Monday, September 17, 2012

Mystical Interference


(Part I, here)

Byzantium’s role in the development of the Christian tradition has apportioned to the study of its material culture a magical aura. The pilgrimage to the East has always held a magical, or in the case of Protestantism, a crypto-magical dimension. Under the cloak of archaeological science, Byzantine Studies has served a variety of spiritual agendas. Consider, for instance, one of America’s earliest expedition into Byzantium sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum (1906-36), or more specifically the Episcopalian J. P. Morgan who could bypass the problems of Catholicism (i.e. his low-class Italian and Irish laborers) via Early Christianity. Similarly, expeditions to the East by Francis Kelsey (University of Michigan) were were conditioned by a need to collect magical works of Protestant sensibility (and do some missionary work on the side, particularly in regards to the oppressed Armenians). The Protestant tradition has always incorporated an ethos of missionary activity. In the 1930s, the religious fervor was translated into the secular religion of art.

As is evident from the extensive genre of travel literature to Greece, western travelers saw contemporary Greece as a mystical, oriental, primitive other. Travelers would recount Orthodox religious beliefs as exotic evidence of the population’s contemporary inferiority. The traveling observers who became the first archaeologists, however, were incapable of articulating their own subjectivities and magical assumptions. Protestant travelers, for example, took for granted their missionary engagement and the doctrine of good work. The conversion of Muslims was illegal by Islamic law, a political fact that directed Protestant missionary activities towards the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The Orthodox populations targeted by missionary work were de facto the living traditions that mitigated between two groups of Christians estranged from each other both by religious traditions and imperialist geopolitics. Early travelers, antiquarians and archaeologists were no less mystical than the post-Byzantine subjects that filtered Byzantine material culture. The Protestant work ethic, for instance, was applied onto the post-Byzantine world and flavored the activities of early archaeological engagement. Some of the earliest scholars and scholarly institutions were unapologetically missionary in character. Through Roberts College in Istanbul to Misses Hill’s School in the Athenian Agora, British and American scholars engaged Byzantine material culture in order to reach personal salvation through doing good works. Protestantism’s theology of salvation through archaeological work was utterly incomprehensible to post-Byzantine subjects.[1] The philergetism of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens was a selfless gift to the Greek other, but also a dress rehearsal for capitalist domination in the spirit that Max Weber had outlined in his treatise on the work ethic.[2] Jack Davis, Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, Betsey Robinson and Niki Sakka and others have begun to enumerate the specifics of the American work ethic in an upcoming volume Hellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece [3] Burt Hodge Hill’s obsession with watering the Corinthians, Rodney Young’s hand loss driving an ambulance through he war fronts of Albania, or the archaeological connections with the Red Cross reveal a hidden spiritual agenda. Unlike the overly-performative liturgical magic of the post-Byzantines, however, the spiritual ethos of Protestantism took the form of work. Foreign archaeologists in Greece occasionally criticized the local populations as deficient in work ethic. British and American archaeologists, in particular, embraced the scientific labor of rigorous archaeology with a religious fervor. Keeping immaculate excavation notebooks, recording a multitude of facts, excavating as vigorously as possible and outshining other institutions in scholarly productivity have produced the foundations of an objective science. At the same time, and less obviously articulated, such endeavors fulfilled an irrational metaphysical agenda of personal salvation.

Protestant notions of salvation through work, however, are not the only magical paradigms applied onto the Byzantine archaeological field. The positivist developments in archaeological methods in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were coupled by a growth in spiritualism. A non-sectarian form of spiritualism grew in a variety of fronts, whether from universalist deist movements, like theosophism, or directly from the sciences. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity that posited the transformation of matter into energy, Carl Jung’s spiritual psychology and other mainstream academicians precipitated a methodology towards material culture that involved the supernatural. The Excavations of the Great Palace in Istanbul serve the best example. The 1920s are a critical decade in the development of scientific method developed by Mortimer Wheeler and espoused by Cambridge archaeologists. It is important to note that Wheeler perfected his stratigraphic method in Segontium (1921-1922), a Roman fort that included Byzantine-period phases.[4] In 1927, the same year that Wheeler publicized his principles in a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts, his colleagues applied stratigraphic methods on the first Byzantine site, the Hippodrome in Istanbul.[5] The project produced the first discussion of “strata,” as well as the first systematic serialization of Byzantine pottery and was followed by an equally objective project the Great Palace Excavations carried out between 1935 and 1938.[6]

Looking at the final publication of the Great Palace excavations, one only sees the positivist discourse. But what lies behind the rational discourse are the invisible metaphysical practices of the project. The Great Palace excavations were executed by the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and led by three individuals, the manufacturer David Russell who provided financial support, James Houston Baxter who was professor of church history and Tudor Pole who belonged to a merchant family and served at the Middle East in the First World War. What all three had in common was an association with spiritualism. Pole considered himself a psychic and while visiting Istanbul in 1908 had an intense sensation that Justinian’s house was in the vicinity. Soon thereafter, he became engaged in a great “Quest” to discover the precise location of the palace and ultimately excavate it. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, a number of Russian refugees migrated to Scotland. Russell took refugees under his financial control, including Russian monks that had first hand experience with Constantinopolitan manuscripts in Russian monasteries. Among the refugees under Pole’s patronage was Prince Oleg of Saxe-Altenburg whose psychic powers were more intense than his own. In a 1933 letter to Baxter, Pole notes that Prince Oleg and three other refugees will assist them in psychic methods towards a more precise find-spot of the sensations from 1908. Those mystical communications, in effect, identified the subterranean chambers that included twelve chests full of treasures including the sword Emperor Arcadius used as scepter in his coronation and a sapphire described as “The Eye of God.” David Russell had met Pole through spiritualist circles, as president of the Leven Lodge of the Theosophical Society (founded in New York in 1875). In 1906 Pole’s psychic visions had assisted the discovery of a sapphire bowl in Glastonbury and Russell visited Bristol to visit him for the first time. James Baxter, the third partner in the Great Palace excavations joined “the Quest” in 1931. As an expert on ancient Christian texts, he was a popular academic among theosophists. In 1928, Baxter wrote the introduction to a visionary text, The Scripts of Cleophas, derived by Ceraldine Cummins a famous medium.[7]

Byzantium’s proximity to the origins of Christianity brought about an intersection between psychic preoccupations and material manifestations. Constructed in a Northern European Post-Reformation environment, theosophism and psychic spiritualism congealed well in Orthodox soil. Western archaeologists began a committed engagement with spiritually charged material culture at the same time that Greek folklorists began the scientific documentation of vernacular beliefs. Nikolaos Polites, a pioneer in folklore studies, compiled a corpus of popular beliefs assembled from scientific field work. Among the themes that he recorded was the super-natural power of archaeological culture that he cataloged in 1904. Among the specimen, for example, he includes a report documented in the newspaper Astei on August 2, 1893. “On the north wall of the old church of the Virgin, there is a statue that nobody dares to remove. It’s been a few years now since some little Mason tried to remove the sculpture from the wall at night. The next morning he was found dead right below the statue.”[8] Polites the folklorist, thus, provided the scientific evidence for non-scientific behaviors and beliefs and accounted for the survival of magical archaeology evident in the Byzantine tradition.

Another Greek scientist collecting data of the Greek vernacular was Angelos Tanagras, a founder of the Paraphysical Society of Greece. Tanagras went throughout Greece documenting paranormal phenomenon. Scientific method. Collaboration with archaeologists.

Housing the origins of the Christian tradition and located so far in time that it avoids sectarian strife, Byzantine archaeology remains dependent on the patronage of Christians. This is most evident in the financial patronage of fundamentalist Christians in the archaeology of Israel, as well as the tourist dollars on Biblical journeys.

The secularization of the West, many of the supernatural powers that held sway over Christian theology were aestheticized into the realm of art. What Walter Benjamin describes as the aura of the work of art vigorously interjected in the study of Byzantine art. Modern art’s abandonment of figurative representation and realism in the 1910s, lead to the discovery of Byzantium’s abstract visual tradition. Although Romantic theorists had already discovered the creative potential of Byzantium in the nineteenth century (Ruskin, etc.), Byzantine art entered canonical appreciation by a highly reified conception of artistic experience learned at the studios of Henry Matisse, Diego Rivera, Duncan Grant, Gustav Klimt or Konstantin Malevich. The theoretical tracts of Modernism made the visual of Byzantine art central. From Roger Fry’s art theory, to Willhelm Worringer's Empathy, Kandinsky’s Spiritual in Art.

The archaeology of Byzantium in the twentieth century was highly dominated with an aesthetic agenda. Whittemore; the Louvre and Princeton University, Mosaics. Michigan and Mount Sinai exhibition. Finally Getty Sinai and Metropolitan.

[1] See Heather Sharkey's work.

[2] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905; English trans. New York, 1930). 1920s and economic imperialism exercised in Greece. Much different than the aggressive imperialism that the U.S. exercised after World War II and during the Cold War, or even the economic imperialism of the late twentieth century.

[3] Philhelenism conference, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2010), see here; Bob Ousterhout and Renata Holod, Achaeologists and Missionaries in Ottoman Lands, conference in Philadelphia (2011), see here.

[4] R. E. M. Wheeler, “The Segontium Excavations 1922,” Archaeologia Cambrensis 77 (1922): 258-326. Segontium’s Period III was contemporary with the reign of Valens; Segontium’s Period IV was medieval (early ninth century).

[5] British Academy et al., Preliminary Report upon The Excavations Carried out in the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 1927 (London and Oxford, 1928); W. Müller-Wiener, Bildlexikon zur Topographie Istanbuls (Tubingen, 1977), 64-71.

[6] D. Talbot Rice, Byzantine Glazed Pottery (Oxford, 1930).

[7] Mark Whitby, “The Great Palace Dig: The Scottish Perspective,” in Through the Looking Glass. Byzantium through British Eyes. Papers from the Twenty-ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, London, March 1995, ed. Robin Cormack and Elizabeth Jeffreys, (Aldershot, 1995), 45-5; Lorn Macintyre, Sir David Russell: A Biography (Edinburgh 1994), 6.

[8] Nikolaos Polites, Παραδόσεις. Μελέται περί του βίου και της γλώσσης του Ελληνικού λαού (Athens, 1904; reprinted 1965) vol. 1, 73, no 138.

1 comment:

Ioannis Panteleon said...

Thank You for these interesting texts and also for the link to dream archaeology!

In Dialectic of Enlightement Adorno/Horkheimer state, that enlightment originated from myth and later turned again into myth. Do You think, that the history of archaeology reflect this?

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States