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Sacred Trees, Christianization, and the Roman Countryside 23 January 2008

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology,Late Antiquity , 4 comments

In the small Mexican village of Tule, some 10 km east of Oaxaca, stands a cyprus (Arbol del Tule) that is claimed by the locals to be the largest tree in the world. While that claim to fame can be contested, the tree is enormously impressive, not least because of the way it has been integrated into a Christian context. It is estimated to be some 2-3000 years old. Right next to the tree (42 metres tall, 54 metres in circumference) stands a much younger church, Santa Maria del Tule, built in the 17th century. The decision by the Christian authorities to construct the church in this particular location was of course anything but coincidental. The size, age and materiality of the tree must have made it a potent place of reverence in the pre-Hispanic period. Even today, the tree is the focus of an annual fiesta. A sacred tree of this kind was a natural place of worship whose power the Catholic Church appropriated. At Tule, this was achieved in a more subtle manner than one would expect of the Catholic mission in New Spain. As can be partially seen in my photo below, the church is almost hidden under the massive size of the tree!

Visiting Tule and its famous tree last month made me think more about Roman parallels to this sort of Christianization of natural places (see also Bradley 2000). Sacred trees and groves were the focus of religious controversy during Constantine at Mamre and Bethlehem (cf. Caseau 2004: 123f). Last year at Christmas time, I wrote on the blog about St Nicholas of Sion in Lycia (modern Turkey), who is described in his hagiography to have cut down a pagan sacred tree, “in which dwel[t] the spirit of an unclean idol, that destroys both men and fields.” Typically for hagiographies, St Nicholas chose here confrontation with pagan cult rather than the peaceful appropriation seen at Tule and certainly also in Roman examples.

Our understanding of the Christianization of the Roman countryside is mainly based on textual evidence (for a good account, see Caseau 1999). While field survey has been extremely successful in reconstructing the economic and social landscape of late antiquity, the religious landscape (apart from the distribution of churches) remains more elusive from an archaeological viewpoint. This is unfortunate, as rural religion and cult is extremely fascinating, yet much less understood than its urban equivalents that have been much more intensively studied. Synchretism (or whatever we choose to call it) of pagan and Christian elements, similar to the appropriation of the tree at Tule, must have taken place at many rural shrines and natural places of worship in late antiquity. These sites that made up a complex sacred topography may also have shifted over time between violent confrontations and peaceful assimilation. Trying to reconstruct this micro-level of religious change and its relation to the narrative of Christianization is to me one of the most challenging and fascinating aspects of the study of late antiquity. (more…)

Late Antiquity Summer School in Aarhus 10 December 2007

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The Department of Classical Archaeology at the University of Aarhus is organizing an international summer school in 2008 on the topic of “Constantine the Great and the Making of Late Antiquity” (website still under construction). It will be held between 25 and 30 August.

The week-long summer school in English will be taught by a group of international and Danish specialists on Late Antiquity, including Professor Lea Stirling (Manitoba), Professor Niels Hannestad (Aarhus), Professor Siri Sande (Oslo/Rome), Arja Karivieri (Stockholm), Curators Mette Moltesen and Jan Stubbe Østergaard (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen), Curator John Lund (National Museum, Copenhagen), Birte Poulsen (Aarhus), and Rubina Raja (Aarhus). More names will be announced later.

The summer school is part of the research programme “Art and Social Identities in Late Antiquity”, based in the Department of Classical Archaeology. The following is a description of the thematic range of the summer school:

The reign of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman Emperor (AD 312-337), is traditionally considered to be the start of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The 4th-6th centuries AD – often called Late Antiquity – form a vacuum between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Politically, the period is marked by the disintegration of the Roman Empire; in the West, new barbarian kingdoms emerge, in the East, the Byzantine world takes its beginning. It is also a period of religious change, characterized by the triumph of Christianity and the disappearance of the ancient pagan cults. However, it has become evident that Late Antiquity is to be characterized as a transitional and highly tolerant period in which pagans and Christians lived side by side, mostly in peace. Changes occurred slowly and the classical tradition with widespread pagan elements continued to be visible in various arts such as mythological and portrait sculpture, sarcophagi, mosaics and silverware.

The course will include themes like the urban images of Rome and Constantinople, the early Church, as well as material culture such as sculpture, mosaics and architecture as expressions of social status, identity, and power. The course also includes ‘hands-on’ workshops with artifacts in museum collections including the Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus. A full-day excursion to the museums and collections in Copenhagen will be arranged.

Please visit the summer school website for information on how to apply etc.

A couple of Danish publications… 3 December 2007

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A couple of new bits and pieces from me. So, if you read (or want to improve your) Danish, you may be interested in these three, short articles by me, all to be published during the month of December.

“Billedstrid i det senantikke Ægypten” (roughly translates as “Controversies over Images in Late Antique Egypt”), SFINX, vol. 30.4 (subscribers only). This is the 30th anniversary edition of the Danish-language, popularizing journal on Mediterranean culture and history.

Billedernes magt: Ikonoklasme og ikonofobi i senantikken (4.-6. århundrede)” (i.e. “The Power of Images: Iconoclasm and Iconophobia in Late Antiquity (4-6th Centuries)”, Meddelelser fra Klassisk Arkæologisk Forening, vol. 63. NB! The PDF is a proof copy.

“Kunst og social identitet i Senantikken – et nyt forskningsprojekt ved Aarhus Universitet”, e-Agora, vol. 2 (translates as “Art and Social Identity in Late Antiquity – A new research project at the University of Aarhus”). Co-authored with Niels Hannestad, Birte Poulsen and Stine Birk Toft. This is now freely available here – direct link.

Late Antiquity Online 20 November 2007

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Over at “Art and Social Identities in Late Antiquity“, I’ve started to create a list of websites relevant to the study of late antiquity. So far, the list includes a number of archaeological excavations, research libraries, museums and other resources. If you want to suggest a link, please get in touch – write to klatmk (at) hum.au.dk or leave a comment.

Salona 11 November 2007

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology,Late Antiquity,Travel , 1 comment so far

In terms of late antique archaeology, Croatia is an incredibly rich country. Before the recent EAA Annual Meeting in Zadar, I had the opportunity to visit Salona, just outside Split. Salona is a Caesarean colony that prospered well into the 6th century AD. Among the many highlights is the Manastirine ecclesiastical complex north of the city walls. The complex has just recently been published (Duval, Marin & Metzger 2000). It consists of a basilica and a very impressive necropolis. The Syrian bishop Domnio is said to have been buried here. As the sarcophagi are scattered across the entire site, it really gives an impression of how an early Christian burial ground looked like (although not all of the sarcophagi would have been visible during late antiquity).

Manastirine, Salona
Manastirine complex, Salona, Croatia. Photo: TMK, September 2007.

Manastirine, Salona
Sarcophagi in the Manastirine basilica, Salona. Photo: TMK, September 2007.

Another late antique highlight at Salona is the episcopal quarter in the northwestern part of the city. It includes among other things three basilicas, a baptistry and a bishop’s palace. Seen below is the “basilica urbana”. For the wealth of artefacts that has been found in the Salona excavations, refer to Marin 2002. More photos from Salona below the fold. (more…)

Constantine and a ‘Vandalized’ Venus in Trier 23 October 2007

Posted by Troels in : Late Antiquity,Travel , 1 comment so far

Porta Nigra
Porta Nigra, Trier. Photo: TMK, October 2007.

I was in Trier a couple of weeks ago to see the Constantine the Great exhibition, which is one of the main events that make up the European Capital of Culture 2007. The exhibition spreads out across three different venues and presents some very interesting objects from museums across Europe. The style of the exhibition is in the vein of what I could call the German tradition of encyclopedic exhibitions, as it aims to cover all aspects of the Constantinian age, from technology, warfare, pottery, portraiture, coinage to the Church, et cetera. This is also reflected in the exhibition catalogue, which is a bargain at only € 25 (Demandt & Engemann 2007). So this is one of those rare opportunities to see an enormous range of late antique artefacts in the same place at the same time (the exhibition runs until 4 November). However, other aspects of late antiquity such as religious violence and intolerance were not much in focus here, excerpt for the usual remarks about the pre-Constantinian persecutions of Christians, in this case staged dramatically with visual projections of flames! While religious violence and intolerance can’t be said to be characteristic of the reign of Constantine, they certainly become major themes over the course of the 4th and 5th centuries. As the exhibition covers so much else that isn’t exclusively Constantinian, I felt this was a missed opportunity.

P1150659Paradoxically, the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, one of three exhibition’s three venues, holds several artefacts that are relevant to discussions of religious violence and ‘iconoclasm’ in late antiquity. These include the remains of a statue of Venus that you see on the right. It comes from the Church of St Matthew (St Matthias) in Trier, where churchgoers would throw rocks at it (Gramaccini 1996: 41; Wightman 1970: 229). The statue was accompanied by an inscription in both Latin and Gothic that informs us that it was exhibited for ridicule by St Eucharius. This part of the statue’s afterlife is usefully explained in the didactic text, but the statue is not part of the Constantine exhibition. It would also have been interesting to use the very interesting material from the sanctuary at Altbachtal in Trier to show how pagan religious sites were ‘secularized’ during late antiquity. Occasionally, this was a violent process, as Eberhard Sauer (among others) has shown in his studies of the decline of paganism in the northwestern provinces (1996; 2003).

The power of images and the responses that they create are major themes in contemporary society. Nonetheless, violent responses to artefacts are rarely noted in archaeological museums. As such, the Constantine exhibition in Trier was no exception. But it’s certainly worth visiting for anyone interested in late antique art and archaeology. (more…)

A Fragmented Field? 12 June 2007

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Interesting observations on the state of ‘late antique studies’ from Raymond Van Dam in a review of Stephen Mitchell’s recent History of the Later Roman Empire:

Late antique studies is now transitioning into its middle age. This field was begotten between the late 1950s and the early 1970s with the publication of H.-I. Marrou’s revised Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, A. H. M. Jones’ The Later Roman Empire, and Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. During the subsequent decades the field has flourished beyond all expectations. Now it seems to be passing through a phase of retrospection, and sometimes even regret over some developments. One sign of such introspection is the series of recent books and articles celebrating the anniversaries of earlier books and articles in the field, mostly by Peter Brown. Another is the publication, or impending publication, of Guides, Handbooks, and Companions that try to survey the entire enterprise. Yet another is the recent publication of vast narrative histories that focus in particular on the transition to the barbarian kingdoms of western medieval Europe…. Late antique studies has apparently paused for a moment to take stock of its many accomplishments.


Carnivalesque XXV 25 March 2007

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology,Carnival,Late Antiquity , 4 comments

Carnivalesque ButtonWelcome to Carnivalesque XXV – an ancient/medieval edition. I’m also pleased to welcome you to my blog, Iconoclasm, that mainly deals with issues in late antique archaeology and history. Let’s see what the blogging world has been up to lately.

The Present Past
Mary Beard attended an event in London organized by the Campaign for the Restitution of the Elgin Marbles and was surprised to find that a very sober relationship currently exists between the ‘restitutionists’ and British Museum officials. Meanwhile, here in Athens, the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, set to house the “Elgin marbles” on their eventual return, is well underway. I offered some pictures of the current state of the construction. It’s planned to open before the end of this year. When it does, it’ll stand as a powerful monument for the campaign to return the marbles to Athens.

Dorothy King the PhDiva discussed the conditions of archaeology in contemporary conflict zones.

David at Studenda Mira tackled the complex stratigraphy of the Roman cityscape, in this case the Porta Salaria. He also offered some thoughts on late antique Yemen.

Fiction can be a powerful method of communicating research and making the past feel present. This is demonstrated by Mark Rayner at The Skwib in his post “Thag not got milk!” And what better way to recreate the past than to stir up some medieval dishes from the recipes kindly offered by Gillian Pollack?

The Art of Interpretation
According to much media hype, the tomb of Jesus been located in a Jerusalem suburb. Can it be true? Well, it’s all a matter of interpretation. Jodi Magness on the AIA website delivered a forceful NO, whereas blogger extraordinaire Alun Salt gave us lots of discussion and a podcast over at Clioaudio.

Over at the Archaeolog, Elissa Faro discussed the interpretation of figurines from Crete.

At Philolog, Adam Bravo gave us some thoughts on the Roman emperor Julian’s spin doctor.

At the Movies
The film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 has opened in many parts of the world. It has been very successful here in Greece, where last night (when I saw it) the cinema was packed in spite of fierce competition from the Turkey-Greece football game that took place at the same time. Mustafa Akyol at The White Path offers a devastating critique of the movie’s orientalism and portrayal of Sparta as a bastion of democracy. Stephen at Ten Thousand Things gives some tips how to enjoy the movie after all. I have, more or less, come to the same conclusions…

The Gracchi at Westminster Wisdom saw Robert Bresson’s “The Trial of Joan d’Arc”.

Matt Page at the Bible Films Blog discussed depictions of the devil in Hollywood, and Bollywood too.

That’s it for this edition of Carnivalesque. Many thanks to all those that submitted entries! Also, don’t forget that Carnivalesque is looking for future hosts. The next edition will focus on the early modern period.

Carnivalesque coming to Iconoclasm 8 March 2007

Posted by Troels in : Archaeology,Carnival,Late Antiquity , 1 comment so far

Carnivalesque ButtonThe excellent blog carnival Carnivalesque is coming to Iconoclasm on 25 March. This will be an ancient/medieval edition and I believe that it’ll be the first time that Carnivalesque will come live and direct from the centre of the Classical world, i.e. Athens. Please forward nominations for contributions to troelsmyrup AT gmail.com or use the handy submissions form.

The 24th edition (on early modern history) was hosted by The Long Eighteenth, and the 23rd edition (on ancient and medieval history) by Memorabilia Antonina.

Bowersock and Late Antique Mosaics 6 February 2007

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The Princeton historian Glen Bowersock has recently published a book on late antique mosaics: “Mosaics as History. The Near East from Late Antiquity to Islam” (Cambridge, MA 2006). It consists of a series of lectures given in Paris in 1997. As the title makes perfectly clear, he focuses on the historical rather than art historical or archaeological significance of mosaics. This is in itself important as mosaics and other artforms have too often been marginalized in historical studies of the late antique period. The lecture format partly limits the scope of the book, so it should be seen more as a preliminary study of what mosaics can contribute as primary sources to the history of the Levant.

What I found most interesting in Bowersock’s book was his argument for the similar and largely synchronic perception of mosaics by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the melting pot of the Near East. This shared cultural environment permitted that large-scale mosaics were still being produced in the 8th century under Umayyad rule at Umm er-Rasas and several other sites in Jordan. These mosaics are absolutely dated because of the inscriptions on them that give the year of production – just like the mosaics from Apamea – and interestingly, it’s the Roman chronology for the province of Arabia that’s still in use.

In a chapter devoted to ‘Iconoclasms’, Bowersock dates the ‘iconoclastic episode’ in the region to sometime after 720 following the Edict of Yazid, the Umayyad caliph af Damascus. He re-dates this edict to 723/724, and as Yazid died in 724, the destruction of mosaics (and religious icons) was a brief episode that only affected a relatively small number of churches (and, possibly, synagogues) in the region. Secular buildings were not affected and the Umayyads themselves decorated their palaces with figural art, for example in the magnificent bath house at Qusayr ‘Amra. (more…)