defensive network (as envisioned by J. Marchand on the Argos-Corinth road (pdf)), but our knowledge of the fortifications in the Corinthian countryside remains fragmentary throughout much of the area.
4. Function. Much of the previous issues have to do with how we understand the various fortifications functioned in the landscape. Simple walls like those constructed by the Venetians at passes through Mt. Oneion clearly could do little to obstruct the large scale movement of troops through the region. On the other hand, hastily con structured fortifications at Stanotopi (pdf) and further west on Mt. Oneion (pdf) suggest fortified camps designed to protect temporary garrisons rather than to block movement (necessarily). The mighty Hexamilion wall and the more fragmentary Hellenistic walls seem to have combined space for garrisons with long stretched of wall designed to stop movement across the plain. The walls of Ay. Paraskevi, Mt. Tsalikas, the Isthmia Fortress, and the city of Corinth (pdf) itself likely functioned to protect local settlements. Towers, in contrast, may have stood to allow guards to observe important routes through the area (pdf, pdf), but they may also represent fortified farmsteads or keeps erected by local landowners to protect their lands or slaves.
5. Topography. Finally, the local topography plays a key role in understanding how fortifications in the Corinthia were organized. The rugged topography limited the routes that individuals or groups could use to pass through the territory. The natural limits on travel presented clear opportunities for fortification, but it may have also required a kind of modular strategy because defending forces would suffer the same limitations on movement.
While it is unlikely that my effort to pull together the evidence and issues central to the fortification of Corinth through time will produce a kind of Fortress Corinthia, I do hope that it will contribute to a larger conversation about land use through time in this vital communication and population center in southern Greece.
September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’ve spent the last week or so perusing M. Veikou’s very new book on Byzantine Epirus (Leiden 2012). It’s a monumental tome with over 300 pages of analysis and 300 more of figures, catalogues, and a site inventory. I’ve commented on Veikou’s work on this blog before so I was pretty excited to get my hands on her book length treatment of Byzantine Epirus to see how she developed more fully some of the themes touched upon in her article length work.
While I haven’t managed to get all the way through the book yet, she has already offered a few really interesting observations that are not so much novel as well documented and conceptualized. As per usual my short observations this morning are based on what I have found useful or intriguing about the book rather than some kind of universal review of the book’s merits.
1. Basilica Cemeteries and Byzantine Settlement. Veikou makes the rather obvious argument that the conversion of Early Christian or Early Byzantine churches into cemeteries in the 7th to 10th centuries – a common phenomenon across the southern Balkans – suggests continuity in settlement between the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine era (pp. 68-72). As far as I know, she is the first to make this leap and while I have some doubts about its application in specific cases (for example, I could imagine the urge to bury ad sanctos could trump the need to bury bodies in the immediate proximity of a settlement), I think she is probably right. She then takes this a step further to note that the use of earlier churches as places of burial might mark the growing willingness to bury the dead near or within settlements during Byzantine period as opposed to outside of settlements as was more common in the Early Christian period. She does, of course, note that the state of the buildings into which later visitors made burials is often unclear with evidence for churches both with standing walls and completely collapsed.
2. Byzantine Churches on Early Christian Foundations. Veikou also compiles a useful list of later churches built on the foundations of Early Christian (or just earlier Christian) buildings (p. 57). While this is hardly a major emphasis in her work, it is an exceedingly useful list for scholars looking to understand continuity of the religious landscape in Greece.
3. Typologies. Throughout Veikou’s section on architecture she proposes numerous typologies or adapts typologies for other authors to describe various architectural features present in both religious and non-religious architecture in Epirus. Such thorough typology building has long been standard practice in Greek (and more broadly Continental) approaches to documenting features in the landscape, but for many archaeologists the most persistent fear is that we impose typologies on material that, in turn, begin to dictate in unanticipated ways, our interpretations. The most obvious example of the typology-tail wagging the dog is when we have used typologies as the basis for either absolute chronology or the develop of features through time. In these cases, the logic of the typology (in, say, Byzantine architecture) has run the risk of trumping the evidence from stratigraphic excavation or other forms of dating. That being said, typologies of the type that Viekou developed in her book offers the basis for a common vocabulary to describe various features in the Epiriote landscape, and she makes a particular effort to link the typologies she creates with those existing in other literature (e.g. her grave typology on p. 76-80).
As I said, I’ve only just started harvesting this book for valuable data and I’ve only scratched the surface of Viekou’s larger arguments regarding the transformation of the Byzantine landscape of Epirus. As a region of the Byzantine world that is both peripheral to the traditional centers of Byzantine control and authority and located in an important liminal zone between the East and West during the Middle Ages, the development of Epirus over these centuries has significant impact on how we understand the limits and character of the so-called Byzantine commonwealth. In other words, more on this book soon.
September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
As I am putting the final(ish) touches on the conclusion to a survey volume based on our work on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I have a good excuse to catch up on reports from other little survey projects on the eastern part of the Cyprus. Yesterday, I read through P. L. Fall, S. Falconer, C. S. Galletti, T. Shirmang, E. Ridder, and J. Klinge, “Long-term agrarian landscapes in the Troodos foothills, Cyprus,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (2012), 2335-2347.
The article looked at terraced hillsopes at the site of Politiko-Koloiokremmos and, the better known, Politiko-Troulia in the eastern Troodos and argues that at least some of these terrace walls relate to surface assemblages of Prehistoric Bronze Age material in a statistically meaningful way. The authors ground these conclusions in a careful typology of terrace walls (which may become a useful guide to any project confronting numerous terraces on Cyprus) and a systematic surface survey.
Their survey covered an area of 20 ha with 174 2 meter radius total collection circles which produced material from almost every period from the Bronze Age to Medieval times. Sherd densities were 30-50 sherds/100 m2. This density ranked higher than the threshold of 20 sherds/100 m2 that the nearby Sydney Cyprus Survey Project suggested for “agricultural background”. Geophysical investigation demonstrated that the surface scatter was indeed associated with a tangle of subsurface features and excavation dated these features to the Cypriot Bronze Age. The presence of significant Bronze Age material and the investment in terrace walls seems to indicate an “intensively utilized, but apparently isolated, agrarian locality” dating to before the large scale urbanization of the island in the Late or Protohistoric Bronze Age.
Curiously, later material in the surface assemblage does not seem to relate to any of the subsurface features excavated at the site. The authors suggest that the proximity to the later city of Tamassos which emerged as an important political center in the Iron Age might account for the later material on the surface as the site falls within what the authors regard as a plausible manuring halo for residence of the city of Tamassos. They do concede, however, that the low density scatter might represent “dispersed field structures or farmsteads.” The presence of Roman or Medieval roof tiles indicates that some of the later, low density scatter of material in the area might be related to a Roman or Medieval structure built atop the low rise of the site.
The authors conclude with the observation that the site of Politiko-Troulia/Koloiokremmos has evidence for over 4000 years of continuous agricultural use and investment. The stability of the such long-term agrarian landscapes on Cyprus is, indeed, striking, but not particularly unusual in the Mediterranean basin. The far more pressing issue, of course, is why are these localities so persistently appealing despite shifts in settlement distributions, demographic expansion and contraction, economic fluctuations, and changes in cultural attitudes toward the landscape.
September 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have a hectic fall, but I could not keep myself from at least delving into John Bintliff’s new survey of Greek archaeology. Running close to 500 pages of text and modestly named The Complete Archaeology of Greece: From Hunter Gatherers to the 20th Century A.D., Bintliff’s newest contribution provides an ambitious panorama of Greek archaeology. Bintliff is one of only a small handful of scholars in the hyper-specialized world of Classical and Mediterranean Archaeology who could produce a book like this. While I have yet to read closely most of the book, the sections that deal with the periods I spend most time with – Late Antiquity and Byzantium – are significant.
So, in my tradition of lists, here are five observations about his approach to Late Antiquity:
1. Survey Archaeology. This is the first survey of Greek archaeology that moves intensive pedestrian survey practices to the fore of archaeological investigation. Bintliff draws heavily on his own work in Boeotia and other survey projects throughout Greece to construct arguments for settlement, urban change, and the Later Roman economy. It is impossible to exaggerate how significant this in the context of Greek archaeology where large, urban excavations have for so long framed most of the key conversations about archaeology in Greece even for the Late Roman world. Bintliff does not overlook the significance of urban excavations – for example he makes use of salvage excavations in Thessaloniki as well as excavations at the Athenian Agora, Sparta, and Corinth to make arguments for the form and prevalence of Late Roman villas, but he places these discussions alongside sites documented during both extensive and intensive survey. Bintliff’s willingness to emphasize the results produced by survey archaeology has had several significant knock-on consequences:
2. Methods. One of the most significant consequences in expanding our idea of Greek archaeology from its traditional emphasis on excavation to include survey archaeology is a renewed interest in connecting archaeological methods to the kinds of conclusions that one can draw from archaeological data. While excavation practices have increased in sophistication over the past 50 years, no where in Greek archaeology has the methodological discourse reached the level of intensity as in survey archaeology. Bintliff makes a particular point of considering David Pettegrew’s important 2007 article in Hesperia (76.4: pdf here) which noted the vast differences in artifact visibility between Early-Middle Roman coarse wares and Late Roman coarse wares. Late Roman amphora sherds with their distinctive surface treatments are simply far more visible in a survey context than amphora sherds from earlier periods. This has obvious consequences for how we understand the extent and nature of settlement and land use over the long Roman period in Greece. Bintliff’s willingness to address this fiddly methodological issue brings a level of sophistication to his work that might otherwise be absent in a book focused on the traditional topic of Greek archaeology in the later Roman period (churches, fortifications, urban change, villas, et c.).
3. Town and Country. Intensive pedestrian survey – whatever its current methodological limitations – has shed invaluable light on the Late Roman countryside and, by extension, the Late Roman economy. Bintliff’s book does more than any other major survey of Greek history or archaeology to bring the rural economy into the larger narrative of later Greek history. Survey archaeology has brought to light not only the presence of smaller site where saw re-occupation in Late Roman period, but also the appearance of numerous island and harbor sites which undoubtedly reflects vibrant commerce in agricultural goods on small-scale as well as the integration of small rural producers with an economy increasingly geared toward supplying Constantinople and the Danubian provinces.
4. Periodization. One of the few area where I am willing to question Bintliff’s approach to dealing with the Late Roman period is in his decisions to abide by longstanding practices of separating the Late Antique (300-650) from the Early Byzantine (650-850). To his credit, he makes explicit the difficulties associated with the tricky practice of periodizing and offers an argument based on demographic change, shifts in architectural practices, and larger geo-politics. On the other hand, archaeologists have increasingly come to see the chronological boundaries of Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium as far from clear. The study of Late Roman ceramics continues to show that various forms traditionally dated to Late Antiquity persist into the 8th centuries. The excavators of most monumental Late Antique buildings in Greece did not publish systematically their stratigraphy and ceramic data making it difficult to associate the dates of these buildings with actual archaeological material. Finally, larger patterns of life – including the well-worn trading paths that integrated Greece with the larger Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean world – may have persisted for much longer than earlier scholars have suspected. The continued vitality of urban areas like Corinth into the 8th centuries offers a significant challenge to traditional periodization schemes.
5. The Hexamilion. Finally, it was gratifying to see the Hexamilion wall and Isthmian fortress occupying a significant place in Bintliff’s treatment of the Late Roman countryside. This massive fortification extended across the entire Isthmus of Corinth and formed a formidable (if oddly ineffective) barrier against barbarian incursions from the north. Two fortresses anchored the Hexamilion wall at its eastern and western termini, and the eastern fortress has seen significant archaeological work mainly by teams associated with the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia. The wall and fortress undoubtedly had a massive economic and visual impact on the Corinthian countryside drawing significant resources to the provisioning of the garrison there and the maintenance of the wall. The site of the Isthmian fortress served as the base of operations for the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and was where I gained whatever modest knowledge I have about archaeology.
August 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
Access to water remains a basic human need. The arid climate of the Mediterranean basin made access to water an even more pressing issue and cities throughout antiquity deployed impressive feats of engineering to provide their citizens with water. As water invovled massive investments in infrastructure, they also became opportunities for display and soon became important opportunities for partonage and highly visible elements of the Classical cities urban fabric.
Recent scholarship has come to appreciate the significance of water to life in the ancient city. Works like Brenda Longfellow’s Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: form, meaning, and ideology in monumental fountain complexes (Cambridge 2011) and Betsy Robinson’s History of Peirene (ASCSA 2011) have framed fountains as key manifestation of local, civic, and imperial ethos. The most recent volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity features a long article by Ine Jacobs and Julian Richard titled “‘We Surpass the Beautiful Waters of Other Cities by the Abundance of Ours: Reconciling Function and Decoration in Late Antique Fountains” (JLA 5.1 (2012), 3-71) which draws on Ine Jacobs’ very recent book and a forthcoming volume by Julian Richard looks at nymphaea in the Greek East.
In short, the article argues that changes in the social organization of ancient cities and attitudes toward water maintenance led to changes in the aesthetics of the water supply in Late Antique community. In particular, they show a decline the construction of large civic foundations of the kind studies by Longfellow and the growth in both smaller and improvised fountains and the modification (and maintenance) of older monumental fountains. The authors highlight fountains and water supplies from the Greek east in particular and discuss modifications to older fountains that allowed for water to be sent elsewhere from the existing basins as well as new fountains set up in the colonnades of ancient streets or tucked into inconspicuous corners of the ancient city. The modified older fountains and their smaller neighborhood counterparts offered less space and less, perhaps, less occasion for elaborate decorations. Massive displays of larger-than-life statuary gave way to the use of smaller statuettes, the re-use of earlier decorative elements, and the more practical arrangement of features designed to ensure the well-managed flow of clean water. The authors conclude that the transformation visible in these Late Antique fountains have little do with the deteriorating fabric of urban life, and more to do with practical adaptations to perrenial problems of water supply and management. In fact, the proliferation of smaller fountains and the effort to siphon water away from older monumental fountains in urban area might have been a response to an overabundance of water coming into the city rather than concerns over the absence of water.
This articles (along with Richard’s forthcoming book) will a useful starting point for a larger study of water in the Late Antique East. There were several issues that piqued my interest:
1. The Church and Water. One of the chapters in my dissertation that I axed fairly late in the process was the role of water – particularly fountains – in church architecture. Numerous monumental Christian churches had fountains in Greece. These often stood in the atrium of the church and were fed by complex water supplies or cisterns. It seems probable that the position of the fountains in the atria of these buildings ensured that they were accessible to local residents outside of the ritual life of the church. Moreover, by providing access to water, the institutional church positioned itself in a tradition of civic munificence which complemented its role a patron of the poor and protectors of the community.
It is interesting to note that the stadium fountain at Ephesus featured Ionic impost capitals like the lesser known nymphaeum at Lechaion. The common appearance of Ionic impost capitals in church architecture suggests that these architectural elements might serve to tie together civic monuments like fountains and religious monuments in a more cohesive landscape.
2. Mosaics. It was curious to me that in the description of decoration of the fountains, the authors do not mention the use of mosaics. I suspect that mosaics formed an important part of the decorative program in the small apsidal well-house at Polis. Mosaics were affordable and often graced baths – and responded well to water – as well as various apsidal spaces in Late Antiquity so it makes it difficult to imagine that they would not appear regularly in conjunction with smaller fountains.
3. Settlement and Neighborhoods. One of the interesting things about the transformation of fountains in Late Antique cities is the growth of small fountains in neighborhoods. These fountains – like the little well-house in Polis – presumably served local communities that no long gravitated to the larger urban centers with their spaces set aside for displays of civic pride and elite munificence. Instead, local fountains may have stood to serve smaller groups whose identities revolved less around the civic values and more around local landmarks and neighborhood.
March 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
This month, Ann Marie Yasin published an important reconsideration of the martyria of Salona in the Journal of Early Christian Studies (20 (2012), 59-112; pdf here?). Martyria are buildings thought to be dedicated to particular Early Christian martyrs and the veneration of their remains. Scholars have long associated the centrally planned martyrium with some of the earliest forms of Early Christian monumental architecture. In fact, they have in some cases seen martyria as the key intermediate step between the veneration of Early Christian ancestors and saints in the catacombs and the explosive spread of basilica style churches in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. As with so much in the study of Early Christian architecture, the material remains for the “evolution”, as Yasin puts it, from burial to monumental martyrium have not been subjected to particularly rigorous scrutiny, and the archaeology of the type site of Salona which featured three “early” martyr shrines that are central to how we have understood the development of this kind of building is particularly problematic.
Yasin’s article, then, subjects the archaeology of Salona to rigorous critique and suggests that the first step to unpacking the complex history of Early Christian architecture is to determine the viability of longstanding arguments for its development at key type sites like Salona. Yasin casts well-justified doubts over the traditional narrative of Christian architectural development and calls for scholars to focus on three particularly problematic areas:
1. The Regional and the Universal. I am working on a paper on monumental Early Christian architecture of Greece. Following the same lines as my dissertation, I am taking Early Christian architecture in Greece as a more or less unified corpus. To my mind, the most remarkable aspect of Early Christian building is the basic uniformity of Christian architecture. This uniformity reflected the institutional structure of church, reinforced the rising status of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and promoted the universal character of the Christian liturgy.
As Yasin points out in her article, this tendency to generalize has caused issues in the past. Scholars have overlooked the particulars of regional development or, more problematic still, the developments of particular sites or buildings. Yasin’s work at Salona, of course, also shows some problems with this approach as the archaeological records for many Early Christian buildings – not to mention the attention to detail in the excavation itself – are not conducive to the detailed study of phases. Moreover, in many cases the excavations followed the architecture and was more concerned with demonstrating the validity of longstanding arguments than carefully detailing the remains.
Yasin’s restudy of the archaeological reports and publications from Solona suggest considerable ambiguity in the traditional phasing of the buildings casting doubt on the neat narrative that assumed the pre-existence of important tombs which received progressive architectural elaboration.
2. The Trouble with Texts. Yasin points out that part of the difficulty in reading the Early Christian architecture is the tendency to see these buildings in terms of the various martyriological and hagiographical traditions. Yasin has suggested that, first, these textual sources are not only problematic in terms of chronology (and this is compounded by chronological ambiguities in the excavated buildings), but they often owe as much to literary conventions and tropes as local conditions. As a result, these texts do not serve as a reliable guide to the history of the buildings and may, in fact, reflect an imagined past that explains the nature of a standing structure. In short, past communities had as much invested in explaining the nature of the architecture as modern archaeologists, and both have created stories designed to make a useful sacred past.
3. Ambivalence and Ambiguity. A key point seen throughout Yasin’s article is that Christian buildings may not have conformed to the clear evolutionary or ritual outlines supposed by modern scholars. In fact, the ambiguity that characterized the archaeological remains of the martyria in Salona might well reflect the ambiguity and tensions present in the buildings as they stood for their ancient audiences. Buildings could and likely did sustain multiple meanings to their audiences. As a result, inscriptions, floor mosaics, and even hagiographic texts provide little to locate these churches within explicit narratives of development. One is tempted to expand this ambiguity to the architecture itself and note that Early Christian (and later) builders were not above mimicking earlier styles, combining features to create visually discordant and confusing montages, or even fabricating historical inscriptions. The willingness of ancient builders to play with architecture and to engage the viewer in a way that multiple potential narratives become possible and the architecture of the building would actively work to confuse simply interpretations.
The tension between the easy readability of Early Christian architecture in general and the complex features, architectural relationships, and narratives associated with specific sites communicated the tension between the general (perhaps universal) and the local in Christian history. The historical nature of the Incarnation, so central to Christian theology, and the universal power of the Christian God found clear parallels with the general power of the institutional church and the local traditions of the sacred.
March 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
This past week, I’ve been working away on a paper about monumentality in Early Christian architecture in Greece. Most of the work has involved re-familiarizing myself with my dissertation (which is almost 10 years old now… yikes!), but I have spent some of the week pondering the way in which monumental architecture communicated social, political, and economic ideas to a Late Antique Greek audience.
In my dissertation, I suggested that the organization of the Christian liturgy combined with the arrangement of space within the Early Christian basilica served to promote the privileged position of the clergy to the growing Christian community. The clergy had access to the most sacred areas of the church, performed key roles in the liturgy, and wore distinctive clothing in a hierarchically arrange procession. Moreover, the architecture of Early Christian churches presented a series of barriers starting with western narthex which separated the nave and aisles of the church from the atrium or exterior space, to the barriers that separated the congregation in the aisles from the central nave, to the chancel barrier that separated the eastern end of the church from the processional space of the main nave. These barriers typically served to emphasize a sense of privilege dependent upon access and, in combination with the Christian liturgy promoted hierarchical separation between members of the clergy and the laity.
Nothing in this line of argument is particularly novel. In fact, scholars have observed that Late Antique society had a growing interest in hierarchical display ranging from great urban processions and growing emphasis on the social distinction offered by Late Roman paideia to the carefully articulated ritual spaces of the new capital at Constantinople. While some of these practices had roots reaching back to the early Roman Empire, it seems probable that the changing nature of authority in Late Antiquity required more explicit gestures to enforce distinction between groups within society vying for social and political authority. It makes an easy, tidy argument to suggest, then, that the church invested in buildings and rituals that reinforced social distinction by manipulating access and performing hierarchy.
The only issue is, of course, that the church was not the only institution that invested in these buildings. A wide range of social actors invested in the construction and decoration of churches in Early Christian Greece. To be sure, some buildings appear to be the products of the institutional church. For example the Church Alpha at Nikopolis appears to have been founded by the Bishop Dometios who celebrated his donation with elaborate mosaics and flowery inscriptions (which quoted Homer!) A later bishop of the same name added some decorative flourishes.
Elsewhere, however, we have buildings that appear to be the product of imperial patronage or constructed by members of the local aristocracy. In some instances, it would appear that the numerous members of the local community chipped in to decorate a building. In one case, a donor provided only a half a solidus to the decoration of the church. This would be a modest donation for anyone above the poorest class of urban or rural laborers.
So, if the institutional church used architecture to promote the growing authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Greece, they did not do this without the support of members of the elite and the communities in which these churches stood. Are we to understand that the church exerted a kind of hegemony over certain segments of the Greek population which allowed it to leverage the wealth of these communities to promote its interests? Or was this a more complex form of collusion where independent social actors from across Greek society found common cause in promoting the church as a way to gain access to the political, social, and spiritual power vested in that institution?
I’m increasingly seeing church architecture as both high permeable to a range of actors and, at the same time, the same time space central to the (re)production of the church’s role in Greek and Late Antique society more generally. Looking carefully at these buildings – after some time away – has reminded me how messy the process of social and political change can be and that institutions rarely command unambiguous authority.
March 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
In May, I am going to a conference on the topic of monumentality in archaeology. When invited, I fired off a rather superficial abstract that talked about how Early Christian church architecture in Greece both used existing, earlier forms of urban and domestic architecture to communicate the new status of the Christian religious elite, but also subverted these forms by establishing new relationship between donor, visitors, and the social structures that informed traditional elite architecture.
This week, I’ve slowly turned my attention to this paper after completing a revised draft of the historical conclusion to the PKAP Survey Volume.
To begin, I re-read Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”. The fictional narrator of the (obviously fictional) story considers the construction of the Great Wall of China and tells of how it was built piecemeal across China to preserve the moral of the workers. According to the narrator, the very enormity of the task ran the risk alienating the labor of the individual worker by reducing it to something inconsequential by comparison. To combat this, the workers built a single section of the wall – often in a remote location – and returned home for a time of recovery before heading out again like departing heroes to build another section. Thus the wall came to represent the entire community of China – and the narrator himself who hailed from the south, not the north where the wall stood – could take tremendous pride in its construction even though the purpose and extent remained as obscure and paradoxical as the body of the Emperor himself who called for the Wall’s construction. In Kafka’s story (hardly the only one in his oeuvre that featured architecture), the Wall represented the enormity of the Empire, the incomprehensibility of the Emperor, and the tension between the fragile individual and abyss of time, space, and power that surrounds human existence. (And I have to assume that the story means many other more significant, literary, and existential things!). Monumentality formed the delicate link between the individual and things much larger, more abstract, and more remote.
This story contributed to my larger meditation of monumentality in the discourse of Late Antiquity (or the Early Christian period). Shifting attitudes toward monumental architecture has represented a key indicator in social, religious, political, economic, and cultural change in the ancient world. Indeed, scholars often argue that the end of the ancient world came with the neglect and sometimes destruction of the pagan temple and the construction of Early Christian basilica style churches in their place. The widespread abandonment of basilica style churches, in turn, marks the end of the transitional period between ancient and “Medieval” or “Byzantine” forms of architecture, and scholars have neatly synced the transformation of architectural styles with political, economic, and social changes.
The link between architecture and social change often comes through the study of patronage practices. If we understand the social practices that led to the construction of Early Christian architecture to be largely identical to those that produced earlier forms of monumental architecture, then we can argue that these shift in building types is largely stylistic or a matter of taste or practice. In other words, we can see monumental architecture as evidence for continuity between the ancient world and Late Antiquity. If we see different social mechanisms producing the Early Christian monumental building boom, then it becomes easier to claim that the shift in large scale building practices represents a shift in the organization of society on a more profound level. Along these lines, scholars have seen Early Christian architecture as evidence for discontinuity between antiquity and the Middle Ages. The issue is, of course, that we still do not understand the mechanisms that produced the boom in Early Christian architecture and how these intersect with, say, changing attitudes toward the poor among the same group of people (and the study of Late Antique attitudes toward poverty is a particularly fertile ground for recent study).
The flip side of this concern with patronage, of course, is how these buildings were understood by their audiences across the Late Antique world. Not only are did these building represent a point of contact between massive and abstract institutions like the church and the bodies of individuals living throughout the Early Christian world, but they also represent a place of critique around which community responses to new forms of religious or social organization could cohere.
As Kafka articulated in a fictional context, monumental architecture had the potential for alienating the individuals responsible for their construction as the tension between their massively concrete appearance comes all too close to the abstract entities, institutions, and ideologies which they represent. This alienation provides fertile ground of critique inscribed on the monuments themselves, on the bodies of the laborers who produced them, and in the attitudes toward the buildings in broader social discourse.
January 11, 2012 § Leave a comment
It was a real pleasure to see Dallas DeForest‘s article in the most recent volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity: “Between Mysteries and Factions: Initiation Rituals, Student Groups, and Violence in the Schools of Late Antique Athens.” Dallas is not only a stalwart participant in the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, but also a fellow University of Richmond alumnus and (so to be) Ohio State Ph.D. So we have significant ties from our own student days, which I am happy to report were somewhat less fraught than those he describes in Late Antique Athens (but only somewhat as anyone who has been on High Street after an Ohio State football victory knows). It is also worth pointing out that Greg Fisher, a PKAP alumnus from the very early days of our project, also has an article in this volume. One of the best things about being involved in an archaeological project is the chance for professional and social networks to intersect.
Dallas’s article identified three major elements to student life in 4th and 5th century Athens. First, he looks at the fragmentary evidence for initiation rituals which appear to include kidnapping, psychological and physical hazing, a ritual bath, and a feast before the prospective student becomes a member of the student group surrounding a particular philosopher or teacher of rhetoric in the most famous ancient university town. It is remarkable to imagine these brilliant late sophists (Prohaeresius, for example!) sanctioning the kidnapping of prospective students the moment they step off the ship at Piraeus, but this practice was apparently so widespread that students must have expected it.
Once the student was among the initiated, he entered a cohesive, hierarchical world centered on the teacher. Students held different ranks and certain charismatic individuals appear to have had leadership positions among their fellow students. From these positions they likely organized the violence that was increasingly part of student life. In most cases, the violence seems to have remained at the level of pranks designed to embarrass rival teachers and their students. It could, however, become more serious. Dallas describes the clash between students of Prohaeresius and Apsines which landed many of the students and their teachers in the court of the governor of Achaea in Corinth. Apparently, such violence was a sufficiently recognized part of student life, that certain confident participants in Athenian student life regretted never being allowed to demonstrate their eloquence in the governor’s court.
Dallas provides a few tantalizing and speculative glimpses of the wider implications of his view of Athenian student life. Of course, the role that the baths play in initiation rites is hardly surprising, but nevertheless has clear parallels with Christian baptism (or the initiating rites associated with any number of Late Antique pagan mysteries). While Dallas does not go this far, he does recognize that the violence in Athens parallels the violent world of Late Antique cities and noted that student violence or violence between well organized groups might help explain how conflicts between pagans and Christians (or Circus factions) could escalate so rapidly. By linking together initiation, group cohesion and violence, Dallas begins to unpack the complex social world of Late Antique urban life and make clear how these social relations allowed sectarian violence to escalate into such destructive rampages as the Nika Revolt in Constantinople or the burning of the Sarapeion in Alexandria.
The interest in Late Antique urbanism almost certainly reflects the influence of Tim Gregory, Dallas’s (and my) advisor. Gregory’s first book, Vox Populi: Violence and Popular Involvement in the Religious Controversies of the Fifth Century A.D., looked at urban, religious violence in Constantinople in the 6th century. Both focused on the social conditions that might create such violence in Late Antique cities and how the emergence of new groups in Late Antiquity - heresies, student groups, Circus factions, et c. – fortified by new practices designed to ensure loyalty and cohesion could create conditions for more serious confrontations.
So, as another semester gets underway, it was strangely comforting to read about the hazing and rituals surrounding academic life in Late Antiquity. I am grateful not to have to organize my most loyal students to kidnap prospective undergraduate majors or graduate students. I am also pleased enough that violence between student groups largely remains confined the gridiron and hockey rink. How’s that for a saccharine reflection to start your semester?
Yeah, our life is better because we don’t have kidnap students to get majors.