Tag Archives: Birmingham

Another Gathering of Byzantinists in Birmingham

My reporting backlog now reaches 30th May 2015, which was a very full day in Birmingham occasioned by the 16th Annual Postgraduate Symposium of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, with the title Fragmentation: the Eastern Mediterranean in Conflict and Cohesion. I have dithered before about whether I report on what is essentially a postgraduate event, but it’s a postgraduate event with a keynote by an established scholar and people come to it from all over the world, so it’s really as high-level as such things get and the people participating in it are all working at their highest level. So, I shall blog it, but as the backlog is so long and time is so short I shall try to be brief and hope it still does the participants due credit. I should stress, though, that looking through my notes for this, the number of times I have said to myself, “Oh! I met so-and-so then?” or even, “Oh? I ran that? I have no memory of this at all” has been much higher than it really should be for anyone of even my advanced age. I was clearly just getting by at this point in my life on not enough sleep, and while things have come back to me as I write this, we are basically reliant on my notes for what I’m reporting, which may be wrong or inadequate. So if you were there, I invite corrections!

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü, in the erstwhile Seljuk Sultanate of Konya

We began with the keynote address, which was by Professor Scott Redford and entitled “84 Mongols Walk into a Caravanserai…”. This promising start was occasioned by a document, signed indeed by eighty-four Mongols, mostly local officials of various grades, at the caravanserai of Yüksekligi, to witness the act of one Nur ad-Din ibn Tayā as he established a church. The document is dated to the Year of the Monkey and has a gloss in Mongol. With this example of how cultures were mixing in the thirteenth century in what is now Western Turkey, Professor Redford then picked out a number of other ways in which we can, if we choose, find links between Greek, Turkish and yes, even Mongol cultures of patronage and power in this area. For example, Nur ad-Din had also built a caravanserai at Kesik Köprü, which is still up as you can see above, on the route between Constantinople and the local Sultanate of Konya, and stands near a bridge which went up at about the same time and only fell down in 1990, but contained an inscription set up by the Sultan of Konya when he was actually in rebellion against his masters in Baghdad, and so closer to the Greeks than the Turks in some ways.

The bridge at Kesik Köprü

The bridge at Kesik Köprü, as it has been restored I think

I was personally less convinced by some of the art-historical links which Professor Redford drew, but the widespread use of a symbol called the ‘elibelinde’, seen below, in Constantinople (and indeed more once it became Istanbul), various locations in the Seljuk sultanates and indeed yet another local caravanserai, did speak loudly of a cultural identity that crossed and blurred political boundaries that were in any case more fluid below the top, state, level than we sometimes remember when doing history in outline. So this was good, and full of much better illustrations than I have been able to use here.

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

After this we were down into the postgraduate sessions. I had volunteered to chair one of these, so my choice about what to go to was made for me, but in fact this put me into my first ever contact with two future colleagues so unbeknownst to me it worked well. Also, the papers were interesting. They were these:

  • James Hill, “Missing the Opportune Moment: John V Palaiologos and the spectre of union”
  • Nafsika Vassilopolou, “Royal Marriages of the Palaeologi (1258-1453): appraising a political practice”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Should We Abstain? Marital Equality in Byzantine Canon Law”
  • All these papers were about one or other sort of union, really. James was looking at the agreement of Emperor John V to re-reunify the Eastern and Western Christian churches, an agreement that in the end collapsed not just because of its deep unpopularity in the eastern Empire (where it doesn’t even seem to have been made public as a plan) but also and perhaps mainly because the popes simply couldn’t deliver the troops that were John’s asking price, despite their best diplomatic efforts with Genoa and Venice. Ms Vassilopolou’s paper made it seem odder that the eastern emperors had such trouble enjoining union of the Churches on their people, because when it came to marrying off princesses there was pretty much no theological objection which they could not overrule: consanguinity, juvenility, differing religions or sects of Christianity… What is less clear is what most of the eighty-eight political marriages the Palaeologan emperors arranged actually got them: alliance, sometimes, especially with the Mongols who seem to have received the most consistently high-status brides, territory sometimes, but it usually cost a lot in terms of land, money and human capital as well, and Ms Vassilopolou thought that the main motivation was to remain on the international stage as a player, not an extra, which as we know in the UK is a strategy that can make you do some very stupid things. Lastly Maroula went looking for gender equality in Byzantine canon law, hoping to find it at the most fundamental point: who got to choose when to abstain from sex? The trouble here is that most of the law deals with churchmen, who by reason of needing to perform holy office weekly and being supposed to abstain before and after were much more often confronted by this question, so that kind of comes pre-gendered. It was quite surprising to me how much thought the Byzantine canonists had put into this question, but I suppose it did keep coming up (if you’ll forgive the phrase). The paper is now out in print, anyway, so you can read it yourself if you like!1

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That took us to lunch, and then after that, the programme tells me, I was dashing back to the Barber Institute to give a coin handling session, “Coins of Byzantium and its Neighbours in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts”. I have literally no memory of this, although I remember correspondence about it, but it’s in the programme and I have a handout from it in my notes, so I guess it happened! I was apparently basically showcasing the Byzantine collection, from beginning to end, or at least, as close to the end as I thought we could get, a solidus of Constantine I to a half-stavraton of John VIII. (I later discovered two coins of Constantine XI in the collection which the Curator for whom I was standing in had acquired but never accessioned; they are there, if you want to see them.)

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

The route between the two took us via Justinian I’s reforms, Heraclius’s mighty beard, the strange mixture that is Arab-Byzantine money, Komnenian concavity and the various daughter coinages of Byzantium; I picked Trebizond, Venice and Hisn Kayfa, all of which tells you that I was finally beginning to get my head round what this collection had to offer and what, had circumstances been otherwise, I might have done with it. But with the alternative path laid out before me already, it was still really nice to be able to show off some of its shiny and curious components. Then, it was back up the road to where the papers were.

  • Yannis Stamos, “Kazantzakis’s Representations of the Greek Civil War: the divided vision of socio-political fragmentation”
  • Mike Saxby, “Arms in Exile: an analysis of military iconography on coins of the Byzantine successor states”
  • Carl Dixon, “From Armenia to Bulgaria? The Transmission of Heterodoxy in Peter of Sicily’s History of the Paulicians
  • The first of these was the only paper on the programme representing the Centre’s Modern Greek component, a study of two novels by the 1940s Cretan writer Niko Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified and The Fratricides, arguing, I think, that Kazantzakis was trying to find an ethic that might heal his riven country in the form of a grass-roots socialism well infused with Christian charity, a community religious mutual help ethic; the paper overran and had to be cut short, so what the conclusion was to have been I have no idea. Mike, who was one of the vital sources of institutional memory when I took over at the Barber, went into the messy period after 1204 when Byzantine rulers-in-exile set up in Nicæa, Thessaloniki and Epiros, all of whom struck coin which generally diversified from the fairly standardised Constantinopolitan money of the previous period. Mike noted that although all tried out images of armed rulers and saints to different degrees, Thessaloniki had Saint Demetrius with a sword on more than half of its coin types, which as he said could be down to the six-hundred-year tradition there of the saint as the city’s military protector but could also just be down to the fact that Thessaloniki was most exposed to war, mostly with the Bulgarians who also by now claimed Saint Demetrius as a protecting saint. Several kinds of politics vie for expression in the coins, therefore. Lastly Mr Dixon took us into the history of a disputed text about the dualist Byzantine heretics known as Paulicians.2 The History in question purports to be from the 870s and to be a warning to the Byzantine administration that the group plans to mount a mission to convert, or subvert, the Bulgarians, but this cannot easily be; the situation it foresees had in part come about by the eleventh century, but the themes of the early tenth century, when the movement seems newly to have been observed, place it in Armenia, and it was only moved to the Balkans by Emperor John I in the late 970s. The text is thus very hard to date, and while Mr Dixon didn’t want to rule out that it was just a forgery given how little knowledge it seems to have about the settlement at Tephrike where it is set, he certainly felt that any evidence that it existed and was being used in the early tenth century, as has tended to be assumed from the text’s own claims, needed reexamination. Discussion suggested a few ways this might be done, but none of them were easy, so it’s quite the mission Mr Dixon had ahead of him.

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, showing St Demetrios with sceptre and shield, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

Then tea and then back into the sessions for the last round of papers, which took me back to the early Middle Ages where, really, my interests are.

  • Anna Kelley, “Rethinking Cotton Use and Cultivation in Late Antique Egypt”
  • Catherine Keane, “More than a Church: the archaeology of the economic reality of Christian structures in the late antique Mediterranean”
  • Maria Vrij, “The Anomaly’s Anomaly: the curious case of gold coin production at Syracuse under Justinian II”
  • Anna laid out for us a peculiar picture of cotton use and cultivation before the seventh century, in which it was far from unknown but for most people hard to get, and found only in certain areas; there was cotton growing on the Red Sea coast in the fourth century, for example, and in the Western Desert over the Nile, but not at points between. The current suggestion of a source seems to be Nubia but even there it’s hard to show cotton being grown for export, rather than just for local use. There’s a network here yet to be pieced together, which is roughly where Anna’s research comes in of course! Ms Keane was at a similarly early stage, and her basic question was about the relocation of economic production in Northern Africa, of oil, wine and so on, out of Roman rural industrialised complexes into cities and then, increasingly, localising out to the then-fairly-new churches. The focus of production seems therefore to be following the focus of public space, which is something that, like cotton, looks like there is more to be found out. although Ms Keane’s paper was full of citations indicating that the process has started.3 Lastly, Maria, my right hand at the Barber at this point and now my replacement there, was asking why, when Emperor Justinian II famously (to readers here at least) put a portrait of Christ on his gold coinage, the mint at Syracuse didn’t follow suit. Syracuse was rarely exactly on the Constantinopolitan model when it came to minting but this seems sufficiently outright a refusal of imperial authority as to need explanation, which might be offered in terms of a Western resistance to images of the divine, and one which was followed after Justinian’s death in all quarters, indeed. The discussion here circled somewhat around who this message might be for, the world of Islam or the coin-using public, and who they might be, all of which, sadly, the coins don’t really tell us.

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia, one of the sites under discussion in Ms Keane’s paper

The final part of the symposium was a closing address by Professor Redford, who somewhat unconventionally started by asking the organisers why they’d picked this theme. With that answered he pointed out gaps and strengths in the programme and its adherence to the theme but reassured everyone that the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was still showing a flag for the value of study clusters like it, and the day closed with pretty much everyone much satisfied by how things had gone.


1. M. Perisanidi, “Should we Abstain? Spousal Equality in Twelfth-century Byzantine Canon Law” in Gender and History Vol. 28 (Oxford 2016), pp. 422–443.

2. Again, memory failure; I own this text, at least in translation… You can find it in Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton (edd./transl.), Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: selected sources (Manchester 1998), pp. 65-91.

3. For example, Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa From Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari 2007) and Aïcha Ben-Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, Michel Bonifay & Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I : La basilique sud, Collection de l’École française de Rome 339 (Rome 2004).

Seminar CCXXXII: technical change in Byzantine history-writing

Now it’s time for the third seminar in three days of February 2015, in the vague hope that I can be out of the month in my backlog before February 2016 rolls around! On Thursday 26th February, therefore, I was back in Birmingham and went to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies as was then my wont, where Dr Staffan Wahlgren was speaking with the title, “From Theophanes to Psellos: transformations of Byzantine historiography”. This was a paper that he had come to because of translating the tenth-century chronicle of a chap known as Symeon the Logothete and wanting to know, basically, how odd it was or wasn’t.1 So he had set it next to the better-known chronicles of Michael Psellos, Michael Attaleiates and John Skylitzes, more or less spanning the eleventh century, and also the rather less well-known one of Peter of Alexandria (c. 900), as well as other bits and pieces as they came up, and had looked for things that were common to or changed over this period in the actual ways that these historians used the Greek language to write history.2

Michael Psellos, here shown with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas

The one of those guys of whom it is easiest to find an illustration—which would please him mightily, I suspect—Michael Psellos, here shown with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas. “Michael Psellos” by Unknown/Άγνωστος – Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery/ Κώδ. 234, φ. 254α, Άγιον Όρος, Μονή Παντοκράτορος. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Dr Wahlgren had separated three sorts of variation, whole-culture shifts in the way that language was used, deliberate distinction of learned writing from other uses of the language at that same cultural level and variation that was actually the individual writer’s choice, and he gave us an example of each. Now, I have basically no more Greek than a coin inscription can hold, so in what follows I can only be guided by my notes, but they tell me that we were told that one of the things that differentiates ancient Greek from modern Greek is that anciently it had a dative case, for indirect objects and things acted upon by various prepositions, and now it doesn’t, just a subject, [Edit: an object] and a possessive case. This was a long change, as you can apparently find the dative missing in second-century papyri but still being used in speech in the eighteenth century, but all of the texts that Dr Wahlgren had looked at retained it, at least for location of things though not so much for direction, at but not towards. So that was a whole-culture thing, the historians somewhere in a larger process of change. Then Dr Wahlgren looked at emphatic particles (and here we are beyond my understanding, I can see what these must be but I’ve no idea what they look like): these apparently come back in in a big way in thirteenth-century historical writing where they had been absent or moribund before, which shows the deliberate archaicisation of the learned languages. And lastly he looked at narrative structure and the general constraints of genre upon form and discovered that although the older Chronographia of Theophanes was a force upon them all in different ways, they all had their own variations upon it, although his home case, Symeon, was still more episodic than the others.

Modern Russian icon of St Symeon Metaphrastes

It’s not that there are no illustrations of Symeon, it’s just that they’re all modern icons, because he also wrote a huge collection of saints’ lives, the Menologion, which the Orthodox Church later decided was sufficient to put him among their number… SimeonMetaphrastes

I report all this mainly because it struck me as a slightly strange combination of traditional and modern techniques. Obviously this kind of work is not per se new, that’s how we have some kind of framework into which to fit these chroniclers’ use of the dative. On the other hand we would probably now expect a work such as this to be done with lexomics and corpus analysis, but Dr Wahlgren didn’t mention a computer once and of course you don’t actually need one if you’re willing just to sit down with the texts and a pad of paper for tallies and similar. There remains the question of how to interpret it all, however, and in discussion it was particularly the issue of constraints of genre that came up. Ruth Macrides, who knows her chroniclers, thought that what we might otherwise call the content of the form could be crucial here, accounting both for the sort of language generally used and the individual variation: Theophanes had written a Chronographia, so structured everything with time, Psellos used that title too but frequently followed an episodic trail in the style of Classical ‘historia’, while Skylitzes wrote a Synopsis, and what seems like individual variation between these texts could be therefore something much more structuredly literary and cultural.3 Dr Wahlgren argued that this kind of analysis would be one way to see if those categories really exist, but when you have writers deliberately trying to look old-fashioned it’s obvious that such forces did apply, even if not to all equally. The argument was, shall we say, not settled on this occasion. But this kind of work is still a set of tools we have available to use.


1. He has already edited this, as S. Wahlgren (ed.), Symeonis magistri et logothetae chronicon (Berlin 2006), though of course despite the Latinised title it is in Greek; a few tiny excerpts are already trans. Paul Stephenson online here.

2. The first three of these are all available in translation, Michael Psellos, Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1953) and online here, Michael Attaleiates, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis & Dimitris Krallis (Washington DC 2012) and John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History 811-1057, transl. John Wortley (Oxford 2010). For Peter we are not so lucky: there is, apparently, Z. G. Samodurova (ed.), “Хроника Петра Александрийского” in Византийский Временник New Series Vol. 18 (Leningrad 1961), pp. 150–197 for the Greek, and after that you’re kind of stuck. On all of these guys you can see Warren T. Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians (London 2013), though you should be warned that Dr Wahlgren said that one of the reasons he had started the project was that book, which he felt needed correction. Treadgold also corrects Wahlgren, Symeonis chronicon, at Treadgold, Middle Byzantine Historians, p. 110 n. 108 and other places, so it’s all quite reciprocal. You can now see some of what we heard in Wahlgren, “Past and Present in Mid-Byzantine Chronicles: Change in Narrative Technique and the Transmission of Knowledge” in Mari Isaoho (ed.), Past and Present in Medieval Chronicles, Collegium 17 (Helsinki 2015), online here, pp. 34-42.

3. I imagine that the best proof of Ruth’s knowledge is R. Macrides, “The Historian in the History” in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys & Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, but as I’ve observed before, good luck getting hold of it. Theophanes is a bit easier, being translated most recently as Cyril Mango & R. Scott (transl.), The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford 1997), though the Continuations with which our guys here worked are not so easy to get.

Seminar CCXXX: digitising a text, one-to-many style

Interrupting my perorations on the state of the Academy with another backlogged seminar report turns out still not to get us very far from computers and the open access agenda. This is because there is at Birmingham a man by the name of Aengus Ward, whom I had clocked as a quantity quite early on in my time there on the grounds that he apparently worked on Spain. He was somehow accidentally elusive, however, and it wasn’t until 24th February 2015 that I finally tracked him down at the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, speaking under the title “Digital Editing and the Estoria de Espanna: of XML and crowd-sourcing.”

King Alfonso X of Castile-León, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

The project’s masthead image is hard to beat, so I’ll just, er, borrow it…. Here is King Alfonso X of Castile-León in all his lion-checkered glory, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

I will freely admit that I had almost no idea what the Estoria de Espanna was before this seminar: a historical text, obviously, and after my period but still medieval. With the precision of great familiarity, Dr Ward filled in the rest: it is a chronicle that was begun as part of a big courtly learning project by King Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284), frustrated would-have-been Holy Roman Emperor and canonically known as ‘the Wise’, though not wise enough to avoid being deposed by his son as also happened to fellow scholar-king Alfonso III of Asturias (886-910), a lesson I never get tired of pointing out. It covers the Iberian Peninsula from the supposed time of Hercules to that of Fernando III, Alfonso’s father, and there are forty or more manuscripts of it now surviving, including some translated into the Latin, the original being in Romance. Anyway, the crucial word in all of those may be ‘begun’, because ‘finished’ never really occurred: there was a ‘primitiva’ recension, compiled in 1270, but amended in 1274, then a ‘critica’, revised by Alfonso in prison in 1282, and then his son Sancho IV oversaw an ‘amplificada’ in 1289, with quite a lot of revisions to recent history at each stage. Also, we don’t actually have a full text of the ‘primitiva’. So what in fact do you edit if you are editing the Estoria?

Madrid, Biblioteca de l'Escorial, Y 1 2

One of the manuscripts of the Estoria that the team is using, Madrid, Biblioteca de l’Escorial, Y 1 2. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For its first editor hitherto, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the answer was to produce a synthetic version, emended to whatever he thought was most likely to have been Alfonso’s considered intent – at least so we assume, since his edition apparently makes very little of the actual editing process.1 And, as long as you’re editing on paper, there’s not a lot better you can do, though you could be more explicit about it. But with computers, XML mark-up and a four-year grant from the AHRC, you can hope for rather better. The project is doing (by now, indeed, has done) full transcriptions of five manuscripts, of various versions including one of the translations, and are marking up what’s different, added, removed, spelled differently and so on in an XML system called Textual Communities (hmm… seems familiar…2). In the end (late in what is now this year) it will eventually be possible to enable many-way comparisons between different versions and different versions of versions, setting text next to image with the words linked at an underlying level, comparing images or texts of the different manuscripts, a ‘recension’ view of each manuscript’s text and a synoptic edition, plus a tentative reconstruction of the full ‘primitiva’, all fully searchable and open to the web. Such is the plan.

But what of the crowd-sourcing? Well, that was one of the surprises of the project, in fact. If I have this right, the students who were working on the mark-up had people who wanted also to try their hand at it, out of sheer geeky enthusiasm for old stuff I think (which is what we all trade on, after all), and so worked out at least the logistics of actually allowing version-controlled mark-up editing over the web. Then the project put in for extra money to develop this, got it and suddenly found that they had what turned out to be a dozen or so extra staff to train and manage, all without actually seeing them, which changed some of their jobs quite a lot. I make it sound as if there was no benefit, mainly because as a coin curator I always felt that a volunteer who was available for less than a term was as much of my time lost training as gained not cataloguing, but obviously once the Estoria team were through that hoop this was a valuable extra source of labour and one of the mmajor reasons they’re looking to finish on time, as well as being a valuable demonstration of that elusive quality ‘impact’, not least as one of their transcribers subsequently went back to university to do a Masters in palaeography and diplomatic!3 And as Dr Ward said in questions, they do proof-read each others’ transcriptions already, so there isn’t actually that much extra work once the volunteers know what they’re doing.

Transcription mark-up of a page of one of the manuscripts of Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna

Oh, and maybe you’re wondering about the spelling ‘Espanna’? Confused by that double ‘n’ where now we would expect an ‘ñ’? Don’t worry, so were the scribes…

In general, while I have no particular stake in this project, it seems like one of the better ones of these jobs I’ve encountered. It seems set to produce its planned result on time, they’ve actually built several extra components into it without prejudicing that, and the ways that they want to present the manuscript and the ways they’ve incorporated outside and amateur interest and built that up into full-blown participation and passing expertise all look like things that you could call best practice. They even have a regularly-updated and interesting project blog! Of course, the real test will be the website, because without that there is nothing except promises, but I came away from this feeling that those promises really did have promise. I look forward to finding out if I was right!


1. Alfonso X el sabio, La crónica general de España que mandó componer el rey Alfonso el Sabio, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal (Madrid 1916).

2. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Princeton 1983).

3. Obviously not in the UK, where as long ago discussed such study has become far too marginal to have an actual degree course for it.

Seminar CCXXIX: complex identities in the later Roman Empire

So where am I now with the backlog in seminar reports? Later February 2015, it seems, so about eleven months behind still alas, but despite the disjuncture between this and the stuff of my own on which I have also been reporting, this post gels quite nicely with the previous one, as several of the same questions of what was maintained that was Roman when Roman rule ended in the West are covered in it. The occasion on this, er, occasion, was Simon Esmonde Cleary‘s inaugural lecture as Professor of Roman Archaeology in the University of Birmingham. Professor Esmonde Cleary’s is a name I knew of old by this point but I had never heard him speak or knowingly met him, and the title seemed to promise a fun lecture: it was “A Funny Thing Didn’t Happen on the Way to the Forum: archaeology and the refashioning of the late Roman West”. Now, in some ways I don’t need to say anything here because the lecture, which was indeed one of the better hours I’ve spent in a lecture theatre, was quickly put online, so if you have a spare hour you can in fact just experience it yourself nearly as well, and arguably should especially if you like your humour wry and British.

But, maybe you don’t have an hour, maybe you read this at work and can’t put sound on, maybe in fact you want to know what I thought about it beyond that it was good, so perhaps a brief post won’t hurt. The lecture trod quite a neat line between making statements soothing to ruffled interdepartmental feathers within the University, which is probably evident even to the outside listener, and making points that emphasised the necessity of comparative and interdisciplinary understandings of historical periods for the most meaningful conclusions about them, as well as Professor Esmonde Cleary’s unusual familiarity with the materials of those understandings. On this occasion those conclusions centred especially on the political import of material culture and on the complexity of personal and political identities, and the interest of the later Empire in ensuring and maintaining that complexity to its own advantage, particularly where that complex enveloped civil, military, Roman and ‘barbarian’ aspects. Professor Esmonde Cleary did this largely through a series of particular episodes and sites that helped make his points, and I will just pick three that spoke particularly to me. These are Séviac, in what I think of as Aquitaine, South-Western France to the modern reader, Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, not far away, and Lankhills in Hampshire in England.

The Gallo-Roman site of Séviac as it currently is, seen from the air

The Gallo-Roman site of Séviac as it currently is, seen from the air

Séviac is a villa complex, with rather impressive mosaics and a bathhouse, and most of the complex is fourth-century.1 This itself is not too unusual, especially in that part of the world (and, as Professor Esmonde Cleary pointed out, in Southern Britain) but it is evoking, and enabling, a very particular form of Roman élite life in which essentially civilian affluence is expressed by having a country residence with agricultural revenue in which you spent money on displaying your familiarity with Classical culture such as the scenes in the mosaics, even though by the time this was all being put up, much of the ruling class of the Empire had had a military background, including many of the emperors who nonetheless spent their time in the provinces in such buildings and whose own buildings this one was mimicking. There is nothing military here. At Séviac it was still important to display one’s training in Romanitas in its essentially literary and civilian aspects, even in the era of the Tetrarchy and the spread of Christianity.

The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the distance, with the Romanesque church of Saint-Just de Valcabrère in the foreground

The cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the distance, with the Romanesque church of Saint-Just de Valcabrère in the foreground

Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, I will admit, my heart leapt a little bit to see just because of the Romanesque church, which is one of my signs of home turf, but it is also a fascinatingly complex site. At the core of it is a tall cathedral, as you can see, which is also Romanesque with Gothic additions (apparently, says Wikipedia, actually put there by someone called Bertrand de Goth, which is kind of hard to beat), but it sits in the middle of a walled town and those walls are, at base, fifth-century, which is unusually late for the Western Empire and speaks instead to the military side of things.2 There was also, however, a Roman villa outside at what is now Valcabrère, much of whose stonework went into that there church of Saint-Just. The Roman walls were also topped up a couple of times in the Middle Ages. This is the other sort of Roman continuity, where adaptation is very close to scavenging, and one with which I’m much more familiar.

Burial under excavation in the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester

Burial under excavation in the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester

Lankhills increased that sense of familiarity still further. Although the late Roman cemetery there seems to have ceased being used by about 400 A. D., so that it’s hard to call it early medieval, still the occasional burial goods and the questions that have been asked about the site (which was the first one on which Professor Esmonde Cleary had dug, as a teenager) all seemed very familiar to me from my years teaching Anglo-Saxon history and archæology in Oxford. This was not least because when the site was first dug, art-historical comparisons of the grave-goods found in some of the grave led the then-excavator to hypothesize that he had found barbarian recruits into the Roman army from around Pannonia, settling in the area as the Empire that had paid them left the area.3 This was more or less plausible given understandings of that period at the time and seemed to fit the goods, but now it is possible to check that assumption by means of isotopic analysis of the skeletons. What this has revealed is that a quarter of the test sample put to examination seemed to have grown up somewhere other than the locality, but that some of the notional ‘Pannonians’ as suggested by their kit were locals whereas others were not, while three of them came from much further south, one possibly Africa (and he, helpfully, did have some African-provenance stuff with him too, just to emphasise that sometimes this actually happens even when no-one else is doing it), while on the other hand many other non-locals, including women, did not have their origins signalled by such grave-goods at all.4 This sets up all kinds of interesting possibilities about local group identities and second-generation immigrants but it also makes Guy Halsall‘s suggestion that certain army units had brandings which had nothing to do with their recruits’ origins seem as justifiable an explanation here.5

A selection of late Roman military belt buckles

A selection of late Roman military belt buckles, which one imagines that soldiers did not usually get to choose themselves…

So at the end of this round-up you can see how many things came up here that I have thought with before but with new evidence that these were good things with which to think: identity displayed but not necessarily as a deliberate statement or single entity, attempts indeed probably to look like someone different from whom you’d started by deliberate deployment of material culture, and a state apparatus for which the ability to acculturate, to erase signs and habits of origin in favour of its own traditions of education and behaviour had always been important, but over a period of centuries, failed it. All of this and jokes too! This is why you should watch the lecture, really…


1. Obviously, Professor Esmonde Cleary was not stopping to do footnotes, but mostly it has been easy for me to find the works he was using, not least as they were often his own. On Séviac, however, I have drawn a near-blank; its museum is obviously a good place to find out lots about the site, but further publication of its finds is very difficult to search up. An initial report of the first digs there is R. Métivier, “Fouilles des ruines gallo-romaines de Séviac, près Montréal” in Bulletin de la Société archéologique du Gers Vol. 14 (Auch 1913), online here, pp. 146-149, but it’s not what you could call comprehensive. Besides which, the site was gone over for a decade starting in the 1980s (the museum pages tell one) and one feels that should have resulted in some publication, but all I can find is R. Monturet & H. Rivière, Les Thermes sud de la villa gallo-romaine de Seviac (Paris 1986) and some suggestion that there is coverage in Catherine Balmelle, Les demeures aristocratiques d’Aquitaine : Société et culture de l’Antiquité tardive dans le Sud-Ouest de la Gaule, Mémoires 5 (Bordeaux 2001).

2. Here, however, it seems clear that the work you want is A. Simon Esmonde Cleary & Jason Wood, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges III : Le rempart de l’Antiquité tardive de la Ville Haute (Bordeaux 2006).

3. G. Clarke, Pre-Roman and Roman Winchester. Part II: The Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester Studies 3 (Oxford 1979), pp. 377-398.

4. H. Eckardt, C. Chenery, P. Booth, J. A. Evans, A. Lamb & G. Müldner, “Oxygen and strontium isotope evidence for mobility in Roman Winchester” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2009), pp. 2816-2825, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.010; see also Paul Booth, Andrew Simmonds, Angela Boyle, Sharon Clough, H. E. M. Cool & Daniel Poore, “The late Roman cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester: Excavations 2000-2005”, unpublished project report (Oxford Archaeology 2010), online here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 101-110.

Seminar CCXXVIII: a new method for analysing Mediterranean connectivity

The seminar report backlog now takes us back to Birmingham, where on the 5th February 2015 Dr Matthew Harpster was addressing the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Matthew is one of the friends I hope to keep from Birmingham; we had friends in common when I arrived and then someone gave me the office opposite him, so I had quite a lot of contact with him, but still I didn’t actually see him talk about his stuff until I was working at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. This then was that occasion, and it sparked off quite a lot of subsequent thought and action. His title was “Refashioning a Maritime Past in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996; it probably isn’t Matthew in that wetsuit, but it could be!

It had been Matthew’s doing that this same seminar had earlier been addressed by Rebecca Ingram on the subject of shipwrecks, because Matthew too is a maritime archæologist who once worked at the Theodosian Harbour in Istanbul with her, and like her he also had a particular shipwreck with which he was concerned, a ninth-century one off Turkey.1 This seems likely to have been a Byzantine one but as Matthew had poked at this he had become less and less sure that we have any solid methodology for making such judgements: does one go from the cargo, the personal effects of the crew, the location, the building style, or some or all of these? All of these things could easily be out of place as we understand them. Matthew had gone so far as to assemble all the 254 attempts to identify shipwrecks in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology from 1972 to 2012 as he counted them, and found no consistent practice.2 At that point his project became the one that then brought him to Birmingham, to database as many shipwrecks as possible from the ancient world and try and pattern-spot in such a way as might underpin such a consistent methodology for identification.

Cover of Parker's Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

Cover of Matthew’s foundational text, Parker’s Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

There is at least an easy place to start, an inventory of 730 ancient shipwrecks assembled in the early 1990s to which Matthew was able to add 120 more; the standard of record is of course variable but it’s a start.3 From there Matthew had used the cargo, fittings and personal items recorded for each wreck to work out route profiles for each vessel, assigning each of its items a point of origin and using those points as plots for a polygon that represented that shipwreck’s notional catchment area. Of course, this relies on others’ identifications of the goods and archæology being able to assign them correctly to places of origin, and as Morn Capper (present) pointed out, it is also tracking the finds, not the ships, and if those finds had moved in several ships in turn, not one all the way, the polygon of the one that actually sank would be considerably larger than that ship’s own sea area.

Map of ancient shipwrecks from the Benthos project

This is, sadly, not Matthew’s work but someone else’s attempt to do something similar, mapping the ancient Mediterranean’s nautical archæology, but only where it now rests, not where it had come from… The project concerned is called Benthos, and looks interesting but doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond its preliminary phase as of three years ago, alas.

But, this is something that one can do, it’s still telling one about a species of connection and the results are impressive, the more so because of the work Matthew had done with Dr Henry Chapman to load them into GIS and process them. I wish I could show you one of the resulting visualisations, as they are not only fascinating but things of psychedelic beauty, but Matthew seems not to have put any of them on the web where I can steal them, goshdarnit. In any case, in so far as what they show can be summarised, that summary might be:

  1. The weight of maritime activity shifted eastwards in the Mediterranean between the fourth century B. C. and the fourth century A. D., with more and more material travelling in the eastern half of the Mediterranean and less in the western one.
  2. Throughout that period, however, there is a visible separation of the two halves, either side of a zone including Sicily, Malta and the northern tip of Africa, which seems to have been a zone busy with transshipment but across the whole of which relatively little passed without stopping.
  3. In the fifth century A. D. this trend changes, with the Eastern Mediterranean dropping off in importance and goods from the West beginning to travel much further. Pirenne would have been worried!
  4. Pirenne would, however, probably have taken refuge in the fact that there is much less data from the late period, and in fact almost nothing for the eighth to tenth centuries, but the real peak is in the first centuries B. C. and A. D., not as one might have expected the height of the Roman Empire, and any conclusions for what was going on outside that period are based on dangerously small samples. Was sailing just safer under Hadrian or something? In any case, moving on… 

Matthew’s main point was that, within the limits of the evidence, his method could be used to measure and display change over time in the much-vaunted connectivity of the Mediterranean, but in discussion, predictably, the gathering set to trying to work out what else it told us or might do if extended.4 Archie Dunn wondered how journeys recorded in texts would map using such a method, Rebecca Darley offered military campaigns, as well as coins of course, and I wondered about inscriptions and diplomatic formulae. It seemed to me, and I said out loud, that all these things might well map out differently and result in an even more complex and textured picture of how people moved around the Mediterranean. And at that point Professor Leslie Brubaker said, “Funding bid!” and well, somehow from this seminar came a research proposal involving seven people, including myself, Rebecca, Matthew, Henry and Leslie, and it’s currently under review after making it to the second round of the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant competition, so I guess we shall see what a great fire a little matter may yet kindle; I’m still quite excited about the prospects it raises. But whatever comes of it, Matthew started it, by giving this excellent paper to an audience who thought of useful questions, and that is really how all this is supposed to work, isn’t it?

Divers over an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Sicily

Who knows what we may find? Though I at least won’t have to get wet for my portion of the material if it all comes together… This is a recent excavation off the coast of Sicily of a ‘2,000-year-old ship’ about which I can tell you no more, but it’s a good image to close with!


1. And indeed he has published on it: see M. Harpster, “Designing the 9th-Century-AD Vessel from Bozburun, Turkey” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 38 (Oxford 2009), pp. 297-313, DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2009.00226.x.

2. See Harpster, “Shipwreck Identity, Methodology, and Nautical Archaeology” in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory Vol. 20 (Heidelberg 2013), pp. 588-622, DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9131-x.

3. A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 580 (Oxford 1992).

4. The vaunting is primarily to be found in Peregrine Horden & Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history (Oxford 2000), on which see Paolo Squatriti, “Mohammed, the Early Medieval Mediterranean, and Charlemagne” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2003), pp. 263-279, DOI: 10.1046/j.0963-9462.2002.00111.x.

Seminar CCXXVI: Ottoman professional network maintenance

Returning in somewhat subdued fashion to my seminar report backlog finds me still somewhat out of area, as you can probably tell from the title. My tenure in Birmingham as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts sort of ex officio made me welcome at the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the University, and that welcome was warm enough that I tried, when I could, to get along to the Ottoman papers as well as the Byzantine ones. So it was that on 29th January 2015 I was there to listen to Dr Christine Woodhead give a paper entitled, “Friends, Colleagues and Grand Vezirs: the Ottoman art of letter-writing”, and it had enough crossover with things I’m interested in that it seems worth a report.

Portrait of Islamic judge Azmizade Mustafa Efendi of Istanbul. d. 1631 The only portrait of our star, Azmizade Mustafa Efendi, that I can quickly dig up, and I have no idea of either provenance or date, so it could be very misleading but it sets us up, anyway, doesn’t it?

Dr Woodhead was working on a translation of the letter collection of one Azmizade Mustafa Efendi, a senior judge in Ottoman Istanbul who died in 1631, and she was running into many questions arising.1 Apparently Ottoman letter collections are not uncommonly preserved, but like early medieval ones they tend to have been preserved not for historical but for literary interests, as examples of writing to be imitated, making such minor details as date and addresses uninteresting to copy and thus they often have to be worked out from context, not always possible. It also means that the letters that are selected by preservation are highly stylised, often very poetical, fairly formulaic in terms of the emotions that they express or the occasions chosen on which to write (and thus, not least, quite hard to render into modern English that still sounds purposeful). Dr Woodhead argued that these are anyway very valuable sources for outlooks and worldviews, but even as she presented the questions that kept coming to the surface were more basic ones about to whom Azmizade was connected by these letters and when and why they were written.

Portrait of Azmizade Mustafa Haleti I really am struggling for images here but, here is another unprovenanced undated portrait that seems to be of the right man…

In particular, there is very little in the collection from after his appointment as qadi in 1614, either to him (much rarer in any case) or from him. Was this because having risen to a top spot the networks of grace and favour which had sustained him thus far were now less important, or was it just that that was when he became important enough for someone to compile his letters as examples (perhaps itself an expression of flattering attention by an underling), or even, did he just start a fresh volume at that point and we don’t have it or it hasn’t yet been found? Answering any of these questions is very hard to do from the collection itself, and so what one winds up wanting is other letter collections from his correspondents so that the missing voices in these exchanges can tell us something to condition and contextualise the literary posturing that is the first thing these letter collections were made to preserve. There were lots of other issues to explore here, such as the genuineness of the emotions expressed (and whether they are naturally filtered by the fact that letters were apparently mainly written to people long distant whom the writer hadn’t seen for ages, whereas a more jovial tone might have been used to a friend easier of access), but these seemed so familiar from what reading I’ve done about Carolingian and, actually, Byzantine letter collections that it was nice to be reminded that as we’ve suggested before sometimes the early modernists are really not facing anything very different from we medievalists, even in a world where all could be thought to have changed between the two periods.2


1. Setting up this post has let me come across C. Woodhead, “Circles of Correspondance: Ottoman letter-writing in the early seventeenth century” in Journal of Turkish Literature Vol. 4 (Syracuse 2007), pp. 53-68, online in preprint here, which suggests that perhaps not all of these were new questions to our speaker.

2. For my home period and area my stock references are Mary Garrison, “‘Send more socks’: on the mentality and the preservation context of medieval letters” in Marco Mostert (ed.), New Approaches to Medieval Communication, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 1 (Turnhout 1999), pp. 69-99 and Matthew Innes, “Practices of Property in the Carolingian Empire” in Jennifer Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions of in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 247-266, but really the wellspring for both of them and also cited by Dr Whitehead is Margaret Mullett, “Writing in Early Mediaeval Byzantium” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 156-185, which joins up the circle quite nicely I think.

Link

Entrevista a mi en Català

The seminar reports are catching up but reports on my other activity seem still to be mired in busy busy November 2014. At the very end of that month, I had the unusual honour of being interviewed for a Catalan history news website, a sort of recognition I’m very flattered to receive although I wish I could have given them a better photograph. Should you be interested, it’s here:

I should probably post the English, shouldn’t I? But I am writing this on a train to Birmingham to x-ray more coins and time and wi-fi are both scant, so I’ll wait to see if anyone wants it. Meanwhile, speaking of Birmingham, even while posting was sparse here I was still cropping up in other places on the Internet, not least the blog of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, as follows:

And then lastly, though I will write properly about All That Glitters soon I promise, even as Cross Country Trains carry me towards the next session, here is a snapshot about one of those we already did:

I have never been so twitterfied! Anyway, with that I must get back to what I am doing now, but here at least is some record of what I have been doing that you didn’t have before!