More on Early Christian Baptisteries from Greece

A couple of weeks ago, I started to write some of a short introduction to the baptisteries of Greece that I’m working on with David Pettegew. I’m assuming writing about the Early Christian architecture of Greece is a bit like riding a bike… That said, right now, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of random information mostly culled from recent publications. Below, I continue my rambling discussion on the topic that I hope will take shape over the next few weeks!

This will get tightened-up, re-ordered, and expanded over the next month, but I figured that Tsiknopempti was better than almost any time to think about Early Christianity in Greece. The first paragraph is the same as the one that I wrote in my previous post, but then I proceed to talk a bit about trends in the arrangement of baptisteries in Greece before summarizing a case study from a relatively recent article by Athanassios Mailis (which you can read here).

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The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

The baptisteries found within the modern boundaries of the nation of Greece produce a fairly inconsistent picture of their arrangement and basic form. We may partly attribute this to the opaque chronology of many of these structures, which we will discuss below. It is also worth noting that the modern nation of Greece includes falls mainly within the prefecture of Illyricum Orientalis which was under the jurisdiction of Rome until the 8th century but some of the Eastern Aegean islands were part of the prefecture of Asia which fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. While the liturgical influences of these two ecclesiastical spheres remain obscure in most cases, despite the efforts of Dimitrios Pallas (1979/1980) to associate the Constitutiones Apostolorum with the region, there appear to be traces of both Constantinopolitan and Adriatic influences on the ecclesiastical architecture as well as distinctly local trends. This suggests that the region likely saw a range of inter- and intra-regional liturgical influences and practices that may have shaped the architectural arrangement of the baptisteries and their change over time. Athanasios Mailis’s survey of the baptisteries in Greece noted for example that 50% of the baptisteries from churches in Illyricum Orieantalis (16 of 32) appear as annexes on the western part of the building. For churches in the Aegean islands, in contrast, baptisteries that stood as annexes on the western part of the church account for less than 25% of known examples (6 of 27). Mailis observed that same number of baptisteries arranged around the eastern part of the church represent examples located exclusively on the neighboring islands of Kos and Rhodes. This provides a compelling example of what was likely a regional tradition of architecture that perhaps reflected distinctive theological or liturgical understanding of baptismal practices.

The four known baptisteries with fonts located within the eastern part of church buildings on Crete, at either the north or south end of the aisles, likewise suggest regional practices (Mailis 2006). This rather unusual arrangement of baptisteries on Crete also demonstrates how complicated understanding the chronology, function, and influences of such structures can be. The baptisteries in churches at Panormos,
Vyzari, Archangel Michael Episkope, all have high stylobates which separate the nave from the aisles and this is characteristic of churches from the Aegean and mainland Greece. Mailis suggests that the tripartite organization of the eastern ends of these buildings and the appearance of apses at the eastern end of the nave and aisles at Vyzari suggests eastern liturgical influences perhaps associated with Constantinople or the churches of Cyprus or Asia Minor (Baldini 2013, 36). 

Narrating History

This weekend I spent some time exploring the city-state of Ravicka, which is the center-piece and setting for Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series of books. These books are really remarkable and as close to reading a dream as anything that I’ve ever read. The settings and characters shimmer in the yellow light of the city-state and flicker in and out of focus, situations are ill-defined, but luxuriously detailed, and the plot is often unresolved and indistinct. In fact, Gladman remarks in the afterword to Houses of Ravicka, that readers tend to assume that the author knows how the plot of a book will resolve. This shapes how we read a book, understand its structure and organization, and anticipate its resolution.

The stories that Gladman tell do not resolve themselves easily. Often the plots are almost impossible to trace amid the dream like oscillations, temporal  and spatial leaps, and lapses and gaps. This does not make these books frustrating, but is part of their allure. In fact, the imaginary city-state of Ravicka with its unusual customs, strange language, and shifting topography offers a remarkably realistic encounter with the past. The places and events of Ravicka fail to resolve in either detail or plot. Archaeologists, at least honest ones, know this situation well.

These books remind me of some recent conversations with my fiction editor at North Dakota Quarterly, Gilad Elbom. He bemoans the current state of fiction that all too often models itself – consciously or not – on popular media particularly televisions and films. Attentiveness to detail and setting, consistency of characters, and a resolving plot characterize so much contemporary fiction which seeks to tie together  the strands of the story into a tidy package (perfectly appropriate for contemporary attention spans, formats, and media diets). In many ways, the kind of fiction that Gilad decries is the opposite of what Gladman writes. 

The significance of Gladman’s work and Gilad’s critique for historians and archaeologists is that it reminds us that there are alternatives to the prevailing forms of narration and emplotment. I have begun to think that these alternatives are particularly important for our 21st century world.

Recently, conversation on social media about conspiracies theories has fascinated me. There seems to be a prevailing, but largely misguided view that a more rigorous presentation of facts will somehow subvert the power of conspiracies. I suspect the problem, however, is not with facts, but with our predilection for certain kinds of narrative. Conspiracy theorists see their world as one where disparate plot points resolve themselves into a narrative arc that is not only consistent, but also predictable and understandable. This consistency, despite the often unrealistic premises upon which it is based, lends a kind of veracity to the conspiracy theory. This veracity does not come from its similarity to our lived experiences (which rarely resolve themselves at all and often elude our ability to discern detail and recognize consistency, but rather from its similarity to forms of emplotment found in the media and, more importantly, in how we present history.

I’m not the first to observe efforts to emplot conspiracy theories and history according to popular modes of narrative. In fact, Hayden White wrote a massive book that essentially argued the same thing. More than that Kim Bowes, in her recent article on the Roman economy, noted that the recent vogue for big books often sought to explain long term historical trends — the rise of the state, the dominance of capitalism, the emergence of “the West,” the fall of the Roman Empire — as the products of single causes which range from climate change to disease, political instability, or technological innovation. Even the most casual observer of history recognizes these kinds of big books, typically written by men and offering big explanations for emergence, rise, decline, and collapse. These books, as Bowes notes, often massage data to fit their models and often rely on circular reasoning to advance their grand claims that nevertheless appear compelling to many readers.

When these grand models refuse to coincide neatly with the specific situation at one site or another, we often casually recognize this as the kind of variation that might be expected from any grand model (or, paradoxically as an exception that proves the rule). Thus the details that often refuse to cooperate with any kind of plot simply drift to the side as problematic and irreconcilable with the existing narrative. Gladman’s Ravicka series, particular the first novel, Event Factory, is suffused with this kind of detail. In fact, the entire book consists of details that are in some ways irreconcilable.  

Our tendency to explain away details that we can’t reconcile to our grand narratives is not simply a characteristic of big history and archaeology, but also, unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories. When an abundance of irreconcilable details appear, we sometime find ourselves needing to revise the narrative to accommodate them. That said, we rarely question the need for these kinds of narratives in our scholarship or in our media. 

In fact, we still crave these narratives in our popular media. We want the grand stories characteristic of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Lord of Rings, and Larry Potter. We want them so much that we overlook the inconsistencies and fixate and develop details that the authors are constantly resolving into their grand narratives as if to convince us that their worlds are real.

Of course, we do this as historians and archaeologists as well. I keep thinking of my efforts to understand the archaeology of Polis on Cyprus, for example, and the desire to align it with the narrative of Late Roman decline on the island (or, as often, demonstrate that it somehow subverts that narrative). The challenge that I can’t help thinking about now is that my dependence on this narrative (and the assumption that it’s authors know how the story ends) contributes to a view of the world that resolves as conspiracies and popular media does rather than what reflects our lived experiences. 

Maybe archaeologists and historians would be well served to read more works like Renee Gladman’s and think about not only the media that we produce but what we consume as well.  

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

Over the next five weeks or so I have to go back to some research that I was doing in around 2008 to write a short piece and catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. (For some reason this makes me use my Allen Iverson voice: We’re talking about Baptisteries. Not a basilica. Baptisteries). 

Anyway, the start of Lent feels like the right time for me to put some words down on paper that get the ball rolling. My little essay will contribute to a larger project spearheaded by Robin Jensen to bring together descriptions and interpretations of baptisteries from around the ancient world. I’m writing this with David Pettegrew who is writing a short survey of Early Christian archaeology that will complement our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

Here goes a very rough first swing:

The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

There are four significant challenges facing any study of the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. The first, and most significant challenge, is that there are very few stratigraphically excavated Early Christian buildings in the region. In fact, most of the churches and baptisteries known from Greece were excavated before the middle of the 20th century through methods designed with a greater interest in exposing the horizontal architecture of the buildings than revealing the vertical stratigraphy associated with their construction. As a result, archaeologists have dated most churches and baptisteries in Greece on the basis of architectural style or mosaic decoration. This tends to provide only the most general chronology for these buildings and rarely allows us to reconstruct or date the changes that took place at these buildings over time. For example, it is clear that the impressive baptistery associated with the Lechaion basilica in Corinth is earlier than the enormous church which stands to its south, but it is unclear how much earlier and impossible to associate it with earlier structures at the site. The two baptisteries associated with Basilica C at Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes) are only circumstantially associated related phases of the basilica. The excavator supposes that the smaller second baptistery is later and reflects a shift from adult to infant baptism in the 6th century AD. 

One consequence of the less than ideal excavation conditions associated with the both churches and baptisteries in Greece is that it remains very difficult to detect development over time. It is clear, for example, that the Lechaion baptistery underwent modification at some point with a smaller font suitable only for affusion installed in the southeastern conch of the octagonal baptistery. It is unclear however whether this font supplemented or replaced the central font in this room and reflected a wholesale change in baptismal ritual or the convenient addition of an alternative to ongoing practice of the earlier rite. It is likewise difficult to understand the chronological relationship between multiple baptisteries in any single community and whether the construction of some of these baptisteries marked earlier structures becoming obsolete or going out of use or changes in baptismal liturgy or the status of various churches.   In effect, archaeologists and architectural historians should treat the existing corpus of baptisteries for Greece, much like the corpus of Early Christian basilicas, provides a chronologically undifferentiated body of evidence which almost certainly combines regional, liturgical, and likely doctrinal variations present in Late Antique Christian communities in the region.  

Among the more interesting features of the Early Christian architectural landscape of Greece is the number of baptisteries associated with major urban centers. Nikopolis, Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes), Argos, Corinth, and Athens all have multiple churches with baptisteries. Conventionally, the bishop was responsible for baptism and the rites occurred once per year as part of the Easter Vigil. Thus multiple baptisteries, assuming that they contemporary, requires some explanation. Of course, it is possible that the annual baptismal rites occurred on a kind of rotation between churches or even that the bishop performed the rites at multiple sites on the same day. Another explanation is that various congregations following various doctrines each had their own baptisteries in Greek cities attended by their own bishop. We have relatively little understanding of doctrinal diversity in Greece during Late Antiquity, but the evidence that we do have suggests that divisive church politics did not spare Greek see any more than any other part of the empire. Finally, it is tempting to imagine that the presence of baptisteries at some sites maybe have had a connection to pilgrimage and so-called “ad sanctos” baptismal practice in which pilgrims traveled to particular sites to receive baptism. The connection between the basilica at Lechaion, for example, and the martyrdom of Leonidas and his seven companions may provide an explanation for the elaborate character of the baptistery at that site. St. Leonidas and seven women were drowned off the coast of Corinth and, according to a 13th century martyrology, while being drowned celebrated his imminent martyrdom by comparing it to a second baptism. While it seems unlikely that the Lechaion baptistery performed second baptisms, which would be a distinctly heterodox practice at a site likely associated with an effort to promote imperial orthodoxy in a see situated at the eastern edge of western ecclesiastical control, it may suggest that the site was a popular destination for “ad sanctos” rites.

The large number of baptisteries in Greece especially in urban areas have also taken on particularly significant for scholars who seek to use baptisteries as a way to asses the nature or rate of conversion in Greece. Recent scholarship has suggested that large-scale Christianization in Greece occurred rather late and the proliferation of baptisteries in urban areas was a response to the need for mass baptisms during the Easter vigil. Putting aside the role of the bishop in baptism, this is not necessarily an implausible scenario, but the lack of chronological control over the dates of the baptisteries (and their destruction) in Greece makes it hard to align with existing evidence.

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This is a start. I promised myself to spend time today on my book project and this is all the time that I can allot for this today, but stay 

Metahistories, Decline, and the Roman Economy

Yesterday, prompted by some well meaning colleagues and social media, I read Kim Bowes’s very recent article “When Kuznets Went to Rome: Roman Economic Well-Being and the Reframing of Roman History” in Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 2.1 (2021): 7-40. It’s good, thought provoking, and, while it might appear to deal narrowly with the Roman economy has significance for many areas in the study of the ancient world.

In a nutshell (and grossly simplified) Bowes argues that the current trend to calculating ancient GDPs relies on deeply flawed ancient (and later) which is then decontextualized in various ways (sucked and smeared) to fill the myriad gaps that constitute our understanding of the Roman economy. Moreover, many of the arguments that rely on this kind of decontextualized data often involves circular reasoning: the assumption is that the Roman world was like most other preindustrial societies where growth rates were low and inequality high. Thus, many other preindustrial economic indicators can help fill gaps in the Roman economy and prove that the Roman world was as stagnant as other preindustrial economies.

These arguments are often made in big books, festooned with complicated and impressive graphs and charts, and offering sweeping arguments for the economic trajectory of human history. These mighty books, almost entirely written by men, make impressive claims on the back of less than optimal datasets. These claims often emphasize narratives of decline and fall (typically associated with ancient economic systems shackled by key limitations) or triumphalist narratives that celebrate the rise of the modern economy, greater equality, and more inclusive political regimes. 

These sweeping narratives often seek the triggers such as climate change or pandemic-scale disease or political and military instability that destabilized the stagnant balance achieved in the Roman world and brought the state and society crashing to its knees. The tendency to attempt to identify single catastrophic causes amid the sea of complex data reflects long-standing approaches to the ancient world predetermined by narratives of decline (and typically embracing tragic forms of employment with their reductionist mode of explanation (which Hayden White famously associated with Marx and Tocqueville).

[I’ve been thinking a bit about this very issue in a paper that on “the long late Antiquity” on Cyprus. While I’m not especially interested in the economic arguments that Bowes’s is focusing on here, I do argue that traditional big narratives of decline tend to fall apart in the face of more careful and detailed reading of site specific archaeological evidence. Attention to site formation, the complexities of abandonment and post-abandonment processes, and the limits of the stratigraphic and material record often make it far more difficult to identify clear signs of catastrophic or abrupt change at sites.]       

The final pages of Bowes’s article remind me a bit of an article by Christina Sessa a couple of years ago in the Journal of Late Antiquity. Sessa argued that many of the arguments for the impact of climate change in Late Antiquity are unconvincing because by drawing together vast bodies of evidence, they end up decontextualizing the particularities of textual, archaeological, and other documentary sources. Bowes makes similar arguments for archaeological and textual evidence for the Roman economy. She stresses that most of the sources for the ancient economy are incomplete, vague, frustratingly imprecise, and dispersed. At the same time, they offer nuance, especially at the level of the household, where real measures of quality of life, economic vitality, and human suffering and prosperity are manifest. 

Of course, this kind of attention to the small(er) world of households means a step back from some of the big questions their attendant metahistories that have come to be a staple of “big book” histories. This also  involves a step away from the lure of social and economic theories that tend to undergird these big books.  In their place, it would seem, come a kind of history that is more attentive to the details of particular situations, a greater emphasis on empirical description, and a return to low range theory (as opposed to low end theory) and mid-range theory.

This kind of work, of course, is unlikely to attract the accolades that big books offering big solutions to big problems garner. At the same time, attention to small problems in finely defined contexts returns archaeology’s attention to the forms of nuanced evidential reasoning where the discipline has tended to thrive. It also so happens that this is a practically realistic move for the field. Most big books come from a handful of elite, male scholars at a handful of elite institutions (Stanford seems to be particularly fertile ground for them). Bowes’s call for more particular work is democratizing as more highly specialized, empirical, and descriptive scholarship lends itself to the chaotic lives of most scholars who have to balance heavier teaching loads, more onerous professional service obligations, and often more demanding roles in home life. In other words, the small, but far more real worlds that fine grain archaeological work reveal reflect the real world responsibilities of more and more practitioners in the discipline who do not have the privileges afforded scholars at elite institutions.

It may also have the benefit of producing more focused studies that are easier for their fellow scholars to consume and analyze. Small books that address small problems create an environment conducive to greater interpretative, methodological, and theoretical diversity than the ponderous demands made by big books addressing big problems.

At this point, I’m pretty far from Bowes’s fine article, so I’ll conclude by encourage folks to give it a read. 

The Late Antique Countryside

I’ve been pretty intrigued by the two new-ish journals for the study of Late Antiquity: John Hopkins Press’s Journal of Late Antiquity and the University of California’s Studies in Late Antiquity.  Both have published some interesting articles over the last few years and both have made some of their content available for free (JLA here and SLA here). It feels like the former is a bit more literary in focus (which befits its editor Andrew Cain) and the latter is a bit more historical. 

Last year, SLA published a pair of intriguing articles on the Late Roman countryside and if I were ever going to offer a seminar on the topic: Tamara Lewit’s “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory” Studies in Late Antiquity 4.1 (2020): 44-75; and Sabine R. Huebner’s “Climate Change in the Breadbasket of the Roman Empire—Explaining the Decline of the Fayum Villages in the Third Century CE” in SLA 4.4 (2020): 486–518 (which is available, for now at least, for free!).

The two articles offer different perspectives on the fate of rural communities in Late Antiquity even though one considers the 3rd century and the other the 4th-6th. Lewit applies “Community Resilience Theory” to the apparent resilience of rural communities in the Eastern Mediterranean during the period often associated with a general contraction of settlement or, at very least, a political, military, and religious turmoil. She argues that many communities remained viable and in some cases prospered owing to a four-part, reciprocating capacities for (1) economic development, (2) information and communication, (3) social capital, and (4) community competence (Lewit 54). She argues that attention to these capacities has the potential to restore human actors to the Late Roman landscape and nudges back against arguments that tend to see humans as subject to the vagaries of disease, the environment, and economic forces that are beyond their control. In Lewit’s model communities find ways to work together to neutralize threats, take advantage of opportunities, and develop new strategies even amid particular volatile conditions (such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Boxing Day Tsunami). She considers the role of long-standing extra-regional political, military, economic, and religious connections, the social capital provided by the church, and technological innovations in oil and olive presses at the community level and argues that these both reflect and contributed to a capacity sufficient to overcome systemic disruptions. Lewit considers these capacities to reflect the resilience backed into the social fabric local communities which allowed the to survive even as the state failed. (The contemporary political message here is not explicit, but hardly unclear. Her arguments seem to dwell in the grey area between anarchy and idealized notions of neoliberal self-reliance. Don’t worry; we got this.)

Huebner’s article draws upon the growing body of climatological and environmental data from the Eastern Mediterranean to argue that the decline in the Fayum Villages in the 3rd century may related to the failures of the Nile floods. Using papyrological and historical evidence, she shows that communities at the “end” of various irrigation systems suffered particularly grievously in the 3rd century. Many of the villages experienced depopulation and shifted from cultivating to at least partially pastoral livelihoods. Some of the larger estates appear to have fallen into arrears or been seized. Pleas to improve existing irrigation channels and complaints that upstream villages were using too much water demonstrated the interdependence of social and environmental relations at times of particular duress.

It is worth noting, however, that Huebner’s denizens of the Fayum villages were not the helpless subjects of environmental forces that Lewit props up a straw-people in her introduction. Even if their appeals for aid or intervention were not enough to reverse the course of the 3rd century decline in the region, the willingness of the population to leave the villages suggests a kind of social resilience that is not tied necessarily to places in the landscape. It’s difficult for archaeology (or even social history) to trace the movement of populations in antiquity and to understand how relatively short-term (i.e. less than a century) and relatively regional migrations represented viable strategies to adapt to changing conditions. 

Huebner’s analysis of Fayum villages, then, did not understand them as helpless subjects, but in some cases, communities less committed to an archaeologically discernible sense of place than those investing in the monumental houses that stand on Syria’s limestone massif. In effect, the architectural remains of these villages make the resilience of those communities visible (although to be fair to Lewit, they were not the only case-studies in her argument, but just among the best known). In contrast, communities who decided to move from their homes in the Fayum may not have dissipated, but like contemporary immigrants, leverage regional networks to preserve social ties while adapting to regional challenges.

In short, these two articles offer an interesting view of how archaeological and documentary evidence allow us to speak in different ways about community resilience and how these views of the past are invariably shaped by (or at very least suggest) particular ideological positions that are relevant in contemporary society. These two articles, wherever one comes down on them, are perfect seminar fodder (for an imagined seminar).  

Book By Its Cover: Deserted Villages

Last week, I quietly dropped a little sneak peek to the next book that will appear from my little press, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

I thought I’d share the completed cover today. The cover design is by Rebecca Seifried and I provided a couple of the photos for the back, which fans of this blog might recognize as from the Western Argolid. I played a tiny bit with the DP@ logo on the spin of the book.

DV book cover SUBMITTING A 01

We’re saying that it’ll drop on March 1, but I suspect it’ll appear just a bit ahead of schedule. If you’re interested in seeing a prepublication copy, drop me an email or hit me up on Twitter. We’d love to get some enthusiastic praise for the book or, if nothing else, another pair of informed eyes on the text before we go live!

Timescales

This weekend I finally had time to read Timescales: Thinking across Ecological Temporalities edited by Carolyn Fornoff, Patricia Eunji Kim, and Bethany Wiggin (2020). The book is exactly what I needed on a frigid weekend at the start of brutally cold week in the middle of winter. It also cut across any number of projects that have simmered in my brain for years often begging for more attention than my aging neurons can give them.

The book is a series of contributions that deal with the challenge of timescales in the context of ecological thinking about the Anthropocene. This summary, however, sells the book short. The contributions which range from conventional scholarly articles to more experimental pieces, summaries of theatrical performances, and artist statements, engage in meaningful meditations on the nature of time and time of nature, humanity, and existence. This emphasis on time explored the difficulties that we have juggling the multiple temporalities necessary to understand the seemingly catastrophic consequences of contemporary climate change. 

Jason Bell and Frank Pavia’s article encouraged us to explore pessimistic approaches to climate change studies. For the authors this involved bringing together scholars in the humanities and sciences without the expectation that they produce some kind of paradigm defining outcome. Bell and Pavia’s discussion of surf punk and oceanography did not result in a new way to understand the role of the sea in global climate studies. Instead, their article – suffused with “chitchat” – suggested that these kinds of inconclusive conversations initiated without even perfunctory optimism regarding outcomes offered a new way to engage with problems as intractable as articulating the myriad temporalities necessary to understand carbon life cycles, for example. How do we imagine a proleptic Anthropocene that will only be knowable long after the last human has departed? 

The connections between their call for pessimistic approach to transdisciplinary interaction has clear ties to my own interest in slow archaeology, but I had always insisted that slow archaeology was better way (or at least a more humane way) of achieving conventional results in archaeology. I wonder after reading Bell and Pavia whether an approach to slow archaeology that does not culminate in conventional archaeological knowledge, but instead values the process of collectively thinking through complex problems and the shared experience this engagement provides. Perhaps in its purest form slow archaeology is process for the sake of process and without the expectation of progress.

Other pieces that caught my attention were Mary Mattingly’s and Kate Farquhar’s articles on WetLand. Wetlands was a floating experimental garden, sustainable meeting place, and work of art docked on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Designed by Mary Mattiingly, the boat itself featured solar power, composting toilets and showers, a range of sustainable plants for food, and common spaces that hosted events, conversations, and other forms of public engagement. The goal of the boat was to bring attention to the Schuylkill River and its banks and wetlands which largely house industrial sites. In fact, the river is most frequently seen from highways and surface roads that run along its course or cross it around Philadelphia. The WetLand served as a way to bring people to the river as a place and to engage with the challenges facing this polluted, constrained, and often unpleasant waterway. The sinking of the WetLand in 2017 presents a tragic, but somehow suitable end to its role as a teaching and research site and perhaps suggests the recursive arc of time the river which constantly ingests new things which come to constitute its course, life, and flow.

The concept of WetLand is far beyond anything that I could imagine for Grand Forks, but I’ve been thinking more and more about engaging the Red River and its surrounding landscape in a more constructive way. The Red River lacks the industrial character of the Schuylkill, but one could argue that like the Schuylkill (and perhaps even more saliently) it defines not only our landscape, but also our community. The Grand Forks Greenway, which lines the banks of the Red River, embodies some of the same characteristics a WetLand. The Red River flood walls serve to delineate the wilds of the river from the city, land from the river’s course, and public from private space. Of course, they are also permeable and imprecise. The Greenway itself, for example, is not wild in any conventional sense, but the product of the flood mitigation strategies. The flood walls which constrain the flow of the river do not hamper the flow of people, sewage and rain, traffic, or even animals. Like WetLand, the Greenway could serve as a laboratory to consider the different flows of time from the post-glacial course of the river to the various sedimentary records of its annual floods, the rise and eventual removal of the riverside neighborhood of Lincoln Park, and the ongoing, seasonal and perennial vegetation along the river’s banks.   

Ömür Harmanşah’s article on deep time percolating into the present brought back to mind his compelling archaeological vision of the passage of time. I’ve encountered Ömür’s thinking in the past and even engaged with it in some casual papers on my research in the Bakken oil patch (you can read them here if you want). The notion of deep time forcing its way into our contemporary world is compelling in part because it offers such a literal metaphor for the flow of oil—itself a product of millennia-long processes—  into the present and the interplay of the deep, geological time of the subterranean strata of the oil patch and the contemporary life of communities, watersheds, and economies forces us to engage with the complexities of temporal rhythms mingling in unexpected and incommensurate ways.

The massive timescales involved in our imagining of the Anthropocene likewise intersect with our daily lives, governmental policies, and, of course, objects ranging from plastics to the technologies of hydraulic fracturing, deep reinjection wells, and the residual radioactivity of the earth itself. 

The book contains far more than my casual comments here suggest and deserves a close reading by anyone interested in the temporal challenges the shape how we imagine our future.

Sneak Peek: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

It’s incredibly exciting to offer a sneak peek of the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

This book is exciting for many reasons. 

First, it’s due to appear later this month (and a soon to appear book is the most exciting kind of book I know!)

It is also the only book length volume that considers the phenomenon of deserted and abandoned villages in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Medieval to Modern periods. Anyone familiar with Eastern Mediterranean knows that abandoned settlements are ubiquitous in the countryside, but despite being so common, they’re rarely the same and have only sporadically received detailed attention.

Most significantly, however, is that the contributions in this book are a uniform high quality. These are not lightly revised conference papers, but full articles often with archaeological evidence, sustained, critical arguments, and polished figures, images, and maps. The volume was incisively peer reviewed by top scholars in the field and every article under went thorough revision.  

Finally, this volume grew out of a pair of panels organized by Deb Brown Stewart and Kostis Kourelis at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America meetings and sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Group of the AIA. As folks familiar with The Digital Press know, Kostis was a co-editor of the very first volume published by the press, Punk Archaeology, and Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Seifried have been strong open access advocates and supporters of the press from its early days. In other words, this book embodies the community that scholar-led publishing can establish as well as its ability to produce high-quality, open-access books.

DV book cover

Here’s the abstract for the book: 

Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is a collection of case studies examining the abandonment of rural settlements over the past millennium and a half, focusing on modern-day Greece with contributions from Turkey and the United States. Unlike other parts of the world, where deserted villages have benefited from decades of meticulous archaeological research, in the eastern Mediterranean better-known ancient sites have often overshadowed the nearby remains of more recently abandoned settlements. Yet as the papers in this volume show, the tide is finally turning toward a more engaged, multidisciplinary, and anthropologically informed archaeology of medieval and post-medieval rural landscapes.

The inspiration for this volume was a two-part colloquium organized for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco. The sessions were sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group, a rag-tag team of archaeologists who set out in 2005 with the dual goals of promoting the study of later material cultural heritage and opening publication venues to the fruits of this research. The introduction to the volume reviews the state of the field and contextualizes the archaeological understanding of abandonment and post-abandonment as ongoing processes. The nine, peer reviewed chapters, which have been substantially revised and expanded since the colloquium, offer unparalleled glimpses into how this process has played out in different places and locations. In the first half, the studies focus on long-abandoned sites that have now entered the archaeological record. In the second half, the studies incorporate archival analysis and ethnographic interviews—alongside the archaeologists’ hyper-attention to material culture—to examine the processes of abandonment and post-abandonment in real time.

Edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

With contributions from Ioanna Antoniadou, Todd Brenningmeyer, William R. Caraher, Marica Cassis, Timothy E. Gregory, Miltiadis Katsaros, Kostis Kourelis, Anthony Lauricella, Dimitri Nakassis, David K. Pettegrew, Richard Rothaus, Guy D. R. Sanders, Isabel Sanders, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, Olga Vassi, Bret Weber, and Miyon Yoo.

Rebecca M. Seifried is the Geospatial Information Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Deborah E. Brown Stewart is Head of the Penn Museum Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

To get a preview of Deserted Villages, click here.

Roman and Early Christian Cyprus

This weekend I read the latest in a spate of edited volumes on the history and archaeology of Cyprus: From Roman to Early Christian Cyprus: Studies in Religion and Archaeology edited by Laura Nasrallah, AnneMarie Luijendijk, and Charalambos Bakirtzis. The book continues in a tradition begun by the late Helmut Koester by bringing together historians, art historians, and archaeologists to discuss the context for Early Christianity in a particular locale. As the title of this book suggests, the volume considers Cyprus.

A quick skim of the table of contents reveals that this volume has brought together an impressive group of senior scholars who represent a wide range of approaches to Roman, Late Roman, and Early Christian Cyprus. They do a nice job of approaching a rather limited body of material from the island in new and intriguing ways. In other words, if you’re familiar with the archaeology and history of Cyprus, you won’t encounter new evidence in this volume, but quite possibly some interesting new interpretations.

The Laura Nasrallah’s and Henry Maguire’s discussion of the well-known inscriptions from the House of Eustolius at Kourion, for example, reminded me of just how complicated these texts are as testimony for the place of Christianity in the life of 5th-centuy Kourion. Drew Wilburn’s article on the ritual specialists and Demetrios Michaelides contribution on mosaic workshops unpack the relationship between the productive and ritual economies. Athanasios Papageorghiou and Nikolas Bakirtzis, Stephanos Efthymiadis, and Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou and Giorgos Philotheou discuss hagiography, art, and archaeology. Andrew Jacobs and Young Richard Kim discuss Epiphanius. And so on.

The insights of these thoughtful scholars make the volume worth reading and every article contains some worthwhile insight. At times, however, I wished that the contributors spoke to one another in a bit more of a sustained way. For example, it would be intriguing to understand whether the diversity of church forms on the island followed any recognizable patterns of theological, economic, or cultural diversity (although I suspect that the answer is… not that we can discern).

More interesting still is that most of the papers focus on Salamis, Paphos, and Kourion without only brief detours to other cities on the island (although Charalambos Bakirtzis’s update on the site of Ay. Georgios tis Peyeias was worthwhile). Polis is barely mentioned at all and Kition garnered very little attention. I suppose this is consistent with a view of both the Christianity as an urban religion and Roman Cyprus as an urban place. Of course, we also know that Cyprus featured a “busy countryside” with ex-urban places such as Alassa, Koutsopetria, Ay. Georgios, and Ay. Kononas on the Akamas (and, in fact, David Pettegrew and I were discussing this very thing this past week). These places made me wonder whether the Christianity that appeared in our texts would be different if we assumed that there were at least as many rural Christians as urban ones.

It was also interesting that for all the deserved attention to Barnabas and Epiphanius, there was little discussion of the status of Lazarus who at least according to tradition was the Bishop of Larnaka and had his relics translated to Constantinople in the 9th century. In some ways, he suggests a possible rival to Salamis-Constantia’s claim to Barnabas’s Apostolic primacy on the island perhaps associated with Kition? While there are few sources for Late Roman Kition and the story of Lazarus my well be post-antique, it still got me curious about how these stories (and buildings such as Ay. Lazarus in Larnaka) might reveal tensions that are not entirely visible in the more mainstream sources.

The same could be said about things like the architecture of churches on the island which seems to suggest relationships between communities, builders (or architects), and liturgies both on the island and off the island. Of course, these relationships can’t be traced precisely in most cases and the chronologies are fuzzy, and many of these buildings have no been excavated or published to the most rigorous standards, but they still present some potential narratives that complicate the more unified or islandwide perspectives.

That being said, it was great to read a book that sought to contextualize Early Christianity (and to some extent, Late Antiquity) in the transition from the Roman to the Late Roman period. As I noted last week, this was a version of the “long late antiquity” that I missed at the conference I attended two weeks ago. This isn’t so much a critique of that conference, but more a thought about how the period of Late Antiquity might free itself from a view antiquity that stressed or expects continuity, say, in economic activity and urbanism. By emphasizing religious change and the emergence of Christianity provides another lens to complicate the endless debates concerning continuity and change at the end of antiquity. 

Digital Workflows in Archaeological Practice

This weekend, I read with tremendous interest an article by Michael Boyd and a cast of dozens titled “Open Area, Open Data: Advances in Reflexive Archaeological Practice” in the Journal of Field Archaeology (2021). The article documents the digital workflow employed by an open area excavation of an Early Bronze Ages site on Kos. It is state of the art and forms a kind of sequel to the Roosevelt et al. article in JFA 40 (2015) which lays out the digital practices employed by the Kaymakçı Archaeological Project in Turkey. It also complements some of the discussions in 2016’s Mobilizing the Past for a Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Jody Michael Gordon, and Derek B. Counts.

The article is the kind of publication that will reward a deeper reading and critique than I’m probably capable of doing today. It is not only model in that it endeavors to make clear what the project did with their digital tools, but also how their digital practices supported open area excavations, in particular, which remain relatively rare in Greece. The authors made the point that this was done, in part, to reveal the inner workings of the digital “black box” that sometimes envelop their day-to-day practices. This means that this paper links digital workflow to field practices and readers of this blog know how much I love workflow.

I’ll just make three quick observations because this article is available under some kind of open access license. The software that the project uses is largely the iDig application developed in the Athenian Agora and run on iPads.

1. Integrating a Fragmented Workflow. One of the things that the authors acknowledge form the start is the desire to integrate the fragmented workflow of contemporary archaeological practice supported by the various specialists who produce a wide range of largely (and impressively) compatible data. What’s particularly intriguing tis that some of the specialists involved had to streamline their workflow to allow the project to integrate their data with field work in near real time. While it’s tempting to suspect that “the tail” of the technological potential of having a robust dataset from specialists at trench side (or excavation data readily available in the lab) might be wagging “the dog” of careful, deliberate documentation, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If anything, the potential of digital integration encouraged more ambitious efforts to ensure specialists and excavators communicated regularly. The level of efficiency at this project seems also to be tied to it largely being a single period site, well-known through recent excavations, and with a substantial staff and funding.

It’s all pretty remarkable.

2. Tools and Time. Likewise, it’s interesting that the tools the project used – both software and hardware – were sophisticated, but not extraordinary. The primary data collection device at trench side was the iPad and the software, iDig, was available via Apple’s App Store. The limits of the iPad’s computing power and connectivity at the site meant that at times the syncs between devices — apparently done over Bluetooth — took longer than anticipated, and it seems that the software developed provided them some high level help in implementation, but if I understood correctly, most of the day-to-day functioning of the technology was within built-in capabilities of the software. 

The software will continue to serve as one of the ways in which specialists expand the project dataset and team members, at least initially, analyze and interpret the site in the short term. In the longer term the data will transition to ArcGIS where the volumetric information collected through 3D data capture can be analyzed more efficiently and synchronized with the field and lab data collected on site. The project provided the Python scripts that they’re using to refine their data and bring from iDig into an SQL data structure. 

The project noted that iDig did not make field recording faster, but it’s clear from this article that it did make it more efficient and expansive. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been incredibly time consuming and inefficient to facilitate the level of interaction between various parts of the project without digital technology.

3. Limits of the Digital. The authors also noted that the flexibility of iDig helped ensure that the interface itself did not overly structure the way in which field recording occurred. Individual excavators and specialists could, for example, create new fields and the iDig’s “minimal parenting approach” avoided the use of dropdown menus or other fixed response fields. I suppose this made the data produced by the project messier, perhaps less consistent and more idiosyncratic to specialist and situation, but also more robust in its ability to capture nuance and detail. The authors admit that the clean up necessary to make the data consistent was not a simple process. It would have been interesting to understand where the most significant variation between datasets occurred to understand how the minimal parenting approach produced incompatibilities (or pushed the project to negotiate variation). 

At the same time, the authors note that the capacity for iDig to create Harris matrices on the fly sometimes inhibited excavators from “questioning their developing stratigraphy.” This awareness, however, suggests that this is a manageable situation. In fact, the elegance of iDig’s Harris matrices might actually be a attractively ironic way to remind the excavator to question tidy associations.

It also offers nice reminder that open area excavation is messy and complex. It replaces the orderly grid of bulks with their relatively tidy displays of vertical stratigraphy with more ragged edges and complex associations produced through a range of formation processes. It goes without saying that, in most cases, the advantages of stratigraphically controlled open area excavating outweighs its challenges. The robust use of digital tools allowed this project to approach open area excavation with a remarkably integrated data set that must have facilitated decision making at trench side. 

To be clear, I’ve only just scratched the surface of this article, that I think will become a kind of classic example of practice in digital archaeology. I’d have liked to have seen a few examples of how this robust workflow worked in practice to produce new interpretations and knowledge, but I also get that unpacking the blackbox of method and procedure have value in its own right. Articles like this also reveal many of the assumptions associated with contemporary archaeological practices and, in this capacity, serve an auto-ethnographic function for our field. Do check it out!