The Late Byzantine Landscape

Last week I finally finished Foteini Kondyli’s recent book, Rural Communities in Late Byzantium: Resilience and Vulnerability in the Northern Aegean (2022). It’s really quite brilliant and offers a model for the kind of intensive regional study that is possible as the result of slow, deliberate, careful research across archaeological survey, texts, architectural study, and digital techniques.

The book considers the strategies rural communities on Lemnos and Thasos used to survive during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries. Kondyli anchored her argument in an extensive survey of the islands where she used surface ceramics to help date surviving churches, the remains of settlements, and the various towers and other sites that have left traces in the landscape. She supplements these with data from the Athonite monastic archive which provide insights to land tenure practices and the structure of settlement across the island. In this context, Kondyli is able to outline some of the strategies families used especially in the aftermath of the demographic changes visited on these islands during these convulsive centuries. These ranged from marriage strategies and other forms of bonds between families, settlements insulated from the presence of pirates in the surrounding seas, cooperation in the construction of military fortification such as towers and spiritual fortifications such as churches and monasteries, and forms of cooperation with the Byzantine state (and even Ottoman) state.

As per usual, I’m not going to really review the book, but highlight a few things that I stuck out to me.

First, I thought Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience is in keeping with contemporary conversations about continuity and change in the ancient and Medieval worlds. Of course, resilience has emerged as a key way to think about Late Antiquity and the degree to which a community could survive, rebuild, and persist amid economic, military, and political disruptions is crucial for understanding how deep structures which are not always readily visible in textual or archaeological sources held societies together at challenging times. Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience and social strategies is appropriate for the Late Byzantine period as well which endured its share of disasters.

Our attention to resilience, I think, shifts how we think about matters of continuity and change in the past. In this context, continuity and change represent strategies rather than evidence for a kind of absent minded persistence of existing social structures and institutions and change becomes a way to understand how communities adapt to circumstances that may well be beyond their control rather than the arrival of new circumstances themselves. As a result, and as Kondyli so cleverly shows, focusing on resilience foregrounds everyday life at the level of the community and how they respond economic, political, and military events.      

Second, for most of my career, I’ve been a bit of an evangelist for intensive, pedestrian, siteless survey. And I still think it’s the best way to do to field survey in the Mediterranean. 

That said, I’m becoming a bit more willing to see the value in intensive survey. Perhaps I should credit my new found appreciation of modern extensive survey to Yannis Lolos’s extensive survey of Sikyonia. I can add Kondyli’s book to the list of influences that are expanding my perspective on the value of modern extensive survey projects. In particular, I admire her willingness to identify the function of specific sites. One of the challenges facing intensive survey work is our tendency to produce vast carpets of artifacts that blur functional (and chronological) borders of sites until they are essentially disappear. To be clear, this is a rather uncharitable reading of siteless survey, but I suspect there is a kernel of truth to it. Kondyli’s willingness to build arguments on the chronological and functional identification of sites – with a certain amount of caution and perspective – opens the landscape of Aegean islandscapes to the kind of historical interpretations that our siteless survey sometimes resists. 

Third, Kondyli balanced her awareness of how islands function as islands (she avoid the term  “islandscapes” but the concept suffuses some of her arguments) with a strong sensitivity for local landscapes. I’ve participated peripherally in several recent conversations about islands and island archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean and this got me thinking a good bit about whether models for understanding islands in historical periods add much to our understanding of the Mediterranean, in general. For example, the mountainous landscape of Thasos exerted a far more obvious impact on settlement patterns than its situation as an island. This isn’t to say that its insularity didn’t play a role in the organization of settlement on islands, but that it might not be the dominant, determining role. 

This understanding feels consistent with the growing interest in microecologies or microregions which often function at level far below that of an island. If we regard the Mediterranean as a patchwork of microregions, then certain larger regional characterization of spaces—from islandscapes to administrative districts—might contribute less to how we understand resilience of communities than we might expect.

As readers of this blog likely know, my excitement for the archaeology of Greece ebbs and flows with my commitments to field work and my (declining!) ability to formulate research questions that keep me engaged. Kondyli’s book when set alongside other recent-ish books such as  Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside (2016, blogged about here) and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018, blogged about here) has got me once again thinking a bit about how we understand the Late Roman and Byzantine countryside in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Mediterranean this summer and thinking in more in situ ways about issues introduced in these works.

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