Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
17.06.22, Antonaras, Arts, Crafts and Trades in Ancient and Byzantine Thessaloniki

17.06.22, Antonaras, Arts, Crafts and Trades in Ancient and Byzantine Thessaloniki

Empiricism is sometimes seen as a dirty word, yet without the bringing together of material evidence, theory can be so much hot air. What Anastassios Antonaras has produced here is essentially an empirical text, yet it is one which should be of major interest to anyone interested in Byzantine art, Byzantine Thessaloniki, the development of Byzantine cities more widely, or issues around trade and manufacture, from tanneries to mosaics, ceramic production to perfumery.

Antonaras has brought together the evidence he has found in the archives from the ephorates responsible for conserving monuments and finds discovered in building works in Thessaloniki over the past eighty years: a huge task, given that Thessaloniki was the second city of the Byzantine Empire and given that it is a city that has experienced and continues to undergo considerable urban development. He has organised this material in two parts: a collation and discussion of the material under three period headings--Hellenistic to Early Christian (316-315 BC-sixth century AD); Middle Byzantine (seventh-thirteenth centuries); and Late Byzantine (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries)--and then a catalogue of 112 archaeologically-attested workshops arranged by trade, and including those where the function is unknown. There is a site list of workshops, a list of museum objects, a full bibliography, and a supplementary map of workshop locations, which not only locates the sites but colour codes them by "use of open fire," "use of water" and "unknown activity." Throughout, the book is lavishly illustrated in colour and with line drawings. The catalogue of workshops includes ground plans, plans and sketches, presumably drawn from the original archaeological reports, as well as excavation photographs of the sites and the finds.

The discursive opening part of the book catalogues the material by trade, following the same order in each section and arranged by those using fire, those needing water and those whose function is unclear. In all, Antonaras assembles material for seventeen or more different crafts throughout the timespan of the book. Immediately the contents page throws up some intriguing questions. There is evidence for certain crafts continuing throughout the entire period covered by the book--ceramic production, glass and metal working, for example. But for some, there is material evidence for two of three or even one of three: furriery only in the Middle Byzantine period; evidence for gold-embroidering only from the Late; lime production from the Early and Late periods but not the Middle.

Each period subsection opens with a brief outline of the history of Thessaloniki, and touches on themes such as urban planning, thereby offering a topographical survey of the city for each period, highlighting significant buildings in addition to those of the craft workshops. Each craft is given a summary account for the period in question, one which brings in additional sources of information, notably primary written sources. Maps record the find spots for each trade. The Conclusion to this section begins the task of pulling the material together through a discussion of the nature and role of craftsmen in Byzantine society. The catalogue section details each site by type, area, address, date and then a short description of what was found.

What this means for the reader is that it becomes possible to trace glassmaking, say, and the changes in what was made from glass and where glass was made over a very long period. Of course the material is fragmentary, of course it is scarce and scattered and not a full picture, but Antonaras never claims that it is. Rather, he allows us to see what is known at this point, and he has begun the work of interpretation of that evidence.

If this makes it sound like a factual read, that would be correct. Much of the book records and collates data. But it is also a fascinating read. No-one before has ever brought together in this detail this sort of material: the combination of rescue archaeology and artisanal trade is unique. But in collating these fragments, Antonaras has revealed a continuous and changing history of craft-working in Thessaloniki and established just how much material there appears to be for artisanal activities in one place over a long spread of time. As a whole, Byzantine artisanal activity has been poorly documented and poorly discussed, relegated because the evidence for it tends to exist primarily in the sorts of archaeological report that Antonaras has painstakingly trawled through here. What is detailed here is invaluable for a better understanding of Byzantine Thessaloniki and for potential changes over time in terms of craft activities, with the reflections that this might have for understanding the city's prosperity and links with the wider world. But in its usefulness, it also sets a benchmark for similar studies, extending this sort of research focus to other Byzantine cities, allowing for the excavation of comparative data to build a bigger picture of this fundamental aspect of Byzantine life.