Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Byzantine Archaeology: A Marginal Practice


I returned yesterday from an interesting meeting on the future of Byzantine archaeology (mostly in the US) hosted by Dumbarton Oaks and the Council for American Overseas Research Centers. The meeting focused on pressing issues in the health of Byzantine archaeology in the US and the role that the AORCs (American Overseas Research Centers) could play in future development of the field. The meeting had a strong contingent of representatives of various AORCs which support research ranging from archaeology to the social sciences and humanities and rarely focus on one field in particular. Along with representatives of the AORCs and Dumbarton Oaks, there was a range of scholars who represented Byzantine archaeology across various regions, institutions, and sub-periods.

The conversation was brisk, if a bit unfocused (wide ranging?), and to my mind, squarely underscored the position of Byzantine archaeology at a variety of margins and fissures in the historical, academic, and institutional world.

1. Byzantine archaeology was certainly marginal in relation to the AORCs represented – even those like the American Academy at Rome, Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens which have a tradition of supporting archaeology. A handful of students, grants, and projects relate to Byzantine archaeology at most of these AORCs, and while there was enthusiasm for supporting more Byzantine archaeological work (and even a rise in the number of projects that could be qualified as such), it was unclear where the resources would come from the support these projects. Many of even the better funded AORCs have significant financial limitations.

2. Byzantine archaeology was also marginal in the institutional structure of US graduate programs. From what I could gather, none of the US based scholars in the room taught in a graduate program in archaeology. Instead, we hailed from history, classics, art history, and religious studies programs. As result, we often found our methods, research questions, and resources limited by the support and emphases present in the disciplinary centers to which Byzantine archaeology has attached itself. This marginal location has made it more difficult for Byzantine archaeology to articulate itself as a particular subfield, forge contacts with archaeologists of other time periods and regions, and train students. This, of course, has made it difficult for us to develop institutional support for projects and to reproduce our field. Moreover, it has fragmented the conversation on Byzantine archaeology and has, I think, put us in a position of disciplinary insecurity. There were some significant statements regarding the relationship between archaeology and "history" or "philology" at the meeting. It was clear that we recognized ourself as being separate from these fields (disciplines? methods? approaches?) and some scholars present even postured in an adversarial way at times, but what was less clear was how Byzantine archaeology was different and whether its lack of distinctive disciplinary status was a good or bad thing for the future of the Byzantine archaeology project in an increasingly post-disciplinary world.

3. The marginal status of Byzantine archaeology at many of the AORCs represented paralleled the often marginal status of Byzantine monuments (and the interest in Byzantine archaeology) among the host countries where we have to do our work. Problematic reconstructions, neglect, lack of well-trained practitioners in host countries, and difficult national archaeological policies were all topics of discussion at the meeting. The marginal position of Byzantine archaeology in both (some) national narratives and the relatively obscure or exceedingly prominent (like in the case of the land walls of Constantinople) status of Byzantine monuments provided challenges for Byzantine archaeologists – marginalized in a disciplinary sense and in relation to their host countries – to convert their priorities into national policies and actions.

4. Finally, it was striking how marginal the conversation this weekend was in relation to larger discussions in the discipline of archaeology. Aside from a few comments scattered in a range of papers, the discussion did little to leverage the growing body of scholarship on issues like indigenous archaeology, public archaeology, and other practices emphasized in "world archaeology" as method to articulate the tension between archaeological epistemologies and the "real (political, economic, cultural, and religious) world" where archaeological practices takes place. The discursive isolation from the terminology of world archaeology again places Byzantine archaeology at the margins of its disciplinary home. Certainly some of this is a result of the institutional isolation in which most Byzantine archaeologists work.

Kostis Kourelis final remarks on the presentations and conversation at the conference asked important questions about the institutional engagement of Byzantine archaeology and urged us as practitioners to regard our professional position in a critical way. In particular, he evoked Bruce Triggers well known statement that all archaeology is either nationalist or imperialist. While that may hold true, I do wonder whether the marginal position of Byzantine archaeology locates the field in a place where it can escape this dichotomy in some way. For example, the lack of disciplinary entanglements frees it from a rigorous commitment to the kind of empiricism lies at the core of the institutional organization of the university. If one motivation for a post-disciplinary world is to escape from the complex legacy embedded within the institutional memory and organization of the modern university, then the distinct position of Byzantine archaeology at the margins gives it remarkable freedom to chose its methodological, epistemological, and institutional alliances carefully and critically. As E. Said has shown us in Orientalism, institutions carry forward the legacies of national and imperialist practices and have the remarkable ability to remain impervious to critique. As outsiders, like Said, Byzantine archaeologists have the ability to challenge presuppositions embedded deeply in disciplinary and institutional practices.

This privileged position for Byzantine archaeology is not without risks, of course. As a number of the speakers made clear, we have often found it necessary to "game" the system which is reluctant to fund projects from the margins that may challenge long held attitudes toward the organization of knowledge. While this is frustrating and limiting, it does, however, limit the entanglements and commitments Byzantine archaeology has to any one ideology, method, or epistemology.

Part of what I felt coming out of this meeting was a sense of community forming at the margins. I think we're a ways from challenging institutional attitudes and epistemologies, but a community of like-minded, critical, independent, scholars is an important first step to carving out space for resistance and change that extends far beyond the confines of our fields or our discipline. We just now have to have the courage.