Epigraphy and Late Antiquity

Anna Sitz’s recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology is currently my favorite thing (sorry Scott!). It not only takes the archaeology of Late Antiquity seriously, but also considers the complexities of understanding Late Antique practices through the lens of modern scholarly conventions.

There’s a ton to think about in this article, but three things stand out to me.

First, Sitz looks at the re-use of a 1st or 2nd century inscription at a baptistery preserved in the Burdur Museum in Turkey. Traditional publications of this inscription attempt to reconstruct the text despite some damage to the stone. Sitz, in contrast, considers the damage as part of the complex history of reuse and shows that it was probably an intentional reworking of the stone to remove pagan associations from the inscription and to change the name preserved in the original text to that of local benefactor. While the resulting text is not, of course, perfect. The modified letters introduced some grammatical ambiguities, but these were within the scope of Late Antique practice in the region and the reworked name was consistent with the name of other local donors in the area as well. In other words, but considering how Late Roman folks read and wrote inscriptions, a stone originally seen as damaged become a deliberate part of local epigraphic practice and entirely appropriate for use in an Early Christian baptistery.

Second, Sitz considers the monumental inscription of Augustus’s Res Gestae immured in the wall of the Temple of Augustus and Roma at Ankara. She argues that the the presence of this text and a few others on the wall of the temple ensured that this building continued to be used into the Late Roman period. She argues that the temple was converted into a church sometime in Late Antiquity on the basis of a careful reading of the urban change in Ankara and critical examination of the structure itself (and the work of scholars who have tried to understand the various modifications to this building over time).

Returning to the Res Gestae, she noted that Augustus had a largely positive reputation in Late Antiquity. This was in part because Christians associated his reign with the birth of Christ and, in part, because Justinian, among others, presented himself as a new Augustus. Moreover, the temple to Augustus and Roma also had inscriptions naming Galatian priests at the temple. These texts would have both reinforced the Galatian identity of the city of Ankara, as well as connected them to the imperial family and office. This established both the antiquity of Galatian identity and its close tie with the imperial house. 

In short, Sitz suggested that these two earlier texts resonated with the Late Roman community at Ankara and may have motivated them to both preserve the building, but also convert it into a church. Thus the preservation of these inscriptions was not by chance, but owed itself to the practices of reading and sense of identity common among Late Roman Galatians. Unlike older views of spolia or architectural reuse which tended to see such practices as opportunistic or even antagonistic, Sitz demonstrates that these practices also reflect the process of translating the past into a meaningful present.

Finally, and perhaps more provocatively, this article appears in the American Journal of Archaeology, which defines its scope as “the art and archaeology of ancient Europe and the Mediterranean world, including the Near East and Egypt, from prehistoric to Late Antique times.” 

This policy, of course, has received considerable criticism in recent years and reflects the tendency for policies to persist much longer than attitudes and practices among scholars. As a result, most archaeologists would understand this policy as both unnecessarily restrictive, considering the mission of the Archaeological Institute of America in general, and incompatible with the interests of most Mediterranean archaeologists which is increasingly diachronic. Old policies, however, die hard.

It is hard not to see this article as an effort to soften the AJA’s stance in practice. Not only does Sitz have to deal with the Byzantine and even Ottoman archaeology of Ankara to date the Temple of Augustus and Roma, but she argues that deliberate cultural attitudes in later periods have shaped the archaeological record. This is common sense for most archaeologists brought up on Schiffer’s famous N- and C-transform in formation processes. The significance of diachronic regional survey projects over the last 50 years has further strengthened the diachronic interests of most Mediterranean archaeologists and has introduced renewed energy into big picture questions in archaeology that sit awkwardly with traditional periodization schemes.

My suspicion is that the AJA can’t just change its policy (which is upheld by the ancient luminaries who sit on the esteemed “Governing Board of the AIA” (to be clear, I have no idea who sits on the Governing Board, but I suspect they’re big cheeses.)), but they can use its pages to construct arguments for why this policy is no longer useful or relevant for the kind of work that the journal seeks to publish. For those of us who work at the margins of the Late Antiquity world, this is a good thing and it’s great that such a careful and creative piece of scholarship can support the journal’s editors. 

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