Defining an Early Christian Archaeology

As my sabbatical winds down, I’m starting to get excited about next year. One of my main tasks will be to edit the new Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. The biggest task will be determining whether Early Christian archaeology actually exists. Most scholars, for example, will accept the existence of a Late Roman archaeology or an archaeology of Late Antiquity. When pressed, some will even accept the existence of Byzantine archaeology. But what about an Early Christian archaeology? As I’ve blogged about before, the use of the term Early Christian archaeology in English is historically rare and has become common only in recent times.

This past week, I finally got around to catching up with the Journal of Early Christian Studies and enjoyed Robin Jensen’s fine consideration of Early Christian art. She argued for the existence of a distinct group of practices and sensibilities identifiably as Early Christian art. She went beyond century-old assertions that that Early Christian art was merely a debased form of later Roman art or the product of a marginal community with limited access to top quality producers. Instead, she argued that Early Christian art employed a distinct “pictorial rhetoric” that supported theological interpretations of the sacred history preserved in their scriptures. Practically speaking, this form of expression was most clearly manifest in the regularized, if highly abbreviated, images of important historical moments  in the Christian (and earlier Jewish) narrative that featured important figures like Noah, Daniel, Jesus, Mary, or Lazarus. On Christian sarcophagi, various figures representing relevant stories could be “mash-up” and combined in a single object without any concern for an overarching narrative. In this way, Early Christian art was distinct from the more coherent mythological narrative present in contemporary relief sculptures. The key to unlocking the meaning of Early Christian art was not embedded in the meaning of a single mythological narrative, but in the theological overlap of various, highly abbreviated references in a single space. Christians recognized this theological overlap, Jensen argues, because of their familiarity with exegetical writings, sermons, and other efforts to explore the intersection of Christian theology and history. Jensen’s focus was largely on the 3rd and 4th century, but I suspect similar practices continued later. In fact, I wonder whether an increasingly iconic depiction of non-Christian scenes in Late Antiquity reflected the steady adoption of Christian ways of seeing.        

If we accept, then, that Early Christian art has a certain set of practices that make it distinct from Roman art, can the same thing be said about their broader material culture? And is this sufficient basis for a Early Christian archaeology:

To my mind, this issue has to involve three lines of inquiry, all of which deal with the tricky work of considering the existence of a Christian world that is distinct from the “secular” or “non-Christian”:

1. Christian Material Culture. What kinds of practices and objects constitute a Christian material culture? For example, we can identify Christian attitudes toward relics as a particular attitude toward a relatively clearly identified class of object (manifest in the archaeology as reliquaries and pilgrim ampullae, for example). We can certainly recognize liturgical furnishing as a distinctly Christian class of object especially when identified in the context of Christian liturgical space. Grave markers, jewelry, textiles, certainly represent examples of material culture linked to Christian bodies, but do lamps or table ware decorated with Christian symbols identify Christian households? Moreover, can we identify Christian uses of everyday objects that are distinct? 

2. Early Christian Landscapes. As with most archaeology of antiquity, evidence for individual practice tends to be difficult to disentangle from the incremental process of site formation. While landscapes are no less susceptible to site formation processes, it becomes easier to recognize patterns of activity across a larger sample and at a larger scale. In this context, the location of Early Christian churches might indicate patterns associated with creating a Christian landscape. The location of Christian cemeteries is another potential influence on production of a distinctly Christian landscape. Archaeological practices designed to consider specific questions related to the creation of Christian space on a regional scale could bring attention to the intersection of specifically Christian landmarks and spaces otherwise regarded as “secular.”

3. Objects of Faith. Finally, what does it mean to recognize an object or landscape as Christian? As any number of scholars have noted, Early Christianity was not a monolithic institution, community, or mode of expression. There were multiple – often competing – Christianities. Moreover, being Christian did not exclude one from also being involved in traditional practices of the community, including sometimes those with competing religious claims. In this context, it would appear quite difficult to associate an object with a community outside of the narrowly defined role of religious practice, ritual, and associated spaces. On the other hand, if Christianity is a “totalizing discourse”, as Averill Cameron proposed many years ago, then perhaps the function of objects and spaces in everyday life would take on a Christian meaning. Understanding the meaning of these practices in an archaeological contexts transforms the material culture of Roman and Late Roman world into objects, buildings, and places of faith even if the explicit link between Christian practice and meaning is lost. In this context, much like the context for understanding Christian art proposed by Robin Jensen, the reading of practice in the archaeological record can almost always exist within a Christian discourse.  

One Comment

  1. vincentoreilly April 2, 2015 at 11:28 am

    As always I’m not really qualified to comment but doesn’t Christian prefiguring Christian events in the Hebrew scriptures rather require a mish mashing of textual figures and prophecies? (Even with a pagan like Melchizedek.) I also remember F. Cumont pointing out that Mithraic images were slightly altered by the artisan for Christian customers, another mish mash. Further, some early Christians tried to combine pagan and Christian prophesy; I’m thinking of the Sibylline books. And then there was the issue of hiding Christian practice and prophesy under more acceptable pagan or nonreligious practice (and maybe even the Jewish dispensation in Palestine at least.) All this would obscure the record and makes life difficult for the archeologist. I also rather wonder if forever repeating the same tired Greek mythological imagry wasn’t getting stale anyway. While the New Testament might have had limited scenes that could be openly depicted, the Old Testament spreading around the Mediterranean could have opened a whole new pantheon of heroes and prophets to converts and also to any free thinking artist who was open minded in his pantheism. If that were so it would have contributed to the mish mash.


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