Baptisteries

Over the Easter weekend, I worked a bit a long simmering project on the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. Since it seems likely that, initially, baptisms occurred primarily during the Easter vigil, it felt appropriate.

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The project includes a brief overview of the archaeological and architectural evidence and then a short catalogue of known buildings. At present, we don’t have much to say that would be unfamiliar to folks who have spent some time on these building. At the same time, there are few things that I hadn’t noticed before. My dissertation did not deal with baptisteries specifically as part of my study of Early Christian churches more generally, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, some of the most interesting buildings come from the Dodecanese which were both outside my dissertation’s specific purview and outside the Diocese of Illyricum Orientale. As part of the Diocese of Asia and the Prefecture of the East (at least until the early 6th century), it also seems likely to have enjoyed different liturgical traditions than regions in the Western facing Diocese of Illyricum Orientale.

Here are my random thoughts:

1. Baptisteries of Kos and Rhodes. There are at least eight known Early Christian baptisteries on Kos. This is an impressive total even for this relatively large island. It’s a bit hard to understand why a single place would require so many baptisteries if they all functioned more or less simultaneously and if the tradition was for the bishop to conduct baptisms only once per year. It may be, of course, that multiple bishops—representing multiple variants of Christianity—functioned on the island. It is also possible that not all the churches and baptisteries functioned simultaneously. Rhodes likewise has seven baptisteries which once again suggests either diverse communities or a rite administered by someone other than the bishop.

Considering that both of these islands are near the edge of an ecclesiastical diocese, this would bring them in contact with rites and practices common to both the Aegean (and the West) and the diverse Christianities present in Asia Minor.   

2. Locating the Baptistery. Athanassios Mailis observed in his short article on the baptisteries on Crete that baptisteries in the Dodecanese tended to appear more frequently on the eastern side of the churches. In mainland Greece, however, baptisteries tended to appear as annexes attached to the narthex or atrium. If I had understood this more clearly when I was writing my dissertation, I might have been able to connect this location of the baptisteries themselves to the movement of catechumens during the baptismal rite (or even during the weekly liturgy). If we assume that the narthex and atrium served as buffers between the “profane” space of the outside world and the sacred space of the church’s processional axis as well as staging areas for the various liturgical processions, then the presence of baptisteries adjacent to these liminal zones would reflect the liminal status of participants in the baptismal rites. More over, it might allow for a post-baptismal procession from the baptistery into the church.

The location the baptistery in the eastern part of the church associates the baptistery spatially with the bema and suggests a rite that may do less to emphasize the liminal status of the participants and more to emphasize the liturgical or even sacramental character of baptism and the baptismal font. While it’s hard to necessarily make any particular claims on the basis of the location of the baptistery, it is suggestive that the two regions understood the place of the rite in different ways both ritually and, perhaps, practically.

3. Multiple Fonts. I had always found the two fonts present at the Lechaion baptistery outside of Corinth pretty interesting. It was impossible to know whether the second, smaller font, represented a change in ritual or perhaps a supplement to the more monumental font in the center of the baptistery proper. 

I was struck when I came to realize that on Kos a number of churches have a similar arrangement with a smaller secondary font associated with the larger main font. This suggests to me change in liturgical ritual, perhaps associated with the development of infant baptism. By this logic, the larger central fonts likely reflected the requirements of adult baptism (and the functioning of an adult catechumenate). This, to me, indicates ongoing conversion of adults into the 6th century which is the latest possible date for many of these buildings and the emergence of infant baptism (which would represent second generation Christians) only sometime after this. We can allow, of course, for a certain amount of architectural conservatism in the design of baptisteries, but I still think that appearance of smaller secondary fonts is worthy of note.

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It’s been a pleasure to return to material and ideas that I explored over 20 years ago as I was working on my dissertation. The time away has ensured that the buildings, rituals, places, and arguments are a bit more fresh to me but still oddly familiar. I’m excited to share more about this small project in the coming weeks of Eastertide!     

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Writing, and Hope

Next week is spring break and this means that the semester has only six weeks or so left. It also means that spring deadlines are barreling at me with alarming speed. This is both invigorating and challenging, of course, but I suppose the on-rush of deadlines, overlapping obligations, and complicated priorities is part of what makes academic life is so intoxicating to so many people.

This week’s Three Thing Thursday will focus on spring time and spring semester hope.

Thing the First

I’ve made no secret of my attitude toward hybrid and hyflex teaching this semester. I’ve come to dislike the grid of black boxes that constitute most of my Zoom meetings with students and dividing my attention between faceless and largely unresponsive students on Zoom and face-full and rather more responsive students in the classroom. 

That being said, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the work done by students in my History 101 class. As the number suggests, this class is an introductory level history class with a range of students from freshmen to graduating seniors. They mostly work in groups and do weekly assignments that involve both short form writing (500-1000 word essays) and both the synthesis of secondary source material and the analysis of primary source material.

Because of room capacity restrictions, I meet with each group for only about 40 minutes per week, and during this time, I lay out in detail the weekly work and give detailed feedback on previous assignments. The groups have time to ask questions, get comments clarified, and indulge their curiosity about the weekly subjects. As one might expect, the students are not particularly eager to engage with me during the class sessions, but the work that they’re producing in their groups is among the best that I’ve every encountered in my five or so years of running a class on this basic model. 

In other words, despite the hybrid Zoom situation, despite COVID, and despite all the other challenges of this strange academic year, my students are generally outperforming my classes during more typical semesters. I don’t think this is because I’m doing better as an instructor. I think it’s because the students have started to not only adapt, but also figured out how thrive in this strange learning environment.

Thing the Second 

I’m having fun writing this semester. While I don’t have a tremendous amount of time to commit to sustained writing projects, I’m finding little windows to write and savoring those moments. Right now, I’m trying to finish up the conclusion of my book project. This is a strange thing to write as I don’t want to be so arrogant to suggest that my book resolves in some kind of structured way. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that any kind of resolution offed in the conclusion somehow reflects reality. In other words, I don’t want to ever imply that my book could represent a plausible or totalizing reflection of the world. So, I’m trying to wrap up what I’ve said in my various chapters and then open the book up again to the complexities of the real world. This has turned out to be a challenge!

I’m also starting to work with David Pettegrew on a short piece about the Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. It’s wonderful to dip my toes back into the world of Early Christian archaeology and architecture and familiarize myself with some recent work and some older works that I haven’t looked at since the early 21st century! I’m enjoying thinking about the archaeology and architecture of these buildings with eyes refined by 15 years of more detailed study Early Christian buildings and their contexts. 

Finally, I have lots of bits and bobs projects to finish that involve filling in a little gap here and editing a little thing there. I really have come to enjoy these opportunities to think more carefully about my writing in a narrowly defined context. For so long I’ve struggled to put words on the page in a consistent way and worked to find ways to get over my writers’ block. Now, I feel like I can start to build some habits that allow me to not only write, but even to write reflectively and reflexively.

Thing the Third   

I can’t help feel a certain amount of hope the kind of year. Over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog I posted a couple poems from our forthcoming issue (88.1/2 for those keeping track at home!). The poems speak of the promise of spring (no matter how fragile and fleeting) as well the possibility for hope in a world full of potential. 

At the risk of being maudlin, do go and enjoy some poetry! 

Byzantine Landscapes

I read with great excitement Fotini Kondyli and Sarah Craft’s article in the most recent Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. It’s titled “The Making of a Byzantine Monastic Landscape: A Case Study from the Mazi Plain in Northwest Attica, Greece,” and in an honest-to-goodness article on the archaeology of Byzantine landscapes in Greece. This is exciting for any number of reasons, but because there are so few articles that take Byzantine landscapes seriously as a quick skim of the article’s bibliography shows.

More than that, this article building upon traditional concern of Byzantine archaeologists and starts with the well-known monastery of Hosios Meletios and builds upon what we understand about that site’s history and architecture. The authors then trace the possible contours of the productive and religious landscape centered on the monastery across the Mazi plan. For example, they notice the use of cloisonné masonry, marble, and distinctive local stones in the architecture of the paralavaria (subsidiary churches) that might have connected these buildings to the monastery at Hosios Meletios. It’s interesting that the local porous stone associated with Megara would have made the links between the monastery at that city not only material visible in these churches, but its rough texture might have made the connections literally tangible. 

More than that, the authors fold in information grounded in an understanding of local routes through the region and argue that the paralavaria stood at places positioned to attract pilgrims, take advantage of the local movement of agriculture, and potentially monitor movement through the Mazi plain. The analysis of ceramics in the vicinity of these buildings supplemented these broader topographic conclusions by bolstering the arguments, at least in some cases, that these building were Byzantine in date. It would be interesting to understand a bit more about the distribution of glazed fine wares in the region and what their visible presence around a ruined church might say about its Byzantine and post-Byzantine function. Would Byzantine sherds be more likely to be visible around buildings abandoned in the Byzantine period  because churches that continued to attract attention tended to see the kinds of modification and surface cleaning that might erase or obscure the small number of Byzantine fine ware that might be expected at these sites?

This paper got me thinking—with more than a bit of regret!—how most of my regional level research has tended to be in areas oddly devoid of a clear Byzantine presence in the landscape. Our survey area in the Western Argolid, for example, does not include any known Byzantine churches (although a few of the churches are almost certainly Ottoman in date). The Isthmus of Corinth is likewise devoid of obvious Byzantine monuments, although Ancient Corinth stood as an important Byzantine center, and it is impossible for me to believe that the Hexamilion fortress lacked a church. The only area where there was a clear Byzantine signature on the landscape was the southeastern Corinthia where the Panayia at Steiri (perhaps 10th century?) stands between the village of Korphos and Sophiko amid a network of other Middle Byzantine and possibly late Byzantine and post-Byzantine monuments. That I never thought more carefully about the interaction of these churches in this once bustling corner of the Peloponnesus, is something that will continue to bother me.

Maybe sometime in the future when the COVIDs have settled and I have a bit more bandwidth, I can head back to the Corinthia (maybe with the authors of the article!) and think big picture about that landscape again. In the meantime, (always be closing, right?), do check out what David Pettegrew and I wrote about the settlement of Lakka Skoutara down the (dirt) road from the church at Steiri and the lovely Middle Byzantine monastic churches around Sophiko

More on Early Christian Baptisteries from Greece

A couple of weeks ago, I started to write some of a short introduction to the baptisteries of Greece that I’m working on with David Pettegew. I’m assuming writing about the Early Christian architecture of Greece is a bit like riding a bike… That said, right now, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of random information mostly culled from recent publications. Below, I continue my rambling discussion on the topic that I hope will take shape over the next few weeks!

This will get tightened-up, re-ordered, and expanded over the next month, but I figured that Tsiknopempti was better than almost any time to think about Early Christianity in Greece. The first paragraph is the same as the one that I wrote in my previous post, but then I proceed to talk a bit about trends in the arrangement of baptisteries in Greece before summarizing a case study from a relatively recent article by Athanassios Mailis (which you can read here).

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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.

The baptisteries found within the modern boundaries of the nation of Greece produce a fairly inconsistent picture of their arrangement and basic form. We may partly attribute this to the opaque chronology of many of these structures, which we will discuss below. It is also worth noting that the modern nation of Greece includes falls mainly within the prefecture of Illyricum Orientalis which was under the jurisdiction of Rome until the 8th century but some of the Eastern Aegean islands were part of the prefecture of Asia which fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. While the liturgical influences of these two ecclesiastical spheres remain obscure in most cases, despite the efforts of Dimitrios Pallas (1979/1980) to associate the Constitutiones Apostolorum with the region, there appear to be traces of both Constantinopolitan and Adriatic influences on the ecclesiastical architecture as well as distinctly local trends. This suggests that the region likely saw a range of inter- and intra-regional liturgical influences and practices that may have shaped the architectural arrangement of the baptisteries and their change over time. Athanasios Mailis’s survey of the baptisteries in Greece noted for example that 50% of the baptisteries from churches in Illyricum Orieantalis (16 of 32) appear as annexes on the western part of the building. For churches in the Aegean islands, in contrast, baptisteries that stood as annexes on the western part of the church account for less than 25% of known examples (6 of 27). Mailis observed that same number of baptisteries arranged around the eastern part of the church represent examples located exclusively on the neighboring islands of Kos and Rhodes. This provides a compelling example of what was likely a regional tradition of architecture that perhaps reflected distinctive theological or liturgical understanding of baptismal practices.

The four known baptisteries with fonts located within the eastern part of church buildings on Crete, at either the north or south end of the aisles, likewise suggest regional practices (Mailis 2006). This rather unusual arrangement of baptisteries on Crete also demonstrates how complicated understanding the chronology, function, and influences of such structures can be. The baptisteries in churches at Panormos,
Vyzari, Archangel Michael Episkope, all have high stylobates which separate the nave from the aisles and this is characteristic of churches from the Aegean and mainland Greece. Mailis suggests that the tripartite organization of the eastern ends of these buildings and the appearance of apses at the eastern end of the nave and aisles at Vyzari suggests eastern liturgical influences perhaps associated with Constantinople or the churches of Cyprus or Asia Minor (Baldini 2013, 36). 

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 

Sneak Peek: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

It’s incredibly exciting to offer a sneak peek of the next book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

This book is exciting for many reasons. 

First, it’s due to appear later this month (and a soon to appear book is the most exciting kind of book I know!)

It is also the only book length volume that considers the phenomenon of deserted and abandoned villages in the Eastern Mediterranean from the Medieval to Modern periods. Anyone familiar with Eastern Mediterranean knows that abandoned settlements are ubiquitous in the countryside, but despite being so common, they’re rarely the same and have only sporadically received detailed attention.

Most significantly, however, is that the contributions in this book are a uniform high quality. These are not lightly revised conference papers, but full articles often with archaeological evidence, sustained, critical arguments, and polished figures, images, and maps. The volume was incisively peer reviewed by top scholars in the field and every article under went thorough revision.  

Finally, this volume grew out of a pair of panels organized by Deb Brown Stewart and Kostis Kourelis at the 2016 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America meetings and sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Group of the AIA. As folks familiar with The Digital Press know, Kostis was a co-editor of the very first volume published by the press, Punk Archaeology, and Deb Brown Stewart and Rebecca Seifried have been strong open access advocates and supporters of the press from its early days. In other words, this book embodies the community that scholar-led publishing can establish as well as its ability to produce high-quality, open-access books.

DV book cover

Here’s the abstract for the book: 

Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean is a collection of case studies examining the abandonment of rural settlements over the past millennium and a half, focusing on modern-day Greece with contributions from Turkey and the United States. Unlike other parts of the world, where deserted villages have benefited from decades of meticulous archaeological research, in the eastern Mediterranean better-known ancient sites have often overshadowed the nearby remains of more recently abandoned settlements. Yet as the papers in this volume show, the tide is finally turning toward a more engaged, multidisciplinary, and anthropologically informed archaeology of medieval and post-medieval rural landscapes.

The inspiration for this volume was a two-part colloquium organized for the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco. The sessions were sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group, a rag-tag team of archaeologists who set out in 2005 with the dual goals of promoting the study of later material cultural heritage and opening publication venues to the fruits of this research. The introduction to the volume reviews the state of the field and contextualizes the archaeological understanding of abandonment and post-abandonment as ongoing processes. The nine, peer reviewed chapters, which have been substantially revised and expanded since the colloquium, offer unparalleled glimpses into how this process has played out in different places and locations. In the first half, the studies focus on long-abandoned sites that have now entered the archaeological record. In the second half, the studies incorporate archival analysis and ethnographic interviews—alongside the archaeologists’ hyper-attention to material culture—to examine the processes of abandonment and post-abandonment in real time.

Edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart.

With contributions from Ioanna Antoniadou, Todd Brenningmeyer, William R. Caraher, Marica Cassis, Timothy E. Gregory, Miltiadis Katsaros, Kostis Kourelis, Anthony Lauricella, Dimitri Nakassis, David K. Pettegrew, Richard Rothaus, Guy D. R. Sanders, Isabel Sanders, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory, Olga Vassi, Bret Weber, and Miyon Yoo.

Rebecca M. Seifried is the Geospatial Information Librarian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Deborah E. Brown Stewart is Head of the Penn Museum Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

To get a preview of Deserted Villages, click here.

Three Things Thursday: Medieval Pottery, Weird Reviews, and a New Book

It’s the last Thursday of the semester and I feel like I’m at the point where I’m almost done, but there’s also so much left to do! This is exhausting and exhilarating in turn and also vaguely distracting as I try to balance between starting something new and wrapping up the odds and ends from the semester. New things always sound more fun, but there’s nothing more satisfying than checking something off my to-do list.

All this is to say that today is a three things Thursday:

Thing the First

If you have time this weekend, do read “Thebes at the Time of the Catalans: A Deposit between the Ismenion Hill and the Elektra Gate” by Fotini Kondyli and colleagues in the latest issue of Hesperia (89.4 (2020) for those of you with a score card!). It’s a fantastic study of 13th and 14th century (AD!) pottery for Thebes. 

Thebes is one of those places that folks interested in Medieval Greece think about more than we know about. It was clearly a major center in the Middle Byzantine and Frankish period and we understand its place in the political and to the economic history of the region (via the earlier Cadaster of Thebes, various Medieval towers, as well as other sources). At the same time, it seems like we knew a good bit less about the everyday material culture of the city especially when compared to Corinth or Athens.

Kondyli’s article is a good step toward rectifying this. Her study (with her colleagues) focused on a stratified deposit of pottery from a bothros that appears to represent daily life in the city. As such, the published material featured more than just the usually “fancy wares” (i.e. glazed fine table wares) and included a substantial selection of cooking pots and other household coarse wares (jugs, table amphora et c.). 

The meticulous typological study of the ceramics complements a more preliminary study of their fabrics based on petrography. This allowed the authors to begin to sort local wares produced around Thebes from imports from outside the region. Among the more interesting revelations is that despite the political tensions between Catalan Thebes and its Venetian rival on Euboea (Negroponte), goods continued to move between those regions as well as between Thebes and Athens which were both under Catalan control for most of the 14th century.

Needless to say, this kind of detailed and careful work has significant implications for our understanding of the Medieval economy of Greece more broadly. It has particular significance for intensive pedestrian survey where Medieval coarse ware often goes unrecognized even by experienced ceramicists. Consequently, absence of carefully dated Medieval coarse ware typologies has led to the Medieval landscape of Greece being comparatively under represented in survey analysis, and this has tended to support a view that post-Classical Greece, particularly during the Frankish period, endured a period of economic, political, and cultural decline. Efforts to revise this perception begin, in some ways, with our ability to recognize the material culture of this period and to document its distribution more carefully. This article is a start.

Thing the Second

There’s been quite a kerfuffle over a review that was posted yesterday in the BMCR. The BMCR is free site for academic reviews of books related to Classics, ancient history, and Mediterranean archaeology. Typically the reviews, at best, useful and, at worst, boring (with the very worst being almost unreadably dull). Occasionally, they publish reviews that are exceedingly critical, misunderstands or misrepresents a book, or, like this week, are very weird. 

As someone who appreciates weirdness for weirdness sake, I mostly find opportunities for even inoffensive weirdness a welcome distraction from the incredibly banal character of academic life and provocative weirdness — even when it gets it wrong — usually makes me smile. 

At the same time, I do understand and appreciate that there is a time and place for weirdness. Judging by the outcry on the interwebs, this review was maybe out of place or at the wrong time. The issue then becomes, what should BMCR or the scholarly community do about it?

Some have suggested that BMCR apologize to the authors of the book (which by all accounts is a very fine book) for allowing this review to appear. This has the benefit, I suppose, of protecting the author of the review — who provided that they reviewed the book in good faith — prepared the review, had it accepted and published, while also taking the blame for allowing such a review to appear.

It’s interesting to think about the social contract between book authors, publishers, journal editors, reviewers, and readers. It seems to me that book authors and publishers hope that their work to be reviewed fairly, but once it is released to the public, they lose any right to expect that. Readers and journal editors, however, have the right to expect that reviews were done in good faith. It seems to me that an authors hope for a book and the editors and readers expectations for a review need not align perfectly. For example, an unfair review that comes about because of a misunderstanding of the book may well be done in good faith and lead to fruitful discussion of the book and its merits. 

What rights, then, do reviewers have? For most of us, writing a book review is a service to the discipline. It is uncompensated and only rarely counts for anything at our home institutions. We hope that our review encourages academic discussion of the book under review and adds value to the venue where it is published. It would be a difficult pill to swallow if a good faith review appropriately vetted by the editors of a journal led to an apology by the journal to the author of the book. 

Thing the Third   

With any luck, I’ll start on book production today (or maybe tomorrow, but certainly by the weekend) on the first book that the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish in 2021. It’s a volumed edited by Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah Brown Stewart titled Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Stay tuned for more on this book over the next few weeks!!

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.

More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

My blogging plans for today involved another heroic swing at the slowly developing final chapter of my book manuscript. It has already developed to a series of nips and tucks and hardly anything worth blogging about. Maybe next Monday. Maybe.

Fortunately, I’ve also been working on a little essay about Christopher Witmore’s very recent book Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) for a forum type review in an archaeology journal. I posted about it a six months ago in a pair of blog posts here and here. Since then, I’ve re-read the book, thought a good bit more about it over the course of some long walks, and started to put together a rather flailing essay.

Here’s the first part of it (warts and all). I’ll post the second part tomorrow:

Christopher Witmore’s Old Lands: A Chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) is rather difficult book to review. It a personal journey through the landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus, and, as such, it is sui generis, at least in the field of contemporary Greek archaeology. Witmore’s periegesis through the Corinthia and the Argolid, which he calls a chorography, follows the well-trod routes established by Pausanias, early travelers, and 20th century excavators and survey archaeologist. He treats these landscapes, however, with a distinctive eye that follows the ancient and modern things that he encounters into tangles of conversations, secondary literature, archaeological reports, and ancient sources. In this regard, his book inverts the conventional narrative technique in archaeology that so often starts with the ancient testimonia, early travelers, and modern scholarship and presents these works as context necessary for things to have meaning. Witmore’s approach, in contrast, locates the authors within in the landscape, rather than behind dusty tomes of past scholars and returns objects to their place within our lived experiences. Needless to say, Old Lands is particularly welcome at a time when many of us have been unable to travel to the Mediterranean because of the ongoing pandemic.

Witmore’s narratives are earnest and devoid of irony. In fact, its earnestness evokes the image of the “heroic archaeologist” who reassembles the past from their personal encounters with sites, objects, and contexts. To be clear, this is not meant to imply that Witmore seeks to play the role as a savior of a particularly worthy past, the discipline, or the contemporary communities which described (e.g. Cleland 2001, 2; González-Ruibal 2009, xx). Instead, Witmore looks back to traditions in archaeology that started with the learned traveler and continued with the the individual archaeologist as the revealer of the past and the producer of knowledge. The epithets associated with an excavator’s notebook — Blegen’s notebook, for example — center the individual agent in knowledge making, often at the expense of workers and colleagues. Witmore puckishly recognizes as much by noting the “here unmentioned” retinue of Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (##). This is not to suggest that Witmore’s colleagues go unmentioned. Indeed, he is dutiful in naming his companions, but these individuals always play bit roles to Witmore’s enthusiastic inquisitiveness. They are nearly as marginal as his footnotes which nevertheless demonstrate a nearly encyclopedic understanding of the vast scholarship on the northeast Peloponnesus. They function to advance the story, and their presence never lingers or distracts.

Witmore’s presence in the landscape also shapes his encounter with the diverse chronology of the northeastern Peloponnesus. This approach to the landscape locates the past not as hidden, buried, or requiring extraction and but as contemporary with the archaeologist. The past is superficial and requires selection, assembling, and sampling rather than discovery. In this regard, he parallels Rodney Harrison’s proposed “archaeology-as-surface-survey” (Harrison 2011) and draws inspiration from Laurent Olivier’s The Dark Abyss of Time (2011). As with intensive survey practices, it is impossible for the archaeologist to identify every object, artifact, sherd, or plant. Instead, the survey archaeologist stresses the relationships between the objects to create a surface that produces archaeological knowledge “in and of the present.” Witmore and most survey archaeologists are familiar with the abrupt disjunctions that occur when we document a sherd of Final Neolithic pottery next to a Late Roman amphora fragment amid fragments of modern plastic. The ghostly figures that appear alongside the survey team in the first page of Given and Knapp’s volume on the Sydney Cyprus Survey (2003) and the brief first person digressions that situate the modern reader in the landscapes produced in Pettegrew’s The Isthmus of Corinth (2018, ##-##) anticipate the diachronic, contemporary landscapes of Witmore’s book, albeit in less developed ways. Like the surface assemblages studied by Given, Knapp, and Pettegrew, Witmore’s book does more to reveal what we could know about the landscape than what we do know. As such, it presents a future archaeology rather than one anchored in a recovered past.

It is, of course, easy enough to critique survey archaeology and books like this for what it has left out or remains hidden. There is a certain glee with which scholars discuss the excavations at Pyrgouthi tower in the Berbati Valley, for example, because standing Classical remains and Classical and Hellenistic sherds obscured a later, Late Roman phase that only became visible with excavation (Hjohlman et al. 2005; Sanders 2004, 165-166; Pettegrew 2010, 221-224). Similarly, it would be easy enough (and even vaguely gratifying) to critique Witmore for overlooking the Byzantine and Frankish periods in his perambulations. The twin poles of antiquity and the modern (and contemporary) create a landscape of light and shadow that makes the temporal discontinuities more abrupt and the ambiguities all the more salient. Witmore used this to good effect in his description of the First National Assembly of Greece which met in Hellenistic theater of Argos. This setting reinforced the view of the northern European Philhellenes that “the lot of contemporary Greeks was rarely illuminated outside the long shadows of Classical antiquity.” (##). A different narrative was possible. Prior to this meeting, the assembly had met in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin which stands a half a kilometer south of the theater. There they received a blessing from Orthodox clergy (Witmore, Rt 13). The walls of church which appears to date to the Middle Byzantine period contain numerous ancient blocks (Hadji-Minaglou 1980). Like the nearby church at Merbaka, the spolia grounded the church in antiquity (cf. Sanders 2015; Palalexandrou 2003) just as the church and the Hellenistic theater grounded the assembly in the Byzantine tradition of the Orthodox faith and the modern, archaeological Neohellenism. At the church of the Dormition, the ancient blocks themselves carry the weight of not only vaults from which the central doom springs, but also the connection to antiquity. In the place of the disjunctive friction between the ancient and modern worlds, this Byzantine monument offered a narrative where the Philhellenic shadows turn to grey.

Three Things Thursday: Fiction, Archaeology, and Reading

It’s a Thursday and just after the mid-point of the semester. Most years, the wheels start to come off about now, and I’m certainly feeling a greater sense of general urgency than I usually do. 

As a gesture to a rather frantic time, it feels right to do a little “Three Things Thursday” to clear the deck of wandering blog material that is bound to get caught up in the machinery of daily life and bring everything to a stop.

Thing The First

Last weekend, I read Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. It’s short and like so much “Late DeLillo” atmospheric. It describes a world when all digital technology simply stops working and five people are forced to encounter life in a fundamentally different way. 

For archaeologists interested in issues of ontology, the book is short enough to be a “must read.”  As the five individuals lose their digital tools (and the digital tools that make the contemporary world possible), they lose part of themselves. The loss of their digital prosthetics leave them with phantom memories that bubble up through their consciousness suggesting that the disruption of digital technology is not enough to entirely divest ourselves of the imprint of our digital tools.

The book also engages with time in interesting ways (and here it seems to pick up where Point Omega, his 2010 novel leaves off. In Point Omega time alternately slows down and speeds up as the characters encounter existence through various modalities including the vastness of the desert, a slowed-down version of the film Psycho, and the structure of a haiku (which apparently give the novel its structure). In The Silence, time appears to stutter, lurch, and double back on itself. One character begins to recite Einstein, the other the fractured commentary on the Super Bowl, while another attempts to understand how they arrived in New York after crossing the Atlantic on a flight when all technology stopped. The staccato stratigraphy presented through DeLillo’s dialogue will be immediately recognizable to the archaeologist who is asked to make sense of the sequence of events (which are so often non-linear) as well as the definition of each object.

Thing the Second

I also enjoyed Anton Bonnier and Martin Finné’s recent article in Antiquity, “Climate variability and landscape dynamics in the Late Hellenistic and Roman north-eastern Peloponnese.” As readers of this blog know, I’ve become increasingly interested in historical climate change and they way in which changes in climate shaped past societies and their archaeological remains. Bonnier and Finné’s article consider climate proxies from three caves in the Peloponnesus and attempt to correlate this data with evidence from intensive pedestrian surveys in the Argolid and the Corinthia. Needless to say this is a messy project, but the results are suggestive.

They propose that a shift is visible away from land on hill slopes during the Late Hellenistic and Roman periods. They then suggest that there exist the political and economic explanations for this: the shift away from diversified agricultural strategies associated with the “family farm” toward less diverse practices associated with the supplying of urban centers with grain. They add to this explanation the possibility that the Late Hellenistic and Roman period was also notably drier than the Classical and Hellenistic era. As a result, more marginal fields on hill slopes with thinner soils that were less likely to retain moisture, for example, were abandoned for better and more erosionally stable fields on the valley bottoms. They make clear that climate change was not the primary driver of this putative shift, but could have been a contributing factor.   

Thing The Third

I’ve been thinking a bit about how we read in the 21st century. In my introductory level World History class, I’ve asked the students to engage in non-linear reading of the class’s open access history textbook. Instead of moving chapter to chapter, region to region, I’ve suggested that student use the search function and read across certain themes, ideas, phenomena, and situations. Searching for topics such as “joy,” “love,” and “anger” connects Confucius’s quip on the joys of a contemplative life, the joy of Buddhist nirvana, and the joy of a Classical Greek religious festival. Love brings together Chinese and ancient Egyptian love poetry. Anger connects the fate of kings, the wrath of deities, and daily life in the Levant. For me, this kind of reading is exciting and disorienting, but for my students, it’s frustrating. Without the coherence and context of narrative (preferably supported by a strong sense of progress!), history becomes a cacophony of unrelated events.

I spend far more time working as an editor and publisher these days than I do as a conventional researcher and writer. As a result, I often find my day defined by oddly juxtaposed texts. Snippets of emails, poetry, typeset text, and academic prose jostle with each other more attention. On some days, it’s deeply fatiguing mostly because like my students, I want to encounter some kind of pattern. I want to find that rhythm of meaning that comes from sustained reading of a single or related texts. In its place, I find jostling voices and snippets of conversation overheard at a crowded bar. On my best days, this feels more real than a tidy narrative or a scholarly argument. The orderly style, tone, and forensic detachment feel inadequate to represent the chaotic realities of everyday life.