Kephalari Blockhouse

I know that I’m not the first archaeologist to observe that without a field season this summer, we have theoretically more time to spend thinking carefully about our material and sites, tidying data, and preparing publications. This means, at least for me, trying to get some momentum on some lingering projects.

Two, in particular, are begging for attention. First, we have an almost complete draft of the publication of the area EF1 at Polis complete. In fact, I think we could have it ready for submission in two weeks.

More pressing at the moment, though, is a little article on the Late Roman finds from the Kephalari blockhouse in the Western Argolid. These finds were discovered in Corinth storerooms a few years ago and a group of us agreed to publish them. Of course, since that time lots of things have happened including WARP seasons, Polis stuff, a PKAP volume that’s not yet done, and The COVIDs. But this spring, the article received the ultimate motivating push: my colleague Scott Gallimore wrote up the catalogue and analysis of the finds.

So now it’s time that I do my part, which is writing up the “Discussion” section of the article. My goal is to offer a concise synthesis of 7th century settlement and rural insecurity in the northeastern Peloponnesus. It’s obviously a work in progress!

 

The assemblage from the Kephalari block house adds another small body of evidence to the increasingly complex mosaic of material from the later 6th, 7th, and early 8th century in the northeastern Peloponnesus. While the presence of material from the region’s significant urban centers, particularly Argos and Corinth, is well-known, archaeologists have only just begun to unpack and understand the situation in the countryside during these decades. The small number of excavated and well-published rural sites even in the well-studied northeastern Peloponnesus creates a particularly challenge for situating the reuse of the Kephalari blockhouse in its regional context. The growing number of stratified sequences, especially from Corinth, however, has made it increasingly possible to analyze the growing body of intensive survey data from this region from the end of antiquity. This, in turn, has offered new perspectives on a number of long-standing academic debates including changes in rural settlement patterns and urbanism, the character of the so-called “Slavic Invasions” of the late-6th century, and the presence of rural refuges such as the Andritsa cave.

Scholars have recognized that the reoccupation of rural sites, such as Pyrgouthi and the Kephalari block house appear to indicate significant investment in the adaptation of existing rural sites for reuse in the late 6th and 7th centuries. The appearance of window glass at Kephalari, for example, and the large-scale reconfiguration of the Pyrgouthi tower into a farmhouse with a courtyard suggests efforts to reoccupy these sites on a permanent basis. The evidence is less extensive from the other blockhouses and pyramids of the Argolid, but it appears that these sites were cleaned up with much of the material from earlier periods removed and the interior organization of the spaces modified with new walls and additions (Pettegrew 2006; Lord 1938; Scranton 1938).

Intensive survey has produced scatters of ceramics in the countryside that not only suggest that other Classical and Hellenistic sites experienced reoccupation in the Later Roman period, but that these sites were part of a larger reoccupation of the countryside. The site of Kastraki, for example, in the Inachos Valley, while unexcavated, may well be a similar site to Pyrgouthi or Kephalari in that it was a Classical or Hellenistic tower set atop a low rise in the valley bottom surrounded by a scatter of Late Roman material. The site of Any Vayia in the southeastern Corinthia likewise produced a low-density scatter suggesting a possible short-term reoccupation (Caraher et al. 2010) which found parallels elsewhere including on Euboea (Seifried and Parkinson 2014) and at the Vari House in Attica (Pettegrew 2006, p. 33).

Other smaller sites with material dating to the late-6th and 7th centuries exist throughout the Western Argolid survey area in the Inachos Valley and generally follow a pattern of settlement present in the 5th and 6th centuries. Athanasios Vionis and John Bintliff have argued for Late Antique Boeotia, urban and rural sites represent opposite sides of the same coin (Vionis 2017; Bintliff 2013). The persistence of sites in the countryside and even the expansion of activities into places like near coastal islands reflects the expansive use of diverse rural landscapes for agricultural purposes as well as nodes in regions and Mediterranean wide trade networks (Gregory 1984; 1995).

Urban sites continued to provide markets for rural agriculture, points of contact with larger imperial command economy, centers for manufacturing, and ecclesiastical and a certain amount of political authority. While the Finleyan concept of the “consumer city” should be laid to rest, work at Corinth (Sanders; Rothaus; Brown), Athens (Hayes), and Argos (Oikonomou-Laniado 2003) and in Boeotia (Bintliff, Vionis) have demonstrated that urban areas in Late Antiquity continued to serve as key places in Greece into the 7th century with continued investment in monumental architecture, urban amenities, and public spaces fortified in part by the growing spiritual, political, and economic role of urban bishops and the persistent reach of the imperial government.

This is not to suggest that the 7th century was not a period of significant disruption in southern Greece. Urban areas clearly experienced contraction and settlement in rural areas and this is visible in the larger WARP survey area as well as in urban surveys in Boeotia. The changes in rural settlement, including the emergence of fortified settlements in the countryside, seem to accompany continued economic activity in rural areas. While the evidence for such sites in the Argolid remains limited — the site of Kastro near the village of Tsiristra being a possible exception — the reoccupation of places like the Kephalari block house may well represent the need for both additional security and as well as continued economic viability in the countryside (Vionis 155-157). The reoccupation of fortifiable, if not necessarily fortified, sites in the Argolid may also shed light on the status of sites like the Andritsa Cave. If continued occupation of the countryside indicated the continued viability of markets and networks open to agricultural production and the fortified sites not only in Greece but across the wider Eastern Mediterranean reflects larger insecurity in the region, then places like the Andritsa Cave may well reflect the local realities of both rural wealth and instability. The so-called isles of refuge first recognized by Sinclair Hood and critiqued by Tim Gregory in the 1980s and 1990s, may also reflect the same effort to reconcile economic potential with the need for added security during unstable times.

Resilience in Antiquity

There have been a few articles recently on resilience in the ancient world (e.g. here, herehere, et c.) and considering the looming social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus, this work feels particularly timely.

Last week, the new volume of Studies in Late Antiquity appeared and it included an article by Tamara Lewitt titled “A Viewpoint on Eastern Mediterranean Villages in Late Antiquity: Applying the Lens of Community Resilience Theory.” It offered a particularly clear application of community resilience theory to the Late Roman world as a way to understand why some areas rebounded from the disruptions of the 6th centuries. Historically, historians and archaeologists have argued that the plagues, earthquakes, military activities, political and theological instability during the 6th century had a lasting social and economic on Eastern Mediterranean communities. More recently, however, archaeologists, in particular, have shown how communities not only survived these difficult times, but prospered. 

In some ways, an emphasis on community resilience is a useful response to scholars who have increasingly sought to understand large scale changes in the Late Roman world as shaped by non-human actors such as disease and climate and environmental change. A number of recent articles have sought to re-assert the role of human agents in Late Antique. I tend to find this line of argument vaguely misguided, but in the case of Lewitt’s article it offers a clear point of departure for her consideration of community resilience.

Lewitt argued that five things allowed for ancient communities to rebound for various disruptions: “high volume and diversity of economic activities, a degree of equitable distribution of income, effective routes of communication, the existence of social capital, and capacity for cooperation and technological innovation.”

She then draws upon archaeological data to demonstrate how the most resilience communities shared many of these features. Of particular interest to me was the role of the church which not only served as a nodes in larger communication networks, but also as institutions around which social capital accumulates. Lewitt suggests that the bonds created through shared support of the local church, for example, created pathways to pool resources during times of crisis. As an contemporary example, she notes that the Vietnamese community in New Orleans rebuilt more quickly after Katrina because they relied on close social bonds.

Years ago, I was interested in how Christianity introduced new forms of giving. Unlike the elite euergetism that characterized Classical antiquity and relied upon the generosity of a few very wealthy patrons who competed with one another for status, the church promoted a model of charity that applied to all Christians and led to individuals of even modest means contributing to the construction and decoration of churches as well as to other charitable ventures. This new vision of charity would have undoubtedly led to new forms of social organization that may have led to greater community resilience.

The other interesting observation is that communities with greater economic equality tend to be more resilient than those with great divisions in wealth. Lewitt looks at the relative size of houses in the deserted villages in Syria to argue for social and economic equality in those communities. Once again, Lewitt notes that part of the challenges facing recovery in New Orleans was the deeply uneven distribution of wealth which made cooperation and collective action more difficult. It almost goes without saying that it is very difficult to track economic and social equality in the ancient world other than at the very ends of the spectrum. Moreover, it seems that villages and rural settlements, especially in Greece and Cyprus, seem to have been abandoned whereas urban areas proved more resilient. If we understand smaller rural communities to have less social and economic diversity, then we might expect these communities to be more resilient than the evidence tends to indicate. That being said, this is not fatal to Lewitt’s arguments, but it does beg for an explanation for why certain kinds of resilience ultimately failed. 

It is interesting to see how this plays out around the world as we attempt to recover from the economic and human impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lewitt’s regular appeals to data from the recovery after Hurricane Katrina provide a modern point of comparison for resilience in antiquity. The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will provide another. 

Three Thing Thursday: Greeks, Roads, and Oil

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble getting myself into gear over spring break and have been jumping from one thing to the next all week. It’s predictable, then, that today blog post will be a dreaded “three things” rather than a more sustained consideration of one issue, topic, question, or publication. What’s the biggest bummer is that I wanted to write more about each of these three things. Maybe I can next week, but for now, here’s a sampling of what I’ve been up to.

Thing The First

If I had all the time and energy into the world, I’d publish a little volume featuring the work of Byzantine and Late Antique archaeologist outside of the Mediterranean basin. David Pettegrew and Kostis Kourelis would appear in it, of course. This week, I was really happy to receive a copy of Pennsylvania History 87.1 (2020) which is co-edited by Pettegrew and includes an article by Kourelis and Pettegrew on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. 

The article draws primarily from census data to paint a picture of the changing Greek communities in those towns and their divergent trajectories. The broader argument is that the tendency to emphasize Greek communities in major urban areas (Chicago, New York, et c.) obscures the fact that most Greek communities were small. More than that, these small Greek communities developed according the vagaries of these locales. The city of Harrisburg with its higher rents and involvement in the City Beautiful movement saw a very different kind of Greek community than the city of Lancaster. The Greek community in Harrisburg was more male-dominated and slower to include families although perhaps slightly more affluent, and these features most likely delayed the organization of a Greek church in the city which further slowed the development of this community.

Pettegrew and Kourelis construct their images of these two communities from the scrappy evidence provided by the census and their broad understanding of trends in these two cities. Their ability to paint vivid pictures from fragmentary evidence almost certainly derives from their years of patient work with the fragments of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in Greece. 

(I couldn’t find the article online yet, but a few of the articles from the special issue are available here for free!).

Thing the Second

A good bit of our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project has focused on roads through our region. As a result, I’ve been trying to digest anything that drifts across my desk about roads in the Eastern Mediterranean. A couple of weeks ago, I spied Peri Johnson and Ömür Harmanşah’s “The Political Ecology of Roads And Movement: The Yalburt Yaylası Archaeological Landscape Research Project 2018 Season” from The Archaeology of Anatolia, Volume III (2019). Ömür Harmanşah has quietly established himself as one of the most insightful readers of the Mediterranean landscape and this article with Peri Johnson reflects his careful sophistication.

Johnson and Harmanşah consider the roads through their survey area in Central Anatolia from both a diachronic and decentralized perspective. In other words, they were not as concerned with the well-known roads through their area in particularly well documented periods and more interested in the ways in which local communities in their area interacted with one another and the wide region. By decentering their research and engaging with local communities, they were not only able to discover neglected roads and routes, but also associated sites. 

Their work and the situation in their survey area has close parallels with ours in the Western Argolid where in the Inachos valley formed the major route through our area throughout the ancient and into the modern period. At the same time, it has become clear that a number of significant routes linked sites in our survey area in ways that did not follow the dominant interregional road along the valley bottom. 

Thing the Third

I read John Sayles’ new book Yellow Earth this weekend. I really want to write a more substantive review of it, in part, because I really wanted to like it more than I did. Here are a few quick observations.

First, a colleague of mine mentioned once that most novels these days are really just short stories cobbled together. This book is that with plots and characters that come and go, intersect obliquely, and sometimes just fade away.

Second, Sayles does some interesting things with time. The book begins in the early days of the Bakken boom and ends just as the bust begins. For the characters, however, time passes at different rates. For two of the characters, their final year in high school traces the trajectory of the boom. For another, it occurs over the course of her pregnancy. For another still, it follow the construction of a house, the life span of a strip club, or the travels of a Mexican migrant from the border to North Dakota. The varying times at play during a boom is fascinating.

Third, the book navigates a difficult space in that one of the main characters is modeled after Tex Hall, the well-known and controversial former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This means Sayles spends much of the novel writing a number of Native American characters. While I don’t necessarily want to imply that his depiction of these characters was somehow inappropriate, instead, I’d like to acknowledge the ethical complications associated with this move and with depicting and understanding the complex attitudes among the Native American community to the oil boom.

Fourth and finally, for now, I still rankle at the depiction of the Bakken as the Wild West. I understand and appreciate the drama and the moral ambiguity latent in the concept of the Wild West, but I worry that this depiction somehow naturalizes the situation in the Bakken and undermines a reading that recognizes a series of very deliberate choices that allowed corrupt practices to prevail. 

Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

Next week, I was supposed to head to the UK to give a paper at a conference dedicated to the long Late Antiquity on Cyprus. For coronavirus reasons, the conference has been rescheduled for January 2021. You can check out the program(me) here.

Whatever I write for that conference will likely be a bit different from what I’ve prepared for the March 18th conference. In fact, with some summer field seasons likely suspended, I suspect an outpouring of new work of a more synthetic character or drawing on legacy or unpublished data. While this might not occur in time to be included in my paper, I hope that it will make the conference next January a richer and more dynamic experience (as well as a safer one) for everyone involved!

Here’s a link to the paper that I would have given next week. It lacks citations and images, but the content is more or less all there, and I think it’s a pretty good “state of my thinking” (such as it is) on the long late antiquity on Cyprus.

Long Late Antiquity on Cyprus

This week I’m shifting gears from working on archaeology of contemporary America and returning to Late Antique Cyprus to prepare a paper for a conference in March on Cyprus and the Long Late Antiquity.

The abstract for my paper is here. As with so many conferences, I wrote my abstract in June 2019 for a paper in March 2020 and over the past 9 months reconsidered my paper significantly. This was in no small part to the paper that I wrote for a conference at Dumbarton Oaks on islands in the Byzantine period (you can read that here). At this conference, a number of the participants unpacked the notion of insularity (my review of that conference is here) along political, cultural, social, and economic lines. The result was a group of papers that explored whether the concept of insularity served to describe the definitive feature of islands in the Byzantine world. My paper proposed that Cyprus in Late Antiquity was sufficiently diverse that the concept of insularity was not particularly useful at least within the constraints of our existing archaeological knowledge.

My current plan is to expand these arguments into the realm of the “long late antiquity” by looking more closely at the situation at ancient Arsinoe in the village of Polis in the Chrysochous Valley. My plan today is work on the introduction. I have this idea that I’ll start with our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria and then move to the west to the site of Arsinoe. 

Here’s what I have so far:

Late Antiquity has been getting longer. This historiographic narrative is well known to the individuals in this room. Over the last 60 years, scholars of the Late Roman world have reconsidered the significance of catastrophic political or military events as the definitive markers in our chronological schemes. This, in turn, has discouraged view of Late Antiquity as a period of crisis that ultimately led to this or that catastrophic event. In the place of crisis or decline, scholars argue that Late Antiquity was a period of transition or dynamic transformation and have increasingly blurred the lines that describe our conventional periodization schemes. The ancient world, it would seem, did not end, but simply faded away.

Archaeology, of course, has played no small role in these changing attitudes. The ever later drift of our ceramic chronologies bolstered by the steadily expanding body of carefully published excavations and surveys from across the Mediterranean world has sought to detach archaeological narratives from political or military events. In Greece, for example, the Slavic invasion of the late 6th century no longer represents a catastrophic break and any number of urban and rural sites appear prosperous or at least viable into the mid-7th century. The evidence for the Islamic conquests of the 7th century in the Levant, as another example, remain uneven with some areas showing a rapid decline in the number of settlements, whereas other regions show little change or even expansion. 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 the material culture of the island.

This is not to suggest that the 7th and 8th centuries did not see significant changes on the island. Indeed, part of the challenge in dealing with the long late antiquity on Cyprus involves the wide range of situations on the island during these centuries. As Marcus Rautman has shown, the countryside appears to have endured significant depopulation by the middle years of the 7th century. At the same time, urban centers appear to have continued with Paphos showing signs of an Arab population in the 7th century, Soloi preserving signs of recovery after the Arab raids, Kyrenia remained an important port of the Byzantine fleet, and Salamis-Constantia and its neighborhood continued and rebuilt, and so on. Megaw argued that Kourion was abandoned after a late-7th century earthquake, Amathus’s decline was more graduate with the site continuing to produce coins, seals, and ceramics into the early-8th century, Kition remains largely unknown at the end of antiquity. Between the countryside and cities, ex-urban sites like the still lately unpublished Ay. Georgios-Peyias appear to have declined in the 7th century.

Another ex-urban site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, which Maria Hadjicosti excavated in the 1990s and a team that I co-directed with Scott Moore and David Pettegrew surveyed and excavated further in from 2005-2012, also appears to have declined in the 7th century. Our work can add a bit more nuance and detail to the diverse narratives of change present on the island and provide a bit of context for our recent work at the site of Arsinoe in Western Cyprus.

Cyprus in Global Late Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

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

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

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

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

Here’s the final slide:

IMG 3916

Islands and Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science, History, and Late Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Islands in Late Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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