Broadly speaking, the dating of Coptic monuments and artifacts is one of the thorniest problems in this archaeological field.
The most varied forces seem to have combined to make any attempt at dating impossible, or at least subject to caution. The most substantial reason for this is the oppressed condition into which the Copts were plunged first under Roman and then under Byzantine occupation. This was further accentuated under Muslim rule, and the progressive reduction of the Copts to the position of a minority on the periphery of official life did nothing to ease it. The vitality that enabled them under the most intractable circumstances to produce works in various fields of Christian religious literature and of art was in many cases stifled.
This situation, together with the separation of the Copts from the Christian world since the time of the Council of CHALCEDON (451), deprived them of every means of defense or of resort to outside protection. Hence, the quality of their works could not reach the heights normally fostered by an environment of luxury or at least by a free environment. In this respect they were, artistically speaking, very poor relations indeed, when compared with other manifestations of art on Egyptian soil, namely, pharaonic, Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Muslim art.
Because of the unmistakable progressive dwindling in the number of Copts from the time of the Muslim domination and the pronounced deterioration in their social status, there was a total cessation after the twelfth century of any art of their own, however modest. In our own day there has been the scorn heaped on Coptic art both by art lovers and by archaeologists, though this prejudice is now beginning to be challenged.
During the centuries of Muslim domination, the maintenance of the monuments (churches and monasteries) was subject to great difficulties. Most of them, having been secularized, were soon in ruins. They were pillaged, with their reliefs, stone by stone, for the construction of houses and even of mosques, causing the loss of their paintings. Many were abandoned and simply fell into ruin where they stood. Seekers after sebakh—organic matter connected with the habitat—did not disdain these ruins, and dispersed them with everything they contained: objects, tombs, furnishings, fabrics, et cetera, to enrich the cultivated soil. Further, the Book of the Buried Pearl, which advised digging behind a wall painting that was supposed to hide a treasure, was somewhat responsible for innumerable destructions of Coptic frescoes.
Another unexpected factor contributed more intentionally, though indirectly, to the disappearance of Coptic remains: Awed by the prestige of the pharaonic monuments, archaeologists used to see in Coptic monuments a hint of deeper and older layers that might yield more promising discoveries. They thus did not hesitate to sacrifice valuable Coptic artifacts that were little appreciated in favor of those that interested them more. What remains standing has been subjected to the ravages of time and of successive transformations, restorations, and recoveries to such a degree that they cannot be cleared without damaging, and even destroying, the original layer.
Given the extent of such upheavals, inflicted on almost all the sites and involving no less serious damage to the objects, one wonders what indications of dating can be left, since dating is related to the preservation of the soil and of the layers that should contain, according to their level, evidences of their chronological sequence.
Explicit datings do exist. Among the Christians, they are established from the third century in relation to the “year of Diocletian” (29 August 284); his name was replaced in the eleventh century by that of “the Martyrs,” sometimes—from the eighth to the tenth century—conjoined with the “age of the Saracens” (that is “of the Hegira”). Unfortunately, relative dating by indictions (the fifteen-year cycles instituted by Constantine in 313) does not have any absolute reference. At any rate, the presence of these datings is restricted to inscriptions on stone, mostly those on funerary stelae. Even in this context, they are rare.
One can approximate a date through the coexistence of objects from the same site or of objects in the same style, with items that are explicitly dated, especially coins, or with some other item in use at a given period. But the upheavals to which the soil has been subjected in the course of time and under the impact of weathering do not always make it possible to discern any assured basis there.
The carbon-14 dating method has been disappointing because the Coptic period in the history of Egypt is relatively close to our own; moreover, it can be used only with items that are subject to change and doomed to destruction.
In most instances, we are reduced to assigning dates to objects either because of archaeological landmarks relating to the iconography or because of common stylistic features that, through one item or another, may extend to other groups of objects or representations. For example, A, which can be dated from one of these items, is a legitimate basis for dating B, which also has a feature in common with A though otherwise differing from it. B in turn may make us aware of an item or a feature of A that relates it to C, so that C— which to all appearances lacks any common characteristics with A— may nevertheless, like B, be considered contemporary with A.
It should be noted that iconography itself has very little value for dating other than the dates of the appearance or disappearance of some theme. Its chronology depends on other data provided either by some explicit dating or by the characteristics of the style of an age.
Despite these approximations, the margin of doubt is relatively narrow. When all is said, Coptic archaeology is like history, the certainty of which is far more the product of an accumulation of reliable indications than of dates or facts that are recorded with certainty. Unfortunately, such an accumulation is more difficult and more delicate to make for Coptic art than for most other types of art.
- Bourguet, P. du. L’Art Copte, p. 166. Collection L’Art dans le monde. Paris, 1968.
- . Catalogue des étoffes coptes [Louvre], Vol. I: Introduction. Paris, 1964.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J