More on Rivers

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Donald Worster’s classic Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985). I read this as part of my effort to become a bit more familiar with American environmental history, but also get to understand the larger conversations surrounding “hydraulic society” in the American West. In many ways, Worster provides a key formative statement in how we understand the environmental manifestations of the United States’s quest for empire. By tracing the changing attitudes toward water and rivers in the American West from the 19th century to the mid-20th, we get to see the interplay between small farmers, wealth landowners, local communities, state governments, and the federal government in creating a new hydraulic society with both democratic potential and the capacity for exacerbating economic and social inequalities at a nationwide scale.

Some of this is also relevant for my growing interest in the flood mitigation efforts made along the Red River of the North. To be clear, Worster’s main focus was not only managing floods. In fact, flood management and navigation fell under the domain of the Army Corps of Engineers and Worster’s main focus was on the Bureau of Reclamation which sought to transform the rivers of the American west into a source of water for agricultural prosperity both in the region and nationally.

Worster’s understanding of American attitudes toward nature and to the flow of rivers, however, emphasized the desire of Americans to project their imperial yearnings not simply over the Indigenous people and territory of this vast region, but also of the rivers and natural resources. The earliest efforts were small scale and directed immediately toward the needs of communities struggling with the aridity of the region and the need to adapt their eastern crops and practices to irrigated farming.

By the early 20th-century, however, these limited and pragmatic approach quickly gave way to more expansive plans driven by competition and profit. At this stage the control of water and the ability to irrigate represented a pathway to wealth and wealthier landowners found ways to contravene efforts to preserve equality (or at very least fair) access to water in the West. As a result, control over water in the West soon took on the form of an ironic tragedy as the rhetoric used to champion increasingly bold and costly hydraulic interventions became increasingly detached from the outcomes of these intervention which rather than fortifying an idealized agricultural democracy, created more wealthy and powerful landowning class. The only commonality between rhetorical posturing of Bureau of Reclamation and the avarice of landowners was the desire to control the rivers of the West. 

How this all applies to my work here in the Red River of the North is bit unclear right now. Certainly there is reason to suspect that flood control along the Red River of the North is part of a larger effort to control western rivers in the name of stable settlement. The flooding of the river in the 19th century had revealed its destructive potential and floods in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s promoted increasingly monumental and ambitious interventions.

All this was done against the backdrop of the Pick-Sloan plan along the Missouri River which sought to control and harness the flow of the Big Muddy to irrigate farms, mitigate floods, and provide recreational opportunities. The destructive ambition behind the Garrison Dam, which led to the flooding of thousands of acres of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation made clear that North Dakota was part of the larger mid-century hydraulic landscape of the American West punctuated by massive dams and large scale diversions. Even today, massive diversions of the Red River around Fargo-Moorhead and around Winnipeg reflect a persistent willingness to transform the region by controlling the flow of rivers. 

My interest in reading Worster’s book, then, is less to discern whether the particular conditions that shape the Red River of the North appear in his analysis. For most of the time that this book covers, the Red River is both too far east (climatically speaking) and relatively untapped for irrigation. At the same time, I suspect that areas on the margins of the American West found themselves particularly susceptible to the mentalities that developed in the wider region. If we see Worster’s book as much a commentary on shifting attitudes toward empire building in North America as it is a specific technocratic, bureaucratic, or even economic response to certain environmental conditions (and the claim that Worster’s work smacks of a healthy dose of environmental determinism have been greatly exaggerated), then the work to control the Red River of the North fits into wider pattern that by the middle years of the 20th century had largely become unhinged from any particular justification. This ensured that the broader Western mindset that guided the continued damming of western rivers to provide irrigation for crops that would not sell, electricity for towns that did not exist, and solutions to problems that did not exist, could be applied to marginal cases because there was no longer a tight connection between the problem, the solution, and the justification for the approach.

This is not to suggest that the flood mitigation efforts imposed on the Red River of the North weren’t adequate or technically appropriate. Instead, I’m hypothesizing that the approach by the Army Corps of Engineers to the Red River in Grand Forks reflects attitudes developed in very different circumstances elsewhere in the American West. 

Whether this proves to be the case will involve some deeper digging!

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.


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!

Thomas Barger and the Archaeology of Oil

This past week, I was doing some light research at UND Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections and for various, almost random reasons, was scrolling through the finding aid for John Barger’s papers.

In those papers, I noticed an entry for Box 1, Folder 31: “Greek Inscriptions Deciphered” by Thomas Barger. I knew Thomas Barger, John’s brother, from my Bakken Babylon paper. Thomas Barger was the North Dakota born and educated CEO of Aramco (Arab-American Oil Company). I knew something about from Wallace Stegner’s book Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil where he appears as one of the first American “petro-nomads” who helped discover the massive Ghawar oil field in the 1950s. By the 1960s he had become the CEO of Aramco and helped the company develop into one of the largest oil companies in the world. 

He was well-known in the industry as a hands-on leader who understood the discovery, extraction, and processing of oil and the men, women, and families who did this work. He was recognized both for his possibly misguided efforts to encourage home ownership among his Saudi employees as well as his ability to speak Arabic and respect for Arabian history and culture. I was not, however, aware of his interest in archaeology.

The publication that appeared in John Barger’s papers was a short update about finds from the Nabatean outpost of Meda’in Salih in northwestern Saudi Arabia which appeared in 1969 in Archaeology magazine. Barger had published an earlier report on this site in Archaeology in 1966. The 1969 article revealed the decipherment of a Greek inscription by Glen Bowersock associated with the Third Cyrenaican Legion traditionally stationed at Bosra, but in this case standing guard over the trade routes at the very edges of the Roman world. This inscription found its way into Thomas Barger’s personal collection and which in 1969, he turned over to the Harvard Semitic Museum which, in turn, transferred it to the T.C. Barger Collection at the National Museum in Riyadh in 2001. The inscription’s nomadic route from Meda’in Salih to Boston and back to the Arabian peninsula reversed the route of Barger’s own travels to the Arabian desert.

This is a nice example of how contemporary petronomadism, a term coined, I think, by Reza Negarstani in his Cyclonopedia (or perhaps Gilles Chatelet in his To Think and Live Like Pigs [1998]) traces both the economic landscape of the Middle East and the archaeological. This is similar to an observation offered by Rachel Havrelock in her “The Ancient Past that Oil Built” in the context of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Kirkuk to Haifa pipeline in the 1930s. 

On a more local level, one imagines that the work done to support extractive industries here in North Dakota has contributed to the discovery of similarly interesting archaeological landscapes. In that sense, the work of Barger in Saudi Arabia has parallels in his home state of North Dakota where pipelines, roads, rail projects, and refineries have created a contemporary window into both a modern present and historical past.

Landscapes and Nature on the Mickelson Trail

This weekend, I road the Mickelson Trail with my buddy and some-time research partner Bret Weber. There was no research agenda for this ride, but like most excursions in a new landscape, I spent a good time thinking about the what I was seeing and trying to understand the trails route. The George Mickelson Trail follows the route of a spur line of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad which ran through the Black Hills of South Dakota from the late 19th century to the 1980s. 

The route linked the town of Deadwood to Edgemont where he line connected to a route running south from Sheridan, Wyoming and proceeding to points east and eventually Kansas City, Missouri. Presumably the line supplied the mining communities of the Black Hills where American prospectors discovered gold and silver in the 1870s and the US government violated their treaty with the Sioux and seized the Black Hills. Thus, the route through the Black Hills is an expression of American colonialism and the tragic history of settler-Native American relations.

It seems appropriate this still-unresolved chapter in the settler-colonial history of the US also traces the history of how European, white, males understand nature and the environment. On the one hand, the Mickelson Trail offers a fairly unique view of the Black Hills and the rangeland to their south. There were times when if felt like we were encountering nature on its own terms.

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This view is naive, of course. The trail itself is a former rail bed and the amazing vistas that we experienced almost always preserved evidence for human intervention. The most common sign of human investment in creating the landscape (beyond the rail bed itself) were fence posts that stood in even landscapes which to my untrained eye seemed unlikely to have required fencing.

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My biking partner who is both by profession and predisposition a historian of the American West, pointed out that some fencing probably marked grazing ranges, in some cases private property, and in some cases mining claims. Indeed, we never had to look far to see evidence for mining in the region. For example, the Homestake Mine in Lead, which left traces both deep underground and in large open pits, made more obvious the fundamental ways in which the landscape of the Black Hills reflects human intervention. It is simply a lovely coincidence that the current use of the mine as the site for experiments involving the search for “dark matter” occur in deep shafts over a mile beneath the surface. The hidden landscape of sub-atomic particles appears to be a poetic reuse for the hidden landscapes of modern mining. 

The not insignificant investment in connect this seemingly remote region to the main rail lines demonstrated the perceived viability of the region as a mining center. Tunnels, bridges, and carefully graded descents from the Black Hills trace the connections between the mines around Lead and Deadwood and the support services provided by towns at lower elevations which supported the mining centers. 

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In short, the route that we followed linked the topography of the Black Hills to the networks of supply and settlement that supported the mining operations around Lead and Deadwood. Thus the route of the Mickelson Trail not only traced the local topography, but also showed how the region connected to larger national centers and how these two connections combined to create the string of small towns and settlements throughout the Black Hills.

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In short (and to no one’s surprise other than my own, probably), the ride through the Black Hills on the Mickelson Trail pushed me to encounter not only the stunning topography and natural features of the region, but, more importantly, the mechanisms of settler colonialism, settlement, and the integration of this seemingly “remote” region with the wider world.

I sure, of course, there was an easier way than a 100+ mile bike ride to experience and think about this landscape, but nothing like 9 or so hours on a bike over a couple of days to give one time think!!!

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. 

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

The Late Byzantine Landscape

Last week I finally finished Foteini Kondyli’s recent book, Rural Communities in Late Byzantium: Resilience and Vulnerability in the Northern Aegean (2022). It’s really quite brilliant and offers a model for the kind of intensive regional study that is possible as the result of slow, deliberate, careful research across archaeological survey, texts, architectural study, and digital techniques.

The book considers the strategies rural communities on Lemnos and Thasos used to survive during the tumultuous 14th and 15th centuries. Kondyli anchored her argument in an extensive survey of the islands where she used surface ceramics to help date surviving churches, the remains of settlements, and the various towers and other sites that have left traces in the landscape. She supplements these with data from the Athonite monastic archive which provide insights to land tenure practices and the structure of settlement across the island. In this context, Kondyli is able to outline some of the strategies families used especially in the aftermath of the demographic changes visited on these islands during these convulsive centuries. These ranged from marriage strategies and other forms of bonds between families, settlements insulated from the presence of pirates in the surrounding seas, cooperation in the construction of military fortification such as towers and spiritual fortifications such as churches and monasteries, and forms of cooperation with the Byzantine state (and even Ottoman) state.

As per usual, I’m not going to really review the book, but highlight a few things that I stuck out to me.

First, I thought Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience is in keeping with contemporary conversations about continuity and change in the ancient and Medieval worlds. Of course, resilience has emerged as a key way to think about Late Antiquity and the degree to which a community could survive, rebuild, and persist amid economic, military, and political disruptions is crucial for understanding how deep structures which are not always readily visible in textual or archaeological sources held societies together at challenging times. Kondyli’s emphasis on resilience and social strategies is appropriate for the Late Byzantine period as well which endured its share of disasters.

Our attention to resilience, I think, shifts how we think about matters of continuity and change in the past. In this context, continuity and change represent strategies rather than evidence for a kind of absent minded persistence of existing social structures and institutions and change becomes a way to understand how communities adapt to circumstances that may well be beyond their control rather than the arrival of new circumstances themselves. As a result, and as Kondyli so cleverly shows, focusing on resilience foregrounds everyday life at the level of the community and how they respond economic, political, and military events.      

Second, for most of my career, I’ve been a bit of an evangelist for intensive, pedestrian, siteless survey. And I still think it’s the best way to do to field survey in the Mediterranean. 

That said, I’m becoming a bit more willing to see the value in intensive survey. Perhaps I should credit my new found appreciation of modern extensive survey to Yannis Lolos’s extensive survey of Sikyonia. I can add Kondyli’s book to the list of influences that are expanding my perspective on the value of modern extensive survey projects. In particular, I admire her willingness to identify the function of specific sites. One of the challenges facing intensive survey work is our tendency to produce vast carpets of artifacts that blur functional (and chronological) borders of sites until they are essentially disappear. To be clear, this is a rather uncharitable reading of siteless survey, but I suspect there is a kernel of truth to it. Kondyli’s willingness to build arguments on the chronological and functional identification of sites – with a certain amount of caution and perspective – opens the landscape of Aegean islandscapes to the kind of historical interpretations that our siteless survey sometimes resists. 

Third, Kondyli balanced her awareness of how islands function as islands (she avoid the term  “islandscapes” but the concept suffuses some of her arguments) with a strong sensitivity for local landscapes. I’ve participated peripherally in several recent conversations about islands and island archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean and this got me thinking a good bit about whether models for understanding islands in historical periods add much to our understanding of the Mediterranean, in general. For example, the mountainous landscape of Thasos exerted a far more obvious impact on settlement patterns than its situation as an island. This isn’t to say that its insularity didn’t play a role in the organization of settlement on islands, but that it might not be the dominant, determining role. 

This understanding feels consistent with the growing interest in microecologies or microregions which often function at level far below that of an island. If we regard the Mediterranean as a patchwork of microregions, then certain larger regional characterization of spaces—from islandscapes to administrative districts—might contribute less to how we understand resilience of communities than we might expect.

As readers of this blog likely know, my excitement for the archaeology of Greece ebbs and flows with my commitments to field work and my (declining!) ability to formulate research questions that keep me engaged. Kondyli’s book when set alongside other recent-ish books such as  Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside (2016, blogged about here) and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018, blogged about here) has got me once again thinking a bit about how we understand the Late Roman and Byzantine countryside in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Mediterranean this summer and thinking in more in situ ways about issues introduced in these works.

Two Article Wednesday

I’m obviously out of sync with my use of alliteration, but I am working my way through my “articles to read pile” albeit rather haphazardly. This week, I read two articles from the most recent Journal of Greek Archaeology 6 (2021), both of which were pretty cool.

The first was by Chris Cloke whose relatively recent dissertation analyzed the off-site ceramics from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP). As a young survey archaeologist in Greece, this project was the bee’s knees and a model for how we thought about intensive pedestrian survey. The survey part of this project was published primarily through a series of articles which, in turn, focused primarily on on-site data. Cloke’s work brings to light the significant quantity of off-site data which he marshals to contribute to ongoing discussion about the changing character of the Classical to Late Roman landscape of the northeastern Peloponnesus. 

Cloke’s article on the JGA is titled “Farming on the Fringe: Diachronic Changes in Land-Use Patterns and Agricultural Strategies in Ancient Nemea” and it considers two variables. First (and most interesting to me) he considers the average size (in weight) of sherds found in off-site scatters from the Nemea Valley survey area and compared them to the size of “on-site” sherds. He discovered that artifacts in lower density assemblages (that is off-site) from the Classical and Hellenistic period tend to be about the same size as those from higher density “on site” assemblages. In the Roman and Late Roman period, however, he noted that the average sherd size for artifacts in off-site scatters was much lower than those found on-site. To Cloke, this suggests that during the Roman and Late Roman period off-site scatters represented different formation processes. The tendency for low-density, low artifact weight scatters to present a halo around sites from those periods may indicate manuring during these periods. The theory is that smaller sherds were more likely to be transported with other waste into the fields as fertilizer whereas larger sherds are likely to represent damaged objects associated with primary discard in proximity to habitation.

What makes this argument particularly clever is that Cloke goes on to suggest that the evidence for manuring coincides with a general intensification of agriculture during the Roman and Late Roman period in the region. There is abundant evidence for this during the Roman and Late Roman period across Greece and in the northeast Peloponnesus more specifically. More and more marginal lands appear to come into cultivation culminating with the 5th and 6th century agricultural boom where nearly every corner of the region appears to see Late Roman activity. If there was going to be a time where manuring happened, it would be in Late Antiquity.

I would have loved to be reminded a bit about how NVAP identified and collected from sites and off-site scatters. Cloke argues that the assemblages from both appear fundamentally similar suggesting that collection strategies did not bias one assemblage over the other. The main difference I would see is that off-site units are so much larger than the gridded collections (if memory serves) conducted on-site. How the differences in unit size might bias collection is a bit hard to know, but I’d be keen to see the variation in artifact size for off-site scatters. I’m wondering whether the appearance of larger sherds in any number indicate on-site scatters but even in these units, lower density scatters of smaller sherds remain ubiquitous. As a result, large units will naturally collect more smaller artifacts from expansive low density scatters. Or something. This might change how we understand the scatters of small artifacts, however, if on-site scatters are merely the presence of larger sherds and not the absence of smaller ones.

The second article looks at the distribution of Middle Byzantine churches in the Peloponnesus. Maria Papadaki’s “Church Construction as a Proxy for Economic Development: the Medieval Settlement Expansion Phase in the Peloponnese” offers a sweeping and thoughtful view of the Middle Byzantine landscape based on an impressive catalogue of 240 churches constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries.

I’m less interested in the specifics of Papadaki’s argument, which I suspect are sound, and more in the general trend in recent years to thinking about the Byzantine (and broadly Medieval) landscape more broadly. Papadaki brings together survey data with architecture, for example, to argue that Byzantine churches can be a persistent proxy for settlements as well as local wealth, demography, and connectivity within larger economic and political networks. 

The growing interest in Medieval landscapes that integrates architecture, art, archaeology, and texts feels like the foundation of new ways of thinking about Medieval Greece.