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The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

Edited by David K. Pettegrew, William R. Caraher, and Thomas W. Davis. New York: Oxford University Press 2019. Pp. xv + 707. $175. ISBN 978-0-19-936904-1 (cloth).

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This book is a timely and well-crafted contribution to the field of early Christian studies. It has three main aims, which it meets admirably. Firstly, it contextualizes disciplinary developments in the field in recent years. Secondly, it highlights the contribution of archaeological research to studies of early Christianity more generally. Thirdly, it presents regional and thematic surveys of this contribution. The handbook continues the trend of moving away from methods that simply search for evidence of Christian presence and toward more holistic attempts to understand the societal and ritual context of early Christianity. This handbook succeeds in showing the best of the field as it is today—a rigorous, holistic field that employs cutting-edge theory and methods.

The content covers largely what we usually think of as late antiquity (ca. 300–700 CE), when material evidence for Christianity becomes more plentiful, though there are some chapters that stray outside these boundaries. Geographically, it centers on the Mediterranean but includes chapters on Christianity outside that boundary as well. It opens with an introduction by Caraher and Pettegrew, who contextualize the history of the field for modern readers, bring this history up to date, and present prospects for the future. In essence, the field has seen a sustained move toward greater methodological atheism and a more anthropological and theoretical form of archaeology. 

After an introduction by the editors, the handbook is divided into five parts. Part 1, “The Archaeology of Ancient Christianity,” consists of two chapters that examine the contribution of archaeological research to the study of the New Testament era. James F. Strange’s chapter discusses the archaeology of first-century Syria-Palestine, the world of the gospels themselves, using various examples of synagogues and case studies of two important villages: Nazareth and Cana. Davis’ chapter focuses on the archaeological context of the earliest Christian ministries and communities in Greece and Asia Minor. Both chapters contain fascinating and useful historiographies of archaeological research. They show clearly how the field has developed from an earlier focus on dressing up biblical exegesis to the systematic study of the New Testament period’s society, culture, and economy. 

Part 2, “Sacred Space and Mortuary Contexts,” and part 3, “Art and Artifacts in Context,” dedicate chapters to specific forms of later material evidence, from spaces to portable artifacts. In some cases, the material is directly part of liturgical and ritual practice; in others, it is any material that has a clear marker of Christian ideas. This structure, when paired with the regional chapters that follow, permits the flourishing of various perspectives so that experts can present the most innovative material and theoretical arguments in their respective fields in accessible ways. Each chapter examines Christian spaces and material culture using contemporary theoretical approaches, not the mere description, typology, and antiquarianism of yesteryear. 

Part 2 examines early Christian spaces. Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai leads with a discussion of the historical development of the catacombs of Rome and an introduction to the rarely discussed catacombs outside Rome in the Italian peninsula, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, North Africa, and Greece. Fiocchi Nicolai focuses on the growth and structure of catacombs, as well as burial practices and ritual activities associated with them; discussion of the art of the catacombs is taken up later by Bisconti’s chapter in part 3. David L. Eastman’s chapter examines the social and political functions of martyria in early Christian communities as well as the variety of their contexts and functions. Sherry C. Fox and Paraskevi Tritsaroli outline fascinating developments in the study of Christian burial customs and demonstrate the value of studies of paleodemography, health, and lifestyle of early Christians. Charles Anthony Stewart presents churches not simply as places of worship, as they are traditionally seen by scholars; rather, he argues that they holistically reflect society at large: aesthetics, wealth, economic networks, ethnicity, political organization, and so on (141). Churches also played key roles in broader settlement patterns in rural and urban landscapes (142). In addition, he argues convincingly for the often forgotten importance for archaeology at large of archaeological work on churches in advancing technical drawing, topography, phasing, and relative chronology (141–43). This chapter also has a discussion of liturgy and rituals that will be useful to anyone studying archaeology of religion more generally.

Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom’s chapter, “The Archaeology of Early Monastic Communities,” presents a detailed overview of the variety of forms of monastic life and the regional diversity of monastic forms as revealed by archaeology. She discusses the exciting development that the archaeology of monasticism is going through its “first theoretical turn” (161). H. Richard Rutherford’s chapter on baptisteries explores what archaeology has added to the understanding of baptisteries: their structure and design, how they relate to space and liturgy, and their afterlife. Dallas DeForest’s chapter on baths uses archaeological evidence to challenge scholarship that has taken Christian negative rhetoric on bathing too seriously. Instead the archaeology shows a great diversity of responses to bathing: for instance, baths functioned as services for both pilgrims and lepers.

Part 3, “Art and Artifacts in Context,” presents various aspects of Christian portable material culture. Fabrizio Bisconti’s chapter, “The Art of the Catacombs,” provides an account of the development of catacomb art in terms of themes, materials, and the continuities and discontinuities between classical and pagan art and the new Christian art. 

Three chapters on the life of objects take the theoretical framework to its furthest extent. Galit Noga-Banai’s chapter, “Visual Rhetoric of Early Christian Reliquaries,” focuses on “things in motion with a rich social life” (222). She successfully creates object biographies for reliquaries in an anthropological object-oriented framework. This chapter exemplifies the benefits of anthropological thinking in the analysis of early Christian material culture. Glenn Peers’ chapter, “An Anarchéologie of Icons,” presents a similarly object-oriented approach. Focusing on a single icon from the Menil Collection (Houston, Texas), he carries out a “stratigraphic penetration of the object” (237), a detailed and illuminating analysis of a single icon, which serves as an example of how icons can be examined more generally. It differs markedly from the other chapters in tone and in the heavy use of a more theoretical style. Jon Michael Frey’s chapter shows how spolia have gone from something denigrated by scholars as indicative of decline to instead being seen as artistic innovation with a wide diversity in the “reception of spolia among viewers” (260).

Subsequent chapters tackle symbols and identity. Karen C. Britt’s chapter on mosaics simultaneously lays out the history of production, as well as the difficulties in understanding patronage and decision making regarding that production, and then provides a longer discussion of the development of mosaic programs. She argues clearly that mosaic schemes were more about creating an experience than simply about conveying specific meanings (281–92). R. Scott Moore’s chapter on pottery provides a useful outline of Roman pottery forms, uses, and Christian symbols from fine wares to amphoras to coarse wares, followed by tiles, ampullae, and ceramic panels. He addresses the problem of interpreting the origin and meaning of Christian symbols on pottery and rightly problematizes the idea that the presence of a symbol is straightforward evidence of Christian practice. Maria Parani’s chapter on lamps describes continuity with Roman traditions to express and construct religious identity through symbols and material culture. Troels Myrup Kristensen’s chapter on statues chronicles the variety of Christian engagements with the medium, from destruction to innovation and experimentation with old traditions. Finally, Rangar H. Cline’s chapter, “Amulets and the Ritual Efficacy of Christian Symbols,” presents a fascinating account of the powerful apotropaic and spiritual functions of amulets. 

Part 4 contains 15 regional surveys. Each of the major areas of the Roman Mediterranean has its own chapter: the Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, North Africa, Italy, the Balkans, Illyricum and the Cyclades, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. Three regions on the edges or outside of the Roman world are also included: Britain and Ireland, Armenia, and the Church of the East in Mesopotamia. The regional surveys are too numerous to detail individually, but they are standardized and consistent enough to make some general observations. The chapters succeed in setting out the fundamental features of each region’s archaeological landscape as well as its most important contemporary debates, thus providing a useful resource for both students and researchers. Discussions strike a balance between maintaining consistency in coverage and theme for each regional survey and focusing on material and topics that are important to that region. They are written in a clear, jargon-free, and accessible way while nonetheless addressing contemporary methods and concerns.

The goals of the publication are achieved consistently. The handbook shows how early Christian archaeology has moved past “finding Christianity” to a more holistic study of context and the social and political contexts of early Christian life. Material culture takes primacy over textual agendas to highlight the valuable role that archaeological evidence and archaeological ways of thinking have played and can play further in the field. The handbook is consistent in structure, tone, and detail, varying where necessary. It balances well the need for limited snapshots of encyclopedic description while also explaining innovative approaches and arguments. The bibliographies for each chapter are invaluable resources for students and researchers alike. Students in my own seminar on the archaeology of religion found the chapters to be accessible and insightful, which made them enthusiastic to research the topics further. This is likely to continue to be a helpful resource for years to come in this respect. 

One unfortunate omission is a chapter dedicated to cultural heritage and the politics of the past. Some of the regional chapters touch on these questions, but a dedicated, specific analysis would have been welcomed. One caveat for the reader is the geographic scope of the book. Although, to its credit, areas outside the Mediterranean are included in the regional surveys as well as occasional references elsewhere, each of those areas could have a handbook of its own. In this volume, David Petts (Britain and Ireland), Stefan R. Hauser (Church of the East), and Christina Maranci (Armenia) all do excellent work of presenting those non-Mediterranean regions’ archaeological richness in the space available, but the reader should know that this handbook is very much one for the field of Late Antique Mediterranean Christianity. 

The handbook will serve well as a primary entry point for students, scholars, and the general public interested in the field. It succeeds in presenting the archaeology of Late Antique Christianity as it is today, a field that has gotten past early problems in aims and methods and is now firmly rooted in 21st-century archaeology. The volume reflects an exciting moment of experimentation and broadening horizons. 

Kilian Mallon
Stanford University

Book Review of The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, edited by David K. Pettegrew, William R. Caraher, and Thomas W. Davis
Reviewed by Kilian Mallon
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Mallon

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