Byzantine Landscapes

I read with great excitement Fotini Kondyli and Sarah Craft’s article in the most recent Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. It’s titled “The Making of a Byzantine Monastic Landscape: A Case Study from the Mazi Plain in Northwest Attica, Greece,” and in an honest-to-goodness article on the archaeology of Byzantine landscapes in Greece. This is exciting for any number of reasons, but because there are so few articles that take Byzantine landscapes seriously as a quick skim of the article’s bibliography shows.

More than that, this article building upon traditional concern of Byzantine archaeologists and starts with the well-known monastery of Hosios Meletios and builds upon what we understand about that site’s history and architecture. The authors then trace the possible contours of the productive and religious landscape centered on the monastery across the Mazi plan. For example, they notice the use of cloisonné masonry, marble, and distinctive local stones in the architecture of the paralavaria (subsidiary churches) that might have connected these buildings to the monastery at Hosios Meletios. It’s interesting that the local porous stone associated with Megara would have made the links between the monastery at that city not only material visible in these churches, but its rough texture might have made the connections literally tangible. 

More than that, the authors fold in information grounded in an understanding of local routes through the region and argue that the paralavaria stood at places positioned to attract pilgrims, take advantage of the local movement of agriculture, and potentially monitor movement through the Mazi plain. The analysis of ceramics in the vicinity of these buildings supplemented these broader topographic conclusions by bolstering the arguments, at least in some cases, that these building were Byzantine in date. It would be interesting to understand a bit more about the distribution of glazed fine wares in the region and what their visible presence around a ruined church might say about its Byzantine and post-Byzantine function. Would Byzantine sherds be more likely to be visible around buildings abandoned in the Byzantine period  because churches that continued to attract attention tended to see the kinds of modification and surface cleaning that might erase or obscure the small number of Byzantine fine ware that might be expected at these sites?

This paper got me thinking—with more than a bit of regret!—how most of my regional level research has tended to be in areas oddly devoid of a clear Byzantine presence in the landscape. Our survey area in the Western Argolid, for example, does not include any known Byzantine churches (although a few of the churches are almost certainly Ottoman in date). The Isthmus of Corinth is likewise devoid of obvious Byzantine monuments, although Ancient Corinth stood as an important Byzantine center, and it is impossible for me to believe that the Hexamilion fortress lacked a church. The only area where there was a clear Byzantine signature on the landscape was the southeastern Corinthia where the Panayia at Steiri (perhaps 10th century?) stands between the village of Korphos and Sophiko amid a network of other Middle Byzantine and possibly late Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments. That I never thought more carefully about the interaction of these churches in this once bustling corner of the Peloponnesus, is something that will continue to bother me.

Maybe sometime in the future when the COVIDs have settled and I have a bit more bandwidth, I can head back to the Corinthia (maybe with the authors of the article!) and think big picture about that landscape again. In the meantime, (always be closing, right?), do check out what David Pettegrew and I wrote about the settlement of Lakka Skoutara down the (dirt) road from the church at Steiri and the lovely Middle Byzantine monastic churches around Sophiko

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