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Lives in the Stones

Posted On October 25, 2018 | 10:07 am | by OstmannJ01 | Permalink
Mark Pawlowski surveys village remains to reveal Byzantine daily life

Mark Pawlowski, a PhD candidate in art history at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies. His recent research report, “Housing and the Village Landscape in the Byzantine Mani,” presented evidence for communal decisions, privacy, and hierarchy at Marathos, a medieval village in the southern Peloponnese.

Q&A with Mark Pawlowski

Describe your research at Marathos and how you are continuing it at Dumbarton Oaks.

My work began with surveying everything that was there: houses, walls, cisterns, outbuildings. I documented everything, partly due to the difficulties in discerning the phasing of the buildings, but also so I could see the development and growth of the village over time. The area is no longer occupied, so there are thorns, razor leaves, fallen walls, animal remains strewn about, and then a fighter jet that crashed into the mountains in the early 2000s, which made the buildings more unstable on the eastern side where it hit. Marathos is rough and difficult to access today, but that’s probably more a characterization of centuries of abandonment and not how it would have been while it was used.

I have the raw data, but I need to analyze and interpret it. My work takes a synthetic approach combining art, architecture, and archaeology, along with social and economic history, philology, and other aspects. It’s good to have a community where you can talk about your ideas. And not just with other Byzantinists, but also with Garden and Landscape scholars and Pre-Columbianists, as I’m dealing with issues of landscape and with heavily terraced areas that have similar issues to regions like the Andes. It’s very important to get that interdisciplinary perspective.


How does surveying the built landscape contribute to Byzantine studies?

Marathos is a village. Rural settlements would have made up the vast majority of settlements—and their occupants would have been the majority of the population—of the Byzantine empire. But most of what we know about Byzantium is from more elite materials or writings, which are never favorable to people living in the countryside, and likely inaccurate as well. So analyzing the built landscape is really one of the few ways to understand how people lived and what their daily life may have been like.

For example, we know from tax documents and other records that there were households that might have contained more than one nuclear family. This might have left a trace or record in the built environment, but you can’t excavate an entire village due to cost and issues determining the size of the area to excavate. The only way to really analyze an entire village is to go to a location like the Mani that has settlements made of stone, so there are remains. Surveying the built landscape is a way of supplementing or augmenting the written sources we have, but also of providing firsthand information about areas for which we have no written resources at all.


You mentioned finding evidence for both communal planning and individual construction. Discuss the relationship between public and private at Marathos.

We know the village has this interesting dichotomy of public versus private. It’s a coherent fiscal unit, so the entire village is responsible for the collective tax burden of the people in it. There is a clear communal nature. We’ve seen that also in court documents and inscriptions from churches, that the village is acting communally. At the same time, we know there are questions of privacy, and the family group is important. How this is reflected in the landscape is one of the questions I had.

To build these settlements—not only with the terracing, but to move the stones and construct the buildings in a way that provides access to communal resources, and to use the landscape intelligently so they were prepared for heavy rainfall or had a means of defense—requires a high level of planning and knowledge about the area. Nothing about Marathos indicates that it was chosen randomly or out of necessity. This isn’t a refuge. What we see is this megalithic construction in the Mani peninsula that changes at some point. By the time you get to the early modern period, there are small stones, lots of mortar, a greater spread of settlements. So my thought is that the use of smaller stones may be more indicative of construction by a single family who wouldn’t have the means to quarry, move, and place large stones.

At the same time, we see a size difference in some houses. If the community’s coming together to build these houses, clearly some people have greater resources or greater sway if they can make their house substantially larger than somebody else’s. It shows again this very interesting interplay between the public and private.