Saturday, September 15, 2012

Subjective Deviations


Postprocessualism remarks that what we consider as modern archaeology is only one epistemological variety of correlating material culture with meaning. Byzantium was a highly archaeological civilization that relished complex processes of relating past material culture with contemporary stories. So intensive was the exploitation of old buildings, for instance, that the imperial administration needed to legislate against spoliation as early as the 320s. [1] From the age of Constantine, whose own triumphal arch appropriated the monuments of Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, Byzantium developed a systematic identity of archaeological meaning ranging from the archaisms of its academic culture to the cyclical theological time where graves, relics, spaces, and objects contained multiple stratigraphic meanings. Sacred loci involved a process of historical discovery that often took the form of excavation. The archaeological practices of the Byzantines share neither the positivist nor the empiricist principles of modern archaeology, but they were systematic, centralized and shared socially.

“Go excavate in the garden, measure two cubits from the fence along the road that leads to Betherebin, and you will find two coffins, a wooden one enclosed in a lead one. Next to the coffins, you will find a glass vessel full of water, and two medium-size serpents that are tame and perfectly harmless.”[2] Texts containing such archaeological specificity were common in chronicles, saint’s lives and ecclesiastical histories. Recounted in the fourth-century ecclesiastical history of Sozomen, this archaeological text appeared in the dream of the farmer Kalemeros, who was instructed in discovering the relics of the Biblical prophet Zechariah near Eleutheropolis in Palestine. The tenth-century Life of Saint Elias the Cave Dweller describes a methodical survey of an abandoned tower that the wandering saint inhabits. [3] Eleias goal is to exorcise this ancient monument from the pagan spirits of its age. Despite the irrational character of exorcism, the monk follows a systematic process, going around the monument and surveying each one of its four corners.

As William Caraher has shown, Byzantium’s methods of magical archaeology constitute a tradition that continued to be practiced by “scientific” archaeologists in the twentieth century through séances, parapsychology and the surviving cosmologies of Orthodoxy. Although publicly embracing positivist methodologies, modern practitioners continued to employ indigenous archaeology side-by-side modern materialist methods. [4] Rather than dismissing such “premodern” or “indigenous” archaeologies” as ridiculous manifestations of superstitious peasantry, Yannis Hamilakis has made a convincing case that such modes of narrative offer an epistemology of resistance against the colonialist archaeology of the Enlightenment. [5] Most postprocessual theorists of archaeology have based their analyses on the archaeological canon of classical or pre-classical Mediterranean societies rather than the marginal field of Byzantine archaeology.

Christianity’s theology of commemoration guaranteed the continuous usage of many sacred buildings. Unlike the archaeology of antiquity, where the original inhabitants and religious systems have disappeared, the archaeology of Christian periods confronts an interesting dimension of heritage. Sites of sacred significance, from the Holy Sepulchre in Palestine to remote cave chapels in the Balkans, have passed on their meaning through continuous inhabitation and the codification of historical memory. Continuous occupation, however, introduces a reverse problem. In contrast to the maintenance of meaning, the maintenance of place requires the constant manipulation of the archaeological fabric. Even the slightest of renovation, restoration or renewal requires limited destruction. What Romantic historians like John Ruskin relished as an organic accumulation of history, involved topical archaeological practices. Even the simplest of building additions required excavation and the revelation of previously unknown strata. Thus, the afterlife of Byzantine sites engaged in an archaeological process of digging into previous layers and re-presenting them in conspicuous fashion. The prevalence of such situational archaeology in Byzantine monuments has produced some of the most stratified masonries in the history of architecture and has, consequently, given birth to a radical archaeological tradition of intense fragmentation.

The emergence of scientific methods in modern archaeology have encouraged the removal of the viewer’s subjectivity into the process of data collection. Since the eighteenth century, archaeologists have developed objective methods by which the viewer could remove himself or herself from observation and minimize interpretive contamination. Scientific methods of physical analysis, the spatial and temporal objectivity of stratigraphy and the processualist models of social science have certainly produced a scientific discipline of Byzantine archaeology. At the same time, however, more subjective methods of interpretation have been applied on the material record. Byzantium’s eminent visuality, as well as the vibrancy of its living tradition in contemporary subjects have led modern archaeologists into avenues of experimentation. The marginality of Byzantine studies as a discipline, moreover, has encouraged interdisciplinary experimentation and a laxity of rigor that have benefited premodern or postmodern epistemologies. One could thematize at least three modes of interference from positivist objectivity that have been particularly persistent in the methods of Byzantine archaeology a mystical interference.


[1] J. D. Alchermes, "Spolia in Roman Cities of the Late Empire: Legislative Rationales and Architectural Reuse," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 48 (1994) , pp. 167-178.
[2] Life of Elias Spelaiotes 20 (Acta Sanctorum, September 3, pp. 843-888), Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database. Washington, D.C.
[3] Sozomen, Historia ecclesiastica 9.17.2.
[4] W. Caraher, “Dream Archaeology,” University of North Dakota Faculty Lecture Series (Grand Forks, 2010)
[5] Y. Hamilakis, “Decolonizing Greek Archaeology: Indigenous Archaeologies, Modernist Archaeology and the Post-Colonial Critique,” in A Singular Antiquity: Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in Twentieth-Century Greece, ed. D. Damaskos and D. Plantzos (Athens, 2008): 273-284

No comments:

Blog Archive

Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States