The Archaeology of Religion and Culture in Late Antique Greece

The regular publication of the Archaeological Reports is a fine thing. Summarizing the work of both foreign and Greek excavators in Greece, these reports provide a bird’s eye view of recent fieldwork in Greece and shed particularly valuable light on small scale excavation sometimes only published in Greek journals with very limited circulation in the U.S. This year’s reports included a review of recent field work at Late Antique sites in Greece by Rebecca Sweetman titled “Religion and Culture in Late Antique Greece.” Sweetman is rapidly emerging as an important scholarly voice for an active and dynamic cohort of scholars working on a range of issues in the archaeology of Late Antiquity in Greece 

It’s only 11 pages so I urge you to track it down and read it, but I’ll provide my reaction to it anyway because that’s what I do here.

1. Rescue Excavations. The section of most interest to scholars probably focuses on the results of myriad rescue excavations around the country. These small scale and rapidly conducted excavations provide tiny windows into Late Antique levels particularly in urban areas. Unfortunately, rescue excavations rarely receive systematic publication and typically appear only as brief notes in Greek journals. Sweetman’s summary of these excavations provides bits of information that alone have little value, but can contribute to larger studies which often depend on robust catalogues to produce overviews of phenomena like domestic architecture, baths, or basilicas. 

2. Domestic Space in Town and Country. Sweetman is right when she notes that churches have dominated the archaeology of Late Antiquity and in her subtle assessment that this is not entirely a good thing. Recent attention in Greece to mortuary remains, domestic architecture, baths, and other more mundane spaces like industrial sites holds the potential to expand our perspectives. Work on houses is particularly promising especially in a rural context. While most of the houses noted recently excavated appear to be rather monumental, there were at least three rural farmhouses identified in Achaia, the Argolid, and Epirus. These buildings combined with data collected from intensive pedestrian survey projects will hopefully contribute to ongoing reassessments of the “busy” Late Roman countryside in Greece. The partial and chaotic state of urban excavations in Greece (and anywhere frankly) parallels nicely our fragmentary and incomplete knowledge of urban life in Late Antiquity. Recent work revealing houses, drains, wells, graves, baths, and commercial spaces in cities from across Greece reminds us just how little we understand about the most basic workings of Late Antique urbanism.

3. But What about the Churches. Even Sweetman admits, “the discovery of a new Late Antique church is always exciting.” (110, emphasis added). To be honest, we don’t need another church to show that there were more churches in Greece. We know that. What we need, more than anything, is a carefully excavated and published church from Greece. For areas like the Peloponnesus, we have no completely published, stratigraphically excavated examples from the over 100 excavated churches. We can only hope that the handful of churches currently being excavated will produce at least one comprehensively published example with a catalogue of finds, careful stratigraphic documentation, and a thorough discussion of architectural phasing. Until that happens (and it has happened a few times in Greece), scholars of Late Antique Greece should still get excited when a new building comes to light!

4. Survey Archaeology. It was rather remarkable and a bit depressing to see how few traditional intensive pedestrian surveys are currently occurring in Greece. Sweetman notes the work of the Cambridge Keros Project in the Cyclades and work on Kea. These projects appear to have prehistoric focuses, but they nevertheless offer opportunities to contribute to our understanding of Late Antique Greece. Keros is particular interesting since it is an island without permanent habitation at present (not dissimilar to very small population on the island of Antikythera, for example) that appears to have seen more robust activity earlier. Late Roman activity on now abandoned islands has long been a topic of interest among archaeologists in Greece.  

5. The Future is Underwater. One of the most interesting recent developments in the archaeology of the Mediterranean is the boom in coastal and underwater survey projects. As recent work around the Corinthia and Cyprus has shown, the growing interest in the economic and commercial world of antiquity has led to a new emphasis on coastal sites, shipwrecks, and anchorages. The impact of underwater surveys, for example, is still unclear (at least to me), but the potential is certainly there to contribute significantly to how we understand ancient trade. 

If you’re a Late Antiquitist, go and check out Rebecca Sweetman’s most recent contribution and, if you’re not, go and read up on the interesting and important work going focused on other periods in Greece. 

One Comment

  1. I really enjoyed the forthright and forward looking emphasis in your very informative summary.


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