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Archaeology and Byzantium

This weekend I spent a little time with the Liz James edited A Companion to Byzantium. (Blackwell 2010).  The scope of the book and the quality of articles (and contributors) is pretty impressive.  The focus on the range of Byzantine literature is both gratifying since so much of the discussion of Byzantine literature has tended to occur in languages other than English and timely since there seems to be growing interest in Byzantine texts other than hagiography.  The bibliography runs to over 70 pages and this alone warrants the perusing of this volume.

The section on Byzantine archaeology, however, is disappointing.  First, it is less than 10 pages and one page is half-blank and other other features a photograph of a conserved amphora. So, in all Byzantine archaeology received 8 pages of text in a 400+ page volume. The discussion focuses briefly on villages, towns, fortifications, and churches with short discussions of nationalism and a superficial presentation of different “archaeological approaches.”  For their length, the sections are decent, but the decisions to focus on this little handful of areas is difficult to understand.  For example, the chapter left out any sustained discussion of ceramic typologies and chronologies (a favorite of many of Byzantine archaeologist colleagues), scientific approaches (e.g. dendrochronology, physical anthropology, et c.) which have made such a significant impact on the field, intensive pedestrian survey on the regional level (which in Greece has begun to produce significant changes in how we understand Byzantine settlement), the archaeology of ethnicity (which is obviously central to discussions of ethnic change, modern nation building, and historical perceptions of Byzantium in the West), and the relationship of Byzantine archaeology to careful work on the Medieval, typically Crusader, eastern Mediterranean.  Some of these oversights can be attributed to the “late” date for the start of Byzantium; the author chose to begin the Byzantine period in archaeology in the second half of the 6th century.  While this dating falls within the conventional periodization for the start of the Byzantine period, it is not explained in terms of archaeological evidence.  In fact, it is increasingly clear that many of the trends that characterize Byzantine material culture (for example, ceramic types, construction styles, and settlement) tend in many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean to persist from the 4th to even the early 7th century (depending on local economic, religious, and political contingencies).

To be fair, the chapter on Byzantine archaeology is complemented by a nice chapter by Peter Sarris on “Economics, Trade, and ‘Feudalism'” which pays particular attention to the circulation of currency and the practical significance of identifying Byzantine coins in archaeological contexts.  Despite this contribution, the neglect of archaeology in this volume is remarkable.  Of course, it is always easy to say that no volume can even contain everything that every scholar deems central to the study of a particular period. But, on the other hand, the argument for including a robust discussion of Byzantine archaeology in a volume of this scope is hardly a reach.

Few areas of Byzantine studies have seen the vitality of Byzantine archaeology over the past several decades especially when it is considered under the wider banner of Medieval and Post-Medieval archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean.  As a little advertisement for myself (this is my blog!), it just so happens that Kostis Kourelis and I are working on an edited volume right now that will bring together some of the most recent contributions to the archaeological study of Byzantium, and we hope that it will contribute to the archaeology of Byzantium taking a more prominent place in the future of Byzantine studies.

Categories: Archaeology, Byzantium
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