Convergence in a House Burial in Early Byzantine Sicily

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was really excited to see a paper on the Early Byzantine site of Kaukana in Sicily in the most recent volume of the American Journal of Archaeology: R. J. A. Wilson, “Funerary Feasting in Early Byzantine Sicility: New Evidence from Kaukana,” AJA 115 (2011), 263-302.

The article describes a bizarre (and creepy) house burial of a pregnant woman and, later, a child. The burials took place in annex to the house seemingly built to accommodate the tomb and funerary feasting associated with the burial. The authors have argued that that the annex is later than the simple three or four-room house and presumably the burial and associated feasting occurred after the house fell out of use.  The entire structure seems to date to the 7th century after which it was buried in creeping sand.  (When I saw a burial in the house, I couldn’t help but think of Kostis Kourelis’ observations regarding the Middle Byzantine practice of burying fetuses and infants in the home. The parallel is all the more poignant because the not only was the woman at Kaukana pregnant but a small child buried in the tomb some years later. DNA testing has shown the child to be related to the pregnant woman).

The house itself has several curious points of convergence with my own research interests.

First, the site of so-called Kaukana is a coastal town not unlike our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. Among the assemblage from the house is a Late Roman 1 Amphora is what Hayes thinks might be a Cypriot fabric (Catalogue No. 40). While I am suggesting that the site of Kaukana has any formal connection with Cyprus, but the presence of this amphora demonstrates the continued interconnections between Cyprus and the west in the 7th century. The presence of African Red Slip pottery from North Africa at our site in Cyprus reflects contact with the west in the opposite direction. In fact, the assemblage of fineware at this odd house at Kaukana featured many of the same western forms as were common in our assemblage at Pyla-Koutsopetria. The Mediterranean continued to be a busy and interconnected place well after the so-called fall of the Roman Empire.

The cover slab of the tomb preserved evidence for a hole, presumably for libations, and the author parallels this feature with similar libation holes in tombs from across the Mediterranean.  Of particular interest to me is this rarely discussed feature at the so-called Stikas or Kodratos basilica just outside of the city of Corinth in Greece.  The libation holes are associated with the tomb of the Bishop Eustathios and the tomb of a child in the central nave of the church. The identification of this church as a funerary basilica is almost without a doubt, but it is also likely that Bishop Eustathios died long before the existing church stood on the site making it possible that his tomb has special significance to the community and the church served as a local cult in his honor. The long-standing, but unverified association of the church with the martyr Saint Kodratos also suggests the function of the church as the site of a local cult.  Again, there is little reason to formally associate the activities at the site of Kaukana with the activities at Corinth except to observe that rituals associated with commemorating and perhaps venerating the dead in Late Antiquity are still rather poorly understood and practices like offering the “special dead: libations seem to represent rituals that are equally at home in the liturgical space of the church and the less formally structured space of the house burial at Kaukana.

One of the grave slabs of the tomb at Kaukana featured an back word inscription of the words: Agios, Agios, Agios in Greek.  These words come from the sanctus in the liturgy (during the anaphora), appear quite regularly in liturgical space, and are also not uncommon in magical contexts. Their appearance in a funerary context, inscribed backwards, and surrounded by strange swirling designs could, as the author of the AJA article suggest, represent some kind of magical and perhaps even apotropaic function. On the other hand, these words would have also invoked the liturgy and perhaps even the funerary liturgy.  The blurring of the line between “magic” and the liturgy, like the appearance of the libation hole in a liturgical context outside of Corinth and in the house church, shows how murky the boundaries are between official liturgical practices and things that likely operated at the fringes of ecclesiastical sanction. The ritual power of practices of like libation to the dead cross the boundaries between the intimate and idiosyncratic space of seemingly private cults to the dead to the the far more formally bounded space of the ecclesiastical liturgy. At the same time the formal liturgy finds its way into less communal (and presumably official) private cult and even magical practices.

One of the most curious thing that I discovered while reading the Polis notebooks this winter and spring is the inevitable association of chunks of plaster with burials. I assumed that this plaster came from the remains of built tombs or even roughly lined graves. The excavators of the built tomb at Kaukana have pointed me in the direction of plaster burials where the body was encased in plaster before interment.  Perhaps a similar practice occurred among contemporary burials at Polis in Cyprus providing another connection between the two Mediterranean islands.

The author of the article concludes with the observation that the skull of the pregnant woman showed signs of being meningocele – meaning that a small part of the brain’s protective membrane protruded outside the the skull. This may have caused her mental or physical problems during her lifetime (which were perhaps exacerbated by her pregnancy).  Perhaps mental instability, seizures, or early dementia led to her being venerated as a holy figure in the community (and perhaps these even led her to fall outside the purview of the official church).  The house burial and later signs of cult activity may have marked out her house and burial as sacred space.

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