April 4, 2013 § 1 Comment
I know I’m a few weeks late on this, but I heard that Chinua Achebe died on March 21st. His greatest novel, Things Fall Apart, inspired my dissertation research.
As most readers of this blog know, I wrote my dissertation (defended 10 years ago!) on Early Christian basilicas in Central and Southern Greece. In Achebe’s novel the building and development of the little church in the Evil Forest represented the intrusion of the colonial of the missionary. Achebe is explicit. With the church came government, the disruption of traditional life, and ultimately spiritual and physical violence.
At the beginning of Chatper 16:
“When nearly two years later, Obierika paid another visit to his friend in exile the circumstances were less than happy. The missionaries had come to Umuofia. They had built their church there, won a handful of converts, and were already sending evangelists to the surrounding towns and villages.”
“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, the interpreter, who was now in charge of the infant congregation. The white man had gone back to Umuofia, where he built his headquarters and from where he paid regular visits to Mr. Kiaga’s congregation at Mbanta.
“We have now built a church,” said Mr. Kiaga, “and we want you all to come in every seventh day to worship the true God.”
On the following Sunday, Nwoye passed and repassed the little red-earth and thatch building without summoning enough courage to enter. He heard the voice of singing and although it came from a handful of men it was loud and confident. Their church stood on a circular clearing that looked like the open mouth of the Evil Forest. Was it waiting to snap its teeth together? After passing and re-passing by the church, Nwoye returned home.”
And in Chapter 22, Achebe moves toward the climax of the novel with the church at the center:
“The band of egwugwu moved like a furious whirlwind to Enoch’s compound and with machete and fire reduced it to a desolate heap. And from there they made for the church, intoxicated with destruction.
Mr. Smith was in his church when he heard the masked spirits coming. He walked quietly to the door which commanded the approach to the church compound, and stood there. But when the first three or four egwugwu appeared on the church compound he nearly bolted. He overcame this impulse and instead of running away he went down the two steps that led up to the church and walked towards the approaching spirits.”
I won’t try to intervene in Achebe’s carefully constructed allegory other than to make the rather facile observation that the church building was power for the missionaries and the destruction of the church was colonial resistance. The architecture itself created conversion and colonial change.
January 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I spent part of the weekend finishing up Kristina Sessa brilliant new book on the formation of Papal authority in Late Antique Italy: K. Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere. (Cambridge 2012). As readers of this blog know, I have been fascinated with authority for years and Sessa’s book offers just the kind of sophisticated perspective to capture my attention. She outlined how expectations from the domestic sphere shaped and were shaped by the expanding power of the bishop. The book oozed with post-structuralism (although it was not explicitly framed this way) especially the work of P. Bourdieu. Domestic expectations formed the habitus within which episcopal authority negotiated its place in Late Roman society.
The bishop drew heavily on the existing discourse of authority to position himself at the head of his flock in Italy. His efforts were manifest in his sermons, letters, and other texts which preserved the delicate dance between emerging episcopal authority and longstanding practices among the proud, if besieged, elite of the Late Roman West. The bishop partially defined his authority over his flock as the elite landowner and paterfamilias of the Christian community. This responsibility included care over the church’s resources, lands, and dependents as well as the involvement in the life of Christians in Italy.
The bishop, however, did not merely adopt a traditional elite position in the Roman social order as if this kind of simple replacement was possible among elites understandably reluctant to cede authority. The Roman bishop adopted both traditional elite language of authority and subtly transformed it by replacing familiar familial social expectations with a new language of Christian stewardship over the earthly affairs. Stewardship emphasized the temporary character of earthly authority particularly over wealth. This required earthly elites to accept a demotion from absolute control over all his possessions to subordination to the bishop as the representative of the Christian God. Just as the bishop was God’s steward on earth, so the Roman elite stoop subordinate to the bishop at least in matters of salvation (and by extension many aspects of every day life). The intersection of the cosmic hierarchy and the earthly hierarchy placed the Roman elite in a position of authority, but also in a position of moral responsibility over their dependents and possessions just as the bishop carried out the work of God. Thus the bishop negotiated an important shift in Late Antique habitus by articulating key aspects of elite authority in Christian terms and locating social practice within a new set of cosmic relationships and expectations that, in turn, imposed new rules and obligations.
(Because this blog is all about me, I want to point out there that Sessa makes a far more sophisticated and clever version of the argument that I attempted to make in my dissertation. I attempted to show that the reorganization of social space within Early Christian basilicas both drew upon well-known rituals and social practices, but inscribed them within a new Christian cosmology. This enabled the rise of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Greece as Greek society renegotiated traditional forms according to a new set of rules.)
The rest of the book is every bit as cool as Sessa described how the bishop of Rome put his newly articulated authority into use. Like so much scholarship these days, Sessa is deeply interested in understand how ecclesiastical authority penetrated longstanding elite patterns. She looks at how bishops became involved in marital issues, the relationship between landowners and slaves, and the family economy. As ecclesiastical elite exerted a growing influence over all aspects of religious practice, the traditional involvement of the paterfamilias over religions worship in the home eroded. This included some of the tricky issues surrounding worship at home that Kim Bowes treats at some length in her book (my reflections on it here).
The control over the location and authority of the liturgy seems to have been central to ecclesiastical authority. If the liturgy was the primary means that the Christian community gained access to God, then the control over this mediating act was central to projecting authority over the community.
January 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
The death of Aaron Swartz this past week has pushed scholars have once again to think about the limitations placed on the publication and dissemination of their labors. Eric Kansa has published a nice post on ASOR’s blog that framed the discussion of the dissemination of archaeological data in ethical terms. In this post he offers a link to a pre-print of an article that appeared in December in World Archaeology titled: “Openness and Archaeology’s Information Ecosystem.” This article represents one of the best summaries of issues involving Open Access and Open Data in archaeology and should be a must read for any project director or archaeologist who thinks seriously about how they will make the results of their fieldwork available to the public.
For those of you who don’t know him, Eric Kansa is the PI of Open Context and Open Access/Open Data project for archaeological information. It is probably safe to say that his resource provides the most sophisticated interface for the peer-reviewed publication of digital archaeological data. So he has significant credibility in this conversation.
I encourage you to go and read the article, but he makes a few points that are so central to understanding the landscape of Open Access archaeological publications.
1. He decouples critiques of Open Access from critiques of peer review. Open Access has nothing to do with peer review; it has to do with how individuals access the content produced by peer review. This is something that many scholars do not quite seem to understand (including the esteemed president of the Archaeological Institute of America), and this is ironic since paying for access to a journal is not necessary to ensure peer review which (as I have discovered sometimes painfully this year) paid for in the sweat of individual peer reviewers. The absence of a highly-ranked peer-reviewed, Open Access journal in Mediterranean archaeology is deeply problematic especially as this discipline is backed by strong institutions who could make this project happen. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that the rankings that Kansa cites in his article are maintained by Thompson-Reuters a for-profit publisher that is almost certainly part of the problem.)
2. He notes that with the ongoing academic diaspora and the growing number of scholars who work outside of academia or at institutions with limited access to research resources, access to resources has become a vital issue in the continued development of our field. In the past, the infrastructure of book and journal publishing was expensive and this limited the distribution of knowledge. Today, however, the cost of publishing is rapidly declining toward zero and limits on the dissemination of knowledge rest at least in part with the profit motives of large companies.
3. Preserving the past. Restrictions on access to scholarly materials not only limits the dissemination of knowledge, but often can prevent libraries from archiving scholarly publications which are only available through subscription access. As library resource fluctuate through time, this is a particularly precarious situation in which libraries are forced to depend on the continued good will and health of the for-profit content providers. If knowledge is a commodity, there will be a calculus to how much supply satisfied demand at any given moment.
In an interview in 2009, Aaron Swartz regarded his success to be, in part, driven by his curiosity: “The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that.”
The Open Access movement, at least for now, appears committed to ensuring that scholars and the public can continue to satisfy their curiosity through access to scholarly work (which is largely funded by public entities).
January 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I am teaching a very small readings course to a couple of very advanced students this semester. The readings focus on the archaeology and society of Late Antiquity. To supplement readings by the usual suspects (Peter Brown and his cadre of ambitious and competent students), I added G. Clarke’s new Late Antiquity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford 2011. It’s an odd little book full of good things and interesting omission.
The oddest thing about the book is the almost total absence of any discussion of archaeology, material culture, or art. This is particularly odd for a book on Late Antiquity because Late Antiquity as a period originated in the study of ancient art and architecture. Scholars like Riegl and Strzygowski saw the art of the 4th-7th century as debased forms of art dating to the Greek and Roman past (much the same way as Hellenistic art represented debased forms of the Classical). Some of this critique was formal, but it is impossible to separate the formal from the social, political, and ideological. So, the absence of any sustained discussion of Late Antique art, architecture, or material culture stuck me as quite odd.
What makes this even more odd is that archaeology has played an immense role in discussions surrounding the many of the characteristic events of Late Antiquity. The conversion of temples to churches, for example, is central issue on the conversion of the Mediterranean to Christianity and impossible to understand without recourse to archaeological evidence. Clarke barely touched upon this phenomenon, and when she did, she drew upon textual sources like Jerome to support her view of the gradual abandonment of pagan cult, but the preservation of temples as a kind of architectural heritage. Not only does archaeological evidence provide a more nuanced perspective on this issue with temple conversions, neglect, and preservation in a range of contexts, but it also gives voice to practices and people who lived outside of the purview of elite textual production.
Clarke likewise omits any substantial discussion of urban change. Like the conversion of temples, urban change has represented a key contributor to our definition of Late Antiquity. Scholars have long debated whether the social and architectural transformation of cities marked a “decline” of certain civic virtues associated with the ancient world. This is more than merely ideological bickering, but depends upon how we understand the structure of society and its manifestation in the character of the urban fabric. Understanding urban change, then, becomes a central point to any discussion of how and whether Late Antiquity is distinct from its Classical antecedents.
It is a short book by definition and design, so I can overlook that Clarke does not delve into the recent and significant debates surrounding Late Antique trade and production. One does wonder, however, whether discussion of the date and distribution of certain classes of ceramics could well inform a more robust definition and understanding of this important and difficult period. For example, if fine ware produced on Cyprus continued to circulate into the 8th century, perhaps the Mediterranean persisted as a coherent cultural zone much later than scholars have tended to expect. This has an impact on when and whether we see the fragmentation of the Mediterranean world as a hallmark of the end of antiquity and first steps in the development of distinct and independent cultural zones.
These critiques aside, the book does offer a decent overview of the major textual traditions and historical debates central to the study of the Late Antique world. It will offer relatively little to the scholar, but for a student, the length of the book, its accessible language, and its accessibility for critique make this a useful contribution to a growing list of books available to introduce Late Antiquity to both students and the general public. It will best serve as a complement to books like Stephen Mitchell’s which ground the period in a more robust discussion of material culture.
January 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
One of the best things about the holiday break is that I can make a small dent in my almost endless reading list. First on this list was Cam Grey’s Constructing Communities in the Late Roman Countryside (Cambridge 2011). This book continued a useful trend in the study of Late Antiquity by investigating economically marginal groups that scholars have traditionally overlooked. Grey studies the peasant to build a picture of rural communities during the Late Antique era. This not only resonates with longstanding interests in peasants (particularly among British Marxists) as transhistorical phenomenon, but also with the traditional questions that focus on the fate of the countryside (and by extension the economy) in Late Antiquity. Rather than emphasizing the rural basis for, say, the Late Roman economy, however, Grey explored the forms of social relationships formed by peasants (as agents!) in Late Antiquity.
As an aside, Grey’s book continued along a path first hacked out by T. Gallant in his Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece (Stanford 1991). This is one of my favorite books on ancient Greece and it works to bring together textual and archaeological evidence with global conversations about peasants in the contemporary world. While Gallant’s work is more theoretically explicit, Grey’s work continues on the trajectory that Gallant set out by looking at the complex set of social relationships that helped to manage risk and survival in the ancient world.
This book has been out for long enough to generate some nice reviews, so I won’t add my meager musings to this chorus, but I will offer a few little observations:
1. Texts. Archaeologists usually imagine that their methods provide the key to understanding the non-elites in the premodern world. Grey’s book is unapologetically historical and uses textual sources in new ways to sketch out a picture of the Late Roman peasant. In some cases, he does this by reading against the grain of traditional elite sources; in other cases, he uses the remarkable archive of papyrus sources from the Egyptian desert. (As a small critique, it does feel like he sometimes relies quite heavily on a small number of particularly robust papyrological sources). His approach to these texts is sensitive to genre, authorship, and regional variation. The last of these is particularly significant in that he is sensitive to the differences in peasant relations in the East and West.
2. Resistance. The elite bias of most of our primary sources and the historical interest in institutions over individuals has made the search for non-elite resistance in Late Antiquity difficult. Grey does not provide revolutionary insights into the practices of peasant resistance, but does begin the difficult process of reconsidering elite sources by looking for ways in which dominance implies resistance, for the use of encoded transgressive acts (like demonic possession), and for the subtle negotiations that not only bond peasants to the elite, but also underscore the peasant’s role in creating their place within Late Roman society.
3. The Church and the Poor. One of Grey’s most valuable contributions was his effort to understand the role of the church in caring for the rural poor. He argues that the church was far more interested in helping individuals who had encountered a rapid change in wealth than those who permanently situated near the bottom of the economic system. This coincides well with the role of most institutions in the premodern world which were far better at providing momentary redress in a crisis than producing policies designed to redistribute wealth or mitigate endemic economical inequality.
Grey’s book continues to open new perspectives on the life of the rural poor and the structure of rural society in the later Roman world. As archaeologists – like Kim Bowes who is also at Penn – develop more refined techniques and a growing interest in life in the countryside, Grey’s excavation of textual sources represents valuable complement (and surely at times a challenge) to a view of the ancient countryside fixated on postholes and pot sherds.
November 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Michael Shanks is having a banner year in terms of publications. I just finished his work titled The Archaeological Imagination. Shanks arranges a series of short vignettes related to his recent fieldwork in the border country between Scotland and England. These vignettes capture the range of archaeological engagements over the course of the 18th and early 19th through the eyes of local “antiquarians” as well as such literary luminaries like Walter Scott who spent significant time in the area. Shanks is particular interested in the perception of landscapes by intellectuals of various stripes prior to the consolidation of the discipline of archaeology with its methodological constraints. As a result, he is open to identifying impulses and practices that establish the genealogical 18th century roots of the modern, disciplinary archaeological imagination rather than more narrowly defined discursive ones that characterized the mid-19th century emergence of the discipline.
As is a common strain in Shanks’s writing, his arguments benefit from the careful consideration of elaborate case studies and descriptive vignettes and offer only modest outlines. By presenting a wide range of examples, Shanks underlines the diverse range of the pre-modern or proto-modern archaeological imagination. In particular, Shanks shows an interest in the way in which 18th century intellectuals distinguished archaeological remains for the historical. He emphasizes the importance of persistence, ruin, duration, and decay in their perceptions of the landscape whereas the writing of history tends to see time as linear with events flowing into each other or blinking on and off. Shanks goes on to argue that the persistence of a durable, physical past play a key element in the development of community and individual identity. The attention lavished upon the physical past by 18th century antiquarians persists in the disciplinary attention to objects in the field archaeology. (And this fits well with Shanks other 2012 book: Archaeology: The Discipline of Things which makes the case for the importance of studying things.) Narratives of presence and absence, persistence and decay form the narratological context for understanding things and these narratives are mediated by performative practices grounded in the 18th century. Walking landscapes, describing passages, documenting remains all formed the middle ground between things in the social world of the antiquarian and archaeologist. The context for the archaeological imagination, then, is the performative where we as scholar engage with the variegated physical remains of the past.
While this brief and chaotic summary does not do justice the range of topics addressed in Shanks short essay (it’s barely over 100 pages), I was drawn to the application of Shanks methods to my own start-stop research on dreams. I have agreed to revive my dream archaeology paper a few times this spring and with each return to this paper, I become more and more interested in submitting it for publication. The performative and even liturgical aspect of religious dreams that lead to the discovery of objects or buildings provide another link between pre-modern practices and the modern discipline especially when the two phenomenon come in contact with one another in modern archaeological publication or in the actions of looters seeking to discover buried treasure for economic gain.
October 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
As readers of my blog know, I am famous for side projects. In fact, at some point in the last decade my side projects have simply overwhelmed my not-side projects rendering them all side projects. It doesn’t matter. I love them – side or otherwise – all the same.
Punk Archaeology took an important step in the right direction last night. We have a venue and are beginning to secure some local “punk rock outfits” to provide us with music. We’ve sketched out a rough program with an acoustic punk band to open and then a panel that runs about an hour to an hour and a half. It looks like we have 5 or 6 participants in the panel, and true to punk form, we’ll ask them to keep their remarks brief to all for plenty of opportunities for audience participation.
The point of departure for the speakers remarks will be our Punk Archaeology blog, but the participants will be free to take or leave any of our observations there. We have a few technical challenges ahead of us. Our plan is to produce a small publication from the conference that’ll include some of the posts from the Punk Archaeology blog and the remarks at the panel. We hope that we can attract some “guest editors” to offer contributors some perspective and the patina of peer review.
At present, my plan is to self publish the book. Self publishing has a kind of low-fi, punk, DIY vibe that would appropriate for an evening dedicated to punk archaeology. More than that though, this book will be another step toward establishing a small press on the University of North Dakota’s campus. Over the last two years, I have experimented with print-on-demand publishing (here and here). More recently, I’ve had conversations with folks across the university to determine whether there would be any support for a small press here on campus. Distribution and marketing will be almost completely digital, low-fi, and, in many cases, ad hoc. The books will be short (embracing the spirit of punk), original, and (as much as I can be a judge) exciting.
The small press would focus on three areas. First, we’d emphasize books for local interest (for example, the Grand Forks Neighborhood History Series that I co-edit with Bret Weber) and perhaps a series of short books or essays on topics loosely associated with “alternative archaeology” (the best example of a collection like this are the offerings from the Left Coast Press). We’d also work with various faculty authors who have produced their own textbooks on campus and lend our expertise to their work. We have already identified a number of these projects that could be collected under a single imprint and made more visible. Finally, we’d work with various groups on campus (especially the Working Group in Digital and New Media) to create platforms for alternative publications based in social and new media.
While this may sounds rather ambitious – and it probably is – I think we have people who both possess basic skills to bring these kinds of modest works to publication, and we recognize the need to commit this idea to some serious study before committing any sustaining resources to this kind of project. In the meantime, however, I think I’ll probably keep churning out little books on topics that spark my imagination.
September 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I’ve spent the last week or so perusing M. Veikou’s very new book on Byzantine Epirus (Leiden 2012). It’s a monumental tome with over 300 pages of analysis and 300 more of figures, catalogues, and a site inventory. I’ve commented on Veikou’s work on this blog before so I was pretty excited to get my hands on her book length treatment of Byzantine Epirus to see how she developed more fully some of the themes touched upon in her article length work.
While I haven’t managed to get all the way through the book yet, she has already offered a few really interesting observations that are not so much novel as well documented and conceptualized. As per usual my short observations this morning are based on what I have found useful or intriguing about the book rather than some kind of universal review of the book’s merits.
1. Basilica Cemeteries and Byzantine Settlement. Veikou makes the rather obvious argument that the conversion of Early Christian or Early Byzantine churches into cemeteries in the 7th to 10th centuries – a common phenomenon across the southern Balkans – suggests continuity in settlement between the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine era (pp. 68-72). As far as I know, she is the first to make this leap and while I have some doubts about its application in specific cases (for example, I could imagine the urge to bury ad sanctos could trump the need to bury bodies in the immediate proximity of a settlement), I think she is probably right. She then takes this a step further to note that the use of earlier churches as places of burial might mark the growing willingness to bury the dead near or within settlements during Byzantine period as opposed to outside of settlements as was more common in the Early Christian period. She does, of course, note that the state of the buildings into which later visitors made burials is often unclear with evidence for churches both with standing walls and completely collapsed.
2. Byzantine Churches on Early Christian Foundations. Veikou also compiles a useful list of later churches built on the foundations of Early Christian (or just earlier Christian) buildings (p. 57). While this is hardly a major emphasis in her work, it is an exceedingly useful list for scholars looking to understand continuity of the religious landscape in Greece.
3. Typologies. Throughout Veikou’s section on architecture she proposes numerous typologies or adapts typologies for other authors to describe various architectural features present in both religious and non-religious architecture in Epirus. Such thorough typology building has long been standard practice in Greek (and more broadly Continental) approaches to documenting features in the landscape, but for many archaeologists the most persistent fear is that we impose typologies on material that, in turn, begin to dictate in unanticipated ways, our interpretations. The most obvious example of the typology-tail wagging the dog is when we have used typologies as the basis for either absolute chronology or the develop of features through time. In these cases, the logic of the typology (in, say, Byzantine architecture) has run the risk of trumping the evidence from stratigraphic excavation or other forms of dating. That being said, typologies of the type that Viekou developed in her book offers the basis for a common vocabulary to describe various features in the Epiriote landscape, and she makes a particular effort to link the typologies she creates with those existing in other literature (e.g. her grave typology on p. 76-80).
As I said, I’ve only just started harvesting this book for valuable data and I’ve only scratched the surface of Viekou’s larger arguments regarding the transformation of the Byzantine landscape of Epirus. As a region of the Byzantine world that is both peripheral to the traditional centers of Byzantine control and authority and located in an important liminal zone between the East and West during the Middle Ages, the development of Epirus over these centuries has significant impact on how we understand the limits and character of the so-called Byzantine commonwealth. In other words, more on this book soon.
September 17, 2012 § 2 Comments
The recent fascination with abandonment porn has tended to emphasize the decline of urban areas and the decay and collapse of the once monumental urban infrastructures that supported centralized industrial activities. Less common are discussions of abandonment at the periphery. Some abandoned North Dakota landscapes have attracted attention for the picturesque character of abandoned farms, rusted vehicles, and collapsing fences.
Chris Hedges’s and Joe Sacco’s new book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt offers another perspective on abandonment. Rather than the picturesque visions of days-gone-by or a center that did not hold, in the third chapter of the book – Days of Devastation – Hedges’s prose complemented by Sacco’s art looks at the destruction and abandonment in rural West Virginia where the coal that powered the now-abandoned factories was cut from mountains. The ruins of communities, towns, buildings, and the landscape shed devastating light on the cost of prosperity. Interviews punctuate almost archaeological descriptions of the communities left in ruins by the changing fortunes of the coal industry showing how the romantic abandonment of the failed-center drew down periphery through the long tendrils that connect monumental industry to rural communities which provided them with power.
Here’s a short excerpt describing the town of Gary, West Virginia:
“Gary’s rutted streets are lined by empty clapboard houses with sagging roofs. Porches fall away from the buildings. Wooden steps are rotted. Rusted appliances, the frames of old cars, tires, and heaps of garbage lie scattered in front of rows of deserted dwellings or clog the brackets water in the creeks, where low-lying branches are tangled with plastic bags and bottles. Broaded-up storefronts, neglected chutes, the bleak brick remains of Gary High School, and the shuttered, flat-roofed stone bank building give the landscape the feel of a ravaged war zone. The spindly remains of chimneys jut up and out of the charred timbers of burned houses. The guts of most buildings, as in Camden, have been stripped of piping and copper for sale in the scrap yards. The gold dome of the empty Orthodox church disappeared one night when a thief somehow commandeered a crane. The train station, the restaurant, and the old company store, meticulously planned by Judge Albert Gary, the architecture of J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel empire and the man for whom the town was named, are skeletal remains. Mobile homes stand empty along the side of the road, their siding and torn insulation flapping in the wind in tattered strips. There is no supermarket. Canned or packaged food, high in sodium, sugar, and preservatives, and fat along with cheap bottles of liquor, are sold at the local convenience store and gas station, located across the road from the drug market.”
September 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week I blogged a bit about working my way through J. Bintliff’s new survey of the archaeology of Greece. This week, I reflected on the sections dedicated to the archaeology of Byzantine and Crusader Greece. These three chapters are strong enough to stand on their own as a short survey of Byzantine archaeology. They feature vivid case studies that introduce readers to some unfamiliar places while at the same time providing to the traditional monuments central to long-standing discussions of Byzantine archaeology and architecture.
There are a handful of things that really stood out in these chapters:
1. Domestic Spaces. Bintliff does a great job bringing in recent research on Byzantine and “Frankish period” housing (most notably the work of E. Sigalos). Attention to Byzantine housing, of course, is an important step to developing a more sophisticated understanding of the functional character of surface assemblages for this period. While Bintliff offers little that is new, he does provide a very accessible synthesis of recent work on Byzantine domestic space which a student could easily use as a jumping off point for more in-depth research. The only period for which Bintliff’s work seems a bit lacking is for the Early Byzantine period or the “Dark Ages” where recent work stands poised to make a serious contribution to habitation practices during this important transitional time.
2. Urban and Rural. A better understanding of both urban and rural housing allows us to begin to unravel the complexities associated with Byzantine settlement. At present, as Bintliff acknowledged, the lines between various types so Byzantine settlements are exceedingly blurry. While the ends of the continuum – say isolated farms and major urban areas – are clear, the differences between monasteries, hamlets, villages, town, and small cities remains difficult at best. Even if we concede that some of these terms may reflect contemporary definitions of settlement more than Byzantine, the organization of space outside of the most monumentalized centers (Mistras, Thessaloniki, Constantinople, et c.) continues to offer a serious challenge to scholars interested in Byzantine economy and society.
3. Texts. It was a bit striking that there was so little appeal to texts throughout these chapters. Byzantine archaeology has long been beholden to texts and the abundance of texts -from the most modest hagiography to various documentary sources like the typika edited and published by Dumbarton Oaks. These texts have long worked in conjunction with archaeological observation to offer a robust perspective on the Byzantine and Frankish material culture. Despite all the difficulties that texts from the Medieval period have created for archaeologists, their absence of this section reflects an obvious oversight to specialists in Byzantine archaeology.
4. No Longer Periphery. Most surveys of Byzantine archaeology – as much as such things exist – regard Greece as somehow peripheral to the Byzantine heartland and part of a larger discussion of “provincial” architecture, archaeology, and traditions. Bintliff’s book offers almost no hint of this provincializing discourse and locates southern and central Greece at the center of his discussion of archaeology. This makes some sense, of course, as his book focuses on the archaeology of a particular region defined by both the modern nationstate and earlier concentrations of distinct cultural practices. By focusing on regional practices in their own rights rather than as just pale imitations of the center, Bintliff locates the material culture of Byzantine and Frankish Greece within local traditions and evidence. As his entire book shows, the remains of Byzantine and Frankish Greece fit within a larger and independent narrative of Greek history and archaeology. (This is something that Greek archaeologists have largely recognized, but Bintliff avoids the potential for a nationalist archaeology by treading very critically and carefully the minefield of continuity.)
The most vexing thing about this otherwise commendable survey is that it’s attached to 300+ pages of careful scholarship on the archaeology of earlier periods. This makes this volume not particularly appealing for a course in Medieval or Byzantine history course where it would clearly fill a gap in current offerings. This left me wishing that this book (and others like it) come in a more modular form where an instructor could purchase only particular sections of a text (at I am sure a healthy mark up!).