The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Lucia Nixon
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Well, it’s not ancient, but it is important to me: a picture of 2 icon stands (containers for icons; Greek eikonostasia) near the village of Anopoli in Sphakia, SW Crete. There’s also a church in the background on the left – you can see its little bell-tower.
When did you first come across these stands?
I came upon these 2 icon stands in the first year of our work on the Sphakia Survey. We were walking a transect, and I suddenly caught sight of the larger one, and I thought, what is this doing here? Most modern icon stands mark the scene of car accidents, but we weren’t on a car road. Unravelling what these icon stands were about, and also what churches outside villages (Greek exokklisia), were about, and how they all fitted into the landscape of Sphakia took me a long time.
Can you tell me a bit about these stands and their context?
Icon stands, and churches both inside and outside villages, are part of the Greek Orthodox sacred landscape of later Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish (BVT) Crete, 1000-2000 AD. Churches outside settlements are part of the overall settlement pattern, just as churches inside settlements are. (Icon stands came along a lot later, maybe only in the 19thC.) I found that outlying churches mark packages of resources which came into use just before the churches were built. A resource package could include one or more of the resources necessary for the kind of agro-pastoral life which prevailed in Sphakia until World War II – land for cultivation; pasturage for animals; water (or the means of procuring it); and connectivities by land and/or by sea, including how visible (and possibly intervisible) a specific site is. Each church sets a sacred seal on the economic activity in that locality at that time. If there are a lot of churches in a given area, inside and outside settlements, then that area will be very ‘resourceful’. You just have to figure out what those specific resources were……….
Back to the two icon stands in the photo: they’re on the old built mule-track, now overgrown, which linked Anopoli with Khora Sphakion on the coast. The smaller, newer one (20thC) faces toward the village; it’s near a dirt road leading to a sheep-pen. The larger, older stone one faces downhill towards Khora; the newer, smaller metal one faces uphill towards Anopoli. The older one, especially when regularly whitewashed, could be seen from some distance, especially from below. It was the sign that you were approaching Anopoli, before you could see any part of the village. Only when you reached the icon stands could you see any part of Anopoli itself, in this case the church in the background.
What is it about these icon stands that appeals to you most?
As soon as I saw them, I knew that I needed to know more about these icon stands, that this was a thread that I had to follow — even though I didn’t know where it would take me! And one of the things that I didn’t know when I started was that this particular sacred landscape, that of BVT Sphakia, would teach me also about sacred landscapes of the Prehistoric and Graeco-Roman epochs.
I especially enjoyed talking to women and men in Sphakia about churches and icon stands, some of whom had put up (or commissioned) icon stands and churches. The outlying church that absolutely confirmed my resource package theory was built in 1994, at the mouth of a gorge. By then the person who owned the land there had been bringing tourists in his boat to swim at the gorge mouth for a few years. So the church was built not long after he started using that location to make money — result!
I like this photograph of ‘my’ two icon stands because I took it in February 1997, and it shows the moody, cloudy weather of that time of year, rather than the supposed perpetual summer of the Mediterranean. You can also see why the White Mountains, in the background, are called white—it’s not because of the snow (there is some in this picture), it’s because the rock of which they’re made is actually white.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I’m spending even more time in my garden – and seeing things I never noticed before. I planted camassia ages ago but this is the 1st time I noticed that the anthers are purple!
Very cheering news: there is a now a Sportula Europe– the Sportula provides microgrants for Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies students and Early Career Scholars. This is a great opportunity to give back, and I’m now a patron.
Lucia Nixon co-directs the Sphakia Survey, with Jennifer Moody.
“Our Survey website is under reconstruction, but there’s some Sphakia info on the online archaeology course that Simon Price and I did.
I published my work on churches and icon stands in a book, Making a Landscape Sacred (2006). I applied this perspective to Minoan sacred landscapes in a conference poster.
As well as archaeology in general, I write about other sacred and economic landscapes; archaeology and gender; and equality issues; more info on my academia.edu page.
I’ve taught at universities in Canada and the UK, including two very different institutions, one a blue-collar commuter campus, and the other a highly selective collegiate university. One of the best things I’ve ever read about teaching is Herbert Kohl’s book, ‘I Won’t Learn from You! The Role of Assent in Learning’, written before ‘intersectionality’ (thanks to Kimberlé Crenshaw), and ‘decolonising the curriculum’ came into use; there’s now a 2nd edition of his book.
I thought of him when teaching, and more recently when reviewing a book about Nefertiti.
I’m on Twitter, @LuciaNixon.”