The Byzantine St. Stephen's Project
Introduction:An interdisciplinary collaborative study is currently underway which seeks to synthesize information from seemingly disparate disciplines in a reconstruction of ancient monastic life.  During the Byzantine period, the monastery of St. Stephen in Jerusalem (today the École Biblique et Archéologique Française and Couvent-Saint Étienne, pictured left) played an important role in the early Church, serving as a site of pilgrimage and nexus for theological and philosophical debate.  By analyzing the biological information 'housed' in the bones of the monastery's Byzantine inhabitants, in concert with the rich historical and growing archaeological records for the site, this study offers a unique perspective for understanding life in antiquity. The biological, historical and archaeological records coalesce in a retrospective/prospective biocultural model, both drawing from and contributing to the theory and interpretation of each area of inquiry.

Historical Significance: The basilica of St. Stephen (modern reconstruction pictured to the right) was constructed by the Empress Eudocia between 431 and 438, during an era of expansion in ecclesiastical construction. Built to house the relics of the Protomartyr Stephen, the walled monastic compound was the largest of all church structures in or around Jerusalem for over a century, larger even than the precincts of the Golgotha complex. Evagrius described the site as "a vast temenos [sacred enclosure], remarkable for its proportions and for its beauty." Cyril of Scythopolis referred to the compound as a "diocese" due to its size, and wrote that the grounds were large enough to house the 10,000 who gathered for a monastic revolt in 516 to protest the Emperor's opposition to the Council of Chalcedon.

Under St. Stephenâs monastery lie a series of tombs constructed during the First Temple times (8th-7th century BCE) and subsequently used by the monastic community in the 5th -6th centuries CE. Eudociaâs monastery was destroyed in 614 during the Persian invasion, but a rich historical record can be found to document occupation of the site until the 19th century. In 1884 the French Dominicans purchased a portion of the former Byzantine compound and uncovered the crypt complex. Today the Dominican monastery and its associated French School for Biblical Archaeology sit atop the ancient complex.

Biocultural Model:The biocultural model integrates information from both the natural and the historical/archaeological records of a people into a holistic blueprint for studying the past. This approach has allowed a variety of disciplines to address questions related to political/economic change, social stratification, differential access to limited resources, childhood health and adaptability, occupational stress, demographic shifts, and quality of life issues such as longevity and health status.

For Byzantine St. Stephen's, the biological record has been gleaned from the 15,000+ human bones and fragments exhumed from one of the repositories in the crypt complex. Ongoing analysis of these remains has demonstrated a healthy, robust, largely male (96%) community whose members lived well into their 50s.

The cultural record has likewise been amassed from both historical documents and archaeological information available for this monastic compound, and for communities from the surrounding region. Pilgrimage and liturgical records, art and iconography, legal and medical documents have all contributed to our understanding of the cultural context, and so, to the biocultural setting.

click on image for enlarged version of model

Archaeological contributions include the original excavations of the Dominican founders, the comparative regional record, and numerous fragments of material culture found commingled with the bones at St. Stephen's. These objects include pottery sherds, glass fragments, building materials, jewelry and oil lamp portions (such as those seen above). These artifacts, combined with fluoride analysis and radiocarbon dating, of a subsample of remains have helped place the skeletal collection temporally within the well-documented Byzantine occupation of the site.
Pieces of material culture commingled w/the human remains.  L-r:  cross, oil lamp, glass vessel base, spike, painted sherd, oil lamp.

This project exploits a rare convergence of materials and methods. The exceptional quality of the St. Stephenâs collection, and the enthusiastic support of the University of Notre Dame and both the French and American schools of archaeology in Jerusalem (L'École Biblique et Archéologique Française and the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research) provide a rich environment for this projectâs continued expansion.

Conclusions: The St. Stephen's project thus provides a natural experiment for the applicability of the biocultural method to a variety of disciplines, illustrating the power of this approach for synthesizing information from the humanities, natural, and social sciences.  The overall goals of the St. Stephen's research design include:

This multimodal, biocultural approach recognizes the importance of incorporating biological aspects of human adaptability with social and symbolic cultural mechanisms of human interaction.  In an era when tensions between postmodern, humanistic approaches and traditional scientific perspectives threaten to divide discourse, the biocultural approach provides a forum for common dialogue that is both intellectually compelling and requisite to an accurate understanding of the past.
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LAST MODIFIED:  Nov 14, 1999