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A Sensory Archaeology of the Riha Hoard

Heather Hunter Crawley, University of Bristol, Summer Fellow 2012

Scholarship in the humanities, including in Byzantine art, has of late moved toward questions of embodiment and experience. My doctoral thesis explores the sensory experience of late antique Christian ritual, applying new theory to this historical context, through three case studies: the Eucharist in sixth-century Syria, Holy Land pilgrimage, and “magical” practices in the home. During my summer fellowship, I made an in-depth study of the paten, chalice, and fan of the Riha Hoard. I undertook sensory archaeological experiments as appropriate to the objects’ condition, including the simulated removal of bread from the paten, the stirring of wine in the chalice with a spoon, the appearance of the fan being waved, and the appearance of all of the objects in candlelight. The objective was to recreate some sense of these objects’ dynamism in use, rather than as statically displayed museum objects.

I propose in the thesis that the choice of silver is due to its ability to mirror liturgical action, and thus act as a “mirror of heaven,” such that the indistinct reflections in the shining silverware can be understood to provide visual and kinesthetic experience of divine presence, not as metaphor, but as reality. I found that the objects’ reflectivity confirmed this affordance, particularly in flickering candlelight, and further that the figural repoussé detail appears to move subtly. In the case of the paten, the golden image of the heavenly Eucharist becomes dynamic, reinforcing the shadowy liturgical actions reflected in the silver and creating a sense of a mirror of heavenly activity. The fan’s figural angel, meanwhile, appears to beat its wings, reinforcing the sense that in use the air the object propelled was that from an angel’s wing, not as metaphor but as divine presence experienced through the senses. These findings have confirmed and elaborated my ideas about the late antique Eucharist. During these studies, I also gathered video footage for the production of a short film that will convey a sense of these objects’ use and my findings to supplement the thesis.

Further work undertaken during the fellowship has included similar close study of a tin ampulla and two amulets from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, a productive search for similar qualities among comparative archaeological evidence, and the consolidation of three chapters and a forthcoming article.