Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

My blog is a bit late this morning because I was finishing an almost final draft of my paper on the Chrysochou Valley. It comes in just under the 6000 word limit (with the abstract and citations). I’m pretty happy with it. 

Here’s the abstract:


This contributionconsiders the long Late Antiquity in the areas of EF2 and EF1 at the site ofPolis (ancient Arsinoe). By exploring the fuzzy edges of our chronologicalunderstanding of the Roman and Late Roman periods on the island, this articleexpands the length of Late Antiquity. The changes in the area of EF2demonstrate that the work of lengthening Late Antiquity on Cyprus may beginwith exploring the Romanization of the urban landscape in the century after apossible 2nd-century earthquake. At the same time, the ever later drift of ourceramic chronologies has required us to decouple episodes of destruction,abandonment, and recovery from major historic events such as Arab raids orbroader narratives of decline. The comparison of the ceramic assemblage fromthe small suburban site of EF1 to that associated with the second phase of theSouth Basilica suggests that the reconstruction, expansion, and elaboration ofthat building may well date to 8th century. This suggests that patterns ofurbanism established sometime after the 2nd century AD continued for over fivecenturies along the northern edge of the city of Polis. 

And here’s the paper itself.

Lengthening Late Antiquity on Cyprus

I have been working on a contribution to an edited volume this week with a late-July deadline. The article is a revision of a paper that I gave in March at the Cyprus in long late antiquity conference (here’s a PDF). The paper that I gave considers the late 7th and 8th centuries at Polis (ancient Arsinoe) on Cyprus with particular attention to the South Basilica in the area of EF2 in the Princeton grid of the site and the area of EF1. Aside from the basic work of adding citations and making the paper a bit more polished, I’ve decided to add a short discussion of the Roman period at EF2 which proposes that we might consider extending the long late antiquity earlier as well as later.

I’m pretty happy with how it’s going so far and I feel like I’m saying something new, rather than just reorganizing the old.

The earliest substantive phase of the area of EF2, around the South Basilica, dates to the Hellenistic and Early Roman period and includes a series of workshops that preserve evidence for metallurgical work, glass making, and ceramic manufacture. The numerous wells, cisterns, and drains across the site shows that the collection and channeling of water was an important consideration and an important asset to the industrial installations in the area. For example, immediately to the east of the apse later basilica stood a kiln apparently used in the production of lamps in the period before the middle-2nd century. The presence of shallow pool near this kiln shows that potters performed the water-intensive task of levigating clay acquired from the abundant local sources in the region. The industrial activity in this area is consistent with the kind of smoky, dirty, and water intensive activity often located around at the margins of settlement. The presence of a massive pile ancient slag to the north of EF2, shown on early modern maps and visible in the scarp of the current road from the village to the coast, hints at the scale hints at the scale of industrial activities across the northern edge of the city during the Hellenistic and Early Roman period.

The industrial area of EF2 appears to have functioned until sometime in the 2nd century. After this time, much of the area was covered in a fill layer. We dated this fill largely through the presence of Eastern Sigillata A and Cypriot Sigillata, and excavators encountered it consistently below Late Antique horizons under the South Basilica. It is tempting, of course, to associate this fill level with evidence for a mid-second century earthquake that destroyed the House of Dionysios at Paphos and resulted in the sealed deposits published by John Hayes in 1991 (202-203). Our efforts to trace the post-2nd century redevelopment of this area encounters the challenges associated with the 3rd-century ceramic typologies and chronologies across the island and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. That said, it is probable that the two well-paved roads that intersect in the area date in their current state to after the transformation of the industrial precinct in the area. This road system includes a series of pipes and channels designed both drain water from the roadbed. It seems probable that this water system also served to manage the flow of water down the coastal ridge from the city through the buildings situated along its northern edge. It seems likely that emphasis on drainage associated with this area complemented effort to level the entire area with the 2nd-century fill that served to reduce the flow of water down the natural drainage running through this area. The emphasis on drainage and leveling the region may well anticipate later efforts to forestall erosion in advance of redeveloping this district of the city.

There is limited evidence for architecture associated with this 2nd-century leveling phase. The main example is a building opening onto the north side of the east-west road that we have called the southeast rooms. It is clearly associated with the existing roads and while it may date to as early as 1st c. AD, it is more likely part of the post-2nd-century transformation of this area. In later centuries, the building underwent a series of modification including its division into two rooms which continued to stand along the east-west road until their destruction at around the time of the major reconstruction of the South Basilica.

The other structure in the area that dated to after the 2nd-century fill is a quadrifons arch which must post-date the construction of the Roman roads in the area. This feature is more significant for our understanding of this section of the city. The arch stood astride the north-south and east-west roads through the area. Its prominent location at the northern edge of the city makes it a suitable location for a display of civic euergetism which came increasingly to characterize Roman cities on the island. Such effort to aggrandize urban roads with colonnades and arches is characteristic of 2nd and 3rd century changes in cities across the Near East and Cyprus that Jody Gordon has associated with the Romanization of the island’s urban aesthetic (Gordon 2012). Thus, it is possible to imagine that the arch was the work of a civic benefactor who installed it to monumentalize the entry to the city from the coast. The arch post-dates the construction of the road. The southeast footing for the arch interrupts the original drain along the eastern side of the road necessitating a new drain cut into the road pavement to the west of the original drain. While we know little about the elevation of this structure, it appears to contribute to the transformation of the area from an industrial landscape, prior to the destruction of the workshops and kilns, to a monumental landscape at some point starting after the 2nd-century AD. The best parallel on Cyprus for this kind of feature is are the double tetrapyla associated with the southwestern and northwestern corners of the western court at the basilica of the Campanopetra at Salamis. These likely date to the 5th or 6th centuries and so it is possible that the quadrifons at Polis may date to many centuries after the renovated road (Roux 1998, 28-29).

The inability to date a feature such as this arch on the basis of its footprint alone demonstrates how the basic features of a monumentalized space developed with the Romanization of urban space on the island which accelerated in the 2nd century AD. This offers another perspective on the concept of the long late antiquity. Instead of focusing on extending the end of the Late Antiquity period into the 8th or even 9th centuries, this brief survey of the Roman period at the site of Polis-Arsinoe, suggests that some of the urban patterns present along the north edge of the city emerged along with the larger redevelopment of the area perhaps after a 2nd-century earthquake. The renovated road, the southeast rooms, and the quadrifons arch well mark the start of the long Late Antiquity at EF2.

Drafting the Long Late Antiquity on Cyprus

This month, I’m working on revising a paper that I gave in March on the Chrysochous Valley on Cyprus during the “long late antiquity” (here’s a PDF). To do this, I’m going to look both later and earlier at two areas at the city of Polis. To tighten the paper a bit, I’m going to cut most of the stuff about Koutsopetria and focus more on our work from Polis, particularly the areas EF2 and EF1 (which you can find described, loosely, here and here).

I’m working right now on a short introduction and this where I am right now. Enjoy:

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

The concept of a “long late antiquity” appears to have emerged around the turn of the 21st century (Cameron 2001). Over the last decade, the phrase has increasingly emerged as shorthand for studies of late antiquity that conform to the more expansive view of the period introduced by A.H.M. Jones and Peter Brown (Jones 1964; Brown 1971; e.g. Marcone 2008; Izdebski and Mulryan 2018). While no one has written a critical history of this phrase and Marcone (2008) overview of scholarship on the long late antiquity oddly does not use the phrase at all beyond the title of the article, it is easy enough imagine this concept as a more expansive view of the ancient Mediterranean developed over the last three decades of the 20th century (although see Inglebert 2017 for the concept of the persistence of the idea of a “short late antiquity”). The development of this concept at the end of the 20th century may well have anticipated the end of that century and an awareness that the defining character of the 20th-century would continue into the 21st century just as the long-19th century extended from the French Revolution until the start of the Great War (e.g. Hobsbawn 1962; 1975; 1987).

Whatever the general context for this term, the concept of the long late antiquity in the 21st-century reflects an approach characterized by an effort to correct earlier chronological schemes overdetermined by catastrophic political or military events. Archaeologists, of course, have done their part to contribute to these narratives. They sought to correct the tendency of an older generation of archaeologists to associate modification to the urban fabric, damage to buildings, and changes in rural settlement with political and military events. In the place of event based archaeology, 21st-century scholars have increasingly come to study long term economic trends, the complexities of environmental change, and the persistence of forms of social organization and everyday practices. All this has tended to blur the tidy association of archaeological levels with particular historical events and consequently blurred the edges of the Late Antique world.

Among archaeologists, one of the key contributors to the long late antiquity is the ever later drift of our ceramic chronologies (e.g. Sanders and Slane 2005; Armstrong 2009) bolstered by the steadily expanding body of carefully published excavations and surveys from both on Cyprus (Rautman 2003; Caraher et al. 2019) and across the Mediterranean world. This work, which is so impressively represented at this conference, has managed to distance archaeological narratives from political or military events. In Greece, for example, evidence for 7th century pottery in the countryside and in urban centers reveals that the Slavic invasion of the late 6th century no longer represents a catastrophic break and many urban and rural sites remained viable into the mid-7th century (Gallimore and Caraher 2020). The evidence for the Islamic conquests of the 7th century in the Levant, as another example, remain ambiguous with some areas showing a rapid decline in the number of settlements, whereas other regions show little change or even expansion (GET CITE). In many cases, the material culture that plays such a key role in assessing the date and function of sites changes far more slowly than political or military events. On Cyprus, as this conference presupposes, the firm dates associated with the Arab Raids of the mid-7th century or the supposed depopulation of the island for the founding of Nea Justinianoupolis in 691 no longer mark a clear break in island’s material culture (see Zavagno 2017; Metcalf 2009).

This is not to suggest that Cyprus did not see significant changes in the 7th and 8th centuries. The varied character and extent of these changes, however, provides another key context for understanding the long late antiquity on the island. For example, as Marcus Rautman has shown, the countryside appears to have endured significant depopulation by the middle years of the 7th century (Rautman 2000). At the same time, urban centers appear to have continued and enjoyed ongoing prosperity with Paphos showing signs of an Arab population in the 8th century (Megaw 1988; Christides 2006), Soloi preserving evidence for recovery after the Arab raids (Des Gagniers and Tinh 1985, 115-125.), Kyrenia remaining an important port for the Byzantine fleet (GET CITE), Salamis-Constantia and its neighborhood witnessing ongoing investment and rebuilding (Argoud et al. 1980.), and so on. Even urban continuity, however, is not a rule: Megaw argued that Kourion was abandoned after a late-7th century earthquake, Amathus experienced gradually declined with the site producing coins, seals, and ceramics only into the early-8th century, and Kition remaining largely unknown. Between the countryside and cities, ex-urban sites such as Ay. Georgios-Peyias appear to have declined in the 7th century.

Despite the significant evidence that late antiquity continues for longer than catastrophic events might have suggested to an earlier generation of scholars, the concept of a long late antiquity is not limited to simply extending the period later. John Lund has noted generally (2015) that the absence of securely dated 3rd century contexts on the island should not necessarily represent a stark decrease in activity on the island during these period. Moreover, as Henryk Meyza work at Paphos has shown some of the ambiguity associated with the 3rd century on the island might be the result of our ceramic typologies (2007). On Cyprus, the division between the latest forms of Cypriot Sigillata, for example, and the earliest forms of Cypriot Red Slip (or Late Roman “D” ware) often falls during the 3rd century with the assumption that former is earlier and the latter is later. These kinds of chronological divisions reinforce periodization schemes that create a break between the Roman period proper and Late Antiquity.

This paper will consider a constellation of evidence from two areas at the site of Polis-Arsinoe which provides an example of the long late antiquity on the island.

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started to put some words on the page for a guide book to the excavations at Polis on Cyprus that Joanna Smith is spearheading. I focused on the site EF1 on Tuesday and today, I thought I would take a swing at the somewhat more formidable task of describing the neighborhood of the South Basilica. This also dovetails with my July writing project which involves turning my “The Chrysochous Valley in the Long Late Antiquity” paper (here’s a PDF) into an article.

So here goes:

In the sixth century, the South Basilica come to dominate the district known as EF2 on the basis of the Princeton excavation grid and it continues to be the most prominent structure visible in this area today. Originally constructed as a three-aisled basilica with three eastern apses and a wood roof. Fragments of mosaics found during excavations suggest that the apses likely had light catching mosaic decorations. The walls of the central nave stood higher than those of the flanking aisles and almost certainly had windows that bathed the central nave with light and both decorative and figural wall painting. 

The church underwent a series of modifications over the course of its six hundred years of existence. The most significant adaptation occurred in the 7th or early 8th century when it received a narthex to the east and porch that ran along the entire south side of the building. Originally, a series of arched opening supported the south porch which joined the narthex in the square annex room visible today to the south of the narthex. At the same time, the wood roof was replaced by barrel vaults supported by series of buttresses that are visible along the walls of the center aisle. The area between the south porch and the road was an open courtyard that stood atop a two meter deep fill of rubble which served as a drain designed to prevent the flow of water down the hill from undermining the church’s walls. It may be that the downslope flow of waters against the south wall of the church caused damage to the first phase of the church and led to the construction of the barrel vaulted second phase. Whatever the cause, it is notable that barrel vaults, narthexes, and south porches remain common features in the churches on Cyprus. 

At some point in the building’s history, the church itself and the surrounding area becomes a burial ground. The three well preserved burials stand in the south aisle of the church. These burials likely represented individuals with either a close connection to this particular church or status in the community or the ecclesiastical hierarchy. One of these individuals was buried with a decorated bronze cross suspended from a bronze chain. These burials may be the earliest around the church. The next few centuries saw over 150 interments to the south, east, and west of the church and these individuals represented a cross-section of Late Roman and Medieval Arsinoe. The burials are notable for the presence of personal effects especially stone pectoral crosses that marked out the piety and faith of the deceased.

The Medieval history of the building remains less clear. It appears that at least part of the western side of the church collapsed by the 11th century. It may be, however, that the central nave continued to stand and function as a truncated cemetery church for another century or so.  

The church building was not the only Late Roman and Medieval buildings in the area of EF2. To the south of the church stand the so-called “Southeast Rooms.” The earliest phase of these rooms appears to predate the basilica and might date to the 3rd or 4th century. They were modified in the 5th or 6th centuries and the large room was divided into two smaller rooms that appear to open onto the east-west road to the south of the basilica. These rooms were destroyed and covered with the cobble fill as part of the second phase of the South Basilica.

To the west of basilica on the west side of the north south room stood a small well house. This building appear to be contemporary with the basilica and is part of a larger transformation of this area in Late Antiquity. Fragments of mosaic found in the well itself indicates that the apsidal shaped well-house was probably covered by a half-doom decorated with mosaic. That and its elegant shape suggests that this building was an attractive contribution to the neighborhood of the church. The water from the well and the arched south porch of the church offered a welcome site to travelers entering the city from the coastal road.

The well-house and basilica marks the transformation of this area from being an industrial suburb of the city to a more monumental space. This transformation likely began with the construction of the quadrafrons arch at some point after the second century. The construction of the church marked would have marked Polis out as a Christian city and advertised the power of its bishop, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the Christian community. The subsequent growth of the cemetery demonstrated that the practice of burying the dead outside of the town’s center continued from antiquity and the significance of this Early Christian monument persisted for nearly a half-millennium. 

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 1)

One of this summer’s projects is to write up a few sections that contribute to a new guidebook for the site of Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. The site is currently undergoing adaptation to accommodate visitors in a more structured and informed way and the site guide will be part of this larger undertaking. Fortunately, we have a great writing team and I’ll collaborate with Scott Moore and Amy Papalexandrou to describe some sections of the sites and Joanna Smith is gamely marshaling others to bring this entire thing together.

This morning, I thought I’d prepare a draft describing the site of EF1. It’s a fun challenge because not only is it visible from the main road connecting the village of Polis to a popular beach, but it also is only partially excavated and its function is uncertain. Fortunately, I only need to produce 850 words so this is not a major component to the guide, but since it is a site that attracts some curiosity (and one that my colleague Scott Moore and I have worked on lately), I want to try to introduce casual visitors to the complexities of archaeology at Polis.

So here goes:

There are a small pair of rooms situated on the east side of the road from the village of Polis to beachside camping site. The site is known as “E.F1” based on its designation in the Princeton excavation grid system and it stands on the edge of the coastal ridge overlooking the flatter plains and the sea. It seems possible that an ancient road ascended from the coast in this area. 

The walls visible at the site represent three different Late Antique phases dating to the 6th and 7th centuries. The remains of a doorway facing the road is part of the earliest phases at the site and probably dates to the 6th century AD. It provides access to an east-west hallway that is visible to the east of the door, but is now interrupted by a later, north-south wall. 

The north-south wall is part of the second phase at the building as is the east-west wall visible on the northern side of of the site. A doorway preserved in this wall stands at a significantly higher elevation than the door near the road indicating that it is almost certainly later. It appears that the drain running through the eastern part of the building dates to this phase as well. The presence of a drain here suggests a renewed interest in controlling the flow of water down the coastal ridge and hints at changes to water management in the ancient city upslope. It may be that erosion at the site led the builders to reinforce the structure by thickening the walls. A similar strategy of wall thickening is visible at the South Basilica and in Medieval churches throughout the area. Despite these efforts, it appears that the building collapsed at some point in the 7th century. It may have been already abandoned as the drain was clogged with debris and a layer of rubble, including a well-preserved glass window, covered floors that were largely devoid of artifacts.   

With few artifacts associated with the building’s use, it is difficult to understand its function in antiquity. The excavators found a significant quantity of slag during their excavations that they originally speculated might reflect an industrial function for the building. Most of this slag, however, appeared in the lowest levels of excavation and probably represents industrial activities in this region prior to this building’s construction. In fact, early maps of the area show a “heap of slag” that likely dates to antiquity and the presence of workshops in Roman levels surrounding the South Basilica likely accounts for the presence of industrial debris in the area. Of course, this does not provide us with any particular insights into the function of the Late Roman phase of the building. The well-preserved window glass and the nicely designed doorway, however, hints that these rooms may have been part of a domestic structure which would have been well-situated to catch seas breezes and to have a clear view of the coast.

At some point after the building’s abandonment and collapse, a woman was buried along the south side of the site immediately to the east of the large north-south wall. She was buried with a lead sealing inscribed with the name Stephanos, a local aristocrat known from other seals dating generally to the early 8th century. The sealing presumable sealed a document of some importance to the deceased and since the seal must predate the burial, it suggests a mid-8th century date for the abandonment of the site. It may be that this burial along with those surrounding the North and South basilicas mark the transformation of the northern side of the city into a cemetery precinct. 

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 

More on Early Christian Baptisteries from Greece

A couple of weeks ago, I started to write some of a short introduction to the baptisteries of Greece that I’m working on with David Pettegew. I’m assuming writing about the Early Christian architecture of Greece is a bit like riding a bike… That said, right now, it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of random information mostly culled from recent publications. Below, I continue my rambling discussion on the topic that I hope will take shape over the next few weeks!

This will get tightened-up, re-ordered, and expanded over the next month, but I figured that Tsiknopempti was better than almost any time to think about Early Christianity in Greece. The first paragraph is the same as the one that I wrote in my previous post, but then I proceed to talk a bit about trends in the arrangement of baptisteries in Greece before summarizing a case study from a relatively recent article by Athanassios Mailis (which you can read here).


The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

The baptisteries found within the modern boundaries of the nation of Greece produce a fairly inconsistent picture of their arrangement and basic form. We may partly attribute this to the opaque chronology of many of these structures, which we will discuss below. It is also worth noting that the modern nation of Greece includes falls mainly within the prefecture of Illyricum Orientalis which was under the jurisdiction of Rome until the 8th century but some of the Eastern Aegean islands were part of the prefecture of Asia which fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. While the liturgical influences of these two ecclesiastical spheres remain obscure in most cases, despite the efforts of Dimitrios Pallas (1979/1980) to associate the Constitutiones Apostolorum with the region, there appear to be traces of both Constantinopolitan and Adriatic influences on the ecclesiastical architecture as well as distinctly local trends. This suggests that the region likely saw a range of inter- and intra-regional liturgical influences and practices that may have shaped the architectural arrangement of the baptisteries and their change over time. Athanasios Mailis’s survey of the baptisteries in Greece noted for example that 50% of the baptisteries from churches in Illyricum Orieantalis (16 of 32) appear as annexes on the western part of the building. For churches in the Aegean islands, in contrast, baptisteries that stood as annexes on the western part of the church account for less than 25% of known examples (6 of 27). Mailis observed that same number of baptisteries arranged around the eastern part of the church represent examples located exclusively on the neighboring islands of Kos and Rhodes. This provides a compelling example of what was likely a regional tradition of architecture that perhaps reflected distinctive theological or liturgical understanding of baptismal practices.

The four known baptisteries with fonts located within the eastern part of church buildings on Crete, at either the north or south end of the aisles, likewise suggest regional practices (Mailis 2006). This rather unusual arrangement of baptisteries on Crete also demonstrates how complicated understanding the chronology, function, and influences of such structures can be. The baptisteries in churches at Panormos,
Vyzari, Archangel Michael Episkope, all have high stylobates which separate the nave from the aisles and this is characteristic of churches from the Aegean and mainland Greece. Mailis suggests that the tripartite organization of the eastern ends of these buildings and the appearance of apses at the eastern end of the nave and aisles at Vyzari suggests eastern liturgical influences perhaps associated with Constantinople or the churches of Cyprus or Asia Minor (Baldini 2013, 36). 

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

Over the next five weeks or so I have to go back to some research that I was doing in around 2008 to write a short piece and catalogue of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece. (For some reason this makes me use my Allen Iverson voice: We’re talking about Baptisteries. Not a basilica. Baptisteries). 

Anyway, the start of Lent feels like the right time for me to put some words down on paper that get the ball rolling. My little essay will contribute to a larger project spearheaded by Robin Jensen to bring together descriptions and interpretations of baptisteries from around the ancient world. I’m writing this with David Pettegrew who is writing a short survey of Early Christian archaeology that will complement our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology

Here goes a very rough first swing:

The study of Early Christian baptisteries in Greece has developed relatively little since I. Volanakes’s 1976 book, The Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece (in Greek). The book offers a systematic survey of known baptisteries and remarks on their form and chronology. The vast majority of 68 structures catalogued by Sebastian Ristow in 1998 also appear in Volanakes and the exceptions, such as the baptisteries associated with J.-P. Sodini’s basilicas at Aliki on Thasos and the German excavations at Demetrias are fairly well known. There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early Christian landscape of Greece.

There are four significant challenges facing any study of the Early Christian baptisteries of Greece. The first, and most significant challenge, is that there are very few stratigraphically excavated Early Christian buildings in the region. In fact, most of the churches and baptisteries known from Greece were excavated before the middle of the 20th century through methods designed with a greater interest in exposing the horizontal architecture of the buildings than revealing the vertical stratigraphy associated with their construction. As a result, archaeologists have dated most churches and baptisteries in Greece on the basis of architectural style or mosaic decoration. This tends to provide only the most general chronology for these buildings and rarely allows us to reconstruct or date the changes that took place at these buildings over time. For example, it is clear that the impressive baptistery associated with the Lechaion basilica in Corinth is earlier than the enormous church which stands to its south, but it is unclear how much earlier and impossible to associate it with earlier structures at the site. The two baptisteries associated with Basilica C at Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes) are only circumstantially associated related phases of the basilica. The excavator supposes that the smaller second baptistery is later and reflects a shift from adult to infant baptism in the 6th century AD. 

One consequence of the less than ideal excavation conditions associated with the both churches and baptisteries in Greece is that it remains very difficult to detect development over time. It is clear, for example, that the Lechaion baptistery underwent modification at some point with a smaller font suitable only for affusion installed in the southeastern conch of the octagonal baptistery. It is unclear however whether this font supplemented or replaced the central font in this room and reflected a wholesale change in baptismal ritual or the convenient addition of an alternative to ongoing practice of the earlier rite. It is likewise difficult to understand the chronological relationship between multiple baptisteries in any single community and whether the construction of some of these baptisteries marked earlier structures becoming obsolete or going out of use or changes in baptismal liturgy or the status of various churches.   In effect, archaeologists and architectural historians should treat the existing corpus of baptisteries for Greece, much like the corpus of Early Christian basilicas, provides a chronologically undifferentiated body of evidence which almost certainly combines regional, liturgical, and likely doctrinal variations present in Late Antique Christian communities in the region.  

Among the more interesting features of the Early Christian architectural landscape of Greece is the number of baptisteries associated with major urban centers. Nikopolis, Nea Anchialos (Thessalian Thebes), Argos, Corinth, and Athens all have multiple churches with baptisteries. Conventionally, the bishop was responsible for baptism and the rites occurred once per year as part of the Easter Vigil. Thus multiple baptisteries, assuming that they contemporary, requires some explanation. Of course, it is possible that the annual baptismal rites occurred on a kind of rotation between churches or even that the bishop performed the rites at multiple sites on the same day. Another explanation is that various congregations following various doctrines each had their own baptisteries in Greek cities attended by their own bishop. We have relatively little understanding of doctrinal diversity in Greece during Late Antiquity, but the evidence that we do have suggests that divisive church politics did not spare Greek see any more than any other part of the empire. Finally, it is tempting to imagine that the presence of baptisteries at some sites maybe have had a connection to pilgrimage and so-called “ad sanctos” baptismal practice in which pilgrims traveled to particular sites to receive baptism. The connection between the basilica at Lechaion, for example, and the martyrdom of Leonidas and his seven companions may provide an explanation for the elaborate character of the baptistery at that site. St. Leonidas and seven women were drowned off the coast of Corinth and, according to a 13th century martyrology, while being drowned celebrated his imminent martyrdom by comparing it to a second baptism. While it seems unlikely that the Lechaion baptistery performed second baptisms, which would be a distinctly heterodox practice at a site likely associated with an effort to promote imperial orthodoxy in a see situated at the eastern edge of western ecclesiastical control, it may suggest that the site was a popular destination for “ad sanctos” rites.

The large number of baptisteries in Greece especially in urban areas have also taken on particularly significant for scholars who seek to use baptisteries as a way to asses the nature or rate of conversion in Greece. Recent scholarship has suggested that large-scale Christianization in Greece occurred rather late and the proliferation of baptisteries in urban areas was a response to the need for mass baptisms during the Easter vigil. Putting aside the role of the bishop in baptism, this is not necessarily an implausible scenario, but the lack of chronological control over the dates of the baptisteries (and their destruction) in Greece makes it hard to align with existing evidence.


This is a start. I promised myself to spend time today on my book project and this is all the time that I can allot for this today, but stay 

Metahistories, Decline, and the Roman Economy

Yesterday, prompted by some well meaning colleagues and social media, I read Kim Bowes’s very recent article “When Kuznets Went to Rome: Roman Economic Well-Being and the Reframing of Roman History” in Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 2.1 (2021): 7-40. It’s good, thought provoking, and, while it might appear to deal narrowly with the Roman economy has significance for many areas in the study of the ancient world.

In a nutshell (and grossly simplified) Bowes argues that the current trend to calculating ancient GDPs relies on deeply flawed ancient (and later) which is then decontextualized in various ways (sucked and smeared) to fill the myriad gaps that constitute our understanding of the Roman economy. Moreover, many of the arguments that rely on this kind of decontextualized data often involves circular reasoning: the assumption is that the Roman world was like most other preindustrial societies where growth rates were low and inequality high. Thus, many other preindustrial economic indicators can help fill gaps in the Roman economy and prove that the Roman world was as stagnant as other preindustrial economies.

These arguments are often made in big books, festooned with complicated and impressive graphs and charts, and offering sweeping arguments for the economic trajectory of human history. These mighty books, almost entirely written by men, make impressive claims on the back of less than optimal datasets. These claims often emphasize narratives of decline and fall (typically associated with ancient economic systems shackled by key limitations) or triumphalist narratives that celebrate the rise of the modern economy, greater equality, and more inclusive political regimes. 

These sweeping narratives often seek the triggers such as climate change or pandemic-scale disease or political and military instability that destabilized the stagnant balance achieved in the Roman world and brought the state and society crashing to its knees. The tendency to attempt to identify single catastrophic causes amid the sea of complex data reflects long-standing approaches to the ancient world predetermined by narratives of decline (and typically embracing tragic forms of employment with their reductionist mode of explanation (which Hayden White famously associated with Marx and Tocqueville).

[I’ve been thinking a bit about this very issue in a paper that on “the long late Antiquity” on Cyprus. While I’m not especially interested in the economic arguments that Bowes’s is focusing on here, I do argue that traditional big narratives of decline tend to fall apart in the face of more careful and detailed reading of site specific archaeological evidence. Attention to site formation, the complexities of abandonment and post-abandonment processes, and the limits of the stratigraphic and material record often make it far more difficult to identify clear signs of catastrophic or abrupt change at sites.]       

The final pages of Bowes’s article remind me a bit of an article by Christina Sessa a couple of years ago in the Journal of Late Antiquity. Sessa argued that many of the arguments for the impact of climate change in Late Antiquity are unconvincing because by drawing together vast bodies of evidence, they end up decontextualizing the particularities of textual, archaeological, and other documentary sources. Bowes makes similar arguments for archaeological and textual evidence for the Roman economy. She stresses that most of the sources for the ancient economy are incomplete, vague, frustratingly imprecise, and dispersed. At the same time, they offer nuance, especially at the level of the household, where real measures of quality of life, economic vitality, and human suffering and prosperity are manifest. 

Of course, this kind of attention to the small(er) world of households means a step back from some of the big questions their attendant metahistories that have come to be a staple of “big book” histories. This also  involves a step away from the lure of social and economic theories that tend to undergird these big books.  In their place, it would seem, come a kind of history that is more attentive to the details of particular situations, a greater emphasis on empirical description, and a return to low range theory (as opposed to low end theory) and mid-range theory.

This kind of work, of course, is unlikely to attract the accolades that big books offering big solutions to big problems garner. At the same time, attention to small problems in finely defined contexts returns archaeology’s attention to the forms of nuanced evidential reasoning where the discipline has tended to thrive. It also so happens that this is a practically realistic move for the field. Most big books come from a handful of elite, male scholars at a handful of elite institutions (Stanford seems to be particularly fertile ground for them). Bowes’s call for more particular work is democratizing as more highly specialized, empirical, and descriptive scholarship lends itself to the chaotic lives of most scholars who have to balance heavier teaching loads, more onerous professional service obligations, and often more demanding roles in home life. In other words, the small, but far more real worlds that fine grain archaeological work reveal reflect the real world responsibilities of more and more practitioners in the discipline who do not have the privileges afforded scholars at elite institutions.

It may also have the benefit of producing more focused studies that are easier for their fellow scholars to consume and analyze. Small books that address small problems create an environment conducive to greater interpretative, methodological, and theoretical diversity than the ponderous demands made by big books addressing big problems.

At this point, I’m pretty far from Bowes’s fine article, so I’ll conclude by encourage folks to give it a read. 

The Late Antique Countryside

I’ve been pretty intrigued by the two new-ish journals for the study of Late Antiquity: John Hopkins Press’s Journal of Late Antiquity and the University of California’s Studies in Late Antiquity.  Both have published some interesting articles over the last few years and both have made some of their content available for free (JLA here and SLA here). It feels like the former is a bit more literary in focus (which befits its editor Andrew Cain) and the latter is a bit more historical. 

Last year, SLA published a pair of intriguing articles on the Late Roman countryside and if I were ever going to offer a seminar on the topic: Tamara Lewit’s “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory” Studies in Late Antiquity 4.1 (2020): 44-75; and Sabine R. Huebner’s “Climate Change in the Breadbasket of the Roman Empire—Explaining the Decline of the Fayum Villages in the Third Century CE” in SLA 4.4 (2020): 486–518 (which is available, for now at least, for free!).

The two articles offer different perspectives on the fate of rural communities in Late Antiquity even though one considers the 3rd century and the other the 4th-6th. Lewit applies “Community Resilience Theory” to the apparent resilience of rural communities in the Eastern Mediterranean during the period often associated with a general contraction of settlement or, at very least, a political, military, and religious turmoil. She argues that many communities remained viable and in some cases prospered owing to a four-part, reciprocating capacities for (1) economic development, (2) information and communication, (3) social capital, and (4) community competence (Lewit 54). She argues that attention to these capacities has the potential to restore human actors to the Late Roman landscape and nudges back against arguments that tend to see humans as subject to the vagaries of disease, the environment, and economic forces that are beyond their control. In Lewit’s model communities find ways to work together to neutralize threats, take advantage of opportunities, and develop new strategies even amid particular volatile conditions (such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Boxing Day Tsunami). She considers the role of long-standing extra-regional political, military, economic, and religious connections, the social capital provided by the church, and technological innovations in oil and olive presses at the community level and argues that these both reflect and contributed to a capacity sufficient to overcome systemic disruptions. Lewit considers these capacities to reflect the resilience backed into the social fabric local communities which allowed the to survive even as the state failed. (The contemporary political message here is not explicit, but hardly unclear. Her arguments seem to dwell in the grey area between anarchy and idealized notions of neoliberal self-reliance. Don’t worry; we got this.)

Huebner’s article draws upon the growing body of climatological and environmental data from the Eastern Mediterranean to argue that the decline in the Fayum Villages in the 3rd century may related to the failures of the Nile floods. Using papyrological and historical evidence, she shows that communities at the “end” of various irrigation systems suffered particularly grievously in the 3rd century. Many of the villages experienced depopulation and shifted from cultivating to at least partially pastoral livelihoods. Some of the larger estates appear to have fallen into arrears or been seized. Pleas to improve existing irrigation channels and complaints that upstream villages were using too much water demonstrated the interdependence of social and environmental relations at times of particular duress.

It is worth noting, however, that Huebner’s denizens of the Fayum villages were not the helpless subjects of environmental forces that Lewit props up a straw-people in her introduction. Even if their appeals for aid or intervention were not enough to reverse the course of the 3rd century decline in the region, the willingness of the population to leave the villages suggests a kind of social resilience that is not tied necessarily to places in the landscape. It’s difficult for archaeology (or even social history) to trace the movement of populations in antiquity and to understand how relatively short-term (i.e. less than a century) and relatively regional migrations represented viable strategies to adapt to changing conditions. 

Huebner’s analysis of Fayum villages, then, did not understand them as helpless subjects, but in some cases, communities less committed to an archaeologically discernible sense of place than those investing in the monumental houses that stand on Syria’s limestone massif. In effect, the architectural remains of these villages make the resilience of those communities visible (although to be fair to Lewit, they were not the only case-studies in her argument, but just among the best known). In contrast, communities who decided to move from their homes in the Fayum may not have dissipated, but like contemporary immigrants, leverage regional networks to preserve social ties while adapting to regional challenges.

In short, these two articles offer an interesting view of how archaeological and documentary evidence allow us to speak in different ways about community resilience and how these views of the past are invariably shaped by (or at very least suggest) particular ideological positions that are relevant in contemporary society. These two articles, wherever one comes down on them, are perfect seminar fodder (for an imagined seminar).