Restoring a Village
Michail Kappas is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Since 2005, he has worked as an archaeologist in the Ephorate of Antiquities of Messenia, Peloponnese, in Greece, where he currently holds the position of the Director of the Department of Byzantine Monuments. He has supervised an extensive restoration program of more than forty churches, monasteries, and castles in the region. His recent research report detailed his restoration work, and the academic research supporting it, at the village of Kastania.
A Brief Q&A with Michail Kappas
How did you get attracted to Kastania? Why did you choose to work with it, and how did you start?
Kastania has an amazing concentration of Byzantine monuments, and yet it’s still a nice village—because it’s quite isolated, it hasn’t been changed by tourism, so the village identity is still preserved there. I think it’s important to study the secret core of the Byzantine economy—that is, the village’s role in agricultural production—and to see how this primary level of economic activity affects the artistic environment of the village. It’s interesting to consider how everyday life, in terms of economic and production cycles, affected a village’s worship, its rituals, and so on. To that end, Kastania is a nice case study, because it combines religious sites, private houses, and agricultural facilities.
As far as how I started working with Kastania: I was responsible for the restoration of the monuments in this village, and there were a few of great importance that were in a very bad state of preservation, so I had to make several visits to document the monumental environment and find sources to start researching the restoration projects. That whole process—getting our hands on permissions and studies, finding funding and laborers, developing a plan—took something like six or seven years.
In your talk you mentioned some confrontations with the villagers and having to convince some members of the community to send of the town’s objects for restoration. Could you talk more about that?
That was a difficult process. At the beginning, when we started getting objects from the village in order to conserve them, all the old ladies thought we were going to grab the objects from the village and put them in a museum. So, initially, they were hostile. They locked the churches, they had all the men form a defensive wall to prevent us from getting at some of the objects—the police actually had to help us do our job, they had to escort us. We were acting on behalf of the state, we were state employees: the preservation of cultural heritage is our main duty. When the villagers realized that our purpose was to conserve the objects, after they saw that we actually were returning the objects and putting them back in the churches, and they could continue their worship, their attitude changed. They realized we were only trying to keep the cultural heritage of the village in the village.
But there were other conflicts, too. Apart from restoring the monuments, our duty is to control the building activity within the village, which means enforcing rules about where and what the villagers can build. As you might imagine, this policy provokes a lot of conflict. So we try to keep a balance—we had to show the villagers that we weren’t there to control them, but to preserve their cultural heritage.
I’m really interested in the process of doing architectural restoration and basing it off of textual sources—how do you go about this? How do you determine what a building should look like from a text?
There is no connection between textual sources and buildings. It’s very rare to find specific descriptions in Byzantine sources that give details about a building precise enough to allow you to visualize it. So the study of buildings is based on the study of Byzantine architecture, a discipline that goes back almost a century and a half; it’s probably the best-studied aspect of Byzantine civilization. We have books on the subject from the 1850s up to recent times, which really help to define the evolution of Byzantine architecture from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. They break down the buildings into morphology, typologies—specific layers of analysis that help us to determine what the authentic structure is.
You have to study the building, and document it through excavation and through precise drawings. It’s very important to understand that the building carries many, many levels of information, because it’s been used for so many centuries. Once you’ve identified the repairs to the structure, and once you’ve found the different phases of the building, you then have a narrative of its history—and of course, the building echoes the people who built it, the people that used it. By trying to understand the history of a building in its village context, you actually come to an understanding—if it’s a church, for example—of the flock that used it.
In most cases, we do have the churches. As you can imagine, houses were much less sturdily built. The houses that exist now in the village generally date from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, but when we do excavations, we often find traces of previous houses—Byzantine houses that actually had a similar design. But when you’re studying a building, whether secular or ecclesiastical, you have to define its use through the centuries, and then make a decision as far as restoration is concerned—what specific phase is important? What do you have to sacrifice? There are interventions that have added up over the years that actually cause, I would say, less authenticity in the monument. But of course, once you start working on a monument, you inevitably lose part of its authenticity—even the fact that the building looks old, well, after the restoration, it doesn’t look old anymore.
But we do have to restore, we have to stabilize this history—because otherwise it might collapse. We might lose it.