On the Edge of a Roman Port

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

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

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

Here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a criticism of the layout!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More New Work on Early Christian Attica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Work on Early Christian Attica

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

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

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

In that spirit, here are some thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Other Archaeology: Late Antiquity at Polis: Recent Research

In some ways, I’ve found the recent discussions of pseudoarchaeology energizing and thought provoking (and as I explain in this twitter thread, my development as an archaeology and a pseudoarchaeology have very much occurred in interrelated ways).

Next week, I’ll present some of my recent work in the village of Polis, where we work on the site of Late Roman and Byzantine Arsinoe. The talk is at 7:30 PM EEST (or 11:30 AM in CST). You can register for the talk via zoom here.

Here’s the abstract and some media. I’ll post a version of my paper next week and apparently it’ll be recorded. Here are some thoughts about my talk.

Starting in 1984, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated areas around the village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus. These excavations revealed a wide range of buildings and contexts dating from the Late Antique period including two Early Christian basilica style churches surrounded by various buildings that appear to stretch along the northern edge of the city. At some point in Late Antiquity, most of this area appears to have become a massive cemetery, presumably centered on the two churches. Recent research has revealed that the buildings along the northern edge of the city underwent continuous renovation and reconfiguration even as burials encroached.

William Caraher posterWilliam Caraher invitation

Teaching Thursday: Reimagining my Roman History Class

Next semester, I am going to teach Roman History for the first time since 2005 (I think). My Roman historian friends have assured me repeatedly that not much has changed. (I’m probably kidding here.) 

That said, I still need to teach the class and it is clear that the traditional lecture+discussion format of my original, early-21st century class, is no longer an acceptable (or even familiar) approach to teaching for most of our students. In other words, not only is my content woefully out of date, but so is my pedagogy when it comes to this class.

I told myself this fall that I need to have the basic organization of this class together by November 15th. It’s an artificial deadline, to be sure, but I needed something to motivate me to figure out whether I need to order some books and, as likely, read some things.

Here are my tentative learning goals for the class:

1. Become familiar broadly with Roman history and culture. 

2. Improve our capacity to read and analyze a range of unfamiliar primary and secondary sources. 

3. Continue to develop the ability to write about the past effectively.

These are sufficiently broad to allow me to approach Roman history is a wide range of ways. I have two other things on my agenda.

First, I want to be more deliberate about “workload management” in this class. As I’ve said any number of times on this blog, a 16-week semester is too damn long.

Secondly, I want the class to offer a wider range of assessments than my standard: midterm + book review + primary source paper. I’m considering, for example, a paper written collectively by the class (but perhaps turned in individually?), oral presentations on a particular source, and perhaps more creative assignments that involve engagement with news media, fiction, films, or video games. My goal is to have 5 assessments in the class, each worth 20% of the final grade. 

Finally, I want to build the class on five, five-week modules, each with a primary source, but I want the first module to introduce students to the “grand narrative” of Roman history which we will proceed to question, ignore, and subvert over the course of the rest of the class.

So here goes:

 

Module One

Class 1: The Roman Republic

Class 2: The Republic to Empire

Class 3: The Principate

Class 4: Late Roman World

Class 5-6: Livy, Book 1

Assessment: Rome, America, and Popular Culture: In a 1000 word essay discuss three examples of how Rome appears in popular culture and the media. Each example must be from a different medium (e.g. news, video game, feature film, television, fiction, music, and so on).

 

Module Two: The Fall of the Roman Republic

Class 7: The Gracchi

Class 8: Pompeii and Cicero

Class 9: Caesar and Civil War

Class 10: Octavian to Augustus

Class 11-12: Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline.

Optional Book: Ed Watts, The Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. 2020.

Assessment: Write a critical book review of one of the four optional books.

 

Module Three: The Empire and its Discontents

Class 13: The High Empire

Class 14: The Provinces during the High Empire

Class 15: Roman Religion and the Second Sophistic

Class 16-17: Apuleius, Metamorphosis.

Class 18: Writing a Primary Source Paper 

Optional Book: Sarah Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean. 2016.

Assessment: Work together to produce a primary source paper. 

 

Module Four: The Fall of Rome?

Class 19: The Crisis of the Third Century

Class 20: The Rise of Christianity 

Class 21: The Age of Constantine

Class 22-23: Augustine, Confessions.

Class 24: Writing Day

Optional Book: Giusto Traina, 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire. 2009.

 

Module Five: Rome after Rome

Class 25: The World of Late Antiquity 

Class 26: The Age of Justinian

Class 27: Christology and Controversy

Class 28: The Seventh Century

Class 29-30: Corippus, In laudem lustini Augusti minoris.

Optional Book: John Haldon, The Empire that Would not Die: the Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740. 2016.

 

As always, I’m open to suggestions, observations, or outright attacks on my character (hacks, somebody’s gotta put me in my place). 

Perachora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking Big About Late Antique Polis on Cyprus

One of the things that I’m trying to do as I find myself well and truly a “mid career” scholar is to focus on small things. Maybe it has to do with my interest in craft and even slow practices. Maybe it has to do with my distaste for senior (generally male) scholars producing BIG BOOKS about BIG TOPICS. Maybe it just has to do with embracing the parts of archaeological and scholarly practice that I enjoy. 

At the end of the month, I’ll be giving a paper at the University of Cyprus’s Archaeological Research Unit (ARU). My paper will introduce our decade of work at the site of Late Roman Arsinoe at Polis on Cyprus. The first part of my paper will indulge my inclination to “geek out” on some of the more archaeological aspects of our work. I love the fussy forensics of archaeological argumentation and analysis and my hope is that the ARU will be a receptive audience to some of the work we’re doing to untangle chronology at Polis.

I also know that there will be an expectation that I demonstrate something more significant than my ability to think about chronology, stratigraphy, and architectural history within the confines of the trenches at our site. The second half of my paper (which will be a generous 50 minutes!) will try to focus a bit on how Polis can contribute to BIG PICTURE issues associated with both the archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus as well as the archaeology of Late Roman Mediterranean more broadly. This isn’t the most comfortable space for me to operate, of course, but I suppose a lecture like this is a good opportunity to get a bit out of my comfort zone and indulge a bit of “speculatin’ about a hypothesis.”

My goal right now is to discuss four (or five?) things at the end of my paper. Because my paper will focus on the material from EF2 (that is the South Basilica) and from EF1 (which I’ve largely written up here), my evidence will represent only a very modest basis for any “speculatin’,” but I reckon that it will still contribute to some larger conversations. 

First, I think it’ll be useful to establish the relationship between the chronology of some of our “horizons” and assemblages and larger conversations about the dating of Late Roman ceramics. Getting the dates of our ceramic evidence right is important both because ceramics represent the most ubiquitous form of datable evidence from the ancient Mediterranean, and also because the chronology of this material is beginning to shift. This shift is mostly attributable to archaeologists relying less dogmatically on deposits associated with particular historical events (earthquakes, invasions, and the like) and on Cyprus, this involved a critical re-examination of chronologies established on the basis of the Arab Raids. I think that the excavations at Polis (as well as other nearby sites in Western Cyprus) have the real potential to establish new dates (at least relevant locally) for Late Roman and Early Byzantine ceramics. 

Second, establishing new ceramic chronologies also allows us to make some new observations on the economic (and even social) landscape of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean.This means recognizing that there seems to be connections between production sites and markets that persist into the later 7th and even 8th century. This not only suggests that the political disruptions associated with the Arab Raids in the mid-7th century did not complete destroy the economic ties between the island and its neighbors to the west. The appearance of late forms of transport amphora, tables wares, and various cooking and utility seem to parallel the growing body of evidence from coins and seals to suggest that 7th and 8th century Cyprus remained an economic crossroad characterized as much by resilience as economic contraction and political isolation. 

Third, these conclusions have some significance for how we understand “Cypriot Archaeology” more broadly. On the one hand, Cypriot archaeology has long been associated with the study of the Iron Age kingdoms. With their demise of independent kingdoms and absorption of Cyprus into the Hellenistic and Roman world, scholars have argued that what made these communities “Cypriot” became subordinate to the political realities of new regional and transregional polities. Of course, any number of scholars have challenged this perspective and for the Late Roman period recognizing the regional variations in material culture across settlements and sites on Cyprus suggests that “Roman” material became a medium that supported the persistence of Cypriot identity rather than its erasure. This opens the door for us to expand what we consider as “Cypriot Archaeology” into periods that have traditionally stood outside its core concerns.

Fourth, Cypriot Archaeology has historically focused on the political, religious, and social life of the city kingdoms. Implicit in this work is a concern for urbanism on the island which resonates with an interest in the form of cities at the so-called “end of antiquity.” One of the interesting challenges of Princeton’s work at ancient Arsinoe is that most of our excavations took place outside the ancient city center, which remains under the modern village. That said, these sites do offer subtle proxies for certain aspects of urban life. The use of peri-urban areas first as monumental spaces for religious buildings, arches, well-appointed well-houses, and then as cemeteries in Late Antiquity suggests changing religious priorities that are visible elsewhere on the island as well. The rapid reconstruction of the buildings along the northern side of Polis suggest that these spaces remained not only significant for throughout the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, but also demonstrated that resilience and perhaps even the persistence of the basic urban structure into the post-Antique period.

The presence of large fills at the site of South Basilica offer a window into the material culture of Polis. Recent work that considers the character of fills in relation to peri-urban dumps, however, offers a lens through which to complicated views of these assemblages. This is particularly significant when comparing the massive fill level associated with EF2 and the South Basilica with the smaller fills associated with the construction and destruction of EF1. 

Finally, the ongoing concern for drainage along the northern slope of the city offers an opaque window into issue of water management at Arsinoe. Efforts to manage the flow of water around the South Basilica might indicate that the situation associated with upstream drainage had changed suggesting, perhaps, that certain elements of civic infrastructure had either fallen into disrepair or underwent a kind of catastrophic failure which permanently disrupted their consistent operation. At the same time, it is possible to imagine a model of urban change that suggests the use of marginal areas of the town — including those susceptible to flooding came into use.

Depending on length and my energy level, I might also talk a little about digital publishing and digital methods as a key component of our work at Polis, but I might be better served staying in my lane and talking about some of the larger issues that shape the Late Roman history of the island.

Two Things on Trash in the Roman World

I really enjoyed Kevin Dicus’s recent article in AJA 126.4: “Refuse and the Roman City: Determining the Formation Processes of Refuse Assemblages Using Statistical Measures of Heterogeneity.” This article pushed me to read Guido Furlan’s 2017 article in EJA 20.2: “When Absence Means Things Are Going Well: Waste Disposal in Roman Towns and its Impact on the Record as Observed in Aquileia.” Both articles dealt with the tricky issue of trash disposal in Roman cities and, more importantly, the character of secondary deposits in an urban setting. 

Dicus’s article uses two statistical measurements to provide a baseline for peri-urban dump sites: Shannon Diversity and Pielou J Evenness.  The former measures the range of types of objects that would appear in an assemblage or sample and the latter measures the distribution of material across the various classes present in the assemblage or sample. Excavated dump sites have proven to have high levels of Diversity and Evenness. For Dicus, this reflects the character of peri-urban dump sites as the end point of city wide refuse collection. This formation process brings together a wide range of discard practices in such a way to produce diverse and evenly distributed assemblages in peri-urban dumps.

Dicus compares the character of peri-urban dumps to material found in various fill context inside Pompeii. For example, domestic refuse tended, in Dicus’s study, to have lower diversity than that from dumps outside the city. This is presumably because it reflects a smaller range of activities (and perhaps developed over a shorter period of time). Curiously, other fills from around Pompeii show levels of diversity and evenness that are not all that different from the municipal dump sites. This suggests that despite their association with domestic spaces and their location within city walls, these fills nevertheless required material from assemblages produced by the more expansive formation process similar to those that formed municipal peri-urban dumps. Dicus’s willingness to unpack and explain the quantitative character of these fills and dumps is really commendable. He not only recognizes the limits of this kind of approach, but also explains it in a way that is both clear and replicable at other sites that have well-excavated dumps and fill contexts that can be compared. 

Furlan’s article is less sophisticated quantitatively and focuses on aoristic analysis of the chronology of fills and dumps. He argues that fill levels in urban sites are often far too variable and dependent on the formation process that created the fills to serve as proxies for the economic situation in a particular community. Parallel to Dicus’s later work, Furlan suggests that municipal dump sites which capture a wider range of formation processes from, presumably, a spatially and functionally more expansive catchment would represent more fully the economic life of a city.

This work is relevant to my recent work at Polis. The area of EF2 in the Princeton grid at the site included a massive fill deposits that presumably served to facilitate the leveling and drainage of sloping ravine. The presence of abundant cobbles in the fill suggests that it combined building material. Its location at the edge of the city also suggest a proximity to a per-urban dump. In fact, a large mound of slag to the north of the site suggests a dump from nearby industrial activities. There is reason to expect, then, that the fill incorporates aspects of industrial discard in its assemblage and the percentage of amphora sherds, for example, is suggestive. The significant quantity of fine and tables wares as well as cooking pots that we should probably associate with domestic use, however, indicates that the fill also draws upon a wider range of processes perhaps including those associated with both urban discard and disposal. 

Unfortunately, the material that we have available for the study of the fill level at EF2 is a sample of the material excavated in the 1990s. We expect that the excavators discarded a good amount of the course and utility wares that appeared as undiagnostic and this means these kinds of vessels are underrepresented in the assemblage. Or, conversely, table and fine wares are proportionally overrepresented in the assemblage that we studied. In other words, we can’t do the kind of thoughtful analysis performed by Furlan or Dicus. Despite these limitations, their work does give me something to think with when exploring the legacy data produced by the excavations along the northern side of the city of Arsinoë in the village of Polis. 

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.