Wednesday, December 10, 2008

13th-Century Church at Vasilitsi, Messenia

Nikos Kontogiannis' "Excavation of a 13th-Century Church near Vasilitsi, Southern Messenia," Hesperia 77 (2008), pp. 497-537, is a wonderful contibution to the archaeology of rural Greece. Yesterday, I discussed the historiographic significance of publication in the Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens; today, I want to discuss the article itself and what I found most interesting about the excavations.

The ruins of a church between village Vasilitsi and Selitza in Cape Akritas were excavated in 2000 by the 5th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities. Based on well-stratified numismatic evidence and destruction layers, the building is dated to the 13th century. The building is unglamorous in both its architecture and material contents, but that's precisely why it constitues an important project. It provides invaluable information about rural life in the medieval Peloponnese. Unlike more urban excavations (like Glarentza or Corinth), the site does not provide evidence of cultural interaction between Latin and Orthodox populations, a question that, since the mid-19th century, has dominated the study of the Morea. Some readers might protest that the site is not worth its 40-page report because the material culture is generic. But that is exactly what scholarship needs. As an excavation report, it documents all the evidence with great detail. Here, I will leave aside the importance of data as data and discuss my six favorite conclusions.

The building was founded on a slope, so part of its foundation lay directly on bedrock. The medieval settlements that I've been studying are also built directly on limestone outcroppings. A few years ago Mary Lee Coulson and I were pondering on how much evidence we actually have on Middle and Late Byzantine foundation trenches. At the time Coulson was trying to figure out the foundations of Merbaka, after the Archaeological Service had sunk a trench inside the building. Vasilitsi adds to the growing body of evidence showing that many Byzantine foundations had low footings, sometimes resting directly on hewn bedrock shelves.

The church floor was of beaten earth and mortar, nothing fancier. This is important because we have grown accustomed to expect opus sectile (in the fanciest case), stone slabs (we salivate over spolia), or at least ceramic tiles. As a result, excavators have dug through many Byzantine floors, thus losing crucial stratigraphic information. A dirt floor was perfectly fine for the Byzantine population.

The building has a unique typology of the cross-vaulted type. Byzantine architectural historians have relished plan typology, from Millet's "Mistra type" to Orlandos' pseudo-scientific A, B, C,... sub-1, 2, 3,... system. I am not a keen believer in typological determinism, nevertheless, the absence of a dome and the protruding vaulted transept above the nave make up a distinctive building volume (there are only eight such examples). The proposed 3D massing model by M. Michailidis is compelling. The church at Vasilitsi, moreover, contradicts current theories about the narthex, which also protrudes above the nave. Vaulted high transept and narthex provide much food for thought especially in the perennial question of Western influences (from Italy, Epeiros, or the Latin rulers).

The church at Vasilitsi shares some striking similarities with another building, Ayios Vasileios at Paniperi (also in Messenia). Kontogiannis here poses the compelling hypothesis for a common workshop. This is great stuff, especially since our knowledge of Byzantine ateliers is so miserable. Richard Krautheimer's landmark essay on medieval imitation opened up a whole set of inquiries. One of my favorites is the comparison between Hosios Loukas in Steiris and Agios Nikolaos of Kampia that Vasilis Marinis presented in the 1996 Byzantine Studies Conference at the University of Maryland.

Three burials were discovered at the church of Vasilitsi. Lilian Karali's osteological report is excellent. Kudos to the project; so rarely do church excavations analyze, let alone save, skeletal remains. For instance, we learn that the adult male of Burial 1 suffered from some metabolic disease (like anemia), may have experienced stress through starvation, and endured hard physical labor. The adult males of Burial 1 and 2 were interned outside the church, but adjacent to the north wall. This raises all kinds of questions about funerary practices, and the sacrality of rural churches. Even more intriguing is the burial of a young child (Burial 2) inside the naos. In my posting Byzantine Children Burials (August 24, 2008), I discussed new evidence for fetus burials from the Athenian Agora (excavated by Ann McCabe) and children burials in the narthex at Xironomi (studied by Paraskevi Tristsaroli). We can now add this child burial to the discussion. This is an incredibly rich subject that, I hope, someone picks up as a dissertation topic.

I am thrilled that Kontogiannis published two scaled photos of a roof tile (p. 519, fig. 21), making it only the fifth or sixth published roof tile from the medieval Peloponnese. The list includes a few tiles from Corinth (Charles K. Williams III), Eleian Pylos (John Coleman), Nichoria (John Rosser), and the Morea Project (Fred Cooper). Perhaps there is more; generally, it is rare for excavators to document their roof tiles, while most through it straight in their excavation dump. We lack good archaeological evidence on medieval roof tiles. In contrast to the Romanesque and Gothic roof tile in France or England, Greek archaeology has not worked out any typologies. In Pergamon, for example, we know that roof tiles changed dramatically in the 13th c. Vasilitsi's tile is a cover tile; it has a high ridge that differentiates it from earlier Byzantine tiles. As a student of Fred Cooper, I believe his theory of the diagnostic Frankish-period roof tile. Following Cooper's typology (inspired by Charles Williams' observations from Corinth), the Vasilitsi cover tile is great evidence for a Frankish type.

My shortlist of highlights from Vasilitsi, of course, follows my own biases and interests. I am sure that others will find plenty more to chew on, including the numismatic analysis by Alan Stahl (Princeton's Frankish-coin genius) and Julian Baker (Ashmolean). Baker has analyzed much of the new Frankish evidence from the Peloponnese, including Demetris Athanasoulis' excavations of Glarentza and Sheila Campbell's excavations of Zaraka. The pottery is also noteworthy.

In conclusion, Nikos Kontogiannis' article achieves a goal far more important than the data itself. It reassures an international reading audience that the Byzantine Ephorias in Greece are doing an incredible job, excavating sites properly, documenting them meticulously and publishing them in a timely fashion. If we hear anyone making derogatory remarks on the scientific quality of Greek archaeology, all we have to do is throw them a copy of Hesperia 77, no. 3, and hope it hurts.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States