Regional Survey and Byzantium

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Last week, I wrote a bit about Timothy Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines titled “Intensive Survey and its Place in Byzantine Archaeology”. Some 7 years earlier, however, in the same journal John Rosser offered similar thoughts in an article titled “A Research Strategy for Byzantine Archaeology”. In this article, Rosser suggests that Byzantine archaeology (1) needed “an overall research strategy, and (2) had to begin to address issues the difficult relationship between text and material culture. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that neither of these issues have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction almost 35 years after Rosser’s call to arms.

First, the current diversity of Byzantine archaeology is perhaps not a liability. Scholars from the U.S. at least, who tend to have less institutional coherence than scholars in other countries, have continued to look toward urban excavations to shed light on Byzantine culture, have worked to document traditional objects of interest in Byzantine studies – namely churches and monasteries, and have pioneered the use of intensive pedestrian survey to document shifting patterns of settlement and land use in the Byzantine era. In short, despite very recent efforts to consolidate conversations among Byzantine archaeologists under the generous auspices of Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine archaeology in the U.S. has remained refreshingly and frustratingly diverse.

Second, Byzantine archaeology – like much archaeology in the Mediterranean world – still struggles to escape the long shadow of our textual records. Rosser makes clear his attitudes. He calls for archaeologists to devise strategies to interpret how Byzantine society organized land as the basis for an agrarian history of the Byzantine era. Questions of land tenure have particular significance for understanding whether the Byzantine period marked a significant break with the economic structures of the ancient world. Rosser regarded “the greatest contributions Byzantine archaeology can hope to make” to be “in the area of demographic, social, and economic history” (p. 157). By expanding what we know about land use and its impact on demography and the economy, Byzantine archaeologists and historians would begin to address the question of whether the so-called end of the ancient world was an economic event or more properly tied to culture, religion, or political changes. We might also attempt to understand why the eastern and western Mediterranean developed along such different trajectories.

To do this, Rosser calls for more sophisticated approaches to regional level survey and, like Gregory, cited the influential Minnesota Messenia Expedition. The MME took as the basic unit of study the region, sought to explore the relationship between its inhabitants and their natural environment through time, and drew upon an interdisciplinary team of scholars to document change through time. The latter ensured that the project recognized the structure of the landscape and to some extent settlement and land use to reflect longterm patterns of local resources exploitation on the regional level. As a result, Rosser can commend the MME for their use of both Linear B and Venetian records for understanding the structure of settlement through time.

Rosser’s grounded his call for a Byzantine archaeology in an appreciation for how diachronic survey can impose longterm structure on the countryside. By allowing texts and material culture from all periods to contribute to an understanding of how resources shaped settlement, the first wave of regional surveys created an approach where Byzantine archaeology could be freed from its dependence on contemporary texts and construct a model landscape that informs how we understand agrarian change in the Byzantine era.

This review of a 35 year old article is mostly an academic exercise (and a reminder of this article’s existence since Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines is not in Jstor or other major online databases). But it informs a talk that I’ll deliver at a Dumbarton Oak’s symposium in March on survey archaeology and Byzantine studies. Looking back to Tim Gregory’s and John Rosser’s articles from the late 70s and mid-1980s contextualizes a larger discussion the place of regional and intensive survey in Byzantine archaeology and raises the questions whether we have responded to Gregory’s and Rosser’s call for a new direction in Byzantine archaeology and how have our perspectives on the potential of intensive survey have changed since the time of these articles.

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