Home > Byzantium, Late Antiquity, Medieval and Post Medieval Greece Interest Group of the AIA > An Open Letter on Byzantine Archaeology and Dumbarton Oaks

An Open Letter on Byzantine Archaeology and Dumbarton Oaks

Recently Dumbarton Oaks invited a group of archaeologists with research interests in the Byzantine period to Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of Byzantine Archaeology in North America. Kostis Kourelis has posted the schedule on his blog. He has also re-posted a related letter that he sent to the new director of Dumbarton Oaks, Margaret Mullett last year, and links to a nice post critiquing Dumbarton Oaks’ attitudes toward intensive pedestrian survey.

I was invited to this conference, but unfortunately the invitation came too late for me to secure funding to make it. I belly-ached a bit about the somewhat abrupt planning of the conference which made it difficult for those of use in the hinterland to attend. In a big picture kind of way, it is understandable that Dumbarton Oaks would have overlooked the interest of very junior scholars who lived many miles from either coast. As a result, Director Mullett invited me (as I am sure she did to other folks) to send along my thoughts on Byzantine Archaeology in North America.

After some thinking, I decided that I might as well post my email here.

Dear Director Mullett,

Thank you for the invitation to contribute my thoughts to the ongoing reflection on the relationship between Dumbarton Oaks and the discipline of archaeology. So that you know, I consider the work done at DO over the past five decades to be fundamental to the development of Byzantine studies in the US and I tried doggedly for over a decade to get funding for my research from the institution, not so much because I felt like I could contribute to what was going there, but because I felt that being in contact with the environment, people, and resources of DO would make me a better scholar. I learned this respect for the institution from my advisors Jim Morganstern and Timothy Gregory, both of whom benefited from the generosity, collegiality, and resources of DO.

My take on how DO could return to the forefront of the study of Byzantine archaeology involves reconsidering both the place of Byzantine and Medieval archaeology in the academic world and leveraging the resources that DO has developed to contribute not only to Byzantine studies, but to archaeology more generally. To do this, I can see three things:

1. Archaeology has become increasingly method driven over the past 30 years. These methods range from the quantitative approaches of New Archaeology to the more reflective methods of post-processuralism. Medieval archaeology has taken advantage of both of these developments (although more the former than the latter!). A recently published proceedings from a 1998 conference on the archaeology of Medieval and Post-Medieval Greece shows the discipline’s deep investment in a wide range of methodologically sophisticated discourses. Unfortunately, publications from Dumbarton Oaks were largely absent from the bibliographies in this work and, as result, from the conversation. I know that Kostis Kourelis has shared with you his thoughts on the role of DO in the support of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean world. (And I recognize that DO has supported innovation in preservation practices as well as in such scientific methods as dendrochronology). Overlooking intensive pedestrian survey, however, is particularly glaring because this method has contributed significantly to how we understand the Byzantine period across so much of the Eastern Mediterranean. Looking at a slightly bigger picture and overlooking my own, practical commitment to this form of archaeology, DO has supported very little in the way of overtly methodological discussion in Byzantine archaeology. In short, if DO wants to influence the future of Byzantine and Medieval archaeology in the Mediterranean, they need to engage in methodology. (Marcus Rautman and Tim Gregory’s contributions here are particularly significant.)

2. At the same time, archaeology – and the humanities in general – have become increasingly theoretical. Most of this theoretical bent comes, as you know, from the so-called challenge of postmodernism. Despite these somewhat discredited (or at least controversial) origins, the themes introduced by post-modern thought have exerted a tremendous influence on archaeology by not only asking difficult questions of the archaeologist as practitioner, but also offering important critiques of the role of archaeology in the emergence of national identities, the understanding of material objects as active agents in social networks, and the place of archaeology in challenging historical and political orthodoxies. Despite the longstanding investment of DO on the study of important objects from the Byzantine Mediterranean, they have exerted very little influence on discussions of how and why objects create meaning. The most striking example of this is that DO has played a key role in supporting the study of Byzantium in Eastern Europe where the intersection of archaeology, Byzantine studies, and national identities is particularly visible and susceptible to important scholarly critique, but offered very few critical reflections on Byzantine archaeology as an a cultural and political phenomenon. (The work of Florin Curta is an important representative of this approach)   

3. Permeability. The final observation regarding DO’s place in the academic ecosystem may be largely self-serving. As impressed as I have been with its scholarly achievements, I have larger felt like an outsider looking in on its resources and activities. I am not naïve and I understand that my academic credentials have not positioned me geographically or professionally to gain access to what DO has to offer on a regular basis. Moreover, I understand that resources (both financial and otherwise) are limited. That being said, I do wonder whether DO can make itself more inviting to scholars from outside its traditional academic catchment area. One can easily imagine programs that range from archaeological field schools for graduate students, pedagogical outreach to ensure the health of Byzantine archaeology as field taught in American universities, and research outreach so that the good work of scholars affiliated with Dumbarton Oaks is visible beyond the traditional bastions of Byzantine studies (the AIA lecture program is a nice parallel here).

Issue 3 likely reflects my own professional insecurities and academic limitations, and I hope it does not overshadow the significance of issues 1 and 2. The theoretical and methodological are areas where the archaeology of the Medieval and Byzantine world has exerted an influence beyond those interested in its traditional chronological and geographical limits. I suppose my earlier observation that DO’s position of leadership in the field of Byzantine archaeology has lapsed derives from the observation that they have not played a particularly significant role in developments in archaeology that have extended to other periods and places. My perspective on the potential of Byzantine archaeology may be a bit naïve, but it seems to me that the transdisciplinary nature of Byzantine Studies and the deep and persistent commitment to art, texts, architecture, and objects provides a formidable foundation for a kind of sophisticated, synthetic archaeology. This is a powerful offering for an academic community that looks in an increasingly positive way on the inter- and transdisciplinary organizations whose efforts to forge research questions across disciplinary boundaries in a self-conscious way surely reflects the future of academia.

Respectfully yours,
Bill Caraher

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