Late Antique Archaeology 2008: A Recap

I was in London on Saturday for the 2008 meeting of Late Antique Archaeology. The theme of this year’s conference was “Recent Fieldwork in Urban Archaeology” and papers were presented on Noviodunum (Romania), Boeotia, Aphrodisias, Ephesus, Sagalassos, Ostia, Delphi, Apamea (Syria), Canterbury and Istanbul.

Apollontemplet i Delfi
The Temple of Apollo, Delphi. The temple was repaired after a 3rd century fire and still stood in late antiquity at the top of the Sacred Way. As an empty ruin? Perhaps even as a monument to the Christian victory over pagan cult? Either way, it appears never to have been converted for Christian use. Photo: TMK, March 2007.

The first speaker was Kris Lockyear of UCL who presented his team’s work at the fortified town of Noviodunum in Romania. The site is multi-period and characterized by extreme erosion, in large part due to over-farming during the Communist era. In its initial phase the Noviodunum project has focused on survey, both within the site itself and in its hinterland. It is now moving into an excavation phase and it’s hoped that this will provide a better understanding of the site’s chronology and development.

Next, John Bintliff from Leiden discussed the late antique development of three towns (Tanagra, Thespiae and Koroneia) that have been explored through non-invasive field survey over some 30 years in the region of Boeotia in Greece. The ‘geophys’ (to use the jargon of survey archaeologists) for Tanagra, explored by Bintliff and colleagues since 2000, is absolutely amazing and one of those text-book cases of the viability of the method in field archaeology. It clearly shows a Hippodamian city grid plan that was still largely intact in the 4th century AD. However, sometime in late antiquity, a large basilica church was constructed in the agora. The accompanying ‘pick up’ survey at Tanagra has almost entirely produced late antique ‘transport amphorae’, suggesting that the site had a rather one-sided nature at the time. Alternatively, it may say something important about the interpretative shortcomings of archaeological taxonomies….

Charlotte Roueché of KCL, host of this year’s conference, presented an introduction to her epigraphic survey at Aphrodisias and Ephesus. Her extremely important work is aimed at putting epigraphy, often published without any topographic information in the past, into its archaeological context. This approach was also the background to the 2007 online edition of Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity. She made a plea to study seriously (and publish!) the graffiti and other markings found at so many archaeological sites and too frequently ignored by epigraphists. Finally, she reminded everyone of the difficulty of working with material from old excavations and the sometimes haphazard nature of the production of archaeological knowledge. The main reason to undertake excavations of streets in Ephesus such as the Embolos was thus to provide easier access for tourists between the site’s major attractions…

Luke Lavan, now of the University of Kent, followed in the footsteps of Roueché by looking at similar material in Sagalassos. His approach was broader, however, and looked at what he termed the archaeology of daily life, signs of markets and other aspects of everyday activities in the late antique city. He also explored the use of spolia at this important Pisidian site. Even though the Sagalassos excavations have been carried out in relatively recent times, he also reminded us of the difficulties involved in properly documenting such complex urban sites.

This leads me on the next group of three groups that focused on the re-evaluation of old sites, or rather the re-evaluation of material from old excavations. Axel Gering of Humboldt-Universität Berlin looked at the phenomenon of ‘street blockings’ in late antique Ostia. Refreshingly, he argued that these do not represent ‘decay’ or ‘decline’ but rather a re-ordering of the cityscape into various zones. He also pointed out that blockings are frequently found together with other construction projects such as late antique nymphaea. The first major sign of urban ‘deconstruction’ that Gering sees is the construction of a church on the decumanus in the 6/7th century that effectively blocked this major thoroughway. He also made a potentially controversial suggestion that the decumanus became a ‘processional way’ in late antiquity with the construction of a series of porticoes.

Vincent Deroche presented recent work of the French Mission to Delphi. This work has focused on a complex of buildings immediately south of the peribolos. The complex include a late antique dwelling (“Villa Sud-Est”) and a number of industrial buildings. The excavations have identified some drastic changes at Delphi around 500 but the excavated buildings in this part of the site seem to simply have been abandoned and show no sign of destruction.

Didier Viviers of the Université Libre de Bruxelles presented more recent fieldwork, in his case as part of the on-going Belgian excavations at Apamea in Syria. This recent work has focused on the refashioning of the urban fabric in late antiquity. The city’s famous colonnaded street seems to have been divided into a series of squares. While the city’s population apparently was reduced, major work on the water supply had been undertaken. Very large columns from the Temple of Zeus were reused in the reconstruction of a Hellenistic fortification wall. The destruction of this temple in the second half of the 4th century, known from literary sources, may thus not have been religiously motivated but rather reflect more pragmatic needs of the community at this time…

The Sagalassos bouleuterion. This building was reused as a church in the 4th century. Photo: TMK, May 2006.

Mark Houlisson presented recent work in Canterbury in preparation for a shopping centre with special attention to the late Roman levels. Among the most interesting finds was a mass grave dated to around 350-375 and consisting of bodies that had been partially decomposted at the time of burial. The work at Canterbury is exemplary of the large-scale urban digs currently undertaken in several cities in the UK.

Julian Richard of Leuven gave a paper on recent excavations of the macellum (or food market) in Sagalassos. Interestingly, all of the dedicatory inscriptions relating to the construction of this complex have been found, one of them includes an erasure of the name of Commodus who suffered a damnatio memoriae. In late antiquity, parts of the macellum were completely rebuilt. The 6th century abandonment deposit intriguingly included a Hellenistic Ephesian coin….

The seminar’s last paper was presented by Ken Dark of the University of Reading. He updated the audience on recent excavations in Istanbul of which there have been more than one would expect from the number of publications that have appeared. This includes very interesting work on the palace and the Yenikapi harbour.

All in all, it was an extremely interesting seminar, highlighting some of the innovative work that is currently being done in both urban excavation and survey. Next year’s meeting will apparently also be held in London, and I shall very much hope to be able to attend!

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1 Comment

  1. Troels,
    thank you very much for this detailed summary of the conference. There are so many that it’s almost impossible to travel to all of them, and having such a report from each one would be great.
    Next week I’ll be at LRCW3 and I’ll try to post one or more summaries on my blog.

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