The Rough Roads of Corinth

Readers of this blog know that the arrival of a new Hesperia is not quite a good as Christmas, but probably as fun as a close relative returning home after a long trip. (You know the feeling, when you know that there are goodies for you in their bag.)

I was particularly excited to see the final publication of Jen Palinkas’ and James Herbst’s article on the “Roman Road Southeast of the Forum at Corinth“. First off, who’s ever heard of publishing a road. What makes this even more crazy is that the road wasn’t paved!  Second, who knew so much could be said about a road. The article runs to close to 50 pages. Hesperia is one of the few places that would let someone publish a 50 page article on a road.

While most of the article is a detailed description of the road surface, road building technologies (including water pipes, curbs, and sidewalks) and the relationship of the road to its surrounding structures. The first surfaces detected in excavation date to between the late 1st c. BC and the mid 1st century AD.  The excavators are then able to piece together the development of the road through to the 12th or 13th century A.D.

The detailed description of the relationships between the curbs, the water pipes running beneath the road, and the sidewalks (installed around the mid-2nd century) is particularly interesting. At one point (p. 299) they argue that a water drain pipe was installed by tunneling “under the road surface”.  What would that look like to the excavators and how would one know that something was tunneled under a solid surface?

I was also curious about the character of the ceramic assemblages associated with the various levels of the road. We are told that at later levels (phase 5 dating from the late 4th to 12th century) “were distinguished from the road layers of earlier phases by their larger and more frequent pebble and tile inclusions, perhaps a result of waste brought by demolition and ruin of the domus that spilled over into the street.” (p. 307). This got me wondering what the assemblages from earlier phases of the wall looked like? This, of course, could tell us something about how ceramic depositional processes in an urban environment worked. Was the material domestic waste? Or was it (like in later periods, apparently) construction or destruction debris?

Some of the discussion of the sidewalks is pretty fascinating too. The east sidewalk was carefully preserved at its original level whereas the west side rose consistent with the level of the road.  When I read this, I immediately began to think of my buddy Eric Poehler’s work on the roads of Pompeii (which Palinkas and Herbst cite elsewhere) and wondered whether the uneven elevation related to the movement of wheeled traffic along the road. If wheeled-traffic tended to stay to one side of the road, then the curb or even the sidewalk would incur regular damage that would require repair and perhaps account for its change in elevation.

The most interesting part of the article for me, is the description of the life cycle of the road in relation to its surroundings. The growth of the urban fabric and the maintenance of the road transformed how someone would encounter and experience the road in the landscape. The earliest levels of the road preserved the surface of the route provided relatively unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside as one approached the city of Corinth. Later level, preserved a road that took the more traditional form of an urban thoroughfare, walled in by the expanding urban sprawl of the city of Corinth.  As the city contracted in the 5th century, the unobstructed vistas returned to travelers along the road and the surface fell into increasing disrepair.

I have knee-jerk reaction to any archaeological publication that seems to argue for the material decline in the urban fabric in the 4th-6th century. But I’ll concede that the evidence for the deteriorating condition of this road seem to confirm a view that the urban fabric was undergoing some kind of significant change – at least in this area – after the 4th century. That the road continued to function in some way as late as the 12th and 13th century, however, indicates that local memory and practices continued even as the fabric of the community shifted through time.

(One minor bummer is that this volume of Hesperia seems to have published directly to Jstor. I think this must be a good thing for them as now the archive of older volumes and other American School of Classical Studies at Athens publications and the most recent volumes of Hesperia are together in one place. The downside, is that my institution seemed to have access to Hesperi when it lived on the Atypon Link, but now, it does not seem to have a subscription to Hesperia’s new home. I need to figure this all out, but it’s a bummer either way.)


  1. Hey Bill,
    Thanks for your interest in the article and for blogging about it. I follow your blog regularly waiting for posts more anxiously than the December fascicle of Hesperia 🙂
    I’m commenting mostly because we weren’t really arguing for general decline but a protracted process of counter-urbanization. The domus burned, the rooms adjacent to the road were left to fall in, few water lines installed in spite of Guy’s late 6th c. bath, pits dug in the road surface, drainage stops being maintained, physical boundaries decaying, burial along the road, etc. over several centuries.
    Tunneling for the drain was discovered by one of our master pickmen, Thanasis Sakellariou. I think Dimitris Nakasis supervised. The surfaces were slumped in the area—one cannot pack down a tunnel the same way as an open trench so there was settling. The key however was the tunneling disturbed a wall, the repair of which was clearly visible. Also, the tunnel was visible in the side of an excavated robbing trench—in section, an open trench is wider at the top or with vertical sides, while a tunnel narrows or rounds off at the top.
    Finally for the road assemblages you’ll have to wait for Mark Hammond’s dissertation. Jen and I included something in an AIA poster on the material culture of the road. The ceramics were very fragmentary, hardly better than survey material 😉 and there were few but some interesting finds, probably things lost on the road. I uploaded a portion of the poster to GoogleDocs (
    Again, thanks for blogging,


  2. James,

    Thanks for the comments. I tried to be careful and say that “a material decline in the urban condition” rather than a general decline. You can see my deeply Western bias when I hear counter-urbanization as decline, but I do feel better when I think that Detroit is undergoing “counter-urbanization”. 😉

    Thanks again for the comments and the clarification on how one detects a tunnel. I am excited to hear that someone is publishing the finds from the road!



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