BMCR 2020.09.31

Unlocking sacred landscapes: spatial analysis of ritual and cult in the Mediterranean

, , , Unlocking sacred landscapes: spatial analysis of ritual and cult in the Mediterranean. Studies in Mediterranean archaeology, 151. Nicosia: Astrom Editions, 2019. xviii, 279 p.. ISBN 9789925745548 €68,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The experience of reading the volume edited by Papantoniou, Morris and Vionis is a little like being a carnivore at a vegan smorgasbord: the offerings are often excellent yet still leave one feeling vaguely unsatisfied. No one could ever complain that there isn’t enough on offer. Spatio-temporality, sensorial fields, socially contested landscapes, proxemics, intervisibility, settlement hierarchies are all on the table, sometimes giving the consumer something to sink her teeth into, at other times seeming like parsley, little more than a garnish. Some of the dishes are part of the classic repertoire: agency, performativity, and phenomenology are all, like nouvelle cuisine, reliable, familiar and not so nouvelle. Synesthesia, recently discovered after the material turn, is fast becoming the umami of current archaeology: once it was identified, we realized it had been there all along. Other ingredients are relatively recent additions: Historic Landscape Characterization (HLC) is still fresh and as yet not entirely digested. Still others, like Chronologies of Desire, seem new, but once sampled taste a little like old wine in new bottles.

So what makes a good groaning board? For a start, variety, but this collection is a little lopsided. Cyprus (Papantoniou; Kyriakou; Vionis; Webb; Alexandrou), Crete (Nixon; Goodison; Peatfield and Morris; Papasavvas) and Naxos (Vionis; Turner and Crow) take up ten of fifteen chapters. This means that many cultural zones are left as outliers. One is Byzantine Constantinople (Manolopoulou). This is a pity. Manolopoulou’s treatment of two competing sacred calendars, the fixed Menaion and the changing Triodion, yields a fascinating map of spatial and temporal density in Constantinople, revealing a sacred landscape created out of performance: litai. Her contribution reads best when taken in conjunction with Nixon’s detailed analysis of the transformations of Khania at the hands of the Venetians in the 13th century and again by the Ottomans in the 17th, where the sacred landscape, here identified with building rather than processions, can be used to measure the cultural policy of two very different hegemonial powers. Another outlier is the Punic world of the western Mediterranean. López-Bertran focuses on a sensory interpretation of Punic death rites, but the urge to cook with the latest ingredients is not entirely successful. “To conclude, the funerary landscapes have a real visual power,” falls flat, while the following section, on touch, is unsatisfactory in other ways: “The preparation of corpses is a totally haptic experience performed by manual activities which would have shown respect and love to the deceased.” Anyone who has been in close proximity to a dead person will attest to the fact that the visual and olfactory impact is enormous. These cannot be artificially left aside in an imaginative reconstruction of preparing the dead that reduces it to haptics. (Nor is it legitimate to assume that love and respect are the key ingredients of corpse preparation unless one also includes fear, anxiety and disgust. There are many, many ingredients in this particular dish.) Another plate on the edge of the table is Erlich’s discussion of figurines and identity from Idumaea in southern Israel. Here too a tendency to undercook is evident: “The figurines of Tel Sippor are indicative of both the situation of the site and the cult that took place there.” Shortly after we are offered, “Could it be that Maresha, a centre of rising Idumaean power in the 4th century BC, manifested its ethnic identity by overt signals such as terracotta figurines, separating and defining them and applying high boundary maintenance?” It is not a good sign when the theme of an essay is presented as a rhetorical question, because the dyspeptic reader is likely to answer, “No.” Do the differences between these “Idumaean” figurines map onto a similar pattern of regional variation in housing style, burial practice, or pottery styles more generally? Do the coast/inland variations identified in the three classes of figurines studied by Erlich find expression in other cultural indicia? Without a much fuller set of comparanda, we are left with a heuristic that seems oddly familiar: figurines equal people.

The other outliers are two chapters on Italian regions that read very well in tandem. Van Loon and de Haas offer a micro-regional study of Laghetto el Monsignore in Lazio, and Tabolli presents the sacred funerary landscape of Narce. The former challenge some of the casual categories used in earlier studies, such as ‘nature sanctuary’ and through a careful diachronic treatment of the cult centre’s relationship to other rural sanctuaries as well as the local settlement of Satricum they are able to situate Larghetto del Signore meaningfully within the regional sacred landscape. Tabolli offers an even finer-grained analysis of the necropolis of La Petrina in relation to the wider area of Narce and Falerii. His contextualization of the study area right up the present, noting significant ruptures associated with the use of the site as a set for spaghetti westerns and the building of a road in the recent past, when uncovered pots were used for target practice, is a model for archaeologists wishing to make sense of the longue durée. Similarly, his integration of archival material from earlier excavations is outstanding.

The chapters on Cyprus and Crete are the centre-piece, to be expected given the volume’s origins as a conference (and research network) jointly sponsored Trinity College, Dublin, the Institute for Mediterranean Studies in Crete, and the University of Cyprus. The volume’s introduction, by Papantoniou, Morris and Vionis, is lucid and successfully lays out some of the parametres for the study of sacred landscapes: questions of meaning and experience, their relationship to memory, ritual and the importance of the materiality of objects associated with the sacred, are all touched upon. Readers expecting to see the influence of Tilley, Ingold, and Hodder will not be disappointed. The two most assured pieces in the entire collection are Vionis on the spatiality of the Byzantine/Medieval rural church (with studies from Cyprus and Naxos) and Goodison on the tombs of the Mesara in southern Crete. Vionis’ contribution is remarkable for integrating data as disparate as GIS-generated data on landscape and site distribution to church design and iconography. The result is a satisfying study of the transformation of profane into sacred landscapes. His piece is best read in conjunction with the study of sacred landscape of medieval Naxos by Turner and Crow, a very rich study that situates churches and exoklisia (outlying chapels) in a landscape that blends natural features with human exploitation and settlement. The use of the chapels as territorial markers is notable, and the essay is a fine example of presenting complex data and subjecting it to careful analysis. Among the Cretan essays the best is Goodison’s exploration of the space syntax of tomb types. Her contribution that perfectly balances theory with close, detailed observation. Provocatively, she proposes a tripartite model for viewing the landscape dynamically, as the product of the interaction of topography, time, and transaction, the events that take place at the intersections of time and topography. The essay reflects the influence of Giddens and Hamilakis, but is also a fitting statement of the author’s own reflections after thirty years of study.

Other contributions dealing with Cyprus include Papantoniou, whose essay treats the spatial organization of the city-states of Iron Age Cyprus. The essay is a good example of what can and can’t be accomplished with GIS analyses: View Shed Analysis, Least Cost Path and Least Cost Corridor are all employed here, but what makes the essay stand out is the degree to which Papantoniou is able to consider the limitations of the tools he uses and the need for integrating other sources of information from iconography to numismatics. If archaeology is to shed its pretensions to omniscience, it will need more essays like this. Kyriakou’s essay, on cityscapes and peripheries in late antique Cyprus, is not quite up to the same standard. Reading a proliferation of basilicas as an indication of Christianization is unchallengeable. Reading them as proof of the ‘close association between religion and society’ is also perhaps not the spiciest conclusion. Webb’s study of burial practice in BA Cyprus exhibits a similar tendency, observed in too many of the contributions, to offer a very detailed spatial analysis without being able to reach much in the way of a conclusion. After a number of fine-scale analyses of tomb goods, for example, Webb suggests differential use of chambers in a tomb and concludes, “It is entirely possible that Chamber D (and perhaps also Chamber E) were, at least in their final phase of use, not burial locales but dedicated ritual spaces.” Similarly, Webb refuses to challenge the reader. “The intensity with which mortuary practices and ancestralizing rituals were used to promote claims to authority and place was decidedly different in different regions, between sites within the same region and between tombs within individual cemeteries.” Perhaps this knocks down the proposition that all mortuary ritual is the same everywhere, but that proposition is surely a straw man? The final Cypriot contribution is Alexandrou’s essay on Late Cypriot (Bronze Age) female figurines, an essay whose quality is somewhat compromised by the material being studied. A limited data set leads to limited conclusions. Female figurines (or more correctly, pieces of them) often appear in contexts where terracotta bovines also appear. Should they be meaningfully associated? Various scholars have suggested reading these as signs of a Hathor-like cult and noted her association with the copper industry. Has the detailed analysis of intrasite location added to these suggestions? Alexandrou’s final word on the matter is uninspiring: “…it was noticed that in at least four cases the female figurines appeared in close proximity to zoomorphic terracottas. Consequently, a relationship, and perhaps a common usage, may be suggested for the two figurine types.” There is nothing over bold here, but is blandness a good thing?

Aside from Goodison and Nixon’s chapters, two others are devoted to Crete. Peatfield and Morris have produced an extraordinarily detailed picture of the spatial dimensions of the peak sanctuary at Atsipadhes Korakias. They are alert to the interplay of landscape, place, time and performance. It is a bit of a shock, but a pleasant one, to find the chapter finishing on the observation that from the Upper Terrace of the site the sun can be seen dawning at the time of the autumnal equinox between the horns of Mt Ida. Sir Arthur Evans would enjoy that. Papasavvas’ essay deals with the sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme. Here the author follows a recipe placing Syme within the context of both Cretan and mainland developments and produces a tasty contribution. Unlike the mainland, where extraurban sanctuaries grew in tandem with urban centres, on Crete it was the decline of large, extra-urban sanctuaries that marked the growth of state formation. We can fuss over the definition of ‘polis’ and ‘prepolis’ but broad changes of this sort are significant and important.

It is unrealistic to approach a collection of essays in the same way one might enjoy a monograph. The pleasure of engaging with a single author’s style of thinking and writing is closer to the pleasures of a good meal, where the flavours and textures are complementary. Sampling this volume one is struck by the variety of approaches, methods and most of all the various styles of argument and presentation. One may feel a little unsatisfied, but no one should be dissatisfied.

Authors and titles

1. Unlocking sacred landscapes: the applicability of a GIS approach to the territorial formation of the Cypro-Archaic and Cypro-Classical polities / Giorgos Papantoniou
2. A contextual approach to non-urban sanctuaries: a micro-regional study of the cult place of Laghetto del Monsignore (Lazio, Italy) / Tanja van Loon and Tymon de Haas
3. The sacred landscapes of Cyprus in late antiquity: cityscapes and peripheries in context / Niki Kyriakou
4. The spatiality of the Byzantine/Medieval rural church: landscape parallels from the Aegean and Cyprus / Athansios K. Vionis
5. Unlocking sacred space on early medieval Naxos: digital approaches to an historic landscape / Sam Turner and Jim Crow
6. The early Ottoman and sacred landscape of Khania, Crete / Lucia Nixon
7. Journeys with death: spatial analysis of the Mesara-type tombs of prehistoric Crete / Lucy Goodison
8. Sensing death among the Phoenicians and the Punics (900-200 BC) / Mireia López-Bertran
9. Processing time and space in Byzantine Constantinople / Vicky Manolopoulou
10. Socio-spatial discontinuities in burial ritual in prehistoric Bronze Age Cyprus / Jennifer M. Webb
11. Space, place and performance in the Minoan peak sanctuary of Atsipadhes Korakias, Crete / Alan A.D. Peatfield and Christine E. Morris
12. Late Cypriot female figurines: from intra- to inter-site investigation of their function and lifecycle
Constantina Alexandrou
13. Walking thorough the sacred funerary landscape of Narce again / Jacopo Tabolli
14. Sacred space and ritual behaviour in early Iron Age Crete: the case of the sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme / George Papasavvas
15. On figurines and identity: an inter-site study of terracotta figurines from Idumaea (south Israel) in the Persian period / Adi Erlich.