BMCR 2020.08.26

The Oxford handbook of early Christian archaeology

, , , The Oxford handbook of early Christian archaeology. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 707 p.. ISBN 9780199369041 $175.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The birth of the religion that we call Christianity has led to one of the most profound transformations in human history. Like the transformation itself, its study has undergone different phases, attracting diverse approaches and responses over time. This also applies to its material dimensions—what is called in the volume under review early Christian archaeology, broadly understood as the material remains of followers of the Christian faith from the first century to, roughly, 700 CE. Presenting a lush harvest of several decades of archaeological exploration of materials documenting the Christian faith, this Oxford Handbook offers fascinating snapshots of the lived reality of early Christianity.

The history of the modern interest in archaeological remains that document early Christianity is surveyed in the volume’s Introduction (Ch. 1). In it, William Caraher and David Pettegrew stress the contrasting attitudes of scholars working in different cultural settings, especially regarding what they call ‘Protestant English-speaking countries’ on the one hand and ‘Catholic and Orthodox continental Europe’ on the other (p. 3). The lucid overview of the disciplinary developments is complemented by a brief survey of the major historical shifts that are documented in the studied archaeology—nicely corroborating the timeliness of a handbook on this material and its scholarship.

Following the Introduction, 33 chapters populate four distinct parts. The first (Chs. 2-3) discusses the material remains of Christians in the second half of the first century CE. Part II (Chs. 4-8) surveys diverse sacred spaces and mortuary contexts—from martyria via churches to baptisteries and bath complexes, and expanding the discussion to the (long) half-millennium that follows the birth of Christianity. Part III (Chs. 11-19) zooms in on art and artefacts in context: catacombs, reliquaries, icons, spolia, mosaics, pottery, lamps, statues and amulets each get their own chapter. The fourth (and longest) part (Chs. 20-34) provides regional overviews of diverse remains, stretching across a vast geography, from Britain and Ireland in the northwest to Egypt in the southeast. In their totality, the chapters reflect well the many significant developments in the field. Besides ‘up-to-date syntheses’ on a broad range of areas, the collection also seeks to offer ‘a fresh look at how archaeological practice has informed and shaped historical knowledge of Christian communities between the first and eighth centuries’ (p. 2). All authors succeed in providing the promised overview of their respective topics. The inevitable element of description that comes with offering such authoritative summaries does not diminish the notable achievements in this volume to relate the discussed source materials to wider historical developments and questions. The volume as a whole demonstrates powerfully the significance of the evidence under scrutiny for our understanding of complex historical processes—as the following examples from the various volume parts show.

In Part II, David Eastman begins his richly illustrated 13-page discussion of martyria (Ch. 5) with a historical overview of the earliest known examples, including brief exploration of the textual evidence for structures ‘built or adapted to honor a martyr’ (p. 89). Plans of the Constantinian Basilica of the Apostles in Rome, and the privileged burials under its floor, support the account of developments in the fourth century, illuminating in particular the archaeological dimension of burial ad sanctos. Constantine’s use of material culture to express ‘Christian-imperial cooperation’ (p. 97) is further documented on the martyrium for Paul on the Ostian Road, again supported with a plan. Eastman’s discussion of the developments at Philippi, however, make the real case for the significance of the study of the material remains of martyria for the debate on early Christianity, especially vis-à-vis other, textual sources—because the monumental evolution of the complex around the Basilica of Paul was anything but straight-forward. Once a Hellenistic heroon, the Christianisation of the site developed bit-by-bit, to sport eventually an octagonal church besides a baptistery and a bishop’s complex. This gradual expansion of the complex around the Basilica of Paul thus creates an image of Christianity’s rise that is rather more complex and slower than one might otherwise have thought. Eastman concludes that ‘Christianity clearly gained more prominence in Philippi in the Late Antique period’, showing however also that ‘the material remains prevent us from being taken in by the triumphalist rhetoric of Eusebius and other fourth-century authors claiming immediate conversion throughout the empire’ (p. 100).

Part III offers some highly intriguing contributions—like Glenn Peers’ self-reflective rumination on icons (c. 3-7C), his anarchéologie (Ch. 13), understood (by him) as an archaeological exploration ‘in which the cultural operations (exhibitions, conservation, religion, academic inquiry)’ around the selected icons are (also) taken account of; the result, in Peers’ words, is an analysis that is ‘related to archaeology through difference and invested in ceaseless reorganization, reappraisal, and reuncovering, of ourselves as much as the object (p. 238). Peers immerses the reader in a beautifully crafted maze of the senses—material, shape, texture and colour (the latter painfully absent from the imagery), both past and present, thus bringing the icon alive (again) despite questioning its (and our) identification (and purpose), unsettlingly emphasising that (unlike us) ‘it does not care’ (p. 238). Dealing with broadly similar material, Galit Noga-Banai’s discussion of reliquaries (aka caskets, 5C and later: Ch. 12) offers another stimulating, detailed object study that powerfully demonstrates the value of reading material biographies for our understanding of early Christianity. Set into the textually preserved memory of physical remains of saints and sites, her analysis shows that the reliquaries’ visual rhetoric (motifs, scenes, frames, composition) speaks to ‘the original function and type of memory contained’, contributes ‘authenticity’ and information on ‘provenance and intermediate stations’ (pp. 222-3). Her prime example is the Samagher casket, found in Pola, now in Venice, but probably from Palestine: the wooden, ivory-panelled reliquary operates a visual programme that centres attention on the Holy Cross: ‘one can imagine’, writes Noga-Banai, ‘that the Jerusalemite relic […] was translated to Rome, from which it was relocated across the Adriatic’—whence it entered the world of scholarship (p. 231). The single, seemingly isolated object thus builds a bridge to connect divergent geographies and temporalities, arising from its role(s) in the world of early Christianity.

Taking up nearly half the volume, Part IV presents a plethora of captivating, if complex material remains, from multiple locales: the chief protagonists are churches, monasteries, baptisteries, statues, stelae, tombs, tombstones, mosaics, coins, seals, rings, pottery, even textiles and silver treasures. While this part covers nearly a whole millennium, a distinct thread across several chapters is the chronological gap between the attestation of Christianity through textual sources (whether from the first, second or third century onwards) and the arrival of the first (identifiable) Christian material remains (typically from the fourth century onwards).

A good example is the chapter on Asia Minor by Peter Talloen (Ch. 26). Talloen frames his discussion of the evidence prior to Constantine by reference to the world of the New Testament and second-century episcopal writings. Inscriptions, especially epitaphs, join the arena from the second half of the second century and even more so from the third century. These regularly feature formulae and symbols that are indicative of the deceased’s Christianity. Particularly striking is the evidence from the Anatolian plateau, especially from Phrygia and Lycaonia. Drawing on the work of Stephen Mitchell, Talloen concludes that the ‘Central Anatolian Christians for the first time chose to advertise their religious allegiance publicly’ (p. 497).[1] Yet, beyond the epigraphy, the material documentation for the Christian faith remains slim in this period. The fourth century then constitutes a watershed in the (surviving) visibility of Christianity, before the fifth and sixth centuries document what Talloen calls the ‘proliferation of material Christianity’ (p. 503). Whatever the complex details of the ‘transition of the fourth century’ (p. 499), monumental Christian architecture, especially what can in brief be called churches, provide striking relics of the religious change from this period onwards. There is much recycling or re-appropriation of existing structures documented, especially secular buildings, but also pagan sanctuaries, illustrating differing modes of adaptation—from the ‘light touch’ of usurping the spatial confines (but not the standing architecture of the existing structure: e.g. the Church of Mary at Ephesus), to full-blown architectural conversion (to reshape a pagan sanctuary into a church: e.g. the Aphroditeion at Aphrodisias). Over time, the remains from Asia Minor document ‘a rich and powerful ecclesiastical structure, strongly at home in the urban centre, but also incorporating the periphery, signalling the expanded territoriality of Christianity’ (p. 507).

In his final section, Talloen raises an issue that deserves closer attention because it is of relevance to all the chapters in this part (and indeed to the volume as a whole): the very concept of ‘Christian material culture’ (p. 508-10). Talloen notes that ‘(t)he existence of a Christian material culture that can be archaeologically defined has recently been challenged’, citing work by Jaś Elsner and Eric Rebillard.[2] The central bone of contention is ‘the degree to which religious affiliation is reflected in the material record’, and to what extent ‘the pagan/Jewish/Christian categorization’ is legitimate (p. 509). Acknowledging in general terms the problems with identifying the religious persuasion of the user of an object, Talloen’s rebuttal is chronologically framed: ‘the development of specific Christian categories in the material culture of Asia Minor can be argued from the fifth century onward’ (p. 509). Where does this leave the earlier remains which, after all, stem from three centuries that make up half of the period covered by the term ‘early Christian archaeology’?

One example: the so-called house-churches—what Charles Stewart terms ‘the homes converted for Christian worship’ (p. 129). One 3C example from Dura Europos aside (discussed by Emma Loosley, pp. 416-8), the widespread lack of building modifications may indicate that Christians ‘continued to meet in the homes of their wealthiest members without causing any archaeologically discernible changes to these structures’ (p. 498; see also p. 625). New archaeological and NT research suggests conversely that the early Christians met in public spaces, such as the temple of Apollo in Greek Corinth (as some ancient authorities already held).[3] Does (or even just: would) this make the temple archaeologically Christian? Putting the question in this simple way calls up the broader issues raised by scholars such as Elsner and Rebillard. Equally, the shift in understanding of NT texts raises questions as to the basis for the interpretation of the early material remains, which needs confrontation too. I think we can look forward to an exciting debate that tests several approaches and contentions on what is a considerable body of material culture that documents individuals committing to the Christian faith across the ages—as this volume richly illustrates.

This Handbook is produced to a very high standard, with few typos.[4] The maps, images, graphs and tables are well integrated in the relevant chapters’ discussions, and suitably placed.[5] The editors are to be congratulated for having assembled a highly readable collection that demonstrates both the good use to which the handbook-genre can be put as well as—and more importantly—the vitality and significance of the study of material remains that are relics of the lives of Christians in the long first half millennium CE.

Table of Contents

1. The Archaeology of Early Christianity: The History, Methods, and State of a Field, by William R. Caraher and David K. Pettegrew
2. Archaeology of the Gospels, by James F. Strange
3. New Testament Archaeology beyond the Gospels, by Thomas W. Davis

4. The Catacombs, by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai
5. Martyria, by David L. Eastman
6. Burials and Human Remains of the Eastern Mediterranean in Early Christian Context, by Sherry C. Fox and Paraskevi Tritsaroli
7. Churches, by Charles Anthony Stewart
8. The Archaeology of Early Monastic Communities, by Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom
9. Baptisteries in Ancient Sites and Rites, by H. Richard Rutherford
10. Baths, Christianity, and Bathing Culture in Late Antiquity, by Dallas DeForest

11. The Art of the Catacombs, by Fabrizio Bisconti
12. Visual Rhetoric of Early Christian Reliquaries, by Galit Noga-Banai
13. An Anarchéologie of Icons, by Gleen Peers
14. Spolia and the “Victory of Christianity”, by Jon Michael Frey
15. Early Christian Mosaics in Context, by Karen C. Britt
16. Pottery, by R. Scott Moore
17. Lamps, by Maria Parani
18. Statues, by Troels Myrup Kristensen
19. Amulets and the Ritual Efficacy of Christian Symbols, by Rangar H. Cline

20. Christian Archaeology in Palestine: the Roman and Byzantine Periods, by Joan E. Taylor
21. Jordan, by Robert Schick
22. Syria, by Emma Loosley
23. The Church of the East until the Eighth Century, by Stefan R. Hauser
24. Armenia, by Christina Maranci
25. The Holy Island: An Archaeology of Early Christian Cyprus, by Jody Michael Gordon and William R. Caraher
26. Asia Minor, by Peter Talloen
27. Community, Church, and Conversion in the Prefecture of Illyricum and the Cyclades, by Rebecca Sweetman
28. The Early Christian Archaeology of the Balkans, by William Bowden
29. The Archaeology of Early Italian Churches in Context, 313-569 CE, by Alexandra Chavarría Arnau
30. The Christianization of Gaul: Buildings and Territories, by Bastien Lefebvre
31. Britain and Ireland, 100-700 CE, by David Petts
32. Constructing Christian Landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula: The Archaeological Evidence (Fourth-Sixth Centuries), by Alexandra Chavarría Arnau
33. Incorporating Christian Communities in North Africa: Churches as Bodies of Communal History, by Susan T. Stevens
34. Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt, by Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom


[1] Esp. Mitchell’s Anatolia from 1993.

[2] I.e. J. Elsner, ‘Archaeologists and agendas: reflections on late ancient Jewish art and early Christian art’, JRS 93 (2003), 114-28; E. Rebillard, ‘Material culture and religious identity in Late Antiquity’, in R. Raja and J. Rüpke (edd.), A Companion to the Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World (Chichester, 2015), 427-37.

[3] E.g. J. C. Donati, ‘Marks of state ownership and the Greek agora at Corinth’, AJA 114 (2010), 3-26; A. Weissenrieder, ‘Architecture: where did Pauline communities meet?’, in T. R. Blanton and R. Pickett (edd.), Paul and Economics. A Handbook (Minneapolis, 2017), 125-53.

[4] In my copy, p. 523 is wrongly set, omitting the first line.

[5] There are some minor irritating quirks: the already noted absence of colour imagery fails some discussions; some images are too small for the illustrated details, while others are disproportionately large. Ch. 29 omits the figure for the large episcopal quarter at Egnazia.