Polis Views

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had my head in the storerooms and museum looking at objects and thinking about space more through the two-dimensional lens of the notebooks and plans and less in three-dimensional terms of a live environment.

So here are some landscape photos that situate Polis in a bit broader context. 

This is Chrysochous Bay facing north.

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The site of E.F2. where the South Basilica stands.

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Here’s a view from the north side of the city toward the Chrysochous Bay.

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And finally, here’s a statue of Regina who was apparently a legendary queen of Cyprus (or whatever). She stands on the quay at Latchi. 

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Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.

Polis Sights

I’ve been in Cyprus for a couple of weeks now and starting to feel a bit more at home again in the village of Polis.

So I’ve had a chance to get to know this character again:

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I also can’t help thinking that the municipal market in Polis is a bit under utilized. It’s a wonderful and very modern, mid-century space. 

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It opens onto the touristic center of the old village which is distinctly not modern (even if it doesn’t quite feel traditional in a meaningful way).

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Finally, we do a good bit of archaeology here, but it mostly involves spending quality time with sherd.

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We also have continued to collect lovely sunsets.

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Three Things Wednesday: Study Season

This summer’s work at Polis in Cyprus has been a study season. This means that we spend our days in storerooms and at our laptops rather than in trenches or survey units.That said, over the past couple weeks, I got to thinking about our study season and the challenges and opportunities that come from traveling thousands of miles to stare at my laptop and sleep in an uncomfortable bed.

This will be the topic of my non-alliterative three things Wednesday:

Thing the First

Colloquially, archaeologists celebrate study seasons as somehow less intense and rigorous than field work, and this is certainly true on a physical level. I love that I’m not physically exhausted at the end of the day, but for some reason I still find that by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I’m beat.

I’m finding that I’m exerting a huge amount of mental energy on analyzing the results of past field work and putting together our study of finds, notebooks, and various plans. Much of the basic analysis occurred in 2016-2019 and the plan for 2020 was to simple review and finalize it. Over the past two years, we also decided to take work that was destined for a relatively concise (10,000-15,000 word article) and expand it into 30,000 book section. As part of that process, we’re unpacking the reasoning behind small decisions which form the foundations for our arguments. This also prompted us to question our reasoning and review evidence at a highly granular level. In practice this involved reviewing every stratigraphic relationship, checking key artifact identifications and chronologies, and reconsidering the processes that created the site as it was excavated.

What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting this kind of work would be.

Thing the Second

The other challenge that I’m facing this summer is that I went from juggling any number of projects: from teaching, to editing North Dakota Quarterly, doing college and community service, and fussing with various research projects. This kind of diffused attention allowed me to avoid some of the stress associated with burn out. When I got tired of doing one thing, I could switch my attention and do something else. It’s one of the great luxuries of academic life: we have multiple irons in the fire that allow us a range of opportunities and challenges.

Here on study season, I am focused on one thing. I go from being a fox to a hedgehog. And, it turns out, that being a hedgehog is especially exhausting not only because it involves a constantly (and relentless) level of concentration, but also because there are far fewer opportunities for taking a productive break. Even my beloved blog has fallen a bit to the wayside in the face of the insistent need to finish up projects here at Polis.

It never occurred to me that the structure of academia tends to reward foxes, but providing them with plenty of opportunities to recharge in productive ways. Even taking a morning off to catch up on emails or to grade papers is a relief when the alternative is grading or editing. The range of tasks available on a day-to-day basis ensures that even if I work long hours, there is enough diversity to ensure that I don’t get burned out or stuck in a rut.

This is not the case during a study season. Even moment I spend on something that does not require me to be here in Cyprus is a dollar ill spent.

Thing the Third

The biggest challenge facing us this season is “showing our work” and making the arguments, inferences, and conclusions that we have reached as transparent as possible. This means not only being explicit about our interpretations, but also preparing our data for publication. There is a lot of detailed work necessary to produce legible data for publication. Even just connecting various file types to one another (e.g. notebook pages, stratigraphic descriptions, tables associated with the bulk analysis of context pottery, inventoried pottery tables, and so on) is challenging and tedious.

It also requires attention to detail and a certain amount of concentration. More than that, I feel fatigued by our efforts to wade into the kind of fussy morass that archaeological thinking often produces and to bring order to this without obscuring the rough edges.

And maybe it is this kind of work, which involves making critical leaps, tracing inference in the data structure, and, at times, suspending skepticism, that is the most challenging and exhausting during a study season.

The Larnaka Museum

Yesterday, we interrupted our regularly scheduled programing to head east and pick up some colleagues at the Larnaka Airport. As part of the trip, we stopped by the newly reopened Larnaka Museum. 

We have worked at the Larnaka Museum for many years and I had become quite fond of its galleries full of artifact cases from the region’s many sites arranged in according with the dominant chronologies. The regional scope of the museum is its biggest selling point in that it brings together sites from the southeastern corner of the island. On the one hand, this simply follows the organization of the archaeological administration on the island in which Larnaka is the local hub. On the other hand, as archaeologists interested in regional and microregional trends this regional approach is nice a way to get a sense for particular trends across the southeastern corner of the island.

The refreshed museum continued with this basic arrangement, but offered new interpretive signs and included objects and material from more recent excavations. For example, the exhibit featured some of the Iron Age (6th c.) sculpture found built into walls surrounding the small church at Pyla village. 

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The museum also featured a remarkable Hellenistic painted sarcophagus from the West Necropolis of the city of Kition alongside a number of other sarcophagi from that site.

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These artifacts stood alongside the usual assemblages of Bronze Age and Iron Age material from the region including from the Late Bronze Age site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos which is in the area where we have worked for many years at Pyla-Vigla and Pyla-Koutsopetria. The vessels from this site show off its connections to the Mycenaean world.

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More disappointing, however, was the small display of Hellenistic to Roman material in a single case that belied the continued significance of ancient Kition in the Hellenistic, Roman, and Medieval periods.

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The interest in Bronze Age and Iron Age artifacts reflects a contemporary preference for period of Cypriot independence rather than its history as a sometimes contested province in the Hellenistic period or as a wealthy and productive territory in the Roman world. Recent discoveries of Roman mosaics, for example, that rival better know mosaic pavements from Kourion and Paphos serve as a reminder that even while Kition’s status as an independent political power declined, the city remained part of the cosmopolitan Greco-Roman world. It would be nice to see this represented more fully in the museum in the future and to introduce visitors to Larnaka (a thoroughly cosmopolitan city) to its equally cosmopolitan past.

Polis Work

A bit of a hiccup the first day in the Polis storerooms gave us a chance to do some data work yesterday. This season will be split between doing work on physical material from the area of E.F1 on the Polis grid and preparing the data for publication. For readers new to the blog, Polis is a village in western Cyprus that gives its name to the site of ancient Marion and Arsinoe. We’re studying the Roman and Late Roman periods at the site with particular attention to the area called E.F1 in the grid of the original Princeton excavators.

Yesterday, I wrangled data. Among the priorities this summer is connecting pages from the scanned notebooks to data associated with inventoried finds and our larger collection of identified context pottery. Making databases talk to scanned notebook pages is a bit of a challenge because a scanned notebook page from the Princeton Cyprus Expedition are not only data rich, but also unstructured.

The scanned notebook page below is a good example:

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The recto includes four descriptions of excavation units defined by level and pass. While levels or passes do not correspond neatly to archaeological stratigraphy, they are the basic units of archaeological documentation at Polis. They represent the basic context for all finds from the site and so it is important that anyone studying material from Polis have access to the basic descriptions of levels and passes.

The verso provides the spatial information not only for the levels described on the recto but also for other levels and passes described elsewhere in the notebook. This includes features uncovered during excavations and described to varying degrees on the recto. More importantly, since excavators only occasionally and inconsistently recognize and describe the stratigraphic relationships between levels (and passes), the plans become one of the main ways to understand whether one layer is “above” or “under” or even occasionally “cut into” another layer. The plans become the key source for developing informal “Harris Matrices” (or as well call them Franco Harris Matrices in honor of their sometimes miraculous relationships between various contexts).

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These matrices, in turn, demonstrate how messy and at times uncertain the combination of the excavation methods and the distinctive stratigraphy make the site. This makes it even more important to create a way for researchers to “drill down” from any interpretation into the “data” itself and to assess as transparently as possible the interpretative leaps taken to make particular conclusions.

The challenge to this, of course, determining just how much scaffolding a user needs to follow ones interpretations back to the sources. Over the next week, I’m going to experiment a bit with how much it is realistic, but also necessary to provide to allow someone using the archaeological data a useful window into our analysis.

Polis Projects

This summer, I’ll be once again in the field meaning that my regularly scheduled blogging might become a bit more intermittent. I’m not doing field work, but it’s a study season which will focus primarily on the site of Polis on Cyprus (with a brief side trip to Isthmia in Greece). 

As readers of this blog know, Polis is the modern name for the city of Marion/Arsinoe on Cyprus. Excavations in the city have produced evidence for almost every period from the Bronze Age to the Present and I work with a team of scholars tasked with publishing the Hellenistic to Medieval periods at the site. Our work thus far has focused on two areas. The neighborhood of the South Basilica and the area called EF1 and this summer we’re going to wrap up our work at EF1 in anticipation of submitting a volume dedicated to this site and the history of the archaeology at Polis sometime next year.

To get this done, we have to finish the analysis of the stratigraphy, the ceramics, and the architecture of the site which we started in 2019. This should only take us a few days.

We also need to prepare brief descriptions of each stratigraphic unit which also shows their relationship to other strata at the site and finds. This will become part of both the traditional EF1 publication as well as the digital backbone for EF1 on Open Context. The hope is that this can also become model for documenting more thoroughly the stratigraphic of the South Basilica area which is not only a more complex (and is the  history of excavation of excavation there) as well as more spatially extensive. 

This work will also involve linking the stratigraphic descriptions to the inventoried finds, the analyzed, non-inventoried pottery (also known as “the sherds” or “context pottery”), and the scanned notebook pages. Thus each stratigraphic description will also have a series of “one to many” links that will allow future archaeologists to query and critique our analysis.

While we’re working on this, I have to finish a couple of other Cyprus-related outstanding projects:  

First, I need to finish revising a paper that I submitted in the fall on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity. The editors of the volume (which you can check out here) made some good suggestions for revisions.

Second, I need to grab a few photographs of baptisteries on Cyprus for a long lingering project on Greek and Cypriot baptisteries being patiently shepherded through the publication process by Robin Jensen and her team. This means trips to Kourion and Ay. Georgios-Peyas over the next month (and invariably food at fish taverns with good views of the sea!).

Finally, I want to read and comment on Catherine Keane’s very recent Munich dissertation on Early Christian ecclesiastical complexes in Cyprus.

It’s going to be pretty great getting back into doing archaeology on site this summer (rather than at a 6000 mile remove). Stay tuned for some updates and “Foto Friday”! 

Three Figure Friday

One of things that separates me from “real archaeologists” is my deep distain for images in my publications. In fact, I’ve never really understood how images work in publications which isn’t to say that I don’t recognize their value. Perhaps this is what distinguishes me from my colleagues who spent their graduate school years pouring over slides upon which to base their lectures. Instead, I was thinking about what texts to use in my history surveys. 

In celebration of my inability to use images properly, I share with you three images from an article that I just submitted on the archaeology of petroleum production. You can read a draft of the article here.

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Figure 1. View west with south and east elevations of the central powerhouse of the South Penn Oil Company, Mallory Lot 6 Lease, Watsonville Field, Klondike, McKean County, PA dating to approximately 1939. Photo by John Nicely. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa3552.photos.360884p/

Figure 2

Figure 2. Clarence Iverson No. 1, the first successful commercial well in North Dakota (source: James N. Holter, Williston, North Dakota)

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Figure 3: Three pump jacks in Hess Corporation colors stand outside of Manitou Township in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota in 2016. Photo by William Caraher.

Three Things Thursday: Plagiarism, Laptops, and the End of Antiquity

I submitted grades, my summer plans are coming into focus, and I’m almost ready to decamp for the Mediterranean for the first time in two years. I feel like everything is going on at once, and this is more or less a good thing and it feels like a solid backdrop for a Three Things Thursday.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, there was a moderately interesting long Twitter thread in response to an incident of plagiarism in academia. The situation was discovered at the peer review stage and other than a bit of outrage, the harm seems to have been minimal. That said, whenever someone talks about plagiarism in academia, they tend to complain about the crime rather than the underlying system that makes plagiarism both unethical and problematic. To be clear, I’m not condoning plagiarism and I realize that I’m writing from a position of privilege. At the same time, I wonder whether our tendency to become outraged at incidents of plagiarism serves to reinforce a system that is fundamentally toxic. Stoking outrage at incidents of plagiarism in academia reinforces as system that seeks to commodify knowledge and connect the public good that might come from new ideas, processes, and products to private gain.

Of course, we all like it when a colleague recognizes our contribution to our field and citation, in its simplest form, represents a kind of acknowledgement. Unfortunately, over the past seventy years, institutions and the market has weaponized this gesture of collegiality and turned it into a way of measuring and even quantifying impact, reach, and significance. As is so often the case, publishers and institutions have found ways to leverage our desire for collegiality and recognition to support a system designed to generate profits and prestige. The rise of i10 scores, h-indices, and journal rankings that leverage citations to track impact and influence is yet another effort to sort and rank academic labor and to find new ways to profit from both the media through which scholars gain influence and the tools that measure such influence and reach. Plagiarism in this context is as much an economic crime as a breach of scholarly decorum.

By sounding off about plagiarism, then, we both reinforce an age old system of academic recognition, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but also bolster system that allows individuals and institutions to profit from the working of scholarly networks. To my mind, over the last 30 years, the tail has come increasingly to wag the dog with the desire for measurable accomplishments increasingly shaping the landscape of academic work. At the same time, academics celebrate the call to be “against cop shit” in our classrooms and finding ways to subvert the status quo. We also have brought critical attention to the way that the COVID pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in the world. Maybe it’s this recent willingness to consider burning it all down that has made social media outrage over plagiarism ring a bit hollow or at least leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Thing the Second

You might not be able to tell, but I’m writing this post on a Dell laptop rather than my trusty MacBook Pro. For better or for worse, I’ve been an Apple guy for the last 15 or so years and have appreciated the tidy integration between my phone (and especially its camera) and my laptops. Each summer, though, I switch over the my PC which I need to run Microsoft Access and ESRI’s ArcGIS which don’t have native Mac implementation. Usually, I bring along a MacBook Air when I go to the Mediterranean and use it for writing and blogging and to access my Apple ecosystem more easily and natively. My MacBook Air is pretty long in the tooth these days and while it can do what I would like it to do, it’s battery is no longer what it was, its pre-Retina screen is pretty underwhelming, and it’s tiny hard drive makes it more like an early-21st century netbook than a modern laptop. I just wonder whether this year is the year that taking my PC and using it for my writing.

This is a bit nerve wracking because I can’t help but feel that abandoning my Mac will make some part of my work more difficult, even if I’m not entirely sure what part of my work it will negatively impact. I suspect this reflects the success of the Apple ecosystem in making us feel dependent (or at very least comfortable) in their world. What is the most remarkable thing to me is how it descends to the gestural level. My years of working on Macs has shaped how I interact with the keyboard, touchpad, and applications and these habits are profoundly hard to break!

Thing the Third

Yesterday, I posted my annual “Summer Reading List” post and a number of friends reached out and said, in various ways, “whoa! so little ancient history!” This was mostly an oversight. I have considered reading Jack Davis’s new book: A Greek State in Formation: The Origins of Civilization in Mycenaean Pylos (2022) which is available Open Access from the University of California Press. I also want to read Alex Knodell’s newish book: Societies in Transition in Early Greece: An Archaeological History (2021). If I had all the time and energy in the world (and just a modicum of discipline), I would certainly read Nathan Arrington’s latest: Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World (2021) from Princeton.

California has also continued its long tradition of publishing novel and significant works in the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity. Since it’s open access, I’d be keen to check out Mary Farag’s What Makes a Church Sacred: Legal and Ritual Perspectives from Late Antiquity (2021).

I also have a copy of Michele Salzman’s The Falls of Rome: Crises, Resilience, and Resurgence in Late Antiquity (2021) from Cambridge which is not open access, but would help me think about my class for next spring on Late Antiquity.

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.