I think I can safely say that the greatest influence on my life has been poetry. My love for Seamus Heaney and Yeats indirectly led me to study Greek – in particular Byzantine Greek – at Queen’s University, Belfast. Through a postgraduate scholarship to study Byzantine Hagiography at Athens University, I came into contact with the physical remains of medieval Greece, developing an interest in Byzantine archaeology. This eventually led to my working for prolonged periods in Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey, taking part in archaeological fieldwork in collaboration with scholars of many nationalities.
Training in Byzantine archaeology involved acquiring a range of skills including accurate technical drawing, careful observation and record keeping, but most of all learning to lead. Being in charge of a team of men in countries where men usually do the managing was a big challenge, compounded by having to convey that I was truly in control in a language other than English. Understanding how to gain the respect of a team is a useful life skill to acquire, and working on an excavation is perhaps one of the most practical ways to achieve this.
Many seasons of fieldwork systematically walking across rural terrains and surveying for evidence of their exploitation through the ages led to a command of landscape archaeology, a sister discipline to excavation. Archaeological publications followed, while at the same time I began drawing on hagiography to write about saints and monasticism, often in tandem. For instance, I was able to demonstrate that the hagiography of an eleventh-century ascetic in Greece that protested loudly the pious poverty of his religious foundation was at odds with its twenty-plus sumptuous monasteries.