Paul Reynolds and a new Classical Archaeology


Classical archaeology is now in a well-advanced revolution. With time, this will upend age-old notions of the Greeks and Romans, as well as their myths. Writers ranging from Shakespeare to Nobel prize winners have taken their ancient bearings from the Classical authors. Generations of archaeologists have followed suit. Descriptions by a Cicero or a Pliny have shaped how Classical archaeologists have operated and interpreted ruins. Simply put, the archaeologist’s prime job was to pursue objectives defined initially by the German Enlightenment scholar Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768). Identifying artistic genres and artists lay at the heart of his thesis. Winckelmann was to cast a long shadow, as archaeologists excavated monuments for treasures in the belief that everything about ancient life was already known other than these marvels.

Pottery sorting in full swing in Beirut in 2000. In the hands of Paul Reynolds, such seemingly nondescript sherds speak volumes about trade in the Classical world. IMAGE: Hans Curvers.

In the early 1970s, this all changed forever. Archaeologists everywhere began to appreciate that all manner of new information could be discovered about the past. Even the Greeks and Romans might be reinvented. Of all the great books on archaeology published in this period, up there with the most canonical is surely John Hayes’s Late Roman Pottery (1972). No one would claim this was a gripping read like, for example, the near contemporary – and no less groundbreaking – The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown. But Hayes’s book sent ripples around the Mediterranean and beyond. Now, thanks to Paul Reynolds, these ripples have become waves.

John Hayes had studied at Cambridge University and joined the Royal Ontario Museum as a curator in 1968, where – with support from John Ward Perkins, Director of the British School at Rome – he wrote his opus magnum. Why is this book so important? Simple, really: the typologies, dating, and sources of the most common types of traded fine wares on Mediterranean sites, from North Africa, the Levant, and Asia Minor, were sorted out after decades of confusion and, even more significant, these now provided a whole new dating framework for the archaeology of the 5th to 7th centuries. The world of the eastern Roman and early Byzantine Mediterranean also came into new focus, as Hayes had personally processed pottery from key excavations at Istanbul, Athens, Corinth, Chios, and Tocra inter alia. No less important, these type fossils enabled archaeologists to date and thus interpret plough-soil sites found in field surveys, such as John Ward Perkins’ celebrated South Etruria Survey in the rolling hills north of Rome.

John Hayes in 2004. His study of late Roman pottery revolutionised knowledge of the fine wares found at Mediterranean sites.

Hayes cracked the ceiling. No archaeologist working in the Mediterranean could afford to ignore his book. Reynolds – Hayes’s dauphin, as I like to refer to him – put the same order into the vast tonnage of Classical pottery: into dating, and – more importantly – understanding the production and maritime trade of Mediterranean amphorae and cooking wares. More than any other person, Paul has magnified and extended John Hayes’s work of technical genius, so that it touches all parts of the Mediterranean from Beirut to Vigo, from the Black Sea and middle Nile to Cornwall.

The dauphin

Paul, like John Hayes before him, has never become a professor of this or that, weighed down by quotidian bureaucracy and the semester system. Instead, for more than four decades, he has applied himself to the processing and publication of mounds of pottery from critical archaeological sites. He is a Mediterranean archaeologist par excellence: someone formed by the discipline of working in wretched stores accompanied by dust and rats. It calls for long hours and many weeks, usually in suffocating heat. A devotee to his skill, he draws sheafs of pottery forms with the discerning eye of a master, then crafts long reports that become the cornerstone of our new comprehension of the Classical Age.

Paul Reynolds at the Butrint dig house, c.2003. IMAGE: Sally.

Paul is, I must admit, and again like John Hayes, a one-off. I realised in an instant on meeting him that this was no ordinary archaeologist. Dishevelled by day, shifting crates and rifling through piles of potsherds, he is tidily dressed by night when, over dinner, you learn not just how a Late Roman amphora or cooking pot can now be traced to some glorious spot in the Aegean or the wilds of Cilicia; as the local vintage takes hold, he’ll talk of 18th-century antiques, of painting, of playing the violin, and of his parts in art films when he was penniless and unemployed in London. As he talks, he brings to mind one of those eccentric yet sympathetic characters that fill Lawrence Durrell’s travelogues as he, like Paul has done, resided first in one Mediterranean port then another, ingesting their colours and sensations.

Paul grew up in the Lincolnshire Fens. From an early age, he was transfixed by archaeology. Like many seven-year-olds in the 1960s, the Egyptians and their hieroglyphs held him in thrall in the British Museum and the Louvre. He saved his pennies to buy Ladybird books on Roman Britain, Cleopatra, and Alexander the Great, did his best to fill in his I-Spy Archaeology book on museum visits, and read the magical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff on post-Roman Britain and Henry Treece on Bronze Age Greece and the Vikings.

Paul grew up in Lincolnshire, before spending two years in Spain. Here he is in Lincoln in 1994, dressed as a Roman legionary.

Then two years living in Spain, first in Madrid then Valencia, changed him. Having learnt Spanish and French, he returned to Lincolnshire with a polyglot appreciation of other cultures. A loner, he started participating in local archaeological projects: the Loveden Hill Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Lincoln Roman colonia excavations, and Sapperton Roman villa. At each, this shy country teenager was put on pot-washing duty, and stuck to it just to feel closer to those worlds of the past.

He applied to the Institute of Archaeology in London to do a degree, but, being too young, took a year out. Amazingly, and thanks to his interviewer and future mentor at the Institute, Richard Reece, he switched rural Lincolnshire for the huge UNESCO-sponsored excavations at Carthage in 1976. The kindly director put him in charge of part of Area F but, by his own account, it proved too traumatic for Paul. Never again was he to try his hand at digging. Here, though, he heard the new generation of Italian Classical archaeologists, in the fabled court of their dig director Andrea Carandini, talking about Roman pottery for the first time, and met John Hayes in fine, eccentric form, as he excitedly pulled sherds of Justinianic African Red Slip Ware from a wheelbarrow of recently excavated deposits on Carthage’s Circular Harbour.

Paul at an Institute of Archaeology party in 1978. His distinctive punk-rocker look raised eyebrows in Gordon Square.

In 1977, fresh from his Tunisian venture and a somewhat risky trip for a 17-year-old in eastern Algeria (Constantine, Lambaesis, Timgad, and Djémila), he arrived at the Institute in rebellious mood. Paul chuckles at the thought of it when he tells you about those years. The Lincolnshire lad with the languages morphed into an authentic punk rocker. Apart from the tartan ‘bondage trousers’, there were the safety pins, chains, and spiky hair that turned heads in Gordon Square. John Wilkes, the Director of the Institute of Archaeology at the time, a gentle and eminently generous soul, instinctively grasped Paul’s real merits despite the rebellious garb, and there was never any doubt he would set off on a career in archaeology. Indeed, his second-year dissertation was a pioneer piece of fieldwork photographing and mapping the Roman irrigation works that watered the Roman centuriation and villas of Valencia. Back there in 1980, he slogged his way through crates of stored Roman pottery – with Hayes’s newly minted book at hand – for an essay on African Red Slip Ware that he ultimately published. He then returned to Spain to work on his PhD, to Alicante this time, surveying sites, drawing pots, and creating new typologies for the region while looking for evidence of the Byzantine reconquest.

Meanwhile, when in England, stints as a painter and acting in Derek Jarman’s films paid bills, but became distractions to a mind firmly set on understanding Roman pottery. For the record, first off was The Angelic Conversation, a 1985 arthouse drama in which Judi Dench reads Shakespeare sonnets over lingering imagery. The following year came Caravaggio, with the up-and-coming Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton. As a career track, while Paul wrestled with a ballooning PhD on the meaning of Alicante’s later Roman pottery at the Institute, it was unusual.

Acting in Derek Jarman’s films was an unconventional way to pay the bills. Here we see Jarman filming Paul in The Last of England (above) and a still from Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation (below). IMAGES: Paul Reynolds courtesy: BFI; Mike Laye.

With a PhD under his belt and more years of unemployment – these being lean years in British archaeology – Paul accepted a chance to return to the Mediterranean at Beirut. Here, after the bitter civil war, there was an international effort to excavate the archaeology beneath the souks of the central district, once one of the Mediterranean’s spiritual gems. Colossal excavations led by the then London Museum unit working with the American University of Beirut unearthed a fabulous archaeological sequence ranging from the Persian period to the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. Mountains of pottery, of course, were unearthed. Publishing it was and remains Paul’s enduring life’s work, such is its exceptional importance. For ten years Paul was in Beirut before winning an ICREA research professorial position at the University of Barcelona, where he has been since 2006.

The astonishing thing about Paul is his photographic memory. I recall he once joined a Roman sherd from Butrint with a piece from the maritime villa at Diaporit, three miles away. Add to this his Hayes-like diligence and focus. Invariably up early, in a systematic way he ploughs through stacked crates of stratified groups, sorting and laying out table after table of pottery, spot-dating what has just emerged from site during lunchtime, then assiduously cataloguing sherds, bashing the new data into the laptop as he does. Supreme patience and dedication are required to turn the heaps of sherds into lists and a narrative. Each sherd is examined for its form and fabric. A little roll of the rim, an extra amount of calcite or fine sparkling mica, and Paul is time-travelling in the past as well as to parallels he has come across in other places, visibly clicking through the possibilities in his mind. Visitors and colleagues listen enthralled, almost in disbelief.

On site at Sumaqa, Mount Carmel, in 1993, with a freshly discovered Ephesian Late Roman Amphora 3.

To help the storyline there are his drawings. Paul has a distinctive style, giving careful prominence not just to a ceramic form but to minuscule, barely perceptible details. Capturing exactly what is there is his almost obsessive goal. It is nearly as though each pot is a person and he is making a life drawing, such is his care. He reckons he can draw accurately to within 1mm by eye, something he learnt when he copied maps and Old Masters as an eight-year-old. These days he also photographs pots, but he almost never publishes those images. Press him, because making this number of drawings (around 35,000, he says) is a huge effort, and he admits his passion for drawings stems from his love of art and the affecting works of Goya in particular. These drawings have become the hallmark of his books and essays.

His abiding passion

Paul’s abiding passion is the subject of regional economies, interdependence, and the reconstruction of supply networks and shipping routes. In fact, throughout his career he has purposefully chosen to only work in ports. Ranging in date from the Classical to the early medieval period, his Mediterranean wide-angled view takes in the Aegean, lower Danube–Black Sea, the Balkans, and Atlantic sites from Portugal to Britain. He disentangles these economies through comparative analysis of production sites and regional distribution of ceramics on coastal sites. One moment, when you are speaking to him, he’s in the Nile talking about a monastery, the next he’s in Vigo in north-western Spain or even Cornwall. This is where he has built on the work of John Hayes to use identification and quantification to write a new economic history. It may sound sterile at first, but Paul embroiders it with people, places, and – of course, knowing him – the granular colour of the archaeological research experience itself. Few archaeologists have worked in so many different places with so many different people.

An amphora that has been painstakingly pieced back together. This example was made in the Aegean and found in the Vrina Plain domus (Butrint).

Paul is into numbers. He focuses on the documentation of the distribution and quantification where possible of long-distance exports of fine table-wares, amphorae of all proportions (containing oil, wine, fish products, dried fruit, etc), and seemingly anonymous cooking wares from the Aegean, Levant or Tunisia. Complex shipping routes and occasionally foundered wrecks emerge from these patterns and add an enriching layer of history to an emperor or war. These vessels were transported between specific ports within close regional networks or longer inter-provincial networks, both within and between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean, and, northwards, up the Atlantic Sea coast.

From his mapping of pots emerges state-organised as well as private shipments of primary goods. These included wheat, marble-stone, and precious raw metals. Secondary and tertiary goods were fillers in larger cargoes. Fillers amounted to foodstuffs in amphorae, ceramics of all classes, brick and tile building materials, multipurpose alum and mastic, metal vessels and recycled metalware, glass vessels, natron, and raw glass. What really intrigues Paul is the complex circular movements of these goods, created by outward and return cargoes. What came from the east to the west, and what went back? Then he is intrigued, too, by cabotage – port-hopping – and, in some cases, much longer routes linking, say Ephesus to Naples and Marseilles, or Antioch and the port-emporium of Vigo and King Arthur’s Tintagel in post-Roman Britain. What motivated these merchant-venturers? Was it raw glass to be made into lamps and tableware, or Gazan wine, or the fabled British tin? The more he knows, the more questions he asks.

Paul Reynolds at Butrint’s Western Defences with Solinda Kamani (above), and examining pottery from the Vrina Plain (Butrint) with Maxine Anastasi and Emmanuele Vaccaro in 2009 (below).

His networks and traders grow out of his crunching primary data. Each site is a contemporary kind of codex with its own characteristics, its own typology and classification. Each informs this immense Mediterranean-wide jigsaw puzzle, like the very many takes of a feature film. Beirut, Ras al-Basit, Seleucia, Nicopolis ad Istrum and Dichin, Athens, Corinth, Nicopolis-Actium, Butrint, Durrës, Leptis Magna, Carthage, Cartagena, and a multitude of other places in south-east Spain are regular anchorages in his sweeping overviews of the Middle Sea. He has worked in stores at each of these places.

Axiomatic to his palimpsest of trade routes is his detailed work on ceramic sequences in Beirut and Butrint. Over many years at both places, finding pot joins between contexts, he identified complex site-formation processes, such as the movement of pottery and rubbish two or three times or across site, that affect both the dating of ceramic assemblages and the interpretation of the site sequences. Then, too, he has begun to turn his mind to more challenging issues of interpretation. Hellenistic and Roman cuisine is one example, including working with Alessandra Pecci (also at Barcelona University, specialising in residue analyses), asking what was carried in the amphorae found in Pompeii: fish preserved in wine? Rather than rely entirely on the contemporary texts, residue analyses show culinary fashions of the voracious Roman market that brought foodstuffs from as far as India.

Tracing early Islamic wares

Paul, like John Hayes, finds it hard to ignore earlier as well as post-Classical pottery. Making sense of the end of antiquity has led him to carve out a niche in understanding the beginnings of early Islamic wares. Starting in Beirut, he has tracked Umayyad and Abbasid amphorae and cooking pots exported from the desert monasteries of northern Egypt. Familiarity with Tunisia means his restless curiosity has led, by way of the INP-Tunisie/Oxford University/British School at Rome (Ports Project), to Utica on the Tunisian coast. Ongoing excavations have unearthed several areas of early Islamic occupation located in the centre of the Roman city (in the Basilica-Forum quarter). The Roman pottery has been studied by Maxine Anastasi and Victoria Leitch. So Paul took charge of the publication of the Islamic/medieval ceramics associated with houses and two dozen associated grain silos full of refuse. The Fatimid and later pottery ranges in date from c.AD 950 to c.AD 1050, the moment when the Alexandria-based Geniza families were reviving Mediterranean cabotage mercantilism.

Paul has drawn around 35,000 pieces of pottery and has a distinctive style. These examples show a selection of late Roman pottery from the Triconch Place (Butrint).

The dating of Islamic pottery in the Maghreb has been largely based on unstratified collections and stylistic interpretation of glazed sherds. Being Paul, what sets his pulse running is the chance to break down these hundred years of production and exchange for the first time into four well-defined phases, which will allow him to measure Tunisia’s impact on the new markets in Sicily and Spain. Thanks to the Barakat Trust, he has arranged the analysis of 250 ceramics from Utica’s Islamic contexts. Analyses of the fabrics of the transport amphorae, plain wares, and glazed wares will determine their relationships as well as their sources, which point to both Raqqāda and Sabra al-Mansuriya (the Fatimid capital) and Sicily. These mark the initial steps towards the later export of the celebrated polychrome glazed bacini that decorate the churches of 11th- and 12th-century Pisa.

Paul has a love of art and worked as a painter. Here we see his on-the-spot depiction of post-war Beirut (bombed buildings, flyover, and infrastructure casings by the Place des Martyrs).

Unlike so many Classical archaeologists, Paul is a publishing fiend. After his mammoth Trade in the Western Mediterranean AD 400-700: the ceramic evidence (1995), just Part 2 of his PhD, his most notable book, Hispania (2010), has come to be recognised as a classic in the mould of Hayes’s ‘bible’. Hispania, it has to be said, is not written for reading on the beaches of Malaga or Mallorca! In this densely argued book, with hundreds of long footnotes, he presents a review and interpretation of the pottery evidence from the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearic Islands. Its reach is pan-Mediterranean. Finds of pottery of Hispanic origin are referenced across the breadth of the Middle Sea for the period c.AD 100-700 in polyglot publications. He determined the geography of the various subregional economies within Hispania, evaluated its role in interregional exchange, and traced stability and change in these across the transition from the Roman to the early medieval world.

Paul examining a Late Roman Amphora 1 type at Vigo in north-western Spain, and working alongside Leandro Fantuzzi (below).

Then there were other initiatives. Along with colleagues in France and Spain, he first brought together in Barcelona all the major late Roman fine-ware experts, including John Hayes, to re-evaluate the dating of forms and key ceramic contexts. Paul then created a new series entitled Roman and Late Antique Mediterranean Pottery to publish and encourage the future publication of big sets of pottery assemblages, which find no place in journals or conference acta. Then there is his commitment as one of the many editors to the ongoing conference series for Roman pottery specialists, which is a demonstration of the major shift in interest from pretty fine wares to amphorae and kitchen wares: Late Roman Coarse Wares, Cooking Wares and Amphorae in the Mediterranean (LRCW 1 to 7 in Barcelona 2002, Marseille-Aix-en-Provence 2005, Parma-Pisa 2007, Thessaloniki 2009, Alexandria 2014, Agrigento 2017, and lastly Valencia 2019). Each volume, in its own way, aims to do just what he dreams of: a Mediterranean-wide understanding of ceramics accurately framing the history of the ancient world. It is an idealistic goal, but each year what appeared inconceivable in the 1990s now seems more within grasp.

The future?

Paul Reynolds and John Hayes, examining pottery in 2011.

Paul Reynolds dreams of retiring after more than 40 years of humping crates of Roman pottery and distilling them into a uniquely original narrative. But pottery is not just in his mind, it is in his blood. He has carved out a historical niche. It is very unlikely to be matched any time soon. More to the point, he has brought to bear a forensic eye on fashioning Hayes’s great classification and then shaping this into a racing story about the rhythms of trade transacted over nearly 1,500 years. His analyses bring to the fore not just the history of the pax Romana, but, thanks to his dating and analysis, the shift from great ports celebrated for their grandiose civic centres – fora and theatres – to their transformation into places run by managerial bishops with armies of clergy, and then their eventual and baffling expiration.

Inside the stores at Corinth in 2018.

In any account of the new Classical archaeology, it is not a dig here or a dig there that now holds new ancient historians in thrall. It is not the discovery of a new inscription or a statue, a product of peerless sculpting, that upsets the canonical apple cart. Over the past half-century, Classical archaeology (and informed ancient historians) has come to appreciate that it is closely dated rubbish middens full of seemingly anonymous sherds of amphorae and cooking wares that hold a key to unlocking the great treasury of the ancient world and its many mysteries. No wonder many of us teasingly think the Johann Winckelmann of our time is Paul Reynolds, a truly worthy dauphin of John Hayes.

Further information
Paul Reynolds’ latest book is Butrint 6: the Roman and late antique pottery from the Vrina Plain excavations (Oxbow Books, 2020).
ALL IMAGES: courtesy of Paul Reynolds, unless otherwise stated.