Sherds and Churches: Late Roman Pottery on Cyprus

The last couple of week, I’ve been working on the paper that I’ll give at the University of Texas next week (egads!). An important component of the paper involves comparing the Late Roman ceramic assemblage from the area around the South Basilica at Polis-Chrysochous with the contemporary assemblage from the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria with a particular emphasis on the local and imported fine ware.

The assemblages are different. A substantial residual assemblage at Polis produced a substantial quantity of Cypriot Red Slip (CRS) and almost no African Red Slip (ARS) or Phocaean Ware (PHW). the assemblage at Pyla-Koutsopetria was largely (60%) CRS with significant quantities of PHW and ARS. The reason for this difference is difficult to understand. On the one hand, it could be that the residents at Pyla-Koutsopetria simply preferred ARS and PHW to CRS. On the other hand, it could be that the quantity of CRS reaching the eastern part of the island was smaller making it more expensive and less able to compete with imported fine wares. This assumes, of course, that CRS is produced on the island (and there is some evidence that it was not) and that CRS, ARS, and PHW all have a comparable basic cost that shift depending on supply and access. In other words, one type of pottery is not radically more expensive to obtain than another.

It is worth noting that on Cyprus, CRS tends not to travel far inland. For example, the site of Panayia-Ematousa lies inland from Pyla-Koutsopetria. The assemblage of fine ware there is predominantly PHW (nearly 60%) with CRS and ARS accounting for 20% and 15% respectively. The coastal site of Maroni-Petrera produced an assemblage of Late Roman fine ware consisting of over 80% CRS. Inland, however, at the village site of Kalavassos- Kopetra, the quantity of PHW and ARS account for over 40% of the assemblage and CRS closer to 35%. In comparison to the nearly contemporary assemblage present at Polis, the Kopetra assemblage has fewer examples of large vessels like the thick-walled CRS Form 11 basin and CRS Form 8 dish and more examples of the somewhat smaller, very common, and long-lived CRS Form 9 dish. A similar trend is apparent when we compared CRS forms from the survey around the inland site of Palaiopaphos and the residual assemblage from Polis. In fact, almost no CRS Form 11 vessels seem to have made it inland to vicinity of Palaiopaphos. It would seem that “finer” CRS vessels moved inland more readily than thicker-walled and “chunkier” vessels.

My paper set out to make the argument that the assemblage of pottery present at different sites reflected a set of practices that defined these communities. The practices that produced these assemblages were not simply social or economic, but a combination of both. My current hypothesis goes as follows: 

It would appear that CRS was most desirable in coastal communities near the southwestern corner of the island, most likely nearest its production base or the major point of arrival on the island. Presumably, that this point it was affordable in comparison to its imported rival fine wares produced in either North Africa (ARS) or Asia Minor (PHW). It goes without saying that if inland communities had access to PHW and ARS so did the coastal communities through which this imported pottery moved. When CRS, ARS, and PHW reached inland communities, however, the cost of transporting CRS from the coast increased its price and made its competitors more appealing. When overland transport leveled the playing field between the various forms of Late Roman fine ware available, contemporary communities seemed to prefer PHW and ARS at least as frequently as CRS. 

The result of this is that the tables of residents in inland communities would have looked rather different from those of communities along the coast. The decision making that led to this distinct assemblages hints at the processes that create culture.

Advertisement for Myself: Talk at the University of Texas

At then end of September I’ll be giving a talk at the University of Texas’s Workshop on Late Antiquity. The talk is on September 27th at 5 pm.

The talk will be my first effort to wrangle architectural analysis and a more thorough and comparative study of the large residual assemblage of pottery from the “South Basilica” at the site of Polis into something approaching a coherent form. The paper will hopefully become the basis for a article length submission to a decent journal in the midwinter. As you might expect, I’ll keep my dear readers in the loop as this proceeds. 

One more funny thing. I originally called the talk: Architecture and Assemblage at the Site of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus, but my hosts at Texas thought that this wasn’t a particularly student friendly title. I agreed. So we tweaked it a bit to: 

Reconstructing Community from Busted Pots and Ruined Churches on Cyprus

The last three decades has been something of a golden age in the archaeology of Cyprus. From pioneering intensive surveys to meticulous excavations focused on rural sites that often fell outside the traditional scope of Mediterranean archaeological research, scholars of Cypriot archaeology have engaged current debates surrounding postcolonialism and hybridity, networks of exchange and connectivity, insularity, and the development of the ancient state. The theoretical innovation and methodologically significant fieldwork on Cyprus, however, has done little to project the island from the fringes of most archaeological conversations. While the marginal status of Cypriot archaeology might be understandable for earlier periods like the Cypriot Iron Age which many have seen as peripheral to larger trends in contemporary Aegean and Near Eastern societies, for later periods the robust and sophisticated assemblages produced by recent archaeological work present a solid platform for studying imperial administration, the Mediterranean economy, and the tensions between the local and the global in the context of empire.

This paper will take as a point of departure the ongoing work at the site of Polis-Chrysochous (ancient Arsinoë) on the western side of Cyprus where a team has worked to document both the architecture of one of two Early Christian basilicas and an associated assemblage of Late Roman ceramics. The architecture and assemblage from this site demonstrates the connections between the city of Arsinoë and other sites on Cyprus as well as southern Anatolia. At first glance, these links may appear an unremarkable consequence of the site’s location, but the character of the basilica and the nature of the assemblage reveals more than simply geographic determinism and hints at the material manifestations of the human decisions that constitute culture. The significance of the past 30 years of field work on Cyprus, in this context, becomes clear as it provides an almost unparalleled potential to analyze the material culture of a series of related, yet distinct, sites in the ancient world.

Here’s the classy poster:


The South Basilica at Polis

We’ve officially renamed the EF2 basilica. It is now “the South Basilica” and we’ve officially moved from pondering ceramics and architecture on the ground to writing. 

And this is our first effort to bring together the results of over three years of study (and many years of field work by many people before then)!

We’ve been working on lovely new illustrations of the site plan and our basilica, and they’re almost presentable now:

Figure 1 WRC3


And here’s our most recent text:

Analyzing Residual Ceramics in a Fill Deposit

I know this isn’t one of my best titles ever, but it describes what I am trying to do pretty accurately. As we move toward a comprehensive preliminary study of the basilica in area EF2 at the site of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus, we want to be able to say something about some of the ceramic assemblages associated with the buildings. In particular, we have a massive fill level that we have tentatively associated with the second phase in the construction of the basilica.

The fill is dated by both coins and ceramics to the middle decades of the 7th century an consisted over 3000 pieces of broken pottery. Because the excavators did not save all pottery and tended to discard less apparently diagnostic artifacts, the fill consisted over over 40% fine ware (compared to 9% transport amphora sherds, 32% utility wares (primarily storage vessels and other less diagnostic coarse and medium coarse fabric sherds), and 15% kitchen wares). While it may be possible to reconstruct what they discarded into the pottery dump, for now we think that the assemblage is more or less representative of what was excavated.

imageCRS Sherds in the R09 Fill at Polis

The majority of fineware in this assemblage is Cypriot Red Slip (or, what we maybe should call Late Roman D Ware). The chronology of the assemblage represents almost the full chronological range of CRS production which began some time in the 4th century and perhaps continued as late as the 8th. Like many significant assemblages of CRS, CRS9 and its variants (largely identified by Henryk Meyza and his work at nearby Paphos) make up the largest percentage of our material. The particularly production long life of CRS9 (beginning in 400 and continuing with some variation to almost the end of the 7th century) might account for its preponderance in our assemblage.

Unlike many other sites on the island the Polis R09 Fill had an impressive quantity of CRS8 an CRS11 sherds.


These likely date to the final century (or 150 years) of CRS production. The size of CRS11 vessels and the distinct folded-over shape of the rim of many of the CRS11 basins found at our site may suggest a local production center, although the rim of the vessel shown above is similar and comes from Anemurium in Asia Minor.

Our percentages are similar to those produced by the nearby Canadian Palaiopaphos Survey Project, but they identified fewer CRS11 sherds.

imageCPSP CRS Assemblage

A nearly contemporary assemblage associated with two basilica churches excavated by Marcus Rautman at Kopetra on Cyprus also produced a similar distribution of forms.

imageCRS from Kopetra

The main difference between the CSPS and Kopetra assemblages are that they probably represent a wide range of depositional processes from discard to (perhaps) use. Our assemblage from trench R09 at Polis is probably all secondary discard and two steps removed from its primary use context. It was deposited as a single event, but the material likely derived from a range of domestic discards.

UPDATE: One more example, here are the different forms documented by the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project.


End of the Season Varia

At the end of a study season, I’m always left with various things that I’m all excited about, but I don’t have sorted out for a blog post.

For example, I usually have a satisfying photograph of the end from the last day at the apotheke (or storeroom) like this:

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The table is empty, and that’s a good thing, because it was usually filled with pottery under study or being catalogued.

I also have a few photographs that try to capture the range of activities during the season in a single shot. So, I have a photograph that shows off Brandon Olson’s illustrations of Late Roman fine ware like this. Scott and Brandon are looking at two chronologically contemporary, but physically distinct areas of the excavation for joins.


And I since we did some 3D modeling of parts of the basilica using Agisoft Photoscan, I invariably have some cool screen shots like those below. The first one is southwest corner of the narthex. If you look carefully you can see the lines of the original arched opening which was latter walled up with less well-sorted (and weight bearing) rubble walls.

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Here is another showing the buttresses in the north aisle of the church. You can see clearly how the eastern apses do not bond with the main wall of the north aisle. 

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One of the most useful things about modeling architecture using Agisoft is that we can show parts of the basilica at almost impossible angles without having to get a crane and reshooting photographs.

I also have a little gaggle of photographs that I like, but don’t really know what to do with. So I have this one of the “super moon” over the plataea of Polis at night. I like it because it looks a bit like a painting.

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Then I always have ridiculously beautiful scenes like this:

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Or like this:

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I don’t recall whether these two photos appeared on the blog.

It’s ok if you find this kind of thing empty and self-indulgent. I promise that I’ll  get back to more substantive blog posts over the next couple of days. I have some writing and thinking time in Larnaka before I head to Greece to check out an area where I hope to do some fieldwork next year.

Discovery in Pieces

Yesterday was one of my best days ever as an archaeologist. I didn’t discover some amazing new site. And I didn’t find some amazing or valuable object.  And my day didn’t involve out witting Nazis or mummies (or zombies).

Over the last few weeks, we have worked to establish dates and architectural relationships for the various parts of the basilica at EF2 at Polis. We figured out that the narthex and the south portico of the church were added to the building most likely date to the middle years of the 7th century. We found particular types of late Cypriot Red Slip pottery in a foundation trench associated with the narthex, and we know that the south portico – a long porch build along the south side of the church – had to date to after (or the same time as) the narthex. The south portico appears to have been cut into a massive rubble fill the extended north from the south wall of the church. (We’ve tentatively argued that this rubble fill was a response to a local drainage issue.

The other phase of the church that we’ve been studying involves the building of  buttresses along the walls along the walls of the main nave. The ceramics from deposits associated with these piers also date to the 7th century, but we had not been able to associate their construction with the building of the narthex and south portico. Until yesterday.

Yesterday, Scott Moore discovered a join between two pieces of a stamped Cypriot Red Slip plate. One piece came from the massive rubble course south of the basilica that narrowly pre-dates the building of the portico. The other piece of the same plate came from a foundation deposit associated with the construction of a buttress on the north wall of the nave. This sherd, then, connects the two major changes to the basilica: the addition of a narthex and portico and the reconstruction of the main nave.


The two pieces of pottery came from trenches about 15 m apart. The trench to the south of the south portico was excavated in 1985 and the trench in the nave in 1990. One sherd was inventoried as a find (which means that it stood out as something with intrinsic value) and one sherd languished in the boxes of context pottery. (We had to look through over 20,000 artifacts in the context pottery boxes to find this little guy!).

Bringing together the context pottery and the inventoried finds, two different episodes of excavation, and the narthex, portico, and buttresses of the main nave has unlocked the chronology of the church. It was a pretty good day.

Residuality and Fill Levels at the EF2 Basilica at Polis

One of the challenges that we faced working at the EF2 basilica at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus was that so much of the ceramic evidence came from various kinds of fill levels at the site. In other words, we had very little material from traditional use contexts and an unbelievable quantity of pottery associated with either construction deposits or the massive rubble fill level that extends south from the basilica. While analysis of ceramics from areas of such relatively undifferentiated contexts has not always been the rule on archaeological project, recently decades have shown how the study of material in these fills levels can produce high-resolution snap shots of the certain components of a communities material culture.

R09FillNote the “Rubble Layer” in the scarp drawing

As we looked at the pottery from these levels we began to think about how to approach assemblages of ceramic artifacts produced by activities completely unrelated to the original to the original purposes of the objects. The artifacts present in the leveling and construction fills, for example, represent past activities at the site, habits of discard, and construction practices. They also provide chronological “type fossils” that allow us to date architectural features associated with the levels. 

Gavin Lucas in his new book, Understanding the Archaeological Record, puts it nicely:

“If we think about the archaeological record in terms of the residuals of assemblages, we must consider such residues as possessing the memory of the assemblage itself, insofar as the organization of the residue captures, however faintly, the organization of the parent. It is the residue of this organization that is being sought, not simply the elements or objects which were part of it.” (p. 211).

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve worked out way through the material in the fills that extend south from the basilica and have paid particular attention to the very common Cypriot fine ware (or table ware) called Cypriot Red Slip as well as contemporary imported pottery (see my post yesterday for more on this). Our intent is to analyze the residual ceramics in these fills much like we’d interpret survey data. In fact, we intend to compare the assemblage produced by this fill with assemblages from both similar contexts (especially those associated with the nearly contemporary basilicas at the site of Kalavassos-Kopetra) as well as the results of survey work in the larger Paphos and Polis area.

Our goal is to be able to speak to and from the architecture as well as the assemblage in our analysis of activity in the area of EF2 at Polis.

More Pottery, More Problems

About two weeks ago, I was feeling pretty good about the date our our basilica at the site of Polis. We dated the church on the basis of five or six fairly secure deposits associated with the construction or modification of the church. The pottery in these contexts is largely the locally(ish) produced fine ware, Cypriot Red Slip.

The more pottery we have, however, the more problems it creates. And here’s how it goes.

First, we have to identify the major wares present and the make an effort to distinguish the different shapes. That often means spending hours looking at sheets of rim profiles and reading fiddly descriptions of fabric. Because these pots were not made on a production line, any sherd we find does not really line up precisely with the object in our books so we have to wiggle it to fit a category (and, moreover, the potters were not sitting around discussing how to produce Cypriot Red Slip Form 9!). It’s like getting some kind of polyhedron to pass through a round or square hole in a child’s game.

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Then, once we are satisfied that we have fit our sherd into the typology, we can begin attempting to date our shapes on the basis of stratified examples of these vessels elsewhere. Most scholars who contribute to the typologies we use to identify the sherds also make an effort to date the pottery. Unfortunately, the bewildering array of shapes and sub-types can devolve into equally bewildering chronological arguments. I had a bit of a “down-melt” this morning when confronted with several possible for a type ranging from 580/600-700 to early 5th to 7th century. That’s a big difference and 580/600 is not a secure date but TWO different dates separated by a slash. In terms of normal humans living in  normal time, this is meaningless. I was not born in 1972/1988. 

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Finally, once we get some dates on some pots, we have to reconcile the chronologies of various vessels within the deposit with one another. This always involves dating the deposit to after the date of the more recent object. Once we have the terminus post quem (that the date after which) for the deposit, we can begin to attempt to understand how earlier material made its way into the collection of pot sherds deposited as a single event. Since most of our deposits are associated with the construction of the basilica, it is easy enough to understand the various earlier sherds as being part of the debris used to backfill a foundation trench or pack a floor. In fact, from a use standpoint the latest and earliest sherd in the deposit functioned essentially the same way. They were all residual and probably all cast aside some time earlier in either a dump or in some kind of local destruction.

The problem is, of course, the more pottery there is, the more complicated the chronological relationships are. For each deposit, we have to sort out both the very local chronology of material, but also the relationship between it and others at our site which may not have the same types (or sub-types) or pottery, but may have a similar date. As a great man once said, mo’ pottery, mo’ problems

The PKAP-Polis Project’s Season of Work

This weekend is the annual CAARI (Cyprus-American Archaeological Research Institute) Workshop. This meeting attracts archaeologists from all over the Republic of Cyprus to present their work often as their field or study seasons are underway. At its best, it is a great way to catch up with both old friends and professional news. 

Typically, my project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project presents some of their research, but, alas, this year, we were not invited to participate. Rumor has it that we were not invited because we made all the other projects look bad, and this was bad for morale in the archaeological community. Apparently our reports on what we had accomplished on the island in such a short time brought some very important senior archaeologists to tears at the relative insignificance of their own achievements

Despite the situation being as it is, Scott Moore and I have opted to soldier on. Instead of leaving the archaeological community in awe of our achievements through a direct presentation of our genius, we have decided to contribute a brief report on our work at Polis in their larger work. 

We hope that it will be seen as sufficiently modest to get invited back to the CAARI workshop again in the future:

A Brief Report on the PKAP-Polis Team’s 2012 and 2013 Work

Over the course of the 2012 and 2013 season, we have continued to study the stratigraphy, architecture, and finds from the Christian basilica style church in E.F2. To facilitate this work, we have prepared a comprehensive GIS-based site plan of the church, transcribed close to 40 excavation notebooks from the area, and created an relational database integrating digitized notebooks, analyzed context pottery, and registered finds. These tools and the study of over 20,000 artifacts from a fills, collapse, discard areas, and use levels has allowed us to begin the process of dating the major phases of this basilica and locating it in the history of the busy area of EF2.

The most immediate significance of this work is that we can now date the basilica’s construction to the 6th century AD with substantial modification over the next century including the addition of a narthex and south portico and its transformation from a wood-roofed to barrel-vaulted church. The ceramic assemblages associated with the various construction phases contained a wide range of well-attested pottery in the southwestern Cyprus including local fine wares (Cypriot Red Slip) and imports (African Red Slips and Phocaean Wares), Late Roman Amphoras, and various Late Roman kitchen and cooking wares. It is worth noting that this assemblage is rather distinct from assemblages along the south and eastern sides of the island which feature far more imported fine wares and more numerous LR1 amphoras than we have currently recognized at Polis.

While our primary focus has been on the Late Antique and Early Byzantine levels at E.F2, we plan to expand our work to include the systematic study of the Hellenistic, Roman and later Medieval remains in this area. Our intial study of material related to these earlier periods in the area has revealed the existence of a well-defined 1st c. BC/1st c. AD horizon characterized by Cypriot Sigillata and imported Eastern Sigilatta A table wares and a range of cooking vessels in recognizable Roman fabrics. Amphora and utility wares are far less common with the exception of the ocassional example of John Leonard’s infamous “pinch-handled” amphoras.

In 2013, we also conducted a campaign of high resolution laser scanning of the area of EF2 collection over 50 million individual data points with a Leica ScanStation C10. The result of this work not only complemented the more fanciful 3D reconstructions accompanying the City of Gold exhibit, but also provided detailed visual support for the study of notebooks and ceramics. The laser scans will allow the research team to document architectural relationships during the offseason, to produce vertical elevations, and to supplement and revise the existing plans of the site and its buildings.