I always get excited to discover a new scholar’s work, but I get really happy when I find scholarship that cuts through my various interests and offers some useful insights. Over the past few days I’ve been reading three articles by Myrto Veikou on Byzantine settlement in the region of Epirus. One is a working paper titled “Byzantine Histories, Settlement Stories: Kastra, “Isles of Refuge,” and “Unspecified Settlements” as In-between or Third Spaces”. The other two have appeared in print: “Urban or Rural? Theoretical Remarks on the Settlement Patterns in Byzantine Epirus (7th-11th centuries)” BZ 103/1 (2010): 171-193 and “‘Rural Towns’ and ‘In-Between’ or ‘Third’ Spaces. Settlement Patterns in Byzantine Epirus (7th-11th c.) from an interdisciplinary approach.” Archaeologia Medievale 36 (2009) 43-54. These papers are all available on her Academia.edu site.
While it would be difficult to describe her work across three papers in a single post, I think I can point out some of the more useful elements of it (for me).
First, and most importantly, she takes pains to point out the our concept of “rural” and “urban” do little to inform the archaeological evidence present for Byzantine settlement. She suggests that these division whether based on the Moses Finley’s reading of Max Weber or views developed by the “Chicago School” of urban planning have produced developmental models that see cities as the inevitable products of rural settlement and an important landmark in the development of civilization. Thus, long-standing ideas like the re-emergence of cities in the early Middle Byzantine era echo modern realities or ideas that the re-birth of cities ushered Byzantine civilization back onto the track to civilization. She demonstrates that the various forms of Byzantine settlement (whether the problematic polis, the enigmatic kastron, or the diverse places designated as episcopal sees, villages, towns, or diverse settlements) barely coincide with modern ideas of settlement.
In fact, she makes the persuasive case that many Byzantine settlement “types” (particularly the problematic kastron) occupy hybrid “third spaces” within the landscape. They are not transitional, or a point within a linear development toward a more recognizable space, but rather places that sit outside of our standard typologies of habitation and offer profoundly destabilizing features both in our understanding of the Byzantine landscape and perhaps the Byzantine landscape itself. The hybrid, third-space of Byzantine settlement represents perplexing combinations (mash-ups?) of places in the continuum between rural and urban. For example, she argues that the seat of the Byzantine Bishop of Acheloos might correspond to a region stretched along the river rather than particular “urbanized” or nucleated space. This actual cathedral of the bishop would have shifted through time and depending on various contingencies until it eventually became tied to a settlement with a sufficient economic and political investment to maintain the see.
She also points out that so-called “islands of refuge” might also benefit from more open-ended interpretative models. Here her work parallels ideas offered by Tim Gregory when she noted that the function of an island of refuge might not be stable through time. In fact, at some times, these island settlements might have functioned as economic overflow whereas later – perhaps during the Byzantine period – the topography and location of the islands dictated their suitability for certain kinds of settlement practices that had little to do with immediate threats. She proposed that they represent a maritime response to the kind of topographic choices typical of inland settlements (hill tops, easily defended peninsulas, et c.). These choices emerged as part of new ideas of settlement space in the Byzantine era and were not tied exclusively to immediate dangers of invasions or general insecurity, but had aesthetic, demographic, economic, and even political motivations For the islands, this combination of explanations could explain the significant economic investment in these places – probably tied to their easy access to maritime routes through the area – as well as the signs of sustained habitation and monumental religious architecture despite the harsh environments and absence of natural resources on these slivers of land.
Elsewhere in her work she notes that part of the difficulty in understanding Byzantine settlement is that in some cases the fabric of Byzantine settlement is not well preserved in the archaeological record. Putting aside persistent difficulties identifying locally produced Byzantine pottery in both excavated and surface conditions, Veikou ponders various other scenarios. In fact, she suggests that some Byzantine settlements might have been largely wooden (and we all know that tile roofs on wooden houses are the first things to be salvaged and could leave almost no trace). She hypothesized this to explain the presence of Early Christian churches with extensive burials made in the Byzantine period, but without any clear evidence of Byzantine settlement. She suggests that some kinds of Byzantine settlement could be quite ephemeral and leave little for a survey archaeologist to identify on the surface. These buildings then were far from being isolated, but rather stand as the permanent evidence for fleeting local settlements in a shifting and fluid Byzantine landscape. (I suspect, of course, that Early Christian churches remained as places in the landscape whether surrounded by local settlement or not. In fact, hagiography has shown that these buildings attracted local pilgrimages, hermits, and hunting parties looking for shelter in the “wilderness”. Their suitability as places for burial may have, in this content, be tied to their permanence in the landscape and Byzantine desire the embed memory of the deceased in a sacred (and relatively unchanging) landscape.)
My disagreements with particular interpretations aside, these three articles (and the apparently forthcoming book) offer some substantial food for thought. While none of her arguments diverge completely from prevailing trends in understanding Byzantine landscapes (and the influence of Archie Dunn’s work is particular visible in some of her arguments and that is a good thing!), she does provide some vital tools for theorizing the Byzantine landscape outside of modern conceptions of settlement patterns and their “development” through time. And this is a timely and exceedingly useful thing.