A Review of Metaponto 4

This past month, I spent some time reading and reviewing Eremina Lapadula’s The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio. I’ve blogged about it already, but now I have a rough draft of the review ready for your consideration.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how I write book reviews lately. I tell my students that there are three kinds of reviews with three kinds of theses, and the best reviews explain how a book works rather than what a book says.

1. This book is good because…
2. This is book is good, but…
3. This is not a good book because… 

In practice, however, I’ve found it more difficult to pull this off. The review below is probably my least successful effort. On the one hand, it’s reasonably thorough and critical. On the other hand, it is entirely unremarkable.

(On the third hand, it is also more or less done and off my plate before my summer work commences…)

Monmouth, Illinois

Today your esteemed (or not esteemed) blogger is coming to you from the lovely library at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. I’m giving a talk tonight for the campus’s archaeology day.


Because of the vagaries of travel in the antipodes, I am in town for the entire day rather than my usual surgical strikes. This gave me some time to wander around town looking for a coffee shop with the internets. This does not seem to exist in Western Illinois, but I did get a delicious breakfast (and, yes, I do know the golden rule of social and new media: no one cares what you had for breakfast…). 


But the town was gorgeous despite the low grey skies. Some really nice victorian domestic architecture:





Some nice examples of turn of the century, small-town monumentality.



Some commercial and public buildings that are nice, if showing some signs of wear and tear.






Some urban art.


Trailers, Florida, and Spring Break

Since this is the first day of our Spring Break, it seems appropriate to talk about Florida. Last week, Kostis Kourelis nudged the North Dakota Man Camp Project Team to check out the slim volume titled Walker Evans: Florida produced after the Getty exhibited some of Walker Evan‘s photographs from Florida.

This 1941 photograph appeared on the cover.

NewImageFrom the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The trailer is a lovely 1940s “toaster type” (as Evans called it) travel trailer. There are still a few example of these in the man camps of North Dakota (the trailer below apparently dates to the mid-1950s).

DSC 0450

More interesting, however, is that the trailer in Evans photographs features a lovely walkway made of shipping pallets. As several observers have noted, shipping pallets are crucial to the global economy as much because of their initial intended use as for their dynamic afterlife. While I had known that pallets had existed from the first part of the 20th century (in fact, their boom began in the late 1930s and coincided with the introduction of the gas-powered forklift), I had assumed that the almost ubiquitous character of these pallets was a product of late 20th century and the rapid expansion of the so-called “World Economy”.


Apparently, as soon as pallets became widely available, they began to see use as architectural elements. The pallet walkway is a ubiquitous feature in the Type 2 man camp in the Bakken area. We associated the presence of pallets in the man camps with the rapid intensifying integration of Western North Dakota with the global economy. The movement of equipment, specialized supplies, food, and other goods necessary to support the increase in activity and man power in the Bakken must have made many more pallets available for secondary use. The presence of pallets at a 1941 trailer park in Florida may reflect the increase in rail traffic to this area as it became a desirable seasonal resort.

DSC 0466DSC 0467

They aren’t just common at man camps or trailer and R.V. parks, of course. They also find their way into suburban basements.



Re-imagining the Basilica at EF2 at Polis-Chrysochous

As readers of this blog know, I am involved with some great scholars on a long term research project at the site of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. To date our work has primarily focused on the basilica-style church in the area of EF.2. The church was built toward the end of the 5th or beginning of the 6th century and then stood for half a millennium (or there abouts). The church stood in an area that was a center of activity from the Hellenistic period, a busy intersection in Roman times, and continued to support houses, burials, and manufacturing into the Byzantine epoch.   


The church is a wild and sexy thing. During its hard life, it saw numerous architectural interventions ranging from what might have been an almost total reconstruction to slight structural and aesthetic tweaks. Traditional architectural history attempts to document the life of a building like this in terms of coherent phases that then collate with larger narratives of architectural development typically on a regional or even trans-Mediterranean scale. Our church is a reluctant partner in this kind of undertaking.

Any effort to push the buttresses, wall-thickenings, reconstructions, re-uses, floors, fills, and other evidence for architectural modification into well-defined phases has so far met with total frustration. This is not to say that the church did not see major episodes of modification, but that final plan of the church came about as much through a series of minor architectural responses as to major cohesive interventions.  

The resulting image of our church is less a testimony to the orderly progress of regional styles as the industrious work of a community. And we submitted an abstract to the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research to this effect: 

Re-imagining the Basilica at EF2 at Polis-Chrysochous

Bill Caraher, University of North Dakota
Amy Papalexandrou, Independent Scholar (Austin, Texas)

Over the last four study seasons, a “Medieval Team” consisting of Amy Papalexandrou, Bill Caraher, Scott Moore, Brandon Olson, and Sarah Lepinski have worked to document the basilica style church at the site of EF.2 at Polis-Chrysochous. This building and its immediate vicinity were excavated over a 25 year period beginning in the early 1980s. While excavators successfully articulated the architecture, they made little headway unpacking the complex stratigraphy of this part of the site. To do this, our project has created a relational database that integrates transcribed notebook information, inventoried finds, and context pottery. We complemented this archaeological data with renewed study, documentation, and imaging of the architectural remains to create a substantially revised phase plan for this building. This work makes a significant contribution to history of Early Christian and Medieval architecture on Cyprus by reinforcing the dynamism of Christian architecture and establishing that the transition from wood-roofed to vaulted basilicas can dates to earlier than previously expected. Moreover, these conclusions also provide a useful opportunity to reflect upon the potential to integrate new imaging technology with models for digitizing legacy data and integrating it with new analysis.

Two Church Plans

Sometimes I don’t mind spending a morning with Adobe Illustrator (although most days it’s a special kind of torture). So I did that yesterday. 

The first image is a simplified plan of an Early Christian basilica in Greece. It is loosely based on a plan of Nikopolis Alpha, but I cut out some of the ancillary rooms joining the narthex. 

Figure1 Caraher

I also used the Illustrator to sketch a plan of the church at Kalpsi in Eurytania. This church has a spectacular group of mosaic pavements with dedicatory inscriptions. For my purposes, I was only really interested in the location of dedicatory inscriptions so I decided to create a sketch plan. I think it works for a very simplified representation of where the inscriptions appeared.

Figure2 Caraher


How’s that for a Thursday morning before a day filled with grading and grant writing?

The Martyria of Salona

This month, Ann Marie Yasin published an important reconsideration of the martyria of Salona in the Journal of Early Christian Studies (20 (2012), 59-112; pdf here?). Martyria are buildings thought to be dedicated to particular Early Christian martyrs and the veneration of their remains. Scholars have long associated the centrally planned martyrium with some of the earliest forms of Early Christian monumental architecture. In fact, they have in some cases seen martyria as the key intermediate step between the veneration of Early Christian ancestors and saints in the catacombs and the explosive spread of basilica style churches in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. As with so much in the study of Early Christian architecture, the material remains for the “evolution”, as Yasin puts it, from burial to monumental martyrium have not been subjected to particularly rigorous scrutiny, and the archaeology of the type site of Salona which featured three “early” martyr shrines that are central to how we have understood the development of this kind of building is particularly problematic.

Yasin’s article, then, subjects the archaeology of Salona to rigorous critique and suggests that the first step to unpacking the complex history of Early Christian architecture is to determine the viability of longstanding arguments for its development at key type sites like Salona. Yasin casts well-justified doubts over the traditional narrative of Christian architectural development and calls for scholars to focus on three particularly problematic areas:

1. The Regional and the Universal. I am working on a paper on monumental Early Christian architecture of Greece. Following the same lines as my dissertation, I am taking Early Christian architecture in Greece as a more or less unified corpus. To my mind, the most remarkable aspect of Early Christian building is the basic uniformity of Christian architecture. This uniformity reflected the institutional structure of church, reinforced the rising status of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and promoted the universal character of the Christian liturgy.

As Yasin points out in her article, this tendency to generalize has caused issues in the past. Scholars have overlooked the particulars of regional development or, more problematic still, the developments of particular sites or buildings. Yasin’s work at Salona, of course, also shows some problems with this approach as the archaeological records for many Early Christian buildings – not to mention the attention to detail in the excavation itself – are not conducive to the detailed study of phases. Moreover, in many cases the excavations followed the architecture and was more concerned with demonstrating the validity of longstanding arguments than carefully detailing the remains.

Yasin’s restudy of the archaeological reports and publications from Solona suggest considerable ambiguity in the traditional phasing of the buildings casting doubt on the neat narrative that assumed the pre-existence of important tombs which received progressive architectural elaboration.

2. The Trouble with Texts. Yasin points out that part of the difficulty in reading the Early Christian architecture is the tendency to see these buildings in terms of the various martyriological and hagiographical traditions. Yasin has suggested that, first, these textual sources are not only problematic in terms of chronology (and this is compounded by chronological ambiguities in the excavated buildings), but they often owe as much to literary conventions and tropes as local conditions. As a result, these texts do not serve as a reliable guide to the history of the buildings and may, in fact, reflect an imagined past that explains the nature of a standing structure. In short, past communities had as much invested in explaining the nature of the architecture as modern archaeologists, and both have created stories designed to make a useful sacred past.

3. Ambivalence and Ambiguity. A key point seen throughout Yasin’s article is that Christian buildings may not have conformed to the clear evolutionary or ritual outlines supposed by modern scholars. In fact, the ambiguity that characterized the archaeological remains of the martyria in Salona might well reflect the ambiguity and tensions present in the buildings as they stood for their ancient audiences. Buildings could and likely did sustain multiple meanings to their audiences. As a result, inscriptions, floor mosaics, and even hagiographic texts provide little to locate these churches within explicit narratives of development. One is tempted to expand this ambiguity to the architecture itself and note that Early Christian (and later) builders were not above mimicking earlier styles, combining features to create visually discordant and confusing montages, or even fabricating historical inscriptions. The willingness of ancient builders to play with architecture and to engage the viewer in a way that multiple potential narratives become possible and the architecture of the building would actively work to confuse simply interpretations.

The tension between the easy readability of Early Christian architecture in general and the complex features, architectural relationships, and narratives associated with specific sites communicated the tension between the general (perhaps universal) and the local in Christian history. The historical nature of the Incarnation, so central to Christian theology, and the universal power of the Christian God found clear parallels with the general power of the institutional church and the local traditions of the sacred.

Architecture, Access and Agency in Early Christian Greece

This past week, I’ve been working away on a paper about monumentality in Early Christian architecture in Greece. Most of the work has involved re-familiarizing myself with my dissertation (which is almost 10 years old now… yikes!), but I have spent some of the week pondering the way in which monumental architecture communicated social, political, and economic ideas to a Late Antique Greek audience.

In my dissertation, I suggested that the organization of the Christian liturgy combined with the arrangement of space within the Early Christian basilica served to promote the privileged position of the clergy to the growing Christian community. The clergy had access to the most sacred areas of the church, performed key roles in the liturgy, and wore distinctive clothing in a hierarchically arrange procession. Moreover, the architecture of Early Christian churches presented a series of barriers starting with western narthex which separated the nave and aisles of the church from the atrium or exterior space, to the barriers that separated the congregation in the aisles from the central nave, to the chancel barrier that separated the eastern end of the church from the processional space of the main nave. These barriers typically served to emphasize a sense of privilege dependent upon access and, in combination with the Christian liturgy promoted hierarchical separation between members of the clergy and the laity.


Nothing in this line of argument is particularly novel. In fact, scholars have observed that Late Antique society had a growing interest in hierarchical display ranging from great urban processions and growing emphasis on the social distinction offered by Late Roman paideia to the carefully articulated ritual spaces of the new capital at Constantinople. While some of these practices had roots reaching back to the early Roman Empire, it seems probable that the changing nature of authority in Late Antiquity required more explicit gestures to enforce distinction between groups within society vying for social and political authority. It makes an easy, tidy argument to suggest, then, that the church invested in buildings and rituals that reinforced social distinction by manipulating access and performing hierarchy.

The only issue is, of course, that the church was not the only institution that invested in these buildings. A wide range of social actors invested in the construction and decoration of churches in Early Christian Greece. To be sure, some buildings appear to be the products of the institutional church. For example the Church Alpha at Nikopolis appears to have been founded by the Bishop Dometios who celebrated his donation with elaborate mosaics and flowery inscriptions (which quoted Homer!) A later bishop of the same name added some decorative flourishes.



Elsewhere, however, we have buildings that appear to be the product of imperial patronage or constructed by members of the local aristocracy. In some instances, it would appear that the numerous members of the local community chipped in to decorate a building. In one case, a donor provided only a half a solidus to the decoration of the church. This would be a modest donation for anyone above the poorest class of urban or rural laborers.

So, if the institutional church used architecture to promote the growing authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Greece, they did not do this without the support of members of the elite and the communities in which these churches stood. Are we to understand that the church exerted a kind of hegemony over certain segments of the Greek population which allowed it to leverage the wealth of these communities to promote its interests? Or was this a more complex form of collusion where independent social actors from across Greek society found common cause in promoting the church as a way to gain access to the political, social, and spiritual power vested in that institution?

I’m increasingly seeing church architecture as both high permeable to a range of actors and, at the same time, the same time space central to the (re)production of the church’s role in Greek and Late Antique society more generally. Looking carefully at these buildings – after some time away – has reminded me how messy the process of social and political change can be and that institutions rarely command unambiguous authority.

Architecture and Social Analysis at Vouni, Cyprus

The past few years have seen an impressive gaggles of books and articles re-evaluating Iron Age Cyprus. To this number we should add Catherine Kearns’ recent contribution to the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology: “Building Social Boundaries at the Hybridizing First-Millenium B.C. Complex of Vouni (Cyprus)” JMA 24 (2011), 147-170.

This article hit upon a few key issues for how the intersection of architecture and archaeology contributes to our understanding of ancient (and particularly Cypriot) society:

1. Monumentality. The Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Romans periods on Cyprus saw a tremendous interest in monumental architecture. The massive and short-lived Cypro-Classical “palace” at Vouni occupies a fortified hill some 10 km west of the city of Soli. The sprawling structure features two major phases and extends for well over 2500 sq m. The size of this building alone marks it out as a significant monument in the Cypriot landscape and echoes the size of Late Bronze age compounds on the island as well as Roman period “villas” at sites like Paphos and Kourion. Its location, set apart from known urban centers on the island and without clear earlier precedents on the site, have often led scholars to associated the structure with the growing influence of the Persian Empire under whose rule the island fell during most of the Cypro-Classical Age. The presence of so much monumental architecture provides a particularly useful backdrop for the kind of social analysis of architecture that Kearns proposed in her study of Vouni. The highly stratified character of the space within these structures makes them suitable for access analysis.

2. Access. Access analysis considers the social function of space by categorizing and mapping rooms based on their connection to other rooms and their accessibility from the exterior of the building.  When I was working on my dissertation, this kind of analysis had just fallen from it 1980s vogue as scholars increasingly questioned the cultural and structural assumptions upon which these kinds of studies were based. Kearns’ careful use of access analysis (and, indeed, many of the better examples of this kind of study) avoids this by attending carefully to the archaeological changes to the building and proposing that shifts in the patterns of access between the two phases were relative rather than absolute. Thus, changes in access represent different functions of the spaces and, perhaps, different ideas about the social organization among the groups with access to the building’s various rooms and spaces.

3. Hybridity. This careful use of access analysis opens the door to a larger discussion of hybridity in the Cypriot landscape. This terms, derived from the colonial encounter and enriched (and co-opted) by post-colonial theorists, has particular resonance among archaeologists working on Cyprus, which is, in so many ways, a post-colonial state. Kearns suggested that the monumental size and architectural form of the “palace” at Vouni represented a combination of local architectural and building traditions with those from elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean (namely the peristyle courtyard). Rather than this form representing an outpost of Persian influence on the island or an indication of Achaemenid authority, Kearns suggested that site marked a space where those responsible for the site used architecture to mediate between various forms of sovereignty and authority. In fact, the instability of the site and its resistance to interpretation may reflect an intentional strategy designed to protect those responsible for the site and allow them to move with equal efficiency in both local and larger trans-Mediterranean conversations.

The growing sophistication with which scholars have come to treat the architecture and archaeology of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Cyprus is remarkable, and should offer a valuable challenge to those of us who have focused on later periods in Cypriot history. The numerous Early Christian basilicas, for example, have so far escaped from much sophisticated and theoretically-informed study despite their fine levels of preservation and the presence of several well-documented excavated examples (much better documented, it should be said, than the palace at Vouni).

A Byzantine Roof

My post today is a modest contribution to some work that Kostis Kourelis is doing over at his blog. On Monday, he offered a brief post on Byzantine roof construction. My colleagues and I at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project have been thinking a good bit about roof construction also.

Our interests in roofs derives from our study of a 6th century A.D. annex room associated with an early Christian basilica. It seems clear that the room was two storeys and had a heavy roof covered with thick, flat, “Kopetra” type tiles.  The second floor had collapsed into the first and there is no evidence for whether the room had an internal support.  We did, however, find some large plaster fragments that we have associate with the tops of the walls.

The most interesting fragment (and please excuse my sketch) looks like this:


The chunk of plaster preserves the impression of the beam that ran along the top of the wall. It also had the impression of the perpendicular rafter which sat atop the beam. On the top of the piece of plaster we discovered the impressions of reeds or small sticks. This must have been the layer of rushes, beanstalks or rushes described in the 4th century B.C. inscription cited in Kostis’ post.  The tiles would have sat atop the reeds preserved in the plaster impression.

The plaster impression preserve some evidence for the construction process. It would seem that the wall beam and rafters were set into place and the gap between the rafters was filled with plaster (or a kind of mortar) immediately before the reeds were put in place atop of the rafters. The plaster or mortar would have had to be still wet for the small reeds to make an imprint. In effect, this piece of plaster preserves the roof as it was being built.  This makes some sense, I suppose, because it ensured a strong seal between the roof and the wall to prevent water from entering the wall and weakening the rather humble used to bond the stones.

David Pettegrew and I have documented a series of roofs at the opposite end of their life cycle at the early to mid 20th century rural site of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia (follow this link to an archive of over 600 photographs taken over 10 years at the site).

The roof of House 5 showed no evidence of the mud-and-reed layer between the tiles and roof structure although it is possible that this layer eroded away quite quickly as the roof deteriorated.  The roof of house 5 appears to have been supported by some well-cut timber that set atop walls reinforced with cinder block suggesting that a fairly recent date of construction.


The roof of House 3 shows a similar construction style with the use of more rustic rafters.  The mud plaster interior walls stood until early in this century (2001), but deteriorated rapidly after the roof collapsed.


House 14 was the only house in the settlement that preserved the mud-and-reed packing between the tiles and the rafters.  This photograph is from 2001 and the packing remains barely visible. By 2009, the entire roof had collapsed and evidence for the mud layer under the roof tiles was lost.

House 14 Roof


The temptation to recycle the precious roof tiles even in our century manifest itself in the roof of our house 2.  The first photo is from 2001 and the second from 2002.

House 2 2001