One of the great conversations that I had this past week at Polis Chysochous centered on how one goes about publishing a complex site or sites. Starting this fall, (as I discussed yesterday) a dynamic and diverse team of Late Antique, Byzantine, and Medieval scholars (Amy Papalexandrou, Kyle Killian, Sarah Lepinski, R. Scott Moore, Nora Laos, and myself) are planning to publish two multi-phase Christian churches excavated over the last 20 years in the village of Polis. The sites are relatively complex architecturally with numerous overlapping and interrelated phases; they have also produced robust assemblages of Late Antique to Medieval ceramics, highly fragmentary wall painting, glass, and mortuary remains.
In a traditional publication each of these materials would have its own discrete section (or perhaps even volume) produced after a period of careful study by a specialist. For example, Amy, Nora, and I would study the architecture and publish it complete with a description, comparanda, and comments on the significance of this architecture for existing typologies. Kyle and Scott would perform a similar study of the ceramics; Sarah would study and publish the wall painting. These practices have their roots in the history of discipline of archaeology (and the humanities more broadly). In the first half of the 20th century (outside brief pockets of critique), the humanities emphasized the mastery of (highly!) specialized bodies of material which collectively would contribute to the expanding pool of knowledge on a give topic. This empirical mode of research favored intensive, specialized, and discrete studies which would build a enduring body of factual knowledge.
Over the last 40 years (and perhaps more recently in the proudly anachronistic world of Mediterranean archaeology), scholarship have moved to more highly integrative approaches to research. These approaches have implicitly (or more recently explicitly) recognized that discrete bodies of knowledge exist only in relation to complex interpretative processes. These interpretative processes inform both the hypotheses that guide our research as well as the techniques that we use to collect data to evaluate these hypotheses. In other words, a body of factual knowledge does not exist outside interpretation. The goal of producing an enduring body of empirically sound knowledge is simply not attainable.
As a result of this trend, scholars have worked to produce more richly integrated, interpretative publications across the humanities. While vestiges of earlier practices persist in catalogue of finds and narrow specialist studies of distinct artifact types, these practices are increasingly arranged in relation to large archaeological and historical problems. Our efforts at Polis will, I hope, look to how the assemblage of ceramic material informs how we understand the architecture and decoration of these buildings; at the same time, I hope that the architecture informs our interpretation of the decorative material and the ceramics present at the site. The interplay between these various bodies of material create the interpretative space which we hope will produce a richer, more clearly historically relevant publication of the site. In short, our study will regard the material culture (architecture, ceramics, plaster, et c.) of the past as both the product and the producer of historical interpretation.
This approach is not novel, and on Cyprus we have some great models (particularly Marcus Rautman's publication of the churches at Kopetra), but it is not universally applied. What could make our approach interesting, however, is that we will attempt to implement it as a team of specialists (rather than as a single visionary scholar who can command a vast body of material). Wish us luck!