Future Directions in Early Christian Archaeology

Over the last few weeks, David Pettegrew and I have been slowly working to revise our introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. The final part to be written was a brief section on the prospect for an archaeology of Early Christianity. While one could identify any number of significant future lines of research for Early Christian archaeology (in fact, this could be an article in its own right), I focus on a number of areas which I think reflect the growing convergence of Early Christian archaeology, the archaeology of Late Antiquity, and trends within the larger field of world archaeology.

Nothing, of course, is cast in stone. So, let me know what you think:

As the archaeology of Early Christianity continues to converge with major currents in world archaeology, it continues a trajectory that fortifies archaeology as an independent source of knowledge about the Early Christian past and expand and complicated perspectives offered by sophisticated reading of Early Christian texts. This confluence opens up Early Christian archaeology to new research directions but also exposes the discipline to new challenges grounded the complicated issues of chronological and geographic definition and methods and questions. At the same time, Early Christian archaeology remains committed to traditional sites of biblical importance, architectural forms, and iconographic traditions that ensures continuity with the long tradition of Early Christian archaeology.

The archaeology of Late Antiquity, for example, has increasingly extended the chronological and geographic limits of the ancient world beyond the conventional definitions of the discipline of Classical or Mediterranean archaeology. As efforts to refine the chronologies of Late Roman sites and monuments have demonstrated that the economic, social, and cultural relationships that defined the ancient world persisted centuries later than earlier scholars had anticipated. Scholars have increasingly subjected to scrutiny arguments for traditional divide between Christian Europe and Muslim Asia and Africa marking the end of antiquity. As a result, it now appears that conversion to Christianity was a much longer and less thorough process, longstanding economic relationships and expectations persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries, and Early Christianity communities continued to thrive even during the disruptions of the Arab invasions of Asia and North Africa. Complementing the expanded chronological definition of the Late Antique world is an expanded geographic range. With antiquity no longer being limited to simply the Mediterranean basin, there is a greater interest in exploring the spread economic and even political relationships, including the Christian church, across Asia and into Northern Europe. The chronological and geographic redefinition of Late Antiquity is part of a larger process of redefining the origins of the West at the end of the ancient world, and the distinct place of Christianity within this narrative will continue to play a key role in this reconsideration as well.

The convergence of Early Christianity archaeology with the larger discipline of Mediterranean archaeology has also expanded the context in which scholars have understood Early Christian monuments and artifacts. While churches continue to represent examples of Christian iconography, provide insights into liturgical practices, and trace the contours of Christianization, churches also represent important manifestations of economic organization, administrative functions, and even social order. Phenomena like pilgrimage, the production of objects with Christian symbols, or the craft workers required to decorate monumental Christian buildings provide significant evidence for organization of labor, connections between regions, and the economic health of communities. Churches and artifacts associated with Christian practice have come to stand as surrogates for settlement, particularly in the countryside and contributed to arguments for rural settlement patterns and integration of rural and urban life in the Roman world.

The continued interest in scientific practices range from efforts to date Early Christian monuments using dendrochronology or C-14 to the use of remote sensing technology to document buildings without excavation. These advances have expanded the traditional tool kit of archaeologists that has for so long depended upon excavation, seriation, typologies, and stratigraphy to produce meaningful, if relative, chronological relationships between sites and between classes of artifacts. The use of carbon-14 dating, dendrochronology, and other scientific approaches to measuring absolute age will refine archaeologists’ ability to link archaeological material to events more closely datable in textual sources. At the same time, the more systematic use of remote sensing technologies to locate and identify buildings beneath the surface of the ground offers a way to expand the number of known buildings especially in remote or difficult of access locations where traditional excavation is simply unviable. Finally, greater attention to the chemical composition of ceramics, plaster in wall painting, and even marble has played a growing role in articulating the economic relationships between areas, the role of various work crews in constructing Christian buildings, and patronage practices that simple typological or unaided visual inspection of artifacts and decoration can not reveal. These scientific approaches have real limitations ranging from expense and access to the very small number of trained individuals, and the time needed to process samples and data, but they do present new ways of approaching chronology, regional connections, and spaces that sometimes fall to the margins of accessibility and field work.

Scientific approaches to Early Christian material culture complement a growing interest in the larger context for the rise and development of Christianity in the Mediterranean. Interest in climate science, for example, has just started to explore connections between the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” and the rise of Christianity and Islam in the 6th and 8th centuries (e.g. McCormick 2012; Brooke 2014; Izdebski et al. 2015; Haldon 2016; Büntgen et al. 2016 with citations). This work steers clear of simplistic environmental determinism and instead locates the workings of culture within a dense network of human and environmental factors. Recent work in bioarchaeology, and paleo-epidemiology in particular, has refined our understanding of the various Mediterranean wide plagues in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries which appear in the work of Early Christian authors and which shaped the mortuary landscape of Christian communities (Harper 2015, 2016; McCormick 2012, 2015a, 2015b). Like climate change and other environmental factors, the biological and microbial landscape of the ancient world also shaped the development of Christianity and Christian culture (Little 2007; Stark 1996).

These new directions in the study of Christian archaeology have emphasized the embedded nature of Christian practices, objects, and culture within the wider matrix of the Roman and Late Roman Mediterranean. The recognition that objects, the environment, and even microbial entities all contributed to the network of relationships in which Christianity developed. For the most part, archaeologists of Early Christianity have only begun to explore the potential of understanding the development of Christian culture amid the dense web of relations and to recognize the potential of applying theories of agency, materiality, and the critical attention to ontology to sites, buildings, and artifacts associated with Christianity. Glenn Peers’s anarchaeologie, for example, offers one way forward to examining the series of small interventions that created a portable icon (Peers, this volume).. Considering the growing interest in this approach in archaeology more broadly (e.g. Hodder 2012; more citations here), at least one significant route forward for the archaeology of Early Christianity seems clear.

The past and future of Early Christian archaeology rests firmly on its autonomy as a source of knowledge about the Early Christian past. This autonomy, however, has never undermined its deep connection with other approaches and other evidence for the first Christian centuries. It is this tension between its status as an independent source of historical knowledge and its close connections to the study of texts, art, ritual, and theology that has ensured its ongoing relevance to scholars committed to understanding both these transformative centuries and the emergence of Christianity as a world religion. The last few decades has seen the archaeology of Early Christianity tap more fully into currents developed in world archaeology as well as by their colleges in Classical and Mediterranean archaeology. This has opened the field to new methods, new technologies, and new ways of understanding and presenting the Early Christian world. The contributions presented in this volume capture the field amid its ongoing transformation. The major currents, however, of both its past and future remain visible, and we hope that it stands as a meaningful and representative summary of this field as well as an indicator of new directions.

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