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!


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!

Cyprus and the Long Late Antiquity

Last week, I attended a virtual conference on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity convened by Ine Jacobs and Panayiotis Panayides at nominally hosted by Oxford University. The conference was a wonderful cross section of recent research on Late Antique Cyprus and brought together specialists on both a wide range of material culture and texts from that period. 

The talks generally revolved around a few common themes. Many sought to push the late antique period into the 8th century and beyond the disruption traditionally associated with the Arab raids and the so-call “condominium” period of the middle 7th century. As one might expect, most talks stressed continuity between the 6th and 8th centuries. Many also emphasized the persistent connectivity of the island during the 6th to 8th centuries which manifest itself in the appearance of imported ceramics, coins, seals attesting to the connection with imperial and ecclesiastic officials, external influences on architecture, and the cosmopolitan lives of Cypriot saints. Of course, these two things are not unconnected as imported wares, off-island influences, and regional administrative and ecclesiastical connections often serve as easily datable benchmarks in the history of the island and demonstrate that the later-7th and 8th centuries were not periods of isolation and economic and political disruption. 

I was pleased, then, that my paper which was rather focused on our work at the sites of Pyla-Koutsopetria and Polis fit into these wider conversations and both echoed their findings and benefited from the complementary perspectives. For example, Pamela Armstrong and Guy Sanders argued that we can push the chronology of well known forms of imported pottery – namely African Red Slip 105 – into the 8th century, and this helped make sense of the later history of the site of Polis and Koutsopetria by showing ongoing activity and perhaps prosperity at these sites in the century after the Arab raids. The continued vitality of trade and administrative networks that extended to North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant indicates that the island’s role as a highly integrated hub of Mediterranean connectivity endured even as the political landscape in the region changed.  

The keynote talk by Marcus Rautman situated the study of Late Antiquity on Cyprus within both wider historiographic trends and work on the island. He managed to describe a trajectory of research that culminated in current trends that have expanded late antiquity into later periods. At the same time, he gently identified some gaps in the paper’s presented at the conference and which did not address environmental history, for example, and avoided probing the connection between our study of the Late Antiquity on the island and Cypriot nationalism especially over the last 50 years.

Maybe it’s the looming shadow of recent political events that influenced my attention to papers at the conference, but it was rather striking how little our contemporary situation seemed explicitly to influence the papers. Of course, I wasn’t expecting papers to evoke Brexit, Trump, this summer’s riots in the US (and ongoing racial tensions in Europe) or the riot at the Capitol, but at the same time, I thought that the growing attentiveness to the politics of the past, and the notion of Late Antiquity, might be more visible in the papers.

For example, it’s obvious enough to understand the desire for persistence on Cyprus as part of a long-term effort to negotiate the origins of modern Europe (made most obvious in the work of Henri Pirenne, but also present in Peter Brown’s efforts to locate Late Antiquity). The situation of Cyprus, “betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens,” established not only the place of Cyprus adjacent to the Arab Levant, but also the chronology of Late Antiquity which juxtaposes the ancient world, epitomized by Greekness, and the Medieval and indeed Modern Mediterranean, shaped by the rise of Islamic states. Arguments for the persistence of antiquity into the 8th century (and later) feel like efforts to forestall the inevitable transformation of Mediterranean and the island by extending the reach of the ancient world. 

To be clear, this isn’t to say that I’m skeptical of these efforts. Indeed, my scholarship has tended to see in the 8th century similarities with the 5th and 6th century rather than differences. The issue is, rather, whether the 5th and 6th centuries should be understood as more similar to the ancient world than to the world of the 10th century. Does our effort to extend antiquity later overlook the fundamental differences between the Late Antique world that earlier periods on Cyprus. By this I don’t mean simply the appearance  of Christianity or the various re-organizations of the Roman Empire, but the connections between Cyprus and its surrounding regions as manifest in ceramics, architecture, and movement. When, for example, did the economic networks that produce Cyprus’s distinctive Late Antique assemblage of ceramics emerge? I would assume after the 2nd century and perhaps amid the ambiguities of the 3rd and 4th centuries on the island.

This is significant because it complicates the notion that the ancient world, even the late ancient world, ended with the disruption of the Persian invasion of the Levant, the rise of Islamic states, or the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate. It seems like Cyprus should be a key place to complicate our notion of what constitutes antiquity and to even negotiate a new period, free of some of the contemporary (and, indeed, modern) political baggage of antiquity.

The general absence of theory at the conference — assemblages were just groups of artifacts and no one mentioned ontology, agency, or any other watchwords of the archaeological and critical theory toolkit — was actually not unpleasant, but one wondered whether it made it more difficult to engage with the larger project of interrogating the long late antiquity?

In any event, this is a minor and perhaps idiosyncratic critique that should take nothing away from the remarkable range of papers presented last week. Apparently a publication is planned and perhaps that will give us all a chance to expand, refine, and complicate our arguments and the definition of a long late antiquity.

Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

This morning, rather early my time, I’ve started to attend a conference on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity where I’m giving a paper later this morning.

The line up is impressive and I’m looking forward to getting up to date on a range of people’s work on Late Antique Cyprus.

My paper seeks to weave together some of the latest material from the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria and our recent work on Polis (ancient Arsinoë). For close followers of our work on Cyprus, this will likely feel summative rather than distinctly significant. At the same time, I do like to think that the paper shows some small, incremental, refinements in our analysis of the city of Arsinoë at the end of Late Antiquity. 

You can read the program or enroll in the conference here.

You can read my paper here.

Time and COVID (again part 2)

Yesterday, I expanded a bit on some thoughts concerning how the COVID pandemic has shaped my professional sense of time. Today, I want to think a little bit about how COVID has shaped our collective sense of time. Again, these ideas are not fully formed and in a perfect world, I’d have more time to think about these things and maybe shape them into some kind of article.

In any event, this is not a perfect world and this blog is not a perfect medium, but I’m going to write anyway and leave it up to you whether you want to read it or not.

Part of the frustration that so many people have encountered surrounding COVID is temporal. Not only has COVID disrupted daily routines that have for a century contributed significantly to the spaces of work and private life, the experiences of travel and distance, and our understanding of social and political relationships, but it has also disturbed our sense of the present. 

The main way that this is possible is in the delays inherent in our encounters with the virus. On a day-to-day level, we encounter these delays whenever we look at the myriad daily dashboards that report COVID testing results. We are aware that these results represent not the situation on the day on which various organizations report and tabulate their test results, but several days earlier when they administered the tests. There is, however, a certain dissonance between the daily numbers and the process of testing and processing the tests that means the numbers on any particular day serve as an imprecise proxy for the present situation.

Making things more temporally murky is that exposure to the virus will not immediately result in a positive test. There seems to be an incubation period between exposure and having enough viruses in your system to trigger a positive result. This makes the daily results even more complicated to understand as they represent individuals who have tested positive over a span of time, probably a few days, and who were exposed to the virus over a span of time. The “point data” that the daily test results seem to imply (recognizing, of course, that most dashboards also present data as rolling seven and fourteen day averages) represents not a moment in time, but a complex amalgam of processes, events, and situations.

Various virus protocols recognize temporal imprecision of a positive test and typically reflect a conservative approach temporally to preventing the further spread of the virus. Thus quarantines are five or ten days anticipating the variability in time surrounding a positive test. If the modern world reflects a growing interest in precision and efficiency, the temporal world of COVID is maddeningly imprecise and inefficient. If we tend to think about the present as a point where the past and the future intersect, the COVID virus has created a much more blurry sense of the present that represents both the past and the future.

(I would love to think about the blurry present of COVID in the comparison to the speed at which capital moves in contemporary financial markets and were billions of dollars in value can appear or vanish in moments leaving increasingly precarious worker dependent upon rather imprecise (at least from a temporal standpoint) proxies for understanding the viability of their employment and livelihood.) 

Of course, this blurry present generates a fair degree of anxiety because most of us struggle to understanding the chaotic experience of multiple simultaneous temporalities. The roll out of the COVID vaccine seems to also create a sense of confusion as not only is manufacturing a slow process, but the distribution of the vaccine appears destined to proceed at different rates among different populations. Putting aside the remarkable achievement of developing a vaccine and beginning to distribute it at scale in the matter of months, it seems like the uncertainty surrounding access to the vaccine is causing as much concern as its efficacy or its safety. 

I wonder how much of this concern relates to the sense that our already blurry present is prolonged as we wait to understand when we will have access to the vaccine. Moreover, some parts of the population who are already being vaccinated must have started to live in a time defined by a notable different sense of the present. It is no longer defined by the blurry imprecision of daily test reports, but by the relatively secure familiarity of pre-COVID routines. 

It’s interesting that many of the popular depictions of pandemics emphasize the perils of a fast moving disease that would kill its victims both consistently and quickly. COVID appear to be fast moving, but its massive death toll only reflects one aspect of its impact on society. I would argue that the uncertainty surrounding its spread and the temporal imprecision of the instruments that we have at our disposal to understand its impact on our communities have had their own distinct impact on our world and lives.