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 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.

Eleutherna: first week of excavation on the Acropolis

On the 23rd August Elisa and myself came back to Crete for another week of archeological excavation, this time in Eleutherna with the University of Crete.

Eleutherna: Sector II - Acropolis

Dr Christina Tsigonaki came to visit our excavation in Gortyna last month and she was very kind to invite us in Eleutherna. The excavations here are one of the best in Greece, also for the very good quality of publications. The work of Christine Vogt and Anastasia Yangaki on the ceramic finds from Eleutherna is a point of reference for my research, even if mine is based in Gortyna and the ceramic evidence is quite different, also judging from what I have seen in these first days.

Eleutherna: Pyrgi - the tower

The excavation team is directed by Dr Tsigonaki and the people, all students from the University of Crete, are very nice ‒ it’s a pleasure to work with them and to learn some more Greek from their mouth. We start working at 7:00 am until 2:30 pm and finds washing takes place at the local school (now unfortunately empty) from 5:30 pm until 9:30 pm. The documentation system is based on SYSLAT, the one developed on the French site of Lattara/Lattes, and it’s not so different from others I have used before. Everybody is doing their own bit of everything (washing, keeping records, writing short descriptions of sherds, etc), there’s not much specialisation but it’s an effective way of teaching the basics of how to run an archaeological excavation.

The Acropolis of Eleutherna is also an ideal archaeological context for looking at the development of “hilltop” settlements from Antiquity into the Byzantine era: this is in a few words Elisa’s research topic.