A Late Roman Farmhouse near Metaponto

March 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

This past week I’ve been reading Ermina Lapadula’s publication of the Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio near the ancient city of Metaponto in the Basilicata region of Italy. Excavated by a team of both Italians and a team from the University of Texas, the ten-room farmhouse was mid-sized (a villula) and of modest prosperity. It represents one of a rather small number of non-elite rural dwellings in Italy published in any detail and is consistent with recent work on Roman peasants in the Italian countryside

I’m preparing a formal review of this book for the American Journal of Archaeology, and I’ll post a preprint of that when it’s done. For now, however, I’ll give you some observations.

1. Tiles. Ten years ago, my buddy David Pettegrew published an article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology on the farmhouses in the Classical period in Greece. One of the difficulties he faced in understanding what a farmhouse might look like in the surface record was how few excavated rural houses exist in Greece. The same observation, of course, could be made of almost any rural structure. He goes on to note that even excavated rural buildings do not seem to produce enough roof tiles to cover them. The reason for this is rather obvious; people strip abandoned buildings of their valuable tiles, and we confirmed this practice through some ethnographic parallels. It would seem that the San Biagio farmhouse likewise lost its tiles probably after a short period of abandonment. While the publication did not go into much detail regarding the post abandonment history of the building or any other matters of site formation, an attentive and interested reader can glean intriguing details about the site’s later history throughout the volume.

2. Reconstruction. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is a lovely digital reconstruction of the building supported by an appropriately detailed discussion. Unlike the older practice of hand-drawn architectural reconstruction (which were also included in this volume) – which were largely illustrative – new digital reconstructions often include discussions of how the process worked. I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the roofing system used at San Biagio and it seems to coincide with what we found at our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria in Cyprus. Moreover, the digital reconstructions were gorgeous in resolution and detail. See Figure 2.28 below with a detail of the roof.


3. Landscapes. One of the most useful things about this volume is that the same team who excavated the farmhouse had also conducted and published a larger regional survey from the region. As a result, they were able to locate this site within larger patterns of settlement and ascertain how deeply connected the regional economy was to larger Mediterranean networks of exchange. The mid-sized farmhouse is both typical for the region, which tended to lack the large villas typical of the 2nd-4th centuries in southern Italy. Economically, the villula was fairly integrated into the larger Mediterranean networks of exchange with ceramic material showing exchange with other parts of Italy, Spain, the Aegean, and North Africa (and even a few fragments of Late Roman 1 amphora from the Eastern Mediterranean). That being said, the authors suspect that the main economic activity at the farmhouse was animal husbandry and it was probably a “self-sufficient” rather than explicitly commercial farm. It would have been really fantastic had the authors brought a more sophisticated conceptualization of landscape (perhaps using Ingold’s idea of the taskscape) to their study of the villa and its environs. 

4. A Small Private Bath. It is striking that this rather modest farmhouse had a small private bath. Another buddy of mine, Dallas Deforest has recently completed a dissertation on baths and bathing in Late Antique Greece and I wonder whether there is evidence for such small private baths there. When we discover hypocaust tiles in the countryside during field survey (and this is exceedingly rare), we immediately expect them to derive from an elite residence. The presence of a small bath at a more modest site might temper our assumptions a bit.

5. Artifacts and Stratigraphy. The site was excavated stratigraphically and the volume includes a well-executed artifact catalogue. On the one hand, the catalogue is really nice. It is neither overblown to include every example of particular objects nor too spare to mine for comparanda (and the very nice assemblage of 3rd century material makes it a very appealing source for comparanda!). On the other hand, I remain frustrated by the separation of the objects from their archaeological context. I realize that this arrangement is a practical requirement for most archaeological publications and benefits both the treatment of the stratigraphy and the artifact, but it remains frustrating to have to flip back and forth between the two parts of the book. This will be the advantage of the next generation of digital archaeological publications which allow the reader to drill down into the data upon which the observations rest.

A Very Short Introduction to Late Antiquity

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.

Regional Survey and Byzantium

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Roman Peasants

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.  

Early Christian Archaeology

December 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

The past few weeks I’ve worked on a top secret Early Christian Archaeology project (which is not particularly related to this past from several years ago). As part of that project, my collaborator and I began to think about the term Early Christian Christian archaeology in an Anglo-American academic context, and we both came to the conclusion that, while common the scholarship elsewhere in the world, it is relatively rare among English speaking scholars. Indeed, looking at a Google Ngram for the term, we can see that it is not only rare, but has only begun to appear quite recently.


The spike that appears in the mid-1970s derives primarily from a small number of works that appeared between 1965 and 1975. Most of these books looked at the archaeology of the Early Christian period in the U.K. (and one particular book A.C. Thomas’s Early Christian Archaeology of North Britain (1971). The continued growth in the term Early Christian Archaeology in more recent decades derives in large part from the growing interest in the archaeology of Late Antiquity and the appearance of William Frend’s book The Archaeology of Early Christianity (1996) which explores the history of the discipline. Among European scholars, the Early Christian period encompasses the first five centuries of our era. A similar trend is evident in the following Ngram that queries Late Antiquity, Late Roman, and Late Antique.


In contrast, Christian Archaeology, in contrast, was a term with greater currency in the 19th century driven by the first generation of professional archaeologists who brought scientific methods to the study of both the Bible and Christian antiquity more generally.


A similar, if somewhat busier graph appears for the phrase Biblical Archaeology which obviously encompasses the archaeology of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.


As I have noted elsewhere the practice of Biblical and, to some extent, Early Christian archaeology are interesting because texts explicitly (in the case of Biblical archaeology at least) drive the narrative. This locates archaeological practices in particular relationship to the textual and material culture of the past and opens the door to some significant rumination on archaeological and historical epistemology. Texts and religion emerge as independent variables that define both the practice of archaeology as well as the questions that we ask of the archaeology. The concomitant rise in interest in Early Christian Archaeology (as well as its longs standing roots in 19th century questions of historical and “scientific” validation of Biblical accounts) and in more substantial conversations concerning the nature of archaeology as discipline suggests a field ripe for renewed critique.

Corinthian Fortifications

October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

This past week, I’ve begun to think again about Corinthian fortifications for the introduction to a volume of re-prints on the Corinthian countryside. The fortifications represent over 2000 years of continuous strategical importance to this corridor that links southern and central Greece as well as the Adriatic and Aegean basins on the Mediterranean. Beginning in the Hellenistic period and continuing through to the Italian and German occupations of Greece, fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth was a significant concern for both local residents and occupying powers. The episodes of fortification range from the massive Hexamilion wall and Isthmia fortress to modest earthen barriers or field stone enceintes. The published fortifications have generally appeared in Hesperia or in the volumes of the Isthmia or Corinth excavation series. To date, however, there has been little in the way of integrative study of these fortifications across the entire region for any particular period or from a diachronic perspective that emphasizes persistent understandings of the Corinthian landscape.

The study of fortification in Corinthia centers on five major, deeply interrelated, issues.

1. Permanent or Contingent. The best known fortification in the Corinthia to scholars of the ancient world is on that has left very little material evidence: the famous transisthmian wall described by Herodotus (8.40). This fortification typified the contingent, emergency work of fortifying the Isthmus as a way to protect the Peloponnesus from threats from the north. The frantic repairs reported in the Byzantine period to the Hexamilion wall represent another episode of short term work designed to address the vulnerability of the open Corinthian plain to forces moving south. The rubble fortifications along Mt. Oneion (pdfpdf) and on Geranion represented smaller scale efforts to augment the natural boundaries of the Isthmus corridor for defensive purposes. These fortifications took advantage of material at hand and the ceramic evidence and historical situations that would contextualize, at least, the hastily erected fortifications on Mt. Oneion. 

More permanent fortification include not only the impressive fortifications around Corinth and its acropolis Acrocorinth, but also the massive Hexamilion wall, the long walls linking Corinth to its western port of Lechaion, the substantial Hellenistic wall published by James Wiseman (pdf), and various towers of Hellenistic and Venetian date (pdf). While these fortifications may have emerged in response to particular threat, they nevertheless represent a significant investment in the landscape suggesting that the occasion for their construction was part of a larger , systemic effort to fortify the Peloponnesus or the vulnerable communities in the Corinthia.

2. Internal or External. We know that many of the fortifications built in the Corinthia stood not to protect Corinthian lands or residents, but rather to protect polities in the Peloponnesus. The mighty Hexamilion wall, for example, stood to fortify the Peloponnesus and left exposed stretches of the Isthmia plain. Efforts to fortify Mt. Oneion in the Venetian and the Hellenistic periods (pdf) likewise left the Isthmia plain unprotected and mainly served to prevent movement south into the Peloponnesus. 

Other fortifications, however, clearly served to protect Corinthian territory. The towers at places like Are Bartze in the southeastern Corinthia, the fortifications at Ayia Paraskevi, or the towers at Stanotopi (pdf) and Ano Vayia all likely served to protect Corinthian interests rather than those of an invading power. The substantial Hellenistic wall documented by Wiseman (pdf), for example, appears to bisect some of the most productive and densely built up areas of the Isthmus making it difficult to assign to either the Corinthian state or an external power. In contrast, the reinforced concrete fortifications erected by the Germans and Italians during the Second World War served the obvious interests of an external power.

3. Local or Regional. A key element to understanding the fortifications is determining whether they served to protect a particular region in the Corinthia or were part of a larger systematic network of fortification designed to protect the entire Corinthia (comparable to, say, Ober’s arguments for Fortress Attica). This issue is closely tied to the function of fortifications and whether the fortifications were erected by local authorities or the Corinthian state and fundamental views on how ancient fortifications functioned. It is hard to imagine isolated towers at Are Bartze (for example) or even at Ano Vayia contributing to a completely integrated defensive network (as envisioned by J. Marchand on the Argos-Corinth road (pdf)), but our knowledge of the fortifications in the Corinthian countryside remains fragmentary throughout much of the area. 

4. Function. Much of the previous issues have to do with how we understand the various fortifications functioned in the landscape. Simple walls like those constructed by the Venetians at passes through Mt. Oneion clearly could do little to obstruct the large scale movement of troops through the region. On the other hand, hastily con structured fortifications at Stanotopi (pdf) and further west on Mt. Oneion (pdf) suggest fortified camps designed to protect temporary garrisons rather than to block movement (necessarily). The mighty Hexamilion wall and the more fragmentary Hellenistic walls seem to have combined space for garrisons with long stretched of wall designed to stop movement across the plain. The walls of Ay. Paraskevi, Mt. Tsalikas, the Isthmia Fortress, and the city of Corinth (pdf) itself likely functioned to protect local settlements. Towers, in contrast, may have stood to allow guards to observe important routes through the area (pdf, pdf), but they may also represent fortified farmsteads or keeps erected by local landowners to protect their lands or slaves.

5. Topography. Finally, the local topography plays a key role in understanding how fortifications in the Corinthia were organized. The rugged topography limited the routes that individuals or groups could use to pass through the territory. The natural limits on travel presented clear opportunities for fortification, but it may have also required a kind of modular strategy because defending forces would suffer the same limitations on movement.

While it is unlikely that my effort to pull together the evidence and issues central to the fortification of Corinth through time will produce a kind of Fortress Corinthia, I do hope that it will contribute to a larger conversation about land use through time in this vital communication and population center in southern Greece.

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.

Terraces and Rural Land Use at Politiko-Troullia

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

As I am putting the final(ish) touches on the conclusion to a survey volume based on our work on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I have a good excuse to catch up on reports from other little survey projects on the eastern part of the Cyprus. Yesterday, I read through P. L. Fall, S. Falconer, C. S. Galletti, T. Shirmang, E. Ridder, and J. Klinge, “Long-term agrarian landscapes in the Troodos foothills, Cyprus,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (2012), 2335-2347.

The article looked at terraced hillsopes at the site of Politiko-Koloiokremmos and, the better known, Politiko-Troulia in the eastern Troodos and argues that at least some of these terrace walls relate to surface assemblages of Prehistoric Bronze Age material in a statistically meaningful way. The authors ground these conclusions in a careful typology of terrace walls (which may become a useful guide to any project confronting numerous terraces on Cyprus) and a systematic surface survey.

Their survey covered an area of 20 ha with 174 2 meter radius total collection circles which produced material from almost every period from the Bronze Age to Medieval times. Sherd densities were 30-50 sherds/100 m2. This density ranked higher than the threshold of 20 sherds/100 m2 that the nearby Sydney Cyprus Survey Project suggested for “agricultural background”.  Geophysical investigation demonstrated that the surface scatter was indeed associated with a tangle of subsurface features and excavation dated these features to the Cypriot Bronze Age. The presence of significant Bronze Age material and the investment in terrace walls seems to indicate an “intensively utilized, but apparently isolated, agrarian locality” dating to before the large scale urbanization of the island in the Late or Protohistoric Bronze Age.

Curiously, later material in the surface assemblage does not seem to relate to any of the subsurface features excavated at the site. The authors suggest that the proximity to the later city of Tamassos which emerged as an important political center in the Iron Age might account for the later material on the surface as the site falls within what the authors regard as a plausible manuring halo for residence of the city of Tamassos. They do concede, however, that the low density scatter might represent “dispersed field structures or farmsteads.”  The presence of Roman or Medieval roof tiles indicates that some of the later, low density scatter of material in the area might be related to a Roman or Medieval structure built atop the low rise of the site. 

The authors conclude with the observation that the site of Politiko-Troulia/Koloiokremmos has evidence for over 4000 years of continuous agricultural use and investment. The stability of the such long-term agrarian landscapes on Cyprus is, indeed, striking, but not particularly unusual in the Mediterranean basin. The far more pressing issue, of course, is why are these localities so persistently appealing despite shifts in settlement distributions, demographic expansion and contraction, economic fluctuations, and changes in cultural attitudes toward the landscape.

Late Antiquity in Greece

September 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have a hectic fall, but I could not keep myself from at least delving into John Bintliff’s new survey of Greek archaeology. Running close to 500 pages of text and modestly named The Complete Archaeology of Greece: From Hunter Gatherers to the 20th Century A.D., Bintliff’s newest contribution provides an ambitious panorama of Greek archaeology. Bintliff is one of only a small handful of scholars in the hyper-specialized world of Classical and Mediterranean Archaeology who could produce a book like this. While I have yet to read closely most of the book, the sections that deal with the periods I spend most time with – Late Antiquity and Byzantium – are significant. 

So, in my tradition of lists, here are five observations about his approach to Late Antiquity:

1. Survey Archaeology. This is the first survey of Greek archaeology that moves intensive pedestrian survey practices to the fore of archaeological investigation. Bintliff draws heavily on his own work in Boeotia and other survey projects throughout Greece to construct arguments for settlement, urban change, and the Later Roman economy. It is impossible to exaggerate how significant this in the context of Greek archaeology where large, urban excavations have for so long framed most of the key conversations about archaeology in Greece even for the Late Roman world. Bintliff does not overlook the significance of urban excavations – for example he makes use of salvage excavations in Thessaloniki as well as excavations at the Athenian Agora, Sparta, and Corinth to make arguments for the form and prevalence of Late Roman villas, but he places these discussions alongside sites documented during both extensive and intensive survey.   Bintliff’s willingness to emphasize the results produced by survey archaeology has had several significant knock-on consequences:

2. Methods. One of the most significant consequences in expanding our idea of Greek archaeology from its traditional emphasis on excavation to include survey archaeology is a renewed interest in connecting archaeological methods to the kinds of conclusions that one can draw from archaeological data. While excavation practices have increased in sophistication over the past 50 years, no where in Greek archaeology has the methodological discourse reached the level of intensity as in survey archaeology. Bintliff makes a particular point of considering David Pettegrew’s important 2007 article in Hesperia (76.4: pdf here) which noted the vast differences in artifact visibility between Early-Middle Roman coarse wares and Late Roman coarse wares. Late Roman amphora sherds with their distinctive surface treatments are simply far more visible in a survey context than amphora sherds from earlier periods. This has obvious consequences for how we understand the extent and nature of settlement and land use over the long Roman period in Greece. Bintliff’s willingness to address this fiddly methodological issue brings a level of sophistication to his work that might otherwise be absent in a book focused on the traditional topic of Greek archaeology in the later Roman period (churches, fortifications, urban change, villas, et c.).     

3. Town and Country. Intensive pedestrian survey – whatever its current methodological limitations – has shed invaluable light on the Late Roman countryside and, by extension, the Late Roman economy. Bintliff’s book does more than any other major survey of Greek history or archaeology to bring the rural economy into the larger narrative of later Greek history. Survey archaeology has brought to light not only the presence of smaller site where saw re-occupation in Late Roman period, but also the appearance of numerous island and harbor sites which undoubtedly reflects vibrant commerce in agricultural goods on small-scale as well as the  integration of small rural producers with an economy increasingly geared toward supplying  Constantinople and the Danubian provinces. 

4. Periodization. One of the few area where I am willing to question Bintliff’s approach to dealing with the Late Roman period is in his decisions to abide by longstanding practices of separating the Late Antique (300-650) from the Early Byzantine (650-850). To his credit, he makes explicit the difficulties associated with the tricky practice of periodizing and offers an argument based on demographic change, shifts in architectural practices, and larger geo-politics. On the other hand, archaeologists have increasingly come to see the chronological boundaries of Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium as far from clear. The study of Late Roman ceramics continues to show that various forms traditionally dated to Late Antiquity persist into the 8th centuries. The excavators of most monumental Late Antique buildings in Greece did not publish systematically their stratigraphy and ceramic data making it difficult to associate the dates of these buildings with actual archaeological material. Finally, larger patterns of life – including the well-worn trading paths that integrated Greece with the larger Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean world – may have persisted for much longer than earlier scholars have suspected. The continued vitality of urban areas like Corinth into the 8th centuries offers a significant challenge to traditional periodization schemes.

5. The Hexamilion. Finally, it was gratifying to see the Hexamilion wall and Isthmian fortress occupying a significant place in Bintliff’s treatment of the Late Roman countryside. This massive fortification extended across the entire Isthmus of Corinth and formed a formidable (if oddly ineffective) barrier against barbarian incursions from the north. Two fortresses anchored the Hexamilion wall at its eastern and western termini, and the eastern fortress has seen significant archaeological work mainly by teams associated with the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia. The wall and fortress undoubtedly had a massive economic and visual impact on the Corinthian countryside drawing significant resources to the provisioning of the garrison there and the maintenance of the wall. The site of the Isthmian fortress served as the base of operations for the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey and was where I gained whatever modest knowledge I have about archaeology.

Fountains and Water in Late Antiquity

August 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

Access to water remains a basic human need. The arid climate of the Mediterranean basin made access to water an even more pressing issue and cities throughout antiquity deployed impressive feats of engineering to provide their citizens with water. As water invovled massive investments in infrastructure, they also became opportunities for display and soon became important opportunities for partonage and highly visible elements of the Classical cities urban fabric.

Recent scholarship has come to appreciate the significance of water to life in the ancient city. Works like Brenda Longfellow’s Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: form, meaning, and ideology in monumental fountain complexes (Cambridge 2011) and Betsy Robinson’s History of Peirene (ASCSA 2011) have framed fountains as key manifestation of local, civic, and imperial ethos. The most recent volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity features a long article by Ine Jacobs and Julian Richard titled “‘We Surpass the Beautiful Waters of Other Cities by the Abundance of Ours: Reconciling Function and Decoration in Late Antique Fountains” (JLA 5.1 (2012), 3-71) which draws on Ine Jacobs’ very recent book and a forthcoming volume by Julian Richard looks at nymphaea in the Greek East.  

In short, the article argues that changes in the social organization of ancient cities and attitudes toward water maintenance led to changes in the aesthetics of the water supply in Late Antique community. In particular, they show a decline the construction of large civic foundations of the kind studies by Longfellow and the growth in both smaller and improvised fountains and the modification (and maintenance) of older monumental fountains. The authors highlight fountains and water supplies from the Greek east in particular and discuss modifications to older fountains that allowed for water to be sent elsewhere from the existing basins as well as new fountains set up in the colonnades of ancient streets or tucked into inconspicuous corners of the ancient city. The modified older fountains and their smaller neighborhood counterparts offered less space and less, perhaps, less occasion for elaborate decorations. Massive displays of larger-than-life statuary gave way to the use of smaller statuettes, the re-use of earlier decorative elements, and the more practical arrangement of features designed to ensure the well-managed flow of clean water. The authors conclude that the transformation visible in these Late Antique fountains have little do with the deteriorating fabric of urban life, and more to do with practical adaptations to perrenial problems of water supply and management.  In fact, the proliferation of smaller fountains and the effort to siphon water away from older monumental fountains in urban area might have been a response to an overabundance of water coming into the city rather than concerns over the absence of water. 

This articles (along with Richard’s forthcoming book) will a useful starting point for a larger study of water in the Late Antique East. There were several issues that piqued my interest:

1. The Church and Water. One of the chapters in my dissertation that I axed fairly late in the process was the role of water – particularly fountains – in church architecture. Numerous monumental Christian churches had fountains in Greece. These often stood in the atrium of the church and were fed by complex water supplies or cisterns. It seems probable that the position of the fountains in the atria of these buildings ensured that they were accessible to local residents outside of the ritual life of the church. Moreover, by providing access to water, the institutional church positioned itself in a tradition of civic munificence which complemented its role a patron of the poor and protectors of the community.

It is interesting to note that the stadium fountain at Ephesus featured Ionic impost capitals like the lesser known nymphaeum at Lechaion. The common appearance of Ionic impost capitals in church architecture suggests that these architectural elements might serve to tie together civic monuments like fountains and religious monuments in a more cohesive landscape. 

2. Mosaics. It was curious to me that in the description of decoration of the fountains, the authors do not mention the use of mosaics. I suspect that mosaics formed an important part of the decorative program in the small apsidal well-house at Polis. Mosaics were affordable and often graced baths – and responded well to water – as well as various apsidal spaces in Late Antiquity so it makes it difficult to imagine that they would not appear regularly in conjunction with smaller fountains.

3. Settlement and Neighborhoods. One of the interesting things about the transformation of fountains in Late Antique cities is the growth of small fountains in neighborhoods. These fountains – like the little well-house in Polis – presumably served local communities that no long gravitated to the larger urban centers with their spaces set aside for displays of civic pride and elite munificence. Instead, local fountains may have stood to serve smaller groups whose identities revolved less around the civic values and more around local landmarks and neighborhood. 

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