Some thoughts on Butrint 4

Over the past couple of weeks I have slowly made my way through I.L. Hansen, R. Hodges, and S. Leopard, Butrint 4: The Archaeology and History of an Ionian Town (Oxbow 2013). When I was first invited to review this volume, I agreed, but without much enthusiasm. As I first tried to engage the book, I found it tough going. I was busy and distract. The book was too large to take with me to Cyprus and so it sat for a while, partly read, gathering dust.

This past week, I began to feel the slight upswell of apathy tinged panic about all the little projects that I set out to accomplish this summer and how many of them remain relatively unfinished. Anyway, I got reading this volume in earnest this week, and its good.

This summer I had a series of long conversations with my colleagues at Polis-Chrysochous about how to go about publishing the results of fieldwork there. Initially, we imagined producing a traditional archaeological volume with sections produced by various specialists and covering the entire range of material from the site, perhaps limited by period. As we went about attempting to understand this, it became increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario where everyone who has permission to study a particular body of material could complete their work in a contemporary way. Moreover, we were concerned that producing an exhaustive volume would not be a very meaningful contribution to Mediterranean archaeology noting that even some of the best recent volumes from Cyprus attract relatively little attention off the island. As a result, we began discussing alternate approaches to archaeological publication and landed on the idea of a volume that included a series of specialist studies focused on how the material from Polis speaks to issues relevant to the wider community of Mediterranean archaeology.

Butrint 4 is similar to this approach, although in places I’d have liked the significance of the studies to the wider discourse of Mediterranean archaeology made more clear. In any event, it is pretty easy to imagine the future of archaeology in volumes that assemble problem oriented specialist studies rather than the exhaustive and universal synthesis. Here are my thoughts on Butrint 4 along these lines:

1. Archaeology and the Nation. Richard Hodges frames the entire volume with an intriguing little essay that positions the archaeology of Butrint in the context of nationalist archaeology. This has long been a point of critique in Albanian archaeology (see Bowden and Davis) and Hodges attributes the desire to see continuity at Butrint as the product of various nationalist motives spurring excavation there. That being said I am skeptical of Hodges remark: “We must conclude that although long-term, large-scale excavation is by far the most costly and unfashionable of archaeological techniques, the results of the Butrint Project suggest that it remains an essential element of the study of abandoned towns. Only by such methods is ethnic nationalism challenged.” Only?

2. Continuity Problematized. Hodges and the other contributors to this volume specifically take aim at the sticky issue of continuity and abandonment at the site of Butrint. Instead of showing how the site persisted through time, the contributors took particular pains to explore lulls in activity (including the traditionally vexing 3rd century AD). For example, the history of the villa turned basilica turned elite household on the Vrina plain east of the city of Butrint was punctuated by periods of  abandonment influenced by the changing environment on this low-lying plain as well as larger trends in settlement and demographic change. The careful study of the Well of Junia Rufina and the small church and cemetery likewise demonstrated how this site blinked on-and-off through time rather than experiencing uninterrupted significance.

3. Churches. This represents my particular scholarly interest, but there are few regions in the Mediterranean that have more Early Christian basilicas and fewer systematic studies. Even the spectacular basilicas of the provincial capital of Nikopolis remain dated by stylistic analyses that are over a half-century old. Synthetic works of the churches in this region (which increasingly include the remarkable remains in Albania) are hampered by the lack of stratified dates and carefully documented architecture. Moreover, it is clear that Epirus Vetus was an important area in our understanding of the geopolitical and theological conflicts of the 5th to 7th centuries. The studies of the Great Basilica, the basilica on the Vrina plain, and the church on the acropolis of Butrint all begin to present more complex pictures of ecclesiastical architecture in the region. We’re still a ways off from having systematic chronological arguments for the dates of the buildings in this region, but we’re making steps.

As an aside, it was interesting to note that the churches around Butrint used piers rather than columns to support the clerestory and separate the nave from the aisles. This occurs rather rarely in Greece with the basilica near Corinth in the Kraneion district being the largest and most prominent. The “South Basilica” at Polis may have also used piers to separate the nave from the aisles. While this may have been a practical structural or economic decision, the role of the nave colonnade in elite display is fairly well-established. It would appear that the difference between piers and columns was a shift away from using the nave colonnade to display marble with elaborate carved capitals.

4. Residuality. The careful study of the small Well of Junia Rufina at Butrint was a nice example of how residual pottery can shed light on the economic history of a site despite the not being associated with primary activities. The growing willingness to interrogate ceramic assemblages produced by intensive pedestrian survey has had a significant influence on how once neglected deposits of pottery from excavation can provide valuable insights in the economic and social life of communities. The formidable Joanita Vroom analyzed the Medieval ceramics from the contexts associated with the well and church and was able to link Butrint to a dynamic world of Eastern Mediterranean commerce and culture.

As another aside, it was interesting to see the significant number of Late Roman 1 amphoras – produced in both Cyprus and Cilicia – at Butrint as well as the presence of a Sarachane 54 amphora from the vicinity of Constantinople. Both of these types of amphorae appear at Polis.

5. Diachronic. The study of residuality, continuity, and nationalism in the context of archaeology all require a willingness to go beyond the narrow chronological horizons sometimes promoted in graduate school and in our professional organization. It seems pretty clear to me that the next wave of major research initiatives and publication in Mediterranean archaeology will require at least an openness to diachronic perspectives.

A more complete review of this book will come in the following weeks…

One Comment

  1. This is a hilarious assertion (i.e., “Only by such methods is ethnic nationalism challenged.”).


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