Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

For the last week or so, I’ve been trying to get back into the academic groove and thinking about Late Antiquity. I have done some reading and, more importantly, some writing about the 7th century both in Greece and on Cyprus. Mostly, I’m working to get a first draft of a paper documenting and analyzing a 7th century site in the Western Argolid.

Here is the first draft of the first couple paragraphs. It’s rough, lacks citations, and I’m sure it’ll change, but at least it’s going somewhere.

The past two decades have witnessed a major change in how archaeologists understand the Late Roman and Early Medieval landscape of Greece. The rise of survey archaeology in the late-20th century fueled the growing awareness of the “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity. This complemented work in urban areas across Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly demonstrating that Late Roman cities and their countrysides experienced continued prosperity, social vitality, and political and economic significance into the 5th and 6th centuries. For Greece, scholars argued that the Slavic invasions of the late-6th century brought an end to this Late Antique prosperity and initiated a period of economic, political, and social dislocation often called the “Dark Ages.” Over the last 20 years, work at urban and rural sites has started to question this narrative. Work at the site of Corinth, in particular, has shown that the city continued to prosper into the 7th century. Moreover, imported ceramics and storage vessels indicate that Corinth enjoyed persistent connections across the Mediterranean even if these connections appear to be less dynamic and consistent then earlier centuries. At the same time, regional networks in the northeastern Peloponnesus emerged that supplied cooking and utility wares to communities well into the final third of the 7th century. The results from Corinth suggest that the city experienced economic change in the 7th century with fewer imports and a rise in regionally produced vessels, but this change was not the same as decline and indicated continuity with earlier centuries as much as new patters of economic and social relations.

Stratigraphic excavations formed the basis for this revised assessment of the 7th century in Greece. The assemblages produced through excavations at Corinth and at the Pyrgouthi Tower near Berbati in the Argolid, in particular, have helped to revise the dates of earlier excavation across Greece and challenged the assumption that destruction deposits associated with the Slavic invasions should have 6th century dates. Deposits from the Baths at Argos and the Stadium at Nemea, for example, now are better dated to the 7th century than to the later 6th century as their original excavators suggested. This revised chronology has also extended to our analysis of intensive survey assemblages. For example, pushing the date of certain well-know finewares into the late-6th and early-7th century Phocaean Ware 10C and the later forms of African Red Slip (105 and 106) illuminates areas of possible 7th century activity in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey area (Pettegrew 2007, 777; Caraher 2014, 157-158). In other contexts, Chris Cloke’s study of the off-site material from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has revealed a 7th century landscape with remarkable continuity with material from the 5th and 6th centuries. This article takes Cloke’s assessment of 7th-century landscape of the Nemea Valley and work at Corinth and considers it in the context of recent work in the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

Doing Late Antiquity

One of the funny things about expertise is that if you don’t practice being an expert on something, you begin not to be. Over the past few years, my interests have changed and my level of expertise has declined in general. I tend to see this as a good thing. My interest in the world is democratizing, but at times, I have nostalgia for the times when I knew enough to confidently critique a colleague’s argument or offer a nuanced understanding of a complicated problem.

Over the last few months, I’ve been quietly reading on Late Antiquity. I’m not arrogant enough to suggest that I am becoming an expert again, but it’s been fun to visit the Late Antique world, to write about, and to think about it again.

I’m just about finished reading Georgios Deligiannakis, The Dodecanese and East Aegean islands in late Antiquity, AD 300-700 (2016) in part because I’m preparing for a conference this fall on island archaeology and Byzantium and partly because I’m working on an article on the Western Argolid in the 7th century. Deligiannakis book includes both a useful gazetteer and a synthetic analysis of Late Antiquity in the Dodecanese with special attention to Rhodes and Kos.

The book is filled with useful observations and I’ll mention just two. First, he notes that the proliferation of churches on Rhodes where there are around 80 Early Christian basilica likely reflects changing practices in euergetism in the Christian community. Citing the work of Rudolf Haensch and Peter Baumann as well as the modest epigraphic record from churches in the Dodecanese,  he argues that Christian theology motivated more modest donors to churches and this expanded the resources available to both Christian communities and the emerging ecclesiastical elite. This is compelling to me. In fact, I made a similar argument – very quietly and without any confidence – in my dissertation

Deligiannakis pays particular attention to the 7th century. This is not only useful because I’m working on a paper on the 7th century (and have been a bit obsessed with it), but also because Deligiannakis goes to some length to demonstrate the issues with using coins to date deposits in the 6th and 7th centuries. On Cyprus, the tendency to date buildings and deposits by coins – rather than ceramics – has served to align archaeological evidence too neatly with literary sources, particularly on the impact of the Arab raids. This overlooks complicated issues like the supply of coins and their survival rates. On a larger scale, this practice tends to drag the dates for ceramics and sites (and destruction layers) earlier than the ceramics alone might suggest and to cluster diverse and diffuse events into periods well-represented numismatically. Thus, the reigns of Heraclius and Constans II tend to be overrepresented in archaeological narratives. Some of the buildings, deposits, and destruction (and construction) levels dated to the reigns of these two emperor should probably be dated later.

Now, off to actually write about Late Antiquity. I might not be an expert any more, but I’ve certainly forgotten enough to find it fascinating. 

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

I was invited to give a paper at a conference in March at the The Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies at Oxford titled “Cyprus in the Long Late Antiquity.” My current plan is to present the results of some of our recent work at Polis Chrysochous which involves not only the careful unpacking of the material, architecture, and stratigraphy of the area E.F1, but also the first steps toward putting the excavation at Late Antique Arsinoe in the larger context of Late Antiquity on the island.

Here’s the first draft of my abstract.

(As an aside, it’s really hard to write an abstract during the summer when my attention is being drawn to the work right in front me!) 

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

In 1988 and 1989, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated a small, two-room structure in the village of Polis Chrysochous. These rooms are in area E.F1 according to the Princeton grid of the site and overlook the coastal plain that extends from the edge of the city of Arsinoe to the sea. They are unremarkable architecturally and their function remains unclear, but they did produce a robust assemblage of Late Roman ceramics that dates to the 7th century. This assemblage provides perspectives on the connections between Arsinoe and other regional centers both on Cyprus and elsewhere.

The E.F1 assemblage also informs our analysis of the recently published material from the South Basilica which stood nearby on the northern edge of the village amid a number of contemporary installations welcoming travelers from the coast. A comparison between the ceramics present in the two areas indicate a continued cosmopolitanism among the residents at Arsinoe in the 7th and 8th centuries. Moreover, the South Basilica and its environs underwent architectural changes that hint that the kind of dynamic Late Antique urbanism present throughout Cyprus occurred at Arsinoe as well. Far from representing the political, military, or economic disruptions characteristic of long-standing historical narratives on Cyprus, Arsinoe demonstrates a remarkable degree of continuity into the early 8th century.

Thus, while Paphos and Soloi have long dominated the narratives of Western Cyprus in Late Antiquity, recent work to publish over two decades of excavation at Polis alongside work on the Akamas peninsula, and extensive survey in the Chrysochou valley, offer new perspectives on long Late Antiquity on the western part of the island.

From Cyprus to Greece (and an advertisement for myself)

Yesterday, I wrapped up the first of my of three little study seasons and traveled from Cyprus to Greece.

As a kind of poetic gesture, our long-gestating article on the South Basilica at Polis appeared yesterday in Hesperia 88 (2019). Here’s a link to it (and if you want an offprint and don’t get the Hesperia, drop me an email or a DM on the Twitter). 

The article offers an archaeological argument for the date of two phases of the South Basilica. The second phase will likely be of most interest to architectural historians for Early Byzantine Cyprus because it involves the conversion of the church from a wood roofed structure to a barrel vault. We also managed to phase, and date, the construction of the narthex and a portico that ran the length of the southern side of the basilica. Plus, there’s a massive “French drain” (and who doesn’t love Mr. French’s drains?) designed to help deal with the flow of water against the south wall of the church. 


The weakest part of the article is our discussion of the urban context for the basilica, and, in fact, this is a work in progress for our understanding of the site of Polis and the arrangement of Early Christian churches in the changing urban landscape of Late Antique Cyprus more generally. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll undoubtedly know that this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately

We’re also happy that this article involved links to our publication of data from Pyla-Koutsopetria in Open Context. This summer, we’ve started to work a bit on the “digital backbone” for Polis in Open Context (as well as preparing the data from our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla). This involves making our notebooks available as well as our analysis of the context pottery. The inventoried finds from Polis are already available on Open Context in draft form, but they will acquire addition significance only when linked to descriptions of the excavations and other material from the trenches. This is a big job for the area of E.F2 (in the Princeton Polis grid) which includes the South Basilica, but we hope to produce a model for organizing the E.F2 data using the smaller and more manageable area of E.F1 over the next few months.

Thinking about digital publication and curation of archaeological data is always good thing! For the next week, my old buddy David Pettegrew and I will be working with Jon Frey and Tim Gregory with some Isthmia Excavation data and trying to wrangle and think about how best to organize, disseminate, and curate their data. More on that over the next week or so…  

Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

As I haiku-ed this morning on the Twitters, I am working on an abstract for a paper that I’ll give at the 2019 Dumbarton Oaks colloquium “The Insular World of Byzantium” in November.

Here’s the haiku:

Writing an abstract
During the summer season
evokes autumn cold

Here’s the abstract:

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

Over the past 20 years the work of historians and archaeologists has complicated the our understanding of the 6th to 8th century on the island of Cyprus. The tidy narratives of devastating invasions, earthquakes, condominium, and social dislocation have given way to more messy and nuanced understandings of these centuries. Some centers saw continued prosperity while other experience decline. Innovative architecture existed along side more modest forms of ceramics. Invasions created destruction and new economic relationships. The complexity of this era offers some insights into character of Cypriot insularity.

This paper is grounded in recent work at the sites of Polis (ancient Arsinoe), modern Polis, in western Cyprus and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern side of the island. Both sites produced a substantial assemblage of Late Roman to Early Byzantine pottery and a basilica style churches. Architecture and ceramics offer perspectives on how the Cypriot islandscape mediates distinctive economic relationships and forms of cultural and religious expression. The connection between these sites and other places on the island, across the region, and around the Mediterranean suggests the contours of an insular culture that is neither uniform nor consistent.

On the one hand, the difference in the character of assemblages and architecture across the island (and between Koutsopetria and Polis) makes defining a singular Late Roman or Early Byzantine Cypriot insular identity impossible. On the other hand, these difference reflect both historical trends that defined the island’s political and social landscape for centuries and distinct pressures of the 6th-8th century. In the case of Cyprus, an island archaeology informed as much by historical contingency as geography provides a context for a new understanding of the Early Byzantine era.

Summer Work in Cyprus

With the semester winding down, I’m beginning to organize myself for a three week summer study season at Polis in the Chrysochou Valley in western Cyprus. For the last ten years (almost!), Scott Moore and I have been working with the Princeton Cyprus Expedition team to to document and publish the rather remarkable assemblage of material from the Hellenistic to Medieval periods. The site is particularly rich in Late Roman material and includes two Early Christian basilicas, innumerable burials, lots of ceramics, and some evidence for the organization of Late Roman and post-Roman neighborhoods including roads, drainage, and industrial spaces. You can read more about our work at Polis here.

This summer, Scott and I will focus on completing our work on the area of E.F1, which was a Late Roman installation of some description that appears to have spanned the 6th to 7th century and underwent several modifications. The building itself is not terribly interesting architecturally (although a complete pane of window glass was preserved!), but it was associated with several assemblages of Late Roman ceramic material. The latest assemblage is from levels that we can date on the basis of a burial that cut into the final phase of the building. The burial contains a lead seal presumably on a document important to the deceased allowing that dates the inhumation to sometime after the final decades of the 7th century. We discuss that here. It provides a terminus ante quem for the abandonment of the building and the materials associated with the levels into which this burial was cut. We have a feeling that the material from this site will offer a distinctive Late Roman horizon for at least one episode of abandonment at Polis that might pre-date the reconstruction of the South Basilica in the neighboring area of EF2.

The cause for the abandonment of the installation at EF1 is likely to remain unclear, but what’s particular interesting is that at some point in the penultimate phase of the building’s life, there was a growing concern with drainage. The resulting covered water channels presumably represented an effort to move water around the building in a way that preserved its architectural integrity.  The final phase of the building’s life saw wall thickening and buttressing in a way reminiscent of the modifications to South Basilica indicating that the structure was compromised probably at some point in the 7th century. 

The relationship between the modified drains and the later reinforcement of the walls suggests that something about the location of this building and the flow of water made the building vulnerable. A similar scenario led to the collapse of the South Basilica nearby and this hints that the water management and drainage system of ancient Arsinoe had changed between the original construction of these buildings and the need to install drainage and reinforcement. There are many possible reasons for the change in the flow of water, but I’d be tempted to associate it with changes to the grid and roads in Arsinoe which would have disrupted the functioning of drainage systems during Late Antiquity. In other words, the modified water management systems at EF1 and EF2 may represent proxy evidence for changes to the urban fabric.

Our work at EF1 and EF2 (the South Basilica) will also contribute to two papers that I’m scheduled to give next year. One, in the fall, will consider the insularity of Byzantine Cyprus with reference to our work at Polis and Koutsopetria, east of ancient Kition. I don’t have a clear idea for that paper yet, but I think it will focus on the Early Christian architecture across the island and compare it – maybe – to the character of contemporary ceramic assemblages. I’ve argued, here and there, that both reflect choices and practices of communities across the island as well as the flow of material and knowledge (and tastes) over time. 

The second paper considers “long Late Antiquity” on Cyprus and our assemblages from Polis speak to the 7th and maybe even early 8th century material signature of these communities. The understanding of the changing ceramics and their place in everyday life reveals both the different connections between various communities on the island and across the Eastern Mediterranean as well as changing and unchanging habits and footways. 

Finally, I need to thing reflexively about how we have been dealing with legacy data from Polis for a paper that I’ve proposed for the 2020 AIA annual meeting. The migrating of data from one form to the other is an act of translation and transformation that both adds meaning but also reflects a set of priorities for how information moves through the distributed archaeological ecosystem. These priorities and values are not independent of our larger view of how our field (and the contemporary world) makes meaning and knowledge with a range of social, political, and historical implications for how we understand the past.

It should be a good summer!


Settlement in Byzantine Greece

As this semester is winding down, I’m drifting toward a kind of “read everything” mode that is as fun as it is rather unproductive and unfocused. First on the list was Athanasios Vionis, “Understanding Settlement in Byzantine Greece: New Data and Approaches for Boeotia, Sixth to Thirteenth Century,” DOP 71 (2017), 127-173. It’s massive and insightful and humbling to anyone who has thought about the historical Greek landscape in a diachronic way. 

Vionis tracks the change in settlement structure across in the Medieval period in Boeotia drawing largely on survey data, ceramic study, and GIS analysis produced over the course of the various surveys in Boeotia. In some ways, this work is an extension of his interest in using “central place theory” to understand the transformation of the Mediterranean landscape over the Longue Durée, and, in other ways, it demonstrates continuity with John Bintliff’s longstanding interest in structural change over time in the Greek landscape.

For the Late Roman period in Boeotia, Vionis described the transformation of the major urban centers and the emergence of a new, monumental landscape centered on newly-constructed churches in the 6th century. It’s interesting that in Boeotia, as elsewhere, these churches stood in prominent positions in the settlements and often disrupted or violated the existing urban grid. In Corinth, however, churches tended to stand around the periphery of the settlement despite the historical and institutional significance of the bishop of that city (although, to be fair, there might be a large church closer to the ancient city center which is obscured today by the modern village). Likewise, in Argos, which features numerous Early Christian basilicas, none appear to encroach on the core of the Roman city with its agora, theater, and bath, but several stand in the in close proximity and one stands atop the Aspis hill with its ancient sanctuary. These alternate examples are not meant to suggest that Vionis is wrong or overstates his observations, but wonder out loud at the variety of monumentalizing strategies undertaken by the institutional church and Christian communities in Greece.  

Vionis also adds new vocabulary to the analysis of the Late Roman landscape in Boeotia and describes the rise of rural “microtowns” at the end of antiquity (in the late 7th century) and the consolidation of “megavillages” in the Middle Byzantine period. These microtowns continued some basic civic functions of Late Roman cities, including the presence of bishops, commercial activity, and fortifications, and often stood on or near the sites of ancient cities. They were distinct from smaller, unfortified settlements in the countryside that stood as “secondary settlements” and depended in some way on regional microtowns. Thus, a new settlement hierarchy emerged in the early Middle Ages. By the middle Byzantine period, the megavillage served as the central place for communities distributed into smaller settlements and farms in the countryside. Once again, Vionis presents the organization of the Boeotian countryside in hierarchical terms with the central places representing religious, political, and economic nodes for the surrounding region. 

There are three things that give me a bit of pause in this article (and I’ve only scratched the surface of it with my idiosyncratic mini-review), and they probably reflect more of my own interests at present than any weakness in the article.

First, I wonder how our ability to control chronology and, by extension, time shapes the kind of landscapes that Vionis envisions. For example, there’s a tendency to see rural sites like farms or hamlets, which are often recognized and defined on the basis of rather small and limited assemblages of material, as being contemporary with one another. At the same time, because their ceramic assemblages are so limited, it is possible that, say, from a group of five rural sites datable to one or two centuries, only one existed at any given time or maybe all five did for just a very limited span or two of the five did for one 50-year span. On the one hand, we might say that this is an intractable problem because of the imprecision of archaeological dating practices and the variability of site discovery in the landscape. As a result, we make the assumption that all of the sites visible for a period existed simultaneously and that this might compensate for the vagaries of site recovery across the landscape. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this kind of methodological compromise makes the larger project of making settlement hierarchies less viable in general.

This leads me to my second observation. Myrtou Veikou’s work in Epirus which covered a similar period proposed the existence of an emerging kind of Byzantine “third space” during the period that Vionis’s studied. The concept of third space came from the post-colonial theories of Homi Bhabha and was applied to geography by the late Edward Soja. These spaces existed explicitly outside of the kinds of hierarchies that Vionis presents and represented all together less stable entities which resist classification. These places are more dynamic over time and do not map neatly onto either concepts like the rural or the urban or institutional structures like bishops, civic officials, or markets. The uncertainty and ambiguity of these places in the landscape resists our more structural efforts to define the function, scale, or relationship between settlements which can be demoralizing for scholars who work to understand Byzantine space at scale. At the same time, the notion of third-space also allows us to adapt our landscapes to the chronological ambiguity of archaeological data practically when it is collected through different methods and practices as well as at different scales and resolutions. The ambiguity of the Byzantine third space reflects the kind of data at our disposal and normalizes the fuzzy and sometimes contradictory results of our analysis.

These more dynamic spaces within the landscape also imply movement at various scales. Vionis’s work does a nice job at understanding the slow shift of settlements as they contract, reform, and reconceptualize across Boeotia. I’d be intrigued to understand how these shifts represent the flow of people, wealth, goods, and resources through the area. Vionis’s attention to walking distances from central places as a way to understand the scope of agricultural productive area in the vicinity of settlement is useful. It prompted me to think about the cultural, political, environmental, and economic variables that might shape these models for understanding movement in the countryside. For example, the decision to cultivate fields beyond a two or three hour walking distance from home or a settlement might represent the results of exogamous marriage, forms of risk management, environmental strategies, or even acts of religious piety or efforts to develop social capital. Moreover, a range of strategies in the countryside might also reflect the movement of individuals to local pilgrimage sites, visits to relatives who live in settlements that do not map onto the local hierarchical nodes, or even economic forays into new markets, new resources, or to take advantage of variability in the political landscape. Obviously it is impossible to anticipate all potential forms of fluidity in the Early and Middle Byzantine landscape, but it would be interesting to think about how the notion of settlement hierarchies intersects with Horden and Purcell’s more dynamic notion of microregions and connectivity as defining the Mediterranean world.

These comments should not be regarded as criticism of Vionis’s work, of course. It reflects both careful attention to the nature of evidence from Boeotia as well as a deep understanding of Byzantine social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical organization and history. His work, however, has prompted me to think about our efforts to understand the space and settlement of both the Western Argolid and on Cyprus during these same periods. It’s a good way to start looking ahead to my summer study seasons and some walks in the Greek and Cypriot landscape.

Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia

Last week I worked my way through John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018) in preparation for my annual trek to the Eastern Mediterranean for field work. As the major field seasons for the survey phase of the Western Argolid Regional Project have concluded, we have begun to think more about what we need to do to publish our results. While I have tended to focus on the sherds on the ground (and in the project’s GIS), Haldon et al. reminded me that there was much more than just field data to producing a significant regional study. 

I don’t really write reviews here, but here are four or five thoughts on the book:

1. Low Density and Limited Collection. The area around Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü produced very few sherds and even fewer that were diagnostic. Moreover, they could only collect sherds from the Roman period and later, and this created a particularly challenging relationship between their study assemblages and the distribution of material on the ground. James Newhard’s clever methods for smoothing ceramic densities over different sized units, different surface conditions, and different visibilities provided a foundation for interpreting the assemblages collected and studied from the survey area. 

A bit less clear was the relationship between these artifact densities and the kinds of sites that the project asserted existed in the landscape. It was a bit hard to understand the difference between an independent structure, house, farmstead, and watchtower, for example, in the text itself, but the detailed discussion of these functional categories appeared in a later appendix. I’m still not entirely sold on this method of creating sites, but there is something compelling about the complexity of the historical, landscape, and archaeological variables considered in site definition.    

2. Climate and the Environment. I tend to look at the surface and artifacts when I think about archaeology. In a pinch, I’ll think about a building or a strata. I rarely step far enough away from the artifactual landscape to think clearly about the environment and climate as important factors in understanding how people in the past lived in their world. This is obviously a blind spot in my research focus, and as I extend my interests into more recent periods, the pressing realities of climate change, for example, and our adaptation to the changing environment in the last 50 years, has nudged me to expand how I think about the archaeological universes that I study.

Archaeology and Urban Settlement demonstrated the potential of a careful study of the ancient environment at a regional scale for understanding the development of settlement, agriculture, and land use in their region. Interestingly, their study area had rather few opportunities for sampling pollen or other scientific approaches to studying paleoenvironmental variable. Nevertheless, the team was able to draw one evidence from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern texts as well as modern agricultural and climate date to model the ancient environment in useful ways. They demonstrated that the landscape around Avkat was not unproductive, but as relatively marginal in antiquity as it was in the 21st century with most communities surviving on the cultivation of cereals and pastoralism. Climate change appears to be just one of the variable that shaped changes in agricultural practice, settlement and life in the area. 

3. Roads and Routes. In the Western Argolid, we think constantly about roads and routes through our survey area. In fact, travel through the Inachos valley and its relationship both to neighboring Arcadia and Corinthia as well as the Argive plain to the east, was part of the original plan for the survey project from the onset. So far, we’ve written a few papers that attempted to understand settlement and movement in our landscape and have thought about the relationship between water, routes, bridges, and churches. In general, we have not used least-cost path kinds of analysis, in part because we have some ethnographic and archaeological information on movement through the valley, and in part, because the flat or gently sloping Inachos River valley bottom exerts a strong pull on any path through the area. As a result, we’ve leaned a bit more heavily on cultural factors on movement through the valley, and considered the ways and reasons for which known routes defy least-cost expectations to avoid crops and fields, to follow the line of an aqueduct, or to pass close or far from settlements.

 Archaeology and Urban Settlement does a nice job integrating historical and topographic information into mapping movement in their survey area. This not only provides context for the relationship between sites and routes, but also demonstrates the tension between persistent major routes that shaped the significance of major settlements in the region and the dynamism of smaller routes that linked settlements to their fields or rural sites to other rural sites. While such temporal variability across the landscape is hardly surprising, it is worth noting the trans regional movement on major routes likely represented a less common and regular kind of movement in a landscape. The permeability of the countryside, in contrast, might have reflected myriad, changing smaller routes that accommodated more regular traffic on a daily basis. 

4. Foodways and Ceramics. One of the more intriguing sections of the volume was Joanita Vroom’s chapter of Byzantine foodways and ceramics. Because the local ceramic typologies were relatively poorly know, it was rather difficult to identify and date the surface assemblages. Rather than create an unmoored typology or speculate too wildly on potential economic or social links between the ceramics present in the survey area and potential production sites, Vroom focused on the evidence for Byzantine foodways in the region. By compiling evidence for food, trade, and the related vessels need to provide sustenance to communities who lived in the region.

On the one hand, there is little that is specifically related to the region around Avkat, but, on the other hand, her chapter continued her effort to redefine the study of ceramics from the vessels themselves to their role in the everyday life of Late Roman and Byzantine communities. When this attention to foodways intersects with routes through the area, paleoclimate studies, and agricultural history and ethnoarchaeology, and, of course, excavated and survey ceramics, I can imagine an opportunity to connect the broadly general with the individual at the scale of the landscape, and this is an exciting proposition. 

5. Publishing Data. One particularly intriguing element of the book is that most of the maps and many images were published digitally via Open Context rather than printed in the book itself. This is useful for the digital book, where, if you’re on wifi, the image is just a click away. I was reading on my iPad, on a flight, so I lost a bit of that convenience, but back at my laptop everything worked fine. I imagine that for a reader of the paper book, this would be a bit more inconvenient. 

More promising still is the prospect that the project will publish its full datasets on Open Context in the future.