More on Chris Witmore’s Old Lands

I finished Christopher Witmore’s  Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020) this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I said last week, it was a great way to kick off my summer reading and a useful tonic for a summer without fieldwork.

This is the kind of book that will likely resist any kind of useful, formal review. It’s easy enough to note places where Witmore overlooked scholarship relevant to his larger arguments (e.g. Kostis Kourelis’s important 2007 Hesperia article, “Byzantium and the Avant-Garde” would have fit nicely into Witmore’s treatment of Corinth, for example, or Evi Karouzou’s 2014 monograph,  Les jardins de la Méditerranée: agriculture et société dans la Grèce du sud, 1860-1910, would have complemented and expanded his considerations of the agricultural history of the Corinthia and Argolid, or, finally, David Pettegrew’s observations on Kromna on the Isthmus of Corinth would have complicated Witmore’s analysis of that site). Likewise, it will also be convenient for a reviewer to observe that the routes Witmore took through the Northeast Peloponnesus overlooked certain areas like the Southeastern Corinthia, the Western Argolid, or the Inachos Valley. As a result, he overlooked the delicious abundance of souvlaki stands at the intersection of the old national road and old Peloponnesian narrow-gauge railway in the village of Myloi. There are, of course, little factual slips from time to time: the Athos canning plant near Nauplio (referred to in Route 18) is probably the former Kyknos canning plant.

None of this really matters, however, because the book is not meant to be an exhaustive history of the landscape of the Argolid and Corinthia. Instead, the book represents an unapologetically personal look at the region. This approach reflects Witmore’s commitment to the tradition of chorography which he offers as both a kind of critical commentary on the ancient writings of Strabo and Pausanias, the Ottoman period in the writings of Evlyia Celebi, the early modern works of Jacob Spon and George Wheler and the Expédition scientifique de Morée, and the modern period with the travels of Martin Leake, Edward Dodwell, and Gertrude Bell. Contemporary scholars, John Cherry, Alex Knodell, join Witmore from time to time as do various other Greeks, American students, and family members. At the center of the book, however, is Witmore and his interests, relationships, and restless feet guide carry the reader through the Greek countryside.

Chorography, if I understand it, challenges views of the landscape dominated by cartography, geography, and modern landscape archaeology which serves to create the homogeneous spaces of the modern map. If the lines and points of the modern scholar serves to measure and rectify space into some form of universally recognized pattern, the routes of the chorographer are embedded in the landscape itself and follow the contours of the land, the rhythm of the fields, and the often abrupt discontinuities between the present and a visible past. While archaeologists have often seen Witmore’s work elsewhere as overly (and maybe even oppressively?) theoretical, Old Lands serves as a critical and important corrective. Witmore’s goals are not to use the eastern Peloponnesus as at the basis for some kind of theoretical exegesis, but to offer this landscape as a kind of anti-theory (echoing, in some ways, the work of Peter Sloterdijk who appears frequently in his footnotes). For example, the landscape is not a text to be decoded or deconstructed. It is not a place to be unpacked, analyzed, compared, or abstracted. Instead, it’s a space to be experienced and encountered.  

At times (and as an avowedly selfish reader), I wondered how Witmore’s chorography relates to our modern and perhaps contemporary experience of tourism. His effort to defamiliarize a landscape well-known to archaeologists and scholars evokes the modern promise of the tourists gaze which seeks to bridge the gap between the everyday and the exotic. Witmore makes romantic a walk through an olive grove which represents one of the most banal and unremarkable experiences of time in the northeast Peloponnesus. Fishfarms, irrigation systems, terrace walls, dirt and paved roads, goat tracks, maquis, and even the annoying hillsides of Jerusalem sage take on a wondrous quality in Witmore’s work. But is this because these experiences are wondrous or because, in Witmore’s able hands, he is creating a wondrous experience for the reader in much the same way an able tour guide brings a landscape or encounter alive and something as banal as “Mexican Coke” becomes an invitation to an unfamiliar world. (This relates, of course, to my own work along similar lines here.)

Witmore’s work also nudged me to think a bit more about my idea of a “slow archaeology.” While most of my work has focused on “slow” as a challenge to our technologically mediated encounters with archaeological work, Witmore’s chorography with its attention to the details of experience and encounter feels like it occupies a similar space. The absence of any technology in Witmore’s work (other than the maps which he includes at the end) and the emphasis on the individual rather than the team of archaeologists, the procedures of data collection, and the methods of analysis, creates a view of archaeological practice that differs from the almost-automated routines of the intensive pedestrian surveys or of systematic excavation that so defined the archaeological landscapes of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

In this way, Old Lands offers a critique of contemporary archaeological practices, but doesn’t reject them. It also offers a new way to think about the field of Mediterranean archaeology. In recent years, Mediterranean archaeologists have pushed more archaeological practices that align more closely with our peers in “world archaeology.” This frequently involves more specialized training in scientific methods, the use of digital tools, and systematic approaches grounded in the literature of anthropological archaeology. Witmore doesn’t contest this, but by grounding his approach in chorography, he proposes an alternative that is no less grounded in the latest technologically mediated approach to the past, but is also explicitly aware of the experience of being in the landscape. 

Old Lands: Nostalgia, Archaeology, and a Summer without Fieldwork

This weekend, I started to read Chris Witmore’s Old Lands: a chorography of the Eastern Peloponnese (2020). Witmore is perhaps best known among archaeologists as a theory guy whose work on thingness, symmetrical archaeology, and agency has contributed to the larger “thing turn” or “material turn” in the field. 

This book certainly draws upon his formidably grasp of archaeological theory, but much of it is not explicitly theoretical. Instead, it offers a series of “segments” between points win the northeastern Peloponnesus that provide an opportunity for Witmore to dilate on various topics ranging from fish farming to tourism, antiquity, archaeology, history and agriculture. The thread connecting these largely self-contained segments, each of which gets its own bibliography is the heterogeneity of space and place. By following the things “on the ground” rather than the discursive pathways established by our disciplinary training and knowledge, Witmore offers a literary simulation of the typical archaeological encounter. This encounter, at least in my experience, almost always begins with the question: “what the hell is that?” And proceeds from there.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t offer more than a superficial reaction, and I’ll probably write a more formal review sometime next week when I’ve had more of a chance to digest it. I will offer three observations now, though:

First, this book couldn’t appear at a better time. Like many academic archaeologists, I’m still coming to grips with the idea that there will be no fieldwork or study this summer. While I have plenty of writing and reading to do and have no projects that required fieldwork this summer, it’ll still be strange to be at home rather than living out of a suitcase in Cyprus and Greece and attending to the needs of objects, landscapes, buildings, and places (as well as maps and databases). I do have some fieldwork in town here and a plan for some work in August in Idaho that might still happen, but even that seems unlikely right now.

More than that, I’m worried that without being in Greece and Cyprus and without spending time in the landscape, village, storerooms, and survey area, my reservoir of encounters will diminish. It’ll be harder for me to ask “what the hell is that?” and to follow these encounters in new directions and toward new hypotheses. 

As an aside, I had long wondered what this odd building was south of Kiveri near where the Western Argolid Regional Project was based in Myloi. Apparently it was a pumping station designed to tap a fresh water spring beneath the saltwater Argolidic Gulf. So there you go.

Second, I’ve been thinking a good bit about nostalgia lately. I’m partly blaming this on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), and partly on a new, small-scale research project into the history of the suburbs, and partly on being an old white male. When I was younger, I spent a good bit of each summer hiking around the landscape of the Eastern Corinthia, looking for and at sites, wondering about things, and talking with guys like Tim Gregory, David Pettegrew, and Dimitri Nakassis. More recently, I spent time walking the Western Argolid with Dimitri, Grace Erny, Machal Gardoz, Joey Frankel, Melanie Gadsey, and Alyssa Friedman. While in most cases, we were mapping survey units, it also afforded me the opportunity to become more familiar with the Inachos valley and surrounding landscape.   

Old Lands is set in the olive grooves, orange orchards, dirt roads, “not paths, but routes” hills, valleys, ravines, seaside towns, inland villages, and cities of the northeast Peloponnesus. This is where I’ve learned to be an archaeologist (and continue to learn from both my colleagues and the landscape). Feeling nostalgic for the long days in the field may be no more than just the idylls of a privileged white male, but thinking about those days and weeks walking in the countryside push me to recognize this privileged perspective and reflect on the tension between my own encounters, my memories, and these rugged and difficult landscapes.

Finally, so far, Witmore’s book has reminded me how much my understanding of the Greek countryside is anchored in place. In other words, so much of what I know about Greece is based on my encounters with buildings, landscapes, and relationships rather than predefined academic problems. Whatever one thinks of the theoretical perspectives offered through symmetrical archaeology (e.g. here), Witmore’s book does a good job (again, so far) connecting how archaeologists make knowledge to the landscape itself and then introducing the secondary literature. Witmore’s process of describing the situation with detail and nuance, however literary it is in presentation here, mimics the process of engaging the landscape and starting with the question “what the hell is that?”

As I said, this is my impression based on the first 350 or so pages. I’ll prepare a more careful review sometime in the next week or so.

Writing during The COVIDs: Lakka Skoutara

As the realities of staying at home during the “Time of the COVIDs” has sunk in, my writing routine is looking more and more like the fourth round of the infamous second Lennox Lewis – Oliver McCall fight. If you have no idea what that means, you can watch it here. It’s not violent, but it certainly ain’t pretty.

In an effort to resist just wandering around the ring in tears, I’ve tried to invest some time in revising things that had slipped to being overdue. 

Last week, I revised a paper that Amy Papalexandrou, Scott Moore, and I had submitted to a volume on Byzantine neighborhoods which is now headed out for peer review. 

This past week, for example, I took a few days to revise a paper that is due to Becky Seifried and Deborah Brown for a volume on abandoned settlements. David Pettegrew and I decided that it was a great place for our long-standing project on the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia. 

Here’s the abstract.

Life in Abandonment: The Village of Lakka Skoutara, Corinthia

Between 2001 and 2018 a team from the Eastern Korinthian Archaeological Survey investigated a small, semi-abandoned settlement in a remote upland valley of the southeast Corinthia. Known locally by the toponym Lakka Skoutara, the settlement consists of a church, six standing buildings, a dozen abandoned and collapsing houses, dense ceramic assemblages, groves and fields, and agricultural and domestic features dating to the 19th and 20th centuries. Teams documented the valley through intensive pedestrian survey, interviews with local informants, and a thorough recording of the houses and their assemblages. Our documentation highlighted the complex material signature of dynamic land use patterns in the Greek rural landscape, as well as the formation processes of use, recycling, and abandonment associated with domestic residence. By combining the survey of houses, features, fields, and oral information obtained from local residents, we have been able to create a rich record of abandonment in a small Greek village. Our observations complicate tidy definitions of abandonment sometimes assumed by archaeologists in showing the small-scale continuities of settlement, building refurbishment, seasonal habitation, olive cultivation, shepherding, hunting, and investment in road infrastructure.

Here’s the original version that we submitted.
Here’s the slightly revised version.

Stay tuned for the published version of this paper in early 2021!

Resilience in Antiquity

There have been a few articles recently on resilience in the ancient world (e.g. here, herehere, et c.) and considering the looming social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus, this work feels particularly timely.

Last week, the new volume of Studies in Late Antiquity appeared and it included an article by Tamara Lewitt titled “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory.” It offered a particularly clear application of community resilience theory to the Late Roman world as a way to understand why some areas rebounded from the disruptions of the 6th centuries. Historically, historians and archaeologists have argued that the plagues, earthquakes, military activities, political and theological instability during the 6th century had a lasting social and economic on Eastern Mediterranean communities. More recently, however, archaeologists, in particular, have shown how communities not only survived these difficult times, but prospered. 

In some ways, an emphasis on community resilience is a useful response to scholars who have increasingly sought to understand large scale changes in the Late Roman world as shaped by non-human actors such as disease and climate and environmental change. A number of recent articles have sought to re-assert the role of human agents in Late Antique. I tend to find this line of argument vaguely misguided, but in the case of Lewitt’s article it offers a clear point of departure for her consideration of community resilience.

Lewitt argued that five things allowed for ancient communities to rebound for various disruptions: “high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and capacity for cooperation and technological innovation.”

She then draws upon archaeological data to demonstrate how the most resilience communities shared many of these features. Of particular interest to me was the role of the church which not only served as a nodes in larger communication networks, but also as institutions around which social capital accumulates. Lewitt suggests that the bonds created through shared support of the local church, for example, created pathways to pool resources during times of crisis. As an contemporary example, she notes that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans rebuilt more quickly after Katrina because they relied on close social bonds.

Years ago, I was interested in how Christianity introduced new forms of giving. Unlike the elite euergetism that characterized Classical antiquity and relied upon the generosity of a few very wealthy patrons who competed with one another for status, the church promoted a model of charity that applied to all Christians and led to individuals of even modest means contributing to the construction and decoration of churches as well as to other charitable ventures. This new vision of charity would have undoubtedly led to new forms of social organization that may have led to greater community resilience.

The other interesting observation is that communities with greater economic equality tend to be more resilient than those with great divisions in wealth. Lewitt looks at the relative size of houses in the deserted villages in Syria to argue for social and economic equality in those communities. Once again, Lewitt notes that part of the challenges facing recovery in New Orleans was the deeply uneven distribution of wealth which made cooperation and collective action more difficult. It almost goes without saying that it is very difficult to track economic and social equality in the ancient world other than at the very ends of the spectrum. Moreover, it seems that villages and rural settlements, especially in Greece and Cyprus, seem to have been abandoned whereas urban areas proved more resilient. If we understand smaller rural communities to have less social and economic diversity, then we might expect these communities to be more resilient than the evidence tends to indicate. That being said, this is not fatal to Lewitt’s arguments, but it does beg for an explanation for why certain kinds of resilience ultimately failed. 

It is interesting to see how this plays out around the world as we attempt to recover from the economic and human impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lewitt’s regular appeals to data from the recovery after Hurricane Katrina provide a modern point of comparison for resilience in antiquity. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide another. 

Three Thing Thursday: Greeks, Roads, and Oil

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble getting myself into gear over spring break and have been jumping from one thing to the next all week. It’s predictable, then, that today blog post will be a dreaded “three things” rather than a more sustained consideration of one issue, topic, question, or publication. What’s the biggest bummer is that I wanted to write more about each of these three things. Maybe I can next week, but for now, here’s a sampling of what I’ve been up to.

Thing The First

If I had all the time and energy into the world, I’d publish a little volume featuring the work of Byzantine and Late Antique archaeologist outside of the Mediterranean basin. David Pettegrew and Kostis Kourelis would appear in it, of course. This week, I was really happy to receive a copy of Pennsylvania History 87.1 (2020) which is co-edited by Pettegrew and includes an article by Kourelis and Pettegrew on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. 

The article draws primarily from census data to paint a picture of the changing Greek communities in those towns and their divergent trajectories. The broader argument is that the tendency to emphasize Greek communities in major urban areas (Chicago, New York, et c.) obscures the fact that most Greek communities were small. More than that, these small Greek communities developed according the vagaries of these locales. The city of Harrisburg with its higher rents and involvement in the City Beautiful movement saw a very different kind of Greek community than the city of Lancaster. The Greek community in Harrisburg was more male-dominated and slower to include families although perhaps slightly more affluent, and these features most likely delayed the organization of a Greek church in the city which further slowed the development of this community.

Pettegrew and Kourelis construct their images of these two communities from the scrappy evidence provided by the census and their broad understanding of trends in these two cities. Their ability to paint vivid pictures from fragmentary evidence almost certainly derives from their years of patient work with the fragments of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in Greece. 

(I couldn’t find the article online yet, but a few of the articles from the special issue are available here for free!).

Thing the Second

A good bit of our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project has focused on roads through our region. As a result, I’ve been trying to digest anything that drifts across my desk about roads in the Eastern Mediterranean. A couple of weeks ago, I spied Peri Johnson and Ömür Harmanşah’s “The Political Ecology of Roads And Movement: The Yalburt Yaylası Archaeological Landscape Research Project 2018 Season” from The Archaeology of Anatolia, Volume III (2019). Ömür Harmanşah has quietly established himself as one of the most insightful readers of the Mediterranean landscape and this article with Peri Johnson reflects his careful sophistication.

Johnson and Harmanşah consider the roads through their survey area in Central Anatolia from both a diachronic and decentralized perspective. In other words, they were not as concerned with the well-known roads through their area in particularly well documented periods and more interested in the ways in which local communities in their area interacted with one another and the wide region. By decentering their research and engaging with local communities, they were not only able to discover neglected roads and routes, but also associated sites. 

Their work and the situation in their survey area has close parallels with ours in the Western Argolid where in the Inachos valley formed the major route through our area throughout the ancient and into the modern period. At the same time, it has become clear that a number of significant routes linked sites in our survey area in ways that did not follow the dominant interregional road along the valley bottom. 

Thing the Third

I read John Sayles’ new book Yellow Earth this weekend. I really want to write a more substantive review of it, in part, because I really wanted to like it more than I did. Here are a few quick observations.

First, a colleague of mine mentioned once that most novels these days are really just short stories cobbled together. This book is that with plots and characters that come and go, intersect obliquely, and sometimes just fade away.

Second, Sayles does some interesting things with time. The book begins in the early days of the Bakken boom and ends just as the bust begins. For the characters, however, time passes at different rates. For two of the characters, their final year in high school traces the trajectory of the boom. For another, it occurs over the course of her pregnancy. For another still, it follow the construction of a house, the life span of a strip club, or the travels of a Mexican migrant from the border to North Dakota. The varying times at play during a boom is fascinating.

Third, the book navigates a difficult space in that one of the main characters is modeled after Tex Hall, the well-known and controversial former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This means Sayles spends much of the novel writing a number of Native American characters. While I don’t necessarily want to imply that his depiction of these characters was somehow inappropriate, instead, I’d like to acknowledge the ethical complications associated with this move and with depicting and understanding the complex attitudes among the Native American community to the oil boom.

Fourth and finally, for now, I still rankle at the depiction of the Bakken as the Wild West. I understand and appreciate the drama and the moral ambiguity latent in the concept of the Wild West, but I worry that this depiction somehow naturalizes the situation in the Bakken and undermines a reading that recognizes a series of very deliberate choices that allowed corrupt practices to prevail. 

Time and Change on Roman Crete

This weekend, I read my colleague Scott Gallimore’s recent paper in the American Journal of Archaeology titled “An Island in Crisis? Reconsidering the Formation of Roman Crete.” The article is the model of careful interrogation of various ways of understanding the Roman conquest of Crete “on the ground.” By focusing on the material changes on the island (and the appearance of Cretan amphora, in particular, across the Mediterranean), Gallimore has a metric for understanding how the integration of Crete into the Roman Empire shaped the economic life of the island.

What makes this article unique, though, is that he intentionally considers three time scales – the event, short term change, and long-term change. For the event, Gallimore considers the idea of “eventful archaeology” but argues that the initial conquest of Crete by the Romans did little to immediately change the material and economic life of the island. Crete remains relatively isolated economically with few imported ceramics and little evidence for large-scale exporting of goods in the Roman East. In short, the evidence from Crete is inadequate to see the Roman military actions on the island as a trigger for greater integration in the Roman world. In this case the model of  “eventful archaeology” lacks compelling explanatory power. 

The other possible impetus for change on the island and its graduate Romanization was the investment of the emperor Claudius in harbors across the empire. Claudius’s work at the Roman harbor of Portus is well known. Rothaus has argued that Claudius may have also invested in large scale improvements in the Corinthian harbor of Lechaion. Gallimore, however, demonstrated that while it is possible that the reign of Claudius saw an increased investment in infrastructure to support trade on Crete, it did not have an immediate impact on the assemblages produced by the island or in the Mediterranean more broadly.

In the end, Gallimore argues that the globalization of Crete was a gradual process that undoubtedly started with the island’s integration into the Roman world and became visible as the island’s population adapted the new range of opportunities and investments at different rates and in different ways. He notes that some areas that may have had reason to resist Roman inroads, may have taken longer to integrate into the economic and social world of the Roman state. Other areas, like around Knossos, appear to have integrated more quickly into the Roman world.

Gallimore’s article does a nice job digging into the archaeological assemblages across Crete and in the wider Mediterranean and demonstrates how the simple (and all too common) efforts to look for events or policies in archaeological evidence often creates interpretative problems. Events – particular destruction layers – tend to draw evidence toward them like magnets, and only careful and critical analysis of deposits, typologies, and chronologies can shake the material evidence free. Gallimore’s article does a nice job to demonstrating how to assess the impact of events, policies, and longer term trends in archaeological assemblages.

Finally, Gallimore’s paper is particularly useful for me as I think about the island of Cyprus and the issue of insularity in Early Byzantine archaeology. He notes that processes like Romanization occurred at an uneven rate across the island and that part of the reason for this is both the potential for a given region to enjoy connectivity within a given system as well as the willingness of local communities to adapt to Roman social and economic stimuli. Untangling the variable that shape globalization in any place remains a challenge, but as we’ve argued in a few places attempting to exclude economic motivations for variation across assemblages might be a way to reveal elements more probably influenced by a community’s sense of identity or values. As always, these are messy arguments to make especially as it often depends on the ability of other scholars to identify, quantify, and assess ceramic assemblages in a way that makes them comparable between sites and across regions. By offering arguments, however, we propose hypotheses that can be tested and can shape the efforts of other projects to quantify and publish their data.   

More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

For the last week or so, I’ve been trying to get back into the academic groove and thinking about Late Antiquity. I have done some reading and, more importantly, some writing about the 7th century both in Greece and on Cyprus. Mostly, I’m working to get a first draft of a paper documenting and analyzing a 7th century site in the Western Argolid.

Here is the first draft of the first couple paragraphs. It’s rough, lacks citations, and I’m sure it’ll change, but at least it’s going somewhere.

The past two decades have witnessed a major change in how archaeologists understand the Late Roman and Early Medieval landscape of Greece. The rise of survey archaeology in the late-20th century fueled the growing awareness of the “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity. This complemented work in urban areas across Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly demonstrating that Late Roman cities and their countrysides experienced continued prosperity, social vitality, and political and economic significance into the 5th and 6th centuries. For Greece, scholars argued that the Slavic invasions of the late-6th century brought an end to this Late Antique prosperity and initiated a period of economic, political, and social dislocation often called the “Dark Ages.” Over the last 20 years, work at urban and rural sites has started to question this narrative. Work at the site of Corinth, in particular, has shown that the city continued to prosper into the 7th century. Moreover, imported ceramics and storage vessels indicate that Corinth enjoyed persistent connections across the Mediterranean even if these connections appear to be less dynamic and consistent then earlier centuries. At the same time, regional networks in the northeastern Peloponnesus emerged that supplied cooking and utility wares to communities well into the final third of the 7th century. The results from Corinth suggest that the city experienced economic change in the 7th century with fewer imports and a rise in regionally produced vessels, but this change was not the same as decline and indicated continuity with earlier centuries as much as new patters of economic and social relations.

Stratigraphic excavations formed the basis for this revised assessment of the 7th century in Greece. The assemblages produced through excavations at Corinth and at the Pyrgouthi Tower near Berbati in the Argolid, in particular, have helped to revise the dates of earlier excavation across Greece and challenged the assumption that destruction deposits associated with the Slavic invasions should have 6th century dates. Deposits from the Baths at Argos and the Stadium at Nemea, for example, now are better dated to the 7th century than to the later 6th century as their original excavators suggested. This revised chronology has also extended to our analysis of intensive survey assemblages. For example, pushing the date of certain well-know finewares into the late-6th and early-7th century Phocaean Ware 10C and the later forms of African Red Slip (105 and 106) illuminates areas of possible 7th century activity in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey area (Pettegrew 2007, 777; Caraher 2014, 157-158). In other contexts, Chris Cloke’s study of the off-site material from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has revealed a 7th century landscape with remarkable continuity with material from the 5th and 6th centuries. This article takes Cloke’s assessment of 7th-century landscape of the Nemea Valley and work at Corinth and considers it in the context of recent work in the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

Doing Late Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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


I’m notorious for struggling to take time off during the summer. This not only damages my ability to work efficiently, but also makes me tired, impatient, and generally grumpy. This summer, I was well on my way to being a big ole grumpy pants and stumbling and bumbling to the end of our study season on the Western Argolid Regional Project. 

But then Fotini Kondyli invited me and Dimitri Nakassis to her family’s home on Methana for a day. It was relaxing and beautiful.

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Settlement in Byzantine Greece

As this semester is winding down, I’m drifting toward a kind of “read everything” mode that is as fun as it is rather unproductive and unfocused. First on the list was Athanasios Vionis, “Understanding Settlement in Byzantine Greece: New Data and Approaches for Boeotia, Sixth to Thirteenth Century,” DOP 71 (2017), 127-173. It’s massive and insightful and humbling to anyone who has thought about the historical Greek landscape in a diachronic way. 

Vionis tracks the change in settlement structure across in the Medieval period in Boeotia drawing largely on survey data, ceramic study, and GIS analysis produced over the course of the various surveys in Boeotia. In some ways, this work is an extension of his interest in using “central place theory” to understand the transformation of the Mediterranean landscape over the Longue Durée, and, in other ways, it demonstrates continuity with John Bintliff’s longstanding interest in structural change over time in the Greek landscape.

For the Late Roman period in Boeotia, Vionis described the transformation of the major urban centers and the emergence of a new, monumental landscape centered on newly-constructed churches in the 6th century. It’s interesting that in Boeotia, as elsewhere, these churches stood in prominent positions in the settlements and often disrupted or violated the existing urban grid. In Corinth, however, churches tended to stand around the periphery of the settlement despite the historical and institutional significance of the bishop of that city (although, to be fair, there might be a large church closer to the ancient city center which is obscured today by the modern village). Likewise, in Argos, which features numerous Early Christian basilicas, none appear to encroach on the core of the Roman city with its agora, theater, and bath, but several stand in the in close proximity and one stands atop the Aspis hill with its ancient sanctuary. These alternate examples are not meant to suggest that Vionis is wrong or overstates his observations, but wonder out loud at the variety of monumentalizing strategies undertaken by the institutional church and Christian communities in Greece.  

Vionis also adds new vocabulary to the analysis of the Late Roman landscape in Boeotia and describes the rise of rural “microtowns” at the end of antiquity (in the late 7th century) and the consolidation of “megavillages” in the Middle Byzantine period. These microtowns continued some basic civic functions of Late Roman cities, including the presence of bishops, commercial activity, and fortifications, and often stood on or near the sites of ancient cities. They were distinct from smaller, unfortified settlements in the countryside that stood as “secondary settlements” and depended in some way on regional microtowns. Thus, a new settlement hierarchy emerged in the early Middle Ages. By the middle Byzantine period, the megavillage served as the central place for communities distributed into smaller settlements and farms in the countryside. Once again, Vionis presents the organization of the Boeotian countryside in hierarchical terms with the central places representing religious, political, and economic nodes for the surrounding region. 

There are three things that give me a bit of pause in this article (and I’ve only scratched the surface of it with my idiosyncratic mini-review), and they probably reflect more of my own interests at present than any weakness in the article.

First, I wonder how our ability to control chronology and, by extension, time shapes the kind of landscapes that Vionis envisions. For example, there’s a tendency to see rural sites like farms or hamlets, which are often recognized and defined on the basis of rather small and limited assemblages of material, as being contemporary with one another. At the same time, because their ceramic assemblages are so limited, it is possible that, say, from a group of five rural sites datable to one or two centuries, only one existed at any given time or maybe all five did for just a very limited span or two of the five did for one 50-year span. On the one hand, we might say that this is an intractable problem because of the imprecision of archaeological dating practices and the variability of site discovery in the landscape. As a result, we make the assumption that all of the sites visible for a period existed simultaneously and that this might compensate for the vagaries of site recovery across the landscape. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this kind of methodological compromise makes the larger project of making settlement hierarchies less viable in general.

This leads me to my second observation. Myrtou Veikou’s work in Epirus which covered a similar period proposed the existence of an emerging kind of Byzantine “third space” during the period that Vionis’s studied. The concept of third space came from the post-colonial theories of Homi Bhabha and was applied to geography by the late Edward Soja. These spaces existed explicitly outside of the kinds of hierarchies that Vionis presents and represented all together less stable entities which resist classification. These places are more dynamic over time and do not map neatly onto either concepts like the rural or the urban or institutional structures like bishops, civic officials, or markets. The uncertainty and ambiguity of these places in the landscape resists our more structural efforts to define the function, scale, or relationship between settlements which can be demoralizing for scholars who work to understand Byzantine space at scale. At the same time, the notion of third-space also allows us to adapt our landscapes to the chronological ambiguity of archaeological data practically when it is collected through different methods and practices as well as at different scales and resolutions. The ambiguity of the Byzantine third space reflects the kind of data at our disposal and normalizes the fuzzy and sometimes contradictory results of our analysis.

These more dynamic spaces within the landscape also imply movement at various scales. Vionis’s work does a nice job at understanding the slow shift of settlements as they contract, reform, and reconceptualize across Boeotia. I’d be intrigued to understand how these shifts represent the flow of people, wealth, goods, and resources through the area. Vionis’s attention to walking distances from central places as a way to understand the scope of agricultural productive area in the vicinity of settlement is useful. It prompted me to think about the cultural, political, environmental, and economic variables that might shape these models for understanding movement in the countryside. For example, the decision to cultivate fields beyond a two or three hour walking distance from home or a settlement might represent the results of exogamous marriage, forms of risk management, environmental strategies, or even acts of religious piety or efforts to develop social capital. Moreover, a range of strategies in the countryside might also reflect the movement of individuals to local pilgrimage sites, visits to relatives who live in settlements that do not map onto the local hierarchical nodes, or even economic forays into new markets, new resources, or to take advantage of variability in the political landscape. Obviously it is impossible to anticipate all potential forms of fluidity in the Early and Middle Byzantine landscape, but it would be interesting to think about how the notion of settlement hierarchies intersects with Horden and Purcell’s more dynamic notion of microregions and connectivity as defining the Mediterranean world.

These comments should not be regarded as criticism of Vionis’s work, of course. It reflects both careful attention to the nature of evidence from Boeotia as well as a deep understanding of Byzantine social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical organization and history. His work, however, has prompted me to think about our efforts to understand the space and settlement of both the Western Argolid and on Cyprus during these same periods. It’s a good way to start looking ahead to my summer study seasons and some walks in the Greek and Cypriot landscape.