Home > Byzantium, Conferences, Late Antiquity > Medieval and Post Medieval Greece and Dumbarton Oaks

Medieval and Post Medieval Greece and Dumbarton Oaks

I’ve just finished reading through John Bintliff and Hanna Stöger’s, Medieval and Post-Medieval Greece: The Corfu Papers (2009).  It’s an edited volume produced from a conference in Corfu in 1998.  The papers, however, have largely been updated and represent a nice cross-section of the kind of work being done in Medieval and Post-Medieval Greece.  The papers focus on ceramic studies, the results of intensive pedestrian survey, studies on settlement patterns, new directions in the study of domestic and monumental architecture, and, finally, discussions of issues of cultural research management in Greece. I found W. Bowden’s short analysis of the Christian archaeology in Greece with an emphasis on church in Mastron, Aetolia, which scholars have traditionally dated to the 7th-8th centuries.  Bowden suggests that simple stylistic dating based either on decoration or architecture can be misleading especially considering the prevalence of re-use and conscious anachronism in the Middle and Late Byzantine period in the region.  Also worthy of note is Platon Petrides short review of Late Antique Delphi, which doesn’t say anything new here, but is still a nice overview of post-ancient period at the site. T.Gregory, F. Lang, J. Vroom offer some useful commentary on the use of intensive survey and the study of ceramics in the study of Medieval and Post-Medieval Greece; Gregory’s article, which has been substantially up-dated, has a nice critiquing the impact of “second-wave” intensive survey projects on our understanding of Medieval and Post-Medieval Greece.  The final three papers (M. Mouliou, K. Sbonias, and L. Tzortzopoulou-Gregory) deal with issues of cultural resource management in Greece.  L. Tzortzopoulou-Gregory’s paper provides more useful evidence for the difficult position that foreign (or even just non-local) archaeologists find themselves in when they are placed between the national archaeological bureaucracy, local communities, and non-local/non-national research interests.

I received my copy of this volume the same week that I was invited (along with many others) to a “conversation” at Dumbarton Oaks on Byzantine Archaeology in North America.  While I will not be able to attend, I was invited by the director of Dumbarton Oaks (as I am sure were many of my colleagues) to send along any thoughts I might have about this particular topic.  I was struck by how rarely Dumbarton Oaks publications appeared in the bibliographies of the various articles in this volume. The main reason for this absence is because few of the papers showed much concern for the kinds of art historical approaches long favored by Dumbarton Oaks (for this critique see Kostis Kourelis open letter).  The approaches favored by Dumbarton Oaks have tended to particularly ill-suited to research in the Greek countryside where textual evidence is relatively scarce, monumental architecture is often in poor condition, representing stylistically “crude” or provincial work, or even “late” by Dumbarton Oaks standards (although DO has contributed significantly to preservation of neglected buildings, the definition of provincial style, and late and post-Byzantine art), and the field techniques and methods require some specialized training to evaluate and critique. Ironically, Dumbarton Oaks’ interest in economic history, the history of everyday life (particularly as manifest in realia in saints lives and other Byzantine documents), and the character of “the provincial” in terms of style and influence on the traditional centers of Byzantine society (Constantinople, Thessaloniki, et c.). 

The Bintliff and Stöger volume (along with another recent volume focusing on the same period and region) have shown that the tools exist to develop more nuanced interpretations of the Byzantine countryside.  And that these analyses have much to offer traditional textual approaches to the history of Byzantium.  In fact, one fault I might offer among the articles in the Bintliff volume is the relative lack of attention to questions that extend beyond the national or local boundaries of Medieval (or even post-Medieval) Greece.  The transnational approaches fostered by institutions like Dumbarton Oaks could work to counteract a tendency toward studies that emphasize the modern region or nation at the expense of more revealing Medieval concepts of political, economic, and cultural organization.  Moreover the relative absence of sustained discussion of texts, urban centers, or elite art in the Bintliff volume is not necessarily a strength.  The very areas neglected (to some extent, but not ignored) in the Bintliff and Stöger volume are areas where Dumbarton Oaks could and perhaps even should show the way by showing the value of traditional methods and approaches to contemporary archaeological research.

It seems clear to me that the archaeology of the Medieval and Post-Medieval Mediterranean is at a watershed moment.  As Kourelis noted, a generation of pioneers in the field of Byzantine archaeology are approach retirement age.  Part of their legacy is there a strong group of ambitious and dedicated young scholars.  This informally-defined group seeks not only to push the methods advanced by folks like Tim Gregory, John Bintliff, Jack Davis, and others, in their individual scholarship but to find ways to push institutions like the American School in Athens and Dumbarton Oaks to bring these methods into fold of traditional research on these periods and places.  This should not involve rejecting the important traditions of scholarship at these institutions — after all, hardly a week goes by when I don’t consult a publication produced at Dumbarton Oaks and I value the amazing support that I have received from the American School in Athens — but showing how recent developments in, say, survey archaeology, applied post-modern or post-processural theory, or  even kinds of reflective, historical criticism of past and present institutional practices, can enrich the disciplines to which we are all committed.

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