Sherds and Churches: Late Roman Pottery on Cyprus

The last couple of week, I’ve been working on the paper that I’ll give at the University of Texas next week (egads!). An important component of the paper involves comparing the Late Roman ceramic assemblage from the area around the South Basilica at Polis-Chrysochous with the contemporary assemblage from the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria with a particular emphasis on the local and imported fine ware.

The assemblages are different. A substantial residual assemblage at Polis produced a substantial quantity of Cypriot Red Slip (CRS) and almost no African Red Slip (ARS) or Phocaean Ware (PHW). the assemblage at Pyla-Koutsopetria was largely (60%) CRS with significant quantities of PHW and ARS. The reason for this difference is difficult to understand. On the one hand, it could be that the residents at Pyla-Koutsopetria simply preferred ARS and PHW to CRS. On the other hand, it could be that the quantity of CRS reaching the eastern part of the island was smaller making it more expensive and less able to compete with imported fine wares. This assumes, of course, that CRS is produced on the island (and there is some evidence that it was not) and that CRS, ARS, and PHW all have a comparable basic cost that shift depending on supply and access. In other words, one type of pottery is not radically more expensive to obtain than another.

It is worth noting that on Cyprus, CRS tends not to travel far inland. For example, the site of Panayia-Ematousa lies inland from Pyla-Koutsopetria. The assemblage of fine ware there is predominantly PHW (nearly 60%) with CRS and ARS accounting for 20% and 15% respectively. The coastal site of Maroni-Petrera produced an assemblage of Late Roman fine ware consisting of over 80% CRS. Inland, however, at the village site of Kalavassos- Kopetra, the quantity of PHW and ARS account for over 40% of the assemblage and CRS closer to 35%. In comparison to the nearly contemporary assemblage present at Polis, the Kopetra assemblage has fewer examples of large vessels like the thick-walled CRS Form 11 basin and CRS Form 8 dish and more examples of the somewhat smaller, very common, and long-lived CRS Form 9 dish. A similar trend is apparent when we compared CRS forms from the survey around the inland site of Palaiopaphos and the residual assemblage from Polis. In fact, almost no CRS Form 11 vessels seem to have made it inland to vicinity of Palaiopaphos. It would seem that “finer” CRS vessels moved inland more readily than thicker-walled and “chunkier” vessels.

My paper set out to make the argument that the assemblage of pottery present at different sites reflected a set of practices that defined these communities. The practices that produced these assemblages were not simply social or economic, but a combination of both. My current hypothesis goes as follows: 

It would appear that CRS was most desirable in coastal communities near the southwestern corner of the island, most likely nearest its production base or the major point of arrival on the island. Presumably, that this point it was affordable in comparison to its imported rival fine wares produced in either North Africa (ARS) or Asia Minor (PHW). It goes without saying that if inland communities had access to PHW and ARS so did the coastal communities through which this imported pottery moved. When CRS, ARS, and PHW reached inland communities, however, the cost of transporting CRS from the coast increased its price and made its competitors more appealing. When overland transport leveled the playing field between the various forms of Late Roman fine ware available, contemporary communities seemed to prefer PHW and ARS at least as frequently as CRS. 

The result of this is that the tables of residents in inland communities would have looked rather different from those of communities along the coast. The decision making that led to this distinct assemblages hints at the processes that create culture.

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