More Dream Archaeology and Abandoned Landscapes
I have just finished reading H. Forbes, Meaning and Identity in a Greek Landscape. (Cambridge 2007). The book is another important contribution to the archaeology and history of the Methana Peninsula complements Forbes’s earlier ethnoarchaeological work there and his 1997 survey volume edited with C. Mee (A Rough and Rocky Place. The landscape and settlement history of the Methana Peninsula. (Liverpool 1997). I am tempted to post a more substantial review of Meaning and Identity here perhaps next week, but for now, I will just offer a quick observation.
One thing that makes this book fairly remarkable is his attention to the religious landscape of the peninsula. He places the churches so carefully documented by Th. Koukoulis in Mee and Forbes (“Catalogue of Churches,” pp. 211-256) in a ethnographic context. He looks at two aspects of the religious landscape that I have appeared in this blog (and in my research). First, he analyses the processes that led to the refurbishment of churches in the countryside. Forbes argues that the population of Methana largely arrived since the Greek War of Independence and that this population found numerous churches on Methana when they arrived. Over the 200 years since their arrival the communities on Methana have restored and rebuilt these churches in many cases multiple times and integrated these buildings into their new understanding of the religious landscape. This is one of the few works that shows the process whereby churches persist in the Greek landscape and defy our simple ideas of abandonment. According to Forbes, churches endure as persistent features in the landscapes not because of a kind of inherent sacredness, but because of consistency in the ideas of religious space among the various groups who inhabited the landscape of Methana.
The second interesting aspect of Forbes’s discussion of the religious landscape was his brief analysis of an inventio story (360-364). The community on Methana built the church of St. Barbara after one resident had a dream telling them to go and dig at a particular spot. When the villagers dream was reported to the local priest and then circulated in the village, the villagers came out en masse to excavate the site. This divinely inspired excavation led to the discovery of the bones of St. Barbara and St. Juliana, and the subsequent construction of a church on the spot. Apparently this all happened around the beginning of the 20th century perhaps in the context of the worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic which hit Greece in 1918. Forbes demonstrates that today there are several versions of the story and the chronology of the tale of the church’s founding is becoming chronologically unstable. Nevertheless, the story shares features common to other versions of this story from elsewhere in Greece including the tie between a dream and the discovery of relics, the cooperation and presence of the entire village during the act of excavation, and the subsequent construction of an important church on the spot. The association with a pressing local need, in this case protection from the influenza, and an ancillary story about the discovery of a pot with gold (or ashes) links the tale on Methana to narratives of divine protection and “hidden treasure” common elsewhere in Greece. Moreover, the site where the excavations took place was likely the site of some ancient tombs. These tombs acquired local significance through the agency of dreams which were a popular medium for understanding both the contemporary landscape and the future.