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More Indigenous Archaeology and Cyprus

Over the past few years, I’ve been musing about the relationship between indigenous archaeological practices and nationalism in the Greece.  Recently, however, I have begun to think a bit more seriously about these practices in Cyprus.  This past weekend, I read over parts of the Laudatio Barnabae inspired in part by Paul Dilly’s recent article in the Journal of Roman Archaeology (which I discuss here).

The great thing about this short, apparently 6th century text, is that it explicitly located the discovery of St. Barnabas’ body (Barnabas was the companion of St. Paul) with the tensions between Cyprus and the episcopal see of Antioch in the time between the Church of Cyprus received independence at the Council of Ephesus and the rule of Peter the Fuller at Antioch.  Peter the Fuller was markedly anti-Chalcedonian and have friends in imperial places.  According to the Laudatio he also coveted regaining control over Cyprus. St. Barnabas intervened to avert this by appearing to the Bishop Anthemius in several visions the last of which directed the Bishop to the Saint’s body, in a cave near Salamis holding an autograph of the Gospel of Matthew.  The authority of this discovery and the gift of the Gospel book to the Emperor Zeno ensured the continued independence of the Church of Cyprus. We know that Zeno also elevated the bishop of the island to Metropolitan status.

The role of inventio, or the discovery of a lost sacred object, in this text is important.  The tie between a discovered object and sanctity would have echoed with stories surrounding the foundation of the monastery on Stavrovouni which overlooks the city of Larnaka.  By the 15th century, this monastery was associated with a fragment of the True Cross delivered by Contanstine’s mother, St. Helen, on her return to Constantinople from the Holy Land where she had excavated (quite literally) the remains of Christ’s cross.

In a famous article (for some!), David Reese describes how Cypriots and some early travelers saw the bones of the extinct pygmy hippopotami and other mega fauna as the bones of saints (or even dragons!).  The discovery of large animal bones in caves seems to have led to their association with saints presumably on the basis of various inventio accounts like the Laudatio Barnabae. This phenomena was recorded (with varying degrees of condescension) throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In more recent times, as I have noted on this blog a few years back, both Peter Megaw and Vassos Karageorghis have encountered similar kinds of archaeological practices.  According to Megaw (JHS 66 (1946), 52), local farmers praying for rain excavated parts of the ruined Panayia Skyra church to appease the Virgin. Karageorghis, in his autobiography, recounts a story of a priest who approached him while director of the Department of Antiquties and asked for help locating the tomb of St. Auxibius.

The practice of looking for origins in an archaeological context and using these origins to define the community is not particularly remarkable and almost to be expected in a place like Cyprus where in the modern era nationalism has had such tragic consequences. What is notable, to me at least, is the possible roots of these practices in the 6th century where the archaeological practices of the Bishop Anthemius played a role in a prominent narrative of the island’s autonomy.  In recent times, objects associated with the arrival of the Greeks (mostly during the Late Bronze Age) have taken on the same kind of sacred status as the objects discovered by their earlier predecessors.  The discovery of these objects is grounded, of course, in a faith in scientific archaeology rather than divine revelation, but it is hard to imagine that the basic impulse driving these practices and the narratives that they produce is different.

Categories: Archaeology, Cyprus
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