Kourion and Abandonment

I finally had a chance to make my way through A.H.S. Megaw’s Kourion: Excavations in the Episcopal Precinct.  (Washington, D.C. 2007).  I am not going to try to review this imposing book here, but merely to point out one part of the Megaw and Company’s interesting analysis.  A few years ago, I gave a paper at a panel at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of American in San Diego.  I argued that the master narratives that influence the excavation, description, and even analysis of Early Christian architecture in Greece have tended to obscure events associated with these buildings’ abandonment.  The desire among archaeologists to fit their analysis of remains into the neat periodization schemes that have held sway in our discipline since the Enlightenment (i.e. a site “ends” when the period ends) combined with a long held preference among archaeologists for studying monumental architecture (as opposed to more humble structures) to lead scholars to overlook the often dynamic histories of buildings and sites after their most monumental phase had ended. 

KourionBasilica

The Kourion volume is not a revolution in this area, but the team of scholars associated with this excavation do bring out — in various places throughout the text — some significant observations concerning the abandonment and afterlife of this building.  The most well-known aspect of this building’s history is that after its abandonment some of its architectural elements and liturgical furnishings were transferred to the site of Sarayia Chapel in the nearby village of Episcopi.  This use of Early Christian spolia in a slightly later building led the excavators to conclude plausibly that this three-aisle chapel replaced the episcopal basilica at Kourion as the seat for the bishop after the site of Kourion reduced to ruin by a late 7th century earthquake.

The removal of material from the site, however, did not occur in a single episode.  In fact, the excavations revealed that initially, the residents or bishop of Kourion made an effort to repair the church.  For example, even though the top floor of the diakonikon to the west of the main nave had collapsed, the first floor was nevertheless cleared out, perhaps to serve as a temporary chapel while repairs continued on the larger main basilica.  These efforts however proved inadequate and were perhaps stymied by additional seismic activity and the economic and political disruptions resulting from several 7th century raid and the eventual occupation of the island by Umayyad forces. 

According to the excavators, once the bishop or the community made the decision to abandon the church, the systematic quarrying of the precinct commenced.  The small settlement of workers established in the atrium of the church made new provisions for storing water (since the aqueducts for the city must have been damaged) and  left behind various tools for processing food and late types of cooking pots and transport amphoras.  The workers removed debris from the site, collected objects that could be easily salvaged, like roof tiles, and carried off prestige or symbolically significant items like marble furnishings, sections of opus sectile floors, and champleve revetment.  A lead seal from the 8th century Bishop Damianos suggests that the quarrying of the basilica took some time. 

Clearly, then, the church continued to be a “site” well after it ceased to function as a religious center.  The attention that Megaw and his colleagues paid to the “later” life of the buildings at Kourion is certainly not unique (in fact, just this week, I’ve been catching up on the careful “late” history of the site of Isthmia in the Corinthia), but neither is it as common as it could be in the study of important monuments in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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