What did Greek pilgrims call themselves? An ampulla from Sardis suggests an answer

As followers of my research (and blog and tweets) will know, I’m currently working on a book project that examines the economics of pilgrimage in late antiquity. One form of economic activity related to pilgrimage was the production, exchange, and movement of pilgrimage souvenirs. In the process of researching, cataloging, and mapping such souvenirs, I came across one with an inscription that I think provides some insight into how Greek-speaking pilgrims referred to themselves and how they used their souvenirs. I provide here some preliminary thoughts before more formal publication.

First, perhaps, a few words about why it is difficulty to know what pilgrims called themselves in late antiquity. One of the peculiarities of studying pilgrimage in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods is that when using words like “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage” we are anachronistically using terms that describe an identity and ritual that did not have specific terminology in late antiquity. The Latin peregrinus, from which the English word pilgrim descends, can describe a religiously motivated traveller, but it can also describe other sorts of travelers or wanderers. In addition, it is not clear that pilgrims would have used peregrinus to describe themselves (Maraval 2002:63-64).

The lack of clarity concering what pilgrims would have called themselves is not entirely due to a lack of sources surviving from antiquity. There are three first-person narratives of travek to the Holy Land from the late antique period. There are others sources as well, like Theodosius’ text and the Breviarius, but they are very short and don’t provide much information about the journey or the pilgrim — although they have some useful details about the holy sites. There are also some third person narratives, like Jerome’s Encomium of Paula, but they also don’t tell us what pilgrims called themselves. Jerome occasionally uses the word peregrinus, but it’s not specific to Paula or pilgrims, and it’s not clear that Jerome uses the word to refer to religiously motivated travel, in the way English speakers use the word “pilgrim” today. The most famous of the first-person narratives is that of Egeria. She traveled from western Europe to the Holy Land in 381-3 and is the most specific about what she is up to. She famously describes herself as traveling “for the sake of prayer” gratia orationis (13.2, 17.1) in a narrative epistle written from Constantinople to her “sisters” back home. A slightly earlier text, by an anonymous traveller from Bordeaux, from the 330s, has left us a detailed itinerary for travel from Europe to Palestine and back, with important details about Jewish and Christian (and a few other) holy places. However, he leaves the reader to infer what his purpose was. He nowhere gives himself a title like peregrinus. The richly detailed narrative written by the Piacenza Pilgrim about 570, likewise, does not use the term peregrinus nor does he describe his journey as a peregrinatio, pilgrimage, although it is clear his motivation is to see and experience the holy land with all of his senses (for discussion, see Johnson, DOP 70, 2016).

Another peculiarity of pilgrimage narratives is that they survive exclusively in Latin, even though other literary sources and material culture (such as pilgrimage souvenirs with Greek inscriptions) indicate that Greek-speaking pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land as well. Thus, with the question of what Greek pilgrims called themselves we would seem to be at a double loss — the surviving first-person narratives are in Latin, and the Latin word peregrinus doesn’t exclusively mean “pilgrim.” The problem of what Greek pilgrims called themselves has been explored in a short essay by Cyril Mango (1995:1-3), who pointed out the interesting fact that Greek pilgrims in the early modern period adopted the term hadji from the Ottomans — using it to describe Christians traveling to the Holy Land — before dropping it for the more acceptably Greek proskynetes. Mango also points out that the Greek word for stranger or traveller, xenos, (pl: xenoi) had much the same problem that the Latin peregrinus had — that it could describe any traveller, not necessarily a “pilgrim.” He notes a 12th century Greek source that describes pilgrims by by the cumbersome phrase “those who travel in foreign parts [xeniteuon, a verbal form of xenos] for the sake of Christ” which suggests that even by the later middle ages, xenos did not uniquely signal “pilgrim.” So, how did “those who travel(ed) in foreign parts for the sake of Christ” refer to themselves when they did not want to use such a cumbersome phrase?

An ampulla excavated at Sardis in 1994-95 suggests one answer. The image below, from Greenwalt and Rautman’s 1998 publication (AJA 102:465-505, fig. 13) is of an ampulla of the Asia Minor type, a form often associated with Ephesus and usually dated to the 6th-7th centuries (Examples in Vikan 2010:34-36).

Such objects are usually interpreted as pilgrimage souvenirs that could be used to hold holy oil or other materials from a saint’s shrine or similar holy place. The iconography is singular for such an object. One side of the ampulla, the lower one in the image, features John the Baptist and an incised inscription that reads, ΑΓΙΕ ΙΟΑΝΝΗ ΒΑ(ΠΤΙϹΤΑ), a vocative invocation that can be awkwardly translated as “O Holy John [the] Ba[ptist]!” The other side, the upper image in the photo, is the more interesting for our purposes. It depicts the Virgin and Child and has an incised Greek inscription that Greenwalt and Rautman read as ΒΟΕΙΘΕ Τ(Ο)ΥϹ ΞΕΝ(Ο)ΥϹ “Help the Travellers!” which may, given that it is inscribed on a probable pilgrimage souvenir be better translated as “Help the Pilgrims!” If that it the case, then the ampulla presents epigraphic evidence for what pilgrims called themselves. The vessel is only 7.3 cm. tall. So, it could have easily been worn to work its protective powers as an amulet (on that topic, see Cline 2019 on my CV). It’s also worth noting that both inscriptions are incised and are not part of the mold that produced the image on the ampulla. Perhaps the creator of the object could incise the “Help the travellers/pilgrims” inscription for pilgrims and travelers in need of aid, while others might prefer to ask the Virgin for something else.

Research in Jerusalem 2017-18

As some of my readers — and twitter and instagram followers — know, I was awarded an NEH Fellowship from the Albright Institute in Jerusalem to work on my next book project, tentatively titled “Sacred Travel in the Roman Empire and the Making of Christian Pilgrimage.”   I arrived in Jerusalem in late August and I plan to be here working on the project until early April 2018.   The project examines literary sources, as well as artifacts, architecture, and other forms of material culture related to pilgrimage in the Roman and early Byzantine periods.  I’m particularly interested in examining the search for authentically sacred places by late Roman and early Christian pilgrims, how religious authenticity was defined, and the role that pilgrimage souvenirs played in demonstrating the authenticity of pilgrimage destinations and the authenticity of the pilgrim’s experience.  I’m also exploring the economic impact of pilgrimage — particularly souvenir production and circulation.  So, while much of my time here will be spent in the library, I’ll also be visiting pilgrimage sites, tracing pilgrimage routes, and examining objects like pilgrimage souvenirs produced in the early Byzantine period.  I’ll plan to update the blog as I visit sites and consider pilgrimage objects.  In the meantime, however, I thought that some readers might like to see where I’m doing my research while in Jerusalem.

Much of the time, I’ve been using the library and research spaces at the Albright Institute, where I have a very nice carrel in the library.

The Albright library contains a distinctive collection of archaeological publications and archival materials.  More than that, the Albright is unique location in Jerusalem to meet with scholars from around the world who are working on projects related to the Holy Land.  It is also a very pleasant location in which to think, read, and write — as seen in the image of the courtyard below, where tea is taken at 4 p.m. and where I have been eating lunch.



Another advantage of working at the Albright is the close proximity to other research facilities, such as the Rockefeller Library and Museum and the Bibliotheque St. Étienne at the École Biblique and Archéologique française de Jerusalem. I’ve been spending much of time at my reserved desk space at the École biblique, where there is an excellent collection of material related to late antique Christianity in the Holy Land.  When I’ve drawn attention to some books that I thought they should have, they have offered to acquire them for the library.  It’s been a great place to work and do some bibliographic exploration.  It’s also a very inspiring setting as you can see in the images below.  I plan to keep posting once a week or so with images related to my research.  So, stay tuned!

My table at the École

Church of St. Étienne and garden at the École biblique

Ossuary in the stairwell at the Bibliotheque St. Étienne


JVRP Study Tour 2017

On Thursday evening we wrapped up our five-day study tour of archaeological and cultural sites in northern Israel.  I’ve been assisting with the tour since 2014, and I think this has been one of our best years.  This year, we added a few stops to our usual itinerary in order to take be able to speak with excavators in the field and other experts two could offer their insight into new archaeological research.   We were able to visit Tel Kabri during the opening week of their excavation, and Eric Cline and Assaf Yassur-Landau were generous enough to give us a tour of the site and discuss some their finds from previous seasons and their goals for 2017.

Assaf Yassur-Landau explains Tel Kabri

 We visited Beit She’an, which is a perennial favorite.  The site features a classic near eastern tel, along with Roman city below.  Most of the visible remains from the Roman site date to between the fourth and sixth centuries, when the city was know as Scythopolis and served as the capital of the Roman province of Palestina Secunda.  Scythopolis is of particular interest to me, as excavators found multiple pilgrimage souvenirs in one of the late antique shops, which suggests a secondary market for pilgrimage goods.  In addition, the city appear in pilgrimage itineraries and there is evidence for a martyrium-style church on the top of the ancient tel, above the remains of a Roman temple.

Tel Beit She’an.  I love this tree.  It reminds me of the U2 song “One Tree Hill” 

An OU student examines a fallen column on the streets of Roman Scythopolis, likely evidence for the final earthquake to destroy the city in the eighth century.  

Tel Beit She’an from the main Roman street.  

We added the Roman site of Omrit to this year’s program, and we were fortunate to have of the excavators give us a tour of the site during the final days of their season.  The site features a multi-phase Roman temple that dates to about the first century CE and was constructed on top of an earlier Hellenistic shrine.  Interestingly, the Christian living at the site in the Byzantine period built over the temple’s altar with small church.

Roman Temple at Omrit

We again visited Nimrod’s Fortress, a medieval Islamic fortress, which offers fantastic views of the valley below.  Many of the towers remain largely intact and visitors can climb through the ancient gates all the way to the keep.

OU students at Nimrud’s Fortress 

Our final stop of the tour was the Roman site of Caesarea.  The remains are immediately impressive, and this year we had the added bonus of a tour by Beverly Goodman, who discussed her research on the destructive effects of tsunamis at Caesarea.

Late Roman/Byzantine mosaics near the harbor at Caesarea

Beverly Goodman explains the appearance of tsunami-caused deposits in strata within the hippodrome at Caesarea

We begin excavation on Sunday.  So, stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead!

The 2017 Study Tour and Legio Excavations

I’ll be back in Israel this summer, to help lead students on a study tour of archaeological and modern sites.  We have eight University of Oklahoma students with us this summer, almost as many students from SUNY Brockport, additional students from other schools, and some independent adventurers.

Our tour schedule is available here.  We’ll be keeping to the same general itinerary as in previous years, but with some exciting additions.  For example, Beverly Goodman is scheduled to talk to us at Caesarea.  Goodman’s work on ancient tsunamis has transformed our understanding of such events in the Mediterranean.  It should be exciting to hear from her about her underwater archaeology work.

For part of the tour, we’ll be staying at Kibbutz Mizra, an old favorite from past years, where the residents do some really creative things to re-use old bottle and decorate their gardens.

A re-used bottle windmill at Kibbutz Mizra

Following the tour, we’ll take part in the excavations at Legio, the castrum of Rome’s Legio VI Ferrata.  More details about Legio and what the excavations hope to accomplish this summer can be found here, and a news report about discoveries at Legio in 2015 can be found here.

I’ll be updating the blog with details and photos from the tour, so stay posted!  In the meantime, here’s a picture of sifting at sunrise from 2015.

Legio and sunrise on the Jezreel Valley, 2015