Toward an Ottoman Archaeology

I really enjoyed Benjamin Anderson’s recent article in the new and more frequent Journal of Field Archaeology. Anderson considers Ottoman attitudes toward antiquities and challenges the long-held view that Ottoman society did not have a coherent discourse or substantial interest in antiquities. 

Any discussion of “Ottoman” society is tricky, of course, because the Ottomans only rarely promoted a single, national discourse as one might expect from contemporary European nation-states. As a result, Anderson turns his attention to evidence for a “local” archaeological discourse through a series of case studies that explore the removal of antiquities from Ottoman cities by European agents in collaboration with the Ottoman state. He described how the removal of the Incantadas in Thessaloniki and the Parthenon metopes from Athens both encountered determined local resistance. While the latter case study is relatively well known, the former was more dramatic. The Incantadas were part of a Roman period portico built into a Jewish home in Thessaloniki. The efforts of the French to dismantle and remove this structure to Paris met resistance both from the Jewish community as well as the Turks and the Greeks of the city. In both cases, the European agents attempting to remove the antiquities reported that the locals believed that the statues were prominent residents of the community who had been turned to stone. Anderson unpacks this story and suggests that they might represent both a sense of local pride in the communities’ past achievements and their sense of petrified helplessness in the face of the authority of the state. The strong reaction to the removal of these antiquities and the parallels between the two incidents hints that local residents of the Ottoman world developed identities that involved interpretation of local antiquities. 

One thing that I did notice was missing from this article was any reflection on Christian traditions of archaeology which date to at least as early as St. Helena’s excavation of the True Cross and continued, at least in hagiographic texts, through the Ottoman and into the modern period. The discovery of lost icons, earlier religious buildings, and various relics through excavation reflects a consistent attitude toward antiquities as well as a view of excavation as reveling a lost part of the past. Considering the constant interaction between various religious groups, it would be interesting to know whether some Christian ideas about the relationship between the past and the present made inroads into larger considerations of archaeological identity. For example, was part of the mystery and power of ancient statues related to the concept of icons or relics which both represented past holy men and women and literally embodied their sacred status.   

For some reason the Byzantine period continues to be overlooked in studies of the post-ancient reception of antiquities. Scholars are eager to identify continuities between the modern and early modern period without giving much consideration of the intervening processes that shaped mnemonic practices. I continue to think that the Byzantine period plays a key role in understanding how early modern and even modern Greeks (or Ottoman subjects) constructed a relationship with their archaeological past. 

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