Early Christian Archaeology

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.

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