Late Antiquity in Greece

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.

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