An Archaeological Perspective on the History of Byzantine Greece

Timothy Gregory delivered a lecture entitled, A New History of Byzantine Greece: An Archaeological Perspective, on Tuesday night at Cotsen Hall at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.  The lecture was apparently the first to be cross-listed in both the Directors Lecture Series (typically archaeological and focusing more on ancient and prehistoric Greece) and the Lloyd Cotsen Lecture Series hosted by the Gennadius Library (which brings in lecturers on topics important to the study of post-Classical Greece more generally).  An abstract of the talk and a full podcast of Gregory’s lecture is available here (graciously hosted on the Squinch web page).  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that Tim was my adviser at Ohio State, so I am somewhat partial to his perspective on things, but that never stops me from having opinions (of course), and with the podcast available you can always check my remarks against the original!

Tim’s main argument was that an archaeological approach had much to contribute to the history of the Byzantine period in Greece.  From the start, he sought to differentiate archaeological approach to Byzantine material culture from approaches more typically associated with art history .  He emphasized that this was not to suggest that one approach was better than the other, but rather to argue that the study of the Byzantine period in Greece remains relatively untapped by scholars using both the archaeological methods and evidence, whereas there art historical approaches (stylistic, typological, and increasingly theoretical) have continuously made meaningful contribution to our understanding of this period.  While one could quibble that making disciplinary divisions between art history and archaeology are not particularly productive in the discipline (as the best scholars in either discipline draw on largely a common body of methods, research questions, and theories), there is certainly a feeling in the field that there is a clear divide between how scholars read material culture and those committed to archaeological approaches receive less attention than they deserve (for similar sentiment see: “Priest Houses”: Sacred or Profane?, Embodied Bodies in the Coffin of Medieval Art History).

The talk began with a general introduction to the study of Byzantine history in Greece starting with Gibbon and proceeding through to scholars of the last generation with particular attention to Greek scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries.  He then presented three case studies showing how archaeology has made a contribution to the Byzantine History of Greece: Christians and Pagans in the 4th and 5th centuries, the Byzantine “Dark Ages”, and the Frangokratia.  Each case study blended material familiar to me — particular from Corinth and Athens — with material from sites that may be less familiar such as Messene, Ay. Vasilios (in the Corinthia), and Tim’s own work on deserted islands in the Corinthian and the Saronic Gulfs.  For example, he included a nice summary of the important work being done in Messene which holds forth promise to expand how we think about both Pagan-Christian conflict and Greek during the 7th century.  At the same time, his talk paid appropriate tribute to the importance of the work of Charles William whose excavations at Corinth revealed so much about Frankish settlement there.  (He also said nice things about the contribution of the “new generation” of survey archaeologists like David Pettegrew and Dimitri Nakassis both of whom work at the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and with us at Pyla-Koutsopetria!)

The talk was good and brought together a whole number of significant issues.  Nevertheless, Gregory’s approach reproduced some of the persistent parochialism of Greek archaeology.  The issues that Tim chose to highlight Christian/Pagan clashes, the “Dark Ages”, and the Frangokratia were couched in explicitly Greek context without much mention to the study of these phenomenon in the wider context Eastern Mediterranean.  To be fair, some of this reflected the need to have a narrow and manageable topic for his paper, i.e. “Byzantine Greece” as well as an awareness of the audience for his remarks. Nevertheless, the archaeology of Byzantium extends far beyond the borders of the modern nation-state of Greece and the problems and methods of interest to scholars elsewhere in the Mediterranean received only passing reference in Gregory’s remarks.  For example, Late Antique urbanism, the Medieval Mediterranean economy, changes in the structure of authority and society, and the dynamics of cultural interaction all represent topics of longstanding and significant interest among scholars of Byzantine archaeology in regions outside of Greece (and within Greece as well).  In fact, art historical approaches to Byzantine Greece, particularly those that focus on changes in the style of wall painting or architecture, often take a more cosmopolitan approach to the problems of this period than is currently offered by archaeological investigation.  This is not meant to criticize or undermine the value of developing regional or even site specific questions as a key component of focused archaeological research: on the one hand, in the pre-modern world almost all society was local society, and, on the other hand, national archaeological policies exert a strong influence over the nature of research within their borders.  The cultural, social, economic, religious, and political structures that characterize what we recognize as “Byzantine”, however, stretched far beyond the borders of Greece and the affairs of the wider empire inevitably influenced the development of what in the 19th and 20th century has become seen as a phase of “Greek (National) History”.  Archaeologists studying “transnational” phenomena like pre-modern Empires have the opportunity to critique often divisive nationalist histories by recontextualizing local phenomena within a larger regional context.  Of course, regional approaches are neither new nor immune from their own problems and risks (after all Orientalism was a regional approach!).  Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine that the next major stride in understanding the history and archaeology of Byzantine Greece won’t have some roots in the vast amount of high quality work being done at present elsewhere in the post-Classical Mediterranean.

Enjoy the podcast!

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