New Work on Churches in the Peloponnesus

I was pretty excited to read Rebecca Sweetman’s newest article on the Early Christian churches of the Peloponnesus in the the most recent American Journal of Archaeology. Not only has her work done a tremendous amount to recover my dissertation (on the same topic) from academic invisibility by citing regularly, but she also gave my blog a citation. More than the selfish pleasure of having one’s work recognized, Sweetman has done a great job bringing these neglected buildings into the scholarly spotlight. We can only hope that her insightful and important work will help these buildings gain more attention and enjoy for fully in the revived interest in Late Antiquity. 

Sweetman’s work is both better than mine, but also different. She has brought a more impressive arsenal of theoretical work to understanding these building and their role in Christianization. She has also a more intimate familiarity with the archaeology of these buildings from her time working at the acropolis basilica in Sparta. Finally, she has a more subtle and expansive view of the monuments themselves. In short, I’m jealous of her command of the source material. So, go read her work!

That being said, I do have a few little comments, which are less objections to her arguments than different takes on the same body of evidence:

1. Memory and Pagan Monuments. Sweetman thinks critically about memory in her work and agues that Early Christian basilicas and liturgy relied on the active memory of pagan and civic rituals to produce meaning, and by extension to produce a Christian ritual and social world. She notes that a few Early Christian churches in Greece were located near recently abandoned or still functioning pagan sanctuaries (the most famous examples being Olympia and Epidauros).

She also notes that Early Christian basilicas were built on the sites of long abandoned pagan monuments (e.g. Nemea). The usual reasoning for this phenomena is that abandoned pagan sanctuaries were a source of building material or the sites of settlements unrelated to the earlier history of the place. Sweetman hints (albeit vaguely) that memory of pagan activities could adhere to even long abandoned sanctuaries. I couldn’t help think of one of my favorite saints, John “The Strange” O Xenos from Crete. He discovered a long abandon pagan sanctuary and did spiritual battle with the lingering presence of paganism there and built a church. 

From the perspective of Early Christianity in Greece, these long abandoned pagan sanctuaries might be ideal places for Christian churches. They leverage lingering memories, but avoid direct confrontation with existing pagan practices. Moreover, the appropriation of these sites of lapsed pagan practices both emphasized continuity with the distant past as well as placing contemporary paganism as somehow innovative and different from historical practices. This move by Christianity had the potential of being more powerful than simply siddling up to existing sanctuaries. Christianity was appropriating the historical landscape of paganism.

2. Church Building and Elite Practice. Sweetman argues that some church construction paralleled elite practices of munificence by allowing elites to continue to patronize cult activities but to do so as part of Christian practices. I don’t disagree with this argument, but I do wonder whether emphasizing traditional practices of elite benefaction overlooks changes in Christian attitudes toward giving to the poor and to the church as part of a larger route to salvation. Changing Christian attitudes toward giving opened new ways for church builders to fund their buildings and freed them from existing networks of aristocratic wealth which often proved an obstacle to the centralizing tendency of the organized church.

There is evidence from the Adriatic coast and from Greece of rather small donations (<1 solidus) to the decoration of churches. This would have been within the budget of people of middling means in the Late Roman world. The tendency for these small donations to appear in groups in a building suggests that the church was recruiting groups of these donors. The appearance of anonymous donors of small amounts hints that the motive for giving was less about developing civic prestige and more about seeking divine rewards. 

3. Christianization vs. Monumentalization. Finally, I have come to wonder more and more whether looking at the Early Christian churches of the Peloponnesus has less to do with Christianization and more to do with the monumentalization process. While I recognize that building monumental architecture was closely tied to the spread of Christianity from the 4th on, I also wonder whether our linking of these two processes together obscure the real reason for the appearance of so many large buildings in Greece in the later 5th and 6th centuries. The 5th and 6th centuries were wracked by Christological debates that fractured Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean, but particularly in Greece where imperial and ecclesiastical policies were often at odds with each other.

Investment in monumental architecture, in this scenario, had less to do with the spread of Christianity, and more to do with the development of competition between groups within Christianity who had access to resources to make their claims in the Greek landscape. The proliferation of churches around cities like Corinth need not represent the expansion of the Christian community in this place, but rather may represent the appearance of groups with competing claims around this important city. This would help explain the multiple baptisteries, the multiple synthrona, and the subtle, but obvious differences in architecture and decoration in these buildings.

Finally, Sweetman and I would both have great little books on the Early Christian architecture and Christianization of Greece:

Hers would include her 2013 article, and the two articles she published this year (in the ABSA (pdf) and the AJA).

Mine is sketched out here.

It’s a good time to be an Early Christian basilica in Greece!

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. 

Memory of Hittite Monuments in Asia Minor

At the end of the year, I think we’re supposed to reflect on the past and celebrate avoided mistakes, seized opportunities, and events that shaped our lives. While we do that, I’d also direct you to Felipe Rojas’ and Valeria Sergueenkova’s article in the most recent Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology: “Traces of Tarhuntas: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Interaction with Hittite Monuments.” The article reminds us that the study of memory in Mediterranean archaeology was not just a passing moment at the start of the 21st century (I was aboard the memory wagon with “Constructing Memories: Hagiography, Church Architecture, and the Religious Landscape of Byzantine Greece: The Case of St. Theodore of Kythera”… I need to get this article manuscript posted somewhere) can rest assured that meaningful scholarship on memory continues to appear.

Rojas’ and Sergueenkova’s article looks at the memory of Hittite monuments in Asia Minor throughout Greek, Roman, and into Byzantine antiquity. They give these Bronze Age and Iron Age realia  particular significance in the construction of changing community identities through time. For example, the massive, monolithic, and abandoned Fasillar statue of the Hittite storm god found abandoned near its quarry appears to have become the center of various Roman activities from commemorative shrine to a young man who died unmarried to Roman games probably associated with a small settlement. Elsewhere reliefs inscribed in rock outcrops became focal points of both Hellenistic and Byzantine religious attention and evidence for ritual activity. Rojas and Sergueenkova do a nice job avoiding simplistic arguments for religious syncretism or for something intrinsically significant in the monumental landscape, but rather argue that these monuments contributed to a periodic discourse faintly evident in preserved texts. The textual conversations surrounding the Bronze and Iron Age monuments tended to focus on the relationship between these sites and the origins of existing communities and as such they were absorbed into the remarkably persistent tradition of Classical learning. Of course, the evidence for interactions that occurred beyond the rather restricted purview of ancient texts  – as evidenced, for example, in the small Roman shrine at Fasillar – suggest that the textual evidence is part of wider tradition. 

It’s hard to do archaeological fieldwork without wondering about memory and Sue Alcock’s work on this topic has cast a long and productive shadow over how we think about ancient pasts. For example, this summer we visited one of the numerous Late Classical block houses in the Argolid including the famous Pyramid at Hellinkon which was noted by Pausanias and re-used for various purposes well into Late Antiquity. The Pyrgouthi Tower in the Berate valley must have been a prominent local landmark from its construction in the Hellenistic period through its use as a Late Antique house some eight centuries later. 

At my site on Cyprus of Pyla-Koutsopetria, it was impossible not to feel the tension between the Bronze Age site of Kokkinokremos and the later site of Vigla and Koutsopetria. Kokkinokremos was interesting to us because the site has traditionally been regarded as having a single period occupation during the Late Bronze Age. Later activity in the larger area concentrated several hundred meters to the west. Intensive survey, however, revealed that there was activity at the site as early as the Iron Age and continuing into the Late Roman period. While it would be easy to dismiss this material as evidence for quarrying stones from the substantial walls around this prominent coastal height, it is at least as intriguing to consider why the site was not reoccupied in the Iron Age and preference shown for the hill of Vigla nearby. Perhaps memory of the Bronze Age site of Kokkinokremos functioned more like pagan sanctuaries in Greece rather than Hittite monuments in Asia Minor. The presence of the past at Kokkinokremos discouraged resettlement and repelled activity rather than attracting it.

Unfortunately, there is too much college footballing on today to give this any further thought today. Have a happy new year celebration. I hope all my dedicated readers have a chance to cherish good memories and find strength and hope in the bad ones. 

Memory and Place in Grand Forks

I was out for my evening “run” last night (which is actually more of a trot or a shuffle) and I had a remarkable experience.

As I was heading out Belmont Road in Grand Forks and complaining to myself about the persistent headwind, I passed an old man and said “Hi” as I usually do. He was walking with a cane, and presumably out enjoying the same lovely fall day that I was ruining for myself by running.

He said, as I ran past, “It’s been a long time since I could do that.”

I responded, “I’m just trying to hang on for as long as I can,” thinking about the fall weather.

He didn’t hear me so I doubled back to tell him what I said. When I got back to him he told me a story completely unprompted. 

He said that when he was in about second or third grade, the concrete sidewalk where we were standing had buckled a bit and had fallen apart. He and his two friends where riding their bikes down this little hill and Johnny Erikson’s front wheel grabbed on the crumbling concrete sending him over the handlebars and skinning his knees badly. He then told me that they sat there a while while he bawled because they weren’t doctors and didn’t really know what to do. When Johnny stopped crying they went on their way.

He then pointed to the massive elm tree by the side of the road and said, “This tree was there then and it was large, just as it is now…. and that must have been, well, at least 50 years ago.” 

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Fourth of July

This past year my parents put my childhood home on the market. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel any great emotional response to these developments. Maybe it’s because my wife and I have been working hard to create our own home, or maybe it’s because I have spent so little time in my childhood home since I left for graduate school in the early 1990s.  Whatever the reason, I began to think about the area where I grew up on my long flight home from Cyprus and during my fitful attempts to negotiate jetlag over the past couple of days.

I realized that I did not know very much about where I grew up archaeologically. For example, I had no real idea when my childhood home was built. I had a vague feeling it was built in the 1960s, but nothing more specific than that. (I am regularly shamed by my buddy Kostis Kourelis meditations on his neighborhood in Philadelphia!). My efforts here are a low-key, more academic and hnerdtastic version of this.

I grew up in North Wilmington in a typical east coast suburb. My increasingly fragmented childhood memories include an index of hyperlocal places, routes, and features in the landscape. I plan to maps these in relation to contemporary and historical aerial photographs and maps in ArcGIS, and to record some of my memories here in text form.

Our summertime activities were centered on the nearby Windybush Swim Club – the local pool and “the street” – Wheatfield Drive – where our family home was. Our street (as I’ll talk about later in more detail) was largely built in the late 1960s.  The pool was built in a depression at the “bottom” of Windybush road to serve that community. The community was largely built in the 1950s and the pool was built in 1958.

As kids, each Fourth of July we would decorate our bikes and ride them first down our street (Wheatfield Drive) in a parade (presumably organized by the local civic association). After that, we’d parade down Windybush Road to the swim club where we’d have a cook out and do what, as kids, we’d do every day we could all summer – play in the pool.

Here’s the Google Streetview perspective of the route down Windybush Road.

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To the pool.

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I plotted our routes here on this GIS map.  The background image is from Bing Maps which integrates with ESRI’s ArcGIS (h/t to Brandon Olson).

 FourthofJuly

Here I’ve used the 2007 digital 0.25 meter orthophotos of the State of Delaware at a scale of 1:2,400.

FourthofJuly2007

And here I use the 1968 Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service photographs. These are as close as I can get to what this area looked like when I was a kid.

FourthofJuly1968