Action in the trenches: a call for a more dynamic archaeology of early Byzantium

Action in the trenches: a call for a more dynamic archaeology of early Byzantium

By Marlia Mango

Paper given at the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies (2006)

Introduction: The lecture considers the fragmented state of the archaeology of the late antique Eastern Empire. Evidence takes the form of several pictures. The first appears in Bryan Ward-Perkins’ recently published The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization which includes a discussion of finds made at the royal ship burial of ca. 626 excavated at Sutton Hoo in this country. His photograph and discussion focuses on the natively made gold inlaid jewellery which represents artistic production at the highest levels of Anglo-Saxon society where at lower levels craftsmanship has plummeted in technical and aesthetic terms. This general lowering of standards is one of the diagnostic features used in the analysis of Civilization’s End which argues for a true decline, not for multi-culturally acceptable ‘change’ or ‘transformation’. But this snapshot of Sutton Hoo and its society has been trimmed. The entire wide-angle picture would take in objects of Byzantine production found in the same burial which are mentioned but not discussed in the Ward-Perkins book, namely a large silver plate with stamps of Anastasius, a set of silver bowls, unstamped but similar to a set stamped in the early seventh century found as part of the Lampsacus treasure of Asia Minor, silver spoons, a bronze basin likewise manufactured in the Empire. Much can be said about the changing cultural contexts of Byzantine silver and bronze – or other material – found outside the empire: how it reached such destinations and how it was regarded and used locally. But the point I wish to make here is that these objects were made in the empire, circulated abroad, yet do not feature in the cited analysis of the end of the (western) Roman Empire, because they belong to another story, namely that of the eastern Empire.

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