Monday, October 11, 2010

Fleshing Out the Byzantine House

Yesterday morning, I gave a paper at the 36th Annual Byzantine Studies Conference. My paper included archaeological data from Athens, Corinth, Chersonesos, Sicily and Egypt and focused on fetuses buried under house floors (not uncommon). The introduction and the conclusion of the paper were formally written but the case studies were extemporaneously presented from the slides. The paper was just the beginning of a longer article that I hope to write soon, but I offer the draft here. One can cite the paper as, Kostis Kourelis, "Fleshing Out the Byzantine House," Byzantine Studies Conference Abstracts 36 (2010) 117-118, where the following text is published. I should also note that this paper originated from this blog, see Byzantine Children Burials (Aug. 28, 2008). I want to thank all of you who responded in person or by email to that posting. It illustrates for me the value of blogging and the free exchange of ideas.



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.

My Powerpoint presentation had 60 slides but, unfortunately, I cannot include it here because much of what I showed is still unpublished. The image above is an Early Byzantine doll excavated in Karanis and now at the Kelsey Museum, see E. Gazda, Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times (Ann Arbor, 1983) 29, fig. 52, reprinted in Maguire et al., Art and Holy Power in the Early Christian House (Champagne Urbana, 1989) 228, no. 146.

I was thrilled to be included in a wonderful company of papers. The panel was not organized in advance, but was selected from blind abstract submissions. Good job to the program committee and the speakers for a truly thought-provoking morning. Stay tuned because we might be podcasting all the papers.

Session VIIC: Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010, 9:00-11:30

Chair: Ida Sinkevic (Lafayette College)

Fleshing Out the Byzantine House
Kostis Kourelis (Franklin & Marshall College)

The Past is Noise: Architectural Contexts and the Soundways of Byzantium
Amy Papalexandrou (Austin, TX)

The Materiality of Medieval Monastic Spaces in Egypt
Darlene L. Brooks Hestrom (Wittenberg University)

Cave-Cells and Ascetic Practice in Byzantine and Crusader Paphos
Nikolas Bakirtzis (The Cyprus Institute)

Miracle and Monastic Space: Hermitage of St. Petar of Korisa
Svetlana Smolcic-Mkuljevic (Faculty of IT, Belgrade)

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States