Cyprus in Global Late Antiquity

I’ve been working this week on adapting some of the paper that I gave at Dumbarton Oaks last month into a section in a short article with Jody Gordon. The article considers globalization as a paradigm for understanding Roman and Late Roman Cyprus. In my short contribution, I’m arguing that, in some ways, Late Antique Cyprus was indistinguishable from its neighbors in the region and, in some regards, represented a kind of Late Antique “non place” where most manifestations of distinctly Cypriot ways of life became manifest in the material culture of the wider Late Roman world. To make this argument, which frankly is a kind of “strawperson,” I explore both ceramics and ecclesiastical architecture on the island and argue that many of the key forms present are common in the wider region. 

The second part of the paper will complicate this perspective, by arguing that an emphasis on the global character of the Late Roman material culture of Cyprus obscures the variation across the island. If I can swing it, I want to suggest that our understanding of the global is, at least in the archaeology of the Roman and Late Roman world located at the intersection of issues of scale and the typologies through which we produce chronologically specific assemblages of material. I have more to do to get this contribution into shape, but if you’re interested in a draft, keep reading:

The Late Roman period on Cyprus shows so many of the hallmarks of globalization that it is tempting to read the Cypriot landscape as a series of premodern non places to appropriate the term that Marc Augé coined to describe the indistinguishable character of hotels, airports, and shopping malls in the globalized contemporary world (Augé xxxx). Indeed, G. Bowersock noted that the brilliant series of Late Roman mosaics from the House of Aion at Paphos depicting the life of Dionysos reflect a pan-Mediterranean fascination with Dionysos echoed in the 6th-century epic poem of Nonnos of Panopolis (Bowersock 1990, 49-53). In later Late Antiquity, Derek Kreuger has noted, the seventh century world that Leontios of Cyprus described in his lives of St. Symeon the Holy Fool and St. John the Almsgiver leveraged a range of features, economic and political realities, and landscapes that would be familiar to literate residents of Leontios’s native Neapolis on Cyprus, in St. Symeon’s Emesa, and St. John’s Alexandria where his lives were certainly read. The regular transit of bishops, pilgrims, and other Romans across the island ensured that Late Roman cities of Cyprus’s south coast formed part of a familiar landscape connecting the Egypt, North Africa, and the Levant with the Aegean. It is difficult to avoid the impression that whatever aspects of a distinctly Cypriot culture persisted into Roman period, by Late Antiquity, Cyprus emerged as a composite crossroads of Mediterranean influences.

The archaeological evidence from the island likewise reflects the global character of Cyprus during Late Antiquity. While there is no doubt that the basic settlement pattern that emerged over the course of the Cypriot Iron Age persisted into the 7th, 8th, and even 8th century, a new constellation of villages, ex-urban, and suburban settlements (e.g. Rupp 1997) came to complement densely urbanized southern coast of the island. Many of these settlements appear to have supported the place of Cyprus within the economy of the Late Roman Mediterranean. The ex-urban site of Ay. Georgios-Peyias near Paphos, for example, features warehouses that the excavator suspects to have supported the annona route from Egypt to Constantinope (Bakirtzis xxxx). The remarkable scatter of of Pyla-Koutsopetria may have emerged as an important harbor for the quaestura exercitus instituted in the mid-6th century (Caraher et al. 2014). The site a Dreamer’s Bay appears to be another significant entrepôt on the south coast of the island and recent work excavating warehouses promises to contribute to how we understand the island’s economic relationship with the wider region (GET CITE). The presence of kilns for Late Roman 1 amphora on the coast near the village of Ziyi provides more evidence for the role of ex-urban coastal sites in large scale agricultural produce from Cyprus during Late Antiquity. Even small sites like Kione on the Akamas Peninsula and the development of harbors Inland village sites such as Kalavassos-Kopetra situated in intermediate zones between the ore bearing Troodos mountains and coast also flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries (Rautman xxxx) and complemented ongoing extraction of copper from long-worked viens (Given et al. xxxx). A parallel development in the Karkotis valley documented by the Troodos Archaeological and Environmental Survey Project (TAESP) seems to have supported mine in the region of Skouriotissa (TAESP CITE; Rautman, Troodos xxxx). Rural settlement on Cyprus appears to have expanded in the Late Roman period leading Marcus Rautman to remark on the “busy countryside of Late Roman Cyprus” (Rautman xxxx) which appears to have prospered into the late 6th century. The intensity of settlement in the Cypriot landscape during Late Antiquity finds parallels across the Mediterranean world from the well-known “deserted village” of the limestone massif in Syria to the valleys of the Peloponnesus.

At a glance, the material culture of Cyprus tells a similar story. Cyprus saw a regular flow of imported fine or table wares particularly African Red Slip and Phocaean Ware (or Late Roman C ware). Archaeologists long thought that Cypriot Red Slip (Late Roman D ware) was manufactured on the Western side of the island perhaps near production sites of the earlier Cypriot Sigillata, but it now appears that most forms of Cypriot Red Slip were manufactured in Psidia (CITE). These fine wares, whatever their provenience, remain common in assemblages from across the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Levant. It remains difficult to identify the provenience of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora on Cyprus, but it appears likely that a substantial percentage of this common form originated in the Aegean or Anatolia. The same can be said for its successor, the globular Late Roman 13 amphora, which also saw production on Cyprus, but appeared extensive in 7th and 8th century assemblages in the Aegean and most famously Constantinople (Hayes, Sarachane xxxx). Cooking pots, including the well-known Dhiorios type known from kilns excavated by Hector Catling at the site of Dhiorios from which these pots get their name. Paul Reynolds and his colleagues have noted that cooking pots both in fabrics common to Beirut and elsewhere in the Levant appeared in common ”Dhiorios“ forms as early as the mid-6th century and circulated widely. In sum, the standard components of Cypriot ceramic assemblages throughout Late Antiquity are common not just on Cyprus, but across the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean at least through the end of the 7th century or the first decades of the 8th century. If the Cypriot landscape follows a pattern common to economic expansion across the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of antiquity, the ceramic assemblages suggest that the local economies were either integrated at a regional level or at least sufficiently related for common ceramic forms to appear form multiple, contemporary production sites in the Aegean, Asia Minor, and the Levant.

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

My paper for Friday’s colloquium, The Insular World of Byzantium, is finally done. I’m not entirely happy with it. At best, it offers a minor update to some of the work I’ve been doing on Late Roman Cyprus and incorporates some arguments that I’ve worked on in our effort to publish the basilica at Koutsopetria. Unfortunately, it also draws perhaps a bit too heavily on stuff that Scott Moore, Amy Papalexandrou, and I published in Hesperia this past year. In other words, people who know my work aren’t going to hear anything that they don’t already know.

More bothersome is that I found myself really struggling with the concept of island archaeology in the case of Cyprus. The idea of connectivity has started to get on my nerves. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading too much about flow and logistics in the digital world and have started to see our fixation on connectivity as a way to project a certain set of values from our world to the ancient world. Of course, I recognize that modern connectivity and ancient connectivity are fundamentally different, but, at the same time, there is a move to think about globalization in antiquity. This feels bound up in efforts to conflate modern and ancient connectivity and to naturalize social, political, cultural, and above all economic links across regions. This isn’t to suggest that these links didn’t exist, that they were somehow “bad” or that human society doesn’t share fundamental characteristics over the millennia. Instead, I suppose struggling a bit with the assumption that connectivity or globalization should garner the same weight in how we understand antiquity as it does in how we understand our world today. 

This is not something that I can resolve, of course, and to some extent all historians all operate under paradigms informed by our contemporary situation. I will continue to be vaguely unsettled by it even as I work within these paradigms.

Here’s a link to my paper and the associated “powerpointer.”

Here’s the final slide:

IMG 3916

Islands and Scale

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on my paper from next week’s Dumbarton Oaks colloquium titled The Insular Worlds of Byzantium. My paper is a bit of a rambling affair which seeks to consider whether island archaeology is a useful way to think about the island of Cyprus in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period.

My paper looks at two fairly well-known sources of archaeological evidence: fine ware ceramics and the architecture of Early Christian basilicas. To narrow the scope of my study further, I also focuses primarily on two sites: Polis Chrysochous and Pyla-Koutsopetria. My paper begins (and stay tuned for a draft of it, probably early next week), with a reflection on island archaeology in the context of studies of the Mediterranean by Braudel and subsequent scholars informed by the Annales School concerns for geographically and chronologically expansive readings of history and archaeology.

I then pivot to the island of Cyprus and, narrowing my scope further, to the two sites of Polis and Koutsopetria. This shift from the macro to the micro paralleled the interest among Annalistes in detailed microhistories which might reveal the workings of long term trends (although it is telling that Braudel hesitated, in his master work, The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, to connect the day-to-day events of Philip’s reign to the longer term trends that defined his Mediterranean World). 

As one might expect, the character of fine ware assemblages and Early Christian architecture at the two sites (and across the island) did not reveal a cohesive “island identity” for Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Instead, it demonstrated variability across micro regions and connections with both other sites on the island and wide networks for change and culture. Island archaeology, of course, might suggest that the connections between these sites and the wider networks is a feature of insularity itself. At the same time, this is a rather low threshold for insularity or the interpretative significance of island archaeology. In fact, most island archaeologists consider the oscillation over time between phases of isolation and connectivity to be a feature of island communities. 

This led me to several general conclusions about scale and island archaeology. These are not profound, but they help me organize my thoughts for the final push in writing this paper.

1. Islands and Time. The insular character of communities on any given landmass is most likely visible only over the longue durée. Period specific studies of islands during, say, Late Antiquity or the Early Byzantine period is likely to only capture one phase of the oscillation between isolation and connectivity. As a result, the distinctly insular character of the population, developed in periods of isolation, may be in abeyance at any given period.

2. Insular Islands. Studying one or two islands may not be the ideal way to reveal much about  insularity for any particular period. Insularity might be best understood across larger groups of islands (as well as over long periods of time). Any one island at any one period of time might be more or less connected or more or less isolated. The range of isolation and connectivity is best understood only over a larger body of islands at the scale of, say, the Aegean or the Mediterranean. 

3. Big Islands. It may also be that larger islands will tend to look less like islands and more like “mainlands.” Small islands, with fewer sites, more limited immediate hinterlands, may have more insular trajectories through time. This got my wondering what the breaks are on the concept of insularity. In other words, what historically stopped large islands from functioning in the same basic ways as smaller island. On the one hand, the ecological and environmental diversity of an island like Cyprus might set it apart from smaller, less diverse islands. It also seems that a more nuanced understanding of overland transportation and the ways in which medium and long distance road networks provided forms of connectivity between sites in ways that are distinct from maritime networks.     

4. Periods of Insularity. Jody Gordon, Derek Counts, and Bernard Knapp have argued that during particularly periods in the history of Cyprus — the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Iron Age, and the Bronze Age respectively — a hybrid character of Cypriot identity becomes visible incorporating both distinctively Cypriot elements (defined as such not be any kind of racial or narrowly ethnic criteria and more as elements consistently visible in Cypriot culture over the longue durée) and with aspects imported from outside of the island during periods of intensified culture contact. By the Late Roman period, however, the distinctive integration of long-standing markers of Cypriot identity and the larger Hellenized Late Roman koine appears indistinct at best. Perhaps we could argue that settlement patterns persisted and accommodated the rise of the Early Christian ecclesiastical hierarchy on the island. We might also point to a shift away from the islands close economic and social relations with areas along the Levantine Coast and toward the Aegean, Anatolia, or the Western Mediterranean, but there is no real reason to imagine these relationships as mutually exclusive.

~

As I noted, these are pretty rough notes toward a conclusion for a fairly ragged paper, but I think my paper is finally heading someplace if not productive, at least rhetorically complete.

Science, History, and Late Antiquity

I really enjoyed Christina Sessa’s recent article in the Journal of Late Antiquity, “The New Environmental Fall of Rome: A Methodological Consideration” (JLA 12.1 (2019), 211-255). As the title suggests, Sessa considers the growing interest in applying environmental data to the fall of Rome. She takes particular aim at the work of Michael McCormick, Kyle Harper, and colleagues and argues that their efforts to bring a wide range of scientific data for environmental and epidemiological crisis to bear on the collapse of the Roman world risks subordinating cultural evidence to scientific evidence.

For Sessa, this work has complicated our notions of agency and causality in the history of the Late Roman world. She sees our understanding of causality in a history inextricably linked to textual (and to a less extent material) evidence and mediated by culture. In many cases, scholars interested in environmental history appeal to metaphor to link environmental proxy data to political, culture, social, and economic changes at the end of the ancient world. When they do attempt to link environmental data more clearly to texts, Sessa seems particularly bothered that McCormick’s (and his group’s) rely upon relatively literal readings of textual sources as corroborating climate proxy data or, at least in one instance, literary sources being redated on the basis of climate data. In general, she finds these approaches unsatisfying at best, and unsophisticated at worst. By ignoring the important work of cultural studies scholars over the past 40 years, recent efforts to integrate scientific analysis and history run the risk of ignoring or, worse, dismissing the significance of such complicated issues of race, identity, gender and other “relations of power” (p. 245).  

Sessa’s critique is more thoughtful and in depth than I am presenting here. She suggests that the first phase of environmental scholarship falls short of what is necessary to substantively revise our understanding of Late Antiquity. At the same time, she remains optimistic that a second phase of scholarship will embrace the complicated relationship between human and non human actors and the recursive flows of non-linear causality over long timespans. Curiously, new metaphors for the relationship between between long-term environmental trends and the human stuff of history do offer one way to trace new understandings of causality. After all, the very notion of the “fall of the Rome” is a metaphor useful for describing the complex series of events that led to the decline in Roman power.

Part of the challenge of using environmental data to understand political change is the issue of incommensurability across scale. As Braudel’s classic work on the Mediterranean demonstrated over 50 years ago, the geography and natural environment of the Mediterranean world does not cause particular events. In fact, in Braudel’s masterful panorama of the Mediterranean world, the lines of causality between environmental circumstances, human societies, and events are purposefully obfuscated. Each exists within its own temporal frame, and one is not subordinated to the other. In recent years, a growing interest in the archaeology of assemblages – inspired in part by the work of scholars like Deleuze and Guattari and, in part, by folks like Manuel DeLanda’s work on non-linear history – has offered new and more nuanced ways of understanding the relationship between human and non-human agents. This, in turn, has prompted new questions and ways of thinking about our place in the world that, as Sessa has noted, reject the simplistic binaries of human/nature, culture/environment, things/people.  

In fact, for the study of the Late Roman world and the end of antiquity, I have tended to see efforts to resolve issues of environmental change to the scale of political events as the opposite of Sessa’s critique. Attempting to use environmental data to understand human events reduces the long-term and large-scale changes to an often incommensurate scale of human political institutions. Not only does this speak, as Sessa has noted, to our own particular circumstances of accelerated anthropogenic climate change, but also to a view of the world in which we expect political, social, and economic institutions to persist both locally and globally even when confronted by natural events. Our post-Enlightenment understanding of our relationship to nature has created the expectation that institutions can both adapt to incremental environmental change and compensate for even the most catastrophic circumstances. In antiquity, as John Haldon has noted in his recent work on the Roman Empire of the 7th and 8th centuries, the resilience of the Roman state requires more explanation than the difficulties faced by communities beset by an unpredictable world.  

Despite these reservation, Sessa’s piece is yet another example of how the humanities and sciences can create space for mutual critique. Sessa’s suggestion that this critique should be agonistic and antagonistic (p. 229) reads as a bit too “neoliberal” for my taste. That is to say, I don’t necessarily think that disciplines need to compete with one another to produce a singular truth any more than Braudel’s vision of the Mediterranean resolved long and short-term history.  Working along parallel tracks recognizes the diversity of human experiences. Maybe for complex events like the end of the ancient world, this is the best way forward… 

More on Islands in Late Antiquity

Yesterday evening, I finished reading Miguel Angel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit’s new edited volume, Change and resilience: the occupation of Mediterranean islands in late antiquity (2019). It’s pretty good and filled with things that I should follow up on as I try to reconstruct a bit of what I used to know about Late Antiquity.

As I noted yesterday, most of the contributions don’t so much explicitly address the interpretative potential of insularity (change or resistance, for that matter), as offer case studies on the archaeology of various Mediterranean islands from the Balearics in the west to Cyprus in the East. The book represented a few interesting trends in how we think about islands in Late Antiquity, but these trends have to be sussed out across various contributions. I try to do some of that here:

Islands as Islands. In most cases, the authors took the integrity of the insular space for granted. In other words, even when contributors considered the coastal islands like those along the Adriatic littoral of Croatia, the islands themselves remained the primary interpretative lens through which to understand the history of settlement in the Late Roman period. It is assumed, for example, that the Cyclades or the islands of the southern Adriatic enjoyed similar historical trajectories, which is fair enough, but that these played out in similar ways over the varying landscapes. 

Island Refuges. Anyone who has worked on Late Roman Greece has undoubtedly thought a bit about Sinclair Hood’s famous “islands of refuge” theory. He argues that small islands near the coast often served as refuges for a cowering population faced with the Slavic depredations of the 6th century. By the mid-1990s, scholar had begun to challenge Hood’s arguments and instead suggested that coastal islands in the Saronic and the Gulf of Corinth were the opposite of refuges. Instead, these islands represented a last gasp of economic expansion where mainland dwellers sought to utilize marginal lands – such as the waterless and desolate near coastal islands – to feed their flocks and to engage in other activities best conducted at a distance from more productive lands. This interpretation accounts for the significant quantities of Late Roman ceramics often found on these islands and the presence of church, cisterns, and other buildings perhaps best suited to the needs of a season community. Whatever the interpretation, these islands were understood in a context that depended, at least in part, on the nearby mainland and their insularity was less a concern per se, than the absence of water and limited vegetation. 

Churches. At one point, I had considered including the Cyclades in my dissertation which I ultimately decided to confine to the mainland of southern and central Greece. I am glad that I didn’t do that. The Cyclades have well over 100 known churches. Islands have so many churches and both Crete and Cyprus have over 100 as well. The density of church building across a diverse range of island communities in the Eastern Mediterranean (simply because am not sufficiently familiar with the island of the Western Mediterranean) clearly mark economic prosperity as well as the emergence of new religious and political institutions across the region. If these buildings reflect the needs of congregations (either as space of worship or as a expressions of piety by other means), there is reason to suspect a diversity of communities both on the larger islands of Cyprus and Crete, and across the smaller islands of the Aegean. Whether this reflects fragmented identities on these islands that either complement or complicate notions of a larger insular identity is difficult to know.     

Identity. Cau and Mas offer the observation in their brief introduction that islanders often have a sense of identity that ties them closely to their island homes. Unfortunately, few of the contributors take their personal perspectives explicitly to heart when considering the character of Late Roman islands. That being said, its intriguing to speculate whether the reuse of Nuragic structures on Sardinia, for example, represents an explicit effort a cultural continuity and Sardinian identity. Do efforts to build churches in places that are visible from the sea reflect efforts to announce an identity defined by the insular landscape? Are the political claims of large islands like Crete or Cyprus distinct results of their insularity and do they leverage a sense of identity?    

Historicizing Islands. It’s hard to divorce discussions of insular identity from modern concepts of culture and politics. For places like Cyprus, there is no doubt that its insularity formed part of strongly articulated political claims over the course of the 20th century. It may be that Crete and Sardinia explored similar claims to political sovereignty – if not outright independence – during their long histories. While it is easy enough to fall back on essentialist claims that assert islands have similar political, social, economic, and even cultural characteristics, I wonder how much of this is shaped by political aspirations in the modern era. 

~

Whatever the complications surrounding the notion of insularity, resilience, and change in the Late Roman Mediterranean, the book represents a useful survey of the island landscapes of Late Antiquity. The references throughout will add significantly to my “I feel a need to read” pile and probably shape future posts here on the ole bloggeroo!

Epigraphy and Late Antiquity

Anna Sitz’s recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology is currently my favorite thing (sorry Scott!). It not only takes the archaeology of Late Antiquity seriously, but also considers the complexities of understanding Late Antique practices through the lens of modern scholarly conventions.

There’s a ton to think about in this article, but three things stand out to me.

First, Sitz looks at the re-use of a 1st or 2nd century inscription at a baptistery preserved in the Burdur Museum in Turkey. Traditional publications of this inscription attempt to reconstruct the text despite some damage to the stone. Sitz, in contrast, considers the damage as part of the complex history of reuse and shows that it was probably an intentional reworking of the stone to remove pagan associations from the inscription and to change the name preserved in the original text to that of local benefactor. While the resulting text is not, of course, perfect. The modified letters introduced some grammatical ambiguities, but these were within the scope of Late Antique practice in the region and the reworked name was consistent with the name of other local donors in the area as well. In other words, but considering how Late Roman folks read and wrote inscriptions, a stone originally seen as damaged become a deliberate part of local epigraphic practice and entirely appropriate for use in an Early Christian baptistery.

Second, Sitz considers the monumental inscription of Augustus’s Res Gestae immured in the wall of the Temple of Augustus and Roma at Ankara. She argues that the the presence of this text and a few others on the wall of the temple ensured that this building continued to be used into the Late Roman period. She argues that the temple was converted into a church sometime in Late Antiquity on the basis of a careful reading of the urban change in Ankara and critical examination of the structure itself (and the work of scholars who have tried to understand the various modifications to this building over time).

Returning to the Res Gestae, she noted that Augustus had a largely positive reputation in Late Antiquity. This was in part because Christians associated his reign with the birth of Christ and, in part, because Justinian, among others, presented himself as a new Augustus. Moreover, the temple to Augustus and Roma also had inscriptions naming Galatian priests at the temple. These texts would have both reinforced the Galatian identity of the city of Ankara, as well as connected them to the imperial family and office. This established both the antiquity of Galatian identity and its close tie with the imperial house. 

In short, Sitz suggested that these two earlier texts resonated with the Late Roman community at Ankara and may have motivated them to both preserve the building, but also convert it into a church. Thus the preservation of these inscriptions was not by chance, but owed itself to the practices of reading and sense of identity common among Late Roman Galatians. Unlike older views of spolia or architectural reuse which tended to see such practices as opportunistic or even antagonistic, Sitz demonstrates that these practices also reflect the process of translating the past into a meaningful present.

Finally, and perhaps more provocatively, this article appears in the American Journal of Archaeology, which defines its scope as “the art and archaeology of ancient Europe and the Mediterranean world, including the Near East and Egypt, from prehistoric to Late Antique times.” 

This policy, of course, has received considerable criticism in recent years and reflects the tendency for policies to persist much longer than attitudes and practices among scholars. As a result, most archaeologists would understand this policy as both unnecessarily restrictive, considering the mission of the Archaeological Institute of America in general, and incompatible with the interests of most Mediterranean archaeologists which is increasingly diachronic. Old policies, however, die hard.

It is hard not to see this article as an effort to soften the AJA’s stance in practice. Not only does Sitz have to deal with the Byzantine and even Ottoman archaeology of Ankara to date the Temple of Augustus and Roma, but she argues that deliberate cultural attitudes in later periods have shaped the archaeological record. This is common sense for most archaeologists brought up on Schiffer’s famous N- and C-transform in formation processes. The significance of diachronic regional survey projects over the last 50 years has further strengthened the diachronic interests of most Mediterranean archaeologists and has introduced renewed energy into big picture questions in archaeology that sit awkwardly with traditional periodization schemes.

My suspicion is that the AJA can’t just change its policy (which is upheld by the ancient luminaries who sit on the esteemed “Governing Board of the AIA” (to be clear, I have no idea who sits on the Governing Board, but I suspect they’re big cheeses.)), but they can use its pages to construct arguments for why this policy is no longer useful or relevant for the kind of work that the journal seeks to publish. For those of us who work at the margins of the Late Antiquity world, this is a good thing and it’s great that such a careful and creative piece of scholarship can support the journal’s editors. 

Teaching Thursday: Revisiting Clark’s History, Theory, Text

This semester, I’m teaching a small graduate seminar that is a combination historical methods, theory, and historiography. The syllabus is uncomplicated and involves only 10 or 11 books, a couple of short paper, and a draft of a prospectus.

The third book on the syllabus of Elizabeth Clark’s 2004 classic, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Reading the book this weekend and it evoked a serious case of nostalgia. I remember how excited I was to read this book in 2004 when I was just a year out from my dissertation and still waking from over two years of focused research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. I largely spent my time in Greece finishing my dissertation, trying to understand how to publish Hellenistic fortifications, and getting my first archaeological project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, started. It was great fun, but it also saw a real narrowing of my perspectives on how to study the ancient world. My years in Athens helped me become more technically and methodologically proficient. 

At the same time, I grew increasingly distant from the conversations taking place in the larger field of history. This probably started long before I decamped from Ohio State’s history department to the American School in Athens, but my time in Athens exaggerated this feeling. When I read Elizabeth Clark’s book some 6 months after returning to the U.S., I felt like I had some catching up to do.

For those unfamiliar with this book, it stands as a survey of the “linguistic turn” in the humanities with particular attention the study of Late Roman Christian literature. The book remains as fresh as ever, in part, because the potential of critical theory is still being unpacked, negotiated, and debated in the humanities and because so many of the key works were already decades old by the time that Clark’s book arrived. The books is not casual. It’s dense, articulate, careful in its intention to open the linguist turn to scholars who were steeped in other traditions or downright skeptical of its applicability to Christian texts of Late Antiquity. 

Today, the main reason that the book feels dated is that so much of the linguistic turn has been internalized over the last 15 years. Clark, along with Averil Cameron, Virginia Burrus, and others whose work introduced critical theory to the study of Late Roman Christianity have produced students, inspired the peers, and led to a sea change in our field. 

At the same time, the book also feels oddly apolitical. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but as a refection both on our own politically age and the increased intermingling of the critical theory with its concern for language with social theory and its concern for institutions, communities, individuals, and agency. While these bodies of theory are, by no means, mutually exclusive (and tend to intersect in the work of Bourdieu, Foucault, Althusser and others), they tended occupy different places in our critical tool kit. As an archaeologist, I think its safe to say that we’ve tended to be drawn more closely to social theory and its direct applicability the kinds of problems that our work explores: development and change in states, social organization, identity formation, etc. 

It seems to me that this integration of the critical  theory with social theory has provided the most effective foundation for the most recent generation of powerful and overtly political scholarship on the ancient world. I’m staring at a copy of Dayna S. Kalleres City of Demons: Violence, Ritual, and Christian Power in Late Antiquity (2015) for example, sitting on my “to read” list. And was incredible impressed with Kristina Sessa’s The formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (2012) (blogged about here.) These are but two books in a massive stack of impressive work over the past decade that considers authority, poverty, ethnicity, and social order at the end of the ancient world. 

I’m looking forward to walking through this book with my little seminar this afternoon and thinking about the linguistic turn and its impact on how we think about texts from the past. It’ll bring back good memories too and remind me how little I’ve done to keep my fingers on the recent trends in my field.  

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

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

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

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

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

Doing Late Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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