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This is fine (?): Navigating crisis with resilience

by Catherine Keane, ANAMED Post-doctoral Fellow (2022–2023)

It’s bizarre to actively research Late Antiquity’s overlapping crises of earthquakes, invasions, and plagues as an ANAMED fellow, while the same phenomena have recently touched my own life and research. It is an uncanny experience to take Covid tests and wear masks around colleagues while visiting sites with potential plague burials or excavating destruction levels. The recent earthquakes in southeastern Turkey occurred the day before I was meant to travel to that region to wander through archaeological sites with evidence of earthquakes from 1400 years prior.

Last year, the term “polycrisis” received new attention in the news and at the World Economic Forum as a label to describe the overlapping crises—natural disasters, wars, mass migrations, energy crises, food shortages, and inflation—that define our present moment. The term encompasses the phenomenon of multiple overlapping crises on a global scale, often with compounding overall effects on an unprecedented scale (“such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part;” Tooze 2022). Other neologisms include permacrisis (an extended period of instability and insecurity), multicrisis, tripledemic, and megathreat.  In terms of stress, risk mitigation, and coping, some proponents of polycrisis take a despondent tone, suggesting that we brace for looming decline as things will only become more precarious.

However, this repetition and overlapping of multiple crises on broad and local scales is nothing new, not least for the Mediterranean. There is no shortage of mainstream books on collapse, from the Bronze Age to the Maya to the Roman Empire. Even the term polycrisis has been around for decades. I disagree with the uncritical uses of polycrisis that suggest “the idea that global crises have somehow become more complex, intricate, and unsolvable today than in past decades” (Il Post). As a researcher of the turbulent history of the Late Antique Mediterranean, it’s strange to encounter discussions about polycrisis describing today’s overlapping events as a new phenomenon, without mention of the perpetual intersecting of similar events in well-studied historical periods. Historians and archaeologists offer information on how communities coped, adapted, renegotiated, and also abandoned settlements throughout similarly interwoven upheavals in the past. Polycrisis can be a useful term to frame how we look at the crises (both local and global) that piled up in Late Antiquity.

While polycrisis will help contextualise the agency of each complex, settlement, micro-region, etc. in examining localized stressors and broader events, another term, resilience, can help us visualize how communities reacted to disasters clashing together around them. Resilience is defined here as the “capacity of systems to absorb disturbance while retaining processes, structures, and functions” (Walker et al. 2004). Models for resilience theory include phases like growth/exploitation, conservation, destructive event, and reorganizing. Scale, frequency, and other factors contribute to the complexity of cataclysmic events in the framework of resilience theory, and resilience is more than this capacity to absorb shocks. We are familiar with the process: over the last three years, the pandemic has caused academic events to adapt to virtual and hybrid attendance. This pandemic-induced innovation has allowed me to attend previously inaccessible lectures and conferences on the history and archaeology of the Justinianic plague, migration and forced mobility, and disasters, even as similar types of events happen in real time. As the initial weeks of the pandemic turned into months and years, notes of pride on how collaborative and caring we could be transformed into fear, anger, confusion, cynicism, denial, frustration, and exhaustion.

In my project on the archaeology of church complexes in the eastern Mediterranean, I’m using resilience theory to look at the variety of responses to overlapping crises over four centuries. The overlapping crises include the Justinianic plague, natural disasters, wars and political instability amidst environmental periods of aridity and cooler temperatures (Late Antique Little Ice Age), and unusual periods of increased seismic activity (Early Byzantine Tectonic Paroxysm, fourth–sixth centuries CE). With a focus on the changing arrangement of churches, my interest is in what I’ve called post-upheaval activity, or post-destruction industry. By this I mean, how was church space adapted and renegotiated? This can manifest in some unexpected combinations. For example, I have found flour mills, bakeries, olive presses, and copper smelting facilities added to the annexes and atria of Late Antique churches. When these churches continue to be used liturgically for religious services and baptisms, alongside their new agricultural and industrial activity, I see it as one of the more interesting and clear examples of the church’s involvement in production.

The variety in types of post-upheaval activity in churches that all experienced the same upheaval (such as the mid-seventh century CE Arab invasions in Cyprus) demonstrate the importance of bearing local, small-scale agency in mind. Each church’s bishop, clergy, or monks appear to have had their own choices in reacting, including storing damaged architectural material and continuing liturgical practices, removing additional annex activity and creating a smaller church, or abandoning the site entirely to relocate and build a new church. Both in the original phases of a church’s use and later post-upheaval choices, the presence of economic and mercantile archaeological material is important.

Similarly, at ANAMED, there have been varying intersections of what has affected each of us on personal, communal, or societal levels over the last few months. Dealing with a nut allergy while living in Turkey is a too-frequent situation, but on an individual level, rather than the communal academic stressors and the general chaos of Istiklal Caddesi. Despite criticisms of the concept of “polycrisis,” it has also been used as a framework for policymaking and future solutions (UNICEF). Although it is not as simple to assign a single new term to express widespread unease and complexity (though it is now used for the new “apocalyptic angst”[Kluth]), there are solutions, vaccines, calls for environmental action, etc. Criticisms of the term advise that rather than falling apart under the unease, we should pick a crisis and address it as best as possible. This modern-day form of resilience can be informed by historical reactions to similar crises. My academic spheres have reacted with support for the varying upheavals of recent years, funding displaced scholars from Ukraine, providing links for donations after natural disasters, and compiling information resources. On a local scale, since September there have been numerous events in Istanbul throughout which the ANAMED fellows have gathered and supported one another. Most recently, this has included gathering and sending resources and donations for earthquake relief. This most recent form of helping recovery after a single crisis as best as we can is an admirable effort on the part of ANAMED. Links for information and places to donate to the earthquake relief for southeastern Turkey can be found here:


A façade under construction on Elmadağ Caddesi, near Taksim Square