Late Roman Archaeology, Corinth, and Plagues

One of my favorite days of the year is when my copy of the Journal of Roman Archaeology arrives. It’s the only academic journal to whichI have subscribed for nearly my entire professional career.

There is something unmistakably punk rock about it.It comes out once a year in two thick volumes: one is dedicated to articles and reports; the second volume contains substantial reviews of all the books. The layout of the journal is remarkable. It is single column with narrow margins, and a slightly awkward space between each, indented paragraph. Article titles are in bold, 16-point font, and full footnotes in a slightly smaller font throughout. The font looks to be Garamond or some other generic humanist font. If someone told me that the journal was laid out in Microsoft Word, I’d believe them.  The journal has an irregular and, frankly, confusing online presence. I think now, it’s officially distributed by Cambridge University Press, but as far as I can tell they don’t have the table of contents for the most recent volume available on their web site. For that, you need to go to the official Journal of Roman Archaeology website which offers a pdf of the books reviewed and table of contents. Whether the experience of the JRA is an exercise in punk archaeology or just a kind of studied minimalism designed to draw attention to matter of “substance over style,” it remains a one of a kind document.

This year’s volume is full of valuable contributions. So far, I’ve three stand out.

1. M. McCormick, “Tracking mass death during the fall of Rome’s Empire (Part 1).” This is the first part of a two part article that draws upon the first comprehensive catalogue of mass burials in the Late Roman world. The catalogue will appear in the 2016 volume of the JRA (and, promisingly on the Cambridge Journals Online website). McCormick offers a typology of mass graves that distinguished between graves that received multiple burials over time and those and received multiple burials at once. More importantly, he has taken the first steps toward demonstrating that the plagues that swept the Roman Empire in the 6th to 8th century produced more mass burials that in the preceding centuries and likely had a significant impact on the structure of the population throughout the Roman world. Some of the remains in these mass burials tested positive for Yersinia pestis which is a strain of the bacteria associated with the bubonic plague. McCormick is careful not to overstate the significance of these findings, but they do offer a valuable first steps toward understanding the change in public health during a period punctuated by invasions, natural catastrophes and wide-spread social and political disruption. Far from seeing the transformation of the Roman world as a result of disease alone, this work could soon contribute to our understanding of social change during this dynamic period in antiquity.

2. E. Öğüş, “A Late Antique Fountain at Aphrodisias and its implications for spoliation practices.” This article sits at the intersection of two of important trends in the study of the Late Roman world: the use of spolia and the use of water. Öğüş examines in detail the use of spolia in the “South Agora Gate” fountain and argues that some, selective defacing of images occurred to make spoliated parts of the fountain more acceptable to a Christian audience. It appears that defaced deities were those either that had recently received blood sacrifice, were closely related to the central cults of the community (e.g. statues of Aphrodite) or those depicted in formally religious contexts (as opposed to mythological narratives). At the same time, the fountain itself was not just an ad hoc structure, but showed the deliberate elaboration including teh reconstruction of an elaborate pediment. Finally, the widespread practice of constructing elaborate fountains in Late Antiquity might reflect the growing importance of local water sources in cities where seismic events had disrupted regional systems of aqueducts that had historically provided water to these communities. As local fountains became more important in providing water for the city, they attracted the attention of the civic elite eager to present themselves as patrons of the community.

3. M.E. Hoskins Walbank, “Inequality in Roman Corinth.” Any time you see the name of one of the long-time Corinth excavation members reviewing a work on Corinth you expect a show! Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) there was very little show in Mary Walbank’s review of S.J. Friesen, S.A. James, and D. N, Schowalter edited volume, Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality (Brill 2014). The book was the third produced from a series of conferences that brought scholars of the New Testament together with scholars of the Corinthian archaeology, and Walbank’s review was largely positive, praising both this work and the previous two volumes for contributing to our understanding of the Roman period at this important site.

The only paper that she was rather critical of was by William Caraher (who is he?), but her critiques were largely fair. As long-time readers of this blog know, my paper looked for evidence for resistance in Late Roman Corinth and pushed the existing archaeological evidence beyond what it probably could sustain. Walbank suggested that my efforts to draw on theory to fill in for absent “firm evidence” was unsuccessful. She might be right, but the paper was fun to write and present nonetheless. 

So, go check out the most recent volumes of the Journal of Roman Archaeology, celebrate it’s punk rock style, and enjoy the annual review of all things remarkable in Roman archaeology.

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