Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.05

Luke Lavan, Ellen Swift, Toon Putzeys (ed.), Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity. Late Antique Archaeology, v. 5.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. viii, 741.  ISBN 9789004165502.  $204.00.  

Reviewed by Stefanie Hoss, Small Finds Archaeology Nijmegen (NL) (
Word count: 2687 words

Table of Contents

The book under review is the result of an eponymous conference held at Oxford in 2004 and promotes the study of material spatiality in Late Antiquity. Material spatiality tries to reconstruct ancient reality (e.g., the use of certain rooms) by looking at the use of the objects found in defined spaces. Social change (and thus the famous transition of Late Antiquity) manifested itself not only by changes at the top trickling down, but also by the small changes in the daily habits of common people (p. 659). In the introduction, the editors argue convincingly, that this opens up new ways to try to understand the nature of the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages (p. 25).

The book is made up of two distinctive parts, the first comprising an introduction and seven bibliographical essays written by the editors and the second consisting of eighteen conference articles by different authors on a variety of subjects. It is both an introduction into a method relatively new in the context of Mediterranean Late Antique archaeology as well as a collection of the work done in this field up to date and it succeeds admirably in both. It is a good starting point to discover interesting new ideas and methods of analyzing finds as well as an invaluable resource for further reading. Because it is necessary to have an understanding of the way material objects are used in both antiquity and archaeology to understand the study of material spatiality, the book will be most useful to advanced students and researchers.

As the book has 25 articles in all, a review of every single one at length would far exceed the allocated space and reviewing only a selection seems somewhat unfair. I will proceed by reviewing the articles of each section together, beginning with the introduction and bibliographical essays and continuing with the six thematic sections. For a list of the authors and their articles see table of contents.

The first part is written by the editors in varying combinations. In the introduction, the authors give an extensive overview of the possibilities and methods of material spatiality in Late Antique period excavations, with a focus on the Eastern Mediterranean. They introduce the field and define an agenda to make the contextual analysis of objects found in future excavations possible. This agenda begins with the demand to change the focus of research in the Eastern Mediterranean from buildings towards objects, continues with a description of the fieldwork and documentation techniques necessary to record the objects as exactly as possible in their findspot as well as the post-excavation analysis and publication procedure needed to make a contextual analysis possible. While this seems excessive for researchers familiar with the archaeology of Central and Western Europe, the state of research is somewhat different in the Eastern Mediterranean, vindicating this thorough approach. The observations made are very useful and the many examples cited help to understand how the methods described could be implemented at a given excavation.

As a whole, the introduction is very solid, covering all the essential aspects with the necessary caveats and making a good case for the interdisciplinary 'soft' interpretation of the available data and the visual reconstruction of the antique situation. As a further benefit, the contributions of the second part of the book are cited as examples whenever appropriate and the work of other researchers in this young field is also often referred to.

The six bibliographical essays following the introduction aim to give an overview of the research done in the field up to date. They are split into different elements of urban space; namely domestic, productive, commercial, political, social, and religious space. The authors acknowledge from the start that the varied nature of these contexts makes for very varied sources of evidence, with some essays concentrating on literary sources while others mainly cite stratigraphical evidence (45). Each essay gives an introduction into the subject, followed by an extensive bibliography divided into different aspects, which include both obvious and more obscure elements of the urban space. The latter part will be immensely useful to both newcomers and established researchers on the subject but could have been made more accessible by allowing more space for the entries by giving each entry its own line. One has to suspect page (i.e., financial) constraints here. However, the form does not lessen the value of the content.

The first of the thematic sections on domestic space has three articles, starting with a methodological one on the Urban Villa in Sagalassos. Toon Putzeys et al. introduce a three-step-method to "detect patterns within found assemblages in order to classify human habitation" (p. 206). The thorough and well-argued approach of the article gives an idea of the possibilities of including all finds into the analysis and the statistical methods necessary to make it work.

The second article is an analysis of the urban development of six houses on the mound of Pella (Jordan). With the help of the 'snapshot' assemblages of the AD 749 earthquake, which caused many human and animal deaths and ensured a fairly undisturbed material record, Alan Walmsley reconstructs the structural arrangement of the ground floor of the houses.

The third article is less concerned with spatiality and more with magical practices, as it is a study of apotropaic mosaic images and amulets found in the tri-conch house in Butrint and the tri-conch church in nearby Antigoneia. John Mitchell here gives an very interesting overview of the magical imagery in Late Antiquity and provides some definite dates which demonstrate this habit to have started (at the very least in Butrint) during the late 4th century.

The section on vessels combines two analyses of (mainly) dining and drinking vessels with a study on several well-hoards. Joanita Vroom takes the pictorial representations of objects used in Late Antique dining as a starting point to understand the use of the archaeological finds of vessels. The author establishes a change from individual bowls or plates to large, communal dishes in Late Antiquity and a likelihood that the same is true for drinking vessels.

In her article on the decoration of vessels, Ellen Swift examines the correlation of the decoration with the function and use of objects of conspicuous consumption in social contexts. She formulates five principles which govern the decoration of objects and proceeds to give examples of the principles drawing (mainly) on vessels used in connection with formal dining. Her arguments are clearly set out and very convincing, especially through the judicious use of anthropological theory.

In the third article, Sauro Gelichi re-examines the finds of eight well-hoards found in the space of 150 years in the Modena region. These share seven recurring types of objects, which surprisingly include farming tools and local cooking pots. In an older publication, the same author surmised that the objects were purposefully hidden. Having had doubts about this conclusion, he here compares the assemblages with roughly contemporary rubbish deposits from the rural settlement of Castelecchio di Reno, but has to conclude that the two assemblages differ markedly as well.

The section on shops and workshops has two articles examining excavated shops in Dura Europos and Skythopolis respectively and one on an unusual workshop in Xanthos. Jennifer Baird's re-examines the shops of Dura with the help of a database filled with the field object register and other excavation records of the Yale excavation between the World Wars. In contrast, Elias Khamis in his article on Skythopolis presents the result of a modern excavation. In both instances, the artefact assemblages are often inconclusive, but for different reasons. In Skythopolis, the shops were continually used from the early Roman to the Umayyad periods and could only provide information on their last phase before destruction. While this is of course also true for Dura, the methods of the time of the excavation further limited the artefacts that might have provided insights into the precise merchandise sold at the shops. Whereas the analysis of the Dura shops demonstrates the possibilities of studying older excavations with the help of databases, both authors make good use of the available architectural and artefact information to present a picture that gives a good idea of the shared traits of shops in each city.

The third article on Xanthos is an architectural analysis of an isolated one-room structure containing a large oven and six basins. Anne-Marie Manière Lévêque explores several hypotheses (workshop, fullonica, thermopolium) and concludes that it was used for storing perishable foodstuffs (perhaps beans) and cooking both. The author ably demonstrates here how a very close and detailed study of the architectural remains can be helpful to determine the use of such an unusual building with no parallels.

Only two articles make up the section on dress, the first of which is an overview of the secular attire (dress and accessories) of different social groups in Late Antiquity, from the emperor himself down to ordinary people. In this lucid and very readable account, Maria Parani describes how attire was used in the changing society of Late Antiquity to demark class and station in life and construct an individual's identity.

The following article by Mary Harlow further illuminates this point. In her study of the rhetoric of female dress in the letters of Jerome, she can demonstrate that because of the rigid nature of dress proprieties, the literary use of dress was shorthand to reflect on the character of a person or group. Jerome uses different attires to praise and condemn female behaviour. As is to be expected of a heretic, he condemns expensive and ostentatious clothes, revealing the body and using make-up or false hair. More surprisingly, he also criticizes women who dress modestly in cheap and rough clothes, suspecting them of secret pride in their asceticism.

In the section on religious space all articles are dealing with churches and three of the four revolve around the objects found within a church. Béatrice Caseau's first article uses the inventories of churches to try to reconstruct the objects used within a church which do not appear in the archaeological record. While Caseau has documentary evidence as her starting point, Vincent Michel uses archaeological finds to investigate the functions of church annexe rooms in Palestine. In his opinion, specific furniture and furnishings (especially cupboards) discovered in annexe rooms with direct access to the church, point to the use of these rooms as diakonikon (dean's room). A diakonikon was used for the preparation of the Eucharist and storage of liturgical objects and vestments as well as the treasure of the church, which in addition to liturgical objects could include money and relics.

The third article by Zbigniew Fiema studies the artefact assemblage in room I of Petra church, which was destroyed by fire. Fiema is able to reconstruct that the room had been used as a storage place for a family archive and for other valuable, but seldom used objects. With the help of the exact find spots of the artefacts, Fiema can also partly reconstruct the likely progression of the destruction fire. The first three articles each use a different method to try to reconstruct the same sort of space and the result is especially convincing in combination. Because the space is explored from three different directions--the documentary evidence, the combined archaeological evidence from several churches and the specific archaeological evidence of a single room--the articles complete each other and thus give an even better impression of church contents that they would have standing on their own.

The last article of the section deals with the non-liturgical objects in healing sanctuaries. In this (her second article), Béatrice Caseau uses the literary evidence of miracle stories to vividly describe the daily proceedings at a healing sanctuary, where quite a lot of people could be searching relief from their afflictions, often staying days or years. Because ordinary objects often played an important role in miracle stories, the author here opens a treasure trove of descriptions of ordinary objects present in sanctuaries as well as glimpses at their use and significance.

In the last section on military space, Andrew Gardner describes the change in both the use of space and artefacts in some Late Roman forts in Britain and Belgium. The material indicates, that while some traditions persisted (e. g. the eating of pork), others changed and became more local. The article resembles an iceberg in that it has a large and (at first reading) largely unseen theoretical background which nevertheless is able to spark new thoughts on the nature of social change and the best way to archaeologically detect it.

The remaining two articles are on the same sites, namely the city of Nicopolis and the nearby fort of Dichin in Bulgaria. Andrew Poulter demonstrates with the help of several sites within theses two complexes how the artefact assemblage can assist with the interpretation of both the use and destruction phase of contexts. Pam Grinter illustrates how the accurate record of sampling for plant remains can help to differentiate the storage spaces of different crops, allowing various interesting interpretations.

To conclude, the book as a whole is a good example of how to introduce an approach that is yet relatively unknown to a special field. While similar approaches have been used in Early Roman archaeology in the Northwestern provinces for some time now, it is still quite new to the study of the late antique central and eastern Mediterranean. As the book includes both a bibliography of the work done up to now as well as a selection of very diverse practical examples, it gives the newcomer to this interpretational technique a starting point from which to further explore the world of material spatiality and the seasoned researcher new food for thought besides a very useful source of comparative studies in the bibliography.

As to the errors, some redundant word repetitions and typos as well as some misspellings were noticed, none of which hindered the understanding of the text. Considering the frequency of about one error found per hundred pages, the book may be described as admirably edited.

Table of Contents

L. Lavan, E. Swift, T. Putzeys, Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity: Sources, Approaches and Field Methods.
Bibliographical Essays:
L. Lavan, T. Putzeys, Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity: An Introduction to the Bibliography.
T. Putzeys, Domestic Space in Late Antiquity.
T. Putzeys, Productive Space in Late Antiquity.
T. Putzeys, L. Lavan, Commercial Space in Late Antiquity.
L. Lavan, Political Space in Late Antiquity.
L. Lavan, Social Space in Late Antiquity.
L. Lavan, Religious Space in Late Antiquity.
Domestic Space:
T. Putzeys, M. Waelkens, J. Poblome, W. van Neer, B. de Cupere, T. van Thuyne, N. Kellens, Contextual Analysis in Sagalassos.
A. Walmsley, Households at Pella, Jordan: Domestic Destruction Deposits of the Mid-8th century.
J. Mitchell, Keeping the Demons out of the House: the Archaeology of Apotropaic Strategy and Practice in Late Antique Butrint
Vessels in context:
J. Vroom, The Archaeology of Late Antique Dining Habits in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Preliminary Study of the Evidence.
S. Gelichi, The Modena Well-hoards: Rural Domestic Artefact Assemblages in Late Antiquity.
E. Swift, Decorated Vessels: The Function of Decoration in Late Antiquity. Shops and Workshops.
J. Baird, Shopping, Eating and Drinking in Dura Europos: Reconstructing Context.
E. Khamis, The Shops of Skythopolis in Context.
A.-M. Manière Lévêque, An Unusual Structure on the Lycian Acropolis at Xanthos.
M. Parani, Defining Personal Space: Dress and Accessories in Late Antiquity.
M. Harlow, The Impossible Art of Dressing to Please: Jerome and the Rhetoric of the Dress.
Religious Space:
B. Caseau, Objects in Churches: The Testimony of Inventories.
V. Michel, Furniture, Fixtures, and Fittings in Churches: Archaeological Evidence from Palestine (4th-8th c.) and the Role of the Diakonikon.
Z. Fiema, Storing in the Church: Artefacts in Room I of Petra Church.
B. Caseau, Ordinary Objects in Christian Healing Sanctuaries.
Military Space:
A. Gardner, Soldiers and Spaces: Daily Life in Late Roman Forts.
A. Poulter, Interpreting Finds in Contexts: Nicopolis and Dichin Revisited.
P. Grinter, Grappling with the Granary: Context issues at Dichin.
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