Doing Late Antiquity

One of the funny things about expertise is that if you don’t practice being an expert on something, you begin not to be. Over the past few years, my interests have changed and my level of expertise has declined in general. I tend to see this as a good thing. My interest in the world is democratizing, but at times, I have nostalgia for the times when I knew enough to confidently critique a colleague’s argument or offer a nuanced understanding of a complicated problem.

Over the last few months, I’ve been quietly reading on Late Antiquity. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that I am becoming an expert again, but it’s been fun to visit the Late Antique world, to write about, and to think about it again.

I’m just about finished reading Georgios Deligiannakis, The Dodecanese and East Aegean islands in late Antiquity, AD 300-700 (2016) in part because I’m preparing for a conference this fall on island archaeology and Byzantium and partly because I’m working on an article on the Western Argolid in the 7th century. Deligiannakis book includes both a useful gazetteer and a synthetic analysis of Late Antiquity in the Dodecanese with special attention to Rhodes and Kos.

The book is filled with useful observations and I’ll mention just two. First, he notes that the proliferation of churches on Rhodes where there are around 80 Early Christian basilica likely reflects changing practices in euergetism in the Christian community. Citing the work of Rudolf Haensch and Peter Baumann as well as the modest epigraphic record from churches in the Dodecanese,  he argues that Christian theology motivated more modest donors to churches and this expanded the resources available to both Christian communities and the emerging ecclesiastical elite. This is compelling to me. In fact, I made a similar argument – very quietly and without any confidence – in my dissertation

Deligiannakis pays particular attention to the 7th century. This is not only useful because I’m working on a paper on the 7th century (and have been a bit obsessed with it), but also because Deligiannakis goes to some length to demonstrate the issues with using coins to date deposits in the 6th and 7th centuries. On Cyprus, the tendency to date buildings and deposits by coins – rather than ceramics – has served to align archaeological evidence too neatly with literary sources, particularly on the impact of the Arab raids. This overlooks complicated issues like the supply of coins and their survival rates. On a larger scale, this practice tends to drag the dates for ceramics and sites (and destruction layers) earlier than the ceramics alone might suggest and to cluster diverse and diffuse events into periods well-represented numismatically. Thus, the reigns of Heraclius and Constans II tend to be overrepresented in archaeological narratives. Some of the buildings, deposits, and destruction (and construction) levels dated to the reigns of these two emperor should probably be dated later.

Now, off to actually write about Late Antiquity. I might not be an expert any more, but I’ve certainly forgotten enough to find it fascinating. 


I read over the weekend Michael Given’s article titled “The materiality, monumentality and biography of copper slag on Cyprus” in the relatively recently publish festschrift for Anthony Snograss.  

Given explores the materiality of slag which is ubiquitous on Cyprus. Slag preserves in a tactile way the history of its production with the bubbles and rivulets on its surface reproducing the flow of molten metal from the furnace. The orderly deposition of slag near production sites created platforms for the superimposition of smelting kilns atop one another.  These form of slag and surfaces capture the work of producing copper from the rich ores of the Troodos mountains.

The article inspired me to think about two things.

First, slag is very common across the excavations at Polis-Chrysochous. This summer, in fact, we studied a layer of slag deposited below a floor surface and apparently used as a leveling fill. The presence of a slag heap dated by early archaeologists in the region to the Roman period likely served as a useful deposit of building material. The same slag may have also been used to pave the roads around our sites and accounts, in part, for the presence of slag in upper levels throughout the area. 

Second, I got to thinking a bit about how Given’s study of slag might inform of my thoughts about the production of refined oil in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota. Given’s emphasis on flow as physically manifest in the form of slag, has obvious parallels with the flow of oil not only from the depths of the Bakken and Three Forks formation, but also through pipes onto trucks and through pipelines to refineries. If flow is the quintessential metaphor for modern understandings of productivity and capital, oil is the physical manifestation of this metaphor. It not only produces so much of the wealth necessary for the expansion of the modern economy (and ideas of prosperity, democracy, and social equality), but it also represents the flow of populations, wealth, and capital.  

Defending the Edge of the Empire

On my flight home from Greece, I read Fotini Kondyli’s recent(-ish) article in the The Annual of the British School at Athens 112 (2017), titled “Lords at the End of the Empire: Negotiating Power in the Late Byzantine Frontiers (14th-15th Centuries).”  It’s a nice article that explores the complex relationship between semi-autonomous rulers of the Byzantine frontiers and the Emperor as well as the techniques these rulers used to ingratiate themselves to the local populations and to organize their dominions.

I’m still thinking about the archaeology of islands in the Byzantine period and how insularity shaped the history of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Kondyli’s carefully researched paper argues that the weakened centralized state and Emperor encouraged the promotion of autonomous border lords who were given territory, land, and tax incentives to defend the frontiers. What interested me, in particular, was how the geography of the frontier supported the autonomy of these border lords. Kondyli examines the topography and view sheds of the border lords’ towers and fortification, for example, that allowed them to monitor traffic through and around their domains. In cases like this, a balance emerged between the political insularity that reinforced autonomy, and the discontinuous character of late Byzantine grants of land and the connections, however symbolic and tenuous, with central Byzantine state, that required connectivity.

While this doesn’t map neatly onto the situation on Cyprus at the end of antiquity, various officials did leverage the island’s insularity to buoy their claims to autonomy, from the bishops who demanded the island’s autocephalous status in the East to Heraclius using the island as a basis for his coup in 610 and later as the launching point for his military expeditions in the Levant. The usual political arrangement on the island at the end of the 7th century (whatever the specifics of the so-called “condominium” arrangement between the Byzantine state and the Califate) reinforced the islands frontier status and the distinctiveness of the arrangement would have encouraged the local elite to respond in ways that negotiated between their precarious status at the edge of the empire and the historical ties to Byzantine authority. The negotiation between the island’s status as a frontier and long-standing political ties to the capital culminated, perhaps, in the Middle Byzantine period with the rise of Isaac Komnenos whose ham-fisted efforts to secure Cyprus as a base for his ambitions and appetites both failed and brought grief to the island.

Kondyli’s article does not consider Cyprus, but her general observation that frontier border lords encouraged a tension between the autonomy of their domains and their ties to the imperial center provides a lens through which to consider Cyprus in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period as both insular (literally and politically) and connected.   

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

I was invited to give a paper at a conference in March at the The Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies at Oxford titled “Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity.” My current plan is to present the results of some of our recent work at Polis Chrysochous which involves not only the careful unpacking of the material, architecture, and stratigraphy of the area E.F1, but also the first steps toward putting the excavation at Late Antique Arsinoe in the larger context of Late Antiquity on the island.

Here’s the first draft of my abstract.

(As an aside, it’s really hard to write an abstract during the summer when my attention is being drawn to the work right in front me!) 

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

In 1988 and 1989, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated a small, two-room structure in the village of Polis Chrysochous. These rooms are in area E.F1 according to the Princeton grid of the site and overlook the coastal plain that extends from the edge of the city of Arsinoe to the sea. They are unremarkable architecturally and their function remains unclear, but they did produce a robust assemblage of Late Roman ceramics that dates to the 7th century. This assemblage provides perspectives on the connections between Arsinoe and other regional centers both on Cyprus and elsewhere.

The E.F1 assemblage also informs our analysis of the recently published material from the South Basilica which stood nearby on the northern edge of the village amid a number of contemporary installations welcoming travelers from the coast. A comparison between the ceramics present in the two areas indicate a continued cosmopolitanism among the residents at Arsinoe in the 7th and 8th centuries. Moreover, the South Basilica and its environs underwent architectural changes that hint that the kind of dynamic Late Antique urbanism present throughout Cyprus occurred at Arsinoe as well. Far from representing the political, military, or economic disruptions characteristic of long-standing historical narratives on Cyprus, Arsinoe demonstrates a remarkable degree of continuity into the early 8th century.

Thus, while Paphos and Soloi have long dominated the narratives of Western Cyprus in Late Antiquity, recent work to publish over two decades of excavation at Polis alongside work on the Akamas peninsula, and extensive survey in the Chrysochou valley, offer new perspectives on long Late Antiquity on the western part of the island.

Joy Williams, Islands, and Time

While on Cyprus this summer, I re-read Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978). Most of the book is set on a mysterious island off, perhaps off the coast of Georgia (but it doesn’t really matter), where Pearl is drawn first by a mysterious man. When he dies a tragic death after they have a son together, she lives out her life on the island in an alcoholic haze. She is surrounded by children who are being raised by her husband’s brother and have largely free rein over the island. In the end, the children and Pearl’s son change and take over the island by reverting to their primordial states. The book is complex, dynamic, and worth reading.

It is also about an island. 

As I think about an island archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus, it’s hard not to think about island in the popular imagination. Jody Gordon’s recent contribution to an island archaeology of Cyprus in a special issue of Land cites Jules Verne’s description of the port at Alexandria as a fictional exemplar of the networked world of ports and islands in the Mediterranean. Williams’ island is the opposite of this. It’s isolated and connected to the mainland (and to the mundane world of reality) by a single boat and a dock almost completely devoid of cosmopolitan bustle.

The isolation of Williams’ island slows and distorts time. The children revert to a beastial, primordial past amid buildings chocked full of artifacts from the days of the island’s founding settler. To make this connection between time and place more clear, the book begins with Pearl drinking gin-and-tonics in a nondescript hotel bar which embodies the character of 20th century non-places as deeply as the island represents a place with its own time, past, and present. 

The leap from Williams’ fictional island to real islands is easy enough. Marshall Sahlins’ Islands of History offers a perspective on how island communities manipulate time and history to understand and construct their world. I don’t have any idea right now how to use these ideas to understand the island archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Re-reading Williams and thinking about my abstract, however, has made me consider that maybe the idea of historical contingency has less to do with a linear concept of archaeological or historical time that exists on island, on mainlands, in texts, and in material culture and more to do with the distinctive flow of time on Cyprus. In other words, maybe island archaeology has more to do with how time (and ultimately history) works on an island and less to do with how islands speak to history and time beyond their shores.  

From Cyprus to Greece (and an advertisement for myself)

Yesterday, I wrapped up the first of my of three little study seasons and traveled from Cyprus to Greece.

As a kind of poetic gesture, our long-gestating article on the South Basilica at Polis appeared yesterday in Hesperia 88 (2019). Here’s a link to it (and if you want an offprint and don’t get the Hesperia, drop me an email or a DM on the Twitter). 

The article offers an archaeological argument for the date of two phases of the South Basilica. The second phase will likely be of most interest to architectural historians for Early Byzantine Cyprus because it involves the conversion of the church from a wood roofed structure to a barrel vault. We also managed to phase, and date, the construction of the narthex and a portico that ran the length of the southern side of the basilica. Plus, there’s a massive “French drain” (and who doesn’t love Mr. French’s drains?) designed to help deal with the flow of water against the south wall of the church. 


The weakest part of the article is our discussion of the urban context for the basilica, and, in fact, this is a work in progress for our understanding of the site of Polis and the arrangement of Early Christian churches in the changing urban landscape of Late Antique Cyprus more generally. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll undoubtedly know that this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately

We’re also happy that this article involved links to our publication of data from Pyla-Koutsopetria in Open Context. This summer, we’ve started to work a bit on the “digital backbone” for Polis in Open Context (as well as preparing the data from our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla). This involves making our notebooks available as well as our analysis of the context pottery. The inventoried finds from Polis are already available on Open Context in draft form, but they will acquire addition significance only when linked to descriptions of the excavations and other material from the trenches. This is a big job for the area of E.F2 (in the Princeton Polis grid) which includes the South Basilica, but we hope to produce a model for organizing the E.F2 data using the smaller and more manageable area of E.F1 over the next few months.

Thinking about digital publication and curation of archaeological data is always good thing! For the next week, my old buddy David Pettegrew and I will be working with Jon Frey and Tim Gregory with some Isthmia Excavation data and trying to wrangle and think about how best to organize, disseminate, and curate their data. More on that over the next week or so…  

Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.

Western Cyprus

One of the downsides of looking at notebooks, pot sherds, and databases all day is that sometimes you forget to look around. Last week we cruised around the Chrysochou Valley a bit to check out some of villages that stand along its east side.

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From Pelethousa, we got a nice view of the Limni mines and Chrysochou Bay in the distance. We also visited the church at Chorteini.

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The church is likely Medieval (or even Byzantine) with its cross-in-square plan. The presence of a ruined aisle along its north side suggests that at some point it may have had a more basilican plan. Tiles building into the wall of the north aisle are almost certainly Late Roman or Early Byzantine in date which doesn’t do much for understanding the date of the church, but suggests that there likely was a Late Roman settlement in the area. Recent survey results, I think, confirm this. 

We also visited the Panayia Chryseleousa in the village of Lysos. This church is probably later than the church at Chorteni (with some very late additions).  My photo is overly dramatic, but the sun behind the dome seemed like a good idea at the time.

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The heraldic crests of various branches of the Lusignan family and the various Gothic touches give the church a distinctly Late Medieval Cypriot vibe.

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We have a ways to go before we understand the settlement history and landscape of the Chysochou Valley in the Roman, Late Roman, and post-Roman period. Moreover, the landscape is deceptively complex with the hill countryside east of Polis (ancient Arsinoe) is made of abrupt hills, rolling rises, and variations in landforms, resources, and access. Sorting this all out to understand the larger context for the city of Polis will be a challenge, but one with appealing views and intriguing vistas.

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

As I haiku-ed this morning on the Twitters, I am working on an abstract for a paper that I’ll give at the 2019 Dumbarton Oaks colloquium “The Insular World of Byzantium” in November.

Here’s the haiku:

Writing an abstract
During the summer season
evokes autumn cold

Here’s the abstract:

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

Over the past 20 years the work of historians and archaeologists has complicated the our understanding of the 6th to 8th century on the island of Cyprus. The tidy narratives of devastating invasions, earthquakes, condominium, and social dislocation have given way to more messy and nuanced understandings of these centuries. Some centers saw continued prosperity while other experience decline. Innovative architecture existed along side more modest forms of ceramics. Invasions created destruction and new economic relationships. The complexity of this era offers some insights into character of Cypriot insularity.

This paper is grounded in recent work at the sites of Polis (ancient Arsinoe), modern Polis, in western Cyprus and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern side of the island. Both sites produced a substantial assemblage of Late Roman to Early Byzantine pottery and a basilica style churches. Architecture and ceramics offer perspectives on how the Cypriot islandscape mediates distinctive economic relationships and forms of cultural and religious expression. The connection between these sites and other places on the island, across the region, and around the Mediterranean suggests the contours of an insular culture that is neither uniform nor consistent.

On the one hand, the difference in the character of assemblages and architecture across the island (and between Koutsopetria and Polis) makes defining a singular Late Roman or Early Byzantine Cypriot insular identity impossible. On the other hand, these difference reflect both historical trends that defined the island’s political and social landscape for centuries and distinct pressures of the 6th-8th century. In the case of Cyprus, an island archaeology informed as much by historical contingency as geography provides a context for a new understanding of the Early Byzantine era.

Some Fragments on Early Byzantine Islands

One of my tasks this summer is to think more seriously about islands, and being on Cyprus and reading some of the recent scholarly work on islands in Byzantium seems to have stimulated this some. Go figure.

(To be clear, I have to write an abstract for a conference on islands by May 30th. In other words, this isn’t just a casual musing.)

So far I have a few observations.

First, Cyprus is a large island. This means that variation across the sites on the island will obscure some of the island’s ability to articulate a distinctly insular identity. In other words, if sites at opposite ends of the island or if a inland site and a coastal site show too much variation, it is reasonable to ask whether they’re on the same island at all. Of course, there are administrative ways that unify Cyprus with the autocephalous status of the Cypriot church being near the top of that list. At the same time, there’s always a certain tension between the idea of Cyprus as a single island rather than as a series of connected cultural, economic, and perhaps even political islets is reasonable.

Second, islands in the Early Byzantine period inevitably require us to attempt to synthesize the patchy and complicated history of settlement change during these centuries. With several exceptions, areas in Cyprus that were urbanized in antiquity tend to remain so today making it difficult to unpack the process of urban change in the Early Byzantine period. Cyprus has enjoyed rather extensive research in its rural areas, but so far, this work has only offered fleeting glimpses of the process of rural change over the 6th to 9th centuries. For better or for worse, archaeologists will have to write settlement history at any scale through proxies and comparisons rather than on the basis of direct evidence. 

Third, the obscurity of rural change and the challenges of understanding urban change on Cyprus has much to do with our inconsistent understanding of the material culture of these centuries. In particular, our ceramic chronologies continue to require refining and the relationship between various classes of small finds – coins, lamps, pots, seals, et c. – has to continue to inform critically our understanding of architecture, settlement, and regional and island wide change.

Fourth, while the study of islands has always involved attention to the place of human society within the environment, recent attention to the environment in a Mediterranean context has brought a new sense of sophistication and historical context to changes in climate. For Cyprus, for example, historical variability in rainfall either on the island or in the larger region can have dramatic impacts on agricultural production and the place of the island within the regional economy. It’s not just agricultural productivity and shifts in climate, of course, but also understanding how various external influences refract through the distinctive environmental resources available to island communities.

All this points to the larger question that’s clogging my head as I think about Cyprus and insularity: how does thinking of Cyprus as an island produce new ways of understanding the Cypriot and Mediterranean past? What does insularity bring to the the interpretative table for Roman and Byzantine antiquity?