One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
What topic do you study?
I am a first year PhD student in Classical Archaeology at the University of British Columbia. I study Late Bronze Age (LBA) architecture, specifically looking at the building practices and masonry techniques of Late Bronze Age Cypriots. Currently, my attention is focused on a masonry style called ashlar, distinguished from other types of cut stone because of its rectilinear drafting. To be considered ashlar, blocks can be of any size, but at least their visible faces must have been worked toward a flat surface. Generally, ashlar blocks are made of sandstone, limestone, or gypsum. This masonry style was used around the Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age, becoming part of an aesthetic koine of monumentality. On Cyprus, as the systematic exploitation of copper gave rise to the island’s first cities, the use of ashlar become widespread.
Utilizing ashlar masonry in an economically intensifying Cyprus was a means of broadcasting elite identity and appropriation over resources on physical, visual, and experiential levels. Recent archaeological studies indeed acknowledge this connection between monumentality, hierarchy, and ashlar masonry, but their focus has largely centred on the elite individuals who commissioned and inhabited these buildings. Consequently, a gap in our understanding persists: who were the builders and masons that built these structures, and how might we imagine their communities?
What sources or data do you use?
I look at architectural remains of Late Bronze Age structures, such as ashlar blocks that survive on the landscape (a great deal have been removed and reused from antiquity onward). In LBA Cyprus, ashlar was predominantly used in walls, though it also appears as a structural component of door jambs, thresholds, and plinths, in capitals, columns and their bases, altars, and wells.
I am currently developing an architectural energetics project that will estimate the time and energy that was needed to construct ashlar buildings in Cyprus. These estimations will deduce energy input for every stage of the construction process, including the preparation of the construction site, quarrying the stones, their transportation to site, shaping them for use, and assembling them. Energetics studies have been conducted in other parts of the Mediterranean, namely in Crete and mainland Greece, but not yet been undertaken in Cyprus.
In obtaining energy estimates for ashlar buildings across the island, variations in ashlar style and use can be reconciled with labour input across geographic and diachronic scopes. This is to say, it will become clear which communities invested greater energy in ashlar building projects and how this might have changed through time. Additionally, this study will allow for a more robust comparison with ashlar buildings across the Mediterranean. Working with comparison in mind will allow me to effectively make sense of the nuanced relationship between energy costs, building monumentality, and the social repercussions of creating these structures.
In addition to deriving quantitative data from an architectural energetics study, I also consider qualitative features of ashlar and worked stone, such as stone selection and tool marks, and additionally am keeping a catalogue of masons’ marks that occasionally appear on the stones. Cypriot LBA ashlar has stylistic variation across the island, which some scholars see as a symptom of a regionalized sociopolitical structure. It is still unclear whether there was a central administrative center on Cyprus, perhaps at Enkomi, or if the island was home to multiple sociopolitical nuclei in different regions. Looking at variation (or similarity) in masonry style and technique might lend insight into the debate. Does each region have a distinct production process to indicate local stonemasons and crafts people? Or, on the other hand, is there enough similarity to suggest that a group of itinerant masons were trained and deployed by a central administration, traveling to each regional city to construct ashlar buildings?
How does your research shed light on real people in the past?
We are unavoidably bound to studying monumental structures because of their archaeological visibility; in fact, this endurance through time was a likely intention behind their construction. Despite this, I aim to draw attention away from the elite groups that occupied these ashlar structures, and toward those responsible for their creation. Focusing on the craftspeople and masons who built these structures can shed light on previously unexplored aspects of community and identity in ancient Cyprus. For example, we might approach a group of masons working on the temples at Kition as a community of practice, transferring knowledge, crafting a sense of identity, and carving out (literally) a role in the larger social worlds of Kition, and Cyprus.
To better understand real people in the past, I will conduct experimental archaeology as a part of my energetics study. This will entail trying to cut limestone, using tools similar to those LBA Cypriots would have used, with the help of modern-day stonemasons. Despite the chronological separation between ancient and contemporary techniques, speaking with contemporary craftspeople and observing their work will help me to better understand practices and techniques in the past.
Our understanding of craft and labour is inextricably tied to Western capitalism, which purports that “bigger is better.” Thus I hope to reconcile archaeology’s focus on monumentality and elitism as a consequence of archaeological visibility with a critical examination of capitalist projections onto the past.
Brysbaert, A., Klinkenberg V., Garcia-M. A.G., and Vikatou I. (eds) 2018. Constructing Monuments, Perceiving Monumentality and the Economics of Building: Theoretical and Methodological Approaches to the Built Environment (Leiden).
Devolder, M. 2017. ‘Architectural energetics and Late Bronze Age Cretan architecture: measuring the scale of Minoan building projects’, in Q. Letesson and C. Knappett (eds), Minoan Architecture and Urbanism: New Perspectives on an Ancient Built Environment, 57–79 (Oxford).
Devolder, M. 2016. ‘Architectural Energetics and Cretan Bronze Age Architecture’, Youtube Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzcBPLVVUlM
Fisher, K. D. 2020. ‘The materiality of ashlar masonry on Late Bronze Age Cyprus’, in M. Devolder & I. Kreimerman (eds), Ashlar: Exploring the Materiality of Cut-Stone Masonry in the Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age (Louvain-la-Neuve), 307–339.
Hult, G. 1983. Bronze Age Ashlar Masonry in the Eastern Mediterranean: Cyprus, Ugarit and Neighbouring Regions (SIMA 66; Göteborg).
McCurdy, L., and Abrams, E.M. (eds.) 2019. Architectural Energetics in Archaeology: Analytical Expansions and Global Explorations (London and New York).
Caroline Barnes is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. She received her MA also from UBC, and her BA from Bates College. Caroline is interested in how communities and social worlds are manifested and maintained not only within the built environment, but in process of building that environment. She has excavated in Cyprus and Alaska.