Defining Early Christian Archaeology

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Over the weekend, David Pettegrew and I have been putting the finishing touches on the introduction to our Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Archaeology. We’re not only engaged in our typical struggled between length and content, but I also find myself returning again and again to the definition of Early Christian archaeology. Recently, I’ve been thinking a good bit about later late antiquity and the 7th century, in particular. While it is without a doubt that most of the connections, institutions, and trends present in the 7th century represent continuity with the preceding centuries and are properly described as part of “Late Antiquity” (whatever the limitations of this term), it is less clear whether we should see the 7th century as part of the Early Christian centuries or sufficiently far removed to be better associated with Medieval or Byzantine Christianity.

Determining the chronological limits to Early Christian archaeology involves defining what we mean by an Early Christian archaeology. To some extent, we can rely on the historiography which assigns the usual array of dates from Constantine and the peace of the church to late 5th century or the  reign of Justinian. In many ways these dates are associated with either political events in the life of the church (like the reign of Constantine) or dates that are political and “secular” in nature such as the reign of Theodosius and his legislation against paganism, the various sacks of Rome, or the death of a particular emperor. In many ways, these dates coincide with episodes of traditional interest among scholars of antiquity and late antiquity and represent the close connections between the study of late antique archaeology and the archaeology of Early Christianity.

The particular challenge of an archaeology of religion is that beliefs tend to leave very complicated traces in the material record. Sites like the famous fountain of the lamps at Corinth, for example, with their assemblage of inscribed lamps baring Christian, pagan, and completely ambiguous sentiments. These kinds of sites are not terribly unusual in the Mediterranean and, like the presence of pagan imagery on the floors of Early Christian churches, paint a picture where complicated notions of belief and religious identity are not clear cut and obvious in the material record (and this may well reflects the ambiguity of ancient religion (all religion?)). All this is to suggest that an archaeology of Early Christianity offers only a rather coarse tool to understand the spread of Christianity as a system of belief. This tends to be a major area of focus for scholars interested in the Early Christian period irrespective of methods.

With the archaeology of religion remaining a challenging intellectual task, scholars have looked to connections between the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity as a plausible reason to extend our definition of Early Christianity into the 7th century and to argue that the networks and relationships in which Early Christianity developed persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries in many parts of the Mediterranean. In this context, an Early Christian archaeology could well be defined by the networks that allowed for Christian material culture to circulate in the Mediterranean. The spaces of interaction present in this network ensured that distinctive development of Christian forms of representation and perhaps offer a useful perspective on understanding the development of Christianity as a system of representation. 

At the same time, recent discussion of archaeological methods, particular those focused on late antique archaeology, have considered whether there are distinctive methods that define an archaeology of late antiquity. This could, of course, be applied to the study of Early Christianity. There are, of course, types of monuments that are characteristic of the rise of the Christianity, particularly basilica-style churches, and particular questions that are salient to the study of Christian practices (i.e. liturgy, burials, and iconography) associated with those buildings. Whether these requirements rise the level of methodological concerns is difficult to say, but unlikely. Similarly, Christian burials (on a small scale) and Christian landscapes (on a larger scale) offer two extremes that might benefit distinctive methods and attendant methodologies. Indeed, some recent scholarship has hinted that Christian (and late pagan) ways of viewing the landscape has pushed archaeologists to think about existing sites in different ways. The long tradition of Christian archaeology and the wide range of techniques and levels of documentation used to publish Christian monuments presents an opportunity for archaeologists of this period to synthesize different traditions, types of evidence, and levels of certitude. This approach to studying Christian landscapes offers some new interpretative opportunities , but perhaps these have not risen to the level of methodology.

To return to the point of this post, as we wrap up the introduction to our Oxford Handbook, we are reminded of the challenge of defining Early Christian archaeology in terms of chronology, themes, and methods. None of these criteria are significant enough alone to map out a discrete (or unique) field of study, but perhaps in combination they set out the limits to what an Early Christian archaeology can know.

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