Archaeology, Method, and Inequality

Most archaeologists know that there is a clear link between our the material remains of the past, the methods that we use as a discipline to document them, and our view of past social organization.  I’ve been thinking about this a good bit over the past two month as I work to revise for publication a paper that I gave at the Contrast in Contrast conference this past fall.  (For more on that paper see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  The subtitle for the conference was “Studies in Inequality”, and this got me thinking about how we understand inequality in the archaeological record of Late Roman Corinth.  In general, scholars have tended to emphasize discrete groups within Late Roman society (the church, the local elites, pagans, or even laboring classes), but with the exception of the relationship between pagans and Christians said little about the relationship between these groups.  As a result, it has been pretty difficult to understand social relationships and potential inequality in a Corinthian context.  In fact, the massive quantity of archaeological evidence produced by elite interests in the area of Corinth in Late Antiquity, has tended to dominate the archaeological discourse.  The tendency for elite landscapes to dominate the archaeological discourse is not, of course, unique to Corinth.

The most cynical view of this tendency understands the relationship between social standing and archaeological evidence as rooted in the historical development of archaeology (or even the humanities, more broadly).  In this view, elite white men studied archaeology to understand what their counterparts were doing in antiquity.  To do this, they studied monuments, elite art, elite texts, and the places named in these texts.

A less cynical (and maybe more naive) view holds that archaeologists are prisoners of their evidence. In other words, elite monuments, texts, and objects tended to survive better in the archaeological record.  Since our discipline is predicated on the study of material objects from the past, we are by necessity a discipline biased to the production of elite narratives, particularly for the ancient Mediterranean world where elite material seem so much prevalent.

As I revise my Corinth in Contrast paper, I am really struggling to extract from the archaeological evidence present in the Corinthia, a narrative of the 6th century that both accommodates the expansion of imperial power in the region and local resistance to this expansion.  My goal is less to argue that resistance occurred and more to find space for resistance among the archaeological remains of the region. There are few texts that describe what people were doing in the Corinthia during this time so the traditional routes to understanding how people responded to the 6th century building boom are blocked.

The relationship between various contemporary buildings holds forth some promise, as does various graffiti pressed into the wet mortar of an imperially funded building.  We may be able to argue that the productive landscape changed in some ways too, but subtle shifts in settlement do not speak directly to shifts in attitudes.  The more pressing question, however, remains whether these traces in the landscape, architecture, and epigraphy are sufficient basis for stimulating new kinds of questions from ancient evidence.  These new questions would seek to examine inequality by challenging the epistemological basis for archaeological knowledge. This may mean that arguments for inequality are less convincing by contemporary archaeological standards (and our standard of evidence is lower or different), but it could produce greater space for groups who traditionally excluded from narratives about the past.  And this could challenge methods and perspectives on the past that tend to reproduce the privileges of the dominant class.

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