Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

On the Edge of a Roman Port

I have to admit that today’s blog post is a bit of a hot take on the very recently published volume: On the Edge of a Roman Port: Excavations at Koutsongila, Kenchreai, 2007-2014 edited by Elena Korka and Joe Rife. I’m not going to come out and say that this is the perfect holiday read, but runs to 1376 pages (about 400 pages longer than the new Cambridge Centenary Ulysses for some casual perspective). Like Ulysses, it’s probably best to realize that this is not a book that one can read in a single sitting.  

That said, it is an interesting and, at least for those of us invested in the Corinthia, an important book. It describes three major campaigns of excavation at the coastal site of Koutsongila on the littoral of the Eastern Corinthia. Koutsongila stands just to the north of the site of Kenchreai and features not only the northern and eastern extent of the Roman settlement but also a per-urban graveyard. The site primarily saw activity from the first century BC to the 7th century AD and then again during World War II when the Germans fortified the Koutsongila ridge with gun emplacements and trenches. The project directors embraced a diachronic approach that understood the importance of later activity at the site both in its own right, but also as contributing to site formation processes and how they understood the earlier material.  

It is also a significant book for those of us invested in thinking about the future of archaeological publishing. My hot take will introduce this work and offer some thoughts after spending four or so hours with it yesterday afternoon. In other words, this is not a review or even a definitive “take” on the book, but a series of excited observations inspired by my first few hours with this volume.

Here goes:

1. Lavish. This book is almost absurdly lavish. The cover is spectacular, graphics are sharp and abundant, and the pages are glossy. The design draws on the familiar format of the journal Hesperia which makes sense since this is a volume in their supplement series. 

The book runs to two volumes which together must weigh close to 10 lbs. As a result, this is very much an office, library, sturdy end-table book as opposed to “a work room in Greece” or “toss it in your carry on to use in the field” book. This is a bit of a shame since the detailed catalogue would be nice to use on the pottery bench.

Fortunately, the book will appear at some point in digital form via Jstor. 

More fortunately, much of the finds data is available via Open Context including this sexy little piece of Slavic Ware, which can then be located in its trench and locus (or excavation unit). Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out whether the also recorded deposit numbers (that is stratigraphic units) as part of their published dataset. It wouldn’t be very hard, though, to create a concordance of deposits to loci to allow a user to access all the material defined by a particular depositional context.

I do wonder whether the digital version of the book will include hyperlinks to the online data. This could be  massively helpful (or even something that a clever user retrofits at a later date).

2. This Is the End. Over the last year or so, I’ve been chatting with a bunch of folks about the future of archaeological publishing. Hecks, Jennie Ebeling and I even wrote a little “Op-Ed” about it in Near Eastern Archaeology. Generally speaking, we’ve been talking about whether it is worth planning volumes as the final or definitive publication of an archaeological project or whether we should start to think in terms of a wider range of interrelated outputs.

The Koutsongila volumes are traditional archaeological publications in their most refined and “late” form. Even the impeccable design and layout sensitivities of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens publication office, however, fell short of making this a genuinely user-friendly publication. The brilliantly reproduced illustrations, for example, often were hard to connect to the text or appeared several pages before they were discussed.

This is not a criticism of the layout!

This is just the reality of a visually rich publication attempting to accommodate equally robust textual interpretation and analysis. In fact, the ASCSA publication office even included key artifact illustrations (for example) in two places — once near the description of their context and once in the catalogue — so that the reader doesn’t have to flip back and forth between two volumes. This is thoughtful, but also must have been very demanding on the design team. Even with this kind of thoughtful detail, however, my effort to coordinate the illustrations with the text was not instinctive or natural. 

My point here is that the codex — even at its apogee — is not always well suited to reproduce in an intuitive way the complexities of archaeological information and the densely interwoven threads of archaeological knowledge making. This may be as far as our ability to adapt the codex form to intended task can take us. 

3. The Octagon. My hot take did go beyond my critique of the book’s form and consider its substance. The excavations at Koutsongila revealed a fairly lavish octagonal building dating to the 5th and 6th centuries that the excavators quite plausibly associated with some kind of Christian ritual activity at the site. Its connection with the surrounding cemetery and its octagonal shape make it plausible to assume that the building has connections to a local elite family or individual or even perhaps a local martyr cult. From what I could gather, the octagonal building does not have anything that they could plausibly associated with liturgical furnishings. So it seems unlikely to be a church. At the same time, its visibility and its contemporary date with the construction of a basilica on the south mole at Kenchreai suggests that it contributed to the Christianization of the town’s landscape and almost certainly reflected the growing prestige of town’s Christian community. It is interesting to note that the baptistery at Corinth’s western port of Lechaion is also octagonal in shape and plausibly associated with the martyr cult of St. Leonidas. Closer to Corinth, remote sensing near the still unexcavated so-called amphitheater church showed evidence for an octagonal anomaly that might be a baptistery. It seems that the Corinthians have a thing for octagons and the reproduction of this form at Lechaion, near Kenchreai, and perhaps at Corinth would have contributed to the experience of a Christian landscape.

4. Resilience. The excavators at Koutsongila do a great job demonstrating the resilience of the community over the 700 years of ancient activity at the site. By tracing the long life of structures at the site, the excavators demonstrate how the community adapted them constantly to changing needs and situations. 

Their ability to offer these kinds of observations and arguments emerges from the incredible care that the excavators took to document the material at the site. This includes analyzing of 220,000 objects (which must form an important dataset for making arguments about the kinds and proportions of material present at the site over time) and excavating with a keen eye for the human (and natural!) depositional processes  that shaped the site. As a result of this care, they have demonstrated how much it is possible to say about the long history of the site on the edge of a Roman port.

5. Koutsongila in Context. One of the great things about having such a thorough and thoughtful publication from a site in the Eastern Corinthia is that it raises the bar for everyone working in this region. More than that, it also presents a corpus of buildings, material, and developments that will invariably create a backdrop for analysis of, say, the analysis of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, the ongoing work of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia, and the ongoing work at the Corinth Excavations itself (not to mention ongoing field and publication work at Nemea, at the Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project, at the Lechaion Harbor and Settlement Land Project, and projects elsewhere in the region).

Even as my “hot take” cools to more tepid temperatures, On the Edge of a Roman Port: Excavations at Koutsongila, Kenchreai, 2007-2014 will continue to provide the kinds of fundamental data that will fuel  hypotheses ready to be tested, challenged, and confirmed with material, histories, and buildings across the region. I’m looking forward to digging into more of the book over the holidays!

More New Work on Early Christian Attica

At the end of the semester, I tend to experience a bit of priority creep as the number of “do right now” projects (grading, end of semester deadlines, and so on) begins to encroach on the “do sometime soon” or “wouldn’t it be cool to do?” projects. That kind of ontological ambiguity which is only heightened by the symbolic weight of the end of the year and gnawing fatigue that comes from the end of a semester causes bad decision making.

All this to say, I kept reading around some of the very recent work on Early Christian Attica. 

Three more things as a follow up to my post from yesterday.

First, I finished reading chapter 6 titled “Aspects of Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas” in Cilliers Breytenbach and Elli Tzavella new book, Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas, from Paul to Justinian (1st-6th cent. AD) published by Brill as the first volume in a series called Early Christianity in Greece (ECG).

It’s a really nice synthesis of the archaeology, textual, and epigraphic data with a view toward producing the kind of study that would support comparative analysis of Christianization both in Greece and the wider Eastern Mediterranean world. This kind of generalizable study is particular commendable for a city like Athens where archaeologists have tended to celebrate its uniqueness (especially in the Classical period) and the number and intensity of excavations and the city’s 19th and 20th century history creates a sample that calls into question how representative the city would be even for the later periods. That said, the sober analysis of Breytenbach and Tzavella drawn from cemeteries, epigraphy, architecture, and texts reveals a region that underwent gradual conversion to Christianity (perhaps punctuated by episodes of violence). 

The attention to cemeteries and associate inscriptions, on the one hand, allows the authors to probe social and economic organization of the Christian community on a granular level by noting the prevalence of family burials and the range of professions named in Christian epigraphy. They could contrast this with the story of monumental architecture which traced the consolidation of worship, certain aspects of the economy, and ecclesiastical authority around church buildings. Whether churches absorbed the function of civic and pre-Christian cults or developed a completely distinctive range of functions is left to the reader to decide.

Second, one particularly useful observation made in Breytenbach and Tzavella’s work is that the absence of monasticism in Greece has perhaps been overstated. Epigraphic evidence from Athens, Megara, and Argos suggest that monastic communities did exist in Greece despite the absence of architectural evidence for monasteries. To be honest, fourth fifth century monasticism appeared across a wide wide range of architectural forms from rural villas to urban palaces, massive purpose built monasteries, and scattered, ephemeral, and informal hermitages across the Eastern Mediterranean landscapes. The absence of explicit material traces for monasteries in Greece is no more surprising than the absence of evidence for house-churches or other spaces associated with an emerging Christianity that had not fully accommodated its institutionalize shape.  

Third, I very much enjoyed Georgios Deligiannakis’s “From Paganism to Christianity in Late Antique Athens: A Re-Evaluation” in Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben’s Athens II: Athens in Late Antiquity (2020). Deligiannakis turns his keen eye to the evidence of Christianization at Athens and in Greece and argues that despite the privileged position that Greece has enjoyed in the history of ancient religion, the evidence for the Christianization of Greece does not appear to be much different from the process as experience elsewhere in the Eastern Roman Empire.

He makes a few keen observations that I think benefit any archaeologist serious about Christianization in Greece. First, he observes that the absence of chronological control over the construction of Early Christian churches in Greece makes them a poor indicator of Christianization as a diachronic process. The excavation of a house church in Messenia which may have remained in use into the fifth century reveals that Christian communities may have continued to meet in a wide range of spaces even as monumental basilica-style churches sprouted across the landscape. 

He also argues that, if we accept Mango’s proposed fifth-century date for the conversion of the Parthenon into a church (rather than the more conventional seventh-century chronology), this changes significantly how we see the Christianization of Athens. Rather than assuming that the pagan cult practices tenaciously hung out against a Christian onslaught, it suggests a city that recognized its pagan past as part of its Christian present and rather than seeking to erase pre-Christian monuments sought to integrate them into the Christianized symbolic and ritual landscape. This finds parallels both in Greece (at Delphi and Olympia, for example, although these are not necessarily chronologically locked down) and at sites such as Aphrodisias in Anatolia which likewise saw a 5th century conversion of a temple.

That said, Deligiannakis points out that this doesn’t mean there were no episodes of violence between Christianity and paganism, but instead these appear sporadic and episodic. This not only proposed the kind of nuanced landscape that includes various individuals and groups with different levels of believe and commitments that manifests itself in different kinds of interactions. I was heartened to see that Deligiannakis took seriously my colleague Richard Rothaus’s work in the Corinthia (as well as Tim Gregory’s reading of the Christianization of Greece). 

There are a number of other interesting and useful pieces in the Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben volume including some that seek to survey recent developments (with particular attention to work done by Italian scholars) in the archaeology of Late Antique Athens. If this were to ever become a serious research concern for me, I am sure that I would eagerly devour these works. Even though that is unlikely at present, I will certainly consider the contributions in both of these volumes as I return to work in the Corinthia this spring.

New Work on Early Christian Attica

Every now and then I go back to reading something on Late Antique and Early Christian archaeology. It feels a bit like checking in with a favorite musician to see what they’re up to these days or watching the latest installment of a long running music franchise. You rarely expect something better or even different, but revisiting an old friend is always rewarding in its own right.

In that spirit, I’ve taken note of the recent buzz of activity in Early Christian and Late Antique Athens and Attica, and this weekend, I read parts of Cilliers Breytenbach and Elli Tzavella new book, Early Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas, from Paul to Justinian (1st-6th cent. AD) published by Brill as the first volume in a series called Early Christianity in Greece (ECG). I have on my “desk” a copy of Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler and Leonie von Alvensleben’s Athens II: Athens in Late Antiquity (2020) that I will likely dip into today.

The Breytenbach and Tzavella book is nice work and while I haven’t made my way through all of it, I did read and enjoy the first two chapters and chapter four which was dedicated to the archaeological evidence. I might dip into chapter five, on epigraphy, and chapter six which seems to offer a social reading of the archaeological and literary evidence for Christianity in Attica. In other words, this is not a review of the book, per se, but a kind of sounding designed to discern whether the book warrants further excavations.

In that spirit, here are some thoughts:

1. Thorough Synthesis. I’ve always found the archaeological evidence for Early Christianity in Athens a bit daunting. Some of this is because the prestige of Athens has produced a particular kind of archaeology who is less a Greek archaeologist and more an archaeologist of Ancient Athens. These individuals tend to celebrate encyclopedic knowledge of both published and unpublished sites in the city and often flaunt obscure knowledge as a mark of their seriousness as a scholar. All in all, it’s pretty annoying.

That said, the centuries of archaeological work in Athens has produced a massive bibliographic record which includes thousands reports, publications, and dissertations. Claiming that any work is exhaustive even on a single monument is a fool’s errand, but Breytenbach and Tzavella do produce what appears to me to be a thorough synthesis of the diverse range of sources available for studying Late Antique and Early Christian Athens and that alone is worth noting.

2. Context Matters. What this broad synthesis has allowed them to do is to situate both monumental Early Christian remains (namely churches) and Christian epigraphy (and burials) in a broader archaeological and physical landscape. As a result, buildings (and burials) which habits of study long isolated from their archaeological landscapes suddenly appear again as the centers of settlements and garrisons, along transportation routes through the region, and, sometimes, as isolated monuments standing sentry over abandoned pagan sanctuaries. 

The relationship between settlements, churches, burials, and movement in the landscape drew heavily on the tradition of intensive and extensive survey work in Attica. Aside from some of the work that I’ve done with David Pettegrew in the Corinthia (and maybe some of the work that Thansis Vionis has done in Boeotia), I can’t recall much scholarship that combines excavated Early Christian architecture, burials, and settlements with the results of survey in such a careful way. This feels like a watershed for how we think about Early Christian landscapes. I need to dig into Chapter Six: Aspects of Christianity in Athens, Attica, and Adjacent Areas 

3. Catalogues. No work by a German scholar is complete without a catalogue and the tradition of cataloguing basilicas, burials, and sites is a long-standing one both in Late Antique Greece and in Athens and Attica. 100+ pages of catalogue of basilicas and burials is a useful description and a clear upgrade over my catalogue of Greek churches (which included those in Attica) and Ioannis Varalis’s catalogue in Greek. It may well supersede Laskaris’s Monuments funéraires paléochrétiens (et byzantins) de la Grèce (2000) for Attica.

4. Periodizing the Early Christian World. In a very recent review of the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology that I edited with David Pettegrew and Tom Davis, J.-M. Spieser complained that our definition of the Early Christianity as “understood in the old, German, tradition of “christliche Archäologie” and not, as it is more usual by now, with a chronological meaning.” This is a fair enough criticism, I suppose, and I suspect he will find fault with this new Brill series and this volume on Athens and Attica. The volume’s scope from Paul to Justinian is both an unconventional chronological range (straddling both conventional understandings of Roman and Late Antique Greece) and an especially Germanic view of “Christian Greece” (i.e. Christian remains in Greece). 

I suppose if I were editing this volume, I might have extended the chronological range about a century later. This would be consistent with the recent trend to stretch Late Antiquity into 7th century (if not later) and to understand the disruptions of the later 6th and 7th century as part of longer term processes in the history of Late Roman Greece (as opposed to radical breaks or episodes of historical discontinuity). It would also be consistent with the ecclesiastical history of Greece during these centuries which remained under the jurisdiction of the Papacy (at least nominally) until the 8th century.  

5. Publishing the Early Christian Archaeology of Greece. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been invited to write up synthetic treatments of the Corinthia for various volumes dedicated to the Early Christian period in this region. It looks as though the ECG series will produce a volume edited by C. Zimmerman dedicated to Early Christianity in Corinth and the Peloponnese

I suspect most of these works represent efforts of publishers to cash in on the library market for synthetic studies and encyclopedic surveys of particular periods and places. Indeed, our Oxford Handbook project is another example of this same impulse among publishers. On the one hand, this is probably a good thing since the sale of these synthetic works likely subsidizes the ability of publishers to produce more specialized studies and monographs. On the other hand, I wonder how much scholarly energy is being drawn into projects like these that even when exemplary produce little new knowledge. The Breytenbach and Tzavella book is best case scenario because it produces a valuable new synthesis, but even then, an honest scholar will only recognize something new in about 20% of the book. In other words, 400 pages of this book is summary and catalogue.

Perachora

Anyone who has spent any time in the village of Ancient Corinth has noticed the Perachora peninsula. It is almost always visible across the Corinthian Gulf from the terrace on which the city of Corinth stands. Most famously, the peninsula is home to a Sanctuary of Hera situated around a tiny inlet near the western tip of the promontory. It’s as dramatic and beautiful as any site in Greece.

I have visited the site many times over the last 20 years and knew the tragic story of Humphrey Payne who excavated at the Heraion but died in his 30s before he could publish the results of his work (and whose life was memorialized by his wife Dilys Powell in her The Traveller’s Journey is Done (1943) and Affair of the Heart (1958) or his famous grave at Mycenae.)

More than that, I had wondered about the remains associated with the peninsula itself and the relationship between the sanctuary and local settlement which had been teased by Payne and various more recent scholars, but only sporadically documented and explored. It is therefore really exciting to read the results of the first season of the Perachora Peninsula Archaeological Project this past month in Mediterranean Archaeology 34/35 (2021/2022).  

Preliminary results of any archaeological work should usually be taken with a grain of salt and I’m not sure that the work of the PPAP team revealed anything profoundly unexpected from their work, but it was nevertheless interesting to see them start to unpack the complex multi period activity present on the peninsula. They were transparent about their method and used 2-meter wide swaths in 5 m spacing in survey units of 625 square meters, which produced a high resolution window. Low visibility, however, ensured that that total surface sampled was less than 40% per unit. In these conditions, closer walker spacing makes good sense as a strategy to compensate for the poor surface visibility. It appears, however, that they used more intensive collection methods — 6 m diameter total collection circles — in units with HIGH artifact density rather than in units with low visibility or lower than expected artifact densities. This is a bit counter intuitive considering that they recognized that low visibility units produced densities that could be as high as those in higher visibility units. One would assume that higher intensity artifact collection strategies would serve to compensate for variations in visibility, but this may not have been how they saw things.

It was also interesting to see that this project worked integrated both legacy data — largely based on previous work in the region — and did structure-from-motion photographs which they have made publicly available under open licenses (CC-BY-NC). You can check them out here. I’ll be curious to see what they do with these models, in part, because they’ve teased an article that compares their use of digitally produced models to those drawn by hand (cf. note 42). 

Finally, it is revealing (but perhaps not entirely unexpected) to see that there is a substantial Roman signature at the site and I’ll be interested to see whether this assemblage is tends to be Later Roman (and the presence of a not insignificant number of units with Medieval material in them is suggestive of that). The location and conditions of the Perachora Peninsula suggest the kinds of places where Late Romans hung out: the terrain is difficult and the land (I’m guessing) was marginal, it had access to the sea, it was a bit off the beaten track, but not totally isolated, and finally had the capacity to be fortified. Without retreating to the idea of “refuges” or the like (see what I did there?), there is reason to expect, if I were a hypothesizing man, that we’d find the very late antique material here dating to the 7th and 8th centuries. 

I eagerly await more substantial publications and the ongoing results of their field work at this fascinating site!

Two Things Tuesday: Two Hesperia Articles

This past week Hesperia 91.3 appeared. For those of you just here for the music, Hesperia is a publication of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. I generally get excited for its regular arrival in my inbox in part because I have a long-standing interest in the archaeology of Greece and, in part, because it usually is incredibly well produced and edited. In fact, it is the embodiment of a craft approach to academic publishing and a testimony to the “in house” attention to detail from a dedicated publishing staff at the American School’s Princeton, NJ offices.

This issue featured two long articles on ceramics at Corinth: one by Kathleen Slane, long the doyenne of Corinthian Roman ceramics and one by Florence Liard, Guy Sanders, Ayed Ben Amara, and Noemi Mueller. In the interest of full disclosure, I know Guy Sanders and respect his work. I have also tended to respect the work of Kathleen Slane (and have been reading through her recent volume with John Hayes on pottery from the University of Chicago excavations at Isthmia). I’m also friends with Sarah James who I have known for virtually my entire professional life and under whose occasional guidance and support (especially on the Western Argolid Regional Project), I’ve had many significant opportunities. Part of why I get excited to read Hesperia is that I not only read about material and contexts that interest me, but I know many of the authors and this issue is no different.

What made this issue particular interesting in the character of the two long articles. The Liard et al. article is a great example of how careful and minute analysis of artifacts can open new ways to understand the economic, political, and social life of Late Medieval Greece. In particular, their article combines careful study of Medieval pottery with a thoughtful conclusion that demonstrates how a “multimethod” analysis of the lead-glazed material from Corinth reveals the economic connections between Italy and Greece and the Corinthia and other regions during a time of particularly pervasive political and social disruptions. In other words, they show that the pottery present at Corinth reflects connections between the city and Florence and Venice as well as production centers in Venetian controlled Euboea. The careful attention to the detailed analysis that support these conclusions is almost a study in microhistory (in fact, I think I’m going to assign this article in my Greek History class next time I teach it as a case study for how complicated it can be to understand Medieval and Frankish Greece). 

Kathleen Slane’s article is longer and equally detailed. Much of it appears to be a response to an article published in 2019 by Sarah James that makes an effort to re-date the South Stoa at Corinth and argues for continuity between the “Greek” period at Corinth and its Roman successor without the catastrophic dislocation caused by the Mummian sack of the city. The sack of Corinth by Lucius Mummius Achaicus in 146 BC has long represented one of the most clearly delineated disasters in the archaeological record. As with many such disasters, recent research has suggested that reality is more complicated than the historical sources would have us believe and the idea that Mummius destroyed the city of Corinth and forced its inhabitants to abandon the site is undergoing a reconsideration. James’s work has been at the forefront of this reconsideration and while I don’t know enough about Hellenistic and Roman pottery (or Corinth) to speak directly to her arguments, their basic trajectory feels more than plausible (and consistent with recent trends concerning any number of other bright historical lines in the archaeological record).

It would appear that Kathleen Slane was not convinced. And after 100 pages of dense analysis, I find myself less interested in the subject than I expected and no less skeptical of the Mummian destruction and abandonment of the city. As I noted already, I’m biased both personally and professionally.

What is more interesting to me though is that Slane’s 100 page article fails entirely to situate her arguments in any larger context. Perhaps she was asked to cut the parts of the paper that reminded the reader why the South Stoa was an important (or even interesting) building. Or why the reoccupation of Corinth after the Mummian Sack is a significant topic for scholarly critique or worthy of 100 pages of analysis. Even a casual observer like myself can understand the significance of a well-excavated site like Corinth in discussions of abandonment and destruction (and the resulting formation processes) in antiquity. Moreover, the South Stoa is an imposing set of foundations at the site of Corinth and while I’m not an avid Stoa-ologist, I can imagine that it is meaningful in the history of architecture or Hellenistic urbanism. Surely, in 100 pages it would be useful to remind the reader of these larger issues even if it is just as an inducement to wade through the densely argued (and sparsely illustrated) text. As my advisor used to ask me in graduate school, does this pass the who cares? test.

In some ways, Slane’s article represents one of the most difficult elements in the archaeology of Greece: the tacit assumption that certain sites, buildings, and arguments are significant. To the casual visitor to the archaeology of Greece this can be quite baffling and even frustrating. To a more critical one, this reflects generations of scholarly inbreeding and the weight of sometimes problematic academic traditions which privilege certain periods and their material more than others. When I encounter it, I’m more disappointed and tired than anything. 

The Slane – James debate has some interesting implications for how we understand the history of the city of Corinth, the economic and social history of the Corinthia, and the formation processes associated with destruction, abandonment, and reoccupation. In many ways, the resolution of data from the Corinth Excavations offers a particularly vivid window into these matters and one worth considering in a more general way. The Laird et al. article left me hopeful that at the end of the day, the desire to produce new arguments, evidence, and hypotheses will win out over the desire to foreground critique. The Slane article reminds me that old traditions of academic thought do not change over night.

Three Things Thursday: Data, Books, Teaching

This semester feels very odd to me. Not only did I start the semester a bit more tired than I expected to be, but I also didn’t have a clear set of goals and deadline ahead of me. After I submitted my revised book manuscript at the end of August, my fall semester seemed oddly under scheduled. It’s taken me a while to recognize that this is probably a good thing and more of a feature than a bug at this point in my career. 

This sense of being under-committed this fall has given me the space to work on a number of other projects in a less frantic way than I have in the past and today’s Three Things Thursday is about that.

Thing the First

Earlier this week, I posted about my work with the Isthmia data and my effort to corral and clean up various datasets produced by the Isthmia excavations over the past 50 odd years. My primary goal has been to work on Roman and Post-Roman material from the excavation and to focus particularly on Byzantine and Roman pottery. Earlier in the week I finished recoding the inventoried Roman and the Byzantine pottery so that it can be integrated with the stratigraphic data and context material from the site.

Then I moved on the the lamps from the site, figuring that most of the lamps found in the Ohio State and Michigan State excavations at Isthmia were Roman and later. Fortunately, Birgitta Wohl has just published a volume analyzing the lamps from these excavations, but her substantial catalogue identifies the lamps according to the inventory number and the area where they were found, but not their stratigraphic context or even trench. This is annoying, but perhaps not too unusual. 

More vexing is that I don’t have a table that includes all the lamps in Wohl’s catalogue. Instead, I have a partial table that I excavated from an Access database whose creator and purpose is unknown and I’ve spent about four or five hours now transforming Birgitta’s catalogue into data. This, of course, is both absurd and a completely normal part of archaeology as early-20th century practices and late-20th century digital tools continue to find opportunities for incompatibility. 

Thing the Second

This summer, I spent a good bit of time fretting about the number of projects I had wending their way through The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. In particular, I was worried about a collaboration that I had hatched with our sister project, North Dakota Quarterly. This project involved the publication of a translation of Jurij Koch’s novella, The Cherry Tree, which would be the second book in our emerging NDQ supplement series.

Cherry Tree Cover FINAL

Our current plan is to release this title on October 11th. In fact, we don’t even have a landin page for the book yet, but the translator convinced us to accelerate the timeline so he could take some copies with him to Croatia next week. Because my fall is under scheduled, we were able to make this happen and while the book has not officially dropped yet, you can, if you know where to look, find a copy from a major online retailer

Thing the Third

Finally, I continue to think about whether being under scheduled is a privilege or something that university faculty should aspire to, and this has started to impact how I teach. In some ways, the current “syllabus as contract” driven environment creates an expectation that the schedule on the syllabus represents an accurate summary of student work during a semester. Because faculty (and students) recognize that under representing the quantity of material creates problems with student expectations, we tend to over represent the amount of material (or at least represent the maximum amount of material) that we hope to cover in a semester. This tends to compound a sense among students (and even among faculty) of being over extended or scheduled “to the max.” 

This doesn’t feel very healthy to me.

Isthmia Data

This past summer, I started a small pilot project at the first site where I ever worked: the Panhellenic Sanctuary at Isthmia in the Corinthia. The project brings together some colleagues from my work on Cyprus – including Scott Moore – with some colleagues from the Bakken days – Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis – and my friend David Pettegew, who is an old Corinthia hand. 

Our main interest for this pilot project is some kind of publication of the Slavic pottery from Isthmia. This is material that my advisor Tim Gregory has been studying before his health had started to decline and a class of pottery of significance to folks looking to understand the 7th and 8th century in Greece. As readers of this blog know, the “long late antiquity” is a particular interest of mine both on Cyprus and in the northeastern Peloponnesus. Gregory published a preliminary study of the assemblage of Slavic pottery from Isthmia many years ago and more recently, John Hayes and Kathleen Slane has published Slavic pottery associated with some parts of the sanctuary at Isthmia in a new Isthmia volume. Our work on the Slavic pottery from the rest of the sanctuary aims to both complement and expand this existing work.

First thing, however, is always first and right after the pottery comes the data. Isthmia is a project that has material dating to 1950s excavations and they have long worked to make this data available in digital form. The ARCS project at Michigan State now provides a fairly complete digital collection of digital artifacts associated with Isthmia and this includes inventory cards for inventoried finds and scanned notebooks. Over a few seasons, the most recent being 2022, we also worked to excavate various datasets located at Isthmia and to produce various reports that sought to describe and understand these datasets and how they served to describe the material at Isthmia. This fall, I started to work on recoding, when necessary, and connecting these datasets in ways that will allow us to place various classes of pottery in their archaeological context.

The main challenge here is extracting context data from the inventory cards which will allow us to connect various inventoried artifacts to particular archaeological contexts (ideally, but not always, stratigraphic contexts). This will also allow us to connect the inventoried pottery to the “context pottery” from Isthmia which the ceramicist generally assigned to a particular stratigraphic or, at very least, excavated context. This, in turn, will allow us to produce more robust and comprehensive assemblages of material.

Historically, research at Isthmia proceeded from the notebooks where inventoried finds appeared in relation to particular archaeological contexts. A reader of a notebook could see the inventoried coins, pottery, lamps, architectural material and so on associated with a level and cross reference these with inventory cards organized by year and inventory number. This approach made it unnecessary to record inventoried material on the basis of “lot,” “basket,” or “box” (which are just Isthmia terms for stratigraphic or excavation context) because it was assumed that someone starting with the notebook would know the context for the object.

Being a survey archaeologist and in artifact level analysis, this approach to understanding the Isthmia ceramic assemblage was insufficient. In other words, I needed to recode the inventoried pottery so that I could more easily link it to context pottery and build assemblages from the artifact up (rather from the notebook down, if that metaphor makes sense). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we will ignore the information contained the notebooks, but it allows us to work both from the artifact side to the notebooks and from the notebooks to the artifact side with greater ease.

First, it’ll allow us to identify similar classes of material across the entire site and then work back to their respective contexts. Ideally, we can then query the notebooks to determine the character of the contexts where the artifacts appears. This would allow us to determine, for example, whether the material came from use, sealed, or secondary contexts. These context could, in turn, be situated in stratigraphic relationships to other levels and situations across the site.   

It will also allow us to locate inventoried artifacts in particular trenches (and even potentially levels) on the GIS maps that Jon Frey, Isthmia Director, is preparing.

This kind of fussy data work will also allow us to develop an assemblage that we can, in turn, compare to assemblages from Corinth and, more importantly, from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) as well as other published assemblages of material from the northeastern Peloponnesus.

Finally, it moves us a step closer to being able to publish the Isthmia material and notebooks online in a more formal and stable way, which will allow more scholars to access and interpret this important site and its artifacts, architecture, and history.

Three Things Thursday: Early Christian Greece, Mineral Rites, and Jimmy Carter

I’m taking a real, honest to goodness vacation over the weekend. In fact, I’m going to vacation so hard that I’m not even taking a laptop! I reckon the last time that I vacationed without a laptop was in 2000 or 2001 when I was living in Athens.

To celebrate this unlikely situation, I’m going to offer a very short Three Things Thursday:

Thing the First

It’s pretty rare that I get genuinely excited about a new archaeological discovery and even less frequently that I get really excited about a discovery in the Late Antique Peloponnesus, but I was genuinely thrilled after reading Nikos Tsivikis’s recent article in the Journal of Epigraphical Studies 4 (2022), 175-197, titled “Christian inscriptions from a third and fourth-century house church at Messene (Peloponnese).” You can download it here.

This article provides some pretty solid evidence for a late-third century house church that continued in use into the fourth century. Tsiviki’s argument is grounded in both epigraphy and excavation evidence although the levels are primarily dated on the basis of numismatic evidence. The building is a modified urban villa in the city of Messenia and the inscriptions record the presence of a reader and then a bishop who provided a mosaic for the modified room.

Of course, textual evidence tells us that there were Christian communities in Greece from the first century AD, but archaeological evidence for pre-Constantinean Christianity in Greece has been pretty thin on the ground and comprised mostly of wishful thinking. In fact, there’s precious little indisputable material evidence for fourth century Christianity in Greece. This building will change that and provide the first archaeologically secure (at least to my knowledge) evidence for third (perhaps optimistically) or early fourth century (almost certainly) Christianity in southern Greece. This is exciting.

Thing the Second

I’ve been enjoying Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy (Baltimore 2019). I’m not finished the book, but I appreciate his efforts to trace the significance of the fossil economy from the oil fields to the hot yoga studio. His efforts to demonstrate the deep entanglement of fossil fuels and our modern world is perhaps not entirely unexpected, but Johnson offers very readable and highly “textured” (to use a word from the book’s blurb) descriptions of how fossil fuels shape our daily lives. Johnson weaves fossil fuels into the story of the Titanic, various efforts to understand the human equivalency of fossil fuel energy, and a brilliant comparative chapter that considers the difference between Lewis and Clark’s journey and our modern road system. I’m still working my way through his study of the reality TV series Coal and the modern novel.    

Years ago, my buddy and collaborator Bret Weber suggested that we write a paper or an essay that tracked a drop of oil from the well to the atmosphere. Because I’m kind of a jerk, I rolled my eyes and said something jerk-ish about that idea. Years later and after giving it more and more thought, I think it’s really brilliant. In fact, I think Johnson’s book provides an appealing model for how the life of that “drop” of oil could be traced through our system and how much “life” it provides.

Thing the Third

There are a couple cool things from North Dakota Quarterly this week. First, I’ve posted over on the NDQ a poem by David Starkey which will appear in a forthcoming collection from the author. It’s a pretty nice little poem that features a cigarette as a prop. As I say in my post, I like poems that feature things.

There’s also this blog post about the time that NDQ published some of Jimmy Carter’s poetry. For some reason the pages of this issue were scanned or processed out of order so you have to scroll back from the first page, but do check out Lane Chasek’s post here and follow his link to NDQ 60.1 where we feature four of Carter’s poems. Then scroll backward from the first poem to read the three others.

Three Things Thursday: Pollen, Climate, and Grass

Today will be a hectic day toward the end of a hectic week. As we enter the “frog days” of summer, I think I’m feeling the start of the fall semester looming. 

As a result, all I have this morning is a very short three things Thursday, but maybe there’s a bit of thematic unity that extends across my posts this week!

Thing the First

My long time collaborator and friend, Dimitri Nakassis, sent some of his WARP colleagues a link to “Mid-late Holocene vegetation history of the Argive Plain (Peloponnese, Greece) as inferred from a pollen record from ancient Lake Lerna” by Cristiano Vignola, Martina Hättestrand, Anton Bonnier, Martin Finné, Adam Izdebski, Christos Katrantsiotis, Katerina Kouli, Georgios C. Liakopoulos, Elin Norström, Maria Papadaki, Nichola A. Strandberg, Erika Weiberg, and Alessia Masi in PLOS One.

As the title suggests, this article reports on the analysis of pollen in cores taken from bed of the now-drained Lerna Lake. It’s pretty technical, but offers a very readable “Interpretation and Discussion” section which offers some perspectives that while not entirely unsurprising are nevertheless useful: 

“During the Early Byzantine period from ca. 1480 to 1120 BP (470–830 CE) the increasing percentage and influx values of Pinus and Quercus robur type evidence the expansion of both pinewoods and oakwoods in the Lerna pollen catchment area. The Olea curve displays a severe drop and PI significantly increases, together with Artemisia, Cichorieae and Plantago undiff…pollen and archaeological data point out a reduced human pressure in the uplands and a more local food production in the plain, where olive groves contracted and pasturelands expanded following the collapse of the Eastern Roman control on the Balkans.”  

Thing the Second

It’s pretty rare that I’ll link to a book published by Springer on this blog, but I’ll make an (open access) exception today. I’m very much looking forward to reading Perspectives on Public Policy in Societal-Environmental Crises: What the Future Needs from History edited by Adam Izdebski, John Haldon, and Piotr Filipkowski.

The book, as its title suggests, look directly toward the relationship between environmental policy and history. More importantly, this book uses quite a few examples from Greece and the Medieval period, and includes chapters relating to how we narrate and tell stories about environmental history. I’m looking forward to checking this out over the next few days.

Thing the Third

As promised, this is a short post today, and the final thing for this “three thing Thursday” is a link to an essay by Judith Fetterley called “In Praise of Grass” which appeared last year in NDQ.  

It’s a brilliant little reminder that our lawns are both living things and vibrant ecosystems even if they’re very much cultivated by humans.