Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fleshing Out the Byzantine House

Here is a topic that I have been thinking about and hope to build up into a conference paper or even an article

Fleshing Out the Byzantine House

The mutable nature of domestic architecture has guaranteed the disappearance of most houses from the extant material record visible to the architectural historian. Thanks to commemorative and ritual functions, on the other hand, churches survive in greater numbers and are deployed to tell the whole story of Byzantine architecture. Recent efforts to fill this domestic gap have produced a corpus of houses excavated with greater sensitivity towards anthropological rather than formal architectural questions.

New archaeological evidence allows us to, literally, flesh out the Byzantine house through its engagement in precise ecologies, its inclusion of organic matter and even its incorporation of human bodies. A softer archaeological lens reveals soft tissues of domestic architecture less evident under the harder lens of architectural studies. We look at three categories of artifacts. First, we consider the burial of family members within the house floors. Fetus burials from Athens, domestic family tombs from Chersonesos, or hospice burials from Corinth highlight the Byzantine practice of in-house burials. Second, we consider other living forms involved in the construction of Byzantine houses. A geological study of mortar samples from the Peloponnesos reveals the incorporation of organic material in the making of the walls, typically collected from the community’s own trash heaps. Such organic inclusions complement our knowledge of animal sacrifice during foundation rituals. Third, we consider the ecological niches that different Byzantine settlements engage and the environmental exploitation evident in the houses, from the woods used in construction to the woods used in firing the hearths.

If we admit all this organic evidence into the discussion, we can stipulate an anthropological tension between hard and soft architectural entities. Walls, floors and ceilings formed the physical envelope of Byzantine life. Houses prescribed social life (eating, sleeping, working, playing, praying, procreating) but also embodied deceased organic life. Investigating this type of flesh more broadly allows us to challenge our assumptions of architectural meaning in Byzantium. Masonry was not an inert as the modern scholar would have it. Masonry lived, breathed, listened and occasionally spoke.

Houses are a paradigmatic building type that cannot be separated from the processes of developmental psychology. From early childhood, houses articulate the distinction between animate and inanimate powers that culture proceeds to formulate. To use Sigmund Freud’s terminology, our notion of home incorporates its correlate, “the unhomely” or “uncanny.” Contemporary architectural theory has embraced Freud’s canonical essay on (“Unheimlich,” 1925) in the postmodern armature. Marrying the theoretical uncanny with new archaeological data sheds light on the Byzantine house and throws a wrench (perhaps a toy-wrench) into the stony assumptions of Byzantine architectural history.

1 comment:

Nauplion said...

Sacrifice continued in 1978. I saw, just outside Nauplion, s priest slit the throat of a chicken and mark with blood the four corners of the property of a new house.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States