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24.01.09 Castrorao Barba et al. (eds.), Archaeology of the Mediterranean during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

24.01.09 Castrorao Barba et al. (eds.), Archaeology of the Mediterranean during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Archaeology of the Mediterranean during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages comprises an introduction and thirteen chapters ranging from seventeen to thirty pages in length. Although not made entirely clear, the volume seems to have its genesis in the 2019 AIA/SCS colloquium entitled “Afterlife of Ancient Urbanscapes and Rural Landscapes in the Post-Classical Mediterranean (A.D. 400-1300),” also organized by the editors. The idea then, as now, was to add to the discussion of Post-Roman or Post-Classical archaeology in the US. The editors describe their contribution as a companion to recent studies and another voice in this conversation. Indeed, more voices like this are needed as Mediterranean-focused medieval (writ-large) archaeologists in the US try to build a community for themselves in the space between the foci of the Archaeological Institute of America and the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. The need for such a home is echoed in the continued and current efforts of the “Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology in Greece” interest group at the annual AIA/SCS meetings and the “Archaeology of the Medieval Mediterranean” sessions organized by the present author and others in the 2000s at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. [1]

This volume’s contribution to the current discussion is focused on the Mediterranean during the late antique and medieval periods, covering the fourth to the thirteenth centuries and organized into two major areas of conversation: Greece (chapters 1-5) and the Central Mediterranean (chapters 6-13). It represents the editors’ push towards “an archaeology that is no longer simply ‘Mediterranean’ and no longer sees the Roman Imperial Ages as an endpoint” (1). One of the overall themes of this volume is that it pays to look again and to look anew at artefacts (especially pottery in the case of chapters 1, 2, and 4) that we either think we understand or admit that we do not fully understand. The same applies to sites we think are fully investigated (chapters 10 and 12) and issues we think we understand (passim). A second theme, equally important, is the importance of the local context, the need for more localized studies, and the role of both in recalibrating any larger understanding of regional or Mediterranean trends. An important message in this regard is that the more interdisciplinary one can be in approach, the clearer the resulting image (chapters 6 and 8). In addition, even where the evidence may be more piecemeal, a convincing case for its study across a wider landscape is made (chapter 9). A number of chapters reveal how a more nuanced approach reveals a level of connectivity in the “Dark” Aegean that was previously thought missing (for example, chapters 1-2). The benefits of such an archaeology are summed up well by Scott Gallimore at the end of his contribution: “like any ‘Dark Age,’ the more focus scholars place on a particular period and the more evidence becomes available, the better chance that things will become illuminated” (65).

Chapter 1, by Natalia Poulou, examines this issue from the perspective of what scholars have learned about the seventh-ninth centuries in the Aegean and on Crete over the last thirty years. Important work on pottery assemblages in particular has shed new light on this area and revealed a conscious reorganization (coming from Constantinople) of defense as well as the production, storage, and trade of agricultural products. Many of these conclusions are echoed in chapter 2, by Scott Gallimore, which is focused on Crete and thus makes a wonderful conversational pair with that of Poulou. Gallimore argues, for example, from the evidence of pottery and settlement that although there were refuge sites, we should envision a much more robust rural settlement during the eighth-tenth centuries on Crete. An important idea touched upon in both chapters, but discussed more fully by Gallimore, is the issue of misidentification of the pottery from this period and the related challenges that result.

Chapter 3, by Amelia R. Brown, shifts from the rural to the urban and examines the various ways in which the classical past in Athens, Corinth, and other areas was consciously put to use. While acknowledging that individual and random episodes of spoliation and destruction did exist, she argues that this was more often part of a deliberate and purposeful consideration by the relevant powers that be and that we should see more of it as the work of civic authorities than that of individual squatters or instances of disaster.

Chapter 4, by Effie F. Athanassopoulos, focuses in a parallel manner on the need for viewing changes that occurred in their particular contexts. Focused on the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this chapter forms a nice pair with chapter 5, by Grant Schrama. Athanassopoulos examines the contribution of landscape archaeology to the study of these centuries in southern Greece and echoes the theme seen in many other chapters of the importance of local contexts in understanding the variety that existed in the past, in this case in regional patterns. Her window into this variety is the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP), which reveals a change to “nucleated, fortified settlements” (104) and a process that looks a great deal like what castle studies scholars have noted occurred elsewhere. [2] Here too, it is an interdisciplinary approach that is championed.

Schrama’s chapter makes the case for combining archaeology with post-colonial theory, as a way to move beyond the segregation vs integration dichotomy when examining the variety of colonial situations that occurred in Greece during the same period, as well as the ways in which they change over time. Readers looking for some examples of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that Schrama champions are encouraged to turn to some of the recent work on Crusader Cyprus in addition to the studies that are mentioned. [3] This chapter would have benefited highly from some dialogue with the previous chapter, with which it forms an obvious conversational pair. Yet the fault here does not lie with the author alone, as one of the critiques (though certainly not limited to this collection) one could level at the volume as a whole is that although certain chapters have been placed next to one another in the text, none of them engage in any dialogue with one another.

Pottery emerges as a major theme in this first section of the book (chapter 1, 2, and 4) with a focus both on our improving knowledge, the problems with identification that still exist, and the need for studies such as fabric analysis to help address these problems. Another theme is the gaps that exist in our knowledge of rural life during the periods covered by this book, which a number of the authors both acknowledge and begin to tackle.

Chapter 6, by Gabriele Castiglia and Philippe Pergola, opens Part 2 of this volume, which examines the Central Mediterranean. Focusing on Corsica, the authors provide a nice introduction to the fifth and sixth centuries on the island. In addition, they discuss the ways in which the archaeology tied to towns, secondary settlements, and rural areas can both provide more context for the comments of Gregory the Great as well as “reconsidering the interpretation of the transitional centuries between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages as catastrophic” (148).

Chapter 7, by David Cardona, and chapter 8, by Matt King form another nice conversational pair, focused on the island of Malta. Both provide helpful reviews of the relevant scholarship to date and thus serve as solid springboards for future conversations. Cardona’s “Late Roman and Byzantine Malta” wrestles with our current lack of knowledge concerning life on the island during the fifth-ninth centuries and examines what light studying tombs, and especially hypogea, might shed. Although he ends with a recognition of “huge gaps in our understanding” (175) the need to look again, to look in more detail, and to publish the results, is echoed once again. King’s “Muslims in Medieval Malta” similarly looks at evidence related to burial, this time tombstones, as a way to shed more light on the darker periods of Malta’s past. As indicated by the title, his chapter focuses on the Muslim period, in particular the eleventh and twelfth centuries. His analysis adds yet more evidence (see below) for the interaction between Malta and Sicily during this period.

Of the last five chapters of the volume, four focus on Sicily (chapters 9-12). The first two of these discuss Roman villas and their afterlives. Chapter 9, by Rosa Lanteri, presents a gazetteer of Roman villas (Hellenistic through Imperial) in the territory of Syracuse. The author makes a convincing case for the study of piecemeal evidence across a wider landscape even if, as she cautions, her conclusions are only tentative. Her study reveals a situation in which many villas show continuous habitation with a floruit in the fourth and fifth centuries, a broad distribution of wealth, and the importance of agricultural production on these sites. Although the chapters do not interact, chapter 10, by Michael J. Decker, takes the next step and focuses on the Villa Casale at Piazza Armerina over an even longer time horizon (fourth-thirteenth centuries) and within a more regional context (tying it to evidence from the nearby site of Philosophiani). Decker echoes the importance of production to villas in general, and in an interesting parallel to the two chapters on Malta, notes the evidence during the Islamic period for the participation of the site in the regional economy. Overall, the author presents a clear discussion of what we know and do not know about the complex, and most importantly, what we might know if we continue to look as well as why this matters for understanding the periods that form the focus of this volume as a whole.

Chapter 11, by Angelo Castrorao Barba and Roberto Miccichè and other collaborators, presents the preliminary results from excavation at the site of Contrada Castro (Corleone, Palermo). The authors make a very strong case for the significance of this site, which though it is yet to be fully determined certainly seems promising, especially for the Byzantine-Islamic (Aghlabid) transition in this area. Interesting is the gap in occupation during the Roman period here and at other sites like it and the idea that this gap might be tied to the villa system as discussed in other chapters (though again the reader is left to make these connections on their own). The discussion of the environmental remains (animal bones, charcoal, and seeds) is a key part of the solid presentation of evidence. Especially intriguing in this case is the continued presence of pigs into what the authors describe as “the full Islamic period (tenth-eleventh centuries CE)” (256). A similar trend seen in other rural Sicilian sites, together with its opposite in urban sites presents a number of interesting avenues for future research.

Chapters 12 and 13 form the last, albeit quite loose, conversational pair of the volume. Chapter 12, by Davide Tanasi, analyzes the evidence for reuse of the Middle Bronze Age cemetery of Cozzo del Pantano (Siracusa) and divides this up into the categories of domestic, burial, and industrial. The site is well-known and has been studied before. Yet, as Tanasi himself eloquently writes, here too readers are presented with a site that was thought to have “given all the information it could” (288) that has nevertheless proven that it warranted another look and has revealed new and exciting details. Chapter 13, by Santino Alessandro Cugno and Franco Dell’Aquila, focuses on the arched blind niches in rock-cut churches in Southern Italy and demonstrates what a detailed study of particulars can yield when paired with a broader comparative approach.

Again and again, the authors present us with the benefits of looking again and looking anew at older excavations. And for a book looking to add to the conversation surrounding the Mediterranean, it is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that it is the local that is repeatedly mentioned as needing more attention. As with many edited volumes containing more disparate studies, a number of the chapters would have benefitted from cross-reading of related chapters in the book and cross-referencing where relevant. Individually, however, they represent good starting points for anyone interested in the topics being discussed and good introductions into their respective areas.



1. The volume, Studies in the Archaeology of the Medieval Mediterranean (Leiden: Brill, 2010) edited by the present author, was one result of these sessions.

2. Oliver Creighton, Early European Castles: Aristocracy and Authority AD 800-1200 (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012).

3. Michalis Olympios and Maria G. Parani, eds., The Art and Archaeology of Lusignan and Venetian Cyprus (1192-1571): Recent Research and New Discoveries (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019).