Environment and Society in the Ancient World

Dimitri Nakassis pointed me in the direction of the most recent issue of History Compass which features a series of article the environment and society in the Ancient World. These article are best read as short essays on the state of the field with distinctive takes on the scholarly conversation rather than groundbreaking works of original scholarship. Considering both the immense outpouring of recent work on the historical (and modern) environments and challenging body of technical tools and discussions necessary to understand this scholarship, this issue was a good idea and a nice place to start for anyone interested in the “environmental turn.”

The two essays that caught my eye were Catherine Kearns article titled “Mediterranean archaeology and environmental history in the spotlight of the Anthropocene.” The article offers a nice review of recent work on the Anthopocene, the long term history of Mediterranean environments, and, then, a case study  from Cyprus where Kearns has done important work using the survey data produced from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys on Cyprus. She argues that environmental changes contributed to the reuse of certain features like check damns in the upper reaches of these river valleys between 800 and 300 BC. These dates coincide with a period during which carbon stable isotope analysis revealed an increase in water on the island. These sites also provided access to copper deposits which represented an important source of wealth for the island. At the same time, the increased availability of water during this same period, contributed to increased agricultural productivity on the island to support copper mining and the emergence of the (new?) Iron Age polities that would come to dominate Cypriot society until the Hellenistic period.

Michael Decker’s two-part article on the environment in Late Antiquity offers a useful contribution to understanding the role that climate change and the environment played in the Late Roman world. Late Antiquity, of course, is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, it would appear that the Late Antique world experienced persistent and perhaps even increased economic activity, trade, and prosperity from the 5th to the 8th century. On the other hand, this period also witnesses significant political instability and relatively rapid religious and social change over the Mediterranean basin. As Decker notes, the alarming character of the political collapse in Late Antiquity often supported colonialist readings of the pressures exerted on the empire’s margins. In this reading, for example, the rise of Islam, for example, represented a political and religious response to the increased aridity of the Near East, the economic decline of the Roman core related to the deforestation of North Africa, and the failure of the Roman state in the peripheral provinces of the West correlated to cooler and dryer temperatures. Decker demonstrates how many of these views, at least for the East, contributed to and fed upon Orientalist assumptions regarding the character of nomadic groups living around the periphery of the Roman Empire.

The second part of his article considers new data that is being brought to bear on climate change at the end of the ancient world. While Decker stops short of arguing how this data will go beyond correcting the environmentally deterministic views of the end of antiquity in the past and provide new ways of thinking about how longterm trends in climate change changed the ancient world. But, he makes clear that there is significant promise in the analysis of finer-grained data.

These articles are a useful introduction to the growing impact and future potential of climate science and environmental studies in the ancient world. As with so much of this work at present, it is more promising than compelling, but it clearly marks a significant path forward for future research. 

Roman Temples and Christian Churches

I’m stealing this from Sarah Bond’s brilliant weekly column at Forbes (which you should read). Feyo Schuddeboom wrote one of the tighter papers on the conversion of pagan temples to Early Christian churches that I’ve read in recent times. Focusing on the city of Rome, he argues that very few – if any – converted temples appeared to reflect religious motivations. Instead, the conversion of temples or the building of churches on temple sites seems to have take place over several hundred years and to have been driven by motivations ranging from local topography and visual position of the building to the suitability and legal status of the building. 

Schuddeboom helpfully reminds us that most ancient temples remained protected by Roman law. Their status as public, res sacrae persisted even after these buildings had fallen out of use and rendered them res nullius which prevented them from falling into private hands. As a result, these temples often stood neglected for centuries and their sites undeveloped making them suitable places for Christian churches provided that the bishops could gain approval from the imperial authorities. There were a few examples of this practice even long after direct imperial control of the city had lapsed in the mid-5th century. Pope Boniface IV, in the early 7th century, requested permission to convert the Pantheon to a church, and a decade later, Pope Honorius I gained permission from the emperor to strip the abandoned temple of Venus and Roma of its bronze roof tiles. By the 8th century, imperial properties officially became the possession of the Pope paving the way for the acceleration of temple conversions. Their legal standing both before and after the emergence of the Papal States prevented the conversion of temples to private structures or, generally, their reuse as civic or public buildings. This is among the more compelling arguments for the fate of Roman temples, and while I’d be reluctant to expand it too broadly to temples across the empire, it certainly helps explain why the Theodosian and Justinianic Code contains a number of laws requiring the preservation of temples in urban areas (particularly, but not exclusively after their confiscation by the state) as well as their destruction in the countryside. Of course, imperial rescripts suggest that the law was not followed in every case, but evidence that the bishop of Rome had to request permission to recycle the building or its parts suggests that the law carried some authority in these cases.

This article offers an interesting perspective on the physical conversion of urban space to Christianity in Late Antiquity. For those of us who see Christian buildings as having both practical, but also symbolic or even spiritual functions within the city, the delayed and procedural adaptation of these buildings speaks more to the rise of the secular in the Late Roman world than the clash between Christians and pagans. In some ways, the growth of the secular explains how the centauromachy on the Hephaisteion in Athens could be reinterpreted at the battle of good versus evil rather than as the religiously potent representation of a rival cult. In Greece, it would seem, the conversion of temples or other religious sites to churches or their spoliation traced the line between the persistent paganism and the emergence of a secular world.

Religious violence has been in the news a good bit over the last few years and folks like John Pollini have argued that recent scholarship has downplayed the violence of the clash between Christians and pagans in the ancient Mediterranean. He’s argued that as part of the conversion of the Parthenon to a church in the 6th century, at least one panel of the frieze was ritually defaced. For Pollini, this suggested that the Parthenon maintained some of its sacred power and the desecration of parts of the temple, reflected the religious intolerance or, perhaps even, the fear of the persistent pagan power of the temple. In highlighting the violence of Christianity, Pollini seeks to correct for a view that saw the Christians as at worst ambivalent toward pagan monuments, and at best, beneficial to their preservation. While evidence for violence of Christians toward their pagan neighbors and predecessors is uneven across the Mediterranean, there is no doubt that the totalizing discourse of Christianity sought to challenge the growing secular space left between the retreat of traditional religion and the rise of institutional, liturgical Christian practices.  

In coming to understand the interaction between Christianity and pagan monuments, Pollini seeks to push back against a “Judeo-Christian bias” in scholarship, but he also is willing to advance the role of Christianity as one of the key filters that constructed out view of Classical antiquity. In my post yesterday, I wondered whether Johanna Hanink overlooked of the role Christianity in shaping our view of Classical antiquity and the kind of ancient world possible in the imagining of both modern Classical Philhellenism and the modern Greek national identity. What Pollini tends to see as a Judeo-Christian bias that downplays the role of Christian violence in the modern reception of Classical antiquity also served to marginalize the corrupting influence of Christianity on the purity of the Classical. By writing the Christian influence out of the Classical world, we could avoid dealing with the complicated filtering processes that produced our image of the ancient past and assert that the depredation and decadence of the Medieval, Byzantine, and, certainly Ottoman eras did little to obscure or contaminate our view.  

If Pollini’s studies reminds us that Christianization wasn’t always a peaceful process, Schuddeboom’s analysis of the conversion of ancient temples offers a glimpse of another, less easily understood, aspect of the rise of Christianity. By arguing that most temple conversions in Rome happened well after the demise of urban paganism in that city, he places the ongoing Christianization of Rome at the expense of secular space that existed outside of the Christian-Pagan dichotomy.  

Cypriot Landscapes

I finally grabbed a few minutes to read Giorgios Papantoniou’s that Thanasis Vionis’s recent article in Land, “Landscape Archaeology and Sacred Space in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Glimpse from Cyprus.” It is a among the first articles to emerge from their “Settled and Sacred Landscapes of Cyprus” project which has focused on the area to the west of Larnaka. This article focuses for the most part on the sites around Kofinou in the Xeros River valley in Larnaka District.

This space is interesting to me because it is situated in a very similar location to our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. Kofinou is approximately 20 km to the west of Larnaka and slightly more inland where as Koutsopetria is 10 km to the east of the Larnaka and a coastal site. They both, however, stand near what many scholars have thought to be the boundaries of the ancient city of Kition and situated along major land routes through the ancient (and modern) countryside (so even if we conceive of ancient borders between states as less lines on the map and more markers along routes of contact, we can understand both Kofinou and Koutsopetria as marking likely edges to the political authority of Kition into the countryside).

The article got me thinking about three major things (and I’m sure a reading of the article by someone less easily distracted by their own archaeological commitments on the island!):

1. Landscapes. The first four pages of the article unpacks the wide range of theoretical perspectives that hang precariously on the concept of landscape in Mediterranean archaeology. For anyone interested in Mediterranean landscapes, this is an almost ideal primer and it broadly frames the work of the Settled and Sacred Landscapes of Cyprus project. The complexity of landscapes as spaces defined by economic, political, social, and religious activities recognizable through archaeological methods informs the following analysis of the Kofinou region. The awareness that landscapes are diachronic and diverse incorporating different spaces and places at various times and both informing and being the product of myriad experiences. I only wish that the authors made more apparent how the complexities of recent archaeological approaches to landscape inform their reading of the sacred spaces of Kofinou.

2. Site Size and Population. Among the more intriguing aspects of this project is the authors’ willingness to draw upon methods grounded in processual archaeology. In other words, despite the complexities of recent theoretical reflections on landscape and their dependence of post-processual understanding of lives and experiences spaces and places, Vionis and Papantoniou look toward intensive pedestrian survey to understand the extent of settlement at a site. Their site of Kofinou is approximately 13 ha and could support a population of 250-300 families on the basis of available arable land in the vicinity. This was compared to our estimate of 40 ha at Pyla-Koutsopetria from which they estimated a population of perhaps as many as 1000 families. 

Whatever one thinks of their estimates population and site size, I’m not entirely convinced that the same formula could be scaled to Koutsopetria. Without getting pedantic, I wish they authors had been more explicit in how they arrived at site size estimates (and this probably applies to our estimated site size as well) and how these can be compared across the island. More than that, though, it would be interesting to consider the functional differences between a site like Kofinou and our site at Koutsopetria. If, as the authors suggest, the Kofinou site is a settlement, then the estimates based on arable land and artifact scatters may well speak to population. In contrast, we’ve argued that Koutsopetria is a small emporion and perhaps a transshipment site for agricultural produce (particularly olive oil and perhaps wine) from the region. In other words, much of the build up space of the site would not have been settlement at all, but warehouses, production facilities, and, of course, the ecclesiastical compound associated with the excavated basilica. This isn’t to suggest that people didn’t live at Koutsopetria, but it’s functional purpose would serve to define its extent. The absence of massive quantities of cooking pots at Koutsopetria, for example, tends to suggest that much of the space was not concerned with habitation or settlement, but storage and processing of good for export.

3. Diachronic Landscapes. I was particularly intrigued by their effort to think about the diachronic landscapes of Cyprus and to balance the various aspects of places from geology and topography, to history, memory, and long-term structural organization of Cypriot sacred and settled space.

Border zones like Kofinou and Koutsopetria have seen both historical investment starting as early as the Iron Age with sanctuaries which inscribed the landscapes with persistent places even after the political and economic contingencies of border zones abate. The appearance of a Early Christian basilica at Koutsopetria, for example, might have less to do with successive Iron Age and Hellenistic sanctuaries and more to do with diachronic landscape of the place and accretion of successive rounds of material investment that built upon both the practical realities of a natural embayment, proximity to inland passages, and the presence of easily defensible coastal heights, and the social and cultural realities of marking the landscape with fortifications, sanctuaries, and settlements.

The relationships that form these diachronic landscapes are likewise variable and depend upon the place of the site and island within larger networks. Indeed, their very visibility and definition often relies on the presence of recognizable artifacts imported to the site or monument types familiar based on their presence elsewhere on the island or in the region. In other words, the diachronicity of landscapes is something that includes the archaeologist in the longterm history of sites as well as its location in Cypriot landscape and its place within the relational structures of disciplinary knowledge.

More on Haldon’s Empire That Would Not Die

I really enjoyed John Haldon’s latest survey of the 7th century, The Empire that Would Not Die (Harvard 2016). It navigated a very successful balance between the details of 7th-century political life and the broader economic, environmental, demographic, and diplomatic conditions that structured the later Roman state, and it stands as a valuable complement to his earlier works on this period.

The main geographic focus on the book was Asia Minor and to a lesser extent, the Near East. This makes sense not only because this is where much of the best-known political and military action took place, but also where Haldon’s own archaeological fieldwork focused. It is in his analysis of the events along the Empire’s eastern frontier that be brings the most subtle and nuanced view of the relationship between what is taking place on the ground in terms of settlement, movement of people, the landscape, and urbanism and imperial and church politics. It is in these areas – as well as in the capital – where Haldon can trace the intricate web of social, political, economic, cultural and religious connects that constituted the persistent fabric of the Eastern Roman Empire and preserved it from succumbing to massive external pressures and internal confusion. He does not overlook resistance to the Empire or to Imperial policies in Africa and Italy, for example, and does not overstate the stability of a particular Roman identity across the Empire. Nor does he wade too deeply into the prickly archaeological controversies that have muddled our ability to discern clearly small-scale and local changes that took place over the course of the “long 7th century.” In other words, his analysis of this period and the persistence of the Empire as a political institution avoided the worst of the thickets associated with the study of this period.  

He also largely avoided talking about the Balkans and the southern Balkans, in particular. To my mind, Greece offers a particularly intriguing problem for understanding the persistence of Roman rule in the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only was it subject to hostile military attacks and experienced demographic decline and change, but the persistence and extent of Roman military, political, and religious institutions flickered on and off unevenly from the late-6th to 8th century. As readers of this blog by now know, part of the issue is the absence of textual sources for the region and this is compounded by an uneven and complicated archaeological record shaped by a century-long confidence in the catastrophic impact of the so-called “Slavic Invasion.” Late Antique archaeology on Cyprus had the “Arab Raids;” Greece has the Slavs. 

At the same time, the 7th century in Greece has seen a remarkable reconsideration over the past decade and the settlement patterns of this region as well as the continued functioning of urban institutions – at least in the coastal zones –  is coming into better focus. It is increasingly clear that many rural settlements and structures continued in use from the 6th to the 7th centuries and show signs of adapting to different economic networks and the political and military disruptions of these centuries. Our understanding of the relationship between city and countryside, however, remains subject to decades-old biases that either see the rural areas as dependent on cities (and vice versa) or see urban areas as the tenuous links to Roman authority in the region. If the Roman state persisted in urban areas, then the links between town and country outline the structures through which the Empire endured in the southern Balkans and perhaps preserve evidence for the changes in structures over time that provided the Empire with the adaptability to survive the disruptions of this era. 

Do check out Hugh Jeffery’s review of the book here, and, if you want, my earlier comments here.

More 7th Century

Just a short post this morning, but I’ve really been enjoying John Haldon’s The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740 (Harvard 2016). In many ways, Haldon has been responsible for the changing perceptions of the 7th and 8th century among historians and archaeologists with his several, high-influential works on the topic.

His most recent work stands 25 years (well 26), after his Byzantium in the Seventh Century, and surveys the field since this important work. The book brings together politics and religion with institutional history of the Roman state and the archaeology and even environmental history of the Late Roman world. I’ll reflect on the book more expansively next week.

What interested me the most for now, however, is that Haldon decided to use a biological metaphor for his study of the Roman state. His title and, indeed, the main focus of the book, is that states must “die.” The persistence of the Roman state in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the massive dislocations, turmoil, and changes of the 7th and 8th centuries, is, in some ways, its exceptional feature. For Haldon, the military and economic pressures on the state created conditions under which it should fail, but it didn’t.

It’s interesting that among archaeologists, we’ve increasingly come to expect continuity despite political and economic changes. In other words, we’re less inclined to expect a local social organization, political structures, or material culture to change even under rather dire or extreme pressures from military interventions or regime change. This speaks to the deep affinity to structuralism among archaeologist, our inclination to study society at the scale of centuries, and our profoundly ironic attitude to the traditional historical discourse. If history says change, archaeology frequently calls for continuity. 

As I read Haldon’s book, I can’t help but constantly turn his premise on its head and wonder what agents and force would be necessary to make a state change at all and what kind of change would be necessary for us to declare a state well and truly dead. 

428 AD

I am not sure how I missed the English translation of Giusto Traina’s 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Princeton 2009), but I did. It’s a wonderful book. The book follows a circuit around the Mediterranean world in the year 428 starting in Antioch and then Armenia, before moving through the capital and the Balkans, Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Egypt, Persia and Palestine. At each stop, Traina considers the events taking place in one year, 428, with just enough attention to the connections between regions to weave a compelling tapestry to the Roman Empire in the early 5th century.

My main interest in the book – other than the lucid and engaging narrative – is Traina’s use of time and space to structure his work. It defies traditional historical notions of linear causality by collapsing dense networks of political and social relations (and texts) into a single year and then stretching this year across the Braudelian Mediterranean basin.

Time. The main argument in the book is tied to its approach to the past. Rather than unpacking a particular historical problem, Taina’s book used the concept of time to organize the events of the Roman Empire. While this might seem fundamental to the historians’ craft, in most historical works time takes a back seat to the relentless press of causality. Causality can subvert temporally proximate events, collapse or distend distances, overwrite the linearity implicit in calendars. Traina specifically considers non-linearity in history by presenting simultaneity as a way to order his work and leaving aside questions of causality. This approach reminds me of Benedict Anderson’s critique of the modern novel and how to provided a narrative tool for the kind of simultaneity required to support “imagined communities” on a global scale. Traina’s use of time to frame his work is profoundly modern.    

Space. At the same time as his modern approach to the Roman time is bracketed with a distinctly ancient concept of space. Drawing on a long tradition in the study of the Late Antique and Byzantine world, Traina is not particularly concerned with formal borders and instead explores what Obelensky and others have called the “Byzantine commonwealth” (which is, I recognize, a modern concept serving to describe an ancient conception of space).

Traina recognizes the porosity of borders and deeply interconnected world of the Mediterranean basin where social relationships, ecclesiastical politics, and historical traditions connect communities as much as the formal apparatus of the state. By ignoring any concept of formal boundaries (whether ancient or modern), Traina is able to approach the Late Roman world at a level defined by networks of relations rather than lines on the map.

This has an impact on time and causality as well, of course. Whereas Benedict Anderson’s idea of “empty time” (ready to be filled by a growing sense of simultaneity) depended upon the sense of a contracting and interrelated world, Traina’s segmented moves around the Late Roman world emphasized the discontinuities within the ancient Mediterranean even among the Late Antique elite whose shared culture Peter Brown’s exploration of paideia so famously celebrated.  If Anderson’s treatment of imagined communities evokes a world that was approaching our own, Traina’s world presented an interesting tension between time and space (and social organization) that challenged the reader to consider how fundamentally different antiquity was to our own world.

Texts and Time. Of course, to define the world in a single year, no matter how expansively, Traina leans heavily on texts. Some of those texts are contemporary with 428 and others look back. At his best, Traina weaves these texts together seamlessly bringing together hagiography, history, epigraphy, and theological into an elegant tapestry. At times, however, the view of the present and past become too neatly conflated. A hagiographic text has a very different view of the world than a history or a contemporary inscription, and, perhaps more importantly, historians and hagiographers have very different views of both the past and the present. For example, hagiographic work often conflated contemporary and Biblical time and even in pagan lives – like Marinus’s Life of Proclus – there is a tendency toward romantic elision between the past and the present that careful scholars have struggled to unpack. (For example, were sites like the temple of Asklepius and Dionysus still functioning in Proclus’s day or were the reference to these sites anachronistic?). Walking through the Palestinian countryside with hagiographic texts and pilgrim narratives intentionally superimposed the Biblical past with the present obscuring the year 428 under an overburden of memories. 

If you happened to miss the publication of this book like I did, by all means go and read it. It’s only 130 some pages and a compelling perspective on what it meant to read, write, live and travel in a single year in Late Antiquity

Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries

Over the past week or so, I’ve worked my way through Luca Zavagno’s new book, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (AD 600-800): An Island in Transition (Routledge 2017). As the title suggests, the book examines the 7th and 8th centuries on the island and brings together in a single volume arguments that Zavagno had made in a number of significant articles in Dumbarton Oaks PapersReti Medievali Rivista, Byzantion, and the Mediterranean Historical Review. He argues that the position of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed it to enjoy significant interregional connectivity with Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant throughout this period, and this allowed for a remarkably resilient economic and social structure on the island that allowed it to survive the disruption of the weakening Roman trade networks (particularly the annona), Arab raids and other military interventions, and the island’s changing place within the political organization of the Mediterranean. Zavagno builds his argument on archaeological sources and challenges ideas grounded in texts that by the late-7th century, the island and the ancient Mediterranean had entered a period of terminal decline.

In many ways, Zavagno’s book will complement David Metcalf’s recent effort to aggregate evidence for Byzantine Cyprus, and follow current trends toward reconsidering the 7th and 8th century Eastern Mediterranean in light of revised ceramic chronologies that have fueled a renewed skepticism toward the apocalyptic narratives so common in textual sources. In many ways, this work is bringing to fruition Peter Brown’s famous arguments for a long late antiquity extending the basic sinews of the Roman (and ancient world) in the 8th century across the Eastern Mediterranean.

I won’t write a full review of this book (yet?), but have a few bullet point type observations:

1. Middle Ground. Like Greg Fisher’s recent book on the Late Roman Near East, Zavagno draws upon  Richard White’s idea of “middle ground” to describe the generative character of the encounter between the Late Roman, Christian, Greek-speaking polities and economic networks of antiquity, and the emerging Arab, Muslim, polities of the Levant and North Africa over the course of the 7th century. To Zavagno’s credit, the manages to avoid a view of the middle ground that essentializes the influences on Cyprus as Christian/Muslim, Greek/Arab, Byzantine/Islamic. In fact, Zavagno recognizes the echoes of the recent political situation in Cyprus in the interpretations of the so-called “condominium” period on the island when scholars speculated that Byzantine and Arab states jointly administered the island’s fiscal and political organization. This arrangement is unlikely, and in its place, Zavagno suggested a more fluid political and economic structure where various relationships across the region, including, but not limited to those mediated by centralize political entities in Constantinople or Damascus, constantly negotiated their stake in the island. The residents of the island itself and its institutions – ranging from the church to imperial and local elites – also contributed to this network of negotiated arrangements which occasionally produced relatively large-scale violence, like raids, and the payments of taxes, but often resolved itself in myriad local actions across a range of institutions and communities, including visits by Arab merchants, Arab settlers on the island, and not excluding the possibility of an Arab garrison.

2. Political and Economic Continuity. As one might expect, Zavagno sees the fluidity of the middle ground as allowing for a remarkable level of political and economic continuity. By examining the archaeological record carefully and with particular attention to recently revised ceramic chronologies, Zavagno is able to argue that the economic relationships between Cyprus and the surrounding regions persisted in the late-7th and 8th centuries. Late Roman D ware, for example, once thought to fall out of producing by the late 7th century has not been shown to persist into the 8th or even 9th. Our ability to recognize and date various forms of Late Roman amphora dating to the late 7th and 8th centuries have similarly allowed archaeologists to trace the persistence of economic connection in the region in new ways. Recently published seals, for example, have demonstrated that continued institutional relationships between Byzantine institutions and local elites as well as between ecclesiastical communities and various elites. These have, in turn, thrown the limited evidence in textual sources (particularly hagiography) for continued contact across the region into higher relief. 

This persistence of ties between Cyprus and institutions, individuals, and communities, almost certainly supported some continuity in settlement both in urban and rural areas. The decline of rural and coastal communities – like our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria – or more marginal settlements like Kalavassos-Kopetra, may reflect shifts in the intensity of economic connections with the surrounding regions and the emergence of a more contingent and dynamic rural settlement structure designed to take advantage of the middle ground of the 7th and 8th century while continuing to exploit longterm environmental and cultural resources present on the island. Cities likewise enduring the changing access to administrative resources and institutional patterns while continuing to function as population centers and nodes of local authority across the island well into the 8th century. 

3. Political and Economic Contingency. Continuity on Cyprus, then was mitigated by the needs to be responsive to the contingent world of White’s middle ground. I was particularly intrigued by Zavagno’s use of the term “resilience” to describe Cypriot communities and institutions. Too often, I think, we imagine local economies and institutions as the products of centralized fiat, and this is certainly true for Late Antiquity where so much archaeological and historical visibility for regions like Cyprus depends upon systems shaped by administrative connections or texts that provide glimpses of the margins from the center.

For Zavagno, the visibility of this evidence presents an illusory stability for Cypriot landscapes. As the relationship with the center – particularly the core imperial lands of the Aegean and Asia Minor – underwent change, the visibility of the connections between Cyprus and the wider region became more contingent and fluid. This is different from arguing that these connections disappeared. In fact, Zavagno insists that connections between Cyprus and the region continue to function but in more contingent and fluid ways that speak to the resilience of Cypriot communities, cities, and settlements as they negotiated new economic relationships amid various competing influences. 

This is clever stuff and while the argument is not entirely compelling (other than as a salutary reminder that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence), it offers a persuasive hypothesis that should shape continued scrutiny of Cypriot material culture. Hand-made vessels, objects like cooking and utility wares, and less visible (or widely recognized) activities associated with building traditions, decorative arts, and agricultural production may well provide hints at contingent practices engaged on a generational scale that often go overlooked in textual studies and archaeology’s tendency to privilege long-term economic and social trends.   

4. The Long Late Antiquity. This book represents a really nice contribution to recent trends toward a longer Late Antiquity. From the 18th century, scholars have seen Late Antiquity as both a period of decline and a period that generated many of the core institutions of the Western world. The break between the ancient world and the Middle Ages reflects no only a key chronological division in our understanding of the past, but one that defines disciplinary boundaries among academics with Classicists working before the Middle Ages and the Medievalists working after. Moreover, since the early 20th century, the division between the ancient and Medieval world has also been geographic with the loss of the Near East and North Africa to the Roman Empire marking a more or less permanent break between the Western, Christian world, and the Eastern, Muslim one.

By challenging the tidiness of this break on the island of Cyprus (and by implication and comparison elsewhere), Zavagno’s book (and the other major and minor works dealing with the 7th century) begins to pick at the very seams of both our academic discipline-making and our definition of what it means to be “western” and “eastern.” Zavagno does not go in for sweeping statements, but on a granular level he is clear. Cyprus in Late Antiquity absorbed influences from around the Mediterranean through travelers, trade, institutional ties, and economic relationships. This was both a characteristic of Cyprus and its insular location, but not also reflected larger trends in connections between regions in the wider Mediterranean. As a result, the long-standing idea of a break between east and west, Christian and Muslim, ancient and Medieval increasingly appears to be gentle elision throughout the 7th and 8th centuries where cultures mingled and mediated in local ways. The birth of the West (if this retains any value), then, comes from myriad local engagements that defied any simple dichotomies.  

5. What is Culture? The biggest critique that I have with this book, which is remarkably detailed and valuable, is that the island of Cyprus sometimes comes across as too unified an object of study. The sites on Cyprus, as some of our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria showed – had remarkable variation in terms of material culture. The distribution of fine wares, alone, suggest that issues other than access and chronology shaped the preference for one kind of table ware over another. The same can probably be said for church decoration, architecture, and other aspects of daily life (particular that associated with display).

The variation across Cyprus, of course, speaks to the varying levels and kinds of engagement with other regions, but also undermines the idea that Cyprus is a useful object of study. The tendency to conflate or attempt to synthesize settlement types on the island, material culture, and even the fate of cities and the countryside, reflects a concession to modern political boundaries that might at times subvert his larger argument for middle ground. 

Moreover, I wonder whether the tendency to see Cyprus as an place unto itself (in an insular ways, as it were), has limited the impact of the remarkable archaeological work on the island in larger considerations of the Late Roman Near East. Zavagno does a great job looking beyond the shores of Cyprus for comparanda and evidence for larger trends and connections. At the same time, I wonder whether our view of Cyprus would be much improved if we considered the sites on the island as extensions of the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt and North Africa? 

6. An Archaeological Quibble. This is really just a quibble, but at times, I found Zavagno’s description of archaeological contexts occasionally not compelling. While the book is not, strictly speaking, the publication of a site, but a book that uses a range of published archaeological data to make an argument, there were times when I wondered whether the quality and character of the excavations would sustain the kind of arguments that Zavagno was building. For example, late examples of Late Roman D ware (Cypriot Red Slip) in a sealed deposit with late-8th century with glazed white wares from Constantinople does not make a compelling case for LRD wares being 8th century without much more detail. In fact, all things being equal it would seem that the LRD wares are residual, but without more detail, it is impossible for me to know for certain.

In the end, this is quibble and my other critique has more to do with the book that I’d write than an actual critique of Zavagno’s book. As it stands, this book is a useful addition to the growing body of work on the 7th century. 

The Seventh Century

Just a short post for today. Over the last few weeks here in the Western Argolid, Scott Gallimore, Guy Sanders, and I have talked a good bit about the seventh century A.D. The three of us are working with Sarah James to publish an assemblage of seventh century material from the Helleniko pyramid near Myloi in the Western Argolid (initially published by Louis Lord in 1938) as well as a growing body of seventh century material from the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

When I was working on my dissertation in the late-1990s and early 21st century, the number of seventh century monuments in Greece was tiny, and they were mostly ignored or considered with skepticism. 

Over the past decade, the number of 7th century sites has slowly increased. Some of these sites appear to be associated with political, military, or economic disruptions (like the Andritsa Cave and the Tunnel at Nemea), but sites like the island the island of Dokos and the the tower at Helleniko suggest that the seventh century assemblages represented more than just cowering communities in a time of disruption. There seems to be an emerging 7th century landscape that show some signs of continuity with the previous two centuries in contact between regions, persistent prosperity, and the beginnings of change in both material culture and settlement structure. There are hints at ethnic change as well. On WARP, our ceramicist, Scott Gallimore, are piecing together a dynamic and diverse 7th century landscape that defies simple categorization as refuges or farmsteads or even settlements.  

So over the next few years, I’m going to spend some time working through the evidence for 7th century change in Greece with my colleagues on WARP.  

The Center of the Late Antique World

I read with some interest the first volume of Studies of Late Antiquity. (And I realize that the volume came out some months ago, but, I had a hectic spring!). 

From the introduction by the editors, the goal of the journal is to situation late antiquity in more of a global and transdisciplinary perspective. That seems like a noble undertaking and more or less consistent with both longterm trends in both ancient history and archaeology as well as in the study of Late Antiquity. It is appropriate then that Mark Humphries offers a reflective essays that seeks to place Late Antiquity into the narrative context of world history. The article is available for free along with the entire first issue of the journal. 

Humphries argues that the position of Late Antiquity shapes its place (literally in some way) within the narrative of antiquity or the Middle Ages. The location of Late Antiquity between these two major narratives has focused attention on the West and its centers, in particular, Rome. This explains, to over simplify, why the “fall of Rome” in 476 continues to attract so much attention. It is both an ancient center and the heart of Medieval Europe and it becomes a kind of synecdoche for the ancient world.

The article would be great for an undergraduate class on Late Antiquity because it examines critically debates that shape the so-called master narrative over the past two decades as scholars have tried to understand the “end of antiquity” in the context of deconstructing the West and western traditions. In light of this trend, Humphries article does a nice job of showing how the work of the ancient historian presents futures from the past. Opening up the study of Late Antiquity to more global perspectives offers new ways to contextualize events like the fall of Rome and the reposition the Late Antique world and the futures it implies.

At the same time, Humphries perspectives on Late Antiquity rings a bit hollow for anyone who regularly does archaeological field work that focuses on Late Antiquity. The world that my research occupies, for example, does not really intersect with the master narratives centered on Rome or even Constantinople. The small world of my research has a center somewhere in the southern Aegean between the coasts of Cyprus and the Peloponnesus without much concern for affairs in major Late Roman centers. I suspect that many archaeologists similarly deal with such “small worlds” that offer another avenue to destabilizing master narratives. While transregional events and institutions regularly intersect with lives on Cyprus and in the Peloponnesus, the responses to these influences were consistently local.

It would be a fun exercise (in results, if not in process) to plot the places mentioned in my scholarship, David Pettegrew’s scholarship, R. Scott Moore’s scholarship and our other colleagues and to set this plot against the places mentioned in, say, a list of 25 books (or articles) that we have found influential and inspiring over the last several years. This would provide a rough geographical map of our intellectual world. For a start, we could compare our worlds with a map of the places  places present in our Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, but the wider potential for mapping scholars “small worlds” is intriguing.

P.S.

There are two design issues that I don’t entirely enjoy. First, as a journal that will have a more significant digital circulation than paper circulation, not having either linked endnotes that would allow a reader to go to an endnote and back to the text is a real drag. If you’re not doing linked notes, then stick with footnotes so a digital reader doesn’t have to scroll through a document to find a citation. Secondly (and more superficially), I don’t love the sans serif subheadings in the journal. They seem too much of a break with the otherwise staid serifed text block.

One other issue, that readers of this blog might suspect. The price of this journal has tempered my enthusiasm a bit. For a journal professing to offer global perspectives on Late Antiquity and to push Late Antiquiters to cross disciplinary boundaries, the price of the journal (which is by no means particularly exceptional) would tend to reinforce a kind of parochial discipline. After all, an academic journal that costs $75 per year for an individual subscriber is unlikely to be an appealing investment for someone outside the field of Late Antique studies or at a university outside of the U.S. where research support, funding, and library access might be more limited.

At some point soon, we need to stop creating new subscription based journals.  

From Little Things

Despite having written and blogged about slow archaeology and the importance of being in the landscape and various expressions of embodied knowledge, I’m nevertheless always surprised by how time with ancient artifacts helps me think through archaeological problems.

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The last two weeks in Cyprus have focused on the artifact assemblages from the site of Polis-Chrysochous and Pyla-Koutsopetria. At both sites, we’re working to finish processing artifacts from excavations. Over the past decade, we read most of the ceramics from these sites and documented their type with brief descriptions. A handful of objects, however, receive more detailed descriptions and study. Generally speaking these artifacts represent the most chronologically or functionally diagnostic types from the assemblage. We focused on fine table wares, amphora, and cooking pots at Polis and Koutsopetria and spent a good bit of energy looking carefully at each artifact and preparing a catalogue entry. 

This kind of work has got my thinking about the end of antiquity in Cyprus and the role that various types of artifacts have in understanding the end of the kinds of economic and social pattern that have historically defined antiquity. Individual classes of ceramics from Roman red slip fine wares (particularly African Red Slip, Phocaean Ware, and Cypriot Red Slip (LRD)) not only provide elusive dates for end of ancient patterns of trade connecting production sites and consumers across the Mediterranean but reflect tastes in pottery types (as well as foodways) that persisted for half a millennium. The same can be applied to cooking pots and even humble transport amphora. This intersection of economic patterns and social habits embodied in these tiny, broken sherds fascinated me over the last two weeks and located the world of antiquity in smallest fragment of the past.