More on Early Christian Baptisteries from Greece

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

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

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 There are undoubtedly a handful of unpublished or only superficially documented new discoveries over the past 25 years, but these seem unlikely to upset in a significant way how we understand the Early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

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

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

Early Christian Baptisteries of Greece

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

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

Here goes a very rough first swing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metahistories, Decline, and the Roman Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Late Antique Countryside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.