Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

Polis Sights

I’ve been in Cyprus for a couple of weeks now and starting to feel a bit more at home again in the village of Polis.

So I’ve had a chance to get to know this character again:

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I also can’t help thinking that the municipal market in Polis is a bit under utilized. It’s a wonderful and very modern, mid-century space. 

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It opens onto the touristic center of the old village which is distinctly not modern (even if it doesn’t quite feel traditional in a meaningful way).

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Finally, we do a good bit of archaeology here, but it mostly involves spending quality time with sherd.

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We also have continued to collect lovely sunsets.

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Three Things Wednesday: Study Season

This summer’s work at Polis in Cyprus has been a study season. This means that we spend our days in storerooms and at our laptops rather than in trenches or survey units.That said, over the past couple weeks, I got to thinking about our study season and the challenges and opportunities that come from traveling thousands of miles to stare at my laptop and sleep in an uncomfortable bed.

This will be the topic of my non-alliterative three things Wednesday:

Thing the First

Colloquially, archaeologists celebrate study seasons as somehow less intense and rigorous than field work, and this is certainly true on a physical level. I love that I’m not physically exhausted at the end of the day, but for some reason I still find that by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I’m beat.

I’m finding that I’m exerting a huge amount of mental energy on analyzing the results of past field work and putting together our study of finds, notebooks, and various plans. Much of the basic analysis occurred in 2016-2019 and the plan for 2020 was to simple review and finalize it. Over the past two years, we also decided to take work that was destined for a relatively concise (10,000-15,000 word article) and expand it into 30,000 book section. As part of that process, we’re unpacking the reasoning behind small decisions which form the foundations for our arguments. This also prompted us to question our reasoning and review evidence at a highly granular level. In practice this involved reviewing every stratigraphic relationship, checking key artifact identifications and chronologies, and reconsidering the processes that created the site as it was excavated.

What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting this kind of work would be.

Thing the Second

The other challenge that I’m facing this summer is that I went from juggling any number of projects: from teaching, to editing North Dakota Quarterly, doing college and community service, and fussing with various research projects. This kind of diffused attention allowed me to avoid some of the stress associated with burn out. When I got tired of doing one thing, I could switch my attention and do something else. It’s one of the great luxuries of academic life: we have multiple irons in the fire that allow us a range of opportunities and challenges.

Here on study season, I am focused on one thing. I go from being a fox to a hedgehog. And, it turns out, that being a hedgehog is especially exhausting not only because it involves a constantly (and relentless) level of concentration, but also because there are far fewer opportunities for taking a productive break. Even my beloved blog has fallen a bit to the wayside in the face of the insistent need to finish up projects here at Polis.

It never occurred to me that the structure of academia tends to reward foxes, but providing them with plenty of opportunities to recharge in productive ways. Even taking a morning off to catch up on emails or to grade papers is a relief when the alternative is grading or editing. The range of tasks available on a day-to-day basis ensures that even if I work long hours, there is enough diversity to ensure that I don’t get burned out or stuck in a rut.

This is not the case during a study season. Even moment I spend on something that does not require me to be here in Cyprus is a dollar ill spent.

Thing the Third

The biggest challenge facing us this season is “showing our work” and making the arguments, inferences, and conclusions that we have reached as transparent as possible. This means not only being explicit about our interpretations, but also preparing our data for publication. There is a lot of detailed work necessary to produce legible data for publication. Even just connecting various file types to one another (e.g. notebook pages, stratigraphic descriptions, tables associated with the bulk analysis of context pottery, inventoried pottery tables, and so on) is challenging and tedious.

It also requires attention to detail and a certain amount of concentration. More than that, I feel fatigued by our efforts to wade into the kind of fussy morass that archaeological thinking often produces and to bring order to this without obscuring the rough edges.

And maybe it is this kind of work, which involves making critical leaps, tracing inference in the data structure, and, at times, suspending skepticism, that is the most challenging and exhausting during a study season.

Polis Murals

Years ago, an urbanist friend told me that murals were like tattoos: everyone thought they looked great when you first get one, but people tend to be less enthusiastic as time passes. 

That said, Polis has a group of new murals. This is consistent with trends across the the Mediterranean where the seemingly endless expanses of concrete walls invite a range of authorized and unauthorized interventions. The murals at Polis are of the former type and their painting was an attraction during the relatively new Polis fish festival.

That said, the murals in Polis continue to embrace political messages as well as elements of the city’s history and contemporary identity.

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Greek and Cypriot artists painted the murals.

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And they’re mostly signed.

Arsinoë rubs shoulders with Aphrodite and Pablo Picasso.

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And they certainly add a “splash of color” to the town.

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The Mighty Chrysochous

In my daily life, I hang out around the Red River (of the North) in North Dakota. I then spent a half-decade of summers wandering around the Inachos River in the Argolid in Greece.

This summer, I’m spending some quality time in the neighborhood of the Chrysochous River in western Cyprus. The village of Polis sits on a abrupt hill in the Chrysochous River delta which forms a wide fan between the Troodos mountains and the rugged heights about the Akamas Peninsula.

Here is the mighty Chrysochous with the Toodos range in the background. Below is the Chrysochous winding its way toward the sea some 500 m to the north.

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Polis Work

A bit of a hiccup the first day in the Polis storerooms gave us a chance to do some data work yesterday. This season will be split between doing work on physical material from the area of E.F1 on the Polis grid and preparing the data for publication. For readers new to the blog, Polis is a village in western Cyprus that gives its name to the site of ancient Marion and Arsinoe. We’re studying the Roman and Late Roman periods at the site with particular attention to the area called E.F1 in the grid of the original Princeton excavators.

Yesterday, I wrangled data. Among the priorities this summer is connecting pages from the scanned notebooks to data associated with inventoried finds and our larger collection of identified context pottery. Making databases talk to scanned notebook pages is a bit of a challenge because a scanned notebook page from the Princeton Cyprus Expedition are not only data rich, but also unstructured.

The scanned notebook page below is a good example:

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The recto includes four descriptions of excavation units defined by level and pass. While levels or passes do not correspond neatly to archaeological stratigraphy, they are the basic units of archaeological documentation at Polis. They represent the basic context for all finds from the site and so it is important that anyone studying material from Polis have access to the basic descriptions of levels and passes.

The verso provides the spatial information not only for the levels described on the recto but also for other levels and passes described elsewhere in the notebook. This includes features uncovered during excavations and described to varying degrees on the recto. More importantly, since excavators only occasionally and inconsistently recognize and describe the stratigraphic relationships between levels (and passes), the plans become one of the main ways to understand whether one layer is “above” or “under” or even occasionally “cut into” another layer. The plans become the key source for developing informal “Harris Matrices” (or as well call them Franco Harris Matrices in honor of their sometimes miraculous relationships between various contexts).

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These matrices, in turn, demonstrate how messy and at times uncertain the combination of the excavation methods and the distinctive stratigraphy make the site. This makes it even more important to create a way for researchers to “drill down” from any interpretation into the “data” itself and to assess as transparently as possible the interpretative leaps taken to make particular conclusions.

The challenge to this, of course, determining just how much scaffolding a user needs to follow ones interpretations back to the sources. Over the next week, I’m going to experiment a bit with how much it is realistic, but also necessary to provide to allow someone using the archaeological data a useful window into our analysis.

Three Things Thursday: Atari, Teaching, and Cyprus

Thanksgiving break is always an opportunity to slow down and be thankful for all the little things that make my life better. Historically, I dedicate Thanksgiving day to catching up on grading and taking a swing at the pile of books and articles that I’ve set aside to read “sometime.” Both of these tasks are pleasurable enough and remind me of the amazing privilege that I have both to teach and to read for a living. 

To start this celebration a bit early, I’m going to indulge in another favorite pastime and offer a little Three Things Thursday (albeit one day in advance):

Thing the First

As I continue to work to revise my book, one thing that I find both challenging and rewarding is re-writing the early chapters of the book so that they read more like the later chapters. One of the areas where I’m investing a good bit of effort are the little preludes that I include in each chapter. These preludes come before the … ludes… er… introduction and serve to connect each chapter to the two case studies that anchor the book: Atari and the Bakken. They also allow me to interject a more personal component to the book that connects the concept of the contemporary to the work of the archaeologist as an individual. 

Today I’m going to retool the short prelude to my chapter on things (that incidentally, will be the basis of a graduate reading class that I’ll teach on the topic next semester). As it stands now, I reflect a very common question that I get when someone learns that I’m an archaeologist: what’s the coolest thing that you’ve ever found? In my revision, I’m going to shift the focus to the moment that the massive excavator revealed the Atari games in the Alamogordo landfill in 2014. In this moment, the games shifted from being low value trash to being high value commodities. In some ways, this moment restored the games to the position that they held in my childhood when as far as I can recall, the latest Atari game was among the first things that I ever wanted. In other words, I was able to witness the moment when Atari games acquired new value and a new context. This also pushed me to consider how things work in our society. 

Thing the Second

I’m finding it more and more challenging to manage the end of the semester rush. It’s not that I feel particular flustered or stressed, but I have come to really worry about my students who are clearly struggling at the confluence of the holidays, the end of the semester workloads, family, and first sustained stretch of winter with its cold, shorter days, and weather. This distressing situation has once again pushed me to think about student workloads and the current structure of our semester. 

As I begin to design my classes for the spring semester, I’ve started to think about two alternative models. The first one would be a model that splits courses over two semester. Each semester would have a 7 week class focuses on one major assignment. The grade would be recorded in the second semester. A course of this design would keep the course clear of the end of the semester exhaustion, stress, and busyness. Of course, if a student took multiple classes with this schedule, it would do little to alleviate the anxiety caused by competing responsibilities. 

Another model would be one that makes a 16 week course into a 12 week course by giving the students a week off every 5 weeks (i.e. 4 weeks of class and one week off). This course design would help students manage their workload better for my course during the semester and perhaps provide them with an alternative structure for better pacing their energy over the course of the semester.

Thing the Third

I’m really enjoying some of the recent scholarship on Cyprus. This week, I’ve read Catherine T. Keane’s “Ecclesiastical Economies: The Integration of Sacred and Maritime Topographies of Late Antique Cyprus,” in Religions 12 (2022?). Keane situations Early Christian architecture within its economic and social landscape with particular attention to the coastal location of Christian churches. This, of course, not only contributes my (very slowly) ongoing work at Pyla-Koutsopetria where a church stood on the coast and my work at Polis which has worked to be more attentive to the larger context for the two Early Christian churches in the local landscape. 

I was similarly pleased to discover Simon James, Lucy Blue, Adam Rogers, and Vicki Score’s article “From phantom town to maritime cultural landscape and beyond: Dreamer’s Bay Roman-Byzantine ‘port’, the Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus, and eastern Mediterranean maritime communications,” in Levant 52.3 (2020), 337-360. I’ve just started to digest it, but it unpacks another coastal site that we’ve long known about, but have never seen published in a comprehensive or sophisticated way. The article by Simon James et al. looks to be a key step in that direction and the concept of a maritime landscape that is something other than a nucleated settlement is particularly appealing for a site like Koutsopetria which appears to have never developed any of the institutions that one might associated with a formal town or village.

It’ll take me a while to digest both of these rather recent articles, but I’m excited to try to apply some of these authors’ observations to my work on Cyprus.      
 

Long Late Antiquity in the Chrysochou Valley

My blog is a bit late this morning because I was finishing an almost final draft of my paper on the Chrysochou Valley. It comes in just under the 6000 word limit (with the abstract and citations). I’m pretty happy with it. 

Here’s the abstract:

Abstract

This contributionconsiders the long Late Antiquity in the areas of EF2 and EF1 at the site ofPolis (ancient Arsinoe). By exploring the fuzzy edges of our chronologicalunderstanding of the Roman and Late Roman periods on the island, this articleexpands the length of Late Antiquity. The changes in the area of EF2demonstrate that the work of lengthening Late Antiquity on Cyprus may beginwith exploring the Romanization of the urban landscape in the century after apossible 2nd-century earthquake. At the same time, the ever later drift of ourceramic chronologies has required us to decouple episodes of destruction,abandonment, and recovery from major historic events such as Arab raids orbroader narratives of decline. The comparison of the ceramic assemblage fromthe small suburban site of EF1 to that associated with the second phase of theSouth Basilica suggests that the reconstruction, expansion, and elaboration ofthat building may well date to 8th century. This suggests that patterns ofurbanism established sometime after the 2nd century AD continued for over fivecenturies along the northern edge of the city of Polis. 

And here’s the paper itself.

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 2)

Yesterday, I started to put some words on the page for a guide book to the excavations at Polis on Cyprus that Joanna Smith is spearheading. I focused on the site EF1 on Tuesday and today, I thought I would take a swing at the somewhat more formidable task of describing the neighborhood of the South Basilica. This also dovetails with my July writing project which involves turning my “The Chrysochous Valley in the Long Late Antiquity” paper (here’s a PDF) into an article.

So here goes:

In the sixth century, the South Basilica come to dominate the district known as EF2 on the basis of the Princeton excavation grid and it continues to be the most prominent structure visible in this area today. Originally constructed as a three-aisled basilica with three eastern apses and a wood roof. Fragments of mosaics found during excavations suggest that the apses likely had light catching mosaic decorations. The walls of the central nave stood higher than those of the flanking aisles and almost certainly had windows that bathed the central nave with light and both decorative and figural wall painting. 

The church underwent a series of modifications over the course of its six hundred years of existence. The most significant adaptation occurred in the 7th or early 8th century when it received a narthex to the east and porch that ran along the entire south side of the building. Originally, a series of arched opening supported the south porch which joined the narthex in the square annex room visible today to the south of the narthex. At the same time, the wood roof was replaced by barrel vaults supported by series of buttresses that are visible along the walls of the center aisle. The area between the south porch and the road was an open courtyard that stood atop a two meter deep fill of rubble which served as a drain designed to prevent the flow of water down the hill from undermining the church’s walls. It may be that the downslope flow of waters against the south wall of the church caused damage to the first phase of the church and led to the construction of the barrel vaulted second phase. Whatever the cause, it is notable that barrel vaults, narthexes, and south porches remain common features in the churches on Cyprus. 

At some point in the building’s history, the church itself and the surrounding area becomes a burial ground. The three well preserved burials stand in the south aisle of the church. These burials likely represented individuals with either a close connection to this particular church or status in the community or the ecclesiastical hierarchy. One of these individuals was buried with a decorated bronze cross suspended from a bronze chain. These burials may be the earliest around the church. The next few centuries saw over 150 interments to the south, east, and west of the church and these individuals represented a cross-section of Late Roman and Medieval Arsinoe. The burials are notable for the presence of personal effects especially stone pectoral crosses that marked out the piety and faith of the deceased.

The Medieval history of the building remains less clear. It appears that at least part of the western side of the church collapsed by the 11th century. It may be, however, that the central nave continued to stand and function as a truncated cemetery church for another century or so.  

The church building was not the only Late Roman and Medieval buildings in the area of EF2. To the south of the church stand the so-called “Southeast Rooms.” The earliest phase of these rooms appears to predate the basilica and might date to the 3rd or 4th century. They were modified in the 5th or 6th centuries and the large room was divided into two smaller rooms that appear to open onto the east-west road to the south of the basilica. These rooms were destroyed and covered with the cobble fill as part of the second phase of the South Basilica.

To the west of basilica on the west side of the north south room stood a small well house. This building appear to be contemporary with the basilica and is part of a larger transformation of this area in Late Antiquity. Fragments of mosaic found in the well itself indicates that the apsidal shaped well-house was probably covered by a half-doom decorated with mosaic. That and its elegant shape suggests that this building was an attractive contribution to the neighborhood of the church. The water from the well and the arched south porch of the church offered a welcome site to travelers entering the city from the coastal road.

The well-house and basilica marks the transformation of this area from being an industrial suburb of the city to a more monumental space. This transformation likely began with the construction of the quadrafrons arch at some point after the second century. The construction of the church marked would have marked Polis out as a Christian city and advertised the power of its bishop, the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the Christian community. The subsequent growth of the cemetery demonstrated that the practice of burying the dead outside of the town’s center continued from antiquity and the significance of this Early Christian monument persisted for nearly a half-millennium. 

Writing a Site Guide for Polis (Part 1)

One of this summer’s projects is to write up a few sections that contribute to a new guidebook for the site of Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus. The site is currently undergoing adaptation to accommodate visitors in a more structured and informed way and the site guide will be part of this larger undertaking. Fortunately, we have a great writing team and I’ll collaborate with Scott Moore and Amy Papalexandrou to describe some sections of the sites and Joanna Smith is gamely marshaling others to bring this entire thing together.

This morning, I thought I’d prepare a draft describing the site of EF1. It’s a fun challenge because not only is it visible from the main road connecting the village of Polis to a popular beach, but it also is only partially excavated and its function is uncertain. Fortunately, I only need to produce 850 words so this is not a major component to the guide, but since it is a site that attracts some curiosity (and one that my colleague Scott Moore and I have worked on lately), I want to try to introduce casual visitors to the complexities of archaeology at Polis.

So here goes:

There are a small pair of rooms situated on the east side of the road from the village of Polis to beachside camping site. The site is known as “E.F1” based on its designation in the Princeton excavation grid system and it stands on the edge of the coastal ridge overlooking the flatter plains and the sea. It seems possible that an ancient road ascended from the coast in this area. 

The walls visible at the site represent three different Late Antique phases dating to the 6th and 7th centuries. The remains of a doorway facing the road is part of the earliest phases at the site and probably dates to the 6th century AD. It provides access to an east-west hallway that is visible to the east of the door, but is now interrupted by a later, north-south wall. 

The north-south wall is part of the second phase at the building as is the east-west wall visible on the northern side of of the site. A doorway preserved in this wall stands at a significantly higher elevation than the door near the road indicating that it is almost certainly later. It appears that the drain running through the eastern part of the building dates to this phase as well. The presence of a drain here suggests a renewed interest in controlling the flow of water down the coastal ridge and hints at changes to water management in the ancient city upslope. It may be that erosion at the site led the builders to reinforce the structure by thickening the walls. A similar strategy of wall thickening is visible at the South Basilica and in Medieval churches throughout the area. Despite these efforts, it appears that the building collapsed at some point in the 7th century. It may have been already abandoned as the drain was clogged with debris and a layer of rubble, including a well-preserved glass window, covered floors that were largely devoid of artifacts.   

With few artifacts associated with the building’s use, it is difficult to understand its function in antiquity. The excavators found a significant quantity of slag during their excavations that they originally speculated might reflect an industrial function for the building. Most of this slag, however, appeared in the lowest levels of excavation and probably represents industrial activities in this region prior to this building’s construction. In fact, early maps of the area show a “heap of slag” that likely dates to antiquity and the presence of workshops in Roman levels surrounding the South Basilica likely accounts for the presence of industrial debris in the area. Of course, this does not provide us with any particular insights into the function of the Late Roman phase of the building. The well-preserved window glass and the nicely designed doorway, however, hints that these rooms may have been part of a domestic structure which would have been well-situated to catch seas breezes and to have a clear view of the coast.

At some point after the building’s abandonment and collapse, a woman was buried along the south side of the site immediately to the east of the large north-south wall. She was buried with a lead sealing inscribed with the name Stephanos, a local aristocrat known from other seals dating generally to the early 8th century. The sealing presumable sealed a document of some importance to the deceased and since the seal must predate the burial, it suggests a mid-8th century date for the abandonment of the site. It may be that this burial along with those surrounding the North and South basilicas mark the transformation of the northern side of the city into a cemetery precinct.