Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

The Late Byzantine Landscape

Last week I finally finished Foteini Kondyli’s recent book, Rural Communities in Late Byzantium: Resilience and Vulnerability in the Northern Aegean (2022). It’s really quite brilliant and offers a model for the kind of intensive regional study that is possible as the result of slow, deliberate, careful research across archaeological survey, texts, architectural study, and digital techniques.

The book considers the strategies rural communities on Lemnos and Thasos used to survive during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries. Kondyli anchored her argument in an extensive survey of the islands where she used surface ceramics to help date surviving churches, the remains of settlements, and the various towers and other sites that have left traces in the landscape. She supplements these with data from the Athonite monastic archive which provide insights to land tenure practices and the structure of settlement across the island. In this context, Kondyli is able to outline some of the strategies families used especially in the aftermath of the demographic changes visited on these islands during these convulsive centuries. These ranged from marriage strategies and other forms of bonds between families, settlements insulated from the presence of pirates in the surrounding seas, cooperation in the construction of military fortification such as towers and spiritual fortifications such as churches and monasteries, and forms of cooperation with the Byzantine state (and even Ottoman) state.

As per usual, I’m not going to really review the book, but highlight a few things that I stuck out to me.

First, I thought Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience is in keeping with contemporary conversations about continuity and change in the ancient and Medieval worlds. Of course, resilience has emerged as a key way to think about Late Antiquity and the degree to which a community could survive, rebuild, and persist amid economic, military, and political disruptions is crucial for understanding how deep structures which are not always readily visible in textual or archaeological sources held societies together at challenging times. Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience and social strategies is appropriate for the Late Byzantine period as well which endured its share of disasters.

Our attention to resilience, I think, shifts how we think about matters of continuity and change in the past. In this context, continuity and change represent strategies rather than evidence for a kind of absent minded persistence of existing social structures and institutions and change becomes a way to understand how communities adapt to circumstances that may well be beyond their control rather than the arrival of new circumstances themselves. As a result, and as Kondyli so cleverly shows, focusing on resilience foregrounds everyday life at the level of the community and how they respond economic, political, and military events.      

Second, for most of my career, I’ve been a bit of an evangelist for intensive, pedestrian, siteless survey. And I still think it’s the best way to do to field survey in the Mediterranean. 

That said, I’m becoming a bit more willing to see the value in intensive survey. Perhaps I should credit my new found appreciation of modern extensive survey to Yannis Lolos’s extensive survey of Sikyonia. I can add Kondyli’s book to the list of influences that are expanding my perspective on the value of modern extensive survey projects. In particular, I admire her willingness to identify the function of specific sites. One of the challenges facing intensive survey work is our tendency to produce vast carpets of artifacts that blur functional (and chronological) borders of sites until they are essentially disappear. To be clear, this is a rather uncharitable reading of siteless survey, but I suspect there is a kernel of truth to it. Kondyli’s willingness to build arguments on the chronological and functional identification of sites – with a certain amount of caution and perspective – opens the landscape of Aegean islandscapes to the kind of historical interpretations that our siteless survey sometimes resists. 

Third, Kondyli balanced her awareness of how islands function as islands (she avoid the term  “islandscapes” but the concept suffuses some of her arguments) with a strong sensitivity for local landscapes. I’ve participated peripherally in several recent conversations about islands and island archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean and this got me thinking a good bit about whether models for understanding islands in historical periods add much to our understanding of the Mediterranean, in general. For example, the mountainous landscape of Thasos exerted a far more obvious impact on settlement patterns than its situation as an island. This isn’t to say that its insularity didn’t play a role in the organization of settlement on islands, but that it might not be the dominant, determining role. 

This understanding feels consistent with the growing interest in microecologies or microregions which often function at level far below that of an island. If we regard the Mediterranean as a patchwork of microregions, then certain larger regional characterization of spaces—from islandscapes to administrative districts—might contribute less to how we understand resilience of communities than we might expect.

As readers of this blog likely know, my excitement for the archaeology of Greece ebbs and flows with my commitments to field work and my (declining!) ability to formulate research questions that keep me engaged. Kondyli’s book when set alongside other recent-ish books such as  Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside (2016, blogged about here) and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018, blogged about here) has got me once again thinking a bit about how we understand the Late Roman and Byzantine countryside in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Mediterranean this summer and thinking in more in situ ways about issues introduced in these works.

A Memorial for a Digital Friend: Diana Gilliland Wright

Yesterday, I learned that Diana Gilliland Wright had died earlier this month. I didn’t know her very well and, in fact, I can’t exactly remember if I had ever met her. I knew her mostly via email, comments on my blog, and her own voluminous blogging output.

Over the last decade, as my research interest shifted toward the Argolid, she and I corresponded a bit more regularly as she offered us the occasional insight based on her years of work on the city of Nafplion and its environs. From what I can gather she wrote her dissertation on a 15th century Venetian administrator at Nafplion, Bartolomeo Minio. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read it. Nor have I read any of her formal scholarship. What I did read, quite regularly, were her blogs.

Year ago, when blogging was still fresh and exciting and filled bloggers with hope, we envisioned a world where bloggers read each others’ work and reached out to one another and commented and shared each others’ work through hyperlinks and blogrolls and ultimately forged relationships across networks of blogs. Diana Wright did all that and was a regularly commenter on my blog from its earliest days (on Typepad!). And even as the promise of blogs as a corresponding medium faded a bit, she continued to reach out via email to offer comments and ask for publications. I remember sending her a few copies of North Dakota Quarterly at some point as well and hoping that she found the poetry and fiction in those pages interesting.

From what I can piece together she ran two blogs. The blog that I knew best was called “Surprised by Time” and it largely focused on the Medieval Morea (or Peloponnesus). Her interests were wide ranging and did much to make transparent murky waters separating the Medieval and Early Modern worlds. The scions of Byzantine elite families rubbed shoulders with Venetian administrators, on assignment, Ottoman officials, and Mediterranean diplomats, literati, and ne’er-do-wells. Palaiologoi cross paths with Italian merchants and Ottoman travelers, Pashas, and poets. Each of the over 200 entries, offered a startling glimpse into a world often overlooked by scholars preoccupied by tidier narratives of rise and decline of empire and neglectful of the messier interface of daily life among those most effected by political and cultural change. To Dr. Wright’s particular credit, the blog exists under a CC-By-SA license meaning that anyone can share her work as long as they credit her and make their work available under an open license. The blog appears to be fairly well archived by the internet archive, but I would be keen to entertain ways to preserve it more formally. 

For many years, she also maintained a landing page of sorts called “Nauplion.net” where she offered an index of her work and the work of her partner Pierre MacKay which featured regularly on her blog. It also featured links to many scans of hard to find primary sources some of which were translated on Surprised by Time. This site is no longer working and hadn’t been updated in many years, but it is preserved on the Internet Archive.

[By coincidence, I’m teaching Evliya Çelebi this week and using Pierre MacKay’s translation of Evliya’s visit to Corinth in my class. Diana Wright posted bits and pieces of Pierre’s translation and the story of his discovery of Evliya’s manuscript on her blog.]

Her other blog, Firesteel is an anthology of poetry gleaned from ancient and modern sources and from Greek, Ottoman, Arab, Italian, French and English language poets. I don’t know whether the poetry posted here and her more academic content crossed paths in some kind of formal way, but it really is an amazing collection of work (which I suspect violates all sort of copyrights, but I get the sense that Diana Wright just didn’t really care). 

~

As a small, digital memorial to Diana Gilliland Wright’s passing, I would encourage you spend a moment looking at her online legacy and recognizing it as a gesture of a kind of digital kinship that could connect individuals who had never met. For whatever reason, her profile included a link to John Coltrane’s 1957 recording of “While My Lady Sleeps.” It feels like an appropriate soundtrack for a visit to her digital world. 

. . . a little wine for remembrance . . . a little water for the dust.  

The Byzantine Peloponnesos

I read a bit randomly these days in Byzantine archaeology. When something comes across my desk, I tend to read it, and even as my attention has been on revising my book and a couple archaeology of the contemporary world projects, I’ve recognized that things are happening in Byzantine archaeology. A couple of weeks ago, a colleague drew to my attention that the most recent issue of Archaeological Reports includes an article on “The archaeology of the Byzantine Peloponnese: new research perspectives” by Rossana Valente. 

The article is nice survey of the archaeology of Byzantium over the last two decades. It’s very much worth a read for anyone even casually interested in the subject. (I also look forward to reading the survey of work on prehistoric Cyprus as well in the same issue). I won’t try to summarize its content, but do have a few observations:

1. Periodization. This article demonstrates the utter impracticality of a periodization scheme which separates the “Late Antique” from the “Early Byzantine.” Many of the sites and issues raised in this piece have origins in the 5th (or even 4th century), which even the most doctrinaire editor of the AJA would place firmly in the Late Roman or Late Antique period. It is clear, however, that trends, sites, and questions emerging from these centuries continue to be relevant to the study of the 7th and 8th centuries, which might be called by some the “Early Byzantine” period. In fact, the supposed disruption of life in the Peloponnesus caused by the so-called “Slavic Invasions” of the late 6th century appear to be increasingly problematic and perhaps even illusory as this very article shows. It is interesting that the academic infrastructure as represented by the Archaeological Reports periodization scheme preserves a division that is no longer particularly relevant to the material on which it reports. (This is not meant to be a criticism of the Valente who clearly is operating under the guidelines of the journal and convention!)

2. The Slavs and Ethnicity. If obsolete debates over periodization continues to loom large over the field of archaeology, Late Antique and Early Byzantine archaeology continues to fret and fuss over identifying ethnicity in the archaeological record. The weight of national archaeologies both in Greece and in the Balkans more broadly continues to lean on our field as we scrutinize every piece of handmade pottery for Slavic fingerprints. It is clear that scholars continue to walk a fine line in these debates between acknowledging a tradition of ethnic identification of particular classes of material culture, recognizing parallels between certain forms present in the Peloponnesus and those found elsewhere in southeastern Europe, and centuries old debates over the origins of Slavic speakers and the “Greekness” of the residents of the Peloponnesus. At some point, of course, we will probably stop talking about the “Slavic invasions.” In fact, one would hope that the current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, where migrants seeking sanctuary from poverty, violence, and social disruption move across arbitrary political boundaries, might inform historical debates about the arrival of new groups in the Late Antiquity Peloponnesus.

3. Texts. Of course, the argument for a Slavic invasion is not simply a modern fantasy. As this article reminds us, The Chronicle of Monemvasia describes just such an event and for over a century scholars have been willing to take this problematic document at face value. Recent work by Anagnostakis and Kaldellis, however, have suggested that the narrative of invading Slavic hoards was as useful in the Byzantine period as it has sometimes been to contemporary archaeologists and pushed back against the slavish (heh, heh) acceptance of this textual source as explicating certain elements of material culture. 

The discussion of The Chronicle of Monemvasia in a survey of the Byzantine Peloponnesus is a nice reminder of the role that texts play (and don’t play) in the archaeology of this period and place. Archaeologists of Medieval Greece have long felt a certain kinship with scholars working on prehistoric periods owing to our shared lack of textual evidence for our periods. It seems like this relationship and willingness to go beyond texts (something that many of our Classical and Roman period colleagues continue to struggle with mightily!) provides us with a methodological foundation for a more critical engagement with how texts work to describe our region and its past. In this situation, then, we shouldn’t have to rely on the scholars such as Anagnostakis and Kaldellis (whose abilities with Byzantine texts are impressive to be sure) to tell us that our inadequate and problematic efforts to reconcile the archaeology with the textual evidence might be unnecessary and wrongheaded.

4. Cities, Baths, Sites. Three more little things. I continue to be excited about new evidence for very late Roman (or Early Byzantine) baths throughout the Peloponnesus. If I had another life and another dissertation to write, I would write it on very Late Roman baths (7th-9th century). The evidence continues to pile up suggesting that baths underwent significant changes during this period and as a result, provided opportunities for architectural innovation. I was also excited to see the continued reevaluation of Late Roman and Early Byzantine cities and cityscapes which continues both to unpack changes to the fabric of the traditional urban core and to recognize an expansive array of extramural production and habitation sites. Finally, it is hard to avoid the feeling that most of the sites producing significant information about the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period are sites of significance in Classical Antiquity. This is unavoidable, of course, in light of the greater investment in Classical archaeology in Greece, but it always makes me hope that perhaps sometime, before too long, we can start to complement these sites with carefully excavated data from sites that appeared during the Medieval period. 

Two Article Wednesday

I’m obviously out of sync with my use of alliteration, but I am working my way through my “articles to read pile” albeit rather haphazardly. This week, I read two articles from the most recent Journal of Greek Archaeology 6 (2021), both of which were pretty cool.

The first was by Chris Cloke whose relatively recent dissertation analyzed the off-site ceramics from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP). As a young survey archaeologist in Greece, this project was the bee’s knees and a model for how we thought about intensive pedestrian survey. The survey part of this project was published primarily through a series of articles which, in turn, focused primarily on on-site data. Cloke’s work brings to light the significant quantity of off-site data which he marshals to contribute to ongoing discussion about the changing character of the Classical to Late Roman landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus. 

Cloke’s article on the JGA is titled “Farming on the Fringe: Diachronic Changes in Land-Use Patterns and Agricultural Strategies in Ancient Nemea” and it considers two variables. First (and most interesting to me) he considers the average size (in weight) of sherds found in off-site scatters from the Nemea Valley survey area and compared them to the size of “on-site” sherds. He discovered that artifacts in lower density assemblages (that is off-site) from the Classical and Hellenistic period tend to be about the same size as those from higher density “on site” assemblages. In the Roman and Late Roman period, however, he noted that the average sherd size for artifacts in off-site scatters was much lower than those found on-site. To Cloke, this suggests that during the Roman and Late Roman period off-site scatters represented different formation processes. The tendency for low-density, low artifact weight scatters to present a halo around sites from those periods may indicate manuring during these periods. The theory is that smaller sherds were more likely to be transported with other waste into the fields as fertilizer whereas larger sherds are likely to represent damaged objects associated with primary discard in proximity to habitation.

What makes this argument particularly clever is that Cloke goes on to suggest that the evidence for manuring coincides with a general intensification of agriculture during the Roman and Late Roman period in the region. There is abundant evidence for this during the Roman and Late Roman period across Greece and in the northeast Peloponnesus more specifically. More and more marginal lands appear to come into cultivation culminating with the 5th and 6th century agricultural boom where nearly every corner of the region appears to see Late Roman activity. If there was going to be a time where manuring happened, it would be in Late Antiquity.

I would have loved to be reminded a bit about how NVAP identified and collected from sites and off-site scatters. Cloke argues that the assemblages from both appear fundamentally similar suggesting that collection strategies did not bias one assemblage over the other. The main difference I would see is that off-site units are so much larger than the gridded collections (if memory serves) conducted on-site. How the differences in unit size might bias collection is a bit hard to know, but I’d be keen to see the variation in artifact size for off-site scatters. I’m wondering whether the appearance of larger sherds in any number indicate on-site scatters but even in these units, lower density scatters of smaller sherds remain ubiquitous. As a result, large units will naturally collect more smaller artifacts from expansive low density scatters. Or something. This might change how we understand the scatters of small artifacts, however, if on-site scatters are merely the presence of larger sherds and not the absence of smaller ones.

The second article looks at the distribution of Middle Byzantine churches in the Peloponnesus. Maria Papadaki’s “Church Construction as a Proxy for Economic Development: the Medieval Settlement Expansion Phase in the Peloponnese” offers a sweeping and thoughtful view of the Middle Byzantine landscape based on an impressive catalogue of 240 churches constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries.

I’m less interested in the specifics of Papadaki’s argument, which I suspect are sound, and more in the general trend in recent years to thinking about the Byzantine (and broadly Medieval) landscape more broadly. Papadaki brings together survey data with architecture, for example, to argue that Byzantine churches can be a persistent proxy for settlements as well as local wealth, demography, and connectivity within larger economic and political networks. 

The growing interest in Medieval landscapes that integrates architecture, art, archaeology, and texts feels like the foundation of new ways of thinking about Medieval Greece.

American History or Medieval History

Earlier this week, there was a fun discussion on The Twitters about a job ad that read: New job: “tenure track position: American history OR Medieval history.” At first, like a bunch of other people on Twitters, I was baffled by this (although I could understand easily enough how a department might need one or the other and for now was happy with either). 

After a bit of good natured discussion about it, I got thinking about whether a position of American OR Medieval history could almost as easily be a position in American AND Medieval history. My brain made this leap, in part, because such a position would not feel particular foreign to my experiences as someone with an interest in Medieval history (broadly) and a growing interest in US history. It would also coincide with recent developments in the field. After mulling it over a bit more, I got to wonder whether we might see more of these kinds of positions in the future.

And here’s why:

1. Global Middle Ages. One of my favorite books of the last year is Eleni Kefala’s, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). I blogged about it earlier in the year. The book compares a literary lament for the fall of Constantinople with a similar pair of laments for the fall of Mexica empire “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” 

Such innovative comparisons remind us that it is entirely plausible for an individual to have lived through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the first wave of conquest in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 16th century. In other words, American history, inasmuch as it imagines its beginning with the first journeys of conquest by Europeans to North, Central, and South America is not particularly far removed from an event often associated with the end of the Medieval East. 

Works like Laila Lalami’s 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, which tells the story of at the Narvaez expedition from the perspective of in 1510 offers a fictional view of the disastrous expedition from the perspective of Mustafa Azemmouri or Estebanico, an enslaved Moor. Lalami’s account plausibly assumes that Estebanico continued to practice many elements consistent with his upbringing in the larger Islamic world. Whether we see this world as “Medieval” or “Early Modern” does not matter much especially once we divorce such terms from narratives grounded in European history and the narrative of European expansion.

Embracing the concept of a global Middle Ages means that it is no longer a contradiction to study Medieval history and American history. Just an an “Ancient historian” might be expected the teach the entire history of the Roman Republic from the founding of the city to the rise of Augustus, so a historian might be expected to study periods defined by, say, the Fourth Crusade and the American Revolution or the Battle of Kosovo (1389) and the American Civil War.      

2. World-Systems. My experience with the intersection of Medieval history and American history did not come from such expansive and, frankly, 21st century readings of Medieval history, but world systems theory (in its plurality of guises). I wish I could claim that my reading of F. Braudel’s The Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II spurred me to think expansively about history and material culture (especially as Braudel’s ideas have been adapted and critiques but works such as P. Horden and N. Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (2000)), but instead, I started to realize that the study of American history and Medieval history were not so far removed by hanging out with P. Nick Kardulias.

Kardulias is an archaeologist who wrote his dissertation on the archaeology of the Late Roman and Byzantine fortress at Isthmia (which he published as a book in 2005). A quick scan of Kardulias’s publications show his expansive area of research interests that include historic buildings in Northern Ohio, American rock shelters, and prehistoric and historic sites in Greece and Cyprus. Throughout his career, he demonstrated how studying a range of material culture and history contributed to understanding systems that functioned on transregional and even global scales.

His support of my interest in the modern sites in Greece, for example, was absolutely formative and encouraged me to think about broader patterns of human history especially in rural landscapes. Kardulias’s insights, in a general way, informed my work at sites of short term occupation in the contemporary Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and in Greece and Cyprus.      

Of course, one could protest that Kardulias is an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but we shared advisors and while my PhD says History and Nick’s says Anthropology, we still have a good bit in common.

3. Skills and Methods. Common skills and methods often anchor the ability to move between a Medieval and American context and should extent to our ability to teach those fields. As I became more and more interested in certain questions, it became pretty obvious that the skills that I had honed in the Medieval Mediterranean could serve to answer questions in a American context as well.

To be clear, I’m not the first to sort this out. For example, my colleague David Pettegrew has used his data crunching and GIS abilities developed through the study of the Late Roman and Early Medieval Corinthia in Greece and Cyprus to study race, economy, and social change in Harrisburg. Kostis Kourelis, who’s speciality is Byzantine and Frankish Greece, has made meaningful contributions to the history of Greeks in Pennsylvania, my work in the North Dakota oil patch, and in understanding the global scope of the Avant-garde. Richard Rothaus is (literally!) another dean of this kind of thinking as he published a well-respected book on Late Roman Corinth as well as running, for a time, his own CRM company in the Northern Plains and continuing to publish and present on the Bakken, Japanese internment, the Dakota Wars, and so on. 

I know plenty of archaeologists and historians who have meaningful sidelights doing local archaeology, archival research, and heritage. It doesn’t take much time for this kind of work to lead scholars to have feet in multiple specializations. Of course, this isn’t limited to Medievalists and I know plenty of prehistorians and even Classical archaeologists who have done significant archaeological and historical work outside their fields.

4. Reception. Perhaps among the fruitful area of contemporary studies of the ancient and Medieval world is reception studies. This is honestly, not an area where I have much experience other than the regular stream of panels at various meetings. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I don’t recognize the importance of reception especially as post-colonial state building continues in places like the Near East where the Medieval legacy of these places intersects with political interests anchored in Orientalism. To understand the way in which Orientalist legacies (as one example) have shaped our view of the past involves understanding the histories that produced such views of the Near East. 

Of course issues such as race, gender, and ethnicity (and ethnogenesis) likewise require a foot in both the Medieval and the Modern worlds and cultural, economic, and geopolitical history as well. One can hardly imagine speaking with authority on complex interplay between past views and present policies without being an expert on both.  

5. Teaching. Finally, there is a real sense of urgency in the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds these days. The chorus of scholars suggesting that our field requires not just significant changes, but perhaps existential ones. This coincides with the changing needs of departments and challenges associated with enrollments in liberal arts and history in particular. 

Being flexible and having a foot in US and the Medieval gives one the ability to both navigate the changing political, disciplinary, and frankly economic landscape of the academy. While this might seem crudely opportunistic or even cynical, I think that it is still acceptable to approach ones livelihood with a bit of realistic strategizing especially at institutions which offer a bit less in he way of insulation for the vagaries of political fortune. I suspect that someday I’ll contribute to our department’s offerings in American history not because I have a deep or profound knowledge of the topic, but to help our department respond to opportunities and pressures from various stakeholders. 

That this might intersect with the growing feeling that the study of the Ancient and Medieval worlds is overrepresented in the academy, is mostly just a coincidence. Times, priorities, and ethical imperatives change with time and maintaining a certain amount of flexibility ensures that one’s knowledge remains appropriate and relevant.  

Romanland, Ethnicity, and Science Fiction

I’m running a little mini-seminar (not even a normal-sized mini-seminar!) on Late Antique and Byzantine history and hagiography this fall for a single student in the English department (“o tempora! o mores!” as the kids say). As I fumble around trying to get up to speed with my own reading in this area, I figured Anthony Kaldellis’s recent book Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Harvard 2019) was as good as place as any to start in no small part because he had only recently prepared translations of a group of 9th and 10th Byzantine saints from Greece.

Kaldellis’s book has been out for long enough now that it’s seen any number of incisive and thoughtful reviews. So, I won’t bore you with another by someone who has been at the margins of the field for over a decade. Instead, I’ll offer a few observations on points that spoke to me.

1. Ethnicity, Armenians, and a Postscript. One of the most intriguing things about the book is the personal postscript appended to the end of chapter 5. Chapter 5 was a systematic critique of the what Kaldellis has called the “Armenian Fallacy,” which he defined as the tendency to search for and ultimately find Armenians throughout Byzantine history. Kaldellis argues that many of the individuals identified as Armenians or individuals of Armenian descent had assimilated into the Roman Empire to such a degree that they no longer possessed any meaningful Armenian identity. In other instances, he argued that in the discipline’s zeal to find Armenians in the highest ranks of the Byzantine state we’ve simply misidentified individuals as being of Armenian descent who were not. 

Kaldellis makes clear in his postscript that this chapter was not meant as a specific critique of Armenian scholars, who have historically led the charge to identify ethnic Armenians in Byzantine texts, but as a broader critique of the discipline’s overzealous efforts to identify particular ethnicities without the Byzantine state while overlooking the overwhelming evidence for individuals asserting their Roman identity and ethnicity. The personal postscript is a good indication of how high the stakes are in this work. As Kaldellis argues throughout the discourse surrounding ethnicity in the Byzantine world is not at all separate from efforts of 19th and 20th century nationalists to use their ties to Byzantine history to justify their cultural and political autonomy. In other words, Kaldellis, a Greek scholar who is very aware of the ties between Byzantine history and Greek irredentist movements in the 19th and early 20th century (and their tragic outcomes), anticipated that Armenian scholars and nationalists might see his critique of the “Armenian Fallacy” as an attack on their ethnic and national identities. This seems like a justifiable anxiety on Kaldellis’s part as not a week goes by without some article appearing on the status of Armenian churches within the territories contested between Armenia and its neighbor Azerbaijan.

For Byzantinists, efforts to excavate national histories from the long-lived Roman Empire are not just pious mythologies with a certain outdated charm, but ongoing concerns that echo in contemporary geopolitics. 

2. Texts, Archaeology, and Material Culture. It would be unfair to say that Kaldellis has never been a particularly interested in or engaged with archaeology. After all, he has a book on the history of the Parthenon in the Medieval period and an early work that considers both the history and material culture of Byzantine Lesvos. That all said, he knows the limits of his expertise and doesn’t dive into the archaeology of ethnicity in this book. This is probably not a bad decision, but, if he did engage more fully with this discourse, I think there would be meaningful overlap with his work (and I suspect strongly that he knows that!). 

For example, the effort to find Slavs in the Peloponnesus on the basis of their ceramics, grave goods, and architecture has proven to be complicated. This is not because no Slavs existed in Greece, but because the Slavic “invasion” or migration was most likely gradual or episodic and involved considerable intermixing with the Roman population who had long lived in Central and Southern Greece. The presence of “Slavic” objects – whether hand-made pots or the infamous belt buckles – may well represent groups who had certain artistic and craft traditions, but  linking this neatly with ethnicity has proven pretty challenging especially as “Slavic” material often appears alongside material typically associated with long-standing Roman traditions. Whether this suggests the emergence of hybrid identities that shift constantly to leverage advantages associated with one or another group or the assimilation of the ethnically Slavic with their Roman neighbors remains a challenging question to explore and would, I suspect, complicate some of Kaldellis arguments. At the same time, he is right in observing that integration ultimately does produce a population that represents itself consistently as Roman well into the post-Byzantine period. How this transformation occurs, on the ground, is probably something best studied at the ground (or even subsurface) level!

3. Ethnicity in Science Fiction. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series. The books is set against the backdrop of the massively powerful Teixcalaanli empire which rules thousands of planets linked by jump gates. One of the main characters is Mahit Dzmare an ambassador from the tiny, but independent Lsel Station which drifts along just outside the borders of Teixcalaani space. Large parts of the narrative involve the negotiations of ethnic differences between Dzmare and her Teixcalaani liaison Three Seagrass.

What makes this relevant for Kaldellis’s book is that Martine was trained as a Byzantinist and studied, in particular, diplomatic and cultural relations between Byzantium and the Armenian Kingdom of Ani (Bagratid Armenia). This got me wondering whether her novels could function as an intriguing fictional cypher for understanding cultural relation during the Byzantine period. Her books are certainly more engaging reads than the average monograph on Byzantine studies and allow for Martine to explore in the ways in which groups defined themselves in relation to one another in both more overt and more subtle ways. The ability to explore the inner life of her characters, for example, allows her to consider the way in which individuals can to realize and negotiate personal identities in relation to “the other.” Martine does a really great job demonstrating how individuals felt ethnic differences and reading this against Kaldellis’s book which is naturally more interested in groups and texts than individuals.

In any event, Kaldellis’s book is worth reading (as is Martine’s Teixcalaan series). Both make compelling arguments for how societies and individuals constructed their identity in relation to “the other” (variously defined).  

Byzantine Landscapes

I read with great excitement Fotini Kondyli and Sarah Craft’s article in the most recent Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. It’s titled “The Making of a Byzantine Monastic Landscape: A Case Study from the Mazi Plain in Northwest Attica, Greece,” and in an honest-to-goodness article on the archaeology of Byzantine landscapes in Greece. This is exciting for any number of reasons, but because there are so few articles that take Byzantine landscapes seriously as a quick skim of the article’s bibliography shows.

More than that, this article building upon traditional concern of Byzantine archaeologists and starts with the well-known monastery of Hosios Meletios and builds upon what we understand about that site’s history and architecture. The authors then trace the possible contours of the productive and religious landscape centered on the monastery across the Mazi plan. For example, they notice the use of cloisonné masonry, marble, and distinctive local stones in the architecture of the paralavaria (subsidiary churches) that might have connected these buildings to the monastery at Hosios Meletios. It’s interesting that the local porous stone associated with Megara would have made the links between the monastery at that city not only material visible in these churches, but its rough texture might have made the connections literally tangible. 

More than that, the authors fold in information grounded in an understanding of local routes through the region and argue that the paralavaria stood at places positioned to attract pilgrims, take advantage of the local movement of agriculture, and potentially monitor movement through the Mazi plain. The analysis of ceramics in the vicinity of these buildings supplemented these broader topographic conclusions by bolstering the arguments, at least in some cases, that these building were Byzantine in date. It would be interesting to understand a bit more about the distribution of glazed fine wares in the region and what their visible presence around a ruined church might say about its Byzantine and post-Byzantine function. Would Byzantine sherds be more likely to be visible around buildings abandoned in the Byzantine period  because churches that continued to attract attention tended to see the kinds of modification and surface cleaning that might erase or obscure the small number of Byzantine fine ware that might be expected at these sites?

This paper got me thinking—with more than a bit of regret!—how most of my regional level research has tended to be in areas oddly devoid of a clear Byzantine presence in the landscape. Our survey area in the Western Argolid, for example, does not include any known Byzantine churches (although a few of the churches are almost certainly Ottoman in date). The Isthmus of Corinth is likewise devoid of obvious Byzantine monuments, although Ancient Corinth stood as an important Byzantine center, and it is impossible for me to believe that the Hexamilion fortress lacked a church. The only area where there was a clear Byzantine signature on the landscape was the southeastern Corinthia where the Panayia at Steiri (perhaps 10th century?) stands between the village of Korphos and Sophiko amid a network of other Middle Byzantine and possibly late Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments. That I never thought more carefully about the interaction of these churches in this once bustling corner of the Peloponnesus, is something that will continue to bother me.

Maybe sometime in the future when the COVIDs have settled and I have a bit more bandwidth, I can head back to the Corinthia (maybe with the authors of the article!) and think big picture about that landscape again. In the meantime, (always be closing, right?), do check out what David Pettegrew and I wrote about the settlement of Lakka Skoutara down the (dirt) road from the church at Steiri and the lovely Middle Byzantine monastic churches around Sophiko

The Conquered

Over the weekend, I read Eleni Kefala’s book, The Conquered: Byzantium and America on the Cusp of Modernity (Dumbarton Oaks 2020). It’s really great. 

The book juxtaposes the “Lament for Constantinople” which describes the fall of Constantinople in 1453 with the nearly contemporary fall of the Mexica empire and a pair of poetic laments that appeared after these events: “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece.” She explores the complex textual related to these works and offers the original texts and  translations. More importantly, she attempts to locate these works in the subsequent history of the communities shaped by these events at the “cusp of Modernity.”

Of particular interest to Kefala is the role of these texts in creating a sense of intergenerational trauma grounded in the social memory of the fall of these cities. For the Greeks, who positioned themselves as the heir to the Roman Empire, the memory of the fall of The City became a significant touchstone to their identity fueling ultimately the emergence of a Greek, Orthodox national identity and, of course, the early-20th irredentism of the Megali Idea. In contrast, the laments produced after the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco to the Spanish remained marginal pieces of literature whose origins and even meaning remained difficult to unpack. The emergence of a “Mestizaje” (or mixed-race) identity at the center of Mexican national identity especially in the 20th century (and roughly contemporary with the most destructive episodes associated with the Megali Idea in Greece), created a deep ambivalence toward the memory of the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. This ambivalence is clear in modern historical accounts of the siege and sack of the city that emphasize the key role that indigenous allies played in the Spanish conquest of the Mexica empire. In fact, the difficulty in interpreting the two dolorous poems, “Huexotzinca Piece,” and the “Tlaxcala Piece,” stems in no small part from inability to clearly contextualize these works in the ethnic, political, and cultural landscape of 15th century Mexico. In contrast to the millenarianism of the Byzantine aristocracy, the indigenous elite in Mexico were far more likely to view the world in a cyclical way and see the destruction of the Mexica empire and its capital as part of the regular ebb and flow of history and events. Like the Byzantine elites who soon found themselves in positions of power in the Ottoman state, indigenous elites likewise negotiated positions of authority in Spanish Mexico. In a Mexican context, however, this tempered any tendency to present the fall of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco as the opportunity for generational trauma. Among the Greeks, in contrast, the fall of Constantinople remained a persistent trope for morning and loss. Kefala notes that even today the Laments are included in textbooks.

The book is notable for the modesty of its claims and the clarity of its argument. In a time when we seem to mainly celebrate big books espousing big ideas, The Conquered is a small book that bring attention to two distinct situations and their aftermath at the beginning of the modern era. 

This may reflect my waning attention span or the fatigue caused by big problems and even bigger solutions. 

It may also reflect my growing affinity for small books. 

One last comment… the book is $25. I’d spend that much just to be reminded that the story of the snake and the eagle features in both the founding of Constantinople and Spanish versions of the Aztec foundation legend. 

Three Things Thursday: Medieval Pottery, Weird Reviews, and a New Book

It’s the last Thursday of the semester and I feel like I’m at the point where I’m almost done, but there’s also so much left to do! This is exhausting and exhilarating in turn and also vaguely distracting as I try to balance between starting something new and wrapping up the odds and ends from the semester. New things always sound more fun, but there’s nothing more satisfying than checking something off my to-do list.

All this is to say that today is a three things Thursday:

Thing the First

If you have time this weekend, do read “Thebes at the Time of the Catalans: A Deposit between the Ismenion Hill and the Elektra Gate” by Fotini Kondyli and colleagues in the latest issue of Hesperia (89.4 (2020) for those of you with a score card!). It’s a fantastic study of 13th and 14th century (AD!) pottery for Thebes. 

Thebes is one of those places that folks interested in Medieval Greece think about more than we know about. It was clearly a major center in the Middle Byzantine and Frankish period and we understand its place in the political and to the economic history of the region (via the earlier Cadaster of Thebes, various Medieval towers, as well as other sources). At the same time, it seems like we knew a good bit less about the everyday material culture of the city especially when compared to Corinth or Athens.

Kondyli’s article is a good step toward rectifying this. Her study (with her colleagues) focused on a stratified deposit of pottery from a bothros that appears to represent daily life in the city. As such, the published material featured more than just the usually “fancy wares” (i.e. glazed fine table wares) and included a substantial selection of cooking pots and other household coarse wares (jugs, table amphora et c.). 

The meticulous typological study of the ceramics complements a more preliminary study of their fabrics based on petrography. This allowed the authors to begin to sort local wares produced around Thebes from imports from outside the region. Among the more interesting revelations is that despite the political tensions between Catalan Thebes and its Venetian rival on Euboea (Negroponte), goods continued to move between those regions as well as between Thebes and Athens which were both under Catalan control for most of the 14th century.

Needless to say, this kind of detailed and careful work has significant implications for our understanding of the Medieval economy of Greece more broadly. It has particular significance for intensive pedestrian survey where Medieval coarse ware often goes unrecognized even by experienced ceramicists. Consequently, absence of carefully dated Medieval coarse ware typologies has led to the Medieval landscape of Greece being comparatively under represented in survey analysis, and this has tended to support a view that post-Classical Greece, particularly during the Frankish period, endured a period of economic, political, and cultural decline. Efforts to revise this perception begin, in some ways, with our ability to recognize the material culture of this period and to document its distribution more carefully. This article is a start.

Thing the Second

There’s been quite a kerfuffle over a review that was posted yesterday in the BMCR. The BMCR is free site for academic reviews of books related to Classics, ancient history, and Mediterranean archaeology. Typically the reviews, at best, useful and, at worst, boring (with the very worst being almost unreadably dull). Occasionally, they publish reviews that are exceedingly critical, misunderstands or misrepresents a book, or, like this week, are very weird. 

As someone who appreciates weirdness for weirdness sake, I mostly find opportunities for even inoffensive weirdness a welcome distraction from the incredibly banal character of academic life and provocative weirdness — even when it gets it wrong — usually makes me smile. 

At the same time, I do understand and appreciate that there is a time and place for weirdness. Judging by the outcry on the interwebs, this review was maybe out of place or at the wrong time. The issue then becomes, what should BMCR or the scholarly community do about it?

Some have suggested that BMCR apologize to the authors of the book (which by all accounts is a very fine book) for allowing this review to appear. This has the benefit, I suppose, of protecting the author of the review — who provided that they reviewed the book in good faith — prepared the review, had it accepted and published, while also taking the blame for allowing such a review to appear.

It’s interesting to think about the social contract between book authors, publishers, journal editors, reviewers, and readers. It seems to me that book authors and publishers hope that their work to be reviewed fairly, but once it is released to the public, they lose any right to expect that. Readers and journal editors, however, have the right to expect that reviews were done in good faith. It seems to me that an authors hope for a book and the editors and readers expectations for a review need not align perfectly. For example, an unfair review that comes about because of a misunderstanding of the book may well be done in good faith and lead to fruitful discussion of the book and its merits. 

What rights, then, do reviewers have? For most of us, writing a book review is a service to the discipline. It is uncompensated and only rarely counts for anything at our home institutions. We hope that our review encourages academic discussion of the book under review and adds value to the venue where it is published. It would be a difficult pill to swallow if a good faith review appropriately vetted by the editors of a journal led to an apology by the journal to the author of the book. 

Thing the Third   

With any luck, I’ll start on book production today (or maybe tomorrow, but certainly by the weekend) on the first book that the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish in 2021. It’s a volumed edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart titled Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Stay tuned for more on this book over the next few weeks!!