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 on Isthmia Data

My post today is mostly for data nerds (or want-to-be data nerds, in my case). For the last two months, I’ve been messing around with some databases from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia in Greece. I have any number of goals with doing this and most of them loosely coalesce around “figuring out how good this data is and whether I can do anything with it as it is now.” Recently, though, I’ve gotten tired of waiting to see if the data is good enough and started to tinker with it a bit as a way to see if I could build some hypothesis and find problems with the data through testing it. 

The biggest challenge with this data is folding together five different datasets and getting them to talk to one another.The first data set is the context pottery read at Isthmia over the years. This consists of pot sherds that aren’t special enough to be inventoried but can nevertheless be identified as from a particular class of vessel. The second dataset is the “lots” dataset. This is a list of lots – or stratigraphic units – excavated over the years at Isthmia. It’s hard to know whether it represents ALL the lots excavated or just some of them. Most of these lots also have locations (that is areas at the site) as well as trenches and many have been assigned dates. 

The other three data sets for my current experiment consist of inventoried pottery and lamps. Two are the Byzantine and Roman pottery deemed special enough to warrant formal cataloguing. Some of this material formed the basis for Jean Marty-Peppers 1979 Penn dissertation. There is also a database that lists the inventoried lamps which have recently been published by Birgitta Wohl. Part of the larger goal of my work is to make sure these datasets “talk” to the publications. More importantly, however, I worked to assign each of these 3000 or so artifacts to its appropriate lot (or stratigraphic context). This would ensure that these datasets could “talk to” the lots and context finds databases. This is work in progress because sometimes the lot isn’t very clear and I’ll have to dig into the notebooks at some point to make sure that these datasets talk to each other well as I can. 

I was able to kluge these datasets together with only a little bit of fuzziness between them (for example, some of the lamps come from deposits that may [or may not] be identified as lots). Some of our standardized vocabulary for artifacts (we have adapted a version of the chronotype naming system) isn’t quite tidied up yet as well. So there’s some more work to do.

I can however offer some very simply examples for how this work might be useful.

One of the first datasets that I wanted to explore involved our assemblage of Slavic pottery. Slavic pottery is a shorthand for hand or slow-wheel made cooking pots and beakers with geometric decorations. They may be associated with “Slavic” migrants to the Southern Balkans, but this remains a bit of an open question. Generally this material dates to the 7th or 8th centuries (or later).

We are now able to quantify our Slavic material in some mildly interesting ways. For example, we can now say that we have 132 contexts that contained some Slavic material. 28 of these contexts produced inventoried finds and the rest of the Slavic material came from context pottery. Slavic ware appeared in almost every context from across the site. Conventionally we’ve associated Slavic ware with depositions found in the area of the Roman bath, but, it turns out that a very narrow majority of Slavic sherds came from other locations around Isthmia (52.4%). We can also use the dates assigned to lots (based on?) to get a broad sense of the character of the contexts in which Slavic ware appears. 48% of it appears in Late Roman and Early Byzantine contexts (which appear to date from the 4th-8th century). 24% of it comes from later Medieval contexts (e.g. Middle and Late Byzantine contexts) and about 26% comes from mixed contexts. Of course, it is hardly surprising that most common location for Slavic pottery in in Early Byzantine and Late Roman contexts associated with the Roman Bath (29%), but the Early Byzantine and Late Roman as well as mixed deposits associated with the Northeast Gate produced not insignificant quantities of material. That over 20% of the Slavic material came from the Northeast Gate is interesting and I’m eager to dig a bit more into this.

It’s not a massive leap from this to a study of the larger assemblage associated with the Slavic material. Of course, for this to be meaningful, we also need to study the excavation context, but this is a future project. 

Working with Isthmia data has also allowed me to start to think about the distribution of material across the site in different ways. David Pettegrew and I have been thinking a bit about how we might compare the assemblages produced by excavation at Isthmia with those produced by the intensive pedestrian survey of the Eastern Korinthia. David has published the data from the latter which makes it a convenient dataset to explore.

For now, however, I was content to explore the data from the Isthmia datasets across the site. There are some provisos, of course. First, I have no real sense how complete this dataset it. On the one hand, I expect that if it is not complete, it is incomplete in an effectively random way. On the other hand, the dataset might be lacking non-stratified assemblages that might contain material from later or earlier periods. As a way to offset this, I decided, just as a little experiment to compare the distribution of common Roman fine wares at two areas of the site: The East Field and the Roman Bath.

The results are pretty boring, but could inspire some hypothesis building. For example, maybe it’s worth noting that the East Field and the Roman Bath produced roughly equal amounts of the long-lived and common African Red Slip ware (28%-30%), but the Bath produced more, later Phocean Red Slip (LRC) ware (16% to 3%). The East Field, in contrast, produced more Candarlı Ware (12%) than the Bath (8%). At first, I suspected that this was because the East Field less later material than the Bath which, if I recall, remained in use as an activity area later, but the Bath assemblage had a higher proportion of ESA/B wares (32% to 28%) which tend to have earlier Roman dates. Both areas produced a good bit of something called “Class H” pottery. In fact, it was the plurality of the assemblage from the East Field (34%) and consisted of 15% of the material from the Bath. I have no idea what this is and it is not mentioned in Jean Marty-Pepper’s dissertation or the recent Hayes and Slane volume of Roman pottery from Isthmia. In other words, its some kind of fine ware that is not included in the two most recent (if 1979 is indeed recent) and thorough catalogues of material from Isthmia, which is a bit odd.

As we continue to refine the data, it’ll become possible to perform other kinds of comparisons between material associated with various areas of the site sites. The kind of legacy data produced by Isthmia probably is not sufficiently robust to constitute “big data,” but my hope is that by slowly cleaning it up, it’ll help us at least make some new connections and pose some new questions.

Three Things Thursday: Campus, Corinthia, and Conferences

This week has become more hectic than I would have wished, but mostly it’s hectic with good things. I’m looking forward to heading to Fargo tomorrow for the Northern Great Plains History Conference and pleased that some of the work that I put into cleaning up data from the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia is almost far enough along to sustain some basic hypothesis building. These two things, and the changing face of my institutions campus will be the topic of today’s “three things Thursday.”

Thing the First

UND’s campus is really changing. Over the last three or four years, the university has implemented a new campus master plan, built a number of new buildings, created elevated walkways between existing buildings, and introduced new landscaping to the campus quad that turned several roads into pedestrian only zones.

For the last decade or so the old Medical School’s “Science Building” has housed my Department of History and American Indian Studies. This has been completely renovated with new conference rooms, offices, and classrooms. It’s pretty nice and while I liked my massive office carved out of lab space, my new office feels clean, compact, and contemporary.

It also has a glass door, which is a bit odd, and the hallway outside the office is access only through door controlled by key cards (at least outside normal building hours). The hallway also has a number of cameras. The bathroom has no doors.

I get that we live in a society where control, access, and surveillance have become synonymous with power. And I also understand that privacy is not a right, but a privilege reserved for those who can afford the necessary protocols, treatments, and tactics. And, finally, I get that control over the commons (and a public state university is a kind of commons) is necessary to avoid the abuse of its limited resources.

That said, I am still bit a put off by the level of control and surveillance that exists in our new building.

Thing the Second

I’m so, so, so close to having some of the Michigan State Excavations at Isthmia data ready for some preliminary analysis. In fact, when I’m done a few odds and ends this morning, I plan to work on some of the last bits of data this morning. As I reported last week, most of what I’m doing at this stage is recoding information originally recorded on paper inventory cards and keyed to notebook pages to more standardized formats appropriate for digital databases and keyed to stratigraphic unit (which, in turn, can be connected to particular pages in the notebooks).

While I have some long term goals with this project — including preparing the data for publication — but in the short-term, I want to be able to do some basic analysis of our assemblages that allow us to hypothesis build. For example, it will be possible to analyze the material from various parts of Isthmia as one might analyze a survey assemblage. We’ve been doing this some with the data from Polis where we’ve been able to consider both the presence or absence of certain forms of fine and utility wares across the site. For Isthmia, the plan might be to pull together all the material from, say, the East Field or the Roman Bath and use it as a window into what classes of artifact are present in the region at various times and perhaps even in what proportion to other contemporary artifacts.

Of course, this won’t be the last word in our analysis of the material from Isthmia, but it should offer the first word and an opportunity to understand the character of the Isthmia assemblage in a more systematic, if also more superficial, way.

Thing the Third

If you’re planning on going to the Northern Great Plains History Conference this week, do consider stopping by my panel tomorrow morning. I’ll be talking about the state of North Dakota Quarterly in session 34: The State of State Journals: Past, Present, and Future with editors of South Dakota History, North Dakota History, and Minnesota History.

You can download a copy of the conference program here.

You can read a copy of what I plan to say here.

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.