Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

Cyprus and the Virgin of the Passion

Just a short post this morning as I continue recovering from the holiday season!

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of reading Matthew Milliner’s Mother of the Lamb: The Story of a Global Icon (Fortress 2022). The book tells the story of the icon of the Virgin of the Passion from its origins on Cyprus during the troubled 12th century to its emergence as a global icon in the 19th and 20th century (usually known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help). A nice short conversation about the icon and his book appeared in Christianity Today about a week ago. It’s a really nice book.

As Milliner noted in his interview, it is a bit odd to read a book about an icon depicting Mary and the infant Jesus (typically, though not always in the pose of the Hodegetria) flanked by an angel holding the lance that pierced Jesus’s side and an angel holding the cross. In other words, this is an icon of the baby Jesus which anticipates his passion on the cross. 

Milliner situates the origins of this icon in the troubled world of 12th century Constantinople and Cyprus fractured by theological controversies and threatened by the closing noose of Crusader aggression. The icon painter Theodore Apsevdis travels to Cyprus where he not only painted the engleistra of Ay. Neophytos, but also created a novel depiction of the Virgin at the church of Virgin of the Vetches (Panagia tou Araka) at Lagoudera in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus. Milliner connects the Virgin of the Passion to the scion of the a Byzantine aristocratic family on the island who had recently lost his position of power to the conquest of the island by King Richard of England in the lead up to the Third Crusade. From its origins in this troubled moment, the Virgin of the Passion emerged as a potent counterpoint to the triumphant Virgin who icons and presence protected the City and Empire. The Virgin of the Passion gave hope to the vanquished by emphasizing both the humanity of Christ through his mother Mary and the redemptive power of the Passion itself. While this is hardly a Christmas story, it is what makes Christmas important.

Setting aside the theological (and Christological) insights that this icon offers, Milliner’s book situates the Virgin of the Passion in a particular historical context. By unpacking the history of this icon, Milliner demonstrates how the history of the Byzantine world even in its darkest hours and the history of Cyprus can inform not only how we understand currents in contemporary piety, but also how a study of the past opens up new forms of spiritual understanding and new opportunities for religious experiences.

Cyprus has long stood outside the major currents of history and generally sees only the briefest of mentions in the history of Mediterranean or even the Roman and Byzantine world. Milliner’s book moves Cyprus to center stage and demonstrates the value present in understanding the history of a small island at the crossroads of the Medieval world.      

Excavating Byzantine Dreams

Over the past decade there has been an outpouring of scholarship on Byzantine Dreams (as well as dreaming in the Arab and Ottoman world). Much of this was likely prompted by the publication of three books: first, Steven Oberhelman’s translation of six oneirocritica in 2008 (although this was based on his earlier and widely used 1981 dissertation), Maria Mavroudi’s monograph on the Oneirocriticon of Achmet in 2002, and finally, W.V. Harris’s monograph on Classical dreams in 2009.

These works touched off a spate of conferences and conference proceedings on dreams that have culminated in works like Bronwen Neil’s Dreams and divination from Byzantium to Baghdad, 400-1000 CE (2021). I read and enjoyed Neil’s book this weekend and was hoping that it would help bring into focus the dream episodes in my dream archaeology article that I’m slowly revising and updating this week. Unfortunately (for me!), Neil’s work, like most recent scholarship on dreams, isn’t particularly concerned with the kind of literal dreams that appear in saints’ lives that my chapter relies upon. Instead, Neil, like many of the recent generation scholars on Byzantine dreams is more interested in elaborate or symbolic dreams than dreams or visions where a holy person gives the dreamer explicit instructions how to act.

Strangely enough, the individuals who had these dreams often did not see the instructions—no matter how literal they appear to a modern reader—as an impetus for obvious actions or as even clear and straight forward. In fact, any number of saints’ lives involve the person who appears in a dream having to constantly tell the dreamer to perform the action and there are often consequences when the dreams ignores or fails to understand the urgency of the vision’s message. 

A nice example of this comes from a dream recorded in the Life of St. Nikon which I describe in my chapter: St. Nikon stayed the night amidst the ruins of an Early Christian, but now largely ruined church, while on the island of Crete where he was active urging local Christians to repent. The archaeologically-savvy saint was able to identify the church on the basis of visible architectural fragments (particularly the geisons). While sleeping, St. Photeine appeared to the saint in a dream. She asked Nikon to rebuild the ruined church or she would not allow him to leave the island. At first, Nikon ignored the saintly vision and continued on his way, but he was soon struck blind. His sight was restored only when he committed to rebuilding the ruined church. Regaining his sight, Nikon returned to the church but lacked a spade (gr. skapani) or a shovel (gr. ptuon) necessary to complete the task.     

Neil does offer some useful insights, however, regarding dreams and gender. Neil notes that dreams allowed women access to spiritual traditions in ways unimpeded by the clergy or the male dominated institutional church. Moreover, the appearance of women in dreams paralleled the Early Christian rise of holy women who piety allowed them to carve out new gender roles that were neither explicitly male or female. Through dreams women are able to appear to men and direct them in ways that society would not have always allowed. The dreams of St. Helena, for example, not only revealed to the emperor Constantine’s mother the location of the True Cross, but also contributed to her authority to order a soldiers to excavate its location and demonstrated its authenticity when she used to raise a man from the dead. Women continue to play key roles in dreams in the Byzantine and later periods: the Empress Pulcharia’s dream revealed the tomb of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste and St. Photiene’s appearance to individuals suffering from blindness restored their sight to name just two. In the modern era, the nun Pelagia’s dreams revealed an icon of the Virgin on Tinos around which the modern pilgrimage has developed. In my blog yesterday, I noted how a woman’s dream directed the Greek archaeologist Anastasios Orlandos to excavate an Early Christian church in the 20th century and Manolis Andronikos reports receiving a letter from a Greek American woman who saw his excavation of Royal Tombs at Vergina prior to their discovery. 

Neil is clear that Freudian analysis of ancient dreams are unlikely to reveal conclusions that are relevant to the ancient world. At the same time, the persistent interest in dreams not only among Byzantinists at the turn of the 21st century, but among Greek (and non-Greek!) archaeologists a century earlier remains suggestive. Neil’s interest in excavating the social significance of dreams in her work and demonstrating their relevance for understanding gender roles and cross cultural attitudes toward the sacred suggest that much like Freudian analysis, her study sought to excavate the meaning of dreams in the Byzantine and Islamic world. Dreams continued to rely on their irrationality and divine origins to produce culturally situated meaning, but, in the hand of a savvy scholar, their divine or even irrational meaning melts aways beneath the more rigorously demonstrated historical analysis that reveals their ultimate rationality and significance to social, religious, and political situations that might have been invisible to dreamers or interpreters.  

In the 20th, dreams continued to be a window into the intersection of the irrational and rational worlds and susceptible to the verification through rigorously modern means. Dream archaeology, alongside the kinds of parapsychological, psychic, and supernatural archaeological methods explored in yesterday’s blog post, collapses the temporal and cultural distance between the modern interpreter and the dreamer. Just as Freud resorted to interpreting his own dreams as a strategy to mitigate the risk of suggestion or conscious construction of dream narratives by his patients, so the 20th-century dream archaeologist draws on both modern methods and historical precedents to deform and challenge the primacy of “scientific” or “industrial” thought. 

In this context, I wonder whether our contemporary efforts to excavate Byzantine dreams represents an abiding faith in the power of rational, modern interpretations to bring them to heel. Perhaps this speaks as much to our continued modern anxieties around the power of religious and spiritual thinking as any real concern for allowing dreams to speak in their own culturally situated language.

Some Spooky, Dream, and Psychic Archaeology

As readers of this blog likely know, I have an growing interest in pseudoarchaeology and alternative archaeology. As any number of scholars have pointed out, these two forms of archaeological practice and knowledge making are largely political in character. Pseudoarchaeology, in its purist form, represents archaeological practices that seek deliberately to subvert conventional archaeological arguments either by suggesting that conventional archaeology is corrupt (somehow), demonstrating the conventional archaeological practices overlook evidence for alternative explanations, using the language or even the methods of conventional archaeology to propose radically different “solutions” to “problems” (which often involve ancient aliens or other supernatural phenomenon), or archaeology that advances explicitly racist, political, or ideological agendas. Because pseudoarchaeology is often a mash up of logical leaps, conventional practices, strange and disturbing assumptions, and tangled rhetoric, most archaeologists would admit that it is easier to recognize in practice than define, and the political goals of pseudoarchaeology—namely to cast doubt on disciplinary archaeology—tends to trump (heh) more tidy forensic descriptions.

Alternative archaeology, in contrast, tends to be more politically palatable because rather than challenging the validity of archaeology itself head on, it tends to simply propose another way of understanding the world and the past. Indigenous knowledge represents an important form of alternative archaeology especially archaeological practices that conform to cultural or social protocols that are difficult to reconcile with conventional archaeological methods. To this definition one might add that alternative archaeologies tend to embrace unconventional forms of reporting or publication. These are often political, but instead of challenging disciplinary archaeology on the grounds of its own practices and methods, proposes different ways and often incommensurate ways of using material remains of understand the past, to create more inclusive understandings of the present. In other words, pseudoarchaeology tends to propose new interpretations that are “right” and therefore render other ways of understanding the past “wrong”; alternative archaeology tends to recognize a plurality of pasts where one view might be “right,” but other views are irrelevant or unnecessary.   

Most of my interest in pseudo- and alternative archaeology is not in the sweet spot of either field where most archaeologists could recognize and accept general definitions, but around the edges of both nebulously defined categories where interesting incidents of cross pollination occur. In fact, these blurry edges often show the affinity between pseudo- and alternative archaeology and disciplinary archaeology. In this way, archaeology reveals itself not as the thoroughly modern (or even scientific[al]) discipline that we like celebrate (especially in moments of epistemic or political weakness), but to paraphrase the late Bruno Latour, a discipline that “has never been modern.”

My first interest in the rougher edges of various archaeologies emerged when I was in Athens as the “Melonaki” (effectively an assistant Mellon Professor) at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. I came across a reference to an excavation conducted by Anastasios Orlandos on the basis of an old woman’s dream. The excavation revealed an Early Christian basilica at the site of Daphnousia in Locris. This brief mention in the 1929 Proceedings of the Athenian Academy resonated with a similar account recounted by Yannis Hamilakis regarding Manolis Andronikos whose workmen (and a Greek American woman) dreamt of the discoveries of the Royal tombs at Vergina prior to their discovery in 1977. It struck me as very odd that two of Greece’s most preeminent 20th-century archaeologists would have noted the role that dreams played in their field work (even of Andronikos denies believing in such superstition). 

I connected the role of dreams in archaeology with the long tradition of dreams in Byzantine and Early Christian hagiography and history and as I’ll write about tomorrow, my interest in dreams in the early 2000s paralleled a growing interest in Byzantine dreams among Byzantinists.

My interest today is the presence of dreams and other psychic phenomenon in the archaeology, and especially Byzantine and Medieval archaeology, of the early 20th century.  I was thrilled to finally have a reason to read Jed Card’s book Spooky Archaeology (2019) which despite its playful name is a solid work of scholarship. He describes in some detail the role the psychic phenomenon played in efforts to reconstruct Glastonbury Abbey in the early-20th century. The architect and sometime archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond earned the contract to rebuild the ruined abbey when it was acquired by the Church of England in the early 20th century. The site itself was already famous for the 12th century excavation of the graves of King Arthur and Lady Guinevere and had strong mystical, national, and archaeological associations. Bligh Bond employed psychic practices such as automatic writing to understand the ruins of the Abbey, guide his restoration plans, and to locate several chapels. Ultimately his use of automatic writing and appeals to the spirit world proved controversial and he lost the commission and several of his chapels and excavated foundations later proved fanciful.

Orlandos does not seem to have earned any approbation from his more successful excavations. This may be because any number of Orlandos’s contemporaries were on record for their belief in psychic and other paranormal phenomenon. In fact, in the same year that Orlandos reports his dream to the Athenian Academy, Konstantinos Kourouniotis published a small report in the journal Psychic Researches edited by the well known para-psychologist Angelos Tanagras. Kourouniotis tells the story of the use of telepathic powers to remove a massive swarm of bees from his house while he was conducting excavations in Asia Minor in 1920. (Kostis Kourelis, who has family ties to Tanagras discusses this story here). Another prominent Greek archaeologist (artist, poet, and philosopher), Alexander Philadelpheus, dedicates his 1924 book on the ancient monuments of Athens to Tanagras. It would appear, then, in this context, Orlandos use of dreams to guide his excavation was not especially unusual. o

Of course, this period is Greek history was one of immense upheaval with the “Great Catastrophe” of the Asia Minor campaign marking the end of the “Great Idea” which saw the modern Greek state as the historical and spiritual successor of the Roman (i.e. Byzantine) Empire. 

Scholars have long attributed the growing interest in esoteric traditions in Europe and American as part of a growing dissatisfaction with the modern world. The late 19th century had experienced violent economic disruptions and the first great depression of the Industrial Age. This fed the growing popular disillusionment with the failed economic, social, and political advancement promised by industrialization and, even, democracy. The catastrophe of the Great War further exacerbated the growing ambivalence and distrust of modernity and awoke long-standing hopes for transcendent experiences anchored in what appeared to be pre-modern practices. 

In Greece, the 1920s marked the failure of modern (and national) hopes (however cloaked in the hazy imaginary of Byzantine revivalism) and encouraged the intellectual elite of Greece to project their national aspirations inwardly. Orlandos’s dream excavation and contemporary reconstruction of houses of Mystras, for example, anchored Greek national identity and Byzantine traditions within the boundaries of the Greek nationstate and in domestic architecture (see Kourelis, who is my partner in this project, for a discussion of Orlandos and the domestic architecture in Mystras). Tanagras efforts to demonstrate that Greek folks traditions could reveal the parapsychological powers of the human mind further localized an individual’s capacity to transcend the contemporary conditions. Tanagras anchored his approach to parapsychology in the emerging discourse of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis. His efforts to use modern techniques to excavate the primordial character of the human condition paralleled Freud’s interest in dreams as revealing unconscious desires. It is hard to avoid the idea that Freud’s analysis of dreams, filtered through the altogether more supernatural interpretations of Tanagras, reactivated the tradition of Byzantine dream archaeology and made it useful for relocating Greek national identity with the borders of Greece (a kind of physical unconscious of the modern state).

Such blurring of modern and strangely anti-modern ways of thinking in the tradition of Byzantine Archaeology echo the use of dreams to initiate the Great Palace excavations in Constantinople. As Kourelis points out, this project represented one of the earliest example of stratigraphic excavation at a Byzantine site. (You can read more about these links at Kostis’s blog here). The site was discovered, however, through the work of British spiritualists David Russell, James Houston Baxter, and Tudor Pole who used a sapphire blue bowl apparently excavated from Glastonbury (apparently also located through psychic practices at that site in 1906!) as a conduit to the spiritual realm. By 1917, their efforts were reinforced by a group of Russian migrants (including monks!) who after the Revolution settled in the UK under David Russell’s patronage. Baxter, a professor of church history and a spiritualist himself, connected the efforts of these scholars to the more serious archaeological work of the Great Palace excavations.

It would appear that pseudoarchaeological practices were not just present among early 20th-century archaeologists, but fundamental to the discipline’s formation.

Perhaps this is why today so-called “scientifical” archaeologists are so adamant in their efforts to discredit and reject pseudoarchaeology. While pseudoarchaeology’s contributions to racist agendas cannot be denied, it seems impossible to imagine Byzantine Archaeology without acknowledging its roots in just just premodern practices, but explicitly anti-modern efforts to find meaning in a world increasingly deprived of its humanity at the hands of the scientific production, warfare, and competition.  

Two Things Tuesday: Two Hesperia Articles

This past week Hesperia 91.3 appeared. For those of you just here for the music, Hesperia is a publication of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. I generally get excited for its regular arrival in my inbox in part because I have a long-standing interest in the archaeology of Greece and, in part, because it usually is incredibly well produced and edited. In fact, it is the embodiment of a craft approach to academic publishing and a testimony to the “in house” attention to detail from a dedicated publishing staff at the American School’s Princeton, NJ offices.

This issue featured two long articles on ceramics at Corinth: one by Kathleen Slane, long the doyenne of Corinthian Roman ceramics and one by Florence Liard, Guy Sanders, Ayed Ben Amara, and Noemi Mueller. In the interest of full disclosure, I know Guy Sanders and respect his work. I have also tended to respect the work of Kathleen Slane (and have been reading through her recent volume with John Hayes on pottery from the University of Chicago excavations at Isthmia). I’m also friends with Sarah James who I have known for virtually my entire professional life and under whose occasional guidance and support (especially on the Western Argolid Regional Project), I’ve had many significant opportunities. Part of why I get excited to read Hesperia is that I not only read about material and contexts that interest me, but I know many of the authors and this issue is no different.

What made this issue particular interesting in the character of the two long articles. The Liard et al. article is a great example of how careful and minute analysis of artifacts can open new ways to understand the economic, political, and social life of Late Medieval Greece. In particular, their article combines careful study of Medieval pottery with a thoughtful conclusion that demonstrates how a “multimethod” analysis of the lead-glazed material from Corinth reveals the economic connections between Italy and Greece and the Corinthia and other regions during a time of particularly pervasive political and social disruptions. In other words, they show that the pottery present at Corinth reflects connections between the city and Florence and Venice as well as production centers in Venetian controlled Euboea. The careful attention to the detailed analysis that support these conclusions is almost a study in microhistory (in fact, I think I’m going to assign this article in my Greek History class next time I teach it as a case study for how complicated it can be to understand Medieval and Frankish Greece). 

Kathleen Slane’s article is longer and equally detailed. Much of it appears to be a response to an article published in 2019 by Sarah James that makes an effort to re-date the South Stoa at Corinth and argues for continuity between the “Greek” period at Corinth and its Roman successor without the catastrophic dislocation caused by the Mummian sack of the city. The sack of Corinth by Lucius Mummius Achaicus in 146 BC has long represented one of the most clearly delineated disasters in the archaeological record. As with many such disasters, recent research has suggested that reality is more complicated than the historical sources would have us believe and the idea that Mummius destroyed the city of Corinth and forced its inhabitants to abandon the site is undergoing a reconsideration. James’s work has been at the forefront of this reconsideration and while I don’t know enough about Hellenistic and Roman pottery (or Corinth) to speak directly to her arguments, their basic trajectory feels more than plausible (and consistent with recent trends concerning any number of other bright historical lines in the archaeological record).

It would appear that Kathleen Slane was not convinced. And after 100 pages of dense analysis, I find myself less interested in the subject than I expected and no less skeptical of the Mummian destruction and abandonment of the city. As I noted already, I’m biased both personally and professionally.

What is more interesting to me though is that Slane’s 100 page article fails entirely to situate her arguments in any larger context. Perhaps she was asked to cut the parts of the paper that reminded the reader why the South Stoa was an important (or even interesting) building. Or why the reoccupation of Corinth after the Mummian Sack is a significant topic for scholarly critique or worthy of 100 pages of analysis. Even a casual observer like myself can understand the significance of a well-excavated site like Corinth in discussions of abandonment and destruction (and the resulting formation processes) in antiquity. Moreover, the South Stoa is an imposing set of foundations at the site of Corinth and while I’m not an avid Stoa-ologist, I can imagine that it is meaningful in the history of architecture or Hellenistic urbanism. Surely, in 100 pages it would be useful to remind the reader of these larger issues even if it is just as an inducement to wade through the densely argued (and sparsely illustrated) text. As my advisor used to ask me in graduate school, does this pass the who cares? test.

In some ways, Slane’s article represents one of the most difficult elements in the archaeology of Greece: the tacit assumption that certain sites, buildings, and arguments are significant. To the casual visitor to the archaeology of Greece this can be quite baffling and even frustrating. To a more critical one, this reflects generations of scholarly inbreeding and the weight of sometimes problematic academic traditions which privilege certain periods and their material more than others. When I encounter it, I’m more disappointed and tired than anything. 

The Slane – James debate has some interesting implications for how we understand the history of the city of Corinth, the economic and social history of the Corinthia, and the formation processes associated with destruction, abandonment, and reoccupation. In many ways, the resolution of data from the Corinth Excavations offers a particularly vivid window into these matters and one worth considering in a more general way. The Laird et al. article left me hopeful that at the end of the day, the desire to produce new arguments, evidence, and hypotheses will win out over the desire to foreground critique. The Slane article reminds me that old traditions of academic thought do not change over night.

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.