More on a Method for Late Antique Archaeology

Needless to say,  L. Lavan and M. Mulryan eds. Field Methods and Post-Excavation Techniques in Late Antique Archaeology (Brill 2015) has attracted my attention. First, it has to do with methods (see my post last week), but it also has to do with whether we think of about archaeology in terms of period specific methods. This winter, for example, I’m co-writing an introduction to a volume on Early Christian Archaeology, and my co-author, David Pettegrew, and I have been talking about whether the study of the Early Christian period (and this topic) requires a particular methodological toolkit. I have also been turning over in my head the idea for a small book on the archaeology of the contemporary world that considers both the methods for interrogating the contemporary (and modern) world and how the methods used by archaeologists (and their tools) can as easily become the objects of archaeological study. In short, I’m thinking about periods and methods a good bit these days and the Lavan and Mulryan book added fuel to the fire.

On a superficial level, I think most archaeologists will agree that the study of certain periods (and places) privilege certain questions. For example, Richard Blanton’s famous “Mediterranean Myopia” (Antiquity (2001), 627-629) article reflects (among other things) the disjunction between Mediterranean and New World conceptualizations of regional level intensive survey. It goes without saying that the concept of the region is historically and geographically constituted. The methodological (and procedural) limits on regional survey are shaped in large part by these historical and geographic research questions.

Luke Lavan’s contribution to the first section of the book was particularly intriguing to me. He frames his discussion of an archaeology of Late Antiquity around the questions that scholars of Late Antiquity tend to emphasize. Since scholars (ancient and modern) have tended to define Mediterranean antiquity as an urban phenomenon, our methods for documenting the “late” period of antiquity have focused on urban transformation. Lavan’s methodological reflections stopped short of declaring that the archaeology of the Late Antiquity requires a distinct methodology and instead emphasized how the careful inspection and documentation of urban spaces can reveal often overlooked evidence for change. For example scrutiny of building blocks and brick can reveal subtle indications of repairs. The original location of graffito and inscriptions can point to places of public display in late cities. Careful attention to spoliation, to micro repairs, and to the movement of material around urban sites can reveal the transformation of the urban fabric which represents a basic characteristic of the ancient world. 

(One could imagine a careful post on the role of the archaeology of the Late Antique countryside by David Pettegrew!) 

As for Early Christian archaeology, the challenge is a bit different. The attention to the intersection of ritual and scriptural texts and material culture could be a point of emphasis for scholars, it’s unclear how this text-centered focus shapes archaeological practice. The search for subtle traces of Christian origins might shape certain aspects of archaeological practice in the field, but even that seems unlikely to fall outside the range of typical, careful archaeological methods.

Perhaps the intersection of believe (even faith) and materiality is where an archaeology of Early Christianity could carve out some methodological autonomy, but it remains to be seen how this would be different from an archaeology of religion or philosophy or even just the illusive “archaeology of the senses.” That being said, there is a certain attitude toward materiality in Early Christianity that informed the veneration of relics, the important role of icons, and the significance of particular historical places and monuments. This may be where an archaeology of Early Christianity can produce a distinct contribution to archaeological method. 

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