Intensive Survey and Byzantine Archaeology

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

This spring I’m contributing to a symposium put on by Dumbarton Oaks on archaeological survey and Byzantine archaeology and history. I’ve been asked to talk about how Byzantine archaeologists have looked across chronological barriers in the context of survey.

I decided to begin with Timothy Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines titled “Intensive Survey and its Place in Byzantine Archaeology”. The article made the case for the value of intensive survey in Byzantine archaeology with particular attention to the value of intensive survey methods in documenting the Byzantine countryside, examining the archaeology of regions, and identifying sites that usually do not attract the attention of the excavators of monumental or urban remains. As Gregory notes throughout this seminal, if idiosyncratic, article is that intensive survey has the potential to expand our knowledge of Byzantine society beyond the limits imposed by knowledge derived from the study of churches, fortifications, and urban areas. 

More importantly for my purposes, however, the methods associated with intensive survey located Byzantine archaeology within a broader diachronic landscape. Even though the earliest intensive survey projects, as Gregory noted, like the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, focused on particular problems and periods, they recovered and made efforts to analyze objects and features of any period in their survey area.  With the MME, for example, which was designed to study the Mycenaean landscape of the southwest Peloponnesus, understanding the distribution of Byzantine material was a peripheral concern, and, as a result, the authors relegated the study of the period to a section dedicated generically to “medieval” pottery.

More recent projects, however, have paid greater attention to the Byzantine pottery. The highly influential heirs to the MME project – the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project and the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project – both included specialists in the Byzantine period; the former will have a volume dedicated to the Medieval period and the latter has received significant attention at the hands of Sharon Gerstel. Joanita Vroom has studied the Byzantine and later periods for the major surveys in Boeotia by John Bintliff and Anthony Snodgrass. While none of these projects focused explicitly on the Byzantine or Medieval period, their directors became known for their wide range of serious archaeological interest. So it is hardly fair to suggest that the prehistoric specialities of the directors of PRAP and NVAP and the various Cambridge/Bradford/Leiden projects limited how much we could learn about the Byzantine period in their survey areas. At the same time, these excavated sites that provided stratigraphic and conceptual anchors for these projects tended to be prehistoric or Classical in date (e.g. Pylos or Nemea), and, as a result, Byzantine archaeology represented an epiphenomenal aspect to the brilliant “second wave” survey projects on mainland Greece. The longstanding emphasis among scholars and funding bodies on the Classical and Bronze Age periods in Greece accounts for this bias as much as anything. 

It’s somehow poetic to suppose that the chronologically peripheral status of Byzantine material in the major survey projects resulted in a loss of resolution, the same way that the edges of our vision tend to be less clearly defined. We lack nuanced chronologies for most classes of Byzantine ceramics and we know almost nothing about local utility and cooking wares. As a result we can discuss the post-classical period in only relatively imprecise ways when we encounter this material in unstratified conditions on the surface of the ground. The chronological difficulties extend in some cases to our ability to date standing monuments outside of urban centers or without epigraphical or textual evidence. Moreover, churches and fortification frequently enjoyed long periods of continued use, modification, and upkeep from the Byzantine period into later ages making it even more difficult to isolate a monument as “Byzantine” or “Ottoman” or even “Early Modern” in date. 

Chronological ambiguity in Byzantine material culture and the peripheral relationship of Byzantine archaeology to the core interest of many of the most influential survey archaeology projects have combined to associate Byzantine material with a broader category of material dated coarsely to the “post-ancient” or “Medieval-Modern” age. The result of this combination of chronological ambiguity is an equally ambiguous engagement with material from the Byzantine period. 

This creates some particularly difficulties with how intensive survey has informed Byzantine history and archaeology more broadly. As Gregory recognized some 25 years ago, many of the key issues in Byzantine history require that we understand how settlements and land use patterns change through time. As Guy Sanders and others have shown, the shifting sands of ceramic chronology have often made even the most widespread and widely accepted changes in settlement – like the transformation of Greece over the course of the so-called Byzantine Dark Ages – difficult to discern in the surface record. We have made little progress in understanding later, more subtle, or more local shifts in settlement or land use.

The problems with our understanding of Byzantine material culture especially in a rural context has led archaeologists to consider Byzantine material as part of a longer chronological period and contributing to how we understand trends associated with the longue durée rather than more particular historic events. Disentangling the Byzantine from these longstanding habits of analysis will require both refining our ability to recognize material in field and shifting how we understand the post-Classical landscape.

Over the next 6 weeks or so, I’m going to continue to work on this paper and these ideas and bring in more specific examples from survey literature. What you see here is just a preliminary sounding. Stay tuned.

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