Early Byzantine Pottery from Kenchreai

I was pretty excited to see the most recent publication in the ISAW Papers series: “Preliminary Report on Early Byzantine Pottery from a Building Complex at Kenchreai (Greece)” by Sebastian Heath, Joseph L. Rife, Jorge J. Bravo III, and Gavin Blasdel. First, the ISAW Papers series is an innovative way to publish individual article length papers, with open access licenses, without the overhead and complications of running a conventional journal.

Second, and more importantly, Joe Rife is another guy with strong ties to Isthmian and the Eastern Corinthia, and he fits into my inadvertent theme this week of “people who influenced my early archaeological career through their work in the Eastern Corinthia.” Sebastian Heath is a fellow digital archaeologist, and he and I have some imaginative future projects together currently set to a low simmer, but, more than that, he is a fine ceramicist. So when they teamed up with some other fine archaeologists to produce a preliminary report on an assemblage from a site called the Threpsiades Complex near the harbor of Kenchreai, it was worth some of my time.

Kenchreai (or “Quencher” as my autocorrect insists on calling it) is the eastern port of the city of Corinth and sits on the Saronic gulf. It appears to have fallen out of large-scale use after a series of seismic events in the later 6th or 7th century and today is a small settlement of vacation homes. The site considered in this article was excavated by the Greek archaeological service nearly 40 years ago, and the finds came to the current teams attention when the storerooms at the Isthmia museum were reorganized in 2002-2003. Curiously, at that time, “as much as 25%” of the material was transported to Ancient Corinth and buried there to conserve space. There is a tradition of buried assemblages of Late Roman material in the Corinthia, and it would be very interesting to understand the context and location of this reburial of archaeological finds. (In fact, as I’ve read more and more about the archaeology of the contemporary world, I’m struck by how little archaeology of archaeology there is. Excavating a pottery dump – particularly a big one – would be a fascinating opportunity to understand a wide range of behaviors associated with modern archaeological practices (which are sometimes less well documented than one would like)).

The report documents the first reading of an assemblage of Early Byzantine pottery. The latest fineware at the site, African Red-Slip forms 105 and 99 and the later from of LRC (Phocaean Red-Slip) form 3 and 10, suggest the last phase of the site in the late 6th or early 7th century AD. Like our work at Polis on Cyprus, they don’t necessarily have complete control of the stratigraphy (yet?) so some intermixing of earlier and later material is likely in this preliminary analysis. 

The main focus of their study, however, is amphora and especially the remarkably common Late Roman 2 amphora which appeared at this site in great abundance (over 70% of the total assemblage of amphora). The presence of stoppers and funnels hints that the complex may have served as a transshipment point for goods into these amphora for import or export (or in the words of the authors “storing and pouring”), although the authors stop short of making that argument. In this way, this small site could be similar to our nearly contemporary site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus which likewise shared an abundance of a single type of amphora, in our case Late Roman 1, which almost certainly represented the large scale export. 

I was pleased to see some Late Roman 1 amphora in the assemblage as well as some other Eastern Mediterranean types reinforcing the connectedness of this site to larger Mediterranean trading patterns. I always feel bad that there is no Late Roman “D ware” (or the fineware formerly known as Cypriot Red Slip) at these sites, because I regard it as a fine and serviceable fineware that did not see as much circulation outside of the immediate neighborhood of Cyprus as I’d like. Aside for my sentimental feelings toward an obscure Late Roman fineware, this short publication presents enough to contribute meaningfully to the larger conversation about exchange in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

This site complements the recent short publication by Paul Reynolds and Evangelos Pavlidis on an assemblage of amphora and fineware from the “Bishop’s House” at Nikopolis. This site produced a substantial group of nearly complete LR1 and LR2 amphora (which accounted for over 40% of the total amphora at the site) and Samian amphora (which accounted for a third of the amphora at the site). It also featured a significant quantity of late 6th to early 7th century African Red Slip to the exclusion of almost any other kind of fineware. The presence of LR1 amphora indicate that the site had contact with the Eastern Mediterranean despite its western facing orientation, but this did not result in the importation of fineware like the very common Phocaean ware present at Kenchreai. Reynolds and Pavlidis observe that the absence of Phocaean ware and the preponderance of Samian amphora make the assemblage at this site is different from that observed at Butrint (to the north) or Corinth. This suggests the presence of “multilayered” distribution models for fineware and amphora.

The variation between the assemblages present at these sites make them useful points of comparison for the diversity of assemblages present on the island of Cyprus. On Cyprus, sites that are less than 20 km apart can produce very different assemblages of fineware and storage and transport vessels during Late Antiquity. Whether this represents multilayered distribution models offering different degrees of access or simply differences in taste across a region remains an open question. 

One Comment

  1. Christos G. Makrypoulias September 17, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    That was a very interesting post on a very informative paper. Your remarks on “the archaeology of archaeology” reminded me of something I’ve read a little while ago in a book that tells the story of the effort to bury the major collections of the Greek museums to protect them during the war (and subsequent enemy occupation): When a large pit was dug inside the Parthenon room of the (old) Acropolis Museum in 1940-1941, where most of the collection was to be buried under a slab of reinforced concrete, the excavators found a large deposit of pottery sherds, some of them inscribed with the date 1882, indicating that it was an assemblage of “redundant” finds from the old excavation of Panayiotis Eustratiades. Apparently it is a widespread practice in the Service to “clear away” or bulldoze-over anything deemed not of scientific value. I just wish that someone would do the same with our politicians…

    Reply

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