Time and Change on Roman Crete

This weekend, I read my colleague Scott Gallimore’s recent paper in the American Journal of Archaeology titled “An Island in Crisis? Reconsidering the Formation of Roman Crete.” The article is the model of careful interrogation of various ways of understanding the Roman conquest of Crete “on the ground.” By focusing on the material changes on the island (and the appearance of Cretan amphora, in particular, across the Mediterranean), Gallimore has a metric for understanding how the integration of Crete into the Roman Empire shaped the economic life of the island.

What makes this article unique, though, is that he intentionally considers three time scales – the event, short term change, and long-term change. For the event, Gallimore considers the idea of “eventful archaeology” but argues that the initial conquest of Crete by the Romans did little to immediately change the material and economic life of the island. Crete remains relatively isolated economically with few imported ceramics and little evidence for large-scale exporting of goods in the Roman East. In short, the evidence from Crete is inadequate to see the Roman military actions on the island as a trigger for greater integration in the Roman world. In this case the model of  “eventful archaeology” lacks compelling explanatory power. 

The other possible impetus for change on the island and its graduate Romanization was the investment of the emperor Claudius in harbors across the empire. Claudius’s work at the Roman harbor of Portus is well known. Rothaus has argued that Claudius may have also invested in large scale improvements in the Corinthian harbor of Lechaion. Gallimore, however, demonstrated that while it is possible that the reign of Claudius saw an increased investment in infrastructure to support trade on Crete, it did not have an immediate impact on the assemblages produced by the island or in the Mediterranean more broadly.

In the end, Gallimore argues that the globalization of Crete was a gradual process that undoubtedly started with the island’s integration into the Roman world and became visible as the island’s population adapted the new range of opportunities and investments at different rates and in different ways. He notes that some areas that may have had reason to resist Roman inroads, may have taken longer to integrate into the economic and social world of the Roman state. Other areas, like around Knossos, appear to have integrated more quickly into the Roman world.

Gallimore’s article does a nice job digging into the archaeological assemblages across Crete and in the wider Mediterranean and demonstrates how the simple (and all too common) efforts to look for events or policies in archaeological evidence often creates interpretative problems. Events – particular destruction layers – tend to draw evidence toward them like magnets, and only careful and critical analysis of deposits, typologies, and chronologies can shake the material evidence free. Gallimore’s article does a nice job to demonstrating how to assess the impact of events, policies, and longer term trends in archaeological assemblages.

Finally, Gallimore’s paper is particularly useful for me as I think about the island of Cyprus and the issue of insularity in Early Byzantine archaeology. He notes that processes like Romanization occurred at an uneven rate across the island and that part of the reason for this is both the potential for a given region to enjoy connectivity within a given system as well as the willingness of local communities to adapt to Roman social and economic stimuli. Untangling the variable that shape globalization in any place remains a challenge, but as we’ve argued in a few places attempting to exclude economic motivations for variation across assemblages might be a way to reveal elements more probably influenced by a community’s sense of identity or values. As always, these are messy arguments to make especially as it often depends on the ability of other scholars to identify, quantify, and assess ceramic assemblages in a way that makes them comparable between sites and across regions. By offering arguments, however, we propose hypotheses that can be tested and can shape the efforts of other projects to quantify and publish their data.   

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