Time after Time

This summer I am working on three separate projects: one on peasants in the landscape of the ancient Corinthia, one that looks at marginal time in Middle Byzantine hagiography from the Peloponnesus, and one that considers potential avenues for post-colonial critique in Byzantine Archaeology.  All three projects intersect in crucial recent discussions on time in archaeology.

Peasants, of course, represent a particularly ahistorical category of individual in the anthropological, historical, and archaeological record (see here and here). Defined by economic and social relationships to the means and modes of production, any study of peasants has to balance a desire to place this group of producers in specific economic, political, and social relationships relationships against the need to preserve the integrity of a widely-recognized transhistorical category.  The crucial issue, then, is whether a peasant of the 5th century BC is substantially the same as a peasant of the early 20th century. In other words, we need to ask whether peasants and their material signature exist within a specific historical time or merely as the products of particular transhistorical circumstances.  Scholars have typically regarded peasants as part of the latter and identified them as indications of a pre-industrial or pre-modern condition. In this case, peasants represents a condition of life outside of a normalized industrial or modern modes of production.  Variation among peasants and their material conditions remains secondary to assumptions regarding their fundamental character. Time for the peasant stands still as they await the liberation of inevitable modernity and industrialization.

This approach to the time and the archaeological character of groups like peasants is often regarded as typical of the modern archaeological methods and interpretations. One antidote to this kind of interpretative determinism comes from an effort to document other methods for understanding time in the past. By re-historicizing time, we can begin to escape from assumptions rooted in our periodization schemes, chronologies, and disciplinary structures. I am giving a paper later this summer looking at evidence for indigenous archaeological practices in Middle Byzantine saints’ lives.  In particular, I am interested in how Middle Byzantine saints understood ruins. In several cases these saints went into the wilderness (into liminal or marginal space) and discovered the ruins of churches or other religious buildings.  They frequently would rebuilt these structures and re-integrate them within the life of the community (variously defined).  These buildings represented the ragged edge of the present for the saints. They simultaneous recognized the past as alien (the past is a foreign country!), but also as part of their wilderness.

This effort to recognize the radical alterity (as the kids say) of the ruins and to integrate it into life of the community coincides with what G. Lucas describes as a “double temporality” in archaeology. As such archaeology “fragment[s] time as much as it restores it.” (G. Lucas, The Archaeology of Time. (London 2005), 130-131).  In the Byzantine period, the understanding of time and archaeological practice should perhaps be set against liturgical notions of time, particularly when the context is overly religious in character.  The Byzantine liturgy is meant to both collapse time through the simultaneous performance of the liturgy on earth in the eternal time of heaven, as well as to remind the participants of the very historical character of the salvation narrative.  Temporality then frames two important forms of truth in the Byzantine tradition : historical (in the salvation narrative which took place in a particular time and place) and spiritual (which happens outside of time entirely). My paper will look particularly at how saints negotiated the margin of time as they encountered ruins located at edge between the present and past.

Finally, time has played a key role in how we understand Byzantine archaeology. The debates centering on continuity or change in the Early Byzantine period emphasize two different notions of archaeological time.  Advocates of change recognize the potential for significant, substantial breaks in the archaeological narrative. Scholars who look for change observe emphasize incremental transformation and the continuous flow of history connecting the past to the present. The location of Byzantium and Byzantine history in the master narrative of the West makes the debate surrounding its relationship to Antiquity particular urgent. The tendency to see a break between Byzantium and the Ancient World allows scholars to regard Byzantium as something outside of the Western tradition. On the other hand, arguments for continuity have tended to stress Byzantium as the culmination of numerous ancient practices.  An approach to Byzantine archaeology that draws on post-colonial critique can foreground the indigenous practices and take Byzantium out of time by challenging the assumptions of the Western master narrative.

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