Archaeological “Signatures” of Byzantine Churches

October 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

This springs Dumbarton Oaks Spring Symposium is titled Byzantine Survey Archaeology: Reflections and Approaches. The symposium will feature speakers covering a range of topics central to discussions about intensive pedestrian survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. My paper is among the last of the symposium and in a session called “Reading the Data/Reading the Future”.

I need to have abstract for my talk which is tentative titled “Looking across Chronological Boundaries”. The goal of the talk will be to bring together some of my work (largely with Tim Gregory and David Pettegrew) that explores post-Byzantine archaeological sites and consider how what we’ve learned in this work can inform out study of Byzantine sites in a survey context. 

Readers of this blog are familiar with my work at the early modern site of Lakka Skoutara in the Eastern Corinthia. Here’s a link to our most recent paper.

You may be less familiar with some of my work with David Pettegrew and Tim Gregory in 2001 on the island of Kythera where we collected surface data from around a series of still standing Byzantine churches. The results told us little about the landscape around these churches during the Byzantine period, but shed some significant light on formation processes around these occasionally used monuments in the Greek countryside. Like our work around the deteriorating houses in Lakka Skoutara, our work around these churches revealed a countryside that was in constant transformation. 

The evidence for the constant transformation of the landscape pushes us to see even the surface record as the product of a series of complex formation processes rather than a palimpsest awaiting our careful gaze to produce a complete but occluded text. The remains in the countryside preserve a complex record of processes.


Two Church Plans

October 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sometimes I don’t mind spending a morning with Adobe Illustrator (although most days it’s a special kind of torture). So I did that yesterday. 

The first image is a simplified plan of an Early Christian basilica in Greece. It is loosely based on a plan of Nikopolis Alpha, but I cut out some of the ancillary rooms joining the narthex. 

Figure1 Caraher

I also used the Illustrator to sketch a plan of the church at Kalpsi in Eurytania. This church has a spectacular group of mosaic pavements with dedicatory inscriptions. For my purposes, I was only really interested in the location of dedicatory inscriptions so I decided to create a sketch plan. I think it works for a very simplified representation of where the inscriptions appeared.

Figure2 Caraher


How’s that for a Thursday morning before a day filled with grading and grant writing?

Some Churches in Byzantine Epirus

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.

Byzantine Archaeology and the Archaeology of Greece

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!). 

Popular Byzantium: An Interview with Paul Kastenellos, Part 2

February 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

There was amazingly positive feedback to Part 1 of my interview with University of North Dakota alumnus, Vincent O’Reilly, whose first novel, Count No Man Happy, appeared right before Christmas. The novel is largely set in 8th century court of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VI where it weaves together history, romance, and court intrigue to touch the popular imagination in a way that few scholars have ever managed.

Byzantinists ought to support the work of passionate lay-scholars like Vincent, who writes under the name of Paul Kastenellos, and the easiest way to do this is to buy a copy of his book. Compared to the most scholarly publications, Vincent’s book is a bargain at $13.95 (and even cheaper on the Kindle at $4.99).

Corinth First City of Greece

So go to Amazon and get a copy. If you don’t like it, give it to a student who might be just beginning to be interested in Byzantium or give it to your local library. Making “ordinary people” excited about Byzantium is important.


B.C.: As you’ve read more about Byzantium and wrote about it, did your interests changed?

P.K.: I’d say rather that they have deepened. At one time I was interested in Alexius Commenus and easily could be again. In truth though, I’m more fascinated by the culture than by battles and heroes. When I saw the Ravenna mosaics my mouth literally dropped open to realize that they were actual portraits. Before the internet, photographs of them were flat, false colored, and uninteresting. The more I see of modern internet images the more I admire Byzantine art. So much in fact that, hard as it may be for someone not immersed in it to believe, I now prefer Byzantine to western art. The problem is that compared with the west there is little left that is in great condition. I did have the pleasure of observing quite a few good pieces in Greece however: Hosias Loukas, some Thessaloniki churches, and Mistra among others, but most of this stuff was late Byzantine. It seems that neither the Turks nor the Greeks particularly treasure what remains. In their defense, who wants to live in a museum? A church should speak to people today and if that means remodeling, well, sometimes that’s OK.

B.C.: That’s interesting, but I wonder whether there is a growing interest in the pervasion of Byzantine monuments. And this might suggest that Byzantium does resonate with people today, don’t you think? Why is that?

P.K.: I don’t know that it does. It remains alien to everything about modern American culture. It was superstitious, less mechanical and technological than the west in the same period, more concerned with feuding over religious dogma than we are or can even relate to. True, individuals could be extremely charitable but they did not make the headlines and even they were intolerant. It was a totalitarian state. In fact I wonder if the spirit of Byzantium wasn’t more similar to that of India than to ours. If anything, it is the very otherness of Byzantium which fascinates. (Oops, that’s your next question.) Truth is, outside of academic circles, if you say Byzantine to someone in the USA, he may at best recognize the word.

B.C.: Byzantinist definitely need to do more to improve our “brand” recognition. But, getting back to your book, who speaks most directly to me?

P.K.: Definitely Antonina. Her character is not obscured by religious myth as is that of so many Byzantines. As for others, yes indeed there are many interesting people but somehow except for Alexius and Constantine Paleologius, Constantine VI, and Antonina, I’ve never been attracted that much to individuals. The religious figures are a turn off to a modern person with their narrow mindedness, extremism carried to the point of fetishism (not in a good way), and general lack of Christian love. The military history is a sad story of which we know the sad outcome: the rape of Constantinople by “crusaders”, and the triumph of Islam with the destruction of everything that made the spirit of the Eastern Empire what it was.

B.C.: In your book, you attempt to bridge the gap between Byzantium and our era today by imagining Byzantium as a kind of fantasy world imagined by an “aging”, 30something 1950s pin-up model.  Did you do this to try to translate the Byzantine world to 21st century America? It is worth noting that Julia Kristeva in her Byzantine themed novel, Murder in Byzantium, used a similar strategy.

P.K.: You speak of Beth as aging. That is true only in so far as her days as a pinup girl were running low. She is in mid twenties. In spirit she is young and in body and face still beautiful.

If I presented Byzantium as a fantasy world, then I failed at what I was trying to do. Beth is Constantine’s fantasy but only until fully awake in the morning. The problems he faces were very real. I intended to make the characters of Nicephoros, Stauratius, Khardam and others believable, not fantasy. Their frame of reference is very different from ours but their motivation and behavior is not. I probably should have included more superstition and ignorance, as Cervantes did with Sancho Panza in “Don Quixote.” I may have depicted Irene as too single-minded about icons but hardly a character of fantasy. In fact I hoped to make them all more believable than medieval people are often depicted. (For example: the monks in “The Name Of The Rose.”) It bothers me that the middle ages are usually depicted in shades of gray and brown when to simply look at illustrations from that time – east and west – shows a world full of vibrant color. At the same time, I wanted to avoid making the characters think like moderns (like William of Baskerville, again in “The Name Of The Rose”.)

B.C.: The historian in my has to ask a few technical questions as we get to the end of our interview. What primary sources did you use to write your novel?

P.K.: There isn’t much in the way of original sources about Constantine. All in all, the sources for eighth century Byzantium are thin compared with the centuries before and after. I relied almost entirely on Theophanes Confessor filling in details from my general understanding of the period acquired over the years. I used the Mango and Scott translation only learning of Turtledove’s late in my work. As for secondary sources I would have made more use of Henry Maguire’s “Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204” had I known of the book when I was writing the basic text. As it is I only used it to confirm and correct some details. One may ask why I was so unaware of available texts? The internet was in its infancy when I wrote the basic text and I did not have ready access to an academic library… And after all, the book is a novel. I try to remain accurate to the history and the mentality of the age, at least in so far as one can when writing for a twentieth century audience. Specifically I tried not to be inaccurate. For example I’d have liked to use the imperial thrones that famously rose into the air, but on checking I discovered that they were not installed until a little after Constantine’s time. I give a bit more detail of where I have deviated from the historical record in the Afterword of the text and in the notes which follow.

My upcoming novel about Antonina, the wife of Belisarius, has an opposite problem. There is too much information and too many conflicting interpretation of events, motivation, et c. Every historian seems to have his own. Everyone admits that Procopius was probably right about most details but is untrustworthy otherwise. It would be nice to have someone else’s opinion of Bloody John, for example, or know why so many allegedly black-hearted men were restored to positions of honor by Justinian. If, for example, Bessas was as venal as Procopius pictures him, why was he later given command against the Persians. Procopius chastises Belisarius for not defending his stepson, Photius, when Theodora incarcerated him but he is careful to keep his time-line vague. As I read it, Photius was arrested while Belisarius was in disgrace and suffering from clinical depression. Anyone who has endured such depression or lived with someone who is suffering from it knows that it is just not possible for him to even rise from his bed. There is an unfocused despair that does not respond to reason and cannot be fought. Besides, had Belisarius attempted to intervene directly while under Theodora’s wrath he would have made things worse for Photius. Yet most historians just repeat Procopius’ slander. Some of Procopius’ accusations have been challenged but rarely has his opinion of Antonia been. I have tried to see the events of Belisarius and Antonina’s lives through her eyes. Historians have not helped. For your information: this next book will have none of the fantasy and depravity of ”Count No Man Happy.” It will be straight historical fiction but almost entirely historically accurate. (I say almost because I could not resist making Procopius a eunuch although there is no evidence that he was one – but then, there is no evidence that he wasn’t. Consider it long overdue payback.)

B.C.: What secondary authors help you to understand the fragmentary and confusing record of Byzantium?

P.K.: For fact checking and specifics there is nothing like Wikipedia. I could spend weeks in a library doing what I now do in a few minutes on the net. There is a popular belief that it is inaccurate – but so are books; and it is far more likely that mistakes will be corrected there than when repeated in books. (Not a mistake, but have you ever noticed how much J B Bury is quoted almost word for word by other authors without direct citation? Do they ever check him?)

As for secondary sources for “Antonina,” Lord Mahon is far more readable than Procopius even if not very critical; and nothing can compare with the delight of Thomas Hodgkin’s “Italy And Her Invaders.”

Yet one can question conventional replication of interpretation. I see the battle of Daras in Belisarius’ first Persian War as essentially a hammer of Roman archers hitting an anvil of Roman infantry with the Persian cavalry caught between them. Why else did Belisarius remain dismounted with the infantry. In my opinion cavalry did not win Daras, the disdained infantry did.

B.C.: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask one last question. What could scholars do better to engage a wider audience for the study of Byzantium?

P.K.: A tough question. I have walked the walls of Constantinople and offered a prayer where the last emperor fell in battle. One problem is that neither Greece nor Turkey emphasize their medieval history. Curiously, I have the impression that in recent years Moslem Turkey has done a bit more than Christian Greece which seems preoccupied with its ancient history. I get the impression from the Greeks I’ve met that they hardly study it in school. My wife and I were alone at Mistra because it is far from the tourist route. Of course, the same to a lesser degree was true of Ravenna in Italy. In Ravenna we saw a group of Japanese art students but few western tourists.

If more scholars were willing to mix with non-academics, they could start at home. If UND (for example) offered a guided tour of Ravenna, Cappadochia, Constantinople, and Mistras, perhaps together with a gullet boat trip down the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean; and if the cost were kept minimal, some of us who are not wealthy enough to be attracted to the usual university tours of the Greek Islands might be tempted. You could be the guide and have the group include alumni of other universities. Such a tour could be the basis of a TV documentary. Such a tour would be unique and one hell of a lot more special than Rhodes again.

We do need more quality fiction about the empire. As noted above what little I’ve seen is poor academically (excepting Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius.) Surely historians can team up with the many frustrated writers in English departments to work on this problem. A best seller might even be made into a movie.

More art exhibits. The Metropolitan made a great start which should be followed up on. But what I think is most important is to energize students at the high school level. You, as a Byzantinist, could offer to present illustrated lectures in your area. You might even use the Illustrated Guide on my website as a starting point.

Sorry that I’ve rambled a lot, not always staying on point. But then, I never was good at answering test questions.

Popular Byzantium: An Interview with Paul Kastenellos, Part 1

February 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

Right before Christmas, I was surprised and excited to receive an unsolicited copy of a novel set in Byzantium: Paul Kastenellos, Count No Man Happy. (New York 2011).  I was even more surprised to discover that Paul Kastenellos was the pen name of Vincent O’Reilly who was a history major at the University of North Dakota in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Needless to say, the intersection between Byzantium and the University of North Dakota is exceedingly rare, so I contacted the author and struck up a conversation about Byzantium, popular culture, and life at UND.

I discovered that Vincent had more than just a casual interest in Byzantium. His book is richly textured (with pleasant edge) and historically vivid making it more than suitable for a fictional companion to an undergraduate Byzantine history course. For the uninitiated, Vincent has provided some companion material on his website including a lovely Illustrated History of Byzantium.

The following is a lightly edited version of our email correspondence which focuses on that often strange intersection between the academic community and passionately interested lay reader. As most Byzantinists realize, the past two decades have seen a growing popular interest in Byzantium which, so far, most Byzantinists have not successfully captured to our field’s advantage. Perhaps this interview with a participant in this popular revival can provide some new insights for us…


Bill Caraher: Thank you so much, Vincent, for taking the time to chat about your book and giving those of us on that academic side of the aisle a perspective on how you came to learn, to love, and to write about the Byzantine centuries, and why (and whether!) we are genuinely experiencing a “Byzantium boom” in the popular culture of the first decades of the 21st century.

Paul Kastenellos:  I thought I might anticipate your questions with a little general background. I need not tell you how important that is to understanding. I entered UND in 1957. At that time TV was fairly new, most families not getting a set until about 1950. Educational TV was a bore – some college prof in a suit lecturing at a podium. What we learned in high school was mostly English history with a few asides to Charlemagne, Julius Caesar et c. My only recollection of anything Byzantine was the statement in some textbook, talking about the fall of the Roman empire, that “it maintained a shadowy existence in the east for another thousand years.” Now imagine my shock in Dr. [Felix] Vondracek’s class when he,, who saw history as a succession of battles. told us about Adrianople and stirrups, Belisarius and Antonina (Wow); and insisted that we memorize lists of popes and Byzantine emperors (Yawn!). Vondracek had his faults, no doubt about it; but his lectures were never dull.

*[Felix Vondracek was a popular and cantankerous history professor at the University of North Dakota.]

Fast forward fifty years. Students learn more. High school teachers are better prepared. Television is running out of things to tell people about. Perhaps most important, the comfortable parochialism of my youth is no longer acceptable. Black history was assumed not to exist in those days and we studied American history in a vacuum, ignoring anything south of the border after the conquistadors and never realizing that colonial history is intimately interlinked with European.

In my college years there were not more than four or five books on Byzantium in print at any time. We had Bury, Diehl, Pirenne, and Vasiliev; and Vondracek was anxiously awaiting a translation of Ostrogorsky. Once in a while Oxford University Press might kick out a new volume but they were pricey and would not long remain in print. But Praeger was creating expensive art books some of which were about Byzantine art.

To confirm what I just wrote I looked at my aging Viking Library “Portable Medieval Reader” (c 1949). In seven hundred pages the only Byzantine author is Anna Comnenaand that is her description of the western crusader knights. With such a dearth of information it should not be surprising that there was little interest even among the educated. We were still stuck in Gibbon’s negative view because no one was reexamining it at the high school level.

Today Americans have a broader outlook. Most educated people have traveled. TV has run out of fresh Hitler footage. Color images on videotape are much more vibrant than even color film, much less the black and white of 1950s television. Modern art may possibly have made people more willing to look at stuff other than the purely representational.

So there is nothing remarkable about the interest in Byzantium. There is also interest in Mongolia and substantially more interest in the Indian cultures of South America than when I was young. In grade school and high school my only knowledge of these peoples was which Spaniard had killed them. Our understanding of Persia was entirely through Greek eyes, and of Spain through British eyes. There was a definite prejudice against Byzantium inherited from Gibbon, just as there was against Spain which we viewed through the filter of Elizabethan English propaganda. One look at the Hearst papers leading up to the Spanish American War will show that.

We knew nothing of the Byzantines but then we knew nothing of Japan (see my essay on the Asian War on my website) and what little we knew of India was still through the eyes of Kipling. North Africa was to us Beau Geste and the French Foreign Legion, Africa was witch doctors and safaris, and Egypt was still “The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb.” Our parents had at best a high school education as did our newspaper reporters. China was seen through the eyes of “China watchers” who seem never to have left the bars of Hong Kong. Now all these states are intimately intertwined.

My point is that the interest in Byzantium can not be seen as something unique. It is not that somehow it has become interesting, but rather that my youth was a benighted pit from which internationalism and international travel and communication has raised us. We are looking for new interests.

But only so far. There is Byzantine stuff on TV but it doesn’t go much beyond pretty pictures of Hagia Sophia. The Orthodox church still remains outside the interest of most people. In fact religion generally is something modern secularists don’t want to discuss except in a negative way. I do think the Metropolitan exhibitions gave a boost to Byzantine art. I saw the first one and it definitely was broader than the expected bunch of old icons. Why not “Russia and Byzantium,” “Byzantium and the West,” The Crusades Through Byzantine Eyes,” and of course, “The Fall of Constantinople.”

I just checked Barnes and Noble and am amazed with the variety of material now available. There are many popular books on the Byzantines. I have one on their cuisine (and would readily pass on it.) There is even fiction though the two novels I’ve read were disappointing (Stock adventure stories with a cross thrown in here and there.) Alternative history is blessed with David Drake and Eric Flint’s “Belisarius series” which I enjoyed. Though it had little to do with Byzantium, I liked their take on the character of Belisarius. One might ask why these authors chose to write six books with Belisarius as the protagonist. I would answer that the motivation was not Byzantium, but alternative history which sells well. I wish it were the reverse.

BC: So, you became interested in Byzantine history through Prof. Vondracek’s classes, but surely not everyone in these classes has gone on to write novels on Byzantium. Was there any other thing that influenced your interest?

PK: Let me detail a bit of personal history… Vondracek threw a searchlight on my understanding of medieval history which up to then had been entirely western. In a way that was understandable if narrow. Our society does descend from western European. After graduation I had to earn a living. Although I pretended to be as interested in Byzantium as in my college years in truth it faded. I was going for a masters in library Science and working. When my daughter graduated from St John’s College in Annapolis she took a job with Bill Moyers and used her first paycheck to give me and my wife, Tamiko, tickets to Istanbul.

To my great surprise and delight my interest in Byzantium came flooding back as though it had never waned. Two characters in Vondrachek’s lectures had never really left me:

BC: Which two characters are those?

PK: Belisarius and Constantine VI.

BC: Why those two of all the memorable characters from Byzantium?

PK: Belisarius is obvious. How can it be that such a notable general went unmentioned in any history of great generals that I had read? Pure western ignorance and bias. That Antonina accompanied him touched the romantic in me and her infidelity to a man who loved her deeply made me curious. (These things I had learned from Vondracek who loved nothing better than to reveal the private lives of famous people.)

Vondacek also told us of poor Constantine VI and related how he was blinded by his mother and how Theodote, in his words, “followed him around like a puppy dog for the rest of his life.” He also told us that he had been infatuated with the daughter of Charlemagne whom he was betrothed to but never met. I have no idea why these things stuck in my mind when so many other things in Vondrachek’s lectures have faded out of memory, but they did. Unfortunately, while I remembered both these things about Constantine I somehow had a disconnect in my mind that they were the same person. Nonetheless they stayed in the back of my mind and came back with other things about Byzantium when I first visited Istanbul.

Now I had always wanted to write. In fact I entered the news business (United Press – Movietonews) in order to simplify and improve my writing style which I was aware had been damaged by too much reading of diverse authors in college. Why had I not gone into a field of history after college? Because my interest was in Byzantium and as the worst language student who ever lived I knew that I could never be a scholar in that subject. I had no interest in simply teaching high school.

Somewhere along the line I saw the movie Laura wherein a detective falls in love with the portrait of a (presumably) dead woman. I did not think the movie played out the idea all that well but was fascinated by the concept. So somewhere in the mid ’90s I started to write a bit of fluff that I jokingly referred to as Constantine VI meets Bettie Page. (It is amazing how many guys of all ages [and even gals] are familiar with Bettie, but one doesn’t know that until someone in the group dares to bring up the subject. I even joined the BettieScouts of America fan club.) Then I remembered that Constantine was the same guy whose mom blinded him.


One can’t write fluff about someone whose Mom blinded him. I tried writing Beth (inspired by Bettie) out of the story but had come to like the character that I was developing too much. I needed such a character to boost an otherwise depressing tale of Constantine and his mother. I thought to have him dream of someone who’d lived before him. That would not have had to be fantasy but I couldn’t find anyone that I could use without totally changing her character. So Beth stayed. Of course it means a story that will turn off people with a serious interest in serious history; but whatthehell, to quote Mehitabel the poetic cockroach.

Click here for Part 2 of the interview with Vincent O’Reilly author of Count No Man Happy.

Program for the Conversations on Byzantine Archaeology II

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

A few people privately and publicly have asked that I post the program for the Conversations on Byzantine Archaeology meeting this past weekend. I hadn’t realized that the program was not public, but it obviously should have been.

Hopefully, the comment threads in blogs like this can continue the conversation beyond the meeting. In particular, I suspect that conversations like the one held this past weekend should resolve rather quickly into action. The last conversation, for example, inspired me and Kostis Kourelis to begin work on an edited volume that focused on the intersection of Byzantine archaeology, method, and theory.

This year’s conversation focused less (it would seem) on the work of Byzantine archaeology and more on the location of Byzantine archaeology at the margins of complex institutional concerns. It perhaps should follow that some kind of action focusing on the marginal and scattered positions of Byzantine archaeology should result. In short, how do we maximize the benefits of standing outside of so many institutional structures.

The risks of our position are obvious: I know that I am often comfortable sitting back and waiting for institutions to show value and support for my work.  This kind of apathy or more positively (as Nikos put it in a comment on yesterday’s post) our “deliberate stance” outside disciplinary structures, could lead our field to wither as tenuous, largely personal networks of scholarly contact succumb to institutional pressures and our dispersed positions rob us of the ability for concerted actions. On the other hand, digital media and the internet provide a space for conversation and action outside of traditional institutional structures. It might make sense for the next conversation on Byzantine archaeology to happen in a series of blog posts or via social media. A recent conversation on blogging archaeology moved almost seamlessly from a panel at the Society for American Archaeology to myriad blogs across the interwebs, to Colleen Morgan’s blog Middle Savagery (here are my concluding remarks with links to Colleen’s summaries) and is heading to publication.

I was happy to learn that some of my colleagues – many of whom I had never met – read this blog, so I am pleased enough to offer a little space for informal organization and conversation. As most people know, the internet has come increasingly to provide a place for conversations that skirt institutional authority.

So, I am willing to offer my blog as a place for people to post their reflections on the place of Byzantine archaeology in the academy (if you do not have a blog of your own!).  If the statements are substantial enough, we could look for someplace to submit them for publication or at least self-publish them as a small volume.

Oh, here’s the program.

Byzantine Archaeology: A Marginal Practice

January 16, 2012 § 5 Comments

I returned yesterday from an interesting meeting on the future of Byzantine archaeology (mostly in the US) hosted by Dumbarton Oaks and the Council for American Overseas Research Centers. The meeting focused on pressing issues in the health of Byzantine archaeology in the US and the role that the AORCs (American Overseas Research Centers) could play in future development of the field. The meeting had a strong contingent of representatives of various AORCs which support research ranging from archaeology to the social sciences and humanities and rarely focus on one field in particular. Along with representatives of the AORCs and Dumbarton Oaks, there was a range of scholars who represented Byzantine archaeology across various regions, institutions, and sub-periods.

The conversation was brisk, if a bit unfocused (wide ranging?), and to my mind, squarely underscored the position of Byzantine archaeology at a variety of margins and fissures in the historical, academic, and institutional world.

1. Byzantine archaeology was certainly marginal in relation to the AORCs represented – even those like the American Academy at Rome, Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, or the American School of Classical Studies at Athens which have a tradition of supporting archaeology. A handful of students, grants, and projects relate to Byzantine archaeology at most of these AORCs, and while there was enthusiasm for supporting more Byzantine archaeological work (and even a rise in the number of projects that could be qualified as such), it was unclear where the resources would come from the support these projects. Many of even the better funded AORCs have significant financial limitations.

2. Byzantine archaeology was also marginal in the institutional structure of US graduate programs. From what I could gather, none of the US based scholars in the room taught in a graduate program in archaeology. Instead, we hailed from history, classics, art history, and religious studies programs. As result, we often found our methods, research questions, and resources limited by the support and emphases present in the disciplinary centers to which Byzantine archaeology has attached itself. This marginal location has made it more difficult for Byzantine archaeology to articulate itself as a particular subfield, forge contacts with archaeologists of other time periods and regions, and train students. This, of course, has made it difficult for us to develop institutional support for projects and to reproduce our field. Moreover, it has fragmented the conversation on Byzantine archaeology and has, I think, put us in a position of disciplinary insecurity. There were some significant statements regarding the relationship between archaeology and “history” or “philology” at the meeting. It was clear that we recognized ourself as being separate from these fields (disciplines? methods? approaches?) and some scholars present even postured in an adversarial way at times, but what was less clear was how Byzantine archaeology was different and whether its lack of distinctive disciplinary status was a good or bad thing for the future of the Byzantine archaeology project in an increasingly post-disciplinary world.

3. The marginal status of Byzantine archaeology at many of the AORCs represented paralleled the often marginal status of Byzantine monuments (and the interest in Byzantine archaeology) among the host countries where we have to do our work. Problematic reconstructions, neglect, lack of well-trained practitioners in host countries, and difficult national archaeological policies were all topics of discussion at the meeting. The marginal position of Byzantine archaeology in both (some) national narratives and the relatively obscure or exceedingly prominent (like in the case of the land walls of Constantinople) status of Byzantine monuments provided challenges for Byzantine archaeologists – marginalized in a disciplinary sense and in relation to their host countries – to convert their priorities into national policies and actions.

4. Finally, it was striking how marginal the conversation this weekend was in relation to larger discussions in the discipline of archaeology. Aside from a few comments scattered in a range of papers, the discussion did little to leverage the growing body of scholarship on issues like indigenous archaeology, public archaeology, and other practices emphasized in “world archaeology” as method to articulate the tension between archaeological epistemologies and the “real (political, economic, cultural, and religious) world” where archaeological practices takes place. The discursive isolation from the terminology of world archaeology again places Byzantine archaeology at the margins of its disciplinary home. Certainly some of this is a result of the institutional isolation in which most Byzantine archaeologists work.

Kostis Kourelis final remarks on the presentations and conversation at the conference asked important questions about the institutional engagement of Byzantine archaeology and urged us as practitioners to regard our professional position in a critical way. In particular, he evoked Bruce Triggers well known statement that all archaeology is either nationalist or imperialist. While that may hold true, I do wonder whether the marginal position of Byzantine archaeology locates the field in a place where it can escape this dichotomy in some way. For example, the lack of disciplinary entanglements frees it from a rigorous commitment to the kind of empiricism lies at the core of the institutional organization of the university. If one motivation for a post-disciplinary world is to escape from the complex legacy embedded within the institutional memory and organization of the modern university, then the distinct position of Byzantine archaeology at the margins gives it remarkable freedom to chose its methodological, epistemological, and institutional alliances carefully and critically. As E. Said has shown us in Orientalism, institutions carry forward the legacies of national and imperialist practices and have the remarkable ability to remain impervious to critique. As outsiders, like Said, Byzantine archaeologists have the ability to challenge presuppositions embedded deeply in disciplinary and institutional practices.

This privileged position for Byzantine archaeology is not without risks, of course. As a number of the speakers made clear, we have often found it necessary to “game” the system which is reluctant to fund projects from the margins that may challenge long held attitudes toward the organization of knowledge. While this is frustrating and limiting, it does, however, limit the entanglements and commitments Byzantine archaeology has to any one ideology, method, or epistemology.

Part of what I felt coming out of this meeting was a sense of community forming at the margins. I think we’re a ways from challenging institutional attitudes and epistemologies, but a community of like-minded, critical, independent, scholars is an important first step to carving out space for resistance and change that extends far beyond the confines of our fields or our discipline. We just now have to have the courage.

Some Perspectives on the Archaeology of the Byzantine Countryside

January 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

Later this week, I head east to the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library to a meeting on the state of Byzantine archaeology. This is second such meeting; the first occurred in 2010 in the spring (and Kostis Kourelis provided a useful chronicle of it here and here.)  I was invited in 2010, but unfortunate was not able to attend.

This year, however, I’ll be able to make it to Washington and the organizers of the meeting have asked me to talk about the archaeology of the Byzantine countryside. I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure about the format of the meeting or the expectations people may have with regard to my contribution. I know that I have only 10 minutes to present some kind of perspectives on the archaeology of the Byzantine countryside in a panel that looks at the archaeology of the rural and the urban. After that, I suppose, we just contribute to the conversation as required.

Here’s my brief contribution. I’ve tried to avoid being too specific in the text with the feeling that with relatively little time, painting with broad brushstrokes would be more useful than a detailed – but inevitably incomplete – historiography.

Any advice on its content and tone would be greatly appreciated.

Perspectives on the Archaeology of the Byzantine Countryside

It is difficult to emphasize how much we do not know about the Byzantine countryside. While recent work has produced an increasingly complex picture of small sections of the rural Byzantine world and textual sources have offered some perspectives on the economic and social relationships that structured rural society, there remains remarkably little data on everyday life outside the urban centers of the Byzantine world.

Archaeologists, however, have some tools at their disposal to redress this.  At this point, I should confess my methodological commitment to low or lower impact kinds of archaeological work which emphasize the study of surface material, remote sensing practices, and the publication or re-study of excavated assemblages to address new scholarly concerns.

From a methodological perspective, low impact archaeology has found particular favor among those interested in documenting the countryside. It has generally allowed archaeologists to sample larger areas at less expense, time, and overhead associated with storage and processing of artifacts. In Greece and Cyprus – they two regions where I am most familiar – work of Tim Gregory, Archie Dunn, Effie Athanasopoulos, Joanita Vroom, Marcus Rautman, Nick Kardulias, and others has begun to slowly populate the countryside with rural sites from all periods including the Byzantine.  This work has begun to investigate critically categories of sites that occur faintly in our textual sources including farmsteads, hamlets, and villages. The hope has been, of course, that by documenting artifacts on the ground, often at a regional scale, we can begin to fill in the blank areas on the map between known sites in Byzantine rural areas (typically churches, monasteries, and fortifications) and urban centers.

There is also hope that we can begin to describe more effectively the kinds of activities that took place in the countryside and the degree to which rural areas were integrated with urban centers or larger economic systems.  In particular, survey archaeologists have begun to explore the complexities of the interstitial spaces which formed the fabric of the Byzantine world. Fortified by concepts like  “connectivity” and the autonomy of micro-regions, made famous in Horden and Purcell’s monumental work on the Mediterranean, scholar have begun to consider how the economic networks that integrate urban and rural, in fact, produce Byzantine society.

If this undertaking was as simple as declaring the countryside to be the key to new perspectives on the Byzantine society, there would be very little debate surrounding the priorities for Byzantine archaeology.

But, of course, it is not that simple.

There is only the most superficial consensus on the difficult issue of how we define the function of rural sites and calls for genuinely siteless intensive survey methods have largely failed to sidestep the complex issue of relating past activities to specific space.

Issues related to the chronology of surface assemblages have remained every bit as vexing. Even when we can identify, broadly speaking, fine wares with a fairly decent degree of consistency, coarse, cooking, and other utility wares remain difficult to recognize. Local wares, in particular, remain poorly known and coarse wares without obvious fabrics or surface treatments remain challenging to date without comparanda from local, secure stratigraphic context.

Finally, there remains a host of issues related to how we sample the countryside. On a macro scale these issues relate to definitions of the region and sampling strategies that work efficiently and accurately enough to produce substantive generalizations.  On a micro scale, there persist issues related to sampling artifact-rich environments in a way that represents chronology and function while at the same time preserves the advantages in efficiency of intensive survey. The general trend in survey archaeology – and some of this is the product of more restrictive attitudes toward survey from host countries – has been toward smaller areas and more intensive methods. These debates contribute directly to our ability to compare survey data across regions (or, even, in some highly surveyed areas like Boeotia or the Corinthia within the same region) to create a synthetic perspective on a singular Byzantine countryside.

The work in intensive pedestrian survey often contributes explicitly to the growing interest in landscape as a synthetic term for considering the countryside. Landscape perspectives draw inspiration from a range of disciplines and partake of the so-called “spatial turn” in the humanities. From the perspective of the Byzantine countryside the study of landscapes presents a wide, if unfocused, stage for the critical interplay of texts and material culture.

If survey archaeology has reduced the countryside to a set of quantifiable variables, landscape approaches have sought to emphasize the range of experiences crucial to articulating meaning within rural space. For example, elusive media like memory and ritual – preserved in hagiography, architecture, art, and epigraphy – grounded Byzantine spirituality in the real countryside and produced recoverable religious landscapes.  Landscape perspectives tempt scholars to expand discussions of land tenure, taxation, and production to considerations of kinship, administration, resistance, and control.  Economic relationships become roads, paths, and travel through the countryside, and offer human-scaled alternatives to our cartographic perspective of regions, places, and Byzantine rural space. This kind of work has just begun to expand how we see countryside from being largely in economic terms, to being a space where religion, economy, politics, kinship, and connectivity all interact. As one scholar has recently observed, the Byzantine countryside is ripe for reconceptualization as a kind of “third space” that challenges the traditional assumptions about the urban – rural dichotomy, relationships grounded in modern conceptions of production, and cartographic perspectives of the countryside that occlude the complexities of the countryside as lived space.

From my perspective, landscape approaches and the methods associated with intensive pedestrian survey offer tools that will allow us to gently decenter the urban focus of Byzantine culture. At present, however, these techniques for interrogating and documenting the countryside have remained on the margins of Byzantine studies. Recent synthetic and survey works have spent little time considering rural life in Byzantine, in general, and periodicals that focus on the Byzantine period rarely feature articles related to this kind of fieldwork. Moreover, with a few prominent exceptions, Byzantine archaeologists have remained on the sidelines during the theoretical and methodological discussions central to these new methods.  The skills central to survey and landscape approaches – facility in relational databases, Geographic Information Systems, remote sensing technologies – remain comparatively rare among Byzantine archaeologists who tend not to be as fluent in methodologies and debates grounded in world archaeology, archaeological sciences, and a more diachronic approach to Mediterranean fieldwork. The resulting absence of a sustained interest in the methods and results of archaeology in the countryside in synthetic works on Byzantine history and the relative detachment of Byzantine archaeology from larger methodological and theoretical debates has made it more difficult for Byzantine archaeologists to secure resources necessary within our discipline or from outside our discipline to design large scale projects or to gain leadership in regional scale projects.  If these methods and approaches do have something to offer the archaeology of the countryside, Byzantine archaeology remains on the outside looking in.

Byzantium and the Avant Garde Wrap Up

November 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Just a quick post today as I continue my hosting duties for Kostis Kourelis.  I did, however, want to provide a quick report on his talk.

We had a great turn out for the talk yesterday with over 40 people from all across campus in attendance. We also have 15 people logged into the online feed which was pretty exciting. Special thanks go to our Center for Instructional and Learning Technologies who provided the live stream.

For anyone who missed the talk, you can watch a recording of the live feed here.

For those of you who want to read more about Kostis’ work, I encourage you to become a regular visitor to his blog Objects-Buildings-Situations.

If you’d like to check out some of his longer work in pre-publications, Kostis does post occasionally to a Scribd page here.

Finally, thank you to all the Phi Alpha Theta (History honor society) students who helped set up and break down the little reception after the talk. Thanks to the Department of History for providing the lovely reception and to the International Studies Program for helping with publicity.  And, a very special thanks to all of our donors who have helped the Cyprus Research Fund

And we’re hard at work on our next event, hopefully this Spring!

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