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A Few Thoughts on Formation Processes and Sacred Space

LavanBook I spent little bits of time this weekend meandering through the most recent volume in the Late Antique Archaeology series from Brill: L. Lavan, E. Swift, and T. Putzey eds., Objects in Context, Objects in Use Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity.  Leiden 2007.  Aside from the sort of silly notion of material spatiality, which seems to imply that there could be spatial relationships that are somehow not material, this imposing tome has a bunch of interesting “stuff” in it.  Byrn Mawr Classical Review has offered a complete early review here.

The volume contained, among other things, a series of articles on object in Early Christian space.  The articles by B. Caseau, V. Michel, and Z. Fiema, employed various textual and archaeological methods to survey the range of objects associated with religious space in an Early Christian context.  Of particular note was Z. Fiema’s discussion of documents in the storeroom of the Petra Church.  The careful excavation revealed a fairly substantial archive originally arranged on shelves and in cabinets. The two articles by B. Caseau examined textual sources for the various objects that they associate with Late Antique churches.  Her work reminds us how few of the objects recorded in Late Antique church inventories or in more literary sources are regularly found in excavated churches.  Her discussion of the objects associated in texts with healing shrines reminds us how how most of things present in the everyday life of even the most imposing churches were perishable.  Brooms, wooden buckets, leather, metal and papyrus only survive in very particular archaeological and cultural environments and consequently remain invisible to excavators.

These articles reminded me of a short paper that I wrote, probably 8 years ago, with Tim Gregory and David Pettegrew, (“Archaeological ‘Signatures’ of Byzantine Churches: Survey Archaeology and the Creation of a Byzantine Landscape,” Byzantine Studies Conference Abstracts of Papers 27 (2001), p. 38.).  We did very intensive archaeological survey in the immediate vicinity of Byzantine Churches on the island of Kythera hoping to discover some kind of material signature for Byzantine churches.  We were not particularly successful.  The tendency to keep church yards clean, the position of churches on the tops of hills or ridges, and the generally overgrown condition of the island made it difficult for us to find much material that was distinct to the religious function or chronological range of these buildings.

This all led me to think a bit about the distinct set of formation processes that create the archaeological evidence for religious space.  The tendency for the community to regard some religious spaces as sacred and consequently to continue to function on some level after catastrophic events like earthquakes and fires.  Later burials in the remains of Early Christian basilicas is one example of post-destruction re-use.  The functioning of informal and sometimes open air shrines at collapsed churches is another.  The religious significance of various objects associated with churches might prompt more significant kinds of intervention in prior to total abandonment.  Easily recognizable architectural forms (particularly the apse) made churches particularly visible even centuries after their initial abandonment and led to patterns of episodic reuse separated by centuries.

The studies pertaining to religious space presented in Objects in Context, Objects in Use, focused almost exclusively on the link between the location of objects in an archaeological context and their primary use within space.  In general, the archaeological studies avoided over reliance on the so-called Pompeii Premise, which assumed that objects found in an archaeological context revealed the function of those spaces in antiquity.   While carefully wrought observations regarding the location of objects and the function of space remain significant for unpacking the difficult matters surrounding the function of space in an Early Christian context, it provides less help understanding the dynamic processes that form the archaeological record and reveal persistent attitudes toward space in antiquity and in subsequent centuries.

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