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DEChriM (“Deconstructing Early Christian Metanarratives: Fourth-Century Egyptian Christianity in the Light of Material Evidence”)

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DEChriM (“Deconstructing Early Christian Metanarratives: Fourth-Century Egyptian Christianity in the Light of Material Evidence”) is a five-year project supported by an ERC Consolidator Grant, and running from 2019 to 2024. Based at the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society, in Oslo, the project brings together specialists in archaeology, papyrology and epigraphy (Greek, Coptic and Syriac), ceramic studies, digital humanities, 3D architectural reconstructions, topography and photogrammetry, and is led by Prof. Victor Ghica.

A massive corpus of unedited archaeological sources collected over the last two decades from the deserts of Egypt, by far the richest available for the fourth century, sheds a radically new light on Christianity in Egypt. Building on this new dataset, DEChriM reassesses phenomena and developments that are defining for Egypt’s Christianisation, such as the chronology and dynamics of the evangelisation, the role played in this process by imperial legislation and institutions, the balance between rural and urban Christian communities, the social and cultural profile of the conveyors of Christianity, strategies for negotiating Christian identity, etc. Grounded in the archaeological record, DEChriM addresses also key issues relating to material culture through, among others, producing a catalogue of fourth-century Christian archaeological material, both monumental and artefactual (published online in the 4CARE database), providing absolute dates and occupation sequences for the most significant monuments, systematising chrono-typologically fourth-century Christian architecture or producing a long overdue catalogue of the ceramic production of the fourth century in Egypt. As suggested already by the pre-treatment of the corpus, the picture of fourth-century Egyptian Christianity emerging from this mass of data shifts the paradigm with which operates the historiography of late antique Egypt. Whilst deconstructing the prevailing metanarratives on fourth-century Christian Egypt, the project aims for hypercontextualised regional micro-narratives valid for some regions of Egypt, but potentially relevant for or extrapolable to other provinces of the Late Roman Empire. An inter- and trans-disciplinary collective endeavour calling upon a variety of disciplines, methods and techniques, DEChriM constitutes the first in-depth regional study in fourth-century Christian archaeology.

The inner architecture of the project is articulated in 10 work packages oriented towards collecting the material remains, both movables and immovables, associated with fourth-century Christianity in Egypt and studying them along a variety of lines of research and from various perspectives. The production of the catalogue/database at the core of the project relies on a variety of data collection operations on the field, in Egypt, and in public or private collections around the world.

Guide to the 4CARE and SKOS databases

 

4CARE database

 

Content

 

Created by the DEChriM team and showcasing the project’s archaeological material basis, the 4CARE (Fourth-Century Christian Archaeological Record of Egypt) database is a collective endeavour initiated in 2019. The database contains both sites and artefacts directly related to the material culture of Christianity in fourth-century Egypt. Although still in process of being populated, the database aims to provide an exhaustive inventory of the fourth-century Christian material found in Egypt. Conceived as a relational database, 4CARE presents archaeological sites and mobile archaeological material interconnected.

 

Archaeological sites

Two types of locations are marked on the maps included on the starting page of 4CARE: localities where Christian archaeological vestiges (churches, monasteries, cemeteries or even single tombs or graves) are preserved, and localities where Christian objects, but no monuments or funerary structures, where discovered. The former type of site is marked on the maps with the symbol , while the latter with the symbol .

 

All the sites included in the database (called Places) are described on a specific page, which contains several descriptors:

    • toponyms in several languages, both ancient and modern;
    • an internal numeric identifier (DEChriM ID);
    • external numeric identifiers from other relevant gazetteers (Trismegistos, Pleiades, PAThs Atlas);
    • an ancient name considered as standard (in Greek or Coptic);
    • geographical coordinates (expressed in decimal degrees);
    • the dates of the occupation (expressed in termini, which are either absolute, when available, or relative);
    • the type of settlement (….);
    • the criteria considered in the dating of the occupation of the site;
    • a description providing an overview of the main areas and monuments of the site;
    • a very brief summary of the archaeological research carried out on the site;
    • a bibliography, which, although not exhaustive, tends to cover the most relevant studies.

Each archaeological site is accompanied also by external links to websites that refer to it. The internal links connect a site with the archaeological material associated with it that is included in the database. The section Json data provides elements of selected machine readable information. A selection of maps and photos accompany each site. Finally, the section 3D models includes photogrammetric models and 3D reconstructions of areas of sites or of specific monuments. These can be visualised in a Sketchfab window in three different resolutions.

 

The criterion governing the incorporation of sites in 4CARE is material evidence, built or mobile, dating or datable to the fourth century. Individual built structures or remains thereof that might be assigned to the fourth century on the basis of relative chronology were also included, although they are rare (Ǧabal Mūsā and Maryūṭ/Mareia are two examples). These were incorporated in the database for the sake of exhaustiveness and their dating is duly discussed.

 

Archaeological sites considered by the Supreme Council of Antiquities as independent archaeological areas are treated in 4CARE as discrete units and individual sites, even in the cases where these sites belonged in Antiquity to a larger settlement, or grouping or settlements. One exception has been made in the 4CARE database to this rule, and that is for Aḫmīm. The reason why several archaeological sites were grouped in 4CARE under the unique entry Aḫmīm is that numerous artefacts retrieved or said to have been found in the area of ancient Panopolis have unspecified provenance and, thus, could have been unearthed in any of the zones that form now the large archaeological area of Aḫmīm.

 

Artefacts

The 4CARE database aims at gathering Christian artefacts dated to the fourth century found in Egypt, regardless of the location of their production. The material selected for inclusion can be divided into two large groups: textual and non textual objects. The former category (Class: Textual) contains three sorts of texts (Text content): Literary; Subliterary; Documentary. The latter category comprises a variety of object types (Class): Architectural element; Cooking/table/transport/storage ware; Domestic object; Funerary element; Garment/adornment/accessories; Human remains; Liturgical object; Ornamental element. All objects are further defined by Material type, while textual artefacts are also characterised by, for papyrological texts, the Writing medium involved: Codex; Sheet/roll; Label; Ostracon; Tablet; and, for epigraphical texts, the Writing technique: Dipinto; Graffito; Inscription. Finally, the Language is indicated for textual artefacts.

 

Two main types of criteria underpin the selection of the artefactual material included in the 4CARE database. The first ones are internal Christian markers. In the case of literary texts, these are obvious and are reflected in the literary genre itself: Biblical; Apocryphal/Gnostic/Hermetic; Hagiographic; Theological (including patristic texts, commentaries, homilies, treatises, letters, etc.). The same applies to the Liturgical texts (including prayers, hymns, etc.) categorised in the Subliterary class. In other subliterary (such as amulets, school texts or magical texts) and documentary texts, these internal markers include use of: terms/formulas/concepts suggestive of Christianity;  Christian symbols/isopsephy; Nomina sacra; and/or mention to: Christian cult officials (priests, deacons, readers, etc.) or institutions (church, monastery, etc.); Christian people/communities (mentioned as such or through Christian onomastics). To these must be equally added the use of Coptic language, which is taken here as a confessional indicator, as well as materiality suggestive of Christian context (codex, parchment).

 

Both textual and non textual artefacts lacking the above mentioned criteria might, nonetheless, be included in the database on account of external factors. Thus, when an object is associated with an archaeological context already characterised by assemblages of, or isolated material securely definable as Christian, the object is considered as potentially informative of the material culture of fourth-century Christians in Egypt, although, obviously, not Christian per se.

 

The 4CARE database includes also Manichaean textual material. The reasons for incorporating these texts – both literary and documentary – lie in the social setting of at least certain Manichaean groups attested in late antique Egypt, and will be explained elsewhere.

 


 


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