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Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 25742579

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Saints and Sinners: a tephrochronology for Late Antique landscape change

in Epirus from the eruptive history of Lipari, Aeolian Islands
David Bescoby*, Jennifer Barclay, Julian Andrews
Institute of World Archaeology, University of East Anglia, 64a The Close, Norwich NR1 4DH, United Kingdom

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Assessing the impact of past human activity on landscape change in the Mediterranean has always
Received 31 January 2008 presented challenges, requiring sound chronological frameworks for observed environmental change.
Received in revised form 1 April 2008 The current research, focused on the environs surrounding the ancient city of Butrint (southern Albania)
Accepted 21 April 2008
during Late Antiquity, c. 4th6th Century AD, establishes a tephra-based chronology for landscape
change through the discovery of ash horizons from a little known eruption on the island of Lipari
(Aeolian Islands). Recovered glass shards were geochemically ngerprinted to a 6th Century AD event on
the island, dated through local archaeological sequences and corroborated by hagiographic evidence. The
Late Antiquity
presence of this marker horizon at Butrint shows a continuation of open water, estuarine conditions
Lipari throughout Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period (during which time Butrint ceases to function as
Tephrochronology an urban centre), disproving the widely held notion of increased soil erosion/deposition as a result of
Landscape change post-Roman landscape degradation. The study also shows that it is following the medieval revival of the
town in the 13th Century that marked environmental change takes place, as estuarine areas silt, giving
rise to marsh and wetland. The study highlights the importance of using a range of dating techniques to
constrain landscape change, while the presence of the 6th Century Lipari tephra in Epirus, derived from
an eruptive event larger than previously suspected, provides a useful regional dating marker for future
landscape studies.
2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction socio-economic history of the Epirot town of Butrint (Buthrotum)

during Late Antiquity.
The relationship between changing Mediterranean landscapes The abandoned ancient and medieval port of Butrint is located
and human activity in antiquity has long been the focus of debate slightly inland of the eastern shore of the straits of Corfu along the
among historians and archaeologists, with particular emphasis Ionian coastline of modern Albania. The town occupies a low
upon the cause and consequences of alluvial sedimentation within limestone promontory, which at one time jutted out into a large
valleys and coastal areas (e.g. van Andel and Zangger, 1990; Vita- coastal embayment (see Fig. 1). Showing a succession of landscape
Finzi, 1969). While universal and synchronous alluvial events are change typical in the Mediterranean, continued alluvial sedi-
now largely discounted (Brown and Ellis, 1995), the idea of a dra- mentation over the past three millennia has led to the formation
matic post-Roman decline featuring widespread episodes of soil of a large coastal plain to the south of the city, pushing the
erosion and deposition has persisted, although such episodes are coastline westwards by over 2 km. By the end of the Late Antique
rarely well dated. To adequately assess the relationship between period, in common with many late Roman settlements, rapid
settlement, regional economies and landscape change, it is rst urban transformation at Butrint culminated in the apparent ces-
necessary to constrain observed landscape changes within tight sation of town life by the late 6th and 7th Centuries (see Hodges
chronological frameworks that relate to the human timescales of et al., 1997).
historical and archaeological data. The current research aims to
establish such a chronological framework to assess the possible
impact of post classical environmental change in shaping the 2. Dating techniques

Several scientic dating techniques are potentially applicable to

the types of sediment recovered during environmental
* Corresponding author. Tel.: 44 1603 615 392. investigations, including radiocarbon dating for organic rich de-
E-mail address: (D. Bescoby). posits and archaeomagnetic dating for uvially derived sediments

0305-4403/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
D. Bescoby et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 25742579 2575

Fig. 1. Site location maps of ancient Butrint in southern Albania, showing the position of the environmental core transect. Regional map shows location of the island of Lipari in
relation to Butrint.

(see Hounslow and Chepstow-Lusty, 2002 for archaeomagnetic near absolute dates within stratied sedimentary sequences, over
dating at Butrint). However, both methods, applied independently, large geographical areas.
generally lack the high level of precision required to condently
place observed sedimentary sequences within a timeframe of 3. Research methodology
decades rather than centuries.
The current research attempts to achieve a greater level of To examine the sedimentary sequence surrounding Butrint for
precision by exploiting the volcanological history of the region, and tephra deposits, a hand-augered transect was undertaken through
establishing a chronology for landscape change based on volcanic sediments forming the alluvial oodplain to the south of the main
ash (tephra) fallout. Deposited tephra fragments, forming strati- settlement (see Fig. 1). Samples for analyses were taken from
graphic isochronous markers within deposited sediments, can be a master core at 5 cm intervals and examined for tephra fragments.
characterised geochemically and correlated with their eruptive Identied tephra were then characterised geochemically and their
source (Narcisi and Vezzoli, 1999). In the Central Mediterranean, geochemical prole compared with that of pyroclastic products
many volcanic eruptions occurring during the past ve millennia from volcanic systems along the Tyrrhenian coast of central-
are well documented in historical sources and can be accurately southern Italy the most likely source given the prevailing wind
dated. Well provenanced tephra horizons can therefore provide direction and proximity to Butrint (Fig. 1).
2576 D. Bescoby et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 25742579

4. Environmental change at Butrint microscopy. Samples were initially processed to remove organic
matter, biogenic silica and carbonates following the chemical pro-
A study of environmental and geomorphological change at cedures outlined by Rose et al. (1996), thus concentrating any
Butrint has been previously undertaken by Lane (2001), doc- tephra present. The processed sediment was then sieved to retain
umenting a late Holocene succession from open coastal embay- material within the 20120 mm size range and examined for tephra
ment through to extensive oodplain formation. A further shards using a mineralogical microscope under cross polarised
geoarchaeological consideration of alluvial sediments forming the light. Individual samples found to contain tephra were then
margins of the Vrina plain has been undertaken by Bescoby (2007). reprocessed to separate and concentrate the glass component using
The basic sequence of changing environmental conditions is non-chemical methods based on heavy liquid oatation, thus
revealed through deposits recorded in the cores taken during the avoiding any chemical alteration of the glass (see Blockley et al.,
current study (shown in Fig. 2). The basal deposits indicate an open 2005; Turney, 1998).
water, marine dominated sedimentary regime, while midway up the Two horizons of tephra were identied within the sequence
sequence a Phragmites spp. rich peat layer indicates a signicant (Samples 29 and 42); their stratigraphic position in the sedimen-
transition to a more stable wetland environment, followed by tary sequence being indicated in Fig. 2. Sample 29 contained the
a wetter, marshy phase before the extensive deposition of terrestri- highest concentration of volcanic glass shards (525 gDM1), while
ally derived alluvium. This transition from open water estuarine shards identied in Sample 42 were considerably less concentrated
conditions through to swamp and wetland marshes and nally to (240 gDM1). Shards from Sample 29 are angular and highly ve-
alluvial oodplain is a common feature of Mediterranean coastal sicular, with elongated vesicules which are generally circular in
landscape histories. The effects of this sequence on settlement, cross section, while those from Sample 42 are also angular, al-
especially in relation to receding shorelines and loss of harbours and though generally less vesiculated. A Scanning Electron Microscope
deep water anchorages, are famously illustrated in the Gulf of (SEM) image of a typical vesicular glass shard from Sample 29 is
Ephesus and at ancient Troy, Anatolia (Eisma, 1978; Kraft and Rapp, shown in Fig. 3.
1980). It should be noted that some signicant environmental events,
such as movements during seismic episodes as well as more gradual 6. Analytical results
changes in levels as a result of tectonic instability, are less easily
identied within the type of environmental data being considered, The major element geochemistry of identied glass shards were
although they are usually visible in the archaeological record. quantied using a Cameca SX 100 wavelength dispersive electron
To help to constrain the chronology at Butrint, suitable organic microprobe (EMP) at the Tephra Analytical Unit (TAU), University of
material from the horizon of Phragmites peat was radiocarbon Edinburgh. All analyses were performed with a 20 kV accelerator
dated, giving a calibrated age of 12701320 AD or 13501390 AD voltage and a 4 nA beam current. Analytical conditions were opti-
(OxA-15101); the two possible dates resulting from distortions in mised to minimise alkaline metal migration; a common problem
the calibration curve. The dates provide a useful upper constraint of with tephra glasses (Hunt and Hill, 1996). X-ray lines were cali-
the sedimentary sequence, although the uncertainty of the radio- brated using a combination of well characterised natural minerals,
carbon dating illustrates the potential weakness of this technique simple synthetic oxides and pure metals.
for establishing a high resolution chronology. Results for the analysis of 10 shards from Sample 29 are shown
in Table 1. Shards from this sample were found to have high silica
5. Identifying tephra levels and an overall rhyolitic composition. Differences in the ana-
lytical totals from 100 weight percent are likely to reect the
The sequence of recovered sediment samples were examined magmatic water content of the glass and post-depositional hydra-
for micro (crypto-) tephra fragments of volcanic grass using optical tion effects. To allow comparisons with published geochemical data

Fig. 2. Sedimentary sequence recorded through alluvial sediments immediately south of Butrint, showing identied tephra layers.
D. Bescoby et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 25742579 2577

7. The recent volcanic history of Lipari

The renewed volcanic activity at Mount Pilato dates from the

6th Century AD (see below) and led to the extrusion of high vis-
cosity lavas, both in the Forgia Vecchia crater in the vicinity of
Pirrera and from the Rocche Rosse crater to the north east (Cortesse
et al., 1986; Pichler, 1980; Sheridan et al., 1987). The eruptions led to
the entire island becoming covered with a ne white ash, including
the Greco-Roman necropolis near the town of Lipari (Bernabo Brea
et al., 1994; Cortesse et al., 1986; Keller, 1970). These ashes also
reached the island of Vulcano 12 km to the south, forming
a prominent marker within deposits comprising the Fossa cone;
overlying those from an earlier, 5th Century eruption on the island
(De Astis et al., 1997; Frazzetta et al., 1983; Keller, 1980) see Table
2. This renewed activity of Mount Pilato marked the end of a period
of quiescence that lasted at least 3500 years, evidenced by a 0.5 m
thick palaeosol horizon overlying the earlier Pomiciazzo obsidian
lava ow (11,400  1800 and 8600  1500 year BP) on the south
Fig. 3. SEM image of a vesicular tephra shard from Sample 29. Note the 20 mm scale eastern ank of Mount Pilato (Pichler, 1980).
bar. The exact timing of eruptive events in the Forgia Vecchia and
Rocche Rosse craters is unclear, although it appears that activity
cited below, averaged EMP data are normalised to 100 weight was not synchronous. The extrusion of the Forgia Vecchia lava
percent. Unfortunately, insufcient shards were detected in Sample occurred immediately after the climax of the Mount Pilato pumice
42 to derive a robust analysis. cone (Cortesse et al., 1986). Following a period of quiescence,
The distinctive geochemistry of the analysed shards excludes deduced from an erosional surface within the Mount Pilato crater,
the large volcanic centres such as Vesuvius and the Phlegraean renewed explosions further modify the cone before the extrusion of
elds for possible source eruptions, since their compositions are the Rocche Rosse lava ow, which breaks through the north-
considerably more alkaline in character. Pyroclastic products eastern rim of the crater (Cortesse et al., 1986).
derived from Mount Etna, which are generally basaltic, can also be
discounted. However, volcanological research within the Aeolian 8. Constructing a chronology
Archipelago north of Sicily has revealed historical eruptions asso-
ciated with the adjacent islands of Vulcano and Lipari that have Archaeological data from the island of Lipari indicate the
produced rhyolitic ejectiles of similar geochemical composition to renewed volcanic activity on Mount Pilato at the Forgia Vecchia
the tephra from Butrint. Geochemical data from recent eruptions crater began during the 6th Century. The primary evidence is the
on these two islands are given in Table 2. The often contiguous sealing with an ash layer of 4th and 5th Century deposits recorded
nature of volcanic events relates to the common tectonic regime principally at the Greco-Roman necropoli of Contrada Diana near
controlling the feeding systems of the main volcanic edice the town of Lipari, excavated by Luigi Bernabo Brea and Madeleine
(Sheridan et al., 1987). Cavalier from the 1940s (see Bernabo Brea et al., 1991, 1994).
A comparison of the major element geochemistry shows the
Butrint shards to be within 1 weight percent of the Lipari concen- 9. Hagiographical evidence
trations from the Forgia Vecchia and Rocche Rosse craters anking
Mount Pilato. A comparison of Fe2O3 and MgO concentrations, the A number of hagiographical sources allude to volcanic activity
only elementals to vary signicantly between the Forgia Vecchia within the Aeolian Island Chain at this time, the best known being
and Rocche Rosse craters, would indicate (assuming similar ana- the Dialogues of Gregory the Great (Dial. iv. 31) concerning the
lytical conditions), that the Butrint tephra is derived from the for- death and damnation of the Ostrogoth king, Theodoric (c. AD 526).
mer. An analysis of trace element geochemistries might further While considerable caution is needed when assessing such texts in
help to distinguish between eruptions, although data from Lipari terms of their authorship, chronology and authenticity, they can
are currently limited. nonetheless provide intriguing indirect evidence. Book Four of the

Table 1
Results of major element analysis on 10 glass shards from Sample 29

Element Sample (wt%) Normalised

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 X s
SiO2 73.84 71.90 71.08 73.70 71.71 73.88 71.33 74.10 73.80 73.51 72.88 1.16 74.89
TiO2 0.04 0.09 0.08 0.07 0.03 0.06 0.06 0.03 0.06 0.08 0.06 0.02 0.06
Al2O3 13.28 13.10 12.90 13.17 12.92 13.52 12.95 13.49 13.43 13.27 13.20 0.22 13.57
Fe2O3a 1.55 1.73 1.68 1.72 1.66 1.64 1.73 1.86 1.62 1.64 1.68 0.08 1.73
MgO 0.04 0.06 0.05 0.05 0.05 0.03 0.04 0.04 0.03 0.04 0.04 0.01 0.04
CaO 0.72 0.61 0.55 0.60 0.74 0.71 0.79 0.79 0.73 0.68 0.69 0.08 0.71
Na2O 4.09 3.54 3.92 3.23 3.61 4.07 3.62 3.96 3.91 3.82 3.78 0.26 3.88
K2O 4.86 4.96 4.94 5.10 4.96 4.93 4.98 4.75 4.68 4.93 4.91 0.11 5.04
MnO 0.09 0.05 0.08 0.00 0.07 0.05 0.08 0.12 0.13 0.09 0.08 0.03 0.08

Total 98.50 96.04 95.27 97.64 95.76 98.91 95.57 99.13 98.39 98.07 97.33 100.00
Measured Feo presented as Fe2O3 for comparative purpose.
2578 D. Bescoby et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 25742579

Table 2
Summary of major element analysis of samples from candidate eruption centres on the Aeolian Islands of Vulcano and Lipari

Element Vulcano (wt%) Lipari (wt%)

La Fossa Vulcanello Mt. Pilato

c. 2200 bp Palizzi c. 1600 bp Palizzi c. AD 729 Commenda Ash c. 183 BC Vulcanello c. AD 580 Forgia c. AD 720 Rocche
a Lava b Lava III Lava Vecchia Lavaa Rosse Lavab
SiO2 73.30 59.91 61.64 58.02 74.98 75.62
TiO2 0.13 0.64 0.62 0.64 0.09 0.09
Al2O3 13.34 17.44 17.22 18.38 13.09 13.33
Fe2O3 2.64 4.43 2.96 2.68 1.83 0.80
MgO 0.34 2.91 2.69 3.03 0.09 0.34
CaO 1.00 4.87 5.60 6.98 0.72 0.85
Na2O 4.28 4.04 3.96 5.81 4.18 3.77
K2O 4.87 5.62 5.17 4.31 4.95 5.19
MnO 0.11 0.14 0.14 0.15 0.07 0.00

Total 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00

Vulcano data from Gioncada et al. (2003).

All major elemental data cited are normalised to 100 wt%.
Lipari data from Crisci et al. (1991).
Lipari data from Pichler (1980).

Dialogues, which focuses on holy men, death and the after life, is extrusion of the Rocche Rosse obsidian lava ow on the island of
thought to have been written in AD 593 (de Vogue, 19781980); the Lipari, as suggested by Cortese et al. (1986) and Bernabo Brea and
raw material of the miracle-stories being transmitted to Gregory Kronig (19781979).
orally by informants (Petersen, 1984). The story of Theodoric
describes the vision of a hermit upon the island of Liparis, who 10. Late Antique landscape change at Butrint
informs travellers of the death of Theodoric, having witnessed the
king being thrown into hac vicina vulcani ([the crater of] this The identication of tephra from the 6th Century Lipari eruption
nearby volcano) by the pope and a patrician, for whose deaths within the sedimentary sequence surrounding Butrint provides
Theodoric was responsible. Within the context of the Dialogues, a valuable chronological marker during a period of marked urban
this passage refers to Gregory of Tours account of the death of transformation.
Theodoric (Glor. Mart. 40), which describes the emperor being cast
into the mouth of hell. 10.1. Late Antique Butrint
When considering the volcanicity of the area, this account seems
to corroborate the archaeological data for volcanic activity on Lipari It is during this period (c. Late 4th to Late 6th Century AD), in
during the 6th Century. Taking the dates for Theodorics death and common with many Late Antique towns within the region, that the
for the writing or the Dialogues at face value, it would probably not urban topography at Butrint undergoes a number of major changes,
be too unrealistic to suggest that the Forgia Vecchia eruption took culminating in a cessation of urban life. Public areas lose their
place within the 67 years between AD 526 and AD 593. monumentality from the 4th Century, with surplus resources
In relation to Gregorys account, the Anglo-Saxon cleric Wil- increasingly invested in the private sphere (Bowden, 2003) and in
libald, bishop of Eichstatt, is said to have visited Lipari, by now an the construction of a wall circuit along the shores of the Vivari
important place of pilgrimage, in AD 729 on his return from the Channel by the end of the 5th Century (Andrews et al., 2004, p.
Holy Land. According to his chronicler, Huneberc of Heidenheim 128). During the 6th Century, the urban topography is again altered
writing in the late 8th Century, Willibald, keen to visit the mouth of by the construction of a series of major Christian buildings and from
hell into which the Gothic king had been thrown, witnessed the late-6th Century, occupation of the lower walled town and
explosive activity: south of the channel declines dramatically. The continued existence
of settlement between the 7th and 9th Centuries has yet to be
.Willibald, who was inquisitive and eager to see without delay
demonstrated (Martin, 2004, p. 96).
what this Hell was like inside, wanted to climb to the top of the
Against this backdrop of rapid urban decline at the end of the
mountain underneath which the crater lay: but he was unable to
Late Antique period, the position of the Lipari tephra marker within
do so because the ashes of black tartar, which had risen to the
the depositional sequence (Fig. 2) indicates the prevalence of
edge of the crater, lay there in heaps: and like the snow which,
a marine/estuarine environment, which continues throughout the
when it drops from heaven with its falling masses of akes, heaps
Early Medieval period, with open water to the south and east of the
them up into mounds, the ashes lay piled in heaps on the top of
city. Furthermore, the recorded sequence indicates the average rate
the mountain and prevented Willibald from going any farther.
of sedimentation from the 6th Century to the onset of stable
All the same, he saw the black and terrible and fearful ame
Phragmites dominated wetland (dated to the 13th/14th Century), is
belching forth from the crater with a noise like rolling thunder:
between 1.6 and 2 mm/year; fairly typical of late Holocene
he gazed with awe on the enormous ames, and the moun-
deposition in this region. Although it should be remembered that
tainous clouds of smoke rising from below into the sky. And that
much sedimentation occurs as discrete storm or tectonically
pumice stone which writers speak of he saw issuing from the
induced events, there is no sedimentary evidence for any major
crater, thrown out with ames and cast into the sea, then washed
depositional episodes taking place within the immediate environ-
up again on the seashore by the tide, where men were collecting
ment during either Late Antique or the Early Medieval period.
it and carting it away.. (Huneberc of Heidenheim, Trans. C. H.
It is in fact during the late 13th and 14th Centuries, following the
Talbot, cited in Noble and Head (1995, p. 141)).
revival of urban life at Butrint once again under Byzantine control,
It is compelling to think that this description relates to the that a major change in the surrounding landscape is recorded; the
second phase of explosive activity at Mount Pilato preceding the immediate area becoming dominated by reed swamp and marsh
D. Bescoby et al. / Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (2008) 25742579 2579

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