Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.11.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.42

Luke Lavan, Michael Mulryan (ed.), Field Methods and Post-Excavation Techniques in Late Antique Archaeology. Late antique archaeology, 9.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 687.  ISBN 9789004277021.  €75.00.  


Reviewed by Louise Blanke, Wolfson College, Oxford (anne-louise.blanke@wolfson.ox.ac.uk)

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The study of late antiquity has been transformed by new insights gained from field projects. To evaluate the historical significance of this new material, we need to discuss the methodologies that resulted in its procurement. This is a common topic in other archaeological disciplines, but one that has largely been omitted from the late antique debate – this volume sets out to redress this issue. The volume was inspired by two conferences held at King’s College London in 2008 and 2009. It contains eighteen contributions that are organised according to seven themes.

Lavan (1-15) introduces the book by outlining its rationale and voicing a strong critique of the lack of academic debate. He suggests four main reasons why the evaluation of field methods has been avoided in late antique archaeology and calls for a new agenda in which constructive criticism is used to move the field forward. The following includes a brief overview of each contribution and concludes with a discussion of the importance of the volume as a whole.

I: ‘Period-specific methods?’ considers whether it is desirable, or even feasible, to develop a late antique field-methodology. In the first paper, Roskams (17-50) acknowledges some of the challenges associated with late antique sites, but does not see the need for developing a new methodology. Instead, he argues for the use of systematic and consistent recording methods tailored to the research aims with an emphasis on non-destructive techniques. Moving from macro-level techniques (aerial photography and surface surveys) towards a micro-level (excavation), Roskams discusses advantages and limitations to each of these archaeological approaches.

Lavan (51-90) largely agrees with Roskams, but argues that past archaeologists’ clearance-strategies, driven by interests in the monumental remains of especially the Roman period, have caused irretrievable loss of information. This situation cannot be rectified, but a non-destructive ‘stone surface archaeology’ can shed light on some aspects specific to the archaeology of late antique urban life. Lavan’s examples include, but are not limited to, studies of traffic regulation through wear on streets and sidewalks; calcination and freeze-thaw revealing where statues and water-features once stood; incised game boards; beam holes for market stalls; drains and graffiti – all suggesting area-specific uses of the urban fabric.

Swift (91-121) examines how to trace reuse of portable artefacts. The paper identifies three types of reuse: repair as an attempt to restore an object to its original form; modification in which the object has been adapted to another purpose; and recycling, which entails using an object as a raw material. The second part of the paper discusses the complex relationship between meaning and value and the varied motives behind reuse. Swift emphasise that although reuse of objects frequently occurs within the assemblage of late antique portable objects, it is not a period-specific phenomenon.

II: ‘The regional development of field methods’. The book’s second theme aims to critically evaluate the long-term development of country-specific archaeological strategies. Magyar (123-156) provides an overview of late antique archaeology in Hungary, while Taxel (157-188) discusses the development of field techniques in Israel from the British Mandate to the present. Both papers provide important insights into the interplay between politics and archaeology. After WWII, Hungary’s inclusion in the Soviet Union resulted in the centralised regulation of archaeology. A countrywide standardisation of field methods was introduced and innovative techniques were encouraged, but limited access to Western scholarship combined with Soviet political control meant that social theoretical models were not applied. Magyar voices a strong critique relevant not only to present-day Hungary: the study of late antiquity is compartmentalised between different branches of university studies, and excavations are managed by local museums, working according to their own methodologies and recording systems, allowing only few opportunities for comparison. Taxel summarises methodological trends in Israel, focussing on technological advances as well as problems in past approaches at specific sites such as Oboda and Sobata, which were overly restored for tourism in the 1950s and 60s and almost ruined for further archaeological interpretation. Taxel only briefly mentions the focus on the biblical past, which has characterised much archaeology in Israel. It would have been within the scope of this book to include a critical evaluation of the consequences of this particular research aim on the treatment of post-biblical material.

III: ‘Urban and rural survey’. Bintliff, and Vandeput and Köse, summarise their results from survey projects in Greece and Turkey, respectively. Bintliff (189-204) identifies discrepancies between archaeology and textual sources. The city of Thespiai, for example, shows signs of decline with heavy industry moving into the city, while contemporary authors, focusing on the lives of the elite, document prosperity. Vandeput and Köse (205-247) report on methods and results from their extensive Pisidia survey project, which combines an intensive recording of Pednelissos with a regional survey of its territories. The examination of Pednelissos included geophysical methods and field-walking in transects, while the regional survey of its surrounding territory focused on architectural remains and ceramics.

IV: ‘Restudying excavated sites’ comprises two papers. Gering (249-288) revisits the excavation of Ostia, while Lavan (289-355) applies his ‘stone surface archaeology’ to the agorai of Sagalassos. Despite the unscientific methods applied by past excavators, Ostia is one of the best archaeological examples of ancient urban living conditions and urbanism. Combining a city-wide architectural survey with key-hole excavations and studies of documentation from past excavations, Gering investigates how Ostia was reconfigured during late antiquity. In a comprehensive study, he convincingly demonstrates how Ostia was subjected to a rigid city planning with a high level of communal control. For example, Gering discusses social and functional zoning, in which blocked streets and encroachment indicate a reorganisation of traffic-flow, and documents how intramural build-up of waste in the fourth century was a conscious effort to raise the ground level to prevent flooding.

V: ‘Building archaeology’. Karydis (357-382) examines the development of domed church construction in late antiquity. Focusing on evidence from western Asia Minor, he proposes a methodology for reconstructing collapsed domes from the archaeological remains. The second part of the article revisits the churches of St John and St Mary in Ephesus and reconsiders past reconstructions based on the proposed methodology. Underwood (383-411) takes us back to Ostia in a detailed reconstruction of building chronology through the study of spolia. He identifies several developments. Spolia was used continuously, but in the third and fourth centuries, it was mainly included in foundations. From the fifth century onwards, spolia occurred in superstructure and thereby became more visible, although percentage-wise there was no increased usage over time.

VI: ‘Special deposits and contextual analysis’. Williams (413-440) explores the potential for applying correspondence analysis and network analysis to large material assemblages in order to identify connections between artefacts, activities and spaces. Pearce (441-482) examines recent developments in the study of funerary contexts in the late antique provinces and suggests some future trajectories. The application of scientific methods to skeletal material has allowed us to rethink the relations between burial ritual and cultural identity. Especially the analysis of strontium, oxygen and stable lead isotopes from skeletal samples has challenged past associations between grave furnishings and geographical origin. New methods also permit a more precise determination of age and sex, disease, trauma and diet. The article’s main concern is the field methods through which data from cemeteries are generated with a focus on the reconstruction of ritual practices through material remains.

Groh and Sedlmayer (483-511) conclude the sixth theme with a study of contextual archaeology based on their field-project at Favianis/Mautern (Austria). By carefully examining the stratigraphic sequence and the associated rubbish deposits found within the Roman fort and the nearby vicus, the authors reconstruct the settlement’s development through seven main phases from Roman barracks to a late antique village. The content of rubbish deposits allows the excavators to consider activity zones as well as the changing use of these zones through the centuries.

VII: ‘Material culture studies’. Roskams (513-552) investigates the evidentiary potential of animal bones in Late Antique archaeology. Animals were kept not only for their meat, but also for traction, manure, wool, dairy produce and eggs. After death, their hides, bones, fat and tallow were used in various productions. Moving beyond traditional faunal studies that have focused on the economic sides of animal husbandry, Roskams argues that we should consider the social context of food consumption, including status, ritual and identity. In case studies from Italy, England and Tunisia, Roskams demonstrates how animal bones can be used to answer questions about social organisation, and he discusses how major societal changes, such as the impact of the Germanic conquest (fifth century) or the Islamic expansion (seventh century), can be detected in the faunal remains.

In two articles, Evans and Mills report on methods applied to the retrieval and study of pottery and ceramic building material (CBM). Evans and Mills (553-572) considers the methodology applied to the excavation of Ras el-Bassit, Syria. The authors provide a detailed account of the analysis of pottery from the point of excavation to publication. Mills (573-594) considers how CBM (mainly roof tiles) can shed light on questions concerning dating, economy and site formation processes. In a short historical overview, Mills demonstrates how roof tiles became popular from the second century BCE onwards, declined sharply in the Umayyad period and were not produced thereafter. Considering the full biography of CBM (manufacture, transport, usage, reuse and discard), Mills demonstrates how CBM can serve as an economic indicator. In some regions, he considers CBM a luxury item that was traded over long distances. To support his thesis, Mills discuss the results from a survey at Homs in Syria revealing that roof tiles were often limited to a single building: a temple in the Roman period and a church in late antiquity.

The book’s final chapter (Hori and Lavan, 595-660) presents laser scanning as an alternative method to recording standing architecture. Hori and Lavan describe the inherent problems in using section drawing for large-scale architectural recording and emphasise the necessity of developing better methods. Summarising their work at Ostia and Pompeii, they convincingly describe laser scanning as an economic and precise alternative to both architectural section drawings and city maps. At both sites, a new three-dimensional map was created correcting considerable errors made by past excavators. Considering the potential for both horizontal and vertical analysis, the authors thematically discuss the wide-ranging uses of digital maps, including city-wide flood simulation, and detailed recording of a complex mosaic floor – a welcome replacement for the slow and less informative tessera-by-tessera hand-drawing technique.

The book is a timely demonstration of the need to discuss field-methods in late antique archaeology. Although it would have benefited from a wider geographical spread – the weight of case studies lies somewhat heavily on Italy and Asia Minor – its contributors convincingly demonstrate the necessity to carefully consider which methods we apply to various archaeological contexts. It is clear from most papers (especially Roskams, Lavan, Hori and Lavan) that different research strategies lead to different results. A recurring theme in several papers concerns how we retrieve our data and whether we retrieve them in a way that is comparable between, for instance, strata and sites (e.g. Magyar; Vandeput and Köse). The value of the book comes not only from its discussion of field methodology, but also from a series of interesting and inspiring case studies, which thoroughly demonstrates how the application of new techniques can deepen our knowledge of sites and regions. Overall, the book is a very welcome contribution to the late antique debate. It will be of use to archaeologists addressing site- related issues or contemplating new field-projects as well as to (art) historians without archaeological training trying to understand how to use and critically evaluate the data retrieved from surveys and excavations.

Table of Contents

Field methods and post excavation techniques in late antique archaeology : anyone for discussion? / Luke Lavan
1. Period-specific Methods?
"Late antique field archaeology": a legitimate aim? / Steve Roskams
Distinctive field methods for late antiquity: some suggestions / Luke Lavan
The analysis of reused material culture for late antique studies / Ellen Swift
2. The Regional Development of Field Methods
Late antique archaeology in Hungary: the development of fieldwork methodologies / Zsolt Magyar
Late antique archaeology in the Holy Land: evolution, fieldwork methods and post-excavation analyses / Itamar Taxel
3. Urban and Rural Survey
Central Greece in late antiquity: the evidence from the Boeotia Project / John Bintliff
Survey in the Taurus Mountains: methodologies of the Pisidia Survey Project / Lutgarde Vandeput and Veli Kose
4. Restudying Excavated Sites
Ruins, rubbish dumps and encroachment: resurveying late antique Ostia / Axel Gering
The Agorai of Sagalassos in late antiquity: an interpretive study / Luke Lavan
5. Buildings Archaeology
The early Byzantine domed basilicas of West Asia Minor: an essay in graphic reconstruction / Nikolaos D. Karydis
Reuse as archaeology in Ostia: a test case for late antique building chronologies in Ostia / Douglas Underwood
6. Special Deposits and Contextual Analysis
Approaches to artefact assemblages: inventories, imagery, and stratified deposits / Joe Williams
Beyond the grave: excavating the dead in the late Roman provinces / John Pearce
Contextual archaeology: the late antique fort and Vicus Favianis/Mautern: methods and results / Stefan Groh and Helga Sedlmayer
7. Material Culture Studies
Food for thought: the potential and problems of faunal evidence for interpreting late antique society / Steve Roskams
Excavation, processing and studying the pottery from Ras El Bassit, Syria / Jeremy Evans and Philip Mills
The potential of ceramic building materials in understanding late antique archaeology / Philip Mills
The potential of laser scanning Roman buildings / Yoshiki Hori
Abstracts in French
Indices
Themes
Index of people (historical)
Index of places
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