Byzantine Archaeology and the Archaeology of Greece

Last week I blogged a bit about working my way through J. Bintliff’s new survey of the archaeology of Greece. This week, I reflected on the sections dedicated to the archaeology of Byzantine and Crusader Greece. These three chapters are strong enough to stand on their own as a short survey of Byzantine archaeology. They feature vivid case studies that introduce readers to some unfamiliar places while at the same time providing to the traditional monuments central to long-standing discussions of Byzantine archaeology and architecture.

There are a handful of things that really stood out in these chapters:

1. Domestic Spaces. Bintliff does a great job bringing in recent research on Byzantine and “Frankish period” housing (most notably the work of E. Sigalos). Attention to Byzantine housing, of course, is an important step to developing a more sophisticated understanding of the functional character of surface assemblages for this period. While Bintliff offers little that is new, he does provide a very accessible synthesis of recent work on Byzantine domestic space which a student could easily use as a jumping off point for more in-depth research. The only period for which Bintliff’s work seems a bit lacking is for the Early Byzantine period or the “Dark Ages” where recent work stands poised to make a serious contribution to habitation practices during this important transitional time.  

2. Urban and Rural. A better understanding of both urban and rural housing allows us to begin to unravel the complexities associated with Byzantine settlement. At present, as Bintliff acknowledged, the lines between various types so Byzantine settlements are exceedingly blurry. While the ends of the continuum – say isolated farms and major urban areas – are clear, the differences between monasteries, hamlets, villages, town, and small cities remains difficult at best. Even if we concede that some of these terms may reflect contemporary definitions of settlement more than Byzantine, the organization of space outside of the most monumentalized centers (Mistras, Thessaloniki, Constantinople, et c.) continues to offer a serious challenge to scholars interested in Byzantine economy and society. 

3. Texts. It was a bit striking that there was so little appeal to texts throughout these chapters. Byzantine archaeology has long been beholden to texts and the abundance of texts -from the most modest hagiography to various documentary sources like the typika edited and published by Dumbarton Oaks. These texts have long worked in conjunction with archaeological observation to offer a robust perspective on the Byzantine and Frankish material culture. Despite all the difficulties that texts from the Medieval period have created for archaeologists, their absence of this section reflects an obvious oversight to specialists in Byzantine archaeology.  

4. No Longer Periphery. Most surveys of Byzantine archaeology – as much as such things exist – regard Greece as somehow peripheral to the Byzantine heartland and part of a larger discussion of “provincial” architecture, archaeology, and traditions. Bintliff’s book offers almost no hint of this provincializing discourse and locates southern and central Greece at the center of his discussion of  archaeology. This makes some sense, of course, as his book focuses on the archaeology of a particular region defined by both the modern nationstate and earlier concentrations of distinct cultural practices. By focusing on regional practices in their own rights rather than as just pale imitations of  the center, Bintliff locates the material culture of Byzantine and Frankish Greece within local traditions and evidence. As his entire book shows, the remains of Byzantine and Frankish Greece fit within a larger and independent narrative of Greek history and archaeology. (This is something that Greek archaeologists have largely recognized, but Bintliff avoids the potential for a nationalist archaeology by treading very critically and carefully the minefield of continuity.) 

The most vexing thing about this otherwise commendable survey is that it’s attached to 300+ pages of careful scholarship on the archaeology of earlier periods. This makes this volume not particularly appealing for a course in Medieval or Byzantine history course where it would clearly fill a gap in current offerings. This left me wishing that this book (and others like it) come in a more modular form where an instructor could purchase only particular sections of a text (at I am sure a healthy mark up!). 

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