Teaching Byzantine History

I promise that this is not going to become a teaching blog (not that there is anything wrong with that), but I am all excited that I have have agreed to teach an upper level history class for the first time since 2007. As most of you know, I generally teach our historical methods course and History 101: Western Civilization each quarter. Fret not, I am not going to dump one of those classes, but add another course to my plate in the fall to move to a 3-3 teaching load. (I’ve blogged about the advantages of periodically teaching more.)

The course will be the History of the Byzantine Empire. We added it to the schedule a bit on the late side, so I have to do a bit of advertising to make sure it enrolls.

So I began to think how to advertise a course on the Byzantine Empire. I came up with five clever ways:

1. The Roman Empire II: A Sequel. For the Star Wars fans and the popular enthusiasm for sequels.
2. The Byzantine Empire: Like Larry Potter or the Hobbits. My buddy Kostis Kourelis has already published in this general direction, but I would pitch my class as the study of real life Hogomorth or whatever that place with all the domes is called.
3. The Byzantine Empire: A More Western Orient. I could continue to trade on the romance of domed buildings and combine it with mystical Christianity, be-turbaned aristocrats, and a tragic narrative arc to make it a kinder, gentler, more Christian, Orient.
4. The Byzantine Empire: The Other Christians. They aren’t the Roman Catholics or the Protestants; they’re the other Christians.

I only wish I had the graphic design abilities to produce movie posters for each of these classes. Since I don’t, this is how I sold it.


My flyer played up my reputation for innovative teaching and, in its place, promised the students that I would teach the class in a very traditional way. (In conversation, I’ve likened it to the teaching equivalent to MTV’s unplugged.)

I want to ground the class in a series of 15 lectures, discussions primary sources, and formal graded written works produced by single students after careful thought. I want the class to be large (40+), I want it to be challenging to teach, and I want the students to feel that the content and the format put them outside their comfort zone.

My hope is teaching a political and religious history of the Byzantine Empire (with some archaeology and culture thrown in) in a rather traditional way will get the students attention. I wonder whether our emphasis on “active learning” exercises (and I’ve been as involved as anyone in various flavors of experimental pedagogy) has paradoxically added life to some of our more traditional practices. Asking students to engage a lecture when more and more of their classes focus on discussion problematizes this form of instruction and encourages the students to develop skills like listening, note taking, and synthesizing lectures with primary and secondary sources.

We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.

Historical Landscapes on Naxos

One of the benefits of a day spent traveling is that I get to catch up on my embarrassing backlog of reading. The first article on this stack (pulling them from the bottom of the pile as always) was J. Crow, S. Turner, and A. Vionis, “Characterizing the Historical Landscapes of Naxos,” JMA 24 (2011) 111-137. This relatively short article makes the case for using Historical Landscape Characterization or HLC to describe and structure historic landscapes in the Eastern Mediterranean. The authors apply this method to the island of Naxos and attempt to isolate features of the Byzantine, Medieval, and post Medieval landscapes.

The basic methods of HLC stipulate that each area on a map be given a certain place within a historical typology of landscape. The types available are standardized and range from the almost descriptive (rough ground) to the more interpretative (prehistorical enclosures). The goal of HLC is to produce a stratified map of a landscape suitable for describing historically significant landscapes at a meaningful scale. Generally, archaeologists produce these maps in response to issues of heritage management in the U.K., but the method is sufficiently robust and flexible to be exported to archaeological projects elsewhere. The types present in any particular landscape would vary, of course, according to scale and method for producing the HLC.   

As Vionis and company have noted, this HLC analysis could be a particularly valuable method for framing Mediterranean historic landscapes and preparing regions for study by more intensive means. The study of Naxos, for example, depended upon historical aerial and satellite photographs, documentary sources, results of excavations and surveys on Naxos, and some, albeit limited, autopsy. This work was able to identify, for example, the relationship between “braided terraces” and Medieval churches and to suggest that certain parts of the landscape retained some key  pre-modern features. Vionis was able to argue on the basis of HLC and field survey that the regions around seemingly isolated churches were likely productive agriculturally on the basis of historical proximity. While the arguments made on the basis of these large scale HLC techniques will never satisfy scholars who see excavation as the only method for producing knowledge about the past, this method of classifying a landscape represents a tool for larger scale work. At the same time, Vionis et al. recognized that their work was provisional and by producing it in GIS database they ensured that it could be updated, disseminated, and republished as more data became available. 

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I can immediately see the utility of using HLC methods to describe landscapes prior to intensive pedestrian survey and to produce a set of hypotheses that survey or excavation would test. It also provides a method for describing a more extensive landscape that provides context for the area documented through intensive survey. For example, I think these methods could be particularly useful for the southeastern Corinthia where we have worked to describe an early modern settlement at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the region of Sophiko. We have a significant body of landscape data from the Sophiko region both from several intensive surveys, extensive surveys, and architectural and feature studies, including a new dissertation that dates argues for a Bronze Age date of terrace walls in the region. It would also be an appealing way to approach the landscape of western North Dakota.    

Some Notes on Survey Archaeology in a Byzantine Context

This weekend I attended the Dumbarton Oaks Spring Colloquium on Byzantine Survey Archaeology. The papers were remarkable and focused. The hosts and colloquiarchs, Margaret Mullett, John Haldon, and Sharon Gerstel put together a congenial environment for a wide ranging conversation on survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. While John Haldon did an admirable job weaving the various papers together at the end of the day’s proceedings, I couldn’t resist offering my own observations. 


1. Survey Comes of Age. One of the most refreshing things about the meeting was the lack of heavy-handed apologies for survey. Most of the participants understood the limits of their methods and located their conclusions within the constraints of their evidence. Rather than universal apologies for survey as a method, we have moved to reflexive understandings of the limits of our data.

2. Multiple Methods. The recognition that survey produces a particular and legitimate kind of archaeological data opened the door to admitting to the multiple methods present in the current survey world. People presented projects that ranged from extensive – single person – survey to projects that collected data that exceeded our ability to produce historical analyses on the basis of this data. For example, I felt the recent extensive survey work from Limnos collected data that was every bit as significant historically as a project that collected “observation point” density data at 10 m intervals from each unit. It’s not that one method was superior to the other on the grounds of methodology, but that we can recognize the utility of various types of survey data sets. This is an important step in the development of survey work and locates our method in a rather different context than excavation where the link between field methods and results tends to be far less explicit.

3. Long Shadow of Texts. While the Byzantine component of many survey projects developed from projects directed by their prehistoric colleagues, Byzantinists have long recognized that texts in some cases have great utility for understanding the Byzantine landscape. On the other hand, Byzantine survey archaeologists are constantly on guard against the undue influence of texts on their analysis. The papers showed particular interest in attempting to understand how texts focused on regional trends could be generalized to explain assemblages across the Mediterranean. Moreover, we all returned to longstanding discussions of how imperial economic and political policies shaped changes in the countryside. Some of these conversations date to the 19th century and involve how we understand the development of feudalism as a stage within the Marxist paradigm of how economies developed. This is deep history.

4. Area versus Assemblage. One thing that was pretty interesting is that most of the survey project continued to have an interest in areas and sites rather than assemblages. Some of the projects were explicitly siteless in design, but nevertheless returned to the site based paradigm in order to integrate their results with a larger historical discourse (see above). In contrast, there was relatively less conversation about assemblages and cultural and economic composition of the material culture produced by survey. It seems that we still wanted to see survey data as representing past activities (habitation, settlement, fortifications, et c.) rather than being produced by past activities.

5. Less Technology and More Curation. Typically when survey archaeologists get together there is lots of talk about the latest and greatest piece of “kit”. This might be a remote sensing technology, some kind of infield data collection device, or the latest analytical tool. To be sure, some papers used innovative methods, but on the whole, there was much more talk about the curation and study of physical objects than electronic ones. I think this represents development of both digital standards and a stable tool kit of technologies that support archaeological fieldwork. Now, we have to turn our attention to the much more challenging issue of working with host countries to curate the objects and sites that survey produces.

6. Toward a Byzantine Survey Archaeology. There was some discussion of what is necessary from an institutional, methodological, and disciplinary standpoint to produce a distinctive Byzantine approach to survey archaeology. Some of this will revolve around research questions and academic alliances and collaborations. Some of this might revolve around particular field practices. For example, survey in a Byzantine context will likely pay particular attention to formation processes attendant to standing Byzantine monuments. Byzantine archaeologist in a survey context might also go further to make arguments for the coherence of surface assemblages and produce some horizontal stratigraphy where the regular association of coarse wares and known fine wares can allow us to make certain tentative chronological arguments. These are not features exclusive to Byzantine period, but they are areas where Byzantine archaeology has begun to make a contribution. Finally, we have the advantage of a field that is located at the very earliest moment where a genuinely historical archaeology is possible. This positions us as scholars to contribute and critique the enter historical archaeology undertaking from the rather unique perspective of survey archaeology.

There were a few areas where there was not much conversation although these are typically part of the larger chatter among survey archaeologists.

1. Sharing Data. First, with the exception of Jim Newhard the conference lacked any major player in the recent trend toward data curation. How we make our results visible to the world and our colleagues remains a major issue for archaeologists in general, and survey archaeologists in particular. The born-digital nature of survey data makes survey practitioners particular important contributors to these conversations. The idea of a distinctly Byzantine survey archaeology could involve a stronger commitment to digital data curation, distribution, and analysis.

2. Beyond the New Archaeology. Most papers at the conference showed a strong commitment to quantitative methods that drew upon the core tenants of processual and new archaeology. Almost no one was willing to push a little further to consider post-processual practices. The idea of the landscape remained something produced through systematic collection of physical data from the countryside. There was little in the way of reflexive practices on more “qualitative” forms of data collection although survey archaeology’s close relationship to landscape archaeology has long opened the door to these kinds of approaches.

3. Cyprus. The contributions of Cypriot survey archaeologist once again remained around the fringes of the conversation. To my mind the Sydney Cyprus Survey Project represents one the model regional scale survey projects in the Eastern Mediterranean and its successor TAESP will probably be even more important. The work of M. Rautman in site-based survey and the historical data collected on the Byzantine landscape from the Cyprus Survey and other projects on the island makes it one of the most thoroughly investigated landscapes in the Mediterranean. I think it’s high time that we hold a “Survey Archaeology in Cyprus in Comparative Context” workshop that looks at how we can compare the results of surveys to answer questions that have relevance at both a regional and transregional level.

Looking Across Chronological Barriers in Byzantine Survey Archaeology

This weekend I’ll be at Dumbarton Oaks presenting a paper at their spring colloquium on Byzantine Archaeology. As I have noted earlier this week, the colloquium is on the impact of survey archaeology on Byzantine studies, and I was tasked with writing a paper on looking across chronological barriers. I focused my paper on comparative landscapes, formation processes, and Byzantine attitudes toward the past in texts. I am not sure that I say anything profoundly new, but I think that I manage to weave these three topics together in an effective way.

I am not entirely pleased with how I discuss the comparison between the Early Modern and Medieval landscapes in Lakka Skoutara. I think it probably needs a more robust basis for comparing the two artifact assemblages, but this is challenging in a paper targeted to be around 20-30 minutes paper. (Since my paper is penultimate paper after a long day I mercifully kept my remarks shorter than the recommended length imagining that some of my colleagues earlier in the day will go longer than their allotted time). I am also not convinced that I engaged the issue of formation processes fully in the second section, but my paper should provide some food for thought, and it allowed me to dust off some old data that as far as I know has not been published. 

Here’s the paper and you can judge whether it works or not:

If you’re still looking for more of my riveting writing, I noticed that a book review of mine appeared on the American Journal of Archaeology webpage this week. (You can see an earlier version of this review here).

Three Things for Tuesday

The next two weeks are busy, but pretty exciting ones for me. So I thought I would use todays post as an advertisement for myself and some of these cool events.

First, I head east on Friday to Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC for their spring colloquium on Byzantine archaeology. This spring it will focus on survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. This is the third colloquium focusing on Byzantine archaeology. My notes on the second colloquium are here, and Kostis Kourelis’s notes on the first colloquium are here. This year’s colloquium will be more focused on a specific practice and its relation to Byzantine archaeology rather than on the field in general or its relation to long standing institutions. Here’s a link to the colloquium and the program. It will be interesting to hear whether the field of Byzantine archaeology manifests at particular distinction or cohesion at the level of practice. 

On my return to North Dakota, my buddy Bret Weber and I head south to North Dakota State University in Fargo to present on our research on man camps in the Bakken oil patch. This talk will be our first formal academic talk as a research team (rather than just on our own) and will hopefully present a more advanced state of our research than any point before. The talk is on April 3rd from 2-3:30 in MU Rose Room.


Finally, on Friday April 5th, Prof. Sam Fee from Washington and Jefferson College will come via the internets to the University of North Dakota to present on his work with the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP) on creating a web and tablet application for collecting archaeological data in the field. We alpha tested the cleverly named PKApp (get it?) this summer and wrote a short technical piece on the application this spring for Near East Archaeology. Sam and I will run the talk like conversation exploring the technical aspects of trench-side data collection, the practical concerns, and the future directions of this technology. Sam was one of the great early bloggers and technologists in Mediterranean archaeology. Check out Sam’s blog here. Sam’s talk will be at 1 pm in the Working Group in Digital and New Media lab in O’Kelly 203 at the University of North Dakota.

Looking beyond Chronological Boundaries in Byzantine Survey Archaeology

Over Easter, I’m giving a talk at the Spring Colloquium at Dumbarton Oaks. The topic will be looking across chronological boundaries in Byzantine survey archaeology. This was not exactly the topic that I would have picked, but it is a good and important one for reflecting on the current situation in Byzantine archaeology more broadly. I have written a first draft of the paper and a longer article-ish piece, but I’ll spare you the rough edges and give you a quick summary of where my argument tries to go.

1. Introduction. I begin with some quick words on the significance of survey archaeology for revealing the rural landscape and settlement, contextualizing known monuments, and informing our reading of the documentary and textual sources that exist for the Byzantine or Medieval countryside in the Aegean (e.g. the Cadaster of Thebes, various hagiographic sources, monastic typika, et c.). I also limit my comments on survey and the Byzantine countryside to Greece and – to a far lesser extent – Cyprus.

2. Historiography. I spend a little time treating two seminal discussions of survey archaeology in a Byzantine context: John Rosser’s 1979 article and Tim Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies. I note that Rosser in his work with the Minnesota Messinia Expedition saw the need to look across chronological boundaries in order to understand the limits in which Byzantine rural society developed. Since the Byzantine countryside was largely unknown and we struggled to recognize Byzantine material in the context of survey, we had to attempt to understand this period through analogy to other post-ancient (and ancient) periods in a particular region. This approach intersected with the tendency of regional and “second wave” survey projects in the Aegean to be directed by prehistorians or scholars focused on historical antiquity rather than later periods. Following practices dating to the early 20th century, post-Classical material was grouped together in a single corpus and often studied alongside ethnographic concerns. In fact, the most recent major work on Byzantine ceramics from Greece, Joanita Vroom’s After Antiquity: Ceramics and Society from the 7th to 20th century A.C. does the same thing. This organization is largely a product of the disciplinary history of the field.

3. The Anatomy of Settlement. In the third section, I suggest that this approach, while problematic, can offer some significant insights. I highlight Jack Davis’s lengthy 1991 article “Contributions to a Mediterranean Rural Archaeology: Historical Case Studies from the Ottoman Cyclades” in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. At the end of this article, Davis notes that studying the better documented Ottoman and Early Modern periods can help us understand how various agricultural strategies and settlement patterns can help us understand rural landscapes in the Byzantine period. I then consider this approach in the context of my work (with David Pettegrew and others) at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia where we have evidence for early 20th century settlement and an early and spatially distinct Medieval settlement (and more here). The assemblage of material from the Medieval period features the full range of ceramics (table wares, kitchen wares, and storage and utility wares) with the exception of highly diagnostic imported fine wares and coincides well with habitation. This comparative approach highlighted differing settlement and land use strategies in a relatively marginal landscape. 


4. Archaeological Signatures and Formation Processes. The fourth section of the paper, looks briefly at some survey work that we did on the island of Kythera in 2001 that documented the ceramic material from around a series of Medieval and Venetian period churches. I note that these buildings provide windows into both an earlier landscape, but also into earlier practices (I can’t escape from Ingold’s taskscapes this week!). The presence of fine ware around the church of Ay. Onoufrios near the Medieval town of Paliochora echoes finds associated with the nearly contemporary site of Panakton on the Attic/Boeotian border which was one of the few buildings on that site to produce a notable assemblage of fine ware. I suggest that the distinct lifecycle of churches and the practices associated with their maintenance – including the accumulation of prestige goods, local discard of broken ceramics, and work to keep the area around the church clean and free from debris – informs how we understand the signature of Byzantine churches in the landscape. This approach to Byzantine sites in the countryside requires that we recognize that even datable buildings are not static markers in the landscape, but the product of diachronic processes that create corresponding complex signatures.

5. Dreams across Time. I conclude the paper with a short fantasy that the Byzantines themselves looked across chronological boundaries when they defined their landscape. Saints, bishops, and pious laymen all worked to recover and rebuild earlier monuments that they knew about in the landscape. The reuse and rebuilding of the landscape makes clear that the Byzantines recognized their landscape as a diachronic phenomena that not only represented distinct periods, but provided a space to create history.

I’ll post a more complete draft of this paper once I get done tuck pointing it. 

Working Draft: Byzantine Archaeology in Greece: Big Questions, Next Directions

After getting some nice feedback on my Monday blog post, I put together a working draft of the paper that I’ll deliver at a conference at the Joukowski Institute for Archaeology at Brown next week.

No one will mistake the paper as anything other than my particular perspectives on Byzantine Archaeology. It reflects my interests in landscapes, legacy data, and the archaeological study of architecture. One can certainly see my recent work at Polis on Cyprus and on the churches of the Corinthia as well as my little projects dealing with legacy data at Isthmia and Thisvi.

That being said, I know that I didn’t give enough attention to recent work on Byzantine ceramics, various areas of “scientific archaeology,” the growing awareness of the relationship between nationalism and Byzantine archaeology, the development of indigenous archaeologies in the Byzantine period, and very recent work at particular sites where researchers are making important strides, and this is a pretty uneven perspective on the current character of the field. I also know that I have left out citations and the like making it a bit difficult to track some of my references…  

But this is just a working draft and I continue to be eager to take any and all input.

Big Questions and Next Directions in Byzantine Archaeology

At the end of next week I am heading to the Joukowsky Institute at Brown University to contribute to a symposium on “Big Questions and Next Directions in the Archaeology of Greece“. My paper will look at Byzantine Archaeology. With only 15-20 minutes, there are limits to what I can say. Moreover, I can’t say that I follow closely the newest contributions from every angle related to Byzantine archaeology. Like most scholars, I have tended to diversify my portfolio beyond the limits of Early Christian and Byzantine Greece while still investing time in areas related to core research interest both in Greece and elsewhere.

That all being said, I do intend to make a few key points:

1. I’ll begin with a brief observation that Byzantine archaeology has generally remained ambivalent toward debates in mainstream “world archaeology”. With notable exceptions, Byzantine archaeologists of Greece barely raised an eyebrow in the direction of processualism and have studiously avoided post-processualism or any other post-structure theorizing. The main focus of Byzantine archaeology continues to be the typological study of monuments, urban areas, fortifications, imported pottery and fine ware, and the interplay of texts and objects.  

2. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and that we aren’t becoming more aware of the limits of traditional approaches to Byzantine archaeology. Indeed, over the past 40 years, archaeologists interested in the Byzantine period have used dendrochronology, intensive pedestrian survey, energetics in Byzantine architecture, remote sensing, and other scientific practices to produce new knowledge about Byzantium, but, in general, these contributions have remained isolated and not been integrated into the master narrative of Byzantine Greece. There is, however, a foundation for the meaningful expansion of the archaeological data that informs our understanding of Byzantine Greece. For example, continuous revision of ceramic typologies produced through stratigraphic excavation at Corinth, Athens, and Sparta has already begun to produce new chronological, economic, and architectural insights.

3. At present, my main interest is in the archaeology of architecture in Greece and Cyprus. As a rule, the study of Early Christian and Byzantine monuments in Greece has focused on the production of neat floor plans and elevations. Architectural historians then organized these plans and elevations into typologies, compared various typological difference to one another, and presented arguments relating differences in plans and elevations to regional trends, liturgical practices, and chronology. I did some of this in my dissertation, and, in many ways, this method reflects the nature of our evidence for the Byzantine period. Considering the number of known buildings of Early Christian date in Greece, it is remarkable how few have received systematic archaeological publication; many were not excavated according to stratigraphic methods.

The future of Byzantine archaeology and architecture in Greece involves the study of Byzantine architecture through the results of careful, stratigraphic excavation. Attention to stratigraphy will not only transform the rather static and typologically bounded floor plans into more temporally dynamic spaces, but also grant agency to the individuals who both built and used these monuments. Greater attention to the distribution of finds, architectural stratigraphy, evidence for building practices and maintenance rituals, will shift attention to the “everyday” practices that fueled the Byzantine economy, informed local identities, and created the monumental landscape.

4. A more archaeological approach to Byzantine architecture need not involve new excavations. Renewed attention to archaeological “legacy data” produced by earlier excavations may offer insights into the transformation and use of Early Christian and Byzantine monuments. In fact, many Byzantine archaeologists maintained far better records from their excavations than ever saw publication. Attention to Byzantine monuments documented during excavations focused on earlier materials – e.g. excavators removed Byzantine period structures from sites like Corinth and Olympia as they uncovered earlier levels – holds forth the potential to reveal significant insights into the structure of Byzantine communities. Recent efforts at Athens and Corinth to make this data available in digital forms will expand the number of scholars who have access to the history of these sites and hopefully increase the pace of research.

At the same time, Byzantine archaeologists have a responsibility to make their work available promptly and, whenever possible, in digital form. Moving away from a proprietary notion of archaeological data toward a collaborative model will help produce the kind of (relatively) “big data” is available to address questions of regional economies, large-scale change in settlement patterns, and, of course, ceramic typologies and chronology.

5. Finally, if renewed attention to legacy data and architecture is to have an impact on our understanding of the Byzantine world, we cannot lose sight of the transdisciplinary natural of Byzantine studies. Like its cousin, Classical Archaeology, Byzantine archaeology has long availed itself to texts to inform its main research questions. To continue this tradition, however, we must ground our analysis in integrative approaches to the Byzantine world which facilitate a true dialogue between archaeological remains and textual accounts (rather than one remaining slavishly dependent on the other). The notion of a Byzantine landscape provides an important interpretative field for exploring the relationship between texts and archaeology in a Byzantine context. The idea of the landscape allows for the coexistence of monuments, settlements, survey results, and textual accounts without reducing any one object to dependency on the other. Moreover, recent work on landscape has increasingly recognized the productive tension created by various narratives. Taskscapes, for example, that represent the processes involved in the construction of a church might well be overwritten by hagiographic narratives that located holy sites in the life and travels of a saint. The distribution of local settlements might challenge narratives of abandonment that conform to political or military goals. Artifacts of resistance might provide contrasting perspectives on otherwise triumphant narratives. Landscapes need not always capture tension between text and material culture. The presence of seemingly isolated churches might challenge views of settlement based on nucleated habitation. Soundscapes, view sheds, and the faint evidence for paths and roads, connect communities and monuments in ways that defy perspectives informed by modern efficiencies and topography and contribute to producing evidence for a Byzantine experience.

The future of Byzantine archaeology is in interrogating the methods and results of the rich tradition of archaeological practice in Greece and leveraging the growing body of conceptual literature grounded in world archaeology.  

Regional Survey and Byzantium

Last week, I wrote a bit about Timothy Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines titled “Intensive Survey and its Place in Byzantine Archaeology”. Some 7 years earlier, however, in the same journal John Rosser offered similar thoughts in an article titled “A Research Strategy for Byzantine Archaeology”. In this article, Rosser suggests that Byzantine archaeology (1) needed “an overall research strategy, and (2) had to begin to address issues the difficult relationship between text and material culture. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that neither of these issues have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction almost 35 years after Rosser’s call to arms.

First, the current diversity of Byzantine archaeology is perhaps not a liability. Scholars from the U.S. at least, who tend to have less institutional coherence than scholars in other countries, have continued to look toward urban excavations to shed light on Byzantine culture, have worked to document traditional objects of interest in Byzantine studies – namely churches and monasteries, and have pioneered the use of intensive pedestrian survey to document shifting patterns of settlement and land use in the Byzantine era. In short, despite very recent efforts to consolidate conversations among Byzantine archaeologists under the generous auspices of Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine archaeology in the U.S. has remained refreshingly and frustratingly diverse.

Second, Byzantine archaeology – like much archaeology in the Mediterranean world – still struggles to escape the long shadow of our textual records. Rosser makes clear his attitudes. He calls for archaeologists to devise strategies to interpret how Byzantine society organized land as the basis for an agrarian history of the Byzantine era. Questions of land tenure have particular significance for understanding whether the Byzantine period marked a significant break with the economic structures of the ancient world. Rosser regarded “the greatest contributions Byzantine archaeology can hope to make” to be “in the area of demographic, social, and economic history” (p. 157). By expanding what we know about land use and its impact on demography and the economy, Byzantine archaeologists and historians would begin to address the question of whether the so-called end of the ancient world was an economic event or more properly tied to culture, religion, or political changes. We might also attempt to understand why the eastern and western Mediterranean developed along such different trajectories.

To do this, Rosser calls for more sophisticated approaches to regional level survey and, like Gregory, cited the influential Minnesota Messenia Expedition. The MME took as the basic unit of study the region, sought to explore the relationship between its inhabitants and their natural environment through time, and drew upon an interdisciplinary team of scholars to document change through time. The latter ensured that the project recognized the structure of the landscape and to some extent settlement and land use to reflect longterm patterns of local resources exploitation on the regional level. As a result, Rosser can commend the MME for their use of both Linear B and Venetian records for understanding the structure of settlement through time.

Rosser’s grounded his call for a Byzantine archaeology in an appreciation for how diachronic survey can impose longterm structure on the countryside. By allowing texts and material culture from all periods to contribute to an understanding of how resources shaped settlement, the first wave of regional surveys created an approach where Byzantine archaeology could be freed from its dependence on contemporary texts and construct a model landscape that informs how we understand agrarian change in the Byzantine era.

This review of a 35 year old article is mostly an academic exercise (and a reminder of this article’s existence since Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines is not in Jstor or other major online databases). But it informs a talk that I’ll deliver at a Dumbarton Oak’s symposium in March on survey archaeology and Byzantine studies. Looking back to Tim Gregory’s and John Rosser’s articles from the late 70s and mid-1980s contextualizes a larger discussion the place of regional and intensive survey in Byzantine archaeology and raises the questions whether we have responded to Gregory’s and Rosser’s call for a new direction in Byzantine archaeology and how have our perspectives on the potential of intensive survey have changed since the time of these articles.

Intensive Survey and Byzantine Archaeology

This spring I’m contributing to a symposium put on by Dumbarton Oaks on archaeological survey and Byzantine archaeology and history. I’ve been asked to talk about how Byzantine archaeologists have looked across chronological barriers in the context of survey.

I decided to begin with Timothy Gregory’s 1986 article in Byzantine Studies/Etudes byzantines titled “Intensive Survey and its Place in Byzantine Archaeology”. The article made the case for the value of intensive survey in Byzantine archaeology with particular attention to the value of intensive survey methods in documenting the Byzantine countryside, examining the archaeology of regions, and identifying sites that usually do not attract the attention of the excavators of monumental or urban remains. As Gregory notes throughout this seminal, if idiosyncratic, article is that intensive survey has the potential to expand our knowledge of Byzantine society beyond the limits imposed by knowledge derived from the study of churches, fortifications, and urban areas. 

More importantly for my purposes, however, the methods associated with intensive survey located Byzantine archaeology within a broader diachronic landscape. Even though the earliest intensive survey projects, as Gregory noted, like the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, focused on particular problems and periods, they recovered and made efforts to analyze objects and features of any period in their survey area.  With the MME, for example, which was designed to study the Mycenaean landscape of the southwest Peloponnesus, understanding the distribution of Byzantine material was a peripheral concern, and, as a result, the authors relegated the study of the period to a section dedicated generically to “medieval” pottery.

More recent projects, however, have paid greater attention to the Byzantine pottery. The highly influential heirs to the MME project – the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project and the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project – both included specialists in the Byzantine period; the former will have a volume dedicated to the Medieval period and the latter has received significant attention at the hands of Sharon Gerstel. Joanita Vroom has studied the Byzantine and later periods for the major surveys in Boeotia by John Bintliff and Anthony Snodgrass. While none of these projects focused explicitly on the Byzantine or Medieval period, their directors became known for their wide range of serious archaeological interest. So it is hardly fair to suggest that the prehistoric specialities of the directors of PRAP and NVAP and the various Cambridge/Bradford/Leiden projects limited how much we could learn about the Byzantine period in their survey areas. At the same time, these excavated sites that provided stratigraphic and conceptual anchors for these projects tended to be prehistoric or Classical in date (e.g. Pylos or Nemea), and, as a result, Byzantine archaeology represented an epiphenomenal aspect to the brilliant “second wave” survey projects on mainland Greece. The longstanding emphasis among scholars and funding bodies on the Classical and Bronze Age periods in Greece accounts for this bias as much as anything. 

It’s somehow poetic to suppose that the chronologically peripheral status of Byzantine material in the major survey projects resulted in a loss of resolution, the same way that the edges of our vision tend to be less clearly defined. We lack nuanced chronologies for most classes of Byzantine ceramics and we know almost nothing about local utility and cooking wares. As a result we can discuss the post-classical period in only relatively imprecise ways when we encounter this material in unstratified conditions on the surface of the ground. The chronological difficulties extend in some cases to our ability to date standing monuments outside of urban centers or without epigraphical or textual evidence. Moreover, churches and fortification frequently enjoyed long periods of continued use, modification, and upkeep from the Byzantine period into later ages making it even more difficult to isolate a monument as “Byzantine” or “Ottoman” or even “Early Modern” in date. 

Chronological ambiguity in Byzantine material culture and the peripheral relationship of Byzantine archaeology to the core interest of many of the most influential survey archaeology projects have combined to associate Byzantine material with a broader category of material dated coarsely to the “post-ancient” or “Medieval-Modern” age. The result of this combination of chronological ambiguity is an equally ambiguous engagement with material from the Byzantine period. 

This creates some particularly difficulties with how intensive survey has informed Byzantine history and archaeology more broadly. As Gregory recognized some 25 years ago, many of the key issues in Byzantine history require that we understand how settlements and land use patterns change through time. As Guy Sanders and others have shown, the shifting sands of ceramic chronology have often made even the most widespread and widely accepted changes in settlement – like the transformation of Greece over the course of the so-called Byzantine Dark Ages – difficult to discern in the surface record. We have made little progress in understanding later, more subtle, or more local shifts in settlement or land use.

The problems with our understanding of Byzantine material culture especially in a rural context has led archaeologists to consider Byzantine material as part of a longer chronological period and contributing to how we understand trends associated with the longue durée rather than more particular historic events. Disentangling the Byzantine from these longstanding habits of analysis will require both refining our ability to recognize material in field and shifting how we understand the post-Classical landscape.

Over the next 6 weeks or so, I’m going to continue to work on this paper and these ideas and bring in more specific examples from survey literature. What you see here is just a preliminary sounding. Stay tuned.