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Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology

  • Title: Theory and Practice in Late Antique Archaeology
  • Author: edited by Luke Lavan-Leiden
  • Series: Late Antique Archaeology ; Vol. 1
  • ISBN 10: 9004125671
  • Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers
  • Published: 2003
  • Pages: 472
  • Format: PDF


Can ideas and approaches current in mainstream archaeology be made to work in the conservative world of classical archaeology? This volume seeks to explore theoretical frameworks, methodology and field practice suited to the late antique Mediterranean. Broad themes such as long-term change, topography, the economy and social life are covered, but in terms of specific issues and evidential problems currently being tackled by scholars of late antiquity. This book will be useful to students and researchers seeking to enrich their approaches to Mediterranean historical archaeology and to anyone wishing to possess an overview of the current state of late antique archaeology.

The Justification of a Specialism

Late Antique Archaeology has been slow to emerge. Although Late Antiquity has been a legitimate period of study for the past thirty years, archaeologists have generally preferred to remain as Roman, Early Medieval, Byzantine or ‘Christian’. This partly reflects the long-term perspectives common in archaeology. It also reflects the fact that Late Antiquity was a period of profound change, causing some people to look in one direction, others in another. That said, there are strong reasons for distinguishing a late antique archaeology. Most important of these is the now broad acceptance that in territories that later made up the Middle Byzantine empire, the 7th c. saw a rupture in economic life, urban development and rural settlement. By these same criteria the Mediterranean of the 3rd-6th c. A.D. looks very Roman; in contrast the miserable world of middle Byzantium offers only forms of continuity, not continuity of scale. It is the overall scale of society that seems to many archaeologists to be the most straightforward way of organizing history. In these terms, Late Antiquity, in both East and West, essentially belongs to the ancient world; only in Egypt and the Levant is it difficult to identify profound changes in scale by the later 7th c. Late antique archaeology sits most comfortably as a sub-period within Roman archaeology, not as part of Western or Byzantine Medieval studies.

Nevertheless, there are some arguments for distinguishing late antique from Roman archaeology as a whole. This cannot be done in terms of rural settlement, production, trade or technology, except in peripheral regions where change comes early. It does however seem possible in terms of urban, religious or military archaeology.

Here, long-term changes within Roman society and external pressures create a recognizably distinct late antique situation. For urban history this means dealing not just with new political and religious structures, but also with new problems in the types of evidence we have, with the re-use of old architectural structures, a decline in clearly ideological planning and the use of less well-defined building types. Some of this ground has of course been covered by Christian archaeology, but the specificity of this sub-discipline does not satisfy archaeologists who wish to study society holistically in terms of broad structures; tracing specific cultural traits across radically different periods holds little appeal. There does therefore seem some justification for an archaeology of Late Antiquity. The idea of this series of books is essentially to support this development, through bringing together new and established scholars to address general themes, such as rural settlement, social structure, and the economy. As such, it does not intend to exclude historians: indeed historians frequently show themselves better at synthesizing archaeological information than their archaeological colleagues.

This volume is based on two conferences held in 2001 under the banner of “Late Antique Archaeology”, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the Swedish Institute in Rome: examining respectively “New Research, Method and Practice” and “Topographical Studies in Late Antiquity”. Both were intended to provide a strong foundation for the series by examining a range of topics from theoretical and methodological viewpoints. This was something of a gamble as late antique archaeology tends to be extremely empirical; we did not even dare put the word “theory” in the conference title. The volume that has resulted will not be easily recognizable to anyone familiar with theoretical archaeology as being part of this genre. This is the result of deliberate choice. Theoretical archaeology is a highly developed area of thought, especially in Scandinavia, the UK and the US. Nevertheless, it is widely recognized that there is something of a gulf between those literate in theory and the rest of the archaeological community. This is less strong in prehistory, but for much of historical archaeology, especially classical archaeology, it is striking; one frequently gets the impression that many classical archaeologists have never even heard of theoretical archaeology. There have been heroic efforts made by the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, based in the UK, to bridge this gap, through a series of annual conferences. However, this work inevitably tends to reflect the pre- dominantly British interests of the researchers active in the group and their attachment to theoretical ideas developed by pre-historians. Some topics do engage with the Mediterranean, but these tend to relate to the early Roman period. Those that have been written on Late Antiquity are sadly not widely read in the mainstream of Mediterranean empirical scholarship.

The lack of penetration of archaeological theory into mainstream Roman and late antique archaeology is, intellectually, to be regretted. A healthy awareness of the shape of our ideas and the problems of our evidence cannot but bring benefits. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the widespread feeling of caution about applying theoretical archaeology to the historical archaeology of the Mediterranean is probably justified. It is very difficult to transpose the interpretative tools developed primarily in prehistory to a cultural zone rich in texts. Here interpretation is largely bounded by information from written sources and many approaches widely accepted elsewhere in archaeology can seem inappropriate in their terminology and pre-suppositions. Before the wider scholarly community that is Late Antique Studies, one cannot talk about the ‘elite’ without talking about curiales and senators, one cannot talk about ‘social life’ with- out slaves or humiliores, or cannot talk about economics without the annona, or identity without reference to Romanitas or Christianity. Work that does not do this is just not taken seriously.

Thus, if archaeological theory is to make a strong contribution to late antique archaeology, it will be necessary to work out the usefulness of different approaches in terms of very specific issues—to try out new ideas and intellectual frameworks whilst engaging fully with the possibilities of rich Mediterranean evidence, both archaeological and textual. The rationale behind this volume was to encourage work of this kind, by examining theory and methodology relating to specific topics with which scholars are currently engaged. Consequently, these papers reflect the present theoretical development of the discipline rather than how anyone might wish it to be: authors consider problems using concepts with which their late antique colleagues are familiar rather than addressing themselves to a wider theoretical audience in archaeology. All of these papers were produced by invitation, many to a ‘brief’; contributors were frequently asked to write in ways in which they had not done before. The result of this has sometimes been closer to theory, sometimes closer to pure practice. Thus, although this volume contains papers that do not always resemble ‘theory’, they do represent the thoughts of a group of scholars who are not only well-disposed to reflection, but who are also fully engaged with the problems and possibilities of the evidence.

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