in today’s post I am going to describe you the research and interpretation work that lead us to the digital reconstruction of the presbytery of Cim basilica.
During the archaeological survey of the area around the basilica a great amount of carved fragments were found. Some of them revealed amazing and rich decoration, with geometrical and natural motifs. But unfortunately, as you can see in figure 1, the great majority of these fragments were too small to be identified as or reconnect to a certain decorative element. Even the position in which they were excavated didn’t help in their identification. A detailed map of the founding position of each piece does not exist for the archaeological site of Cim, nevertheless the annotations on the excavation diary revealed that the site was plundered and gradually destroyed during the time, and that the materials from the basilica had been reused as building material. As a matter of fact, fragments belonging to the same decorative motif have been found in different position, some reused in tombs, others in stone walls built in the nearby area by local farmers.
The dispersion and fragmentation of the decorative elements made the work of interpretation of the remains a very complex puzzle.
It is important to clarify immediately that the 3D reconstruction resulting from this work does not have to be considered as the image of how the presbytery of Cim basilica actually was, but the sum of our knowledge about it and about how it could have looked like. The work is primarily based on the interpretation of the archaeological remains and on their comparison with coeval examples.
The basilica had a triconch plan, means that it had apses on three sides of a square central mass. The first step of the work consisted in the analysis of other Early Christian churches of the Balkans, to identify the different solutions that had been used to delimit the sacred area where only priest were allowed and the employed architectonic elements.
As the examples above show, several solutions had been used to enclose the presbytery. In spite of their difference, there are anyway some architectonic elements that recur and define the early Christian style.
The first and most important common factor is that the limitation of the sacred area is obtained by the use of a fence of pillars that support decorated stone plates. In some examples it is a pergula, means that on the top of the fence are columns supporting an architrave where lamps were hanged. The shape and the number of entrances in the fence vary according with the plan of the church and the necessity of the ritual.
The altar can be covered by a cyborium, a canopy supported by columns that visually highlighted the altar emphasizing its importance.
Close to the altar is the ambon, a platform from which the priest read the Gospel, said the litanies and gave the dismissal during the Divine Services. It was considered to be a part of the altar, so only the clergy was allowed go up on it.
On the back of the altar, close to the wall of the apsis, were benches for the clergy that attended the mass. In the important churches the central place was occupied by a cathedra, the bishop’s seat.
Analysis of the different hypotheses
The previous image shows several hypotheses on the reconstruction of the presbytery of Cim.
Concerning the position of the fence, hypotheses 1, 2 and 3 in fig. 13 show a pegula which close the whole triconch area. Some points make these hypothesises weaker.
First of all, we know that the altar was placed on the stone slab covering the underground reliquary pit. The tabula altar was composed of pieces easily dismantled and movable in order to access the reliquary. In the configuration of the presbytery where the whole triconch is enclosed, the position of the altar would be quite unusual: too pushed in the back and far from the faithful.
According with archaeological data, two tombs were found in the triconch. It is very unusual the presence of tombs in the presbytery area, as priests and eminent citizens were normally buried in front of it.
In early Christian churches of the Balkans, the presbytery is easily reachable only from the diaconicon and the prothesis (see figures 3, 4, 9, 11). The diaconicon is a chamber, normally on the south side of the central apse of the church, where the vestments and books used in the Divine Services of the church are kept. The sacred vessels are kept in the prothesis, which is usually on the north side of the sanctuary. Only clergy can enter these rooms. In Cim the diaconicon and the prothesis were two connected rooms on the north side of the nave (see figure 2), from which the church was accessed through a door in the northern apsis. There was a second door open in the southern apsis, which connected the church with the graveyard. As the presbytery was a sacred area, at that time accessible only by clergy, a door that directly connects it with the outside was unusual.
The hypotheses 4, 5, 6 and 7 (fig.13) offer solutions for these issues.
When the fence is moved backwards and does not enclose the whole triconch, then the altar gains a central position in the sacred space, the tombs are just outside of it and the door of the left apsis is not directly opened on the presbytery. Moreover, traces of this solution are still visible in the nearby memorial, which had a plan very similar to the one of the main basilica.
In support to these hypotheses is the geometry of the church: the altar falls in the centre of an ideal square that, having as side the width of the apses, starts from the back of the apsis and ends just before the tomb (in fig. 13 the tomb is clearly visible in hypotheses 4 and 5). The total length of the church is three times this square.
Other questions concern the position of the pulpit and the presence of the cyborium.
Concerning the cyborium, no trace of it have been found during the excavation. Moreover, cyboria are frequently placed on a higher base, the presence of which is in contrast with the reliquary pit placed under the altar.
Archaeologist did not report any trace related with the presence of the pulpit. For this reason we left the question open and in this first step we did not advance any hypothesis on its position.
With the next post I will tell you more about the interpretative process in regard to archaeological remains.
Bibliography on early Christian architecture in the Balkans:
Starokrscanska arheologija by urlika_krik: https://www.scribd.com/doc/19036087/Starokrscanska-arheologija
KASNOANTIČKA DVOJNA BAZILIKA (BASILICA GEMINATA) U ŽITOMISLIĆIMA Kon MOSTARA, TOMO ANĐELIC