Home > Late Antiquity > Dreams, Inventio, and Archaeology

Dreams, Inventio, and Archaeology

I have occasionally mentioned examples of inventio here in this blog particularly as they relate to the discovery of Early Christian basilicas in Greece.  An inventio is a story in which some long lost, typically religious object is revealed again usually by supernatural means.  It is commonly applied to the discovery of Christian relics and icons, but can also apply to the discovery of “sacred places” like caves and abandoned churches in the landscape.

Jack Davis recounted this inventio story about the discovery of the basilica on the Evangelistria Hill outside of Ancient Nemea:

According the story the church was discovered after an old woman in the village had a dream which told her to go up on top of the hill and dig there.  She did what the dream asked and discovered an ancient icon amidst the ruins of an old church.  The villagers hearing about this then rushed up the hill and excavated the Early Christian basilica with their farming tools revealing its full plan.  The story itself is an inventio tale and tremendously common in the oral tradition of modern Greece.  As mentioned earlier in the blog, the story has precedents in Christian literature dating back to at least the 5th century Inventio Crucis (discovery of the true cross). (More…)

While it would be easy enough to attribute such activities to the “simple piety” of villagers, I came across another example of this genre over the weekend.  Anastasios K. Orlandos, the important Greek archaeologist and architect (for more see: Writing off the Wall: Transcription as Resistance), introduces his summary of the excavations at the Early Christian basilica at Daphnousia in a report to the Athenian Academy in 1929 (PAA 4 (1929), 226-230) :

“Around 20 km from Atalantis in the area of the Lamian coast, the villagers of the neighborhood of Arkitsa and Lavanata of the demos of Daphnousia driven by their religious zeal to discover an icon of St. Katherine, revealed according to a dream by one of them, have excavated last year the apse of a large church…” (227)

The similarities between Orlandos’s description of the discovery of the church at Daphnousia and the story of the discovery of the church on the Evangelestria Hill make it possible that the latter is a doublet of the earlier story rather than two separate episodes (I need to determine whether there is any published account of the discovery of the Evangelistria church), but stories like this in Early Christian archaeology of Greece are not rare.  Elsewhere in this blog, I have mentioned the story surrounding the discovery of church at Kozani.  While the villager’s dream is not specifically mentioned in the rather austere descriptions of the excavation of this building, the Archaeologikon Deltion (20 (1965), 475) suggestively notes that the church was excavated initially by villagers.

In general I had left these stories as examples of the genre of inventio which would have been familiar to most Greeks because if its regular place in both local traditions of holiness and in hagiography.  What I missed in these stories was the prominence of dreams in the construction of the Greek landscape and local archaeological knowledge. 

Since Antiquity dreams have been regarded as revelatory — something fundamental to Freudian dream analysis as well — and so it is not surprising that the act of uncovering (revealing) the material remains of the past is closely associated with the interpretation of dreams.  Charles Stewart, in a recent article (“Dreams of Treasures: Temporality, Historicization, and the Unconscious,” Anthropological Theory 3 (2003), 481-500), makes just this point.  He argues that the dreams draw upon not only an individual’s unconscious in a Freudian sense (i.e. the individual’s childhood), but also the larger body of collective historical memories both suppressed actively and “forgotten.” 

Dreams and inventio have a close relationship in the historical understanding of the Greek landscape. Moreover, the importance of dreams within Christianity (in both the New Testament and in hagiography) has contributed to the close link between dreaming and the discovery and understanding of Greece’s Byzantine and Early Christian past.  The most famous episode in more recent Greek history is the discovery icon of the Panagia on the island of Tinos in the 1820s.  A nun was told where to find the icon in a dream and since the discovery of the miraculous icon, it has become the center of a major pilgrimage site (for a discussion of this see. J. Dubisch, In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine (Princeton 1995)).  The story of the icon at Tinos was well-known in Greece and certainly influenced similar dreams and their interpretations.  Stewart adds a more recent example to this story from his own anthropological fieldwork on Naxos.  In the Korinthia during our work at the site of Lakka Skoutara (for a brief report of our work there see: L. Diakopolos, “The Archaeology of Modern Greece,” in Mediterranean Archaeological Landscapes: Current Issues. E. F. Athanassopoulos and L. Wandsnider eds.  (Philadelphia 2006). 183-197), a local informant understood the building a church in an isolated valley according to a similar story.  His grandfather was drawn to the build a church there because of the presence of an earlier building.  The stories of inventio collected above add an explicitly archaeological dimension to such dreams.

In a another context, the revelatory nature of dreaming and its confirmation by (sometimes unauthorized) archaeological excavation – which could occasionally be reinforced by the recording of such narratives and discoveries in academic proceedings by such archaeologists as Orlandos – contributed to the link between the past and the present in the Greek landscape.  The importance of such narratives in the development of a nationalistic Greek archaeology is clear especially in the 1920s.  It is during this period that Early Christian archaeology of Greece sought to affirm the Christian character of the Greek nation as a response both to the frustrated irredentism of that decade and to the exchange of populations with its explicitly religious definition of ethnicity (see: W. Bowden, Epirus Vetus : the archaeology of a late antique province. (London 2003), 24-26; W.H.C. Frend, The archaeology of early Christianity : a history. (London 1996), 205-206, 245-246).  The revealed truth of dreams which announced the location of Christian antiquities or sacred objects proved the historical presence of Christian Greeks in the landscape and tied the religious practices and beliefs of the local population to an archaeological past. 

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Categories: Late Antiquity
  1. Kostis Kourelis
    March 20, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Just a quick reference. Maria Mavroudi (earlier at Berkeley, now at Princeton) works on Byzantine dream books. I wonder if there might be some leads there. See, A Byzantine Book on Dream Interpretation: The Oneirocriticon of Achmet and Its Arabic Sources (2001) and a collection of essays edited by Mavroudi and Paul Magdalino, The Occult Sciences in Byzantium (2006)

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