Online Review: Book

Kourion: Excavations in the Episcopal Precinct

Susan T. Stevens

115.1

By A.H.S. Megaw. With contributions by Richard Anderson, Susan Boyd, Helen Brown, Christine Kondoleon, Archibald Dunn, Michael F. Hendy, Geoffrey House, John Hayes, Rowena Loverance, D.M. Metcalf, Ino Michaelidou-Nicolau, Kenneth S. Painter, John Rosser, and Susan H. Young. Dumbarton Oaks Studies 38. Pp. xxv + 571, figs. 1,400. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C. 2008. $95. ISBN 978-0-88402-276-3 (cloth).

This handsome volume is the long-anticipated final report on the excavations in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s of the magnificent fifth- to seventh-century Episcopal precinct at Kourion (Cyprus), which included a basilica, a baptistery, an atrium to the north, and a western diakonikon and Episcopal palace. While many people played essential roles in rescuing the site from the vagaries of its archaeological and publication history (xvii–xxv), Megaw shaped, though did not live to see, the publication, which was a culmination of his many years of archaeological fieldwork and architectural restoration on Cyprus. His understanding of the history of the Episcopal complex at Kourion and the function of its buildings is based primarily on a masterful reconstruction of the site’s architectural evidence. The drawing by Anderson on the back cover (and frontispiece) of the volume—a bird’s-eye view of the reconstructed precinct in its latest active phase—brings Megaw’s reading to life and balances the lovely but austere cover photograph of the excavated site. Also included in the volume are three reconstructed cross-sections of some interiors of the buildings (figs. 1.G, 1.W.1, 1.W.2). The highlights of the Christian precinct include a surviving fragmentary figural mural mosaic in the northeast chapel (47–8, fig. 1.2, pl. 1.30a); the mother-of-pearl tesserae used in most ceiling mosaics instead of more costly gold leaf (e.g., 108, 140); the theatrical arrangement of its baptistery (107, fig. 1.W.2); extraordinary hydraulic arrangements (e.g., 125–26, 139–40), such as the provision of heated water to the baptismal font (108); gypsum floor slabs from the atrium (119); an elaborately designed and decorated diakonikon (fig. 1.N); and two mosaic quotations from the Psalms (385–86, pls. 11.5.i.39, 11.5.i.40). Among the more commonplace architectural decoration and assemblages of pottery, coins, glass, and small objects are extraordinary finds: a fountainhead decorated with Maltese crosses (218 [cat no. M.6], pl. 5.12); a gold ingot tucked into a wall of the Chrismarion (427–33, pl. 1.23.f); and an early eighth-century lead seal of Damianos, archbishop of Cyprus (539–40, fig. 17.7).

The site has a compelling history. A Late Roman secular basilica of tetrarchic date (Basilica 1) adjacent to Kourion’s forum was destroyed in the earthquake of 365, though its foundations shaped the new Christian cathedral built on top of it in the early fifth century (Basilica 2). The Christian precinct was expanded from the late fifth through the late sixth century and continued in use into the late seventh century, showing signs of rebuilding after the first Ummayad incursions. After another earthquake (before 685), the complex was cleared and quarried for spolia for use in the humbler, successor cathedral built nearby in Episkopi, a phase that lasted into the eighth century. One difficulty of reconstructing the site’s Christian history is the lack of specific dating evidence from coins. Only two coins in stratigraphic context provide general termini post quem for the construction of the Episcopal basilica and late modifications to its annexes (pp. 401–2), respectively: an issue of Honorius from 395–423 from the presbytery floor and a follis of Maurice from 597/8 found under the new mosaic of the diakonikon. By contrast, the dating evidence of pottery and coins for the mid to late seventh-century phases is comparatively abundant and specific.

The arrangement and balance of the volume demonstrate the author’s emphasis on the architecture and architectural decoration of the Christian precinct. Part 1 (chs. 1–4) comprises Megaw’s description of the excavated features of the Christian complex. Part 2 (chs. 5–7) consists of eruditely detailed studies of its architectural sculpture by House, its champlevé revetment by Boyd (including a useful appendix of all published second- to seventh-century material), and ecclesiastical furnishings by Loverance. The slender part 3 (chs. 8–10) consists of a brief but welcome discussion of the remains of the pre-Christian complex by Megaw, followed by analyses of a fourth-century mosaic floor by Kondoleon and three marble entablatures by House. Part 4 (chs. 11–19), which consists of specialists’ reports on miscellaneous finds from the excavations, is less of a grab bag than it sounds. Contributions—such as Michaelidou-Nicolau’s on inscriptions (ch. 11), Dunn’s on small finds (ch. 17), and Loverance’s on domestic utensils (ch. 18)—are appropriately placed here, because they are concerned mostly with assemblages of residual materials and scattered finds spanning the site’s history.

An opportunity has been lost to highlight the archaeologically important, latest phases of the site in a separate part of the book, modeled on part 3, introduced by the excavator’s summary of the constructed elements of these phases. Instead, studies that pertain mostly to material from sealed deposits representing the latest occupation (ca. 650) and the demolition and salvage phase (685–720 or later) have been included in part 4: Hendry’s and Brown’s discussions, respectively, of Late Roman to Early Byzantine (pp. 400–21) and Islamic coins (pp. 422–23); Hayes’ chapters on pottery and clay lamps (chs. 14, 15); and Young’s on glass (ch. 16). Thus, materials have been separated from their built contexts—the bread ovens, lime kilns, and workbenches in the atrium area discussed back in chapter 3 (121–23, 134–35).

Megaw’s dense excavation report is arranged by area—basilica (ch. 1), baptistery (ch. 2), and west end (ch. 3)—in excavation order. Almost all images associated with the report, including beautiful state plans (figs. 1.M, 1.N, 1.U1, 1.X) and informative photographs, are appended to chapter 1 (51–106) rather than being separated by chapter, and, while thoroughly cross-referenced to the pertinent text, the illustrations frustratingly do not follow
text order. Megaw’s most cogent and readable contribution is an interpretation of the Christian precinct in chapter 4, in which he explores its layout, structure, and decoration and explains how it was used by worshipers, offering comparanda from Cyprus and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. His detailed analysis of how each of the areas of the complex evolved to reflect their changing role in the drama of Christian ritual is elegant and persuasive. What is missing is a clear phasing of the complex as a whole that links related developments in different areas. Arranging chapter 4 in phase order, with simplified phase plans such as those of the pre-Christian complex (figs. 1.0.1, 1.0.2), would have more clearly distinguished chapter 4 from the preceding excavation report (chs. 1–3) and eliminated the need to repeat material from it. As it is, readers are left to wonder, for example, how each of the four phases of the presbytery (figs. 1.L.1–4) might have related chronologically and functionally to the numerous stages of the baptistery’s development. The excavator’s reticence—here and in his brief conclusions (555–62)—to use the technique of phasing on the Christian complex to compensate for the much-lamented lack of specific dating evidence for its stages of development leaves a missing link between his historical interpretation of the architecture and its fragile chronological frame.

Susan T. Stevens
Classics Department
Randolph College
Lynchburg, Virginia 24503
sstevens@randolphcollege.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1151.Stevens

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