Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Some New Thoughts on the Roman Economy

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Over the weekend, I finally found a few hours to sit down with the relatively recent edited volume Quantifying the Roman Economy: Methods and Problems edited by A. Bowman and A. Wilson (Oxford 2009).  The book brings together a number of different perspectives on the Roman economy in a broad response to later chapters of the Scheidel, Morris, and Saller edited Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge 2007).  In my reading, the books stands in contrast to a recent work edited by M. Mundell Mango on Byzantine Trade (which I discuss here).  Whereas Mundell Mango theorizes that it is possible to understand trade in the Byzantine world without necessarily appealing to wider considerations of the ancient economy, the authors in Quantifying the Roman Economy take the opposite approach and embed trade of all kinds within a theoretical and material critique of the Roman economy.

While I won’t review the entire book, I did want to point out some of its highlight to my loyal readers.

1. Bowman and Wilson’s introduction is among the best short summaries of the state of research in the Roman economy.  Their considerations range from discussions of economic integration to survey of the potential of ancient economic growth and decline. They conclude their survey by focusing attention on four vital areas for analysis: demography and settlement, the agrarian economy, production and trade, and mining and metals. They argue that at present there exists sufficient evidence to support sustained analysis of these issues and that these issues can form the basis for an integrated view of the Roman economy.

2. Field Survey and Demography. Intensive pedestrian survey represents an important approach for establishing Roman settlement patterns, and these settlement patterns play a vital role in the organization of the Roman economy. In particular, the relationship between rural producers and urban dwellers structures the relationship between the primary production of food and centralized administrative, political, and population centers across the Roman Empire.  As Jongman, Fentress, Mattingly, and Lo Cascio point out, the percentage of people living in both cities and in the countryside remains hotly contested.  As a result, it is difficult to evaluate even the minimum and maximum productivity of the countryside required to sustain an urban population who is not engaged in primary agricultural production.

3. Peopling the Countryside. Elizabeth Fentress and David Mattingly provide valuable defenses of survey archaeology and its ability to shed light not only the structure of ancient settlement but ancient demography. Fentress argues on the basis of her intensive survey work on the island of Jerba and in the Albenga Valley that careful sampling of the landscape can provide a rough estimate of both the kinds and the distribution of sites in the countryside during the Roman period. The types of sites, ranging from urban areas to small villages and isolated farms, could then form the basis for basic demography. To summarize complex and nuanced study, Fentress argues that far fewer people lived in the countryside on Jerba than we might expect considering the potential density of urban settlement: 11% in single farms, 20% in villages, 20% in villas, and an impressive 49% in towns.  She was then able to argue that the urban centers on Jerba (which is not a particularly fertile place) relied on imported grain.

In his response to the Fentress article, David Mattingly rightly offers a bit of caution by cleverly invoking Donald Rumsfeld’s category of “unknown unknowns” in intensive survey.  For Mattingly, the unknown unknowns are those sites that do not manifest themselves in survey but may have a significant impact on how we understand ancient demography and settlement structure.  Of course, Jerba with its light soils and relative geomorphological stability was less likely to produce the kinds of unknown unknowns than the more dynamic landscape of, say, the Rhone valley, but nevertheless, Mattingly is correct in reminding us that survey is better at demonstrating presence than absence.

4. Trade. Andrew Wilson’s summary of pressing issues with regard to Roman trade is another very useful contribution to any discussion of trade in the Mediterranean. He offers valuable critiques of evidence for trade ranging from shipwrecks to amphora and marble.  In his study of shipwrecks, he uses aoristic analysis to create a more nuanced reading of Parker’s classic summary of shipwrecks by century.  He shows that by plotting the possible date of “long-dated” Roman period (150 BC – AD 400) shipwreck by decade rather than by midpoint, it becomes possible to argue for a later peak in maritime commerce than Parker had estimated.  In short, distributing the possible dates for long-dated shipwrecks helps to mitigate against a chronological pattern of trade biased by certain standard dating conventions.

Later in the same article, Wilson provides another useful model for understanding Roman period trade when he compares the production of certain classes of pottery (e.g. African Red Slip) to its frequency elsewhere in the Mediterranean. While such analysis is not particularly novel or innovative, he establishes quite clearly how the relationship between production and distribution is not fixed.  Pottery supply represents only one aspect of the distribution of ceramics in the Mediterranean, and the quantitative gap between patterns of supply and distribution provide a useful basis for considerations of trading patterns as well as the vagaries of taste across the Mediterranean basin.

William Harris and Michael Fulford offer responses to Wilson’s contribution that expand the variables under consideration in his article to include the relationship between settlements in the Roman world and how the differences between overland and maritime trade and urban and ex-urban settlement types can significantly influence the distribution of material.


As my brief summary of this books probably makes clear, I liked this book and think it is the best single volume summary of the pressing issues and potential for using quantitative data to understand the Roman economy.  As the availability of quantitative data from survey projects, excavations, and summary publications increases, scholars will need more robust models and approaches for producing synthetic analyses of trade, settlement structure, demography, and economic growth or decline.  Despite the typical caveats surrounding the use of any quantitative data from antiquity, this volume has continued the optimistic trend begun with the Cambridge Economic History.

Categories: Archaeology, Books

More Indigenous Archaeology and Cyprus

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Over the past few years, I’ve been musing about the relationship between indigenous archaeological practices and nationalism in the Greece.  Recently, however, I have begun to think a bit more seriously about these practices in Cyprus.  This past weekend, I read over parts of the Laudatio Barnabae inspired in part by Paul Dilly’s recent article in the Journal of Roman Archaeology (which I discuss here).

The great thing about this short, apparently 6th century text, is that it explicitly located the discovery of St. Barnabas’ body (Barnabas was the companion of St. Paul) with the tensions between Cyprus and the episcopal see of Antioch in the time between the Church of Cyprus received independence at the Council of Ephesus and the rule of Peter the Fuller at Antioch.  Peter the Fuller was markedly anti-Chalcedonian and have friends in imperial places.  According to the Laudatio he also coveted regaining control over Cyprus. St. Barnabas intervened to avert this by appearing to the Bishop Anthemius in several visions the last of which directed the Bishop to the Saint’s body, in a cave near Salamis holding an autograph of the Gospel of Matthew.  The authority of this discovery and the gift of the Gospel book to the Emperor Zeno ensured the continued independence of the Church of Cyprus. We know that Zeno also elevated the bishop of the island to Metropolitan status.

The role of inventio, or the discovery of a lost sacred object, in this text is important.  The tie between a discovered object and sanctity would have echoed with stories surrounding the foundation of the monastery on Stavrovouni which overlooks the city of Larnaka.  By the 15th century, this monastery was associated with a fragment of the True Cross delivered by Contanstine’s mother, St. Helen, on her return to Constantinople from the Holy Land where she had excavated (quite literally) the remains of Christ’s cross.

In a famous article (for some!), David Reese describes how Cypriots and some early travelers saw the bones of the extinct pygmy hippopotami and other mega fauna as the bones of saints (or even dragons!).  The discovery of large animal bones in caves seems to have led to their association with saints presumably on the basis of various inventio accounts like the Laudatio Barnabae. This phenomena was recorded (with varying degrees of condescension) throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In more recent times, as I have noted on this blog a few years back, both Peter Megaw and Vassos Karageorghis have encountered similar kinds of archaeological practices.  According to Megaw (JHS 66 (1946), 52), local farmers praying for rain excavated parts of the ruined Panayia Skyra church to appease the Virgin. Karageorghis, in his autobiography, recounts a story of a priest who approached him while director of the Department of Antiquties and asked for help locating the tomb of St. Auxibius.

The practice of looking for origins in an archaeological context and using these origins to define the community is not particularly remarkable and almost to be expected in a place like Cyprus where in the modern era nationalism has had such tragic consequences. What is notable, to me at least, is the possible roots of these practices in the 6th century where the archaeological practices of the Bishop Anthemius played a role in a prominent narrative of the island’s autonomy.  In recent times, objects associated with the arrival of the Greeks (mostly during the Late Bronze Age) have taken on the same kind of sacred status as the objects discovered by their earlier predecessors.  The discovery of these objects is grounded, of course, in a faith in scientific archaeology rather than divine revelation, but it is hard to imagine that the basic impulse driving these practices and the narratives that they produce is different.

Categories: Archaeology, Cyprus

Hellenistic Fortifications on Vayia: A Working Paper

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I have long advocated for an increase use of working papers in the field of Mediterranean archaeology.  Circulating pre-publication drafts of articles is already a common practice and the presentation of sites and finds in an efficient and prompt way has long stood as an ethical obligation for archaeologists.

In that spirit, I am presenting as a working paper my preliminary analysis of the fortifications from the site of Vigla on Cyprus.  This is a working draft so the research, analysis, and interpretation should be regarded as provisional.  The basic description of the fortification on the hill of Vigla is accurate and should not undergo significant modification.

The analysis presented below is the work of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, but at present, all issues are the product of my analysis of their hard work.

Vigla Description and Analysis December Working 2010

Clothes make the Professional: Archaeological Boots

December 6, 2010 4 comments

This past week, I’ve been preparing to teach P. Novick’s That Noble Dream (Cambridge 1988) and P. Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (New York 2010).  Both these books foreground the process of professionalization in a university context.  In a recent spat over the character of academic offices, I argued that we ought to model our offices on the creative space of highly flexible technology start up companies rather than the antiseptic space of anonymous, highly bureaucratized companies (some of which are now faltering).  This idea did not meet with much acceptance especially as the link between university culture and corporate culture is well-known.

This brings me to what academics should wear. Over my time as  teacher I’ve found myself increasingly adopting a more and more professional dress code especially on the days that I teach in the classroom.  When I am writing in my office, I tend to dress more casually and comfortably.  In this way, I publicly divide creative time (writing) from corporate time (teaching).  (This is not to suggest that these two do not overlap).

I also have another professional persona and that is as a field archaeologist.  In the media, at least, archaeologists are known for distinctive clothing, but even Indiana Jones dressed in a more professional “corporate” way when in the classroom (bow tie and the requisite tweed).  C. Holtorf has written on this very topic in some interesting ways here and here.


I prefer to “rock the neck beard” in the field to mark out my departure from “corporate” world of classroom. I typically imagine my rather unkempt appearance as an reference to the archaeologist as artisan.  The neck beard represents the both a layer of additional protection against the sun, the unpleasant nature of shaving and then sweating, and distracted air of someone deeply engaged in their work.


The boundaries between my various professional identities or avatars (casual creative writer, stuffy company man teacher, and archaeologist as artisan) can be fairly rigid. I will occasionally wear a NASCAR hat while walking across campus in my teaching attire, but never in the classroom.  I will also sometimes wear my teaching clothes on days when I have a series of “important” committee meetings or other responsibilities.  The one thing that I almost always wear (at least from October to April) are my boots.

Boots are the most vital component of an archaeologist wardrobe.  Without a rugged pair of boots, an archaeologist is, at best, another weekend warrior whose engagement with the realities of the out-of-doors stops at the well-groomed trail or the end of a manicured lawn.  Boots make the archaeology.

My wife introduced my to Blundstone boots almost 10 years ago and since then, I have never been without a pair.  I wear them on campus, in teaching clothes, in my creative clothes, while walking home and while doing anything outdoors.  (Ironically, I don’t always wear them while doing actual archaeology. I prefer low-top boots and nylon to the traditional Blundstone, hightop, leather.)  I have found that my boots last about 3 years, but I don’t care for them properly.  The walks home through the freezing snow and the super dry environment in campus buildings tend to make the leather dry out.  I shuffle my feet and walk incautiously scuffing the tips on obstacles.  I have a pronation in one of my feet and that stretches the leather in an unnatural way usually resulting in it pulling a bit away from the sole.  A few times a year, after considerable harassment, I will polish the boots and put some leather treatment on them.  If I pass through the Minneapolis airport, I’ll stop at the shoe shine place, but that’s mostly to banter about the Timberwolves and, as they say, to pass the time.  (The men at the shoeshine stand can always identify the Blundstone’s and usually chide me for not taking better care of them!).

This past week, I got my new pair of Blundstone’s!  They replace my old pair as the link between my professional avatar as a teacher and my professional avatar as an archaeologist.  The old boots get retired into more rugged duty and less high profile tasks (shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, et c.) and the new boots make their debut this morning on a casual writing day.  The old boots are inscribed with three years of activities from long walks with the wife through our small town to cold winter mornings spent shoveling out the car.  They also preserve the marks of innumerable professional lectures, classroom successes and failures, and afternoons in the library, archives, or hunched over my lap top. Coats of water, snow, polish, and conditioner have changed their color.  My idiosyncratic stride has etched deep wrinkles across the soft leather.


The new boots are stiff and unforgiving at present undoubtedly aware of the fate of their predecessors and hoping to hold off the inevitable.

Categories: Academia, Archaeology

More Byzantine Archaeology: Byzantine Trade

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

As the end of the semester approaches, I forced myself to find time to peruse the new (2009) volume entitled Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th centuries edited by M. Mundell Mango.  It is a pretty neat and diverse collection of papers that touch on trade from the beginning of Late Antiquity to 4th Crusade.  The papers range from discussions of amphoras, shipwrecks, and pottery to studies on the location and organization of manufacturing.  I’ll admit upfront that I did not read all the papers in the volume so I hardly feel qualified to give a comprehensive review, but the articles that I did read were good.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the volume is the editors effort to locate the papers in relation to other recent scholarly works on trade and the economy in the Late Antique and Byzantine Mediterranean.  She takes particular aim at the recent A. Laiou edited Economic History of Byzantium which Mundell Mango points out continued problematic periodization schemes by beginning its analysis at the 7th century and thereby “failing to analyze at the same level the preceding period of formation that links Byzantium to the ancient world.” (4).

More importantly, perhaps, she noted that this volume sought to separate trade from discussions of the economy.  When I first read this, it blew my mind, but as I thought more carefully about it, I began to understand her point.  On some level, our theorizing about the ancient economy has dictated the kinds of questions that we have asked from our material and the kinds of analyses that we have conducted.  For example, most rural survey projects take as a point of departure M. Finley’s ideas of the relationship between the (consumer) city and the (producer) countryside.  Our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, is explicitly informed by the ideas advanced in Horden and Purcell’s Corrupting Sea and their idea that the ancient Mediterranean economy was dominated by semi-autonomous micro-regions. By separating trade from larger economic theorizing, there is a chance that we can produce a far less structured body of data that has the potential to reveal new patterns or organization that do more than challenge or confirm the growing body of economic theorizing.  In fact, Sean Kingsley’s unstructured datasets (that is to say, a data set made of individual records without any methodological relationship to one another) of Late Antique and Byzantine shipwrecks could present just the kind of evidence necessary to create new models of how trade actually occurred in the ancient and Medieval Mediterranean (31-36).  Of course, this kind of optimistic empiricism is difficult to come by in practice (and even more difficult to fund!), although one can imagine a time soon when the results of the various survey projects in the Eastern Mediterranean could offer a similar kind of unstructured data for analysis. It is interesting to observe, however, that most of the papers in this volume fall quickly back on longstanding

P. Armstrong’s article, “Trade in the east Mediterranean in the 8th century”, for example, continues the work of pushing the date of Cypriot Red Slip pottery later demonstrating that trade in this common Eastern Mediterranean table ware continued into the 8th century (157-178).  (Moreover, she reminds us that despite its name, CRS (or perhaps better Late Roman D Ware) may not all originate on the island of Cyprus!).  Armstrong’s article complements a shorter piece by I. Dimopoulos which looks at the trade in Byzantine red wares in the 11th and 13th century.  Both of these articles provide (as well as O. Karagiorgou’s  short offering on “Mapping trade by the amphora” (37-58)) continue the discussion of the relationship between the Late Roman and Byzantine economy on archaeological grounds. To my mind, these discussions are rooted in certain basic expectations regarding the economy, specifically, the notion that the Late Roman economy faltered over the course of the 7th-9th century. This basic assumption suggests that the economy is tied to administrative structures and practices like the annona trade and the political control of the Mediterranean basin.  Demonstrating the certain kinds of trade continued even as the political power of the Roman state abated does little to separate the idea of trade from larger questions of economic integration or administrative and political control.

I was drawn to this book while thinking about my own venture into the study of Byzantine archaeology and it struck me that the approach advocated here is explicitly anti-theoretical (if one understands the economy as a more intensively theorized version of the practice of trade).  The results are interesting and useful, but it barely scratches the surface of what Byzantine archaeologists are currently doing in the field.

Categories: Archaeology, Byzantium

Archaeology of Thanksgiving Dinner

November 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Two green ceramic baking dishes.
One white ceramic backing dish with handles.
Two metal “baking pans”.
Ceramic leaf-shaped serving dish with ceramic, acorn-shaped, bowl with lid.
One silver salad bowl.
One pie pan.
One small, ceramic bowl with lid.

3 stainless steel and 2 silver serving spoons.  Two brass candle stick holders. 1 bottle glass Prosecco bottle.

Two ceramic plates. 4 forks, 2 knives, 2 spoons. 2 inexpensive glass champagne flutes. 2 glass drinking “glasses”.

Four chairs and table (probably pine).  White fabric table cloth.


Categories: Archaeology

Archaeology and Byzantium

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

This weekend I spent a little time with the Liz James edited A Companion to Byzantium. (Blackwell 2010).  The scope of the book and the quality of articles (and contributors) is pretty impressive.  The focus on the range of Byzantine literature is both gratifying since so much of the discussion of Byzantine literature has tended to occur in languages other than English and timely since there seems to be growing interest in Byzantine texts other than hagiography.  The bibliography runs to over 70 pages and this alone warrants the perusing of this volume.

The section on Byzantine archaeology, however, is disappointing.  First, it is less than 10 pages and one page is half-blank and other other features a photograph of a conserved amphora. So, in all Byzantine archaeology received 8 pages of text in a 400+ page volume. The discussion focuses briefly on villages, towns, fortifications, and churches with short discussions of nationalism and a superficial presentation of different “archaeological approaches.”  For their length, the sections are decent, but the decisions to focus on this little handful of areas is difficult to understand.  For example, the chapter left out any sustained discussion of ceramic typologies and chronologies (a favorite of many of Byzantine archaeologist colleagues), scientific approaches (e.g. dendrochronology, physical anthropology, et c.) which have made such a significant impact on the field, intensive pedestrian survey on the regional level (which in Greece has begun to produce significant changes in how we understand Byzantine settlement), the archaeology of ethnicity (which is obviously central to discussions of ethnic change, modern nation building, and historical perceptions of Byzantium in the West), and the relationship of Byzantine archaeology to careful work on the Medieval, typically Crusader, eastern Mediterranean.  Some of these oversights can be attributed to the “late” date for the start of Byzantium; the author chose to begin the Byzantine period in archaeology in the second half of the 6th century.  While this dating falls within the conventional periodization for the start of the Byzantine period, it is not explained in terms of archaeological evidence.  In fact, it is increasingly clear that many of the trends that characterize Byzantine material culture (for example, ceramic types, construction styles, and settlement) tend in many parts of the Eastern Mediterranean to persist from the 4th to even the early 7th century (depending on local economic, religious, and political contingencies).

To be fair, the chapter on Byzantine archaeology is complemented by a nice chapter by Peter Sarris on “Economics, Trade, and ‘Feudalism'” which pays particular attention to the circulation of currency and the practical significance of identifying Byzantine coins in archaeological contexts.  Despite this contribution, the neglect of archaeology in this volume is remarkable.  Of course, it is always easy to say that no volume can even contain everything that every scholar deems central to the study of a particular period. But, on the other hand, the argument for including a robust discussion of Byzantine archaeology in a volume of this scope is hardly a reach.

Few areas of Byzantine studies have seen the vitality of Byzantine archaeology over the past several decades especially when it is considered under the wider banner of Medieval and Post-Medieval archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean.  As a little advertisement for myself (this is my blog!), it just so happens that Kostis Kourelis and I are working on an edited volume right now that will bring together some of the most recent contributions to the archaeological study of Byzantium, and we hope that it will contribute to the archaeology of Byzantium taking a more prominent place in the future of Byzantine studies.

Categories: Archaeology, Byzantium