Online Review: Book

From Classical to Byzantine: Social Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Fortress at Isthmia, Greece

Eliya Ribak

111.3

By Nick Kardulias (BAR-IS 1412). Pp. ix + 245, figs. 50, tables 7, map 1. Archaeopress, Oxford 2005. £34. ISBN 1-84171-855-6 (paper).

This comprehensively researched and well-structured study is a valuable addition to the scholarly debate on the transition from the Classical to the Byzantine periods, and a welcome addition to archaeological knowledge of Greece in the Byzantine period.

The book begins with an extensive survey of theoretical perspectives of the problem of transition and collapse. It then proceeds to outline previous work on the historical archaeology of Greece. The author describes the field methods (surface collection and geophysics) used by this project to investigate the Early Byzantine fortress at Isthmia, and the site and its landscape context. He then discusses in detail the ongoing debate over the origins of the Byzantine period before presenting the survey data from the project and its analysis. The next two chapters discuss developments in Isthmia and the Aegean region more widely. Finally, appendices present data generated by the survey in meticulous detail.

The reviews of scholarly literature on both the site and the “Continuity Debate” are careful and informative, although, given the title (from which one is led to believe that this is not intended to be a conventional multiperiod site report but a period-specific study), one wonders what is the relevance of including prehistoric material without using it in any of the subsequent analysis.

The survey employed four geophysical methods (magnetometry, electrical resistivity, electrical soil resistance, and self potential), in addition to surface collection, but only theoretical problems associated with surface collection are discussed. The data produced by the different methods are shown plotted together, highlighting the correlations between these datasets, but such correspondences and other graphically presented data would have been enhanced by color presentation as in a number of other volumes by the same publisher.

It is surprising that two well-established survey methods—which may have been of considerable assistance in interpreting the geophysical surface collection data—were not used. Aerial photography and earthwork survey might have been of value in attempting to locate and interpret features inside the fortress, yet they are not mentioned.

The analysis of the Late Roman and Byzantine activity also presents some problems. While the attempt to estimate the size of the population of the fortress is creditable, knowing that his data may be incomplete, the author supplements the recorded data with estimates based on structures that he assumes existed and on studies of other fortresses.

The validity of the author’s attempt to employ “negative evidence” is also questionable: “The lack of some facilities, such as any recognizable ceramic kiln, suggests the garrison depended on local suppliers for certain items” (118). The fact that a kiln has not been found to date does not mean that such a kiln did not exist and may yet be found in other surveys or excavations, especially when one considers the technical difficulties reported by the author as attending the survey. Kardulias fails to address this possibility yet discusses the possibility of a yet-to-be-identified extramural kiln.

Despite problems attendant on the interpretation of the fieldwork, the author offers an interesting analysis of the period with which he is concerned. His argument, based on a range of archaeological sources from this and other sites, is that the transition from late antiquity to what he terms as the Early Byzantine period was continuous and did not represent a major break or crisis. Examining possible reasons for crisis, such as plague or invasion, and the indications for continuity, such as the persistence of administration, production, and exchange, he compares the site to other walled settlements in the Mediterranean that faced similar challenges. His explanation of a society changing from a Classical urban structure to a more militarized Byzantine culture is that of societal adjustment rather than a sudden break with longstanding traditions.

Eliya Ribak
Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies
The University of Reading
P.O. Box 216
Whiteknights
Reading RG6 6AA
United Kingdom
eliya_ribak@hotmail.com

Book Review of From Classical to Byzantine: Social Evolution in Late Antiquity and the Fortress at Isthmia, Greece, by Nick Kardulias
Reviewed by Eliya Ribak
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 111, Number 4 (July 2007), published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/515
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Ribak

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