Photo Friday: Last Days in the Mediterranean in 2022

I head home from my 2022 study season next week and despite this being a shorter time in the Mediterranean than in the past, I feel like I’ve gotten the good out of my trip and am ready to head home to recharge, get some summer projects wrapped up, and get ready for the next semester.

I’ll leave you with some photos of my time in the Corinthia last week, where I saw some sites that I hadn’t seen recently that captured my academic and aesthetic attention.

Some World War II fortifications:

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Canal worker housing and buildings:

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And of course: 

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And: 

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And one from Cyprus last night:

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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!

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. 

Corinth Excavations, Preliminary Reports, and Time

This week, I read the recently published report on the 2019 excavations at Corinth in Greece by Christopher Pfaff. The report is the second in his tenure as director of Corinth excavations and while this report is less amazing than the report on work at the site in 2018, the 2019 article is thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking. I would contend that if the report on work in 2018 is an intensive meditation on things in excavation, the report on work in 2019 begins a subtle exploration of the nature of archaeological time.

It’s worth noting that Corinth is a bit of an odd excavation. Started over a century age, it is now the major training excavation for American archaeologists in Greece. It operates as an extension of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and general excavates every year as much to address long term research questions relating, primarily, to the work of past excavators as to provide opportunities for graduate students in Classics, Ancient History, Art History, and archaeology an chance to dig at a site using stratigraphic, open area excavation practices. Five years ago, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota published a version of The Corinth Excavations Archaeological Manual, that provides a good survey of the methods and techniques used at the site. You can download that for free here.    

From the start, this report defies categorization. As with the report on the 2018 season, it is nowhere clear whether this is a preliminary report although the article hints occasionally throughout that further work and future excavations will clarify issues. I also have to assume that the rather fragmentary reports of archaeological contexts and assemblages will be expanded in the future. That said, Corinth publications tend to proceed at a rather deliberate pace with sites, classes of material, and contexts often taking decades to appear. The rapid publication of these annual reports, then, creates a kind of syncopation with their less complete analyses appearing regularly and larger, more comprehensive publications appearing at less frequent intervals. (Someone should sonify the Corinth publication history  with larger works being longer and deeper notes and shorter works being shorter and higher notes!)

The preliminary report is a strange beast in archaeology. I suppose they started as an effort to create a buzz about work and to keep a (general? Or academic?) public informed about progress at a site. Today, they tend to be more methodological papers or used to highlight especially significant finds that can stand on their own. Less frequently, preliminary reports offered broad overviews of the work that address a project’s major research questions albeit in a provisional way. The Corinth report represents the earliest tradition of preliminary reports which served primarily to keep stakeholders informed of the ongoing progress of work. In other words, the report lacks any attention to methodology or to a larger research question with significance beyond the site itself.

That does not mean, however, that the report should be relegated to the “news and notes” folder and read only as a friendly update from an interesting project. The publication of an inscribed magic ring, for example, apparently recovered in a Late Roman context is notable in its own right and offers yet another insight into the complexities of syncretic Corinthian religious practice in the Roman and Late Roman period. 

There are other intellectual opportunities that emerge from this report that are almost certain to engage the imagination of the reader. I love the element of ambiguity in some of the descriptions. For example, Pfaff suggests – almost with a shrug – that the status of a concreted pile of rubble as a wall is doubtful. Elsewhere depositional processes are proposed as possible. In some cases, there are likely contaminants. With these words, a reader can see the process of archaeological interpretation playing out as hypotheses emerge and resist resolution constantly blurring what qualifies as knowledge.

I think the nuanced language here offers an intriguing foil to the current efforts surrounding our knowledge of the COVID virus, vaccinations, and the social impacts of the pandemic. In this context, the provisional character of knowledge pops off the page and situates this publication in a continuum that spans for pure ignorance to absolute certainty. The role of narrative practices in constructing the temporal axis of this continuum supports assumptions that the future will resolve doubt, likelihoods, and possibilities. It marks out the present as a time of uncertainty that the future will resolve. It is hard to imagine that Pfaff wrote this article without the COVID pandemic in mind. His work resonates so strongly with how we are experiencing science at present this simply could not be unintentional.

More practically and materially, the work in the area northeast of the theater sets the stage for any number of interesting arguments regarding the interplay between various pasts and various presents in this area. The publication of part of a 19th century house is really intriguing because the house appears to sit atop a road with both Ottoman and earlier Byzantine phases. This suggests that the road network in the area was changing by the the 19th century, but also that the road itself continued to function as a surface within the house. Elsewhere wells cut the trenches left by robbed out walls and walls stand as assemblages of earlier material redeployed for new tasks. Scholarship in the late-20th century was particularly preoccupied with spolia and spoliation and the aesthetics and intentionality of reuse. It feels like scholarship in the third decade of the 21st century is interested in time and the relentless materiality of things, objects, and features. Pfaff’s article dispenses with our formalized fascination with spoliated material and returns us to the more gritty and basic material of the past. The archaeology of the area northeast of the theater is unlikely to tell us anything that we don’t already know about the city of Corinth, but what it does offer is detailed case study of how the past remains visible, active, and material.  

Perhaps it’s best to leave this mini-review with the observation that Pfaff is very deliberate with the interplay between the concept of “remains” and the use of the verb “to remain.” This reveals in vivid style the interplay between the provisional character of the present and the fragmentary nature of the past. Remains remain resolute.

A List: The 15 Best Early Christian Baptisteries in Greece

The other day, mostly on a lark, I posted to Twitter a list of the top 15 baptisteries in Greece. It was 60% done as a kind of silly joke designed to spoof the ubiquitous “listicles” that fill our social media feeds and 40% done because David Pettegrew and I needed to cull our list of around 65 baptisteries to 15-20 for a publication. In any event, the list proved more popular than I imagined which has prompted me to post it here to the ole blog. 

It also got me thinking about maybe doing a little weekly list of things which I post to Twitter and then, perhaps, share them on my blog. One of the major trends of the last five years or so is that blogs like mine have declined in regular readership. Some have argued that Twitter threads and other forms of “long form” social media engagement have created new reading habits. The rise of newsletters has also drawn readers away from stand along blogs. Finally, the blogging landscape itself has changed. The slow and steady grind of research blogs stand out less visibly against blogs engaging more fully with debates that have attracted considerable public attention. In other words, it’s no longer enough to just blog and hope for readers. Today, one has to understand the digital media landscape and have a sensitivity to wider concerns both within and outside of the academy.

My effort to produce a fun little listicle is probably not a useful step in any particular direction for this blog, but it was fun so I’ll share it here with my few remaining (but dedicated and committed) blog readers:  

15. Ay. Sophia at Panormos on Crete. It’s a bit weak, but it’s ranked 15 so there’s that. It also has some archaeology to it and some phasing (it seems to have been added in the 5th century). A little architectural adaptation goes a long way in this list.

14. Kenchreai Basilica (Corinthia). I mean the Pauline tie-in makes it a lock for the list (even though the church is much later. Plus, it’s mostly under water now which is cool. And the swimming there is nice. Otherwise, pretty garden variety.

13. Kos-Zepari Kapama. No list of baptisteries is complete without at least one from Kos or Rhodes. These islands consistently produce great content. In fact, the competition is so intense that these baptisteries are often overrated by fans and critics alike. This one has style.

12. Argos – Aspis Church. I have a soft spot for the Argolid and everyone knows that. This baptistery brings the ROUND and offers just a hint of synchronism for all you old school conversion fans out there. It won’t win a prize for style or design, but it’s there all day long.

11. Aigosthena-Attica. This church is just great and the site (ashlar walls, the sea, the mountains) is almost enough to move it into the top 10. For now, it’s the number 2 baptistery in Attica.

A solid building, good font, probably some arches, but it’s all about the setting.

10. Ialysos-Rhodes. You can’t talk baptisteries without Rhodes and Kos and this little gem is more than representative of the baptismal landscape there.

Apsidal room – check.
Cruciform font – check.
Parapet screen – check.
On an ancient acropolis – check.
Top 10 – check.

9. Brauron-Attica. This basilica is great, but the baptistery is show stopper. Curving walls, a circular baptismal chamber, some apses, and some changes in elevation. This place is special and almost anticipates a day when curves matter. It’s not Ronchamp, but it’s 6th c. Style.

8. Philippi-Octagon. Don’t let the church or the Pauline associations distract you! Here it’s all about the FONT. Square room, busy building, but then: BLAM: cross pattée. It is FLASH. Like someone wanted to show that EC architecture wasn’t all geometric forms and columns.

7. Nea Anchialos – Basilica C. This baptistery is a sleeper. Two phases. Subtle. Small, but complex. From a free standing building to an integrated one. It has a story to tell. Maybe from adult baptism to child baptism? Maybe changing styles and liturgy? There’s a lot going on.

6. Dion – Basilica B. Simple can be better. Octagonal font and three room baptistery:  Apodyterion-Font-Chrismarion. Textbook with just enough style to let people know that they planned this thing. Not quite top 5, but you can feel conversion here.

Oh, man. I’ve gotten so excited that I had forgotten to enjoy my pair of post-prandial Twizzlers!! This never happens except when I’m dropping some public science and doing my baptistery thing!!

Top 5. Here we go.

5. Paros Katapoliani Church. This church speaks for itself and the baptistery is part of that conversation. Apses and aisles and cruciform font. Maybe a dome. This is class in a church that makes me pun Theoktiste and want to escape from pirates to live there alone for 35 years.

4. Metropolitan Church at Gortyn on Crete. Is this controversial? Sure. Is it free standing. Without a doubt. There is a lot going on here: lobes, ambulatories, octagons, quatrefoil fonts. Maybe earlier doubters pushed this up the list a bit, but how could it not be top 5?

3. Kraneion-Corinthia. You’d have to be living in a jar not to it in the top 5. This church is all about SUBSTANCE. The baptistery is apsidal, the font is octagonal with steps, there is an ambulatory. Plus enough burials in the church and the area to remind you of life and death.

2. Damokratia Church – Demetrias. I know this will be controversial. It doesn’t bring the architectural bling of some, but the church is flashy and the baptistery is substantial. Damokratia did this church the right way and this baptistery deserves its spot in the list.

1. Lechaion. The Lechaion baptistery shines brighter than (and predates?) the church itself. Multiple geometric forms, visible adaptations, multiple fonts, apses, parapets, opus sectile, revetment. Plus possible martyrs who died by drowning?

There’s nothing more to say here.

 

 

 

WARP 2021 Study Season

The 2021 WARP study season starts tomorrow. This means three things.

First, it means DATA. Like many contemporary archaeological projects and certainly most contemporary surveys, WARP produced a ton of data from its four seasons in the field and three study seasons. Despite spending some quality time with this data each year, it remained a bit provisional as our finds data was refined and updated and our survey unit data was polished. Moreover, as we digitize and analyze maps, we continue to produce more data that can inform our larger analysis. In short, this means a season of sitting in front of my laptop and crunching numbers.

Our biggest goals this season is to determine the main factors that impact artifact recovery rates from our survey area and then attempt to determine whether the variables impact recovery rates in the same way for artifacts from every period. 

Second, it means DISPLACEMENT. Some of my fondest memories of archaeological work do not involve toiling in a trench or slogging through another field looking for sherds. They don’t even involving hiking up a mountain and the rush at “discovering” an undocumented or unpublished fortification. Some of my favorite memories of doing archaeological work involve sitting at my laptop in the tiny room underneath the Marinos house in Ancient Corinth, crunching EKAS data with David Pettegrew. I also have fond memories of working on Polis data on Cyprus while sitting in the Polis storerooms or in the main room of our little apartment in the village.

In both of these cases, we had the ability to go out the door and wander around the excavation area or go and check out a particular unit, situation, or view. I’ve never been one for aimless driving around or hiking or other random outdoorsy activity that I don’t perceive as having a clear goal in mind. I do enjoy, however, checking things out and revisiting sites or scrutinizing problems at a site or in the landscape. The dialogue between the data and sites and landscapes ensures that the data remain tied to experience. In fact, I often think of data that we take with us into the field (either in our minds or quite literally when we check a measurement or test a hypothesis) as embodied data. These data are data that blend seamlessly with the sites themselves.

Of course, this year, like last, we can’t do that. I’m feeling a distinct sense of displacement from the field and it reinforces my idea that data as data, set adrift from a sense of place, loses something significant. 

Finally, no study season can happen without DONUTS. Tomorrow is National Donut Day. My plan is to make a donut pilgrimage to Sandy’s Donuts in Fargo to mark the official start of the WARP study season. 

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

Over the next five weeks or so I have to go back to some research that I was doing in around 2008 to write a short piece and catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. (For some reason this makes me use my Allen Iverson voice: We’re talking about Baptisteries. Not a basilica. Baptisteries). 

Anyway, the start of Lent feels like the right time for me to put some words down on paper that get the ball rolling. My little essay will contribute to a larger project spearheaded by Robin Jensen to bring together descriptions and interpretations of baptisteries from around the ancient world. I’m writing this with David Pettegrew who is writing a short survey of Early Christian archaeology that will complement our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

Here goes a very rough first swing:

The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

There are four significant challenges facing any study of the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. The first, and most significant challenge, is that there are very few stratigraphically excavated Early Christian buildings in the region. In fact, most of the churches and baptisteries known from Greece were excavated before the middle of the 20th century through methods designed with a greater interest in exposing the horizontal architecture of the buildings than revealing the vertical stratigraphy associated with their construction. As a result, archaeologists have dated most churches and baptisteries in Greece on the basis of architectural style or mosaic decoration. This tends to provide only the most general chronology for these buildings and rarely allows us to reconstruct or date the changes that took place at these buildings over time. For example, it is clear that the impressive baptistery associated with the Lechaion basilica in Corinth is earlier than the enormous church which stands to its south, but it is unclear how much earlier and impossible to associate it with earlier structures at the site. The two baptisteries associated with Basilica C at Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes) are only circumstantially associated related phases of the basilica. The excavator supposes that the smaller second baptistery is later and reflects a shift from adult to infant baptism in the 6th century AD. 

One consequence of the less than ideal excavation conditions associated with the both churches and baptisteries in Greece is that it remains very difficult to detect development over time. It is clear, for example, that the Lechaion baptistery underwent modification at some point with a smaller font suitable only for affusion installed in the southeastern conch of the octagonal baptistery. It is unclear however whether this font supplemented or replaced the central font in this room and reflected a wholesale change in baptismal ritual or the convenient addition of an alternative to ongoing practice of the earlier rite. It is likewise difficult to understand the chronological relationship between multiple baptisteries in any single community and whether the construction of some of these baptisteries marked earlier structures becoming obsolete or going out of use or changes in baptismal liturgy or the status of various churches.   In effect, archaeologists and architectural historians should treat the existing corpus of baptisteries for Greece, much like the corpus of Early Christian basilicas, provides a chronologically undifferentiated body of evidence which almost certainly combines regional, liturgical, and likely doctrinal variations present in Late Antique Christian communities in the region.  

Among the more interesting features of the Early Christian architectural landscape of Greece is the number of baptisteries associated with major urban centers. Nikopolis, Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes), Argos, Corinth, and Athens all have multiple churches with baptisteries. Conventionally, the bishop was responsible for baptism and the rites occurred once per year as part of the Easter Vigil. Thus multiple baptisteries, assuming that they contemporary, requires some explanation. Of course, it is possible that the annual baptismal rites occurred on a kind of rotation between churches or even that the bishop performed the rites at multiple sites on the same day. Another explanation is that various congregations following various doctrines each had their own baptisteries in Greek cities attended by their own bishop. We have relatively little understanding of doctrinal diversity in Greece during Late Antiquity, but the evidence that we do have suggests that divisive church politics did not spare Greek see any more than any other part of the empire. Finally, it is tempting to imagine that the presence of baptisteries at some sites maybe have had a connection to pilgrimage and so-called “ad sanctos” baptismal practice in which pilgrims traveled to particular sites to receive baptism. The connection between the basilica at Lechaion, for example, and the martyrdom of Leonidas and his seven companions may provide an explanation for the elaborate character of the baptistery at that site. St. Leonidas and seven women were drowned off the coast of Corinth and, according to a 13th century martyrology, while being drowned celebrated his imminent martyrdom by comparing it to a second baptism. While it seems unlikely that the Lechaion baptistery performed second baptisms, which would be a distinctly heterodox practice at a site likely associated with an effort to promote imperial orthodoxy in a see situated at the eastern edge of western ecclesiastical control, it may suggest that the site was a popular destination for “ad sanctos” rites.

The large number of baptisteries in Greece especially in urban areas have also taken on particularly significant for scholars who seek to use baptisteries as a way to asses the nature or rate of conversion in Greece. Recent scholarship has suggested that large-scale Christianization in Greece occurred rather late and the proliferation of baptisteries in urban areas was a response to the need for mass baptisms during the Easter vigil. Putting aside the role of the bishop in baptism, this is not necessarily an implausible scenario, but the lack of chronological control over the dates of the baptisteries (and their destruction) in Greece makes it hard to align with existing evidence.

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This is a start. I promised myself to spend time today on my book project and this is all the time that I can allot for this today, but stay 

Mostly, Almost Final Draft of my Review of Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands

For the last couple of months, I’ve been struggling to write a short review essay on Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnesus (2020). You can read my series of false starts and halting efforts here and here.

To be clear, it’s not that the book isn’t good or interesting. In fact, the book is entertaining which is something can only rarely be said about academic books. 

It’s that the book is sui generis. And, from the perspective of someone who has spent 20-odd years in the northeastern Peloponnesus, it doesn’t really say anything new so much as say things in a new way. For an academic reviewer who is looking to understand the new knowledge that a project has produced, it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around a book that is itself the new thing. 

In any event, you can read the draft of my review here, if you want

Or you can wait for it to come out alongside a couple of undoubtedly more thoughtful and sophisticated reviews in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology this spring.

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands (Part 2)

I’m tired these days. It’s the end of the semester. There’s a pandemic. And I feel vaguely overextended and haven’t been very good about keeping up with my ominous to do list. I’m not saying this to complain really. I know that a lot of people are feeling much worse than me these days. I’m just acknowledging it.

I’m slogging through finishing the last chapter of my slowly developing book. I’m looking at a stack of grading landing on my desk later this week and I’m fussing around with letters of recommendation, end of the semester service work, a stack of books and articles that I want to read and digest, and a couple of manuscripts that I’m editing, publishing, or reviewing that need attention.  

I’m also slogging through a review essay that I agreed to write on Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands. The book, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, is quite remarkable, and this alone has made it challenging to review. I posted the first part of my review essay yesterday. Here’s the second part: 

The dual emphasis on antiquity and the early modern and modern periods reinforces the link between chorography and 19th-century encounters with Classical Greece and the modern Greeks. While he distinguishes chorography from these older traditions, he acknowledges that the structure of the book cleaves closely to the routes of early travelers and nineteenth century archaeologists which the contemporary decedents continue to cite and mimic. The work of these scholars and their approaches clings to the objects that constitute Witmore’s chorography. Witmore’s efforts to construct a landscape that “adds nuance” to centuries-old practices of diachronic study of objects, strata, buildings, routes and regions, encounters significant resistance from the scholarly residues that cling things themselves. In many ways, Witmore’s book encounters the same problems as ”Carpenter’s Folly“ at Corinth. Standing perched above the Peirene Spring, Rhys Carpenter built a two-story structure on and around the remains of a 2-story house that dated to the 10th or 11th century. Carpenter’s building, which he meant to house Byzantine objects from the site, was a confused and ambiguous combination of modern, Byzantine, and ancient material some of which archaeologists brought to the site and immured in the building. It was never finished, partly dismantled during World War II and continued to house Byzantine sculpture into the 1950s. At this point, archaeologists at Corinth start to identify the building as a folly. As Kostis Kourelis observed in the most thorough published treatment of this building (Kourelis 2007), this term evoked both 18th century Romantic associations with aristocratic garden culture and the ultimate failure of the building to its intentions successful. Carpenter’s drew as heavily on an utterly foreign early-20th century fascination with Byzantium and resisted mid-century attitudes toward the reconstruction of historical buildings which framed the Stoa of Attalus in the Athenian Agora, the Cloisters in New York, and Colonial Williamburg. Witmore’s text, like this building, dislodged objects from their original context to create new relationships, while never quite severing them from their diachronic past. Like Carpenter’s folly, Witmore does not mean his folly to provide the only stories from the old lands, but to reflect the kinds of stories that things encourage us to tell.

Recent years have seen increasingly desperate calls to reimagine Classics and Classical (or Mediterranean) archaeology. Old Lands clearly hopes to contribute to this ongoing and crucial conversation. In particular, chorography challenges the growing pressure toward fragmentation and specialization that characterize contemporary archaeological (and, indeed, scholarly) practices (##). Increasing chronological and regional knowledge, expertise in ever narrower classes of objects, and competence in specialized tools, scientific methods and techniques, all frame a century long shift in our discipline toward professionalization. Following the logic of the assembly line, academics honed their expertise in the name of industrial knowledge making and eschewed the messy and inconsistent process of craft. Such an approach to scholarship also reinforced efforts to construe academia as a meritocracy where advancement came through demonstrations of professional competence better measured through the incremental advancement of specialized knowledge than in works aspiring to distinctive modes of engagement or broad synthesis. As Michael Given has recently noted, changes in the discipline of archaeology have called for a more convivial practice (2018). Evoking Ivan Illich’s anti-modern notion of conviviality, Given shares Witmore’s desire for an archaeology that engages with the material presence and resists the trap of ontological dead ends. It may be that conviviality offers a way forward that is more consistent with the character of contemporary academic knowledge.

This critique, however, speaks more to my theoretical predilections than the character of the book. There is no doubt that there will be sympathetic readers in archaeology, Classics, Ancient history, and anthropology. Many of them will find in Witmore’s work echoes of their time traveling with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, working on excavations and survey projects in the Corinthia and the Argolid, or visiting important sites with detours to the beach at Tolo, the gelaterias in Nafplio, and wineries around Nemea. For all that these readers might find familiar, they might think strange that his periegesis overlooks the politics of archaeology in the region. Long standing projects carved their own routes into the landscape with well-known walks from Ancient Corinth to Nemea or from Ay. Vasilios to Mycenae pass down from one generation to the next. Stories of a particular archaeologist’s pants abandoned on a rugged crag on Mt. Oneion ensured that any visits to this mountain included a question: “Did you find Richard’s pants?” A scatter of sherds, tiles, and revetment fragments became the “Villa of the Pig Dog” because archaeologists on the Eastern Korinthian Archaeological Survey encountered a dog that some thought resembled a pig. This has now entered academic literature (Pettegrew 2015, no. 38). Elsewhere, we can talk of a road that crosses a ravine in the Western Argolid because of its proximity to a flea infested mandra. Our interaction with these landscapes preserve their convivial origins in formal and informal archaeological practices.

The landscape of the northeast Peloponnesus also preserves the marks of intense and often bitter academic rivalries. For an outsider, these rivalries may only appear in negative and contested reviews in leading journals, pointed questions at academic panels, and palpable frostiness between significant contributors to the field. For someone who worked in the region for decades, however, these tensions are constituent of the landscape itself. As a graduate student working on the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, the forbidding walls of the American School’s Hill House in Ancient Corinth did more than suggest the institution’s colonial past but defined a project with different goals, practices, and academic attitudes. Sites such as Isthmia and Mycenae that have multiple ongoing projects often have competing agendas and interpretations that spill over into tense interpersonal and professional relations which the various foreign schools attempt to mediated awkwardly. Various Greek projects and the relationship between foreign excavators and the Greek archaeological authorities produce fault lines for relations and shape how archaeologists and visitors to the region view both objects and landscapes. The shear number of projects in the Northeastern Peloponnesus fosters competition for excavation and survey permits, specialized staff, and even accommodations. This, in turn, fortifies a vibrant rumor mill where whispered critique of competence in the field, professional comportment, personal relationships, wealth, and character continue to shape archaeological knowledge. It is not unreasonable that Witmore’s book avoids these kinds of messy political entanglements. Indeed, discussion of these matters remains as rare in archaeological literature as they are influential.

Old ways of thinking about the past cling to the old lands. It may be that the future of our field will emerge from the interplay of old and modern just as Witmore traces the old lands through his chorography and readers find echoes of their own experiences in the text. I suspect, though, that the burden of the old ways that weighs so heavily the old lands will continue to spur archaeologists to excavate alway those residues of the past than to embrace them for new ways forward.