What I really want to teach is what it is that archaeologists actually do. My final project requires, however, that I create an online learning opportunity for students to work through and understand a historical question. My solution: ask a historical question that can be answered archaeologically.
As I thought about questions I might ask, I came to realize that at least I, if not archaeologists in general, are more interested by “how” than “why” questions. Although we most certainly want to know “why” something happened, we’re more fascinated by how something happened. It’s probably because we frame reality as the result of interactive processes. Therefore, my first attempt at a “why” question was perhaps not very good:
“Why was Christianity successful in Late Antique Mediterranean?” The significance is almost self evident- Christianity came to dominate all aspects to European life for over a millennia. This is a huge question that entire libraries have been dedicated to, which I would not expect to even remotely cover in nine weeks. And this is also why students struggle understanding this process- they think it’s just too big to comprehend.
As much as the world craves an answer, evidence of the first seeds of the great tree of Christianity are scant in both text and material culture. Therefore, a balanced use of both lines of evidence is absolutely necessary to arrive at any legitimate answer. For a short semester project, I might focus in on one aspect of the question: “Who was drawn to Christianity?” Typical answers are women and poor, but was it really true or just wealthy men trying to blame traditional scapegoats with the uneasy change the aging empire was going through?
I didn’t really like this train of thought. So I decided to try out a “how” question:
“How did Late Antique Christians resist oppression?” “What were the most effective modes of resistance?” The triumph of Christianity over paganism is often taken as evidence of Christianity’s superiority and truth. Therefore, many people take Christianity’s prevalence in the modern world as a matter-of-fact and just assume that Christianity was destined to win. They often fail to see Christians as oppressed minorities, since Christians have long been the powerful majority in the western world. Seeing a dominate religious tradition, especially if the student belongs to that faith tradition, as vulnerable is therefore difficult.
This question lead me to a different kind of question altogether:
“To what extent did Roman culture influence the development of Christianity?” This question is difficult for students to answer because it’s pretty huge. And since I have only a few weeks to formulate this learning opportunity, I’d better narrow it down. “To what extent did Roman funerary practices influence early Christianity?” This is difficult for students to understand because they attempt to draw direct parallels between the two traditions, rather than recognizing nuances. Additionally, they project their own experiences of Christianity onto the past, assuming that all Christians have always believed as they do.
I find myself still struggling with the term “historical question.” I think it means a complex open-ended question about the past the requires the careful evaluation of primary sources. Hopefully, as we discuss these concepts in class, I will be able to formulate better questions.