Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Corinthian Matters

Corinthian Matters

A Little More on Some Byzantine Pottery from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey
by Bill Caraher November 9, 2011

David Pettegrew and I continue to analyze the Byzantine pottery from the Eastern Corinthia Survey for a short discussion of intensive survey and Byzantine archaeology (see also: Sampling the Byzantine Landscape and Corinth's Byzantine Countryside). This past week, I did a RBHS (Rim, Base, Handle, Sherd) analysis of the Byzantine sherds from the survey assemblage.  This amounts to looking at the number of rims, handles, bases, and body sherds in the assemblage collected from the survey area. In excavation RBHS analyses often contributes to determine how many complete vessels may have existed in a particular space. In survey, however, the purpose of this kind of analysis is more frequently to detect biases in a project's sampling strategy. If a project, for example, only collects rims or handles of certain types of vessels, it would suggest that they were not able to identify and collect body sherds effectively in survey units.  The opposite can be true as well: vessels with easy to identify surface treatments are easier to identify as body sherds. Since there tend to be more body sherds than rims, bases, or handles, artifact types with easy to identify body sherds tend to be more visible in the landscape and this can, as Pettegrew has shown (pdf), create problematic perspectives on the function and chronology of human activity in the landscape.

This analysis showed that 53% of the pottery of Byzantine date was body sherds. Rims, bases, and handles, accounted for between 18% and 13%.  The large number of body sherds assigned Byzantine dates led me to look more closely at these artifacts to determine whether we were more effective in identifying particular types of pottery than others.  The vast majority of these body sherds were fine and medium course wares.

This complements the result that the vast majority of sherds were either fine or medium coarse wares. 40% of the finds were medium coarse "utility" wares and 45% of the artifacts were fine wares. Of the fine wares, almost all (88%) preserved some glaze, paint, or slip that would have appeared visually distinct both to field walkers and to our ceramicists.  43% of all the fine ware collected were glazed body sherds.  Guy Sanders has suggested that the fragility of some slips on Byzantine wares, in fact, contributed to their invisibility in the landscape.

The 40% of the Byzantine material identified as medium coarse ware from the survey.  The most common types found were rather generic body sherds in assigned a Byzantine date on the basis of their fabrics (52%) or surface treatment. Half of the medium coarse ware body sherds had grooves, combing, or other distinctive surface treatments. The other medium coarse utility wares identified by the survey stood out because of diagnostic handles from vessels like Late Medieval Smyrna Jar Amphora, smaller water jars and the body and rim sherds of later glazed utility wares.  Semi-fine wares, amphoras, and kitchen/cooking wares were unusual and coarse wares absent entirely. The absence of these types of pottery likely demonstrates the limits of our knowledge of Byzantine local wares rather than evidence for strangely depleted use assemblages in the Corinthian countryside. Coarse local utility and kitchen wares and undiagnostic amphora sherds are particularly difficult to identify without stratigraphy.

What our analysis tells us is that we were successful in identifying fine and medium coarse wares on the basis of their surface treatments and to some extent the fabrics.  This, of course does not tell us much about the artifacts that we did not identify in the landscape, but it indicates we were able to sample at least some artifacts on the basis of fabric alone rather than just as a result of shape, glaze, or surface treatments.  Our ability to recognize diverse types of Byzantine pottery on the surface has created a landscape populated with a diverse assemblage of Byzantine pottery representing a wide range of past activities that took place in the Byzantine countryside.

Cross-posted to New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World.