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.
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!