Roman and Early Christian Cyprus

This weekend I read the latest in a spate of edited volumes on the history and archaeology of Cyprus: From Roman to Early Christian Cyprus: Studies in Religion and Archaeology edited by Laura Nasrallah, AnneMarie Luijendijk, and Charalambos Bakirtzis. The book continues in a tradition begun by the late Helmut Koester by bringing together historians, art historians, and archaeologists to discuss the context for Early Christianity in a particular locale. As the title of this book suggests, the volume considers Cyprus.

A quick skim of the table of contents reveals that this volume has brought together an impressive group of senior scholars who represent a wide range of approaches to Roman, Late Roman, and Early Christian Cyprus. They do a nice job of approaching a rather limited body of material from the island in new and intriguing ways. In other words, if you’re familiar with the archaeology and history of Cyprus, you won’t encounter new evidence in this volume, but quite possibly some interesting new interpretations.

The Laura Nasrallah’s and Henry Maguire’s discussion of the well-known inscriptions from the House of Eustolius at Kourion, for example, reminded me of just how complicated these texts are as testimony for the place of Christianity in the life of 5th-centuy Kourion. Drew Wilburn’s article on the ritual specialists and Demetrios Michaelides contribution on mosaic workshops unpack the relationship between the productive and ritual economies. Athanasios Papageorghiou and Nikolas Bakirtzis, Stephanos Efthymiadis, and Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou and Giorgos Philotheou discuss hagiography, art, and archaeology. Andrew Jacobs and Young Richard Kim discuss Epiphanius. And so on.

The insights of these thoughtful scholars make the volume worth reading and every article contains some worthwhile insight. At times, however, I wished that the contributors spoke to one another in a bit more of a sustained way. For example, it would be intriguing to understand whether the diversity of church forms on the island followed any recognizable patterns of theological, economic, or cultural diversity (although I suspect that the answer is… not that we can discern).

More interesting still is that most of the papers focus on Salamis, Paphos, and Kourion without only brief detours to other cities on the island (although Charalambos Bakirtzis’s update on the site of Ay. Georgios tis Peyeias was worthwhile). Polis is barely mentioned at all and Kition garnered very little attention. I suppose this is consistent with a view of both the Christianity as an urban religion and Roman Cyprus as an urban place. Of course, we also know that Cyprus featured a “busy countryside” with ex-urban places such as Alassa, Koutsopetria, Ay. Georgios, and Ay. Kononas on the Akamas (and, in fact, David Pettegrew and I were discussing this very thing this past week). These places made me wonder whether the Christianity that appeared in our texts would be different if we assumed that there were at least as many rural Christians as urban ones.

It was also interesting that for all the deserved attention to Barnabas and Epiphanius, there was little discussion of the status of Lazarus who at least according to tradition was the Bishop of Larnaka and had his relics translated to Constantinople in the 9th century. In some ways, he suggests a possible rival to Salamis-Constantia’s claim to Barnabas’s Apostolic primacy on the island perhaps associated with Kition? While there are few sources for Late Roman Kition and the story of Lazarus my well be post-antique, it still got me curious about how these stories (and buildings such as Ay. Lazarus in Larnaka) might reveal tensions that are not entirely visible in the more mainstream sources.

The same could be said about things like the architecture of churches on the island which seems to suggest relationships between communities, builders (or architects), and liturgies both on the island and off the island. Of course, these relationships can’t be traced precisely in most cases and the chronologies are fuzzy, and many of these buildings have no been excavated or published to the most rigorous standards, but they still present some potential narratives that complicate the more unified or islandwide perspectives.

That being said, it was great to read a book that sought to contextualize Early Christianity (and to some extent, Late Antiquity) in the transition from the Roman to the Late Roman period. As I noted last week, this was a version of the “long late antiquity” that I missed at the conference I attended two weeks ago. This isn’t so much a critique of that conference, but more a thought about how the period of Late Antiquity might free itself from a view antiquity that stressed or expects continuity, say, in economic activity and urbanism. By emphasizing religious change and the emergence of Christianity provides another lens to complicate the endless debates concerning continuity and change at the end of antiquity. 

Cyprus and the Long Late Antiquity

Last week, I attended a virtual conference on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity convened by Ine Jacobs and Panayiotis Panayides at nominally hosted by Oxford University. The conference was a wonderful cross section of recent research on Late Antique Cyprus and brought together specialists on both a wide range of material culture and texts from that period. 

The talks generally revolved around a few common themes. Many sought to push the late antique period into the 8th century and beyond the disruption traditionally associated with the Arab raids and the so-call “condominium” period of the middle 7th century. As one might expect, most talks stressed continuity between the 6th and 8th centuries. Many also emphasized the persistent connectivity of the island during the 6th to 8th centuries which manifest itself in the appearance of imported ceramics, coins, seals attesting to the connection with imperial and ecclesiastic officials, external influences on architecture, and the cosmopolitan lives of Cypriot saints. Of course, these two things are not unconnected as imported wares, off-island influences, and regional administrative and ecclesiastical connections often serve as easily datable benchmarks in the history of the island and demonstrate that the later-7th and 8th centuries were not periods of isolation and economic and political disruption. 

I was pleased, then, that my paper which was rather focused on our work at the sites of Pyla-Koutsopetria and Polis fit into these wider conversations and both echoed their findings and benefited from the complementary perspectives. For example, Pamela Armstrong and Guy Sanders argued that we can push the chronology of well known forms of imported pottery – namely African Red Slip 105 – into the 8th century, and this helped make sense of the later history of the site of Polis and Koutsopetria by showing ongoing activity and perhaps prosperity at these sites in the century after the Arab raids. The continued vitality of trade and administrative networks that extended to North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant indicates that the island’s role as a highly integrated hub of Mediterranean connectivity endured even as the political landscape in the region changed.  

The keynote talk by Marcus Rautman situated the study of Late Antiquity on Cyprus within both wider historiographic trends and work on the island. He managed to describe a trajectory of research that culminated in current trends that have expanded late antiquity into later periods. At the same time, he gently identified some gaps in the paper’s presented at the conference and which did not address environmental history, for example, and avoided probing the connection between our study of the Late Antiquity on the island and Cypriot nationalism especially over the last 50 years.

Maybe it’s the looming shadow of recent political events that influenced my attention to papers at the conference, but it was rather striking how little our contemporary situation seemed explicitly to influence the papers. Of course, I wasn’t expecting papers to evoke Brexit, Trump, this summer’s riots in the US (and ongoing racial tensions in Europe) or the riot at the Capitol, but at the same time, I thought that the growing attentiveness to the politics of the past, and the notion of Late Antiquity, might be more visible in the papers.

For example, it’s obvious enough to understand the desire for persistence on Cyprus as part of a long-term effort to negotiate the origins of modern Europe (made most obvious in the work of Henri Pirenne, but also present in Peter Brown’s efforts to locate Late Antiquity). The situation of Cyprus, “betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens,” established not only the place of Cyprus adjacent to the Arab Levant, but also the chronology of Late Antiquity which juxtaposes the ancient world, epitomized by Greekness, and the Medieval and indeed Modern Mediterranean, shaped by the rise of Islamic states. Arguments for the persistence of antiquity into the 8th century (and later) feel like efforts to forestall the inevitable transformation of Mediterranean and the island by extending the reach of the ancient world. 

To be clear, this isn’t to say that I’m skeptical of these efforts. Indeed, my scholarship has tended to see in the 8th century similarities with the 5th and 6th century rather than differences. The issue is, rather, whether the 5th and 6th centuries should be understood as more similar to the ancient world than to the world of the 10th century. Does our effort to extend antiquity later overlook the fundamental differences between the Late Antique world that earlier periods on Cyprus. By this I don’t mean simply the appearance  of Christianity or the various re-organizations of the Roman Empire, but the connections between Cyprus and its surrounding regions as manifest in ceramics, architecture, and movement. When, for example, did the economic networks that produce Cyprus’s distinctive Late Antique assemblage of ceramics emerge? I would assume after the 2nd century and perhaps amid the ambiguities of the 3rd and 4th centuries on the island.

This is significant because it complicates the notion that the ancient world, even the late ancient world, ended with the disruption of the Persian invasion of the Levant, the rise of Islamic states, or the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate. It seems like Cyprus should be a key place to complicate our notion of what constitutes antiquity and to even negotiate a new period, free of some of the contemporary (and, indeed, modern) political baggage of antiquity.

The general absence of theory at the conference — assemblages were just groups of artifacts and no one mentioned ontology, agency, or any other watchwords of the archaeological and critical theory toolkit — was actually not unpleasant, but one wondered whether it made it more difficult to engage with the larger project of interrogating the long late antiquity?

In any event, this is a minor and perhaps idiosyncratic critique that should take nothing away from the remarkable range of papers presented last week. Apparently a publication is planned and perhaps that will give us all a chance to expand, refine, and complicate our arguments and the definition of a long late antiquity.

Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity

This morning, rather early my time, I’ve started to attend a conference on Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity where I’m giving a paper later this morning.

The line up is impressive and I’m looking forward to getting up to date on a range of people’s work on Late Antique Cyprus.

My paper seeks to weave together some of the latest material from the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria and our recent work on Polis (ancient Arsinoë). For close followers of our work on Cyprus, this will likely feel summative rather than distinctly significant. At the same time, I do like to think that the paper shows some small, incremental, refinements in our analysis of the city of Arsinoë at the end of Late Antiquity. 

You can read the program or enroll in the conference here.

You can read my paper here.

Two Things Thursdays: COVID Time and Cyprus in Long Late Antiquity

There’s a lot going on the world right now. Between COVID, the events in Washington, the annual AIA/SCS meeting, and another pandemic inflected semester, there are plenty of things that are causing me some worry.

I also wonder, though, whether these things might also influence some new ways of thinking.  I guess that is one theme behind todays “Two Thing Thursday”:

Thing the First

I’ve been thinking a bit about COVID time. What follows here are some fragments of ideas.

Initially, I wondered whether the COVID pandemic has caused time to slow down for some of us. My own schedule has become no less dense with projects and activities, but as the COVID pandemic has drawn on, I feel far less urgency to complete tasks by externally or self imposed deadlines.

It’s curious how the lack of travel during the COVIDs (and the impossibility of planning for future travel) has encouraged me to live much more locally. There’s something about how my constricted horizons of home, local park, neighborhood, and office have created a new sense of routine that blurs temporal markers that depend on the unfamiliar or exceptional to create a sense for time’s passing.  

I’ve also found that Zoom time feels much slower than face-to-face time. Perhaps there are fewer opportunities for distracting pleasantries or that it is easier to become distracted while Zooming and this causes any sense of urgency to dissipate. But Zoom time is also far more immediate than visiting a friend in their home or walking to another building for a meeting, much less traveling to another city or country for an academic conference. 

I was also struck by the sense of futurity that the COVID pandemic has created. The lag between events – the Sturgis motorcycle rally, the arrival of college students in town for the start of a new semester, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, individual COVID exposure – and the report of the virus’s spread or a positive test seems to create this kind of temporal lag or this sense of borrowed time full of dreadful anticipation.   

It also feels similar to the gap between President-Elect Biden’s victory in November and his inauguration on January 20th. There’s a sense that we’re living in this strange buffer time between the moment where we understand what the future will hold and our experience of the future. Maybe it’s a bit like purchasing something online and receiving it in our mailbox?

At the same time, I’ve been struck by the sense of urgent frustration that contemporary society has created for itself. Maybe the gap between knowing and experiencing is the cause for this. The timelines for receiving the COVID vaccinations, for example, seem to be almost unrealistic. Not only were the vaccines developed at an unprecedented pace, but there is realistic hope that a meaningful percentage of the world – the entire world – could have access to this vaccine in the space of a few years. This seems amazing to me, but for many people, even this accomplishment is not enough. Any delay in getting the vaccine is marked as a failure that prolongs the state of uncertainty between any potential contact with an infected person and the results of a test. (This all being said, I do get that there is a difference between friction inherent in our system and poorly executed plans, incompetence, and colonial priorities.)

Anyway, COVID time seems palpably different from pre-COVID time. Maybe the exaggerated and uncertain experience of the gap between the present and the future requires us all to feel like we’re late and that this sense of lateness is heightened by the tension between a scientific sense of inevitability (e.g. the second wave, the surge, super spreader events) and the unsettled temporal rhythms of the present.  

Thing the Second

This is related, somehow, I think. Next week, I’m participating in a conference on Cyprus in Long Late Antiquity. It’s being hosted (via Zoom) by Oxford University and the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and the Cyprus High Commission in London.

You can check out the line up here. And you can read my paper here.

2021Poster A5 flat

I wonder if the sense of a long late antiquity will resonate with our sense of an unstable present in some way. It evokes for me the kind of pregnant time that resists slipping entirely into the future. While I realize that projecting our experience of time into the past is fraught, I can’t help feeling that we’re living in long-2020 these days rather than in 2021.

Roman Seas

Over the weekend, I read Justin Leidwanger’s new book, Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies (2020). It’s a pretty good book that brings ship wreck data to bear on long-standing questions of regional and inter-regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Leidwanger’s focus on the Cilician coast and Cyprus make the book particularly useful for my work on that island and it was gratifying to see the work that I did with David Pettegrew and Scott Moore cited in footnotes! While other can quibble with our interpretation of the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, it’s harder to dismiss the data that our project produced and its contribution to the growing corpus of well-documented Late Roman sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Leidwanger’s interest in similarly well-documented shipwrecks, including some that he documented himself, provides a offshore (or at very least near-shore) analog to expanding body of intensive survey data and well published (and quantifiable) excavation data from Cyprus, Cilicia, and the northeastern Levant. Whether this ever becomes “big data” of the kind that other social scientists have invested with such attention, remains hard to know especially considering the significant variation in methods and typologies across the region. That being said, there’s no doubt that evidence is piling up and almost begging for the kind of thoughtful interpretation offered in this book.

The book will reward some re-reading over the next few months and I try to come to terms with the scope of Leidwanger’s argument. For now, I’ll offer a few quick observations. 

The first few chapters of the book offers little new, but does provide a usual interpretative summary of the recent interest in regional analysis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the basic elements of Roman and Late Roman maritime technology, and the various ways in which terrestrial landscapes and maritime seascapes interact to produce distinct interpretative units. I have little doubt that these chapters will be see more than their share of citations among scholars interested in understanding the relationship between coastal sites, the sea, and connectivity. Leidwanger’s observations would be been very useful when I was muddling my way through my “Is Cyprus an Island?” paper last fall!

The heart of the book comes in the last 100 or so pages when Leidwanger introduces a corpus of 67 well documented shipwrecks from the Datça peninsula and the southern coast of Cyprus. These wrecks date to the Roman and Late Roman periods and appear to be representative of both a wider body of wrecks from well dated wrecks in the Eastern Mediterranean and present little to contradict trends in less carefully dated shipwreck sites in the same region.

This representative and relatively well documented assemblage of sites allows Leidwanger to produce a range of thoughtful arguments about regional and interregional connections. Leidwanger applies a two-level network analysis to these ships cargoes which largely consisted of amphora. One level of network analysis concentrates on the origins of the cargoes and the other incorporates the locations of the wrecks themselves. These two levels of analysis suggest shifts in the economic networks between the Romana and Late Roman period with the former centered on the Aegean and including greater connections to the Adriatic than the latter which centers on Cyprus and Cilicia and involves few ties to points further west. This coincides with Leidwangers interpretation of terrestrial finds from the central southern coast of Cyprus and the Datça peninsula in western Turkey and reinforces the idea that the links between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean weaken in the Late Roman period.

Leidwanger also contends that in the Late Roman period economic networks become more regional in general with smaller ships, smaller cargoes, and closer connections between ports. He argues that this reflects the increasingly “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity and the “gravitational pull” of larger regional centers and, in particular, the capital in Constantinople. The large-scale state influence over interregional exchange provided energy and connections to smaller-scale interregional exchange through processes that are not entirely clear.

I see no reason to disagree with Leidwanger’s arguments for Late Antique Cyprus. Indeed, the coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria seems to reached its peak economically during the 6th and early 7th century when imperial influence over large-scale exchange on Cyprus was at its peak. It is likewise intriguing to wonder whether the warehouses at the site of Dreamer’s Bay on the Akrotiri peninsula and at the site of Ay. Yiorgios-Peyias reflected the intensification of shorter distance regional trade or accommodations for longer distance interregional trade stimulated by the quaestura exercitus or the annona shipments to Constantinople. We argued that the massive quantity of Late Roman 1 amphora at Pyla-Koutsopetria may have reflected the use of this port as depot for the quaestura exercitus which did not necessarily flow through the major urban ports on Cyprus (e.g. Paphos, Salamis, or Kition). In our view, then, the long distance, administrative trade of the imperial command economy operated outside the typical routes of long-distance trade concentrated at major ports. This may reflect imperial efforts to develop unique infrastructure of warehouses and perhaps even agents and services designed to facilitate the movement of agricultural goods to the capital. 

This, of course, is all rather speculative on our part and does little to undermine Leidwanger’s broader observation that administrative trade on the interregional level shaped intraregional trade networks as ships acquired good at various ports on either their return journeys or as part of the process of moving good to regional entrepôts.

Leidwanger’s focus on transport amphora necessarily dictated his interest in agricultural goods. This undoubted constituted the bulk of ancient trade. It would be interesting, however, to compare, say, the distribution of Late Roman table wares in his case study regions. The persistence of African Red slip, for example, in certain areas of Cyprus well into Late Antiquity indicates that connections with the West were not entirely absent. It would have also been interesting to compare the relationship between economic zones and, say, ecclesiastic architecture to determine if the movement of bulk goods paralleled connections between construction crews, architects, or religious communities. If the connection between “microregions” often developed as forms of social insurance between communities whether other forms of social and cultural contact followed these routes and either made economic ties possible or reinforced them.

In short, Leidwanger’s book is a compelling body of evidence in support of a series of recent research questions focused on the relationships between Mediterranean “small places” over time. It’s a short, easy read that summarizes a good bit of specialized literature that might not be on every scholar’s regular reading list. It’s a good book and well worth the read.

Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Tomorrow I’m presenting in Prof. Sercan Yandim Aydin and Prof. Luca Zavagno’s Byzantium at Ankara seminar series in a session titled “Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective.”

I have to admit to feeling more than a little nervous about the topic which is pretty far from my core area of expertise (however narrow that might be). I’ve spend the last few days reviewing some of the key works on the topic of plague and famine, and I have to admit that it’s been a nice break from my other simmering projects.

While I’m not planning to present a formal paper, it’s useful for me to get my ideas together. For the following observations, I’m indebted to the crowd-sourced “Archaeology of Epidemics” syllabus.

It seems to me that the archaeology of plagues and famines recognizes the long-standing ties between disease and sedentary agriculture. The latter tends to be a precondition for  historical understandings of famine (although famines are, of course, possible among hunter-gatherers, many of the preconditions for famine appear to be more prominent among settled agrarians than more mobile hunter-gatherers). More than that, settled agriculture increased human proximity to animals, to one another, and to human waste and distinct environmental conditions which undoubtedly contributed to an increase rates of infectious diseases. Settled agriculture is obviously case in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires as were a series of epidemics (that verge on being pandemics) starting in the late 2nd century and continuing through the middle-8th century.

The second basic idea for any consideration of plagues and famines in the past is that both phenomena are incredibly complex and generally the result of multiple variable. Diseases, for example, can vary not only on the biological level. Yeresinia Pestis, for example, is a bacteria transmitted primarily by rats and humans; Malaria, as another example, is an amoeba transmitted by a limited number of types of mosquitos. Cholera and Typhoid are primarily transmitted through contaminated water (and food). The range of different kinds of diseases, therefore, impacts the ways in which diseases spread, take hold, and impact mortality.

Famines likewise represent a series of conditions that range from weather and climate to economic and political decisions. Famine often results in malnutrition and compromised immune systems that can produce not only a greater susceptibility to  The relationship between famine and disease then requires that we consider not only politics, ecology, economics, and environmental conditions, but also the distinctive character of the diseases moving through the human population.

The archaeology of plague and famine in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Mediterranean has its own unique characteristics as well. There are four major trends, I think, in how archaeologists have approached these phenomena.

1. Bioarchaeology. Certainly the most sensational efforts to understand disease in the ancient world have come from bioarchaeologists. The publication of evidence for Yersinia Pestis (the Bubonic Plague) in dental pulp DNA samples from two 6th century cemeteries in Bavaria has added weight to hypothesis that the Justinianic plague was, indeed, the Bubonic plague, although as a few commentators have noted, 10 individuals with the plague in a rather remote region hardly represents a meaningful sample of the Mediterranean population at the time.

The challenges facing bioarchaeology involve not only the still-developing technologies necessary to analyze human skeletal remains at the scale necessary to produce a sufficiently significant body of evidence to allow for large scale conclusions. More than that, only certain kinds of diseases leave recognizable traces in human remains. Tuberculosis, for example, leaves tell-tale lesions on bones, but other illnesses like malaria are more elusive meaning that our view of epidemics illnesses in the ancient world will likely remain uneven for the time.

2. Climate and Environmental Archaeology. The second major trend in understanding plagues and famines in Late Antiquity is the growing interest in ancient climate change and the role of climate and the environment in creating conditions favorable with the development of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks of disease. The most thorough version of this approach is Kyle Harper’s 2017 book  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017)  or the recent volume of the Late Antique Archaeology series dedicated to Environment and Society in the Long Late Antiquity (Brill 2018).

Harper and others have sought to understand the appearance of pandemic scale diseases in the late 2nd century, starting with the Antonine plague, and continuing through to the Justinian’s plague. Harper argues that end of the Roman Climate Optimum and the start of the Late Antique Ice Age (and the Late Antique Little Ice Age) may have created environmental conditions suitable for spread of new diseases in the Mediterranean basin. Harper and other scholars who have emphasized that large scale climate change is not an explanation in and of itself, but the impact of these changes must be understood in the context of both local environmental conditions and the larger political and social world of Late Antiquity. There is little doubt however that changes in global climate triggered changes in the agricultural regimes that contributed to “years without summer” and subsequent famines that are known from literary sources. The wide ranging debate around the “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE” and its connection to the Justinianic plague is only one such example.

As any number of scholars have shown in recent years, for example the work done by Haldon, Elton and Newhart have done in Anatolia, regional variation in the environment plays a significant role in understand the impact of climate change at the local level. Sturt Manning has recently made clear the significant inter-annual variations in rain fall on Cyprus, which may have had as much of an impact on the health and prosperity of communities than large scale climate variation on the global level. Roman efforts to drain swamps, build roads, and deforest hills would have introduced new hydrological patterns that would have supported, for example, the mosquitos that carried malaria, as Robert Sallares has shown in his work. Bret Shaw has argued on the basis of epigraphic data from across the Mediterranean that there are clear seasonal patterns of mortality. The wide range of variables that contribute to these patterns include local weather during the hotter and more humid late summer months whose impact on the mortality of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis remains difficult to assess.

Environmental archaeology has also shed valuable light on global conditions that could have disrupted plague foci in, for example, rodent colonies in Central Asia or East Africa which would have dispatched plague bearing fleas to the Mediterranean through established trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Understanding these phenomena, of course, is extremely complex and we’re only at the very beginning of understand the existence of disease foci and their relationship to climate conditions. In fact, both of these things as independent variables remain difficult to understand much less in relation to one another.

That being said, a growing body of environmental proxies from Greenland ice cores to dendrochronology is beginning to allow us to map global climate change in antiquity. Unfortunately the chronological resolution and distribution of this data does not always coincide with the kinds of historical questions that Mediterranean archaeologists and historians are asking. Moreover, they do not always make the cause of climate variation clear and are often difficult to correlate with local conditions. This isn’t to say that this work is not producing meaningful results, but that the impact of climate science on our understanding of specific historical events like the Justinianic plaque continues to develop.

3. Archaeological Evidence. Michael McCormick, one of the leading scholars in the study of plagues in antiquity, has pulled together the evidence for mass burials in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period and published it in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. McCormick recognizes that these kinds of direct evidence for episodes of mass mortality may well provide indications of plague events and coincide with evidence from literary sources for mass burials.

The challenge, of course, is that the situation and dates of many of these mass burials remain unclear. In some cases, such as Kopetra on Cyprus, where a cistern becomes the tomb for at least 9 individuals, there is reason to at least suspect that these are people who died from disease. In other cases, like the Andritsa cave in Argolid, it’s more challenging to see the bodies of over 50 individuals as victims of the disease alone and might be better recognized as the result of a complex series of events that range from diseases and famine to regional political or military disruptions. As with efforts to understand the relationship between climate and disease, it seems likely that many of these burials represent the intersection of a series of conditions including the availability of a cave or a cistern for a mass burial. The analysis of the demographics of the individuals, when such data is available, and any chronological clustering of the incidents of mass burial likewise allow for a more refined interpretation of these events. McCormick shows that of the 48 mass burials datable to between 300 and 800, 36 of them occurred during the 6th and 7th century. That being said, the ongoing efforts to refine the dating of Late Roman ceramics, for example, may well complicate the chronology of these burials or at least complicate any clear correlation between events datable in the literary sources to a particular year or span and shifting archaeological chronologies.

4. Landscape, Settlement, and Demography. Finally, there has been a massive amount of attention on Late Roman settlement and demography over the last twenty years prompted in part by the rise in landscape and regional survey projects that have shed valuable light not only on rural settlement, but also on the relationship between city and country and between various regions in the Mediterranean basin.

On the most basic level questions of demography and settlement patterns provide a backdrop for the economic conditions present in the long Late Antiquity. As our understanding of the countryside, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, improves and reveals a “busy countryside” in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, traditional arguments for large scale demographic and economic decline have become less compelling. The neighborhood of the mass burial at Kopetra and the Andritsa cave in the Western Argolid appear to be active and even moderately prosperous with imported table wares, storage and transport amphora, and purpose made cooking pots appearing in urban and rural areas alike. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that plagues cannot strike economically prosperous communities or that they necessarily would have a negative impact on local economies, but to challenge views of the Late Antique landscape which saw conditions of decline and deprivation as particularly suitable for the outbreak of disease.

Instead, recent work has emphasized the ongoing connectivity of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and this connectivity goes well beyond well-known links between major urban centers or regions and now involves the myriad of small links that constituent the dense networks of small-scale and local exchange between microregions. These connections provided the Late Antique world with its remarkable resilience in times of political or environmental stress, and, at the same time, established the context for the spread of disease throughout the Later Roman world.

At present, our efforts to understand the character and extent of this connectivity in a nuanced way remains in its infancy. For example, we’re only now making strides to understand the countryside in the neighborhood of Adritsa Cave which in many ways shows remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. This makes it difficult to present even a local or regional context for this unusual site much less ascertain its place within larger regional trends.

~

If my contribution tomorrow does anything, I hope that I’m able to present a view of the archaeology of plagues and famines that provides some disciplinary context. This involves not only understanding the larger methodological trends that characterize research on these topics including bioarchaeology, environmental archaeology, excavations, and survey projects, but also emphasizes the epistemological and practical limits that shape archaeological discourse.

It’s cliche to note that the goal of archaeology is not necessarily to supplement the narratives established by historians and scholars of texts. In fact, archaeological evidence often remains oddly incompatible with these disciplines. Often the incommensurability stems from the different scales at which we operate. Even with the precisions of dendrochronology, most archaeological dates established through C14 dating or conventional ceramic typologies are more broad and imprecise than dates provided in texts.

As significantly, archaeologists sometimes work at the highly focused scale of a single site, part of a site, or trench, where evidence for phenomena like plagues may not be immediately visible. This situation means that even when archaeologists work at the scale of the region, we’re often forced to recognize that our inconsistent sample is better suited to understanding intraregional variation especially when considered at finer chronological resolutions.

Advances in bioarchaeological sampling are unlikely to resolve these issues quickly because of variability in discovery and preservation of human remains, the need to secure samples through particularly rigorous and time consuming excavation techniques that are not always possible, and the cost of analysis. The same holds true for many of the techniques that are producing important insights into regional environmental conditions that require specific situations (e.g. anaerobic lake beds), expertise, and funding that not all projects can access in the same way. The resulting patchworks, like the 10 individuals with the plague in Germany, will result in datasets that seemingly beg to be over generalized or dismissed as outliers especially in their relationship to particular environmental or epidemiological events.

Where archaeology shines is in providing evidence for long-term trends at the regional level and recognizing the ebb and flow of populations, prosperity, connectivity, and settlement. Plagues and famines while seemingly more common between the 3rd and 8th century often emerge as mere blips on the archaeological radar and soon disappear again the backdrop of persistent activity and the resilience of long-standing communities.

While this will likely disappoint historians who persist in their hope that archaeology or archaeological science can unlock the relationship between climate, disease, populations, economies, and politics, maybe it’ll be heartening in our contemporary situation where the COVIDs seem destined the fundamentally transform our everyday life. Viewed at the archaeological scale, it may be that The COVID pandemic will appear as little more than some discarded latex gloves and empty bottles of hand sanitizer.

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.