Considering Early Christian Archaeology

By chance, I stumbled upon a rather recent article by Kim Bowes in a relatively new journal called Religion Compass: “Early Christian Archaeology: A State of the Field“.  It just so happened that I was looking (weakly) for just such an article to frame an informal reading that I plan to conduct this spring on “Space, Ritual, and Text in Late Antiquity” (or some variation).  It’s a nice survey of the odd beast that is Early Christian Archaeology.  Bowes concludes that the field is becoming increasingly attuned to he relationship between text and archaeology (although not attuned enough to delve very deeply or confidently with the standard tools of textual interpretation used by scholars elsewhere in the humanities (p. 578-579)).  At the same time she also detects a growing interest in the economies of Early Christian material culture especially the influence of Christian ways of thinking on practices of euergetism in the Mediterranean world.  I devoted a substantial part of a chapter to this in my dissertation, so it was nice to see that my ideas fell within general trends in the field.

This article has much to recommend it as a broad overview of the discipline.  There are, however, several areas where Bowes missed an interesting chance to consider the broader significance of the field of Early Christian Archaeology.  After all, it is relatively unusual that a field exists that studies a particular type of archaeological material, Christian material, in the context of a master narrative (presumably the development and spread of Christianity) that no longer asserts an exclusively “totalizing” discourse.  That is to say, most scholars who study Early Christian material do not necessarily regard the spread of Christianity or its development to be the central narrative to their own research, much less the study of the past more broadly.  While one could point out that archaeologist who study the Classical period rarely make explicit claim to the narrative assumptions implicit in the notion of a Classical period (right?), this term has become somewhat (if not problematically) generic in defining a particular date range (say 480-338 BC) of material. 

The term Early Christian, however, does not stake as strong a claim to particular date range and, in fact, represents just one of any number of overlapping terms to describe the 3rd-8th centuries A.D. (Although it is worth pointing out that in some circles the notion of Early Christianity can extend back to the 1st century AD.  This, I think, genuinely reflects differing interpretations of the origins and development of Christianity.  As far as I know, no one pushes the Classical period back to 7th century (which is different from saying that developments in the 7th century did not influence institutions of the Classical period).)  I tend to tell people that I study Late Antiquity or the Late Roman period, although my dissertation title refers to “Early Christian Greece”.  In some quarters I might even refer to some Early Christian material as Early Byzantine.  There is even the shifty and confusing term “Dark Ages” which refers to the 7th and 8th centuries that could also be Late Antique or (and I am making this up to some degree) Late Early Christian. 

Silliness aside, each of these terms imply master narratives that exert a lingering influence on the perception, overarching questions, and basic organization of the fields.  For example, Early Christian archaeology clearly assumes that the religious development of Christianity can be extracted, to some extent, as an independent variable from its broader historical and archaeological context.  While one can hardly dispute the significance of Christianity in the history of the west, one wonders whether the notion of a specific Early Christian archaeology remains a viable approach to understanding the past. 

These comments should not be regarded as a critique of Bowes fine article.  In fact, she demonstrates that the field of Early Christian archaeology is far from isolated or parochial in its approach to the past and, moreover, quite aware of its baggage as a field. What was a bit striking, however, is that she did not really engage much with the sticky question of the archaeology of religion in a general sense.  The material culture of ritual activities, iconography, holy places, much less belief itself have a far more contested discourse both within the specific field of Early Christian archaeology (how can you be sure that the people were Christian?) and within the field of archaeology more broadly.  One of the key powers of an Early Christian archaeology is its ability to force archaeologists to problematize religion (and its myriad manifestations) as a category of archaeological analysis in general.  Bowes touches upon some of these things in her article — noting the difficulty in identifying monastic establishments (598-602), the archaeological ephemeral nature of of house churches (579-582), and the religious ambiguity of the catacombs (582-586) — but does not really engage the significance of this debate.  If Christianity (and religion more generally) ends up being a relatively unimportant (or invisible) component in the material assemblage marking individual identity in Late Antiquity, where does that leave the discipline of Early Christian archaeology?

  1. Victoria Silvers
    April 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm

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