Settlement on Cyprus in the 7th and 8th Centuries

January 20, 2014 § 5 Comments

Over the next two months, I’ve been asked to write an essay on settlement in 7th and 8th century Cyprus. My work at Polis-Chrysochous and at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria puts me in a good position to think broadly of this transitional period with two specific points of reference.

The coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria appears to go into steep decline after the middle of the 7th century coinciding, it would seem, increased activity of the Arab fleet in middle decades of the 7th. During the 5th-7th century, there is every indication that the site was prosperous coastal emporium. The almost complete absence of material dating to the 8th or 9th centuries would seem to indicate that the site no long constituted a substantial locus of settlement on the south coast of the island. Of course, it is possible that the population simply moved to the east or west of our survey area or declined as the small embayment present infilled or larger economic demand for the agricultural produce in the area declined. In other words, we have no evidence that the decline of the site related directly to the activity of the Arab fleet.

Polis-Chrysochous, or ancient Arsinoe, appears to have had a different history. On the one hand, there is some evidence that life at the site was disrupted in the mid-7th century including damage to at least one of the two prominent churches revealed through excavation. On the other hand, the church was modified extensively in the mid-7th century with architecturally sophisticated additions that did more than just restore the building to its earlier state. In fact, the addition of a narthex, a portico along the church’s south wall, and a barrel vaulted roof produced a building that echoed the design of well-known basilicas elsewhere on the island. The massive deposit of rubble and pottery associated with these modification establishes beyond a doubt a terminus post quem of the mid-7th century.

Using these two sites as points of reference, I think I can address the six major issues that influence how we talk about the 7th and 8th century on Cyprus in general and that directly impact what we can say about settlement.

1. Methods and Evidence: Survey, Excavation, Architecture, and Texts

First, there is the reality that our textual sources are problematic and fragmentary deriving from a range of genres, historiographic perspectives, and languages. They do not present a cohesive picture of the island provide much insight into larger issues of settlement. In fact, some sources suggest that the population of the island was nearly all sold into slavery and removed (e.g. the Soli inscription) whereas other inscriptions seem to indicate that the island remained reasonably prosperous despite Arab incursions. Archaeological evidence likewise follows this confusing pattern with excavated sites showing greater signs of continuity with 6th century activities than the landscape revealed by intensive survey. Architecture is even more revealing with several well-know churches preserving decoration datable to the 7th and 8th century. In the end, textual and archaeological evidence leave us with two different, mutually exclusive stories for this period of transition.

2. Ceramic chronology.

Part of the issue is the difficult nature of 7th and 8th century ceramics. Despite the significant amount of scholarship from the past decade that has pushed the date of well-know fine wares and transport amphora from the comfortable confines of the 6th century into the wild margins of the 8th, there has been little large scale reassessment of ceramic assemblages on the island. We have continued to note how individual “type fossils” like Late Roman 1 amphora or Cypriot Red Slip forms could date later than originally thought, but we have only begun to use this knowledge to imagine 7th or 8th century assemblages on the island (outside a few, well-known examples like the pottery workshops at Dhiorios or Marcus Rautman’s identification of hand-made pottery at Kopetria). Until the redating of major wares informs the visibility of locally produced or “common” wares on Cyprus, the 7th and 8th centuries will continue to be rather difficult to identify in surface survey and in more modest contexts where imported or fine ceramics are absent.

3. Definition and Diversity in Settlement

Whatever the shortcomings of the current state of our knowledge about the 7th and 8th century, it is clear that something changed in the nature of settlement on the island. The “crowded countryside” of Late Antique Cyprus gave way to a much less clearly occupied landscape. At the same time, there appears to have been changes to the urban landscape with activities at sites like Kourion showing dramatic reductions in scope and prosperity whereas at sites like Polis, Paphos, and Salamis-Constantia showing signs of continued settlement and the continued functioning of some urban institutions like the church, civic government, and markets.

What is missing from our understanding of settlement on the island is the link between these urban sites and the countryside. Elsewhere in the Byzantine world, the emergence of villages and village economies characterized the change in settlement pattern during this period. Urban areas saw contraction and fortification. Thus far there is little evidence for these phenomena on Cyprus suggesting that the primary organization of settlement and rural production functioned along different lines. Perhaps the intensely urbanized character of Roman and Late Roman Cyprus continued to shape the organization of settlement and rural activities in the Early Byzantine period. Perhaps new institutions like monasteries exerted a stronger influence on Cyprus than elsewhere.

It may also be that the massive disruptions to the population of Cyprus brought about by the Arab raids, captive taking expeditions, and forced migrations, transformed the otherwise persistent landscape of the countryside into one characterized by short term and contingent settlement as a response to the rapidly changing demographic situation. We know that short term settlements tend to be less visible in the countryside than long term habitation. So perhaps the issue of rural settlement on Cyprus is one of visibility rather than presence.

4. Trade, Connectivity, and the Local Production

Contextualizing much of the conversation about 7th and 8th century Cyprus is the nature of economic activity in the Eastern Mediterranean during these centuries. As scholars have begun to recognize that the political and military events in this period disrupted trade as much as caused it to decline, new models for understanding the Early Byzantine economy have emphasized the change in character as well as change in scale. If the Cypriot economy and settlement in the 6th century felt the influence of the annona trade between Egypt and Constantinople (e.g. the settlement at Peyia in southwest Cyprus being warehousing site) and the administrative reorganization that funneled the agricultural produce of Cyprus to the needs of the army at the frontiers (perhaps leading to the prosperity of the sites at Dreamer’s Bay and Pyla-Koutsopetria), then the economy and settlement of the 7th and 8th century perhaps responded to the more fluid and changing opportunities and political situation of those centuries. For example, the changing needs and power of the central government in Constantinople may have spurred the decline of sites that emerged in response to the command economy of Late Antiquity.

If the unsettled economic and political circumstances of the 7th and 8th century, may have led to more dynamic responses from Cypriots who looked to limit risk and maximize opportunities in more contingent ways. In other words, if we accept the possibility that rural settlement was less visible during these centuries (rather than absent), it may be that short-term settlement in a “contingent countryside” reflects a more situational approach to a more dynamic economy.

5. Administrative Structures: Church and State

The persistence of certain institutions on Cyprus – namely the church and the political and social apparatus of the Byzantine state – demonstrate that despite the the large scale disruptions to the Late Roman world, certain aspect of life continued on Cyprus relatively unchanged. Recent work on lead seals from Cyprus show that the ecclesiastical, administrative, and aristocratic hierarchies continued to function on the island. These structures demonstrate the persistence of official ties to the capital and to the underlying legal and social institutions that would maintain, say, the prestige of local aristocrats or the position of the church as an economic engine in the community.

So, if the contingent countryside reflects the instability of Mediterranean politics and economy, then the persistence of some activity in urban centers demonstrates the ongoing presence of traditional elites attempting to continue to perform their traditional function in particular dynamic environment. The reconstruction of churches at Soli, Paphos, Polis, and elsewhere suggest that the church continued to be able to marshal and deploy economic resources from communities. The reconstruction of aqueducts and perhaps some civic buildings at Salamis-Constantia shows that certain civic functions continued, albeit on a more modest scale. Finally, the apparent abandonment of the site Kourion may reflect the intervention of community leaders to relocate key institutions and salvage existing resources from the site.

6. Events: Invasions, Forced Migrations, and Settlements.

Finally, events have long shaped the master narrative of the decline in the Roman Mediterranean. The Arab raids of the middle decades of the 7th century, the loss of Egypt and Syria, and the so-called “condominium period” have long shaped our understanding of settlement, demography, and economy on the island.  On the one hand, it is impossible not to see things like a substantial Arab fleet patrolling the waters off the island’s coast or the fundamental transformation of the large-scale economic unity of the Eastern Mediterranean impacting events on Cyprus. In fact, it would naive to somehow argue that these events did not impact life on the island.

On the other hand, punctuating the history of the island with these events undermines any understanding that sees Cypriot society as dynamic agents in their own history. By shifting our attention to patterns of activity on the island and prioritizing them in our analysis, we open the door to appreciating the strategies that communities and institutions used to adapt to changing times. It provides more than simply an answer to tired questions of “continuity and change” (that largely reside within a discourse of development toward nationalism) and allows us to focus our attention of the mechanisms that produced the seductive patterns that have meant so much to our understanding of the modern world.

The Archaeology of Religion and Culture in Late Antique Greece

November 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

The regular publication of the Archaeological Reports is a fine thing. Summarizing the work of both foreign and Greek excavators in Greece, these reports provide a bird’s eye view of recent fieldwork in Greece and shed particularly valuable light on small scale excavation sometimes only published in Greek journals with very limited circulation in the U.S. This year’s reports included a review of recent field work at Late Antique sites in Greece by Rebecca Sweetman titled “Religion and Culture in Late Antique Greece.” Sweetman is rapidly emerging as an important scholarly voice for an active and dynamic cohort of scholars working on a range of issues in the archaeology of Late Antiquity in Greece 

It’s only 11 pages so I urge you to track it down and read it, but I’ll provide my reaction to it anyway because that’s what I do here.

1. Rescue Excavations. The section of most interest to scholars probably focuses on the results of myriad rescue excavations around the country. These small scale and rapidly conducted excavations provide tiny windows into Late Antique levels particularly in urban areas. Unfortunately, rescue excavations rarely receive systematic publication and typically appear only as brief notes in Greek journals. Sweetman’s summary of these excavations provides bits of information that alone have little value, but can contribute to larger studies which often depend on robust catalogues to produce overviews of phenomena like domestic architecture, baths, or basilicas. 

2. Domestic Space in Town and Country. Sweetman is right when she notes that churches have dominated the archaeology of Late Antiquity and in her subtle assessment that this is not entirely a good thing. Recent attention in Greece to mortuary remains, domestic architecture, baths, and other more mundane spaces like industrial sites holds the potential to expand our perspectives. Work on houses is particularly promising especially in a rural context. While most of the houses noted recently excavated appear to be rather monumental, there were at least three rural farmhouses identified in Achaia, the Argolid, and Epirus. These buildings combined with data collected from intensive pedestrian survey projects will hopefully contribute to ongoing reassessments of the “busy” Late Roman countryside in Greece. The partial and chaotic state of urban excavations in Greece (and anywhere frankly) parallels nicely our fragmentary and incomplete knowledge of urban life in Late Antiquity. Recent work revealing houses, drains, wells, graves, baths, and commercial spaces in cities from across Greece reminds us just how little we understand about the most basic workings of Late Antique urbanism.

3. But What about the Churches. Even Sweetman admits, “the discovery of a new Late Antique church is always exciting.” (110, emphasis added). To be honest, we don’t need another church to show that there were more churches in Greece. We know that. What we need, more than anything, is a carefully excavated and published church from Greece. For areas like the Peloponnesus, we have no completely published, stratigraphically excavated examples from the over 100 excavated churches. We can only hope that the handful of churches currently being excavated will produce at least one comprehensively published example with a catalogue of finds, careful stratigraphic documentation, and a thorough discussion of architectural phasing. Until that happens (and it has happened a few times in Greece), scholars of Late Antique Greece should still get excited when a new building comes to light!

4. Survey Archaeology. It was rather remarkable and a bit depressing to see how few traditional intensive pedestrian surveys are currently occurring in Greece. Sweetman notes the work of the Cambridge Keros Project in the Cyclades and work on Kea. These projects appear to have prehistoric focuses, but they nevertheless offer opportunities to contribute to our understanding of Late Antique Greece. Keros is particular interesting since it is an island without permanent habitation at present (not dissimilar to very small population on the island of Antikythera, for example) that appears to have seen more robust activity earlier. Late Roman activity on now abandoned islands has long been a topic of interest among archaeologists in Greece.  

5. The Future is Underwater. One of the most interesting recent developments in the archaeology of the Mediterranean is the boom in coastal and underwater survey projects. As recent work around the Corinthia and Cyprus has shown, the growing interest in the economic and commercial world of antiquity has led to a new emphasis on coastal sites, shipwrecks, and anchorages. The impact of underwater surveys, for example, is still unclear (at least to me), but the potential is certainly there to contribute significantly to how we understand ancient trade. 

If you’re a Late Antiquitist, go and check out Rebecca Sweetman’s most recent contribution and, if you’re not, go and read up on the interesting and important work going focused on other periods in Greece. 

Investigating the West Hall of the Theater at Corinth

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

When Hesperia arrives with a new Corinth article, it is sort of like Christmas (or maybe Columbus Day) in my household. In this most recent issue (82.3), the former director of Corinth Excavations, Charles Williams, documented his recent excavations in the northern area of the theater. The article sought to integrate the results of recent excavations in the larger discussion of the architecture and archaeology of the theater. The theater was among the first buildings excavated at Corinth and the area had a long history from the 4th c. B.C. to the Byzantine period (at least). Williams’s excavations in the northwestern corner of the site primarily focused on Roman to Late Roman activity there.


In tone and form, the article was a throwback to the regular reports on Corinth excavations that appeared almost annually in Hesperia. The amount of detail is fantastic. The references to historical events (Actium, the founding of the colony, et c.) punctuate the archaeological findings throughout the text. The author assumes the significance of the site of Corinth and its monuments. Comparanda are minimal.

The article begins with a remarkable description of the various major Roman phases of the theater. The unlabeled illustrations make connecting the various features in the phase descriptions to the corresponding plan an exercise in architectural identification. Williams updates parts of Scranton’s half-century old study of the major Roman phases of the theater published as Corinth II. For folks interested in the architecture of theaters and the change in their function and arrangement from the Greek to Roman periods, Williams’s short survey of the Roman phases of the Corinth theater is a great case-study. The use of the Corinth theater as both an amphitheater and then as a space suitable for some kind of water battles has always fascinated me. Of particular note are the appearance of myriad buttresses and reconstructions marking out the impact of various earthquakes on the structure of the theater.

The second part of the article examines the work done during the 2011 excavation season. It begins with a discussion of the west analemma of the west parodos of the theater. (That phrase evoked some rainy afternoon standing with the members of the American School’s regular program and looking intently at the theater in some Greek city.) The discovery of this section of analemma helps to establish the shape of the Classical Greek theater that the Hellenistic theater supplanted. Williams then  describes in substantial detail the stratigraphy of the excavations of the west parodos detailing the relationship between drains and various buttresses necessary to support the earthquake wracked structure of the various associated buildings.

Excavations further north revealed more of the West Hall and uncovered more about the complex and curious history of the theater precinct. The West Hall represents a Roman addition to the theater probably dating to the 4th Phase, and its clear relationship to the “backstage” (my term, not Williams’s) are of the theater suggests that it served the actors and chorus. The walls of the hall appear to include blocks recycled from the earlier phase of the Roman theater. Like many of the buildings associated with the theater, it received buttresses at some point in its history perhaps in response to earthquake damage in the late-2nd to early-3rd century A.D. The building has a long history of use starting as a well-appointed structure with marble veneers and ending us as a space for industrial activities by the 3rd century.

One of the strangest and coolest discoveries the rooms abandonment in the 5th century it apparently became a dumping ground for cow bones slaughtered nearby and dumped over the west wall perhaps near the northwest corner. This massive, unstratified, deposit produced over a ton of bones that appeared to be the product of specialized, large scale butchery rather than urban debris.

Excavations in 2011 also revealed more of the “Lesser Plaza” and “North Peristyle Court”. Like the West Hall these spaces were Roman in date; the North Peristyle Court followed both the orientation of the theater and the “Theater Avenue” which followed the line of Roman centuriation. The north wall, I believe, of the North Peristyle eventually formed part of the Late Roman fortification of the city. While the Late Roman fortification of the city remains hard to date, but it might have been in the first half of the 5th century. This would make the bone deposit in the West Hall after the construction of the fortification and provide a bit of urban history for the periphery of the Late Roman city of Corinth. Of course, the wall could also be Justinianic in date, and I tend to prefer a later date for the wall owing to my recent publications suggesting that the emperor may have taken a personal, strategic interest in the loyalty of his Corinthian subjects.

This article was pretty intense. The amount of detail was staggering and involved constantly moving back and forth between more detailed descriptions and the phase descriptions and plans at the front of the article. I kept thinking how this is a model article for advanced undergraduates to use to decipher a building’s history. The article provided more than enough detail for a student to reconstruct a history of the building, but also enough little challenges to separate students who understand architecture and stratigraphic excavation from those who don’t. The final section of the article offered some suggestions for future work setting the stage for students to consider the potential of various courses of action. A short paper assignment arguing in favor of one of Williams’ recommendation for future work would wrap up the assignment nicely.

Crossposted to Corinthian Matters 

Some Notes on Survey Archaeology in a Byzantine Context

April 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

This weekend I attended the Dumbarton Oaks Spring Colloquium on Byzantine Survey Archaeology. The papers were remarkable and focused. The hosts and colloquiarchs, Margaret Mullett, John Haldon, and Sharon Gerstel put together a congenial environment for a wide ranging conversation on survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. While John Haldon did an admirable job weaving the various papers together at the end of the day’s proceedings, I couldn’t resist offering my own observations. 


1. Survey Comes of Age. One of the most refreshing things about the meeting was the lack of heavy-handed apologies for survey. Most of the participants understood the limits of their methods and located their conclusions within the constraints of their evidence. Rather than universal apologies for survey as a method, we have moved to reflexive understandings of the limits of our data.

2. Multiple Methods. The recognition that survey produces a particular and legitimate kind of archaeological data opened the door to admitting to the multiple methods present in the current survey world. People presented projects that ranged from extensive – single person – survey to projects that collected data that exceeded our ability to produce historical analyses on the basis of this data. For example, I felt the recent extensive survey work from Limnos collected data that was every bit as significant historically as a project that collected “observation point” density data at 10 m intervals from each unit. It’s not that one method was superior to the other on the grounds of methodology, but that we can recognize the utility of various types of survey data sets. This is an important step in the development of survey work and locates our method in a rather different context than excavation where the link between field methods and results tends to be far less explicit.

3. Long Shadow of Texts. While the Byzantine component of many survey projects developed from projects directed by their prehistoric colleagues, Byzantinists have long recognized that texts in some cases have great utility for understanding the Byzantine landscape. On the other hand, Byzantine survey archaeologists are constantly on guard against the undue influence of texts on their analysis. The papers showed particular interest in attempting to understand how texts focused on regional trends could be generalized to explain assemblages across the Mediterranean. Moreover, we all returned to longstanding discussions of how imperial economic and political policies shaped changes in the countryside. Some of these conversations date to the 19th century and involve how we understand the development of feudalism as a stage within the Marxist paradigm of how economies developed. This is deep history.

4. Area versus Assemblage. One thing that was pretty interesting is that most of the survey project continued to have an interest in areas and sites rather than assemblages. Some of the projects were explicitly siteless in design, but nevertheless returned to the site based paradigm in order to integrate their results with a larger historical discourse (see above). In contrast, there was relatively less conversation about assemblages and cultural and economic composition of the material culture produced by survey. It seems that we still wanted to see survey data as representing past activities (habitation, settlement, fortifications, et c.) rather than being produced by past activities.

5. Less Technology and More Curation. Typically when survey archaeologists get together there is lots of talk about the latest and greatest piece of “kit”. This might be a remote sensing technology, some kind of infield data collection device, or the latest analytical tool. To be sure, some papers used innovative methods, but on the whole, there was much more talk about the curation and study of physical objects than electronic ones. I think this represents development of both digital standards and a stable tool kit of technologies that support archaeological fieldwork. Now, we have to turn our attention to the much more challenging issue of working with host countries to curate the objects and sites that survey produces.

6. Toward a Byzantine Survey Archaeology. There was some discussion of what is necessary from an institutional, methodological, and disciplinary standpoint to produce a distinctive Byzantine approach to survey archaeology. Some of this will revolve around research questions and academic alliances and collaborations. Some of this might revolve around particular field practices. For example, survey in a Byzantine context will likely pay particular attention to formation processes attendant to standing Byzantine monuments. Byzantine archaeologist in a survey context might also go further to make arguments for the coherence of surface assemblages and produce some horizontal stratigraphy where the regular association of coarse wares and known fine wares can allow us to make certain tentative chronological arguments. These are not features exclusive to Byzantine period, but they are areas where Byzantine archaeology has begun to make a contribution. Finally, we have the advantage of a field that is located at the very earliest moment where a genuinely historical archaeology is possible. This positions us as scholars to contribute and critique the enter historical archaeology undertaking from the rather unique perspective of survey archaeology.

There were a few areas where there was not much conversation although these are typically part of the larger chatter among survey archaeologists.

1. Sharing Data. First, with the exception of Jim Newhard the conference lacked any major player in the recent trend toward data curation. How we make our results visible to the world and our colleagues remains a major issue for archaeologists in general, and survey archaeologists in particular. The born-digital nature of survey data makes survey practitioners particular important contributors to these conversations. The idea of a distinctly Byzantine survey archaeology could involve a stronger commitment to digital data curation, distribution, and analysis.

2. Beyond the New Archaeology. Most papers at the conference showed a strong commitment to quantitative methods that drew upon the core tenants of processual and new archaeology. Almost no one was willing to push a little further to consider post-processual practices. The idea of the landscape remained something produced through systematic collection of physical data from the countryside. There was little in the way of reflexive practices on more “qualitative” forms of data collection although survey archaeology’s close relationship to landscape archaeology has long opened the door to these kinds of approaches.

3. Cyprus. The contributions of Cypriot survey archaeologist once again remained around the fringes of the conversation. To my mind the Sydney Cyprus Survey Project represents one the model regional scale survey projects in the Eastern Mediterranean and its successor TAESP will probably be even more important. The work of M. Rautman in site-based survey and the historical data collected on the Byzantine landscape from the Cyprus Survey and other projects on the island makes it one of the most thoroughly investigated landscapes in the Mediterranean. I think it’s high time that we hold a “Survey Archaeology in Cyprus in Comparative Context” workshop that looks at how we can compare the results of surveys to answer questions that have relevance at both a regional and transregional level.

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.

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