Early Byzantine Pottery from a Building in Kenchreai

Back in August, I noted that the American Excavations at Kenchreai had developed its own website and digital archive for artifacts recovered from investigations of the last half century. I was pleased to see later in the fall the release of this preliminary report about an assemblage of late Roman /early Byzantine pottery found in a sea-side building excavated by the Greek Archaeological Service in 1976, stored for decades at the site of Isthmia, and now restudied over the last few years:

Here’s the abstract for the paper:

This paper presents the results of preliminary study of Early Byzantine pottery from a large building near the waterfront at Kenchreai in southern Greece. Kenchreai served as the eastern port of Corinth throughout antiquity. The building was first excavated in 1976 by the Greek Archaeological Service, and it has been investigated since 2014 by the American Excavations at Kenchreai with permission from the Ministry of Culture under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The pottery is characterized by the presence of many Late Roman Amphora 2 rims as well as stoppers and funnels. This indicates that the building had a role in the distribution of regional agricultural products during its final phase, which is dated to the very late sixth or early seventh centures A.D. by African Red-Slip and Phocaean Red-Slip tablewares. A wide range of lamps, glass vessels, and other small finds has also been recorded. Results to date are preliminary but ongoing work may allow further precision as to the chronology and use of this building.

The article describes the results of excavations located on the property of Mr. Threpsiades, which exposed a building with “multiple large rooms flanking wide halls and an ornate peristyle, all enclosed in a trapezoidal arrangement.” Although the identification of the function of the building is uncertain (a villa of Middle or Late Roman construction is the best guess at this point), the building’s late phase is clear: an enormous quantity of pottery date the building to later 6th to early 7th centuries AD (the investigators believe the latest phase dates between about 580 and 600). The quantity is large even by ceramicist standards: the authors have so far processed 93 crates and 50,000 sherds, and that is not all of it. There are late forms of African Red Slip and Phocaean Red Slip table wares, some glass, and a substantial corpus of amphora fragments, mostly Late Roman 2 sherds, which are, as I have noted before, the most common kind of LR amphora documented on the Isthmus  The team has also documented many amphora stoppers and even a few ceramic funnels that would have been useful for moving liquids (like olive oil) between containers. The authors interpret the LR2 amphoras (which come in two different sizes) and the presence of stoppers and funnels as evidence for the movement of liquids between contains at Kenchreai and export in the late 6th century. As Heath et al. conclude,

“The Threpsiades complex provides rich evidence for local, if fleeting, prosperity and connectivity to an economic network. In this regard, the building’s situation so close to the waterfront is significant: it would have had direct or near direct access to maritime traffic, even if the structure was in partial ruin during its final years. It also must have been close to the main road heading inland toward Corinth. The Early Byzantine pottery kept inside such an advantageously located building illustrates a nexus of two-way trade, and it may capture a moment or trace a sequence in the decline of that trade. We suspect that many of the LRA2s, particularly the large ones, were destined to be shipped out from Kenchreai, perhaps containing Corinthian commodities.”

It’s interesting to consider that LR2 amphoras, which are in production for over two centuries, may differently reflect patterns of import and export within the same region. Bill Caraher and I have recently argued in this forthcoming volume that the abundance of LR2 amphoras in the fifth and sixth centuries point to patterns of supply associated with major state presence in the region: Theodosius II in the early 5th century and Justinian in the 6th. Of course, it’s also possible that amphoras arriving with one product were refilled and exported with another from Kenchreai.

What’s valuable about this preliminary report is its detailed case study of a thriving sea-side building and its ceramics that date to a time usually associated in peoples’ minds with disruption and invasion (the Slavs). It provides yet one more study that suggests the region did not suddenly end in 585 AD. The quantification of ceramics on this level (tens of thousands of sherds) is also valuable because such studies have been uncommon outside of Corinth (Scott Moore’s dissertation chapter quantifying the Roman pottery from the pottery dump at Isthmia is one exception); it will provide an excellent point of comparison with studies at Corinth. For those who have interest in neither late antiquity or ceramics, the article contains lot of interesting figures. Looking forward to seeing more information about this project as it develops.

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