Diagnostic Ceramics and WARP

One of the nice things about a study season is that there is time to do little studies that can get lost in the bustle of a field season. There’s also time to catch up on some reading that all too easily gets set aside during the academic year.

This week, for example, I spent some time with a recent article by Elizabeth Murphy and collaborators in the most recent JFA (2019) (and here) Since we’re working on a preliminary report for WARP, it was useful to read how another project introduced their work, their methods, and their goals. More specifically, however, Murphy and her collaborators offered some insights into a collection strategy that was markedly different from ours at WARP.  The LASS project in Sardinia counted 19,176 artifacts and collected 1371. In other words, 7.1% of the seen artifacts were diagnostic (7). This likely speaks to the relatively poor state of ceramics knowledge for Sardinia and what defines an artifact as “diagnostic” than any shortcomings of method on the part of the LASS team.

In contrast, WARP had the advantage of working in the general vicinity of a large number of well-know and thoroughly excavated sites (in varying degrees of publication) that helped us expand what we regarded as diagnostic. This also complemented a rather robust sampling strategy which provided us with a large assemblage of material for analysis. Here’s a short study that considers the significance of our collection strategy in the context of ceramic knowledge in the larger WARP region. 

At WARP, over the course of standard transect walking, we counted 119,414 artifacts including sherds, tiles, lithics, and “other”. We collected 64,983 artifacts or 54.4% of all the artifacts seen. This was consistent with a sampling strategy that asked field walkers to collect all visible sherds, but to sample only unique examples of tiles on the basis of fabric and part of the tile (e.g. edge). In the end, we collected 39% of the tiles that we counted. Considering that 78% of the collected tile was either chronologically undiagnostic (what we called “Tile, Ancient Historic”), Modern, or Early Modern, this seems like a good decision.

A cursory statistical review of the collected artifacts likewise demonstrates that a more robust sampling strategy of each survey unit produced archaeologically significant results. While the definition of “diagnostic” pottery is largely in the eye of the field walker and ceramics experts, rims, bases, and handles (RBH) are almost universally recognized as potentially diagnostic and almost always collected. For WARP, these accounted for approximately 10% of the artifacts collected during typical field walking. The remaining 88.9% of the material were body sherds. During revisits to units where we collected more intensively over a more limited area, we produced assemblages that were 87.8% body sherds and 12.2% RBH. This suggests that the sample produced through regular field walking reflected the percentages of material in the plowzone. Interestingly, we also told our teams that they should collect any material from their units that they thought might be diagnostic, but did not fall into a swath, and designate this material as a “Grab” sample. We also designated as “grab” any material from units that we did not survey using our standard survey methods including amid the collapse of Early Modern houses and the overgrown and rocky acropolis of Orneai. These grab samples were 83.6% body sherds. When we filtered out tiles from this assemblages, which produce a large number of body sherds and appeared in an almost continuous carpet across our survey area, the percentages remained more or less the same. For standard survey, 78.9% of our sherds were body sherds, for more intensive resurvey, 81.7%, and for grabs, 77.7%

Of course, most surveys – including LASS – recognize that decorated body sherds are diagnostic. Like most surveys, WARP found that only about 9.3% of our body sherds preserved decoration. Of these decorated sherds, about 45% of them could be dated to a period more narrow than 1000 years. What’s more remarkable, however, is that of the 90% of our body sherds that lacked decoration, 33% of these sherds could also be dated to a narrow period on the basis of preserved shape or fabric. For grab samples, which are by definition more diagnostic, our ability to data undecorated pottery to less than 1000 years improves to 67.1% which is not far from the 72.6% for decorated sherds.

For some periods, like EHIII, Classical-Hellenistic, Hellenistic, and Roman and Late Roman, undecorated body sherds far outnumber decorated body sherds. As a result, a collection strategy that overlooked these sherds would have significantly biased our view of the landscape.

Joy Williams, Islands, and Time

While on Cyprus this summer, I re-read Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978). Most of the book is set on a mysterious island off, perhaps off the coast of Georgia (but it doesn’t really matter), where Pearl is drawn first by a mysterious man. When he dies a tragic death after they have a son together, she lives out her life on the island in an alcoholic haze. She is surrounded by children who are being raised by her husband’s brother and have largely free rein over the island. In the end, the children and Pearl’s son change and take over the island by reverting to their primordial states. The book is complex, dynamic, and worth reading.

It is also about an island. 

As I think about an island archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus, it’s hard not to think about island in the popular imagination. Jody Gordon’s recent contribution to an island archaeology of Cyprus in a special issue of Land cites Jules Verne’s description of the port at Alexandria as a fictional exemplar of the networked world of ports and islands in the Mediterranean. Williams’ island is the opposite of this. It’s isolated and connected to the mainland (and to the mundane world of reality) by a single boat and a dock almost completely devoid of cosmopolitan bustle.

The isolation of Williams’ island slows and distorts time. The children revert to a beastial, primordial past amid buildings chocked full of artifacts from the days of the island’s founding settler. To make this connection between time and place more clear, the book begins with Pearl drinking gin-and-tonics in a nondescript hotel bar which embodies the character of 20th century non-places as deeply as the island represents a place with its own time, past, and present. 

The leap from Williams’ fictional island to real islands is easy enough. Marshall Sahlins’ Islands of History offers a perspective on how island communities manipulate time and history to understand and construct their world. I don’t have any idea right now how to use these ideas to understand the island archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Re-reading Williams and thinking about my abstract, however, has made me consider that maybe the idea of historical contingency has less to do with a linear concept of archaeological or historical time that exists on island, on mainlands, in texts, and in material culture and more to do with the distinctive flow of time on Cyprus. In other words, maybe island archaeology has more to do with how time (and ultimately history) works on an island and less to do with how islands speak to history and time beyond their shores.  

Plans and Tables

Yesterday was uncharacteristically muggy her in Ancient Corinth and that fit my mood. Not only did I forget to save an ArcGIS project and lose a good bit of work when it crashed, but I also found myself mired in some curious database quandaries that while fun to work through, were frustrating. Whatever the weather here, I’m facing a few more days of similar data oriented challenges.


On the other hand, staring at data from both my own project – the excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria – and the half-century old project at Isthmia in the Corinthia (not to mention the Polis on Cyprus) has pushed me to think about the future of archaeological publishing in new ways. Our data isn’t tidy because archaeology isn’t tidy. More than that, linking our not-so-tidy data to efforts to make compelling (and tidy arguments) reveals the inevitable disconnect between the data that we have and the arguments that we (ideally) believe. 

Nowhere in the archaeological process do we feel this disconnect more intensely than when we’re preparing material for publication. I wonder how much the aesthetics of our efforts to prepare data obscure the reality of archaeological knowledge making… 

From Cyprus to Greece (and an advertisement for myself)

Yesterday, I wrapped up the first of my of three little study seasons and traveled from Cyprus to Greece.

As a kind of poetic gesture, our long-gestating article on the South Basilica at Polis appeared yesterday in Hesperia 88 (2019). Here’s a link to it (and if you want an offprint and don’t get the Hesperia, drop me an email or a DM on the Twitter). 

The article offers an archaeological argument for the date of two phases of the South Basilica. The second phase will likely be of most interest to architectural historians for Early Byzantine Cyprus because it involves the conversion of the church from a wood roofed structure to a barrel vault. We also managed to phase, and date, the construction of the narthex and a portico that ran the length of the southern side of the basilica. Plus, there’s a massive “French drain” (and who doesn’t love Mr. French’s drains?) designed to help deal with the flow of water against the south wall of the church. 


The weakest part of the article is our discussion of the urban context for the basilica, and, in fact, this is a work in progress for our understanding of the site of Polis and the arrangement of Early Christian churches in the changing urban landscape of Late Antique Cyprus more generally. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll undoubtedly know that this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately

We’re also happy that this article involved links to our publication of data from Pyla-Koutsopetria in Open Context. This summer, we’ve started to work a bit on the “digital backbone” for Polis in Open Context (as well as preparing the data from our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla). This involves making our notebooks available as well as our analysis of the context pottery. The inventoried finds from Polis are already available on Open Context in draft form, but they will acquire addition significance only when linked to descriptions of the excavations and other material from the trenches. This is a big job for the area of E.F2 (in the Princeton Polis grid) which includes the South Basilica, but we hope to produce a model for organizing the E.F2 data using the smaller and more manageable area of E.F1 over the next few months.

Thinking about digital publication and curation of archaeological data is always good thing! For the next week, my old buddy David Pettegrew and I will be working with Jon Frey and Tim Gregory with some Isthmia Excavation data and trying to wrangle and think about how best to organize, disseminate, and curate their data. More on that over the next week or so…  

Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.

Legacy Data as Data

In January, I am contributing to a panel at the annual Archaeological Institute of America meeting on legacy data. I’ve already blogged a bit on this last week

One of the unanticipated aspects of this work is that I’ve had to think about what constitutes “data” in an archaeological setting. For example, we’re studying a small corpus of lamp fragments from a particular area at the site of Polis. The “legacy data” consists of a notebook of preliminary observations from a scholar who has more or less abandoned the project. The notebook entries range from cursory descriptions to detailed documentation with measurements and comparanda. There is little in the way of analysis or synthesis.

At the same time, these legacy notebooks are data points that can be integrated into larger contexts. In fact, part of the lamps data already exists on Open Context where a version of the inventoried finds database for Polis currently lives

Recontextualizing legacy data was perhaps the most interesting part of our work this summer. Part of the challenge is negotiating the flow between streams of data that constitute arguments. As I think more about flow – whether workflow or flow in a Deleuzian sense – I’m wondering about the relationship between flow and the character and structure of archaeological arguments. Historically, I think, archaeologists have seen data points as the structuring element of archaeological argument. In this highly empirical form of knowledge making (not to say positivistic) “data” forms foundation upon which stable archaeological arguments are built. In its most extreme manifestation, the presentation of archaeological data points can be rather “siloed.” In this situation it becomes difficult to navigate between examples of objects found at one site or in one region, for example, and those found at another site or another region. There is a tension, then, between describing objects at a site effectively and aligning an object with a type common across a region.

For archaeologists, interpretation and analysis is often about resolving this tension. At its best, archaeological work is tied to organizing and understanding objects, buildings, and contexts between the level of the site and that of the state, region, time period, or proposed trajectory of development. In other words, archaeology is concerned less with objects (however defined) and more with the relationships between objects. These relationships are navigated – vividly in a digital context – by the flow between sets of data. Workflow describes both the production of datasets from contexts and negotiating and structuring the relationships between contexts.

Analyzing and interpreting legacy data is all about finding this flow.

Western Cyprus

One of the downsides of looking at notebooks, pot sherds, and databases all day is that sometimes you forget to look around. Last week we cruised around the Chrysochou Valley a bit to check out some of villages that stand along its east side.

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From Pelethousa, we got a nice view of the Limni mines and Chrysochou Bay in the distance. We also visited the church at Chorteini.

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The church is likely Medieval (or even Byzantine) with its cross-in-square plan. The presence of a ruined aisle along its north side suggests that at some point it may have had a more basilican plan. Tiles building into the wall of the north aisle are almost certainly Late Roman or Early Byzantine in date which doesn’t do much for understanding the date of the church, but suggests that there likely was a Late Roman settlement in the area. Recent survey results, I think, confirm this. 

We also visited the Panayia Chryseleousa in the village of Lysos. This church is probably later than the church at Chorteni (with some very late additions).  My photo is overly dramatic, but the sun behind the dome seemed like a good idea at the time.

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The heraldic crests of various branches of the Lusignan family and the various Gothic touches give the church a distinctly Late Medieval Cypriot vibe.

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We have a ways to go before we understand the settlement history and landscape of the Chysochou Valley in the Roman, Late Roman, and post-Roman period. Moreover, the landscape is deceptively complex with the hill countryside east of Polis (ancient Arsinoe) is made of abrupt hills, rolling rises, and variations in landforms, resources, and access. Sorting this all out to understand the larger context for the city of Polis will be a challenge, but one with appealing views and intriguing vistas.

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

As I haiku-ed this morning on the Twitters, I am working on an abstract for a paper that I’ll give at the 2019 Dumbarton Oaks colloquium “The Insular World of Byzantium” in November.

Here’s the haiku:

Writing an abstract
During the summer season
evokes autumn cold

Here’s the abstract:

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

Over the past 20 years the work of historians and archaeologists has complicated the our understanding of the 6th to 8th century on the island of Cyprus. The tidy narratives of devastating invasions, earthquakes, condominium, and social dislocation have given way to more messy and nuanced understandings of these centuries. Some centers saw continued prosperity while other experience decline. Innovative architecture existed along side more modest forms of ceramics. Invasions created destruction and new economic relationships. The complexity of this era offers some insights into character of Cypriot insularity.

This paper is grounded in recent work at the sites of Polis (ancient Arsinoe), modern Polis, in western Cyprus and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern side of the island. Both sites produced a substantial assemblage of Late Roman to Early Byzantine pottery and a basilica style churches. Architecture and ceramics offer perspectives on how the Cypriot islandscape mediates distinctive economic relationships and forms of cultural and religious expression. The connection between these sites and other places on the island, across the region, and around the Mediterranean suggests the contours of an insular culture that is neither uniform nor consistent.

On the one hand, the difference in the character of assemblages and architecture across the island (and between Koutsopetria and Polis) makes defining a singular Late Roman or Early Byzantine Cypriot insular identity impossible. On the other hand, these difference reflect both historical trends that defined the island’s political and social landscape for centuries and distinct pressures of the 6th-8th century. In the case of Cyprus, an island archaeology informed as much by historical contingency as geography provides a context for a new understanding of the Early Byzantine era.

Some Fragments on Early Byzantine Islands

One of my tasks this summer is to think more seriously about islands, and being on Cyprus and reading some of the recent scholarly work on islands in Byzantium seems to have stimulated this some. Go figure.

(To be clear, I have to write an abstract for a conference on islands by May 30th. In other words, this isn’t just a casual musing.)

So far I have a few observations.

First, Cyprus is a large island. This means that variation across the sites on the island will obscure some of the island’s ability to articulate a distinctly insular identity. In other words, if sites at opposite ends of the island or if a inland site and a coastal site show too much variation, it is reasonable to ask whether they’re on the same island at all. Of course, there are administrative ways that unify Cyprus with the autocephalous status of the Cypriot church being near the top of that list. At the same time, there’s always a certain tension between the idea of Cyprus as a single island rather than as a series of connected cultural, economic, and perhaps even political islets is reasonable.

Second, islands in the Early Byzantine period inevitably require us to attempt to synthesize the patchy and complicated history of settlement change during these centuries. With several exceptions, areas in Cyprus that were urbanized in antiquity tend to remain so today making it difficult to unpack the process of urban change in the Early Byzantine period. Cyprus has enjoyed rather extensive research in its rural areas, but so far, this work has only offered fleeting glimpses of the process of rural change over the 6th to 9th centuries. For better or for worse, archaeologists will have to write settlement history at any scale through proxies and comparisons rather than on the basis of direct evidence. 

Third, the obscurity of rural change and the challenges of understanding urban change on Cyprus has much to do with our inconsistent understanding of the material culture of these centuries. In particular, our ceramic chronologies continue to require refining and the relationship between various classes of small finds – coins, lamps, pots, seals, et c. – has to continue to inform critically our understanding of architecture, settlement, and regional and island wide change.

Fourth, while the study of islands has always involved attention to the place of human society within the environment, recent attention to the environment in a Mediterranean context has brought a new sense of sophistication and historical context to changes in climate. For Cyprus, for example, historical variability in rainfall either on the island or in the larger region can have dramatic impacts on agricultural production and the place of the island within the regional economy. It’s not just agricultural productivity and shifts in climate, of course, but also understanding how various external influences refract through the distinctive environmental resources available to island communities.

All this points to the larger question that’s clogging my head as I think about Cyprus and insularity: how does thinking of Cyprus as an island produce new ways of understanding the Cypriot and Mediterranean past? What does insularity bring to the the interpretative table for Roman and Byzantine antiquity? 

Legacy Data

I might be giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in January on legacy data. Because of that, I’m trying to be particularly reflective when working with legacy data here at Polis on Cyprus. Over the past ten years (yikes!), I’ve been working with notebooks from the Princeton Cyprus Expedition and working with some colleagues to understand the architecture, stratigraphy, and artifacts from the site.

The notebooks qualify as legacy “data” inasmuch as they document the excavations, and we couple this data with some freshly minted data based on our analysis of the finds and time at the site. We’ve been tempted to ask for permission to excavate a bit more, but never have. At its heart, our project seeks to produce meaningful analysis from what already exists.

This summer, for example, we’ve started to work on pulling together all the basic information prepared in the past for the analysis of the Hellenistic to Late Roman lamps at the site. Most of the original notes on the lamps are in notebooks written between 1997 and 2004. There are some photographs dating to those years and earlier as well as some taken in 2012 and 2013. This information is particularly significant because many of the lamps were stolen when the project’s storeroom was burglarized in 2013. The proxy data – notes, photos, database entries, and archaeological context – are all that remains.

IMG 3767Legacy data with dried apricots for scale 

The first day working on a project like this always causes me anxiety as the tasks of recoding data, linking photographs, and interpreting someone else’s notes makes me fear that new knowledge isn’t possible. At the same time, there is something vaguely liberating in being able to reflow this information in different ways without the burdensome material affordances of the objects themselves (although to be fair enough still exist to pass judgement).