Settlement on Cyprus in the 7th and 8th Centuries

Over the next two months, I’ve been asked to write an essay on settlement in 7th and 8th century Cyprus. My work at Polis-Chrysochous and at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria puts me in a good position to think broadly of this transitional period with two specific points of reference.

The coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria appears to go into steep decline after the middle of the 7th century coinciding, it would seem, increased activity of the Arab fleet in middle decades of the 7th. During the 5th-7th century, there is every indication that the site was prosperous coastal emporium. The almost complete absence of material dating to the 8th or 9th centuries would seem to indicate that the site no long constituted a substantial locus of settlement on the south coast of the island. Of course, it is possible that the population simply moved to the east or west of our survey area or declined as the small embayment present infilled or larger economic demand for the agricultural produce in the area declined. In other words, we have no evidence that the decline of the site related directly to the activity of the Arab fleet.

Polis-Chrysochous, or ancient Arsinoe, appears to have had a different history. On the one hand, there is some evidence that life at the site was disrupted in the mid-7th century including damage to at least one of the two prominent churches revealed through excavation. On the other hand, the church was modified extensively in the mid-7th century with architecturally sophisticated additions that did more than just restore the building to its earlier state. In fact, the addition of a narthex, a portico along the church’s south wall, and a barrel vaulted roof produced a building that echoed the design of well-known basilicas elsewhere on the island. The massive deposit of rubble and pottery associated with these modification establishes beyond a doubt a terminus post quem of the mid-7th century.

Using these two sites as points of reference, I think I can address the six major issues that influence how we talk about the 7th and 8th century on Cyprus in general and that directly impact what we can say about settlement.

1. Methods and Evidence: Survey, Excavation, Architecture, and Texts

First, there is the reality that our textual sources are problematic and fragmentary deriving from a range of genres, historiographic perspectives, and languages. They do not present a cohesive picture of the island provide much insight into larger issues of settlement. In fact, some sources suggest that the population of the island was nearly all sold into slavery and removed (e.g. the Soli inscription) whereas other inscriptions seem to indicate that the island remained reasonably prosperous despite Arab incursions. Archaeological evidence likewise follows this confusing pattern with excavated sites showing greater signs of continuity with 6th century activities than the landscape revealed by intensive survey. Architecture is even more revealing with several well-know churches preserving decoration datable to the 7th and 8th century. In the end, textual and archaeological evidence leave us with two different, mutually exclusive stories for this period of transition.

2. Ceramic chronology.

Part of the issue is the difficult nature of 7th and 8th century ceramics. Despite the significant amount of scholarship from the past decade that has pushed the date of well-know fine wares and transport amphora from the comfortable confines of the 6th century into the wild margins of the 8th, there has been little large scale reassessment of ceramic assemblages on the island. We have continued to note how individual “type fossils” like Late Roman 1 amphora or Cypriot Red Slip forms could date later than originally thought, but we have only begun to use this knowledge to imagine 7th or 8th century assemblages on the island (outside a few, well-known examples like the pottery workshops at Dhiorios or Marcus Rautman’s identification of hand-made pottery at Kopetria). Until the redating of major wares informs the visibility of locally produced or “common” wares on Cyprus, the 7th and 8th centuries will continue to be rather difficult to identify in surface survey and in more modest contexts where imported or fine ceramics are absent.

3. Definition and Diversity in Settlement

Whatever the shortcomings of the current state of our knowledge about the 7th and 8th century, it is clear that something changed in the nature of settlement on the island. The “crowded countryside” of Late Antique Cyprus gave way to a much less clearly occupied landscape. At the same time, there appears to have been changes to the urban landscape with activities at sites like Kourion showing dramatic reductions in scope and prosperity whereas at sites like Polis, Paphos, and Salamis-Constantia showing signs of continued settlement and the continued functioning of some urban institutions like the church, civic government, and markets.

What is missing from our understanding of settlement on the island is the link between these urban sites and the countryside. Elsewhere in the Byzantine world, the emergence of villages and village economies characterized the change in settlement pattern during this period. Urban areas saw contraction and fortification. Thus far there is little evidence for these phenomena on Cyprus suggesting that the primary organization of settlement and rural production functioned along different lines. Perhaps the intensely urbanized character of Roman and Late Roman Cyprus continued to shape the organization of settlement and rural activities in the Early Byzantine period. Perhaps new institutions like monasteries exerted a stronger influence on Cyprus than elsewhere.

It may also be that the massive disruptions to the population of Cyprus brought about by the Arab raids, captive taking expeditions, and forced migrations, transformed the otherwise persistent landscape of the countryside into one characterized by short term and contingent settlement as a response to the rapidly changing demographic situation. We know that short term settlements tend to be less visible in the countryside than long term habitation. So perhaps the issue of rural settlement on Cyprus is one of visibility rather than presence.

4. Trade, Connectivity, and the Local Production

Contextualizing much of the conversation about 7th and 8th century Cyprus is the nature of economic activity in the Eastern Mediterranean during these centuries. As scholars have begun to recognize that the political and military events in this period disrupted trade as much as caused it to decline, new models for understanding the Early Byzantine economy have emphasized the change in character as well as change in scale. If the Cypriot economy and settlement in the 6th century felt the influence of the annona trade between Egypt and Constantinople (e.g. the settlement at Peyia in southwest Cyprus being warehousing site) and the administrative reorganization that funneled the agricultural produce of Cyprus to the needs of the army at the frontiers (perhaps leading to the prosperity of the sites at Dreamer’s Bay and Pyla-Koutsopetria), then the economy and settlement of the 7th and 8th century perhaps responded to the more fluid and changing opportunities and political situation of those centuries. For example, the changing needs and power of the central government in Constantinople may have spurred the decline of sites that emerged in response to the command economy of Late Antiquity.

If the unsettled economic and political circumstances of the 7th and 8th century, may have led to more dynamic responses from Cypriots who looked to limit risk and maximize opportunities in more contingent ways. In other words, if we accept the possibility that rural settlement was less visible during these centuries (rather than absent), it may be that short-term settlement in a “contingent countryside” reflects a more situational approach to a more dynamic economy.

5. Administrative Structures: Church and State

The persistence of certain institutions on Cyprus – namely the church and the political and social apparatus of the Byzantine state – demonstrate that despite the the large scale disruptions to the Late Roman world, certain aspect of life continued on Cyprus relatively unchanged. Recent work on lead seals from Cyprus show that the ecclesiastical, administrative, and aristocratic hierarchies continued to function on the island. These structures demonstrate the persistence of official ties to the capital and to the underlying legal and social institutions that would maintain, say, the prestige of local aristocrats or the position of the church as an economic engine in the community.

So, if the contingent countryside reflects the instability of Mediterranean politics and economy, then the persistence of some activity in urban centers demonstrates the ongoing presence of traditional elites attempting to continue to perform their traditional function in particular dynamic environment. The reconstruction of churches at Soli, Paphos, Polis, and elsewhere suggest that the church continued to be able to marshal and deploy economic resources from communities. The reconstruction of aqueducts and perhaps some civic buildings at Salamis-Constantia shows that certain civic functions continued, albeit on a more modest scale. Finally, the apparent abandonment of the site Kourion may reflect the intervention of community leaders to relocate key institutions and salvage existing resources from the site.

6. Events: Invasions, Forced Migrations, and Settlements.

Finally, events have long shaped the master narrative of the decline in the Roman Mediterranean. The Arab raids of the middle decades of the 7th century, the loss of Egypt and Syria, and the so-called “condominium period” have long shaped our understanding of settlement, demography, and economy on the island.  On the one hand, it is impossible not to see things like a substantial Arab fleet patrolling the waters off the island’s coast or the fundamental transformation of the large-scale economic unity of the Eastern Mediterranean impacting events on Cyprus. In fact, it would naive to somehow argue that these events did not impact life on the island.

On the other hand, punctuating the history of the island with these events undermines any understanding that sees Cypriot society as dynamic agents in their own history. By shifting our attention to patterns of activity on the island and prioritizing them in our analysis, we open the door to appreciating the strategies that communities and institutions used to adapt to changing times. It provides more than simply an answer to tired questions of “continuity and change” (that largely reside within a discourse of development toward nationalism) and allows us to focus our attention of the mechanisms that produced the seductive patterns that have meant so much to our understanding of the modern world.

5 Comments

  1. […] as I push my research into new areas  like the (the Western Argolid) and new periods (the 7th and 8th centuries) which I understand broadly but not on any detail. […]

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  2. […] started to wonder about how this kind of diversity in an assemblage could inform how I think about pottery in 7th century Cyprus. The 7th century has traditionally been seen as a period of decline, but recent scholarship has […]

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  3. […] plan to dedicate most of this week to putting words on the page for an article on settlement on Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries. The article will start with a brief treatment of the difficulties associated understanding […]

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  4. […] This is the earlier draft of this paper, and you can read more on this paper here, here, here, and here. […]

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