GQB 2015, day 9: wrap up, iterate

Friday 17th July is the last day at work in this short GQB 2015 field campaign. I’m still a bit exhausted from the return trip to Rethymno, but most importantly I’m very satisfied with the exchange of ideas about various topics (Early Byzantine fortifications, water supply systems, pottery, exploitation of natural and agricultural resources) that we had.

Since my main task here was to work on the analysis of ceramic contexts, I just continued my writing of text and R source code as in the past days. In the late afternoon we left to pay a short visit to the village of Panagia where we found an old water fountain that is depicted in a 100-years old photograph. It’s strange, photographs seem to tell true stories, so direct ‒ whereas in fact they’re a paradigmatic form of mediation. Sometimes, when you need to get a better understanding of an object, it’s useful to look at it from different angles, at different scales, alone or in its natural context, under a microscope or in your bare hands. I think that’s what I’m trying to do with the ceramic contexts from the Byzantine District of Gortyna: it’s not always easy and of course it’s not always working because I lack the archaeological, statistical, petrographic, drawing skills that would be needed to make this “prism” fully working. However, I am convinced that the result is worth the trade-offs, and there will be room for improvement of the details at a later stage. For now, I just go on iterating, half artificial intelligence algorithm and half craftsman.

GQB 2015, day 8: DynByzCrete, οι πρωτοβυζαντινοί οικισμοί της Κρήτης

On 16th July we’re out of the Mesara to join a study seminar about the Early Byzantine settlements of Crete, organised by the Institute of Mediterranean Studies (FORTH-IMS) in Rethymno as conclusion to the DynByzCrete research project led by Christina Tsigonaki and Apostolos Sarris. I was really happy to meet other colleagues I’ve met before in various parts of Europe: Kayt Armstrong, Anastasia Yangaki, Gianluca Cantoro. Yesterday I posted the summary of my talk, apart from the conclusions.

I had the privilege of being the last speaker, and taking advantage of the fact that Anastasia Yangaki had provided a detailed overview of ceramic consumption and production in Crete from the 4th to the 9th century, I could point to some specific issues in how we date archaeological contexts with pottery and most importanly in how we prioritise ceramic studies. Ceramic specialists are a rare species, and until now we have failed to provide the means for other archaeologists to quickly identify characteristic type finds of the Early Byzantine period, with sufficient detail to avoid very generic chronologies like “5th-7th” and “8th-9th”, that are highly problematic. We also have a responsibility for the fact that studies and publications of ceramic finds are always lagging behind fieldwork, because 1) there is little selection of significant, well-dated stratigraphic contexts 2) and the study and publication have been for too long done by separating ceramic productions that were looked at separately by hyper-specialists, rather than looking at contexts as our atomic unit. Therefore, it has been impossible to provide the quantified ceramic data that are needed for the type of analytical work that it envisaged by the DynByzCrete project – and we should admit that this data will be unavailable for a long time. As a thought experiment, we could stop doing fieldwork for 25 years and dedicate most of our efforts to the study of all significant ceramic contexts from recent rescue archaeology.

If we agree that there is a potential for extracting information about social dynamics from pottery, can we also agree that provenance studies based on standardised archaeometric procedures are only one of many ways that this can be done? We know very little of the actual manufacturing of most pottery types, of the material culture that permeates their making and usage. So, taking a broader view at the DynByzCrete project, while the environmental determinism behind some of the geospatial analysis needs to leave room for the complexity of Byzantine societies (plural), it is clear that we are at a turning point in the way we look at Early Byzantine Crete, and that’s because we are starting to consider the island in its entirety instead of focusing on a single settlement, no matter how large or important. In this respect, regional surveys don’t seem to provide a qualitative advantage over prolonged excavations – and their multi-period focus is an opportunity to deal with longue durée patterns but also a rather discomforting exercise in oversimplification of changes in historical periods. Pulling an amazing variety of data, that are mostly already available and published, stress-test the obvious and non-obvious patterns of interaction (travel time by horse/donkey among known episcopal cities? Social networks of elite members as known from lead seals and written sources and epigraphy and likely connections to luxury items?) is the best way to stop repeating the same dull research questions over and over.

How can we move forward? These are difficult times, for foreign research projects and especially for Greek institutions. It seems unlikely that we will be able to work more, with more resources, on this and other related topics of Cretan history. Thus, our first aim should be to make our research more sustainable (no matter how much the term is abused): publish on the Web, encourage horizontal and vertical exchange of skills and knowledge among institutions, focus on research outputs that are reusable and continuously upgraded (and perhaps kill interim reports).

GQB 2015, day 7: Gortyna in the 8th century through a ceramic lens

On 16th July we’re headed to Rethymno for a workshop on Byzantine cities in Crete. Our participation was a last minute deal but I thought it would be useful to provide an overview on the entire city of Gortys, not limited to the GQB area, from the point of view of a ceramic specialist. What follows is a short summary of my talk. Tomorrow I will post a summary of the workshop and some conclusions about my own talk.

At Gortys, there is a recognisable occupation phase in the 8th century: we have evidence in the Pretorio, the Byzantine Houses and the Byzantine Quarter, the Pythion, the Mitropolis basilica, the Agora, possibly the Acropolis and even some rural sites such as the small farm of Orthipetra in the Mitropolianos valley and Chalara near Festos. In short, almost everywhere we’ve been excavating in the past 20 years we found evidence later than the 7th century, even without accounting for the prolonged use of some ceramic items.

Therefore our research question should not be whether the city is still alive in the 8th century but how we understand the life in Gortys by means of archaeological indicators such as ceramic finds.

In the past few years, we have collectively published ceramic and numismatic evidence that contradicts the traditional date of 670 AD for an earthquake – pushing some 50-60 years later a possible catastrophic event (some publications are shy about this, though). When we speak of the 8th century in Gortys it is useful to distinguish into a “long 7th century” that lasts until this event and the remaining decades of the 8th century, according to both the ceramic and numismatic evidence. The period after this event is usually mentioned as “VIII e IX secolo” mainly because we have to accomodate for the 826-829 AD date from the written sources about the “Arab” conquest of Crete. I’ll leave a discussion of the 9th century for a next occasion, but the same approach can be used.

Part of our issues with the 8th century derive from the impact that earlier works like Gortina II or Gortina V had on the following studies, with their typological approach. It is only recently that we have collectively started focusing on contexts as atomic units of study, at least in some cases.

The main ceramic indicators we have are:

  • Globular amphorae
  • Sovradipinta bizantina
  • Late Mediterranean fine wares
  • Cooking wares
  • Glazed wares
  • Chafing dishes
  • Oil lamps

Urban areas

The Pretorio, Byzantine Houses, Byzantine Quarter and Pythion are best considered as a single area, that had its main focus on the “Strada Nord” which crossed the urban area. Lots of excavations here!

The Mitropolis basilica is the most important religious area of the city. Recent excavations on the outer part of the absidal area have given important evidence.

The Agora was excavated in the 1990s but only recently published. Apart from a significant amount of Medieval material, including Byzantine amphorae, there is a deposit (“C”) dated from this period, possibly from the same destructive event seen elsewhere in Gortys.

The Acropolis was excavated in the 1960s and saw only a small intervention in 2003. It took a few decades to realise that some of the decorated pottery identified as Minoan was in fact Byzantine. Without a reevaluation of the material, we are left with a weak basis to analyse the place that must have been the seat of the civil/military power from the late 7th to the 9th century, and only the occupation is certain, with architectural remains and at least one coin.

Main ceramic indicators

Globular amphorae are well known but on their own they provide little chronological detail. However, their recurring association with other indicators that have a more tight chronology is very interesting. Their source is commonly indicated as either Cretan or Aegean: we still lack a precise indication in this regard. Their abundance in this period all around Gortys, unparalleled by other amphora types, indicates that they were used primarily as a storage container, to stockpile liquids (wine?) in huge quantities – as much as 750 liters just in one building. Other amphorae that are quite numerous in this period are LRA 5/6 from Palestine and the Nile Delta region, and the LRA7 in some areas of the city.

The Sovradipinta bizantina is of limited interest as a general indicator for Crete, because it only circulates in the immediate vicinity of Gortys and only rarely found outside the Mesara. Its production starts at the end of the 6th century and goes on into the 7th and 8th century, apparently without any significant distinction in typology or decoration. Again, it is difficult to use this indicator alone to point to an 8th century date, even though ceramic evidence from the Praetorium points to a different chronology, mostly in the late 7th and 8th century. One thing is sure: the Sovradipinta bizantina was never meant to be a replacement for missing imports, since most of it is on closed forms like drinking cups, jugs, etc. that do not occur in the imported fine wares. Rather, we see decoration occurring on the formal repertoire of the local plain wares.

Traditionally, the end of trade in Mediterranean fine wares is dated at the end of the 7th century, to coincide at the very last with the Arab conquest of Carthage in 698. However, several authors agree that some productions could continue to be exported for some time in the 8th century, such as:

  • the late African Red Slip D3 / D4, form 107 and 109 described by Bonifay;
  • Late Roman D / Cypriot Red Slip, form 9B described by Watson;
  • Egyptian Red Slip wares? We seem to have a consistent presence of Aswan ware, a production that is little known outside Egypt and is dated to to 7th century.

In general, cooking pots of this period are frequently bag-shaped, in coarser, more fragile fabrics. Cooking pots made on the slow-wheel appear sporadically, like a paradigmatic example of simplified ceramic production or even a comeback of domestic modes of production – at the same time they challenge our stereotyped view of pottery as typology and require a technological study that goes beyond traditional archaeometric provenance analysis. It is difficult to tell whether there were different cooking habits since most publications lack the level of detail that is needed, such as which parts of the cooking pot have traces of fire exposure, which have traces of dipper / κουτάλα, etc.

Glazed wares (the “Glazed White Ware” series 1) are the most recognisable finds of the period. While the coarser glazed cooking pots date already from the mid-7th in Constantinople, their fine counterparts seem slightly later according to the studies of Hayes. Some 9th century examples were already known since the 1980s in Gortys, but recently we have been finding more examples including the beautiful 8th century chafing dish decorated with fish and palm tree. Other known examples from Crete are from Pseira and Itanos. They could be interpreted as luxury items, but as with the imported wares we should be cautious to make an equation between archaeological rarity and actual social/economic value, since this production is very rare all over the Byzantine Empire.

Chafing dishes / σαλτσάρια come also in coarse fabrics, at least in two separate contexts from the BQ and the Agora. Since we have so few examples of this type, it is useful to see that the culinary habits linked to this new type of cooking vessel are not limited to glazed dishes (that could easily be gifts or decorative items). There’s room for discussing the fact that this habit appears in Gortys at the same time as other important centres of the Byzantine Empire, with simplistic explanations like the military or new civil authorities.

Finally, oil lamps. The “juglet” lamps are well known, especially type I. It seems that type II could be more widespread in the later period. Lamps in this period are less standardised, but in Gortys we don’t see hand-made lamps of the simpler open types. A separate discussion is needed to take into account the impact of glass on lighting of interior spaces, and we still don’t have collected the necessary data from our excavated material.


I’d like to leave my conclusions blank for tomorrow’s post.

The cover image is an African Red Slip sherd, form Hayes 109B, in D3 fabric, photographed through a magnifying lens (GQB CER 746.2).

GQB 2015, day 6: the 7th day milestone

14th July was again crucial for the Greek crisis, notwithstanding any historical recurrence of revolutionary events where the powerful elite was overthrown without mercy.

Here in Gortys, the good news is that the pump engine was repaired, boosting our morale, but the day was a mixed bag and my attention was split among tasks like the write-up of Attività 99 (the latest occupation phase in GQB), a further look at the GONA finds that need drawings and photographs, and some GIS maintenance for Elisa. Since I started counting from 0, day 6 means that I succeeded in blogging every day for one week: as any blogger knows, this takes a lot of effort, discipline and sometimes you have to accept that there is nothing truly exciting to write about and that’s OK. At the same time, this is different from a “log of activities”, despite the etymology.

In the afternoon we had a frank debate about the sustainability of archaeology abroad, particularly of Italian archaeology, in the light of the archaic funding schemes that are available to Italian research institutions. The conundrum is with the role of archaeological research not merely as a pure academic activity, but as a first step that most local institutions rightfully believe should lead to a contextualised preservation of ancient remains. On the other hand, there is zero incentive on the academic side to pursue this kind of “extended” path: when your monograph or journal article gets published, it makes no difference whether the archaeological remains you based research on are rotting among the vegetation or are part of accessible heritage paths for the public. Does your university understand this problem? Does a coordinated effort at the country-level help? In Greece, all activity from foreign research bodies is supposed to go through the filter of archaeological schools, like the BSA, the EFA, the SAIA, the ASCSA, etc. These are venerable institutions more than 100 years old, they play the same role but have many differences in the size of their staff, the source of their funding, the amount of involvement in each project they coordinate. Crucially, and luckily I think, in the past 10 years the Greek ephorates made extremely clear demands for preservation efforts before further excavation could be undertaken – with the assumption that excavation must be the first step towards conservation and there cannot be conservation without excavation. In theory, this puts survey-based research project at an advantage, since the main cost associated with the post-research phase is storage of finds (which has its own problems but is less expensive than in situ conservation of building remains). In the end, we could only agree that the archaeological schools have a hard time keeping the pace of changes in both the funding of research and the needs of local society (as expressed through both political movements and civil society). The relationship with higher education seems even more problematic: after all I am here, a civil servant from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Tourism, doing archaeology-related fieldwork thanks to a “historical” link between the Italian Soprintendenze at home and the Italian School at Athens, but this link pre-dates by many decades the creation of doctorates in Italy (in the early 1980s) and now largely obsolete.

Late in the afternoon, I wanted to reenact one of the photographs that illustrate my piece in Archeostorie, the “unconventional manual of real life archaeology” that I dedicated to Archaeology without borders taking inspiration from my personal heroes like Bill Caraher and Colleen Morgan.

GQB 2015, day 5: substitute

I’m a substitute for another guy
I look pretty tall but my heels are high

As I mentioned the other day, our team is in Gortys at the same time with the University of Padua team directed by Jacopo Bonetto. Since there is no ceramic specialist with them this year, they asked me to take a look at a few ceramic contexts from the Late Antique phase of the temple of Apollo (Ναός Απόλλωνος) where they excavated a few explorative trenches last year. This is what is normally called spot-dating: have a quick look at diagnostic finds from a context, identify whether there is enough material to provide a significant chronology and output a date range. Usually it is difficult to be very precise with less than 20-30 diagnostic finds, especially with local wares, and “first half of the sixth century AD” is good enough a starting point. Another recurring issue is with residual material, that is the norm in Mediterranean urban sites because small scraps of pottery as always found in the soil, sometimes centuries older than the date of formation. Residuality is an interesting phenomenon, too often overlooked or “analysed” in simplistic terms because it is rather difficult to model.

In detail, I’ve been looking at 5 contexts dated from the 3rd to the 6th century. The later ones are slightly larger and can be dated pretty reliably:

  • in the mid-6th century you get African Red Slip Hayes 104A and LRC/Phocaean Red Slip Hayes 10A together with Aegean cooking wares;
  • in the 5th century the most recognisable finds are local basins with a painted zig-zag decoration on the rim, a few sherds of Late Roman Amphora 3 and African Keay 25
  • the earlier contexts are smaller, and more difficult to pinpoint with 1-2 diagnostic finds, either African Red Slip from the 4th century or Eastern Sigillata A from the early 2nd century.

All these are floor assemblages, resulting from prolonged use on top of landfills: the difference, in theory, is that a landfill should be dated to a single moment in time and can contain earlier material, while the floor deposit will contain small pieces subject to trampling and walking, ideally from the period when the floor was in use. This distinction is useful in theory but in practice floor surfaces tend to be slightly over-excavated and the finds are all from top part of the lower fill layer.

Archaeological map of Gortys: the bright areas are recent excavations with 8th century material; blue spot is the Pythion, orange spot the Byzantine Quarter.
Archaeological map of Gortys: the bright areas are recent excavations with 8th century material; blue spot is the Pythion, orange spot the Byzantine Quarter.

To my surprise, there were some beautiful and much larger assemblages from the 7th and 8th century that didn’t interest much to our colleagues from Padua, but were rather sweet for us Byzantine archaeologists! Apart from a very good selection of type-finds (Late Roman D/Cypriot Red Slip Hayes 9, juglet-shaped oil lamps, globular amphorae and their sibling water jars with one handle, Egyptian Red Slip dishes, cooking pots made on the slow wheel, etc) the context as a whole was both tremendously familiar and interesting, so similar to what we found in the nearby Byzantine Quarter / Βυζαντινή Συνοικία. The difference is in the BQ we see traces of people dwelling well into the 8th century, while houses in the Pythion area seem abandoned slightly earlier, thus we might be looking at glorious rubbish dumps from “our” side. It is truly worth a further look.

GQB 2015, day 4: the people must have something good to read

The people must have something good to read on a Sunday

With only ten days of fieldwork, weekends are a social convention that is left for another time, and the alarm is only marginally generous at 8 o’clock.

As anticipated two days ago, my main task here is to finalise the study of ceramic contexts towards publication. Today I made a few steps in a good direction, with a convincing draft for a “layout” of each context, where various types of information are shown as an introductory summary:

  • a small stratigraphic diagram
  • an excavation plan with the position of the context under examination
  • a photograph of the context during excavation
  • a photograph of all ceramic finds from the context in a single view
  • three plots with the statistical distribution of:
    • sherd weight, that is not very useful without a reference value, but I still need to iterate on this
    • rim percentage as estimated vessel equivalent (eve)
    • chronology-weighted-by-eve, that is particularly useful for looking at residuality and depositional histories

I’d like to add another infobox with a summary view of all objects that I identified as part of the systemic context (cutting short on the topic, for now), not as they were found but as they could have been while in use.

Then an extended discussion follows, in a more “traditional” fashion, where the stratigraphic data and the contextual relationships are taken into account. My aim in this part is to bridge the information and the “hard data” from the stratigraphic analysis with a broader view on the life of the household, for example looking at various rooms and our interpretation of their function/use.

After the discussion, a catalogue of all finds follows, with drawings/pictures that I will try to keep within the text or very close to their descriptive entries, avoiding separate “plates”, that would betray the principle of primacy of context that I’m following.

There was some discussion about whether to include residual finds or not in this catalogue, with Enrico Zanini finally winning the argument thanks to a subtle distinction between residues and residuality. Only the latter should be discussed, leaving an extended description of residual finds to a separate section.

I’m quite satisfied with this draft, at least on a conceptual level, but it definitely needs more work on a visual level.

GQB 2015, day 3: a little relax

You’re expected to get some relax on weekends. This Saturday 11th July I woke up to the news of a huge explosion at the Italian embassy in Cairo, hit by a carbomb. Four foreign journalists were arrested almost immediately by the police, that’s how Egypt works at the moment, I am afraid.

Crete is not that far from Egypt, it never was, at least since the Minoan/Keftiu connections. We have countless examples of trade and cultural contacts between the two regions in the Roman and Byzantine period, and even after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 639-642 AD. Crete played a strategic role during WW2 as a link between various areas of the Mediterranean while the Allied forces were busy reorganising their counterattack strategy ‒ there were several Cretan fighters who went to Egypt for training with the British army, and then came back to their own island to continue the fight for liberation against the Nazi invaders. Today the Mediterranean is split in half, with thousands of people dying every year while they try to cross to our side.

It’s with such thoughts in mind that Saturday began, a relaxed day with only 3-4 hours at work in the morning and 2-3 hours in the afternoon. At noon on Saturday, our traditional habit is to go to the nearby town of Moires/Μοίρες where the weekly street market offers fresh fruit and vegetables from the Mesara countryside at ridiculous prices, together with crappy made in China products, kanelada sellers. We have been repeating this visit to the market for years. You may think that such a big market is there only in the summer, to take advantage of the many foreign tourists who stay in Southern Crete, but … you’d be wrong. I’ve been here in November a few years ago, and the market looks just the same, only a little less crowded. The Saturday market in Moires is not a postcard-like happening, rather the opposite, and it’s as good as a practical lesson in microeconomy as any other such street market. Lunch is a gyros and a cold beer.

In the afternoon, our colleagues from the University of Padua are gone for a weekend trip in Eastern Crete and there’s time for some work on our main task (described in some detail yesterday). We’re out to the village of Sivas for dinner, but not before another exhausting take at the pump engine and its unpredictable behaviour.

The featured image is by Elisa Triolo. I met her right here 10 years ago.