Wednesday, May 2, 2018


Anastassios Ch. Antonaras, Arts, Crafts and Trades in Ancient and Byzantine Thessaloniki: Archaeological, Literary and Epigraphic Evidence (edited by Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie and Leo Ruickbie). Byzanz zwischen Orient und Okzident, 2. Mainz: Verlag des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums, 2016. Pp. 268. ISBN 9783884672518. €48.00.

Reviewed by Franka Horvat (

Version at BMCR home site

Full text (open access)

Thessaloniki is often referred to as the "second city of the Byzantine Empire," because it was surpassed in size and wealth only by Constantinople. Although its preserved material evidence is, likewise, exceeded only by that of the Empire's capital, this paramount urban center continues to be largely underrepresented in international scholarship. Recent metro excavations have yielded a remarkable number of fresh discoveries, uncovering small finds as well as monuments both unknown and familiar from written sources, thus adding to the already rich corpus of antique and Byzantine works from the city. Arts, Crafts and Trades in Ancient and Byzantine Thessaloniki: Archaeological, Literary and Epigraphic Evidence is the first comprehensive study of these finds in English and the first work to set the stage for the study of the social history of the city through an interdisciplinary approach.

Antonaras aims to reconstruct artisanal production in Thessaloniki from its foundation in the fourth century BC to its capture by the Ottomans in 1430. The main body of the book, comprised of three chapters, contextualizes the finds in chronological succession. These chapters, covering the antique, the middle Byzantine, and late Byzantine periods, are organized thematically. Each of them begins with a discussion of the urban planning, fortifications, infrastructure, and organization of public, residential, religious, and economic spaces of Thessaloniki in the respective period. The author shows the gradual alteration of ancient structures to serve the purpose of the medieval city, when life was organized around the Church and the growing number of monasteries and ecclesiastical structures began to dominate the landscape and become the main centers of artistic activities. At the same time, artistic workshops moved from the abandoned necropoleis and the agora to the port, alongside the city's most vibrant street, the Via Regia/Leophoros, as well as to the area's surrounding monasteries. Antonaras's discussion of this change in distribution pattern is fascinating and contributes both to the conversation about the shift in patronage and to the increasing importance of long-distance trade in the city.

The sections in which the author explores workshops are exceptionally versatile in content. Antonaras examines workshops dedicated to lime, ceramic, textile, and glass production, metal and stone-working, bone and wood-carving, as well as mosaic and wall painting. He brings in familiar examples (most notably from the city's standing churches) and recently found objects of art and material culture — from luxurious metals, textiles, icons, and marble, to glass and ceramic vessels. The result is an overview of creative industries in the city that does not favor monumental art at the expense of minor arts and crafts, but rather employs both in the discussion of continuity and change in the urban development and economy.

The second portion of the book — comparable to the main body in length — is written in the form of a catalogue of 112 entries focusing on workshop sites unearthed by archaeological excavations. Their activities have been reconstructed based on whether the mode of production involved water or fire. Antonaras identifies tanneries, dyeworks, wine presses, water mills, lime kilns, and glass, metal, and ceramic production sites. These two larger categories are followed by a group of workshops identified by the nature of the finds as carved-bone, marble, and mosaic production sites. Each site is dated, described in detail, supported by photographs and drawings, and located on the map at the end of the volume. The catalogue and the main text are well integrated, and the former is clearly meant to supplement the latter. Objects discussed in the historical portion of the text are referred to in the catalogue entries whenever relevant, and the references are found in the footnotes.

By studying artistic production above and below ground, Antonaras traces the transformation of the urban landscape, social environment, and aesthetic preferences, as well as trade patterns, through changing political circumstances, alluding to the Braudelian concept of the longue durée, although the author himself never uses that term. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to contextualize the archaeological and artistic material through epigraphic, archival, and literary sources. His method is presentational and somewhat restrained, and it could almost be said that he allows the evidence to speak for itself. Given the current state of the site and the author's awareness that the salvage campaign is far from finished, this approach is a strength. It is a generous undertaking meant to draw attention to this critical, yet in many ways disregarded, area, which has so far been treated almost exclusively in Greek-language scholarship. The impressive scope of the book calls upon classical works of secondary literature, but with the perspective and benefits of modern technologies. Notably, this comprehensive study of the city's historical layout and structures, as well as small objects, supported by an excellent bibliography comprising virtually everything published on the diverse material, makes this volume the stepping stone for future research and offers ample possibilities for new scholarly perspectives. Antonaras makes this material accessible to scholarship as a handbook of arts and crafts in Thessaloniki, thus enabling anyone interested in the city to extract a number of topics and expand on them with the help of various theoretical frameworks. Equally, the meticulous organization and the coherent presentation with considerable visual aids make this publication an excellent textbook for any course focusing on the history of pre-modern Thessaloniki.

Rather than a book to read in one sitting, Arts, Crafts and Trades in Ancient and Byzantine Thessaloniki is a manual to consult repeatedly. It is a foundational study of the city's material culture, presenting the facts rather than trying to interpret or theorize them, with an intimate knowledge of the most current evidence. While this book is long overdue, it arrives at a moment when Thessaloniki is in the vanguard of scholarly attention, and as excavations continue to produce impressive results.

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