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Byzantine Archaeology and Indigenous Archaeology

Over the last few weeks, I have been re-reading some work on indigenous archaeology and considering its application to the study of Byzantium. The new edition of Matthew Johnson’s Archaeological Theory spurred this, in part, as did a more careful reading of Robert McGhee’s 2008 critique of indigenous archaeology in American Antiquity 73 (2008), 579-597. The main arguments supporting indigenous archaeology stem from the idea that indigenous peoples (broadly construed) understanding the material past in different ways from that articulated and advanced by “scientific” (broadly construed) archaeology. In its most radical applications, indigenous archaeology sees “traditional” Western archaeological practice as the continuation of centuries of imperialism rooted in the physical appropriation of the past. Advocates of “scientific” archaeology, of course, argue that the miracle of the Western scientific approach to disciplines is that the theories, methods, and conclusions are universal and universalizing. This makes it possible, in their view, for Western archaeologists to contribute to a universal understanding of an indigenous past. Indigenous archaeologists (perhaps more properly the advocates of indigenous archaeology) argue that Western archaeological practice developed from profoundly different understandings of time, the past, and material culture which preclude representing indigenous pasts in ways that do not intentionally undermine indigenous practices at the expense of Western values.

I’ve maintained (even occasionally on this blog) that the notion of indigenous practice is no limited to groups traditionally represented (by the West) as indigenous, but that we are all indigenous to someplace. As silly as this seems, this simple notion allows us to re-position European practice as not simply Western and imperialist and, frankly, “bad,” but as indigenous as well. This has obvious parallels with Chakrabarty’s ideas of provincializing Europe and undermines the oppositional character of both the West (to the East or to the “other”) and the “indigenous” as categories. In other words, Western practices are indigenous too.

The problem becomes, however, that scholars traditionally understand Western archaeological practices through the lens of historical analysis and in the “context” of specific historical developments. As a result, the methods involved in understanding and writing this history of archaeological practices draw upon the same basic intellectual frameworks and methods that inform Western archaeological practices themselves. From a theoretical and methodological perspective, this creates a kind of circular analogy whereby western archaeology is understood only through the western practice of history. Ironically, perhaps, this circularity is liberating inasmuch as this same circularity besets traditionally identified indigenous practices as well which often find draw upon “indigenous” models for understanding the past to validate and authorize particular archaeological practices.

Where does all this leave Byzantium? This is what I am beginning to attempt to work out:

Byzantium clearly possessed an indigenous archaeology which manifest itself through dream inspired excavations, the use of spolia, the practice of inventio (the rediscovery of lost sacred objects) and translatio (the transfer of sacred objects from one place to the next), and the practice of renovation, refurbishment, and reconstruction. All of these practices represent particular views of the material past that contribute to a broader understanding of Byzantine history and Byzantine culture. (I’ve documented some of these practices here and here). These practices represent profoundly Byzantine attitudes to the past, to material culture, and to significant (and sacred) places in their world. These practices remain embedded within persistent sacred narratives and continue to produce meaningful landscapes. All of this suggests that these indigenous archaeological practice continue to function and inform social behavior on some level.

Moreover, the persistence of a kind of “Byzantine archaeology” suggests that discrete pre-modern archaeological practices existed in the West and produced meaningful landscapes. In other words, “Western” practice is neither historically unified, exclusively modern, nor even necessarily exclusionary. Western archaeology in all of its modern, disciplinary, manifestations nevertheless circulates in a world of archaeological practices that continuously challenge it exclusive right to produce meaning. Byzantine and other archaeologies that exist at the margins of disciplinary practice present important avenues for the revitalization of archaeology as a discipline. Not only do these practices demonstrate the potential for differing forms of archaeological knowledge of co-exist, but also reinforce the historical, religious, and even irrational influences on the seemingly universalizing methods of modern archaeological research.

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Categories: Byzantium
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