Fine ware and Function at Boeotia Thisvi
For those who are regular readers here, you know that I’ve been working on re-analyzing the data produced by the Ohio Boeotia Expedition around the site of Thisvi in southwestern Boeotia. My focus has been on the post-antique material and the Late Roman material in particular. This is both because the post-antique material is the focus of the panel for which I am preparing this paper and because there has been so much work done in on understanding the Late Antique landscape of Greece since the completion of the fieldwork component of the OBE in 1984.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the main assemblage produced by the OBE from the Thisvi basin is the dearth of Late Roman fine wares. Both the transect survey and the site based survey of the Thisvi basin proper (this is the area immediately to the south of the city of Thisvi) produced virtually no fine ware. Only at the harbor site of Vathy was any substantial concentration of fine ware found (and this area only produced a few sherds of Phocaean (LRC) Ware and a Late Roman lamp).
The absence of any considerable quantity of Late Roman fine ware is more or less consistent with the finds of the Cambridge Boeotia Project to the east. One of the absolutely fantastic things included in the publication of their survey around Thespiai were a series of data sets. This data included the finds data from the sites discussed in the volume. They easily imported into an Access database and could be queried and quantified. The striking thing is that the villa sites around Thespiai (LSE 7, THS 2, 12, 13, 14 for those with a scorecard) likewise produced almost no imported fine wares. Now it may be that these villas are “industrial” villas focused on agriculture rather than the luxurious rural estates often associated with the new class of Late Roman aristocrats who looked beyond participation in the local, urban unit to sources for provincial or even imperial prestige.
The relative dearth of Late Roman fine wares from the countryside of Thisvi and Thespiai can also be compared to the conditions on the islands in the Gulf of Domvrena. The finds from the islands of Kouveli and Macronisos produced far greater quantities of imported fine ware than the inland sites (for these see T. Gregory, DXAE 12 (1986), 287-304 and T. Gregory, BS/EB 2 (1986), 155-175). This may well be credited to the status of these island sites as emporia or transshipment points for goods either being manufactured locally (presumably at the “industrial villas”) or being imported from abroad. It is curious, however, to see so little evidence of for the fine ware in the local landscape.
Another useful point of contrast is the distribution of fine wares across the Late Roman landscape in the Corinthia. David Pettegrew’s recent analysis of this data (Pettegrew, Hesperia 76 (2007), 743-784) showed that close to 10% of all Late Roman material collected from the intensive survey was fine ware most of which was imported. Likewise, Pettegrew’s summary of work at rural villas in the immediate hinterland of the city of Corinth revealed sites that we luxurious in appointment with private baths, colonnaded courtyards, and mosaic floors. These were the types of buildings likely to produce assemblages including imported fine wares. In fact, the villa at Akra Sophia suveyed by Gregory at essentially the same time as the sites in the Thisvi basin produce both proper Phocaean (LRC) wares as well as local imitations (T. Gregory, Hesperia 54 (1985), 411-428).
Even if we must observe some caution in assigning function to a building based on surface assemblage alone, the dearth of fine ware in both the Thespiai and Thisvi assemblages suggests that the Late Roman landscape of southwestern Boeotia is considerably different from that of the Corinthia. The results of survey and excavation over the last 20 years has not necessary produced a Boeotia countryside that is any less busy (for a nice summary see A. Dunn, in Byzantine Style, Religion and Civilization in Honour of Sir Steven Runciman. (Cambridge 2006), 38-71). Fortifications, possible Early Christian architecture, rural and urban installations of various types, harbor works and the distribution of Late Roman in general across the countryside point to the continued habitation and, broadly speaking, “usefulness” of the region through the 5th and 6th centuries (if not later!). At the same time, the absence of wide spread indication of imported fine wares — a typical and wide spread indicator of not only of prestige installations, but of domestic activities in general — make it hard to imagine that this area is a deeply connected to the bustling world of Late Roman commerce than even the “deserted” islands found immediately offshore in the Gulf of Domvrena, much less the cosmopolitan assemblages found at our coastal site on Cyprus or the villas of the Late Roman Corinthia.
This reading of the Late Roman countryside of southwestern Boeotia is important because it represents a more qualified reading of the prosperity characteristic of the Late Roman world in general. This is not meant to return to the outdated notions of the Late Antiquity as a time of poverty, dissolution, and decline, but rather to demonstrate that the hallmarks of Late Roman prosperity — namely trade, the wide distribution of prestige goods, and the continued investment in the architecture of display in domestic, urban, and ecclesiastical context — may have been distributed unevenly across the landscape of Late Roman Greece.
For more on this research:
Reclaiming Thisve Data
Thisve Basin, Archaeological Visualization, and Curating Digital Data
First Out: A First Draft of An Intro for New Views on Old Data
Survey Archaeology Finds as Data
More on Thisvi in Boeotia