Online Review: Book

Brickstamps of Constantinople

Ken Dark


By Jonathan Bardill (Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology). 2 vols. Vol. 1, Text. Pp. xl + 435, figs. 20, pls. 20, tables 27; vol. 2, Illustrations. Pls. 1,749. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2004. £326. ISBN 0-19-925522-9 (vol. 1); 0-19-925523-7 (vol. 2); 0-19-925524-5 (set, cloth).

The brickstamps discussed here were produced from the fourth century until the late sixth century, and largely (although not exclusively) used in and around the Byzantine capital city of Constantinople, modern Istanbul. As stamped bricks are one of the few parts of Byzantine buildings that might be assigned calendar dates, their testimony is of great potential significance to the architectural history of Byzantine Constantinople.

This work, while not a full corpus, is by far the most detailed and complete published catalogue and analysis of these brickstamps, and represents over a decade of effort by an author whose excellent knowledge of the building history of the Early Byzantine capital is demonstrated by the summary (28–39). Both volumes are produced to an admirably high standard, with clear monochrome illustrations and full academic apparatus. The work is obviously aimed at a scholarly audience, but the price of the two volumes will prove prohibitive to most readers.

As the second volume consists entirely of illustrations of brickstamps in the extensive catalogue (vol. 1, pt. 3, 155–403), this review will concentrate on the analytical part of the work (1:1–153). Bardill’s analysis is divided into two parts: part 1 (3–42) concerns the background and context of the study, while part 2 (45–153) presents a chronological analysis of the brickstamps and uses this and other evidence to date a series of Byzantine buildings in Istanbul. These are supported by a lengthy bibliography (xix–xl).

Part 1 details the history of the study of Constantinopolitan brickstamps and, for comparison, those of Rome, examining the manufacture and supply of bricks and the purpose of the stamps. This is followed by the summary of the history of construction in Early Byzantine Constantinople already mentioned.

Part 2 is based on a detailed and rigorous epigraphic and typological analysis, relating this to independently dateable sites (elaborated in pt. 3, 118–21). The analysis offers a convincing way to date individual brickstamps, which is then used to argue that both unstamped and stamped bricks may be dated more broadly by their size (102–6). These are important advances in the dating of Byzantine bricks and potentially of many Byzantine brick-built structures in Istanbul.

Part 2 also contains interesting contributions to debates about the dating of specific sites, including the Peristyle and Apsed Hall at the Great Palace (134–47), the Beyazıt churches (131–34), and the Church of St. Polyeuktos (111–16, 125–26). Among the other structures discussed, a large building on the north of Cemal Nadir Sokağı (72–5) has not previously been published in sufficient detail to allow interpretation. A few sketch plans, including one of this building (72, fig. 9), redrawn from the notes of Ernest Mamboury (who pioneered the systematic study of these brickstamps), are also published here for the first time (figs. 11–14, 79, 80, pl. 12), as are photographs of two little-known structures (pls. 18–20). The published location of the Beyazıt churches is corrected (131, fig. 17), and there is a discussion of the date of the brick-built drains in the city center (77–8). These are all valuable contributions to the archaeological study of Istanbul.

However, it would not be true in every case to say that Bardill dates these structures on the evidence of brickstamps alone. Rather, he uses brickstamps in conjunction with texts (e.g., 112, 115–16, 134), stratified pottery (e.g., 139–42), and the style of construction (52–3). Although the chronology of Byzantine pottery has become more secure in recent decades, few sites have securely stratified ceramics, and dating buildings by construction style frequently remains potentially open to major revision. Written evidence is sometimes so intertwined with chronologies suggested by brickstamps (e.g., 107–10, 125–26) that archaeological dating becomes vulnerable to revision in light of changes in historical interpretation, rather than being independently based on material evidence.

Most stamps used for structural dating here are on bricks found loose in rubble (50), or even for which the context is uncertain (e.g., 69). This necessitates an interpretative jump from the rubble to the structure, which—even if credible—is not a matter of fact but of interpretation (cf. 7). This method is extended to combine bricks probably derived from what might be contemporary neighboring structures (e.g., 74, 133), adding a further stage of interpretation. It might have been better to differentiate more strictly between dating based on in situ bricks, on associated rubble, and on rubble from adjacent structures presumed to be of identical date.

There are also frequent references to bricks being reused (e.g., 40–2, 90, 126, 151), and when the testimony of construction methods and brickstamps clash, it is the former that are credited on the grounds that the bricks were reused (e.g., 81, 130, 148–49). Elsewhere, reuse is used to explain conflicts between archaeological and historical dating (e.g., 147) and even the presence of brickstamps in what may be a dated eighth-century context at Hagia Eirene (102). But only a single paragraph is given to how to recognize reused brick, and the suggestion (50) that reused bricks will be chipped or broken or will retain visible traces of older mortar is perhaps more debatable than implied. We are not told if the bricks classified as reused all show these indications. Similarities in the size of stamped and unstamped bricks, as in the cistern on Divan Ali Sokağı (129–30), built of bricks that, it is claimed, have not been reused, could reflect the use of brick from a single demolished structure, as suggested elsewhere (e.g., 25). Because of this, the dating for structures advanced here is often more tenuous than it might at first appear.

Notwithstanding these points, this is an important contribution to the archaeological study of Byzantine Constantinople. Bardill has convincingly shown that many brickstamps may be dated and may be used to date changes in brick sizes even for unstamped bricks.

Ken Dark
Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies
University of Reading
P.O. Box 218
Reading RG6 6AA
United Kingdom

Book Review of Brickstamps of Constantinople, by Jonathan Bardill

Reviewed by Ken Dark

American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 2 (April 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1112.Dark

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