Some Perspective on American Excavations in Corinth: Byzantium and the Avant Garde

I couldn’t make it last week to Grand Forks to hear Franklin & Marshall College professor Kostis Kourelis speak on the topic of Byzantium and the Avant Garde.  Thanks to Bill Caraher and the Center for Instructional and Learning Technologies at the University of North Dakota for streaming the lecture live.  The video, audio, and presentation are all available here

Kourelis_Avant Garde

Readers of Hesperia, the journal devoted to publishing the research of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, will recognize Kourelis’ talk as a “live version” of an article published several years ago called “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth, 1920s-1930s,” Hesperia 76 (2007), pp. 391-442.  Hesperia has, in fact, made that article available for free download on this page.  The abstract of the article also works as a summary of his talk last week:

“In the 1920s and 1930s, members of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens engaged in a dialogue with the avant-garde through the shared discovery of Byzantium. This extraordinary experiment took place in excavations at Corinth, where American archaeologists invented the systematic discipline of medieval archaeology, facilitated an inclusive identity for the American School, and contributed to a bohemian undercurrent that would have a long afterlife. This article situates the birth of Byzantine archaeology in Greece within the general discourse of modernism and explores the mechanisms of interchange across disciplinary and national boundaries, between subjective and objective realms.”

In a nut shell, Kostis argues that the traditional disdain for Late Antique and Byzantine archaeology by classical archaeologists working in Greece was not always a consistent thread of American classical archaeology.  Just as societal processes shaped the veneration of the classical past in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so a range of broader factors—early 20th century aestheticism, architectural trends, the artistic avant-garde, and the mental association of Byzantium with modernism—led briefly, in the 1920s and 1930s, to an interest in the Byzantine period.  Many early excavators, draftsmen, architects, and illustrators working in Greece (Lucy Talcott, Alison Frantz, Piet de Jong) during these decades had links to the Greek avant garde who were also newly interested in the Byzantine tradition.

As Kourelis says at one point, a generation of Americans who went to Greece looking for the Parthenon ended up discovering the Medieval period.  This broader intellectual inclusivism of Byzantine Corinth was short-lived (dying with World War II and the Cold War politics that followed: think Byzantium and Russia) but eventually did reemerge in American researchers circles in the 1980s.  Think in recent decades: Charles Williams II, Timothy Gregory, and Guy Sanders.

Here’s what I think could be especially valuable in his lecture and article for a non-specialist audience:

1. This is a great little overview of the way that culture has historically influenced archaeological practice.  People often think of archaeology as a flat scientific enterprise—as though archaeologists excavating in Greece were all “objective” researchers simply carrying out their work for the sake of generating knowledge.  Here we meet archaeologists influenced by broader trends in attitude and practice toward particular periods.  As Kourelis puts it in his article (p. 393):

“Ultimately, it was the artistic avant-garde that ushered Byzantine Greece into the cultural limelight and rehabilitated its research within American priorities. Corinth’s medieval excavations of 1925-1940 were conceived under the spell of modernist aesthetics and much less under the guidance of academic inquiry.”

2. For anyone unfamiliar with the history of excavation, it is easy to forget that the ruins of Roman Corinth visible today at the site were once covered by an incredible amount of post-antique material and settlement.  This “Byzantine labyrinth of houses” was cleared in the central area to get down to the Roman levels.  The discoveries of the Byzantine city were published in several Corinth volumes, and the article provides a useful summary of that process. 

3. Great images and plans of excavations at Corinth in the 1920s and 30s.  Also pictures of the reconstructed Byzantine house (once a museum) near the Peirene spring now known as “Carpenter’s Folly”.  The lecture and article explain the source of the name “folly”.

4.  There’s some stuff here (beside the above) for New Testament scholars.  St. Paul’s Cathedral in New Corinth itself dates to 1930 and reflects the same trends in Greece.  Kourelis provides a good quote by Henry Miller from the 30s on a lush corrupt sexualized Corinth.  That image of the city is an old one.

For further discussion, see the online lecture or publication.  Kostis blogs at Objects-Buildings-Situations.

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