Lecture this Fall: Late Antiquity at Polis: Recent Research

I’m spinning my wheels a bit this fall and trying to get traction after a long and somewhat exhausting summer of research and other work. Fortunately, several projects have become a bit more insistent lately and some new projects have popped up to fill the void.

Among the projects that I have appeared from the ether to structure my semester is a talk that I was invited to give at the University of Cyprus’s Archaeological Research Unit.

Here’s the abstract that I submitted: 

Starting in 1984, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated areas around the village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus. These excavations revealed a wide range of buildings and contexts dating from the Late Antique period including two Early Christian basilica style churches surrounded by various buildings that appear to stretch along the northern edge of the city. At some point in Late Antiquity, most of this area appears to have become a massive cemetery, presumably centered on the two churches. Recent research has revealed that the buildings along the northern edge of the city underwent continuous renovation and reconfiguration even as burials encroached.

Along with a few photos:

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South Basilica POT

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My current plan for the talk is to start the talk with a broad overview of Late Antique Polis and then focus on four or five issues that have emerged from our work. These issues will start with the most “settled” (and even published) and move onto some more speculative ideas about the city of Arsinoe in Late Antiquity.

1. Untangling Legacy Data. The first thing I’ll discuss is the challenges of working with “legacy data” at a project that flirted with the dawn of the digital age while still adhering to analogue practices. This will be a nice way to introduce the audience to the archaeological contexts for my paper’s analysis.

2. The Phases of the South Basilica. In some ways, this section will confirm that the methods we employed to combine legacy data with new analysis have the potential to produce meaningful results. It will largely summarize conclusions published a few years ago in Hesperia

3. Regionalism and Trade on Cyprus. This section will start to take our research into more speculative areas by demonstrative the value of publishing larger ceramic datasets and showing how they can contribute to understanding connectivity within a broader regional context. Some of our conclusions here have appeared in various publications, but they’re very much still tentative because of the changing chronologies associated with Late Roman ceramics in the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly.

4. Creating Some Late Roman Horizons. As a follow up to the last point, I will introduce our efforts to construct some Late Roman “horizons” at Polis that have the potential to be starting point for both refining ceramic chronologies on the island and proposing new dates for the transformation of the built environment on the island from the 6th to 8th centuries.

5. Fragments, Features, and Functions in the Late Roman Cityscape. Finally, the paper will conclude with some observations on how excavations along the northern edge of Late Antique Arsinoe revealed by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition can offer a fragmentary, but suggestive view of the changing character of the city. In this way, we hope that the work at our site can contribute to our emerging understanding of Late Roman urbanism elsewhere on Cyprus.  


The lecture will occur, I think, on November 28th and delivered via The Zooms, so I should, hopefully, have a link to share with people closer to the date. I’ll also share the text of my paper once I get around to putting words on the page. 

What I Did This Summer: Polis on Cyprus Edition

The early fall is always an awkward time of year because it marks the intersection of summertime work and the more regular routine of the semester’s start (as well as baseball and football season).

Over the last couple of week’s I’ve been working to pull together some of our work from the past summer on Cyprus. This primarily focused at the site of Polis and, more specifically, on the area of E.F1 in the Princeton Cyprus Expedition grid. I’ve written a decent amount about the small excavations in the area, but, so far, we haven’t really produced much more than a synthetic studies of the work there. Our current plan is to produce a more comprehensive study as part of the first volume of a new series dedicated to the Princeton work at Polis.

As per usual, I suspect that it’ll take years for the final publication of this site to appear, but for now, we can provide a provisional (and perhaps ante-penultimate) draft publication of the area. As you’ll discover, if you click the link below, the catalogue is not entirely complete and lacks illustrations at present (but I’ll work to update this when they’re available), but we have completed most of the interpretative heavy lifting and we have largely connected the dots at the site. 

For those of you who don’t know Polis, much less E.F1, the excavations in the area revealed at least four phases of Late Roman activity at the site of which three left clear architectural traces and one was manifest in a burial. More importantly, perhaps, is the assemblage of Late Roman ceramics from the site and residual material dating primarily to the Roman period. The Late Roman fine ware is perhaps the most useful assemblage for scholars, although the site also produced a diverse array of Late Roman amphora and cooking pots. There’s a nice gaggle of lamps and lamp fragments from the site as well which should provide a window into lamp circulation in the western part of Cyprus (and will likely be more meaningful when we publish the illustrations).

Some of the point of publishing this is to run up a flag to show folks what we’ve been doing. It goes without saying that if you have interest or questions about work, please do reach out!

Here’s a link for the download!

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

Cypriot Churches of the 14th to 16th centuries

Scholars interested in the architectural history of post-Roman Cyprus have been enjoying the immense (and sometimes overwhelming) outpouring of scholarship in their field over the last 20 years. Much of this work has been both high quality in terms of argument, but also (and perhaps as importantly) high production quality with careful illustrations, vivid photographs, and sharp publication standards. It was particularly fun then to have an opportunity to read Thomas Kaffenberger’s recent contribution to this growing body of scholarship. As you’ll likely guess, this was for a review, and below is a draft:

Thomas Kaffenberger’s Tradition and Identity: The Architecture of Greek Churches in Cyprus (14th to 16th century) is a significant contribution to the architectural history of Cyprus. The book consists of two, impressively produced volumes: the first comprises analysis and the second, larger volume, a catalogue of 261 standing and 65 lost Greek churches from the 14th-16th century. The goal of the book was twofold. First, Kaffenberger sought to complicate the designation of the so-called Greek churches from the Late Medieval Cyprus from their historic designation as “francobyzantine.” Instead he sought to locate these buildings within a broader context of identity and exchange between the island’s various communities, religious traditions, and political investments. His second goal was to expand the scope of analysis to include the significant corpus of rural churches into conversation with better known urban churches especially in Famagusta. In general, the author is more successful with the first goal than the second, but this should not detract from the book as a highly significant contribution to the rapidly expanding body of work on Medieval Cypriot architecture.

The book, which is an updated and revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation (pdf copy here), follows a family patter. The opening chapter unpack the historiography associated with these buildings with particular critical attention on history of the concept of “francobyzantine” architecture on Cyprus. Long associated with the Greek or “indigenous” community on Cyprus who maintained a distinct religious identity in the aftermath of the Second Crusade, Georgios Soteriou introduced the concept to Cypriot architecture in the 1930s. The term assumed the existence of two discrete styles — the Byzantine and the Frankish — with their respective political, cultural, and religious baggage as a precondition for the emergence of a new hybrid style. This invariably led to judgements that the hybrid style was inherently less refined and sophisticated than the pure versions of Crusader or Byzantine architecture. When combined with the 19th century commentators tendency to privilege Frankish Gothic styles on the island, the perceived inferiority of the francobyzantine style reproduced the island’s colonial status both in the Frankish period and in 19th and 20th century.

Kaffenberger distances his analysis from these conventional paradigms which allows him to understand the Greek architecture of Late Medieval Cyprus on its own terms rather than as a hybrid of established style or local imitation. Chapters two, three, four and five trace development of Greek architecture on Cyprus from its Early Christian origins to the 16th century, while avoiding the conventional practice of attributing features to one or another tradition. The result is an intensive and exceptionally well-illustrated analysis of the architecture of Greek churches in Cyprus that architectural historians will find useful and familiar in style and vocabulary. The author focuses heavily on the most elaborate and partly preserved buildings in Famagusta with the 14th-century cathedral of St. George of the Greeks taking particular pride of place. The Greek community in Famagusta constructed this church in the middle years of the 14th century perhaps in response to the return of the Greek bishop to Famagusta after a century of exile on the Karpas Peninsula or to the recovery from the bubonic plague that wracked the Mediterranean in the same decades. Rather than standing as a awkward or tepid version of 13th-century Gothic style typical of the Latin cathedrals of St. Sophia in Nicosia or St. Nicholas in Famagusta, Kaffenberger emphasizes the shared stylistic commitments between it and the contemporary church of Saints Peter and Paul in the same city as well as a number of churches in smaller communities across the island. He continues this approach for churches in the 15th and 16th century and successfully demonstrates that Greek Cypriot church builders and patrons deliberately and presumably strategically combined traditional design elements and Renaissance period innovation in their buildings. The level of technical detail in these chapters is daunting for a non-specialist, but impressive.

Chapter six and seven provide a synthetic analysis which seeks to illuminate the forest from the trees. For his masterful grasp of stylistic matters in chapters two through five, Kaffenberger’s command over the conceptual framework necessary to discuss the complex matters of ethnic, political, and religious identity, tradition, and reception and cultural production feels less secure. The absence of textual sources for the centuries under consideration clearly contributes to Kaffenberger’s tentative conclusions. As a result, his arguments for the genealogy of Medieval Greek church architecture on Cyprus stop short of offering the new ways to understand the broader influence of Frankish and Venetian rule on the Greek communities on Cyprus. Even in cases where it would seem obvious that the patrons and builders of Greek churches sought to evoke ties to the Early Christian or Byzantine past, the authors remains hesitant to recognize these as deliberate efforts ground their authority in a period before the Crusader conquest, for example. That said, Kaffenberger’s sensitive study of architectural relationship between St. George of the Greeks in Famagusta and the adjoining and earlier church of St. Epifanios weaves together insightful analysis of architecture with arguments for the role of building as a site for the veneration of relics whether of Epifanios or some other unknown saint.

In the end, the enduring value of this book will not come from its final two chapters, but from the stylistic analysis and the extensive catalogue that makes up the second volume. The catalogue runs to over 500 pages and includes geographic coordinates, descriptions, chronological information, bibliography, discussion, in some cases, plans, and, often stunning, color photographs of each church and any distinctive features. The quality of the catalogue and the amount of research invested in its production at times significantly exceeds its relevance to Kaffenberger’s arguments despite his efforts to bring rural churches into the larger conversation. That said, the presence of the catalogue will invariably entice other scholars to take these buildings more seriously and to think more seriously about how architecture reflected and shaped identity in late Medieval Cyprus.

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 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!

Polis Views

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had my head in the storerooms and museum looking at objects and thinking about space more through the two-dimensional lens of the notebooks and plans and less in three-dimensional terms of a live environment.

So here are some landscape photos that situate Polis in a bit broader context. 

This is Chrysochous Bay facing north.

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The site of E.F2. where the South Basilica stands.

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Here’s a view from the north side of the city toward the Chrysochous Bay.

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And finally, here’s a statue of Regina who was apparently a legendary queen of Cyprus (or whatever). She stands on the quay at Latchi. 

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Polis Sights

I’ve been in Cyprus for a couple of weeks now and starting to feel a bit more at home again in the village of Polis.

So I’ve had a chance to get to know this character again:

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I also can’t help thinking that the municipal market in Polis is a bit under utilized. It’s a wonderful and very modern, mid-century space. 

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It opens onto the touristic center of the old village which is distinctly not modern (even if it doesn’t quite feel traditional in a meaningful way).

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Finally, we do a good bit of archaeology here, but it mostly involves spending quality time with sherd.





We also have continued to collect lovely sunsets.

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Three Things Wednesday: Study Season

This summer’s work at Polis in Cyprus has been a study season. This means that we spend our days in storerooms and at our laptops rather than in trenches or survey units.That said, over the past couple weeks, I got to thinking about our study season and the challenges and opportunities that come from traveling thousands of miles to stare at my laptop and sleep in an uncomfortable bed.

This will be the topic of my non-alliterative three things Wednesday:

Thing the First

Colloquially, archaeologists celebrate study seasons as somehow less intense and rigorous than field work, and this is certainly true on a physical level. I love that I’m not physically exhausted at the end of the day, but for some reason I still find that by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I’m beat.

I’m finding that I’m exerting a huge amount of mental energy on analyzing the results of past field work and putting together our study of finds, notebooks, and various plans. Much of the basic analysis occurred in 2016-2019 and the plan for 2020 was to simple review and finalize it. Over the past two years, we also decided to take work that was destined for a relatively concise (10,000-15,000 word article) and expand it into 30,000 book section. As part of that process, we’re unpacking the reasoning behind small decisions which form the foundations for our arguments. This also prompted us to question our reasoning and review evidence at a highly granular level. In practice this involved reviewing every stratigraphic relationship, checking key artifact identifications and chronologies, and reconsidering the processes that created the site as it was excavated.

What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting this kind of work would be.

Thing the Second

The other challenge that I’m facing this summer is that I went from juggling any number of projects: from teaching, to editing North Dakota Quarterly, doing college and community service, and fussing with various research projects. This kind of diffused attention allowed me to avoid some of the stress associated with burn out. When I got tired of doing one thing, I could switch my attention and do something else. It’s one of the great luxuries of academic life: we have multiple irons in the fire that allow us a range of opportunities and challenges.

Here on study season, I am focused on one thing. I go from being a fox to a hedgehog. And, it turns out, that being a hedgehog is especially exhausting not only because it involves a constantly (and relentless) level of concentration, but also because there are far fewer opportunities for taking a productive break. Even my beloved blog has fallen a bit to the wayside in the face of the insistent need to finish up projects here at Polis.

It never occurred to me that the structure of academia tends to reward foxes, but providing them with plenty of opportunities to recharge in productive ways. Even taking a morning off to catch up on emails or to grade papers is a relief when the alternative is grading or editing. The range of tasks available on a day-to-day basis ensures that even if I work long hours, there is enough diversity to ensure that I don’t get burned out or stuck in a rut.

This is not the case during a study season. Even moment I spend on something that does not require me to be here in Cyprus is a dollar ill spent.

Thing the Third

The biggest challenge facing us this season is “showing our work” and making the arguments, inferences, and conclusions that we have reached as transparent as possible. This means not only being explicit about our interpretations, but also preparing our data for publication. There is a lot of detailed work necessary to produce legible data for publication. Even just connecting various file types to one another (e.g. notebook pages, stratigraphic descriptions, tables associated with the bulk analysis of context pottery, inventoried pottery tables, and so on) is challenging and tedious.

It also requires attention to detail and a certain amount of concentration. More than that, I feel fatigued by our efforts to wade into the kind of fussy morass that archaeological thinking often produces and to bring order to this without obscuring the rough edges.

And maybe it is this kind of work, which involves making critical leaps, tracing inference in the data structure, and, at times, suspending skepticism, that is the most challenging and exhausting during a study season.

Polis Murals

Years ago, an urbanist friend told me that murals were like tattoos: everyone thought they looked great when you first get one, but people tend to be less enthusiastic as time passes. 

That said, Polis has a group of new murals. This is consistent with trends across the the Mediterranean where the seemingly endless expanses of concrete walls invite a range of authorized and unauthorized interventions. The murals at Polis are of the former type and their painting was an attraction during the relatively new Polis fish festival.

That said, the murals in Polis continue to embrace political messages as well as elements of the city’s history and contemporary identity.

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Greek and Cypriot artists painted the murals.

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And they’re mostly signed.

Arsinoë rubs shoulders with Aphrodite and Pablo Picasso.

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And they certainly add a “splash of color” to the town.

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