Defining Early Christian Archaeology

Over the weekend, David Pettegrew and I have been putting the finishing touches on the introduction to our Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Archaeology. We’re not only engaged in our typical struggled between length and content, but I also find myself returning again and again to the definition of Early Christian archaeology. Recently, I’ve been thinking a good bit about later late antiquity and the 7th century, in particular. While it is without a doubt that most of the connections, institutions, and trends present in the 7th century represent continuity with the preceding centuries and are properly described as part of “Late Antiquity” (whatever the limitations of this term), it is less clear whether we should see the 7th century as part of the Early Christian centuries or sufficiently far removed to be better associated with Medieval or Byzantine Christianity.

Determining the chronological limits to Early Christian archaeology involves defining what we mean by an Early Christian archaeology. To some extent, we can rely on the historiography which assigns the usual array of dates from Constantine and the peace of the church to late 5th century or the  reign of Justinian. In many ways these dates are associated with either political events in the life of the church (like the reign of Constantine) or dates that are political and “secular” in nature such as the reign of Theodosius and his legislation against paganism, the various sacks of Rome, or the death of a particular emperor. In many ways, these dates coincide with episodes of traditional interest among scholars of antiquity and late antiquity and represent the close connections between the study of late antique archaeology and the archaeology of Early Christianity.

The particular challenge of an archaeology of religion is that beliefs tend to leave very complicated traces in the material record. Sites like the famous fountain of the lamps at Corinth, for example, with their assemblage of inscribed lamps baring Christian, pagan, and completely ambiguous sentiments. These kinds of sites are not terribly unusual in the Mediterranean and, like the presence of pagan imagery on the floors of Early Christian churches, paint a picture where complicated notions of belief and religious identity are not clear cut and obvious in the material record (and this may well reflects the ambiguity of ancient religion (all religion?)). All this is to suggest that an archaeology of Early Christianity offers only a rather coarse tool to understand the spread of Christianity as a system of belief. This tends to be a major area of focus for scholars interested in the Early Christian period irrespective of methods.

With the archaeology of religion remaining a challenging intellectual task, scholars have looked to connections between the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity as a plausible reason to extend our definition of Early Christianity into the 7th century and to argue that the networks and relationships in which Early Christianity developed persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries in many parts of the Mediterranean. In this context, an Early Christian archaeology could well be defined by the networks that allowed for Christian material culture to circulate in the Mediterranean. The spaces of interaction present in this network ensured that distinctive development of Christian forms of representation and perhaps offer a useful perspective on understanding the development of Christianity as a system of representation. 

At the same time, recent discussion of archaeological methods, particular those focused on late antique archaeology, have considered whether there are distinctive methods that define an archaeology of late antiquity. This could, of course, be applied to the study of Early Christianity. There are, of course, types of monuments that are characteristic of the rise of the Christianity, particularly basilica-style churches, and particular questions that are salient to the study of Christian practices (i.e. liturgy, burials, and iconography) associated with those buildings. Whether these requirements rise the level of methodological concerns is difficult to say, but unlikely. Similarly, Christian burials (on a small scale) and Christian landscapes (on a larger scale) offer two extremes that might benefit distinctive methods and attendant methodologies. Indeed, some recent scholarship has hinted that Christian (and late pagan) ways of viewing the landscape has pushed archaeologists to think about existing sites in different ways. The long tradition of Christian archaeology and the wide range of techniques and levels of documentation used to publish Christian monuments presents an opportunity for archaeologists of this period to synthesize different traditions, types of evidence, and levels of certitude. This approach to studying Christian landscapes offers some new interpretative opportunities , but perhaps these have not risen to the level of methodology.

To return to the point of this post, as we wrap up the introduction to our Oxford Handbook, we are reminded of the challenge of defining Early Christian archaeology in terms of chronology, themes, and methods. None of these criteria are significant enough alone to map out a discrete (or unique) field of study, but perhaps in combination they set out the limits to what an Early Christian archaeology can know.

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.

The Center of the Late Antique World

I read with some interest the first volume of Studies of Late Antiquity. (And I realize that the volume came out some months ago, but, I had a hectic spring!). 

From the introduction by the editors, the goal of the journal is to situation late antiquity in more of a global and transdisciplinary perspective. That seems like a noble undertaking and more or less consistent with both longterm trends in both ancient history and archaeology as well as in the study of Late Antiquity. It is appropriate then that Mark Humphries offers a reflective essays that seeks to place Late Antiquity into the narrative context of world history. The article is available for free along with the entire first issue of the journal. 

Humphries argues that the position of Late Antiquity shapes its place (literally in some way) within the narrative of antiquity or the Middle Ages. The location of Late Antiquity between these two major narratives has focused attention on the West and its centers, in particular, Rome. This explains, to over simplify, why the “fall of Rome” in 476 continues to attract so much attention. It is both an ancient center and the heart of Medieval Europe and it becomes a kind of synecdoche for the ancient world.

The article would be great for an undergraduate class on Late Antiquity because it examines critically debates that shape the so-called master narrative over the past two decades as scholars have tried to understand the “end of antiquity” in the context of deconstructing the West and western traditions. In light of this trend, Humphries article does a nice job of showing how the work of the ancient historian presents futures from the past. Opening up the study of Late Antiquity to more global perspectives offers new ways to contextualize events like the fall of Rome and the reposition the Late Antique world and the futures it implies.

At the same time, Humphries perspectives on Late Antiquity rings a bit hollow for anyone who regularly does archaeological field work that focuses on Late Antiquity. The world that my research occupies, for example, does not really intersect with the master narratives centered on Rome or even Constantinople. The small world of my research has a center somewhere in the southern Aegean between the coasts of Cyprus and the Peloponnesus without much concern for affairs in major Late Roman centers. I suspect that many archaeologists similarly deal with such “small worlds” that offer another avenue to destabilizing master narratives. While transregional events and institutions regularly intersect with lives on Cyprus and in the Peloponnesus, the responses to these influences were consistently local.

It would be a fun exercise (in results, if not in process) to plot the places mentioned in my scholarship, David Pettegrew’s scholarship, R. Scott Moore’s scholarship and our other colleagues and to set this plot against the places mentioned in, say, a list of 25 books (or articles) that we have found influential and inspiring over the last several years. This would provide a rough geographical map of our intellectual world. For a start, we could compare our worlds with a map of the places  places present in our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, but the wider potential for mapping scholars “small worlds” is intriguing.


There are two design issues that I don’t entirely enjoy. First, as a journal that will have a more significant digital circulation than paper circulation, not having either linked endnotes that would allow a reader to go to an endnote and back to the text is a real drag. If you’re not doing linked notes, then stick with footnotes so a digital reader doesn’t have to scroll through a document to find a citation. Secondly (and more superficially), I don’t love the sans serif subheadings in the journal. They seem too much of a break with the otherwise staid serifed text block.

One other issue, that readers of this blog might suspect. The price of this journal has tempered my enthusiasm a bit. For a journal professing to offer global perspectives on Late Antiquity and to push Late Antiquiters to cross disciplinary boundaries, the price of the journal (which is by no means particularly exceptional) would tend to reinforce a kind of parochial discipline. After all, an academic journal that costs $75 per year for an individual subscriber is unlikely to be an appealing investment for someone outside the field of Late Antique studies or at a university outside of the U.S. where research support, funding, and library access might be more limited.

At some point soon, we need to stop creating new subscription based journals.  

An Introduction to Early Christian Archaeology

My colleague and friend David Pettegrew and I have been working on a massive Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology project for the last 30 (or, like, 3) years. As an upshot of this, I’ve been able to re-familiarize myself scholarship on Late Antique and Early Christian archaeology. It is also a fortuitous time for me to renew my interest in this field. Over the past decade there has been a remarkable outpouring of good and, more importantly, interesting scholarship in this field. 

As we worked on the various manuscripts and the introduction to the Oxford Handbook, David and I got to talking about writing a short introduction to Early Christian archaeology, and we have accidentally written close to 30,000 words as a start. Over the last few weeks, we’ve also been working on grant applications to support this project. 

Here’s a rough sketch of our ideas so far:

The book will be concise (<100,000 words), emphasize the role of archaeological methods in constructing Christian identity, and intended for an audience of both scholars and students of the Early Christian world.

This book is significant in two ways. First, the field of Early Christian archaeology largely falls outside of the Anglophone academic tradition. While scholars in France, Germany, Italy, and Greece have organized the use of material culture and archaeological evidence to study Early Christianity into a distinct and thriving field (see Deichmann 1983; Frend 1996; Bowes 2008 for surveys), scholars from North America and the U.K. who have focused on objects, architecture, and materiality in the Early Christian remains scattered across the disciplines of history, art history, Early Christian and Biblical studies, and Roman, Late Antique, and Byzantine archaeology. As a result, there has been a tendency for religious studies and archaeology to talk past each other despite some recent efforts to align research questions and various classes of evidence (e.g. Koester 1995; Friesen, Schowalter, and James 2014; Harrison and Welborn 2015) or to offer an encyclopedia overview of Early Christian material culture (Finney 2017). For example, a recent volume in the Brill series Late Antique Archaeology asked the question of whether the study of Late Antiquity (generally dated to the fourth to seventh centuries AD) warranted a distinct archaeological method (Lavan and Mulryan 2013). Applying a similar question to the archaeology of Early Christianity opens both archaeology and Early Christian studies to new opportunities for reciprocal critique. The relationship between material culture and belief, the architecture of Christian ritual, and the construction of Christian identities in landscapes densely populated with pre-existing religions, monuments, and memories push the theology of the incarnation, relics, and Christian materiality from theological works and scripture to real objects, buildings, and places. An Introduction to Early Christian Archaeology looks to continue efforts begun in the Oxford Handbook to examine the confluence between Early Christian archaeology as a field and the study of the Early Christian world as a topic of transdisciplinary interest.

The second aspect that makes this work significant is that it intends to emphasize a greater degree of methodological rigor than many previous surveys. The Anglophone academic tradition can take credit for many key advances in archaeological method in the past century from stratigraphic excavation to New Archaeology, intensive pedestrian survey, phenomenological approaches to the landscape, and reception theory in art and archaeology. The application of these methods in an explicit way to Early Christian material culture introduces a more critical approach to objects, buildings, chronologies, and narrative than currently common in world archaeology. The intent of this project is to expand the interpretative potential of Early Christian archaeology by grounding it in contemporary methodology. For example, archaeological methods have offered a revised, later date for the monumentalization of the Christian landscape around the city of Corinth. The later date of several buildings has suggested that they might not reflect the rapid, fifth-century expansion of Christianity in this provincial capital, but rather the growing investment in monumentalizing theological positions in the vigorous Christological disputes of the sixth century. Case-studies like these will demonstrate the value of rigorous archaeology for both a specialist audience looking for survey of how archaeology expands what we know about Early Christian society as well as a more general audience seeking to understand how a critical, contemporary approach to Christian material culture can expand our understanding of the spread of Christianity in the ancient world.

This project extends form my work on Early Christian place (Caraher 2014a), architecture (Caraher 2014b), ritual (Caraher 2015), and memory and abandonment (2010) primarily in the hinterland of the city of Corinth. This important Roman, Late Roman, and Early Christian city had a Christian community from the first century AD and appeared in both the New Testament and both contemporary and later non-canonical works. The community becomes visible in the archaeological record in the fifth century with the construction of a series large and elaborate of basilica-style churches and through the appearance of a corpus of Christian inscriptions. Since 2003, I have also worked on two sites on Cyprus with significant Early Christian phases. The site of Pyla-Koutsopetria included a partially excavated Early Christian basilica with features distinctive to the northeastern part of the island (Caraher, Pettegrew, and Moore 2014; Caraher, Pettegrew, and More, in preparation). The site of Polis-Chrysochous, on the far western side of the island, includes two basilica-style churches, extensive burials, and a substantial body of material culture (Caraher, Papalexandrou, and Moore 2013; Caraher and Papalexandrou 2012, Caraher, Papalexandrou, and Moore, under review). Like Corinth, Cyprus also appeared in the New Testament as well as in later hagiographic, historical, and epigraphic traditions as well as leaving behind a significant archaeological record (Caraher and Gordon, forthcoming).

This work as well as the Oxford Handbook will form the basis for An Introduction to Early Christian Archaeology which will be a collaborative project with David Pettegrew at Messiah College with whom I have worked on several projects for more than a decade. Over the last four months, we inadvertently prepared a 30,000-word introduction to our Oxford Handbook. While this introduction is currently being compressed to about 8,000 words to fit the requirements of that volume, it nevertheless offers an initial framework and basis of collaboration for the short book that we intend to produce. Our current plan for the book includes the following chapters. Each chapter will emphasize a particular issue central to the study of Early Christianity from an archaeological perspective and include both a survey of key monuments, evidence, and arguments as well as a brief case study highlighting how archaeological approaches can expand how we understand the Early Christian world:  


Introduction. The Archaeology of Early Christianity (historiography, approaches, and concepts)

Chapter 1. The Empty Tomb: The Archaeology of the New Testament (texts and archaeological contexts in the New Testament world)

Chapter 2. The Intangible Church (Christianity and the archaeology of religious communities in the first-second centuries)

Chapter 3. The Living Dead (Christianity and the mortuary archaeology in the third century)

Chapter 4. Building the Kingdom (Analysizing Early Christian architecture in the fourth to sixth centuries)

Chapter 5. The Quest for the Holy (Christian objects and identity from late fourth to sixth centuries)

Chapter 6. Sacred Landscapes (Constructing of Christian landscapes in the fifth to sixth century)

Chapter 7. Christian Capitals (Christianizing urban space in the sixth-seventh centuries)



Bowes, K. “Early Christian Archaeology: A State of the Field.” Religion Compass 2.4 (2008): 575–619.

Caraher, W. 2015. “Epigraphy, Liturgy, and Imperial Policy on the Justinianic Isthmus,” in “Bridge of the Untiring Sea”: The Corinthian Isthmus from Prehistory to Late Antiquity (Hesperia Suppl. 48) ed. E. Gebhard and T. E. Gregory.

-, 2014a. “Patronage and Reception in the Monumental Architecture of Early Christian Greece,” In Approaching Monumentality in Archaeology. IEMA V. James Osborne ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

-, 2014b. “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City,” for Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality. Eds. S. Feisen, D. Schowalter, S. James. Leiden: Brill.

-, 2010. “Abandonment and Religious Continuity in Post-Classical Greece” The International Journal of Historical Archaeology 14 (2010).

Caraher, W., A. Papalexandrou, R.S. Moore. 2013. “The South Basilica at Arsinoe (Polis-tes-Chrysochou): Change and Innovation in an Early Christian Basilica on Cyprus,” Cahiers du Centre d’Études Chypriotes 43: 79-92.

-, under review. “The South Basilica at Polis on Cyprus” Hesperia.

Caraher, W., and A. Papalexandrou. 2012. “Arsinoe in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” for Polis: City of Gold. Eds. W. Childs and J. Smith. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Caraher, W., D. Pettegrew, R.S. Moore. 2014. Pyla-Koutsopetria I: Archaeological Survey of an Ancient Coastal Town. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research.

Caraher, W., D. Pettegrew, R.S. Moore. In preparation. Pyla-Koutsopetria II: Archaeological Excavation of an Ancient Coastal Town. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research.

Caraher, W., D. Pettegrew, T. Davis, eds. Forthcoming. Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caraher, W. and J.M. Gordon. Forthcoming. “Early Christian Cyprus,” in W. Caraher, D. Pettegrew, T. Davis, eds. Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deichmann, F.W. 1983. Einführung in die christliche Archäologie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Finney, P.C., ed. 2017. The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Frend, W.H.C. 1996. The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Feisen, S., D. Schowalter, S. James eds. 2014. Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality. Leiden: Brill.

Harrison, James R., and L.L. Welborn. 2015. The First Urban Churches I: Methodological Foundations. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Koester, H., ed. Ephesos, Metropolis of Asia: An Interdisciplinary Approach to its Archaeology. Religion, and Culture. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995.

Two Articles on Early Christian Archaeology

This year, I’ve been returning to my roots and thinking more seriously about the archaeology of the Early Christian world. I’ve been reading a bunch of the recent work focusing on the intersection of Early Christian studies and archaeology, and surfing through some of my favorite journals to catch up on recent articles on issues like Christianization and the construction of Christian landscapes. I was fairly intrigued by Troels Myrup Kristensen’s article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies, “Landscape, Space, and Presence in the Cult of Thekla at Miriamlik” and Jacqueline Sturm’s, “The Afterlife of the Hephaisteon: the Interpretatio Christiana of an Ancient Athenian Monument,” in Hesperia

Troels’ article examined the creation of a Christian landscape in the complex space of Thekla’s shrine at the ancient site of Miramlik in Turkey. He interleaves the two, well-known texts associated with Thekla, the rather early Acts of Paul and Thekla, and the fifth-century Miracles of Thekla, with a sensitive reading of the region around Miriamlik’s landscape and history. The site of Miriamlik has seen relatively little formal archaeological investigate over the past century, but there remained plenty of significant archaeological analysis possible on the basis of what is already known.

For example, Troels notes that as late as the fifth century, the pagan landmarks remain sufficiently well-known to represent a significant foil to the Christian landscape constructed on the basis of Thekla’s miracles. He also unpacked potential political, religious, and even visual relationships between the site of Thekla’s sanctuary the nearby city of Seleukeia, the pagan sanctuary of the Sarapeion, and the surrounding productive landscape. The links between the city of Seleukeia and the sanctuary as well as between Miriamlik and the coastline defined more than simply routes of travel, but also the relationship between the site and pilgrims, local ecclesiastical official, and other travelers. Finally, Troels explores the experience of a pilgrim to the site and the contrast between the open space of the basilica-style church and the more enclosed and intimate space of a cave sanctuary (which evoked other cave sanctuaries in the region and in the Christian tradition)l  The article unpacks the complexity of the local landscape, the role of two prominent Early Christian texts, and the place of the cult of Thekla in both the experiences of visitors and in establishing new relationships in the region. 

Jacqueline Sturm’s article on the Christianization of the Hephaisteion is remarkable for several reasons. First, like the site of Miriamlik, the Hephaisteion has not seen significant new archaeological investigation for two generations. In fact, there has been little significant archaeological work on the Christianization of Athens in the last 50 years and most of the more recent scholarship has been a reconsideration of longstanding archaeological evidence with all of its limitations and ambiguities. Sturm’s article argues that the Centauromachy on the temple’s frieze was susceptible to an interpretatio Christiana which saw the battle as the conflict of good versus evil. This led to the temple undergoing a “gentle” conversion to a church in the fifth-century rather than showing evidence for more destructive forms of spoliation and conversion. 

Sturm does a nice job exploring the role of iconography in Christian practice and the context of the building in the Christianization of Athens. The challenge, as always, is chronology. No major Christian or Christianized monument in Athens has been dated on the basis of stratigraphic excavation. Instead, the evidence comes from a small number of literary sources (most notably the Vita Procli of Marinus), evidence for reuse of spolia from better known monuments, and the poorly understood role of historical figures like Eudokia and events like the Visigothic raid to punctuate the lives of various buildings throughout the city. Like the shrine at Miriamlik, the conversion of the Hephaisteion represents a negotiation between the needs of the Christian community, persistent notions of civic identity, spatial politics, and economic realities of the Late Roman world.    

Both articles consider some central themes to the study of Early Christianity through archaeology. First, they recognize the vital role of urbanism and pre-Christian religious practices in the ordering of Early Christian space. Second, both article understand the intersection of Christian visual culture and both texts and the wider monumental and iconographic world of antiquity. Third, they seem to understand that Christian landscapes and monuments are fundamentally social objects and the creation of Christian space relied on memory as a contemporary practice as opposed to some disembodied residue that clung to old things. Finally, the archaeology of Early Christianity involves both archaeology and material culture as well as the excavation of earlier field work with all of its limitations and potential.

Climate and Religion in the Late Roman Mediterranean

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading about in the recent work on the climate history, climate change, and the Anthropocene. I’ve been sucked into John Brooke’s massive work, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge 2014) and spent altogether too much time surfing the footnotes. To simplify a very complex and nuanced book, Brooke argues that large-scale climate change has had a direct impact on the development of human culture. In particular, he argues that “the structure of human history is distinctly “Gouldian”/punctuational, with long periods of relative stability (stasis) interrupted by well- de ned breaks best understood as episodic (not necessarily cyclical) global climate crises – Dark Ages, perhaps – increasingly augmented and surpassed by the eruption of epidemic disease and destructive warfare.” In other words, he human populations, culture, and society as stable and resilient. As a result, change has tended to come when particularly disruptive natural events (in contrast to the slow pressures of, say, population growth) push populations to adapt quickly. Not every natural catastrophe had this impact on human societies, but many did.

Last week, David Pettegrew took the first mighty swing at the introduction to our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology.  He traced the history of Early Christian archaeology and left us looking ahead to a section on the future of the study of Christian material culture. One of the issues that Brooke’s book has pushed me to consider – as well as recent works (such as the admitted problematic works like Ronnie Ellenblum’s The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and Decline of the East 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012)) – is the role of natural disaster in the rise of Christianity. There is a growing body of evidence that Late Antiquity saw a series of closely clustered natural disasters that ranged from earthquakes and the onsets of plagues to the end of the so-called “Classical Optimum” which was characterized by relatively stable climates and warmer temperatures and the start of 400 year period of greater climate variability. For Brooke and others (most notably Michael McCormick), nature has an impact on the transformations marking the end of the ancient world.

Notable among these changes was the rise of Christianity in the Mediterranean. It is difficult to deny the rate of cultural change that took place over the Late Antique centuries. For example, the accelerated growth of Christianity during Late Antiquity (i.e. after, say, 300) paralleled changes in pagan beliefs. In fact, many of the these changes took place side-by-side and created wonderfully diverse examples of pagan-Christian syncretism. This is not to suggest that either Christianity or paganism was stable and unchanging during its previous centuries. In fact, the internal organization of Christianity from its earliest days in cities around the Eastern Mediterranean adapted to persist in a politically hostile environment which included periodically intense persecutions often triggered by local natural (or social) disasters. The ability for Christianity to survive and adapt to attacks by communities who saw Christians as disrupting social cohesion or the relationship between the community and the divine, almost certain served it well as plagues, climate change, and political and military challenges beset the region.

The challenge for an archaeology of Early Christianity remains identifying evidence for the interaction of Christianity and climate change in specific instances. 

The History of the Church at Koutsopetria

I have focused the last couple of weeks on finishing up a the first draft of our report on excavations at Koutsopetria on CyprusI posted something on the architecture of the Early Christian basilica excavated at the site last week. This week, I figured I might post something on the history of the building from an archaeological perspective. Next week, as an optimistic preview, I’ll have completed something on the artifacts.

The history below is unfortunately short on absolute dates and some nuance, but I think there is enough evidence to support our argument that the building endured a series of interventions over its relatively short life.

Here’s a plan of the remains set against a 5 m grid:

Scan310 cropped

Here’s a brief history of the building:

Unpacking the history of this site remains challenging as it involves integrating two different excavation methods over three campaigns of excavation. Nevertheless, the work at this site does provide a useful insight into the complex history of Late Antique ecclesiastical architecture on the island and cautions us against arguments that view the architectural history of the island as punctuated by catastrophic events rather than developing over the course of a number of small-scale interventions that combine to constitute the life of a building.

Room 1 and environs appears to have been constructed at some point after the final quarter of the 5th century based on the highly disturbed fills beneath the packed earth floor in Phase 1 in EU13. The fill levels present in EU13 reveal the long history of the occupation at Koutsopetria with artifacts from Cypro-Classical period to Late Antiquity. The flecks of Roman period wall painting associated with the Phase 1 floor in EU12 indicate that the Roman period occupation of the site involved fine quality wall painting consistent with domestic spaces. The small sherds of earlier material from the collapse levels of Room 1 likewise preserve a scrappy material record for the occupation of the history of the site during the Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

The excavation did not produce a conclusive date for the building of Room 1 other than some time later than the last quarter of the 5 th century. This is not inconsistent with the 6 th century date of many Early Christian basilicas on the island, although few of these buildings are dated on the basis of stratigraphy and the distinct arrangement of the central nave of the basilica at Koutsopetria occurs throughout what appear to be 5 th and 6 th century churches on Cyprus. Evidence from the excavations indicate that Room 1 was modified after its initial construction at least once with the walling up of windows, the replastering of the double arch, and repairs to the tops of the walls and the roof. The presence of 7th-century African Red Slip plate near the floor of Room 1, later forms of Cyprus Red Slip and Phocaean Ware, and a coin of Heracleios indicates that the modification took place before the7 th century when the room was presumably abandoned.

Initial publications of the site suggested that it was destroyed by Arab Raids and while it is impossible to rule out that a catastrophic event like an attack caused the room’s final demise, it appears more likely that abandonment of Room 1 took place in stages. Phases 3 and 4 in EU12 and EU13 represent repairs to the basilica. In EU12, a fragment of a small lugged basin found associated with the construction of a spur wall that buttressed the west wall of Room 1 joined with a fragment of the same basin found associated with the tumble of the double arch and buried well beneath the collapse of the room. This would indicate that the basin was either on the floor of Room 1 or from the second story. While the exact circumstances that led to this vessel being deposited in separate contexts are unclear, it indicates the building remained standing at the time when the spur wall was built and the damaged vessel were present on the floor of the room along with artifacts of a mid-7th century date. It is appealing to imagine that this interval allowed for the removal of the gypsum floor paving and the graffito of a ship on the central pillar of the double arch.

A later phase of repair, defined in EU12 as Phase 4 included numerous Late Roman rooftiles of the kind associated with Room 1, although not necessarily from that buildings, as well as Late Roman artifacts including a sherd of 7th c Cypriot Red Slip. This repair phase is perhaps contemporary with the reuse of a still-plastered wall fragment in EU13 in a later wall. While it is possible to construct a loose, relative chronology for these two phases of repair, their absolute date appears to be essentially contemporary with the latest phases of use in Room 1 suggesting that the room encountered a series of interventions over a short period in the 7th century. These modifications served either to repair the structure or to shore it up while marble revetment, floor tiles, roof tiles and other valuable parts of the room were removed for use elsewhere. A similar pattern of salvage seems to have taken place at the church at Kourion after it suffered significant damage in a seismic event (Megaw 2007, 134-135). It is tempting to imagine the fragments of Dhiorios type cooking pot rims found to the north of Room 1 to be the remains of a late-7th or early 8th century salvaging operation set up, like at Kourion, in the atrium of the damaged building.

The Church at Koutsopetria

Over the last few weeks I’ve returned to writing up our excavation results from our project at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus. This site, for people new to this blog, is in the southeastern corner of the island some 10 km east of the modern Larnaka (or ancient Kition). The site was a coastal town during the Roman and Late Roman periods and featured an Early Christian basilica.

Very little of the church was excavated either during the initial seasons of excavation in the 1990s under the direction of Dr. Maria Hadjicosti or during our brief campaign in 2009. The main focus of this work was a small, if well appointed annex room that probably extended from the south or western wall of the atrium of the church. In 1999, excavations at the site revealed the central apse of the basilica. The apse is wide and relatively shallow and features the transverse passage on its southern side that runs between the south nave colonnade and the western wall of the church.

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This transverse passage is relatively distinctive among churches on Cyprus appearing predominantly among buildings in the neighborhood of Salamis and the Karpas Peninsula. Megaw suggested that the church of Ay. Philon served as a kind of prototype for the buildings in this area, and as you can see in the image borrowed from Richard Maguire’s 2012 dissertation (as are the rest in this blog post), has a similarly shallow and wide apse and transverse passages between the main apse and the two, smaller, lateral apses.

MaguireDissertation2012Small pdf page 688 of 827

It may be that the builders of the relatively compact church at Ay. Philon modeled their building on the much larger pilgrimage church of Ay. Epiphanios at Salamis which shared the wide, shallow apse and the transverse passages. Both buildings likely date to the 5th century with the church of Ay. Epiphanios dated through a textual reference and Ay. Philon based on its stylistic affinities.  

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Later buildings in the area, like the Panayia at Aphendrika carry on the tradition into the 6th century (at least according to the conventional date associated wth this building).

MaguireDissertation2012Small pdf page 657 of 827

The regional distribution of churches of this type is intriguing. They appear on the Karpas and around Salamis and then across the northern coast of Cyprus including at Lambousa and as far west as Soloi.

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This corpus of buildings seems to be significantly different from the churches across the more densely-settled southern coast of the island where polygonal apses are more common and the churches lack the transverse passages between the central apse and the flanking spaces.

In our survey monograph, we argue that the site of Kousopetria was situated at an important route of travel through the area. The inland road linking the coast of Larnaka Bay to the city of Salamis joined the coast at our site in both antiquity and the modern period. We argue that the remains of an Iron Age sanctuary at or near our site likely reflected the regions liminal state on the political boundary between Salamis and Kition. The presence of a late Cypro-Classical fortification at Vigla reinforced the  Obviously such political boundaries faded to unimportance during the Hellenistic and Roman period when the island became part of a single imperial state, but it remains possible that these buildings preserve echoes of these borders carved into the landscape through persistent patterns of movement between major urban centers. It may be that the church at Koutsopetria represented the southern most reach of the bishop of Salamis or even just the influence of such significant buildings as the pilgrimage church at Ay. Epiphanios. 

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. 

An Archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus

Over the last six months or so, Jody Gordon and I have been working on a survey article on the archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus for the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. I think the draft is more or less ready for sharing.

We’ve titled it “The Holy Island: An Archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus” and here’s the abstract:

The archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus represents one of the most significant case studies of how early Christianity developed because of the island’s unique geohistorical background and the diverse nature of its material remains. When combined with local hagiographical resources, Cyprus’ material culture illustrates the gradual development of a unique form of Early Christian society between the fourth and seventh centuries CE that drew on both local and imperial influences. This chapter contributes to such perspectives by offering an introduction to Early Christian Cyprus’ archaeological corpus vis-à-vis the island’s unique Late Antique eastern Mediterranean context. It examines basilicas, baptisteries, mosaics and church décor, funerary structures, coins and seals, metalwork, epigraphy, and ceramics to reveal the discipline’s main research foci and suggests topics for future investigation. 

I’ve uploaded a draft to my page here.

It might be fun to read this paper with a unpublished paper that I wrote with R. Scott Moore on the history of settlement in Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries. I’ve posted that paper to as well.

If I was ambitious and had time and energy, I could imagine these two papers being the start of an archaeological history of Early Christian Cyprus.