The Byzantine Peloponnesos

I read a bit randomly these days in Byzantine archaeology. When something comes across my desk, I tend to read it, and even as my attention has been on revising my book and a couple archaeology of the contemporary world projects, I’ve recognized that things are happening in Byzantine archaeology. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague drew to my attention that the most recent issue of Archaeological Reports includes an article on “The archaeology of the Byzantine Peloponnese: new research perspectives” by Rossana Valente. 

The article is nice survey of the archaeology of Byzantium over the last two decades. It’s very much worth a read for anyone even casually interested in the subject. (I also look forward to reading the survey of work on prehistoric Cyprus as well in the same issue). I won’t try to summarize its content, but do have a few observations:

1. Periodization. This article demonstrates the utter impracticality of a periodization scheme which separates the “Late Antique” from the “Early Byzantine.” Many of the sites and issues raised in this piece have origins in the 5th (or even 4th century), which even the most doctrinaire editor of the AJA would place firmly in the Late Roman or Late Antique period. It is clear, however, that trends, sites, and questions emerging from these centuries continue to be relevant to the study of the 7th and 8th centuries, which might be called by some the “Early Byzantine” period. In fact, the supposed disruption of life in the Peloponnesus caused by the so-called “Slavic Invasions” of the late 6th century appear to be increasingly problematic and perhaps even illusory as this very article shows. It is interesting that the academic infrastructure as represented by the Archaeological Reports periodization scheme preserves a division that is no longer particularly relevant to the material on which it reports. (This is not meant to be a criticism of the Valente who clearly is operating under the guidelines of the journal and convention!)

2. The Slavs and Ethnicity. If obsolete debates over periodization continues to loom large over the field of archaeology, Late Antique and Early Byzantine archaeology continues to fret and fuss over identifying ethnicity in the archaeological record. The weight of national archaeologies both in Greece and in the Balkans more broadly continues to lean on our field as we scrutinize every piece of handmade pottery for Slavic fingerprints. It is clear that scholars continue to walk a fine line in these debates between acknowledging a tradition of ethnic identification of particular classes of material culture, recognizing parallels between certain forms present in the Peloponnesus and those found elsewhere in southeastern Europe, and centuries old debates over the origins of Slavic speakers and the “Greekness” of the residents of the Peloponnesus. At some point, of course, we will probably stop talking about the “Slavic invasions.” In fact, one would hope that the current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, where migrants seeking sanctuary from poverty, violence, and social disruption move across arbitrary political boundaries, might inform historical debates about the arrival of new groups in the Late Antiquity Peloponnesus.

3. Texts. Of course, the argument for a Slavic invasion is not simply a modern fantasy. As this article reminds us, The Chronicle of Monemvasia describes just such an event and for over a century scholars have been willing to take this problematic document at face value. Recent work by Anagnostakis and Kaldellis, however, have suggested that the narrative of invading Slavic hoards was as useful in the Byzantine period as it has sometimes been to contemporary archaeologists and pushed back against the slavish (heh, heh) acceptance of this textual source as explicating certain elements of material culture. 

The discussion of The Chronicle of Monemvasia in a survey of the Byzantine Peloponnesus is a nice reminder of the role that texts play (and don’t play) in the archaeology of this period and place. Archaeologists of Medieval Greece have long felt a certain kinship with scholars working on prehistoric periods owing to our shared lack of textual evidence for our periods. It seems like this relationship and willingness to go beyond texts (something that many of our Classical and Roman period colleagues continue to struggle with mightily!) provides us with a methodological foundation for a more critical engagement with how texts work to describe our region and its past. In this situation, then, we shouldn’t have to rely on the scholars such as Anagnostakis and Kaldellis (whose abilities with Byzantine texts are impressive to be sure) to tell us that our inadequate and problematic efforts to reconcile the archaeology with the textual evidence might be unnecessary and wrongheaded.

4. Cities, Baths, Sites. Three more little things. I continue to be excited about new evidence for very late Roman (or Early Byzantine) baths throughout the Peloponnesus. If I had another life and another dissertation to write, I would write it on very Late Roman baths (7th-9th century). The evidence continues to pile up suggesting that baths underwent significant changes during this period and as a result, provided opportunities for architectural innovation. I was also excited to see the continued reevaluation of Late Roman and Early Byzantine cities and cityscapes which continues both to unpack changes to the fabric of the traditional urban core and to recognize an expansive array of extramural production and habitation sites. Finally, it is hard to avoid the feeling that most of the sites producing significant information about the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period are sites of significance in Classical Antiquity. This is unavoidable, of course, in light of the greater investment in Classical archaeology in Greece, but it always makes me hope that perhaps sometime, before too long, we can start to complement these sites with carefully excavated data from sites that appeared during the Medieval period. 

2 Comments

  1. good one, thanks. Rossana’s thinking about how ceramic production choices bridge ‘periods’ is always interesting and sound.
    *re the management of texts vs the more explicitly material: if you haven’t already seen M. Smith, “Rhythms of change in Postclassic central Mexico” (in Knapp, ed., *Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory*), you might find it of interest. I use it in my Theory seminar to illustrate Annales approaches, but possibly of interest here is Smith’s assertion that attempts to reconcile archaeological and textual evidence aren’t necessarily as productive as other paths. Can’t seem to attach a pdf here but I have one if you are interested.

    Reply

  2. “Slavic hoards” is also funny, arguing against the equation of things (hoards) with people (hordes).

    Reply

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