This month David Pettegrew and I put together an abstract for a proposed panel at the 2012 Archaeological Institute of America meeting on peasants in antiquity. The motivation for submitting an abstract was our long-standing interest in the Corinthian countryside as well as our interest in the archaeology of rural habitation.
Despite these interests, I’m fairly sure that we never conceived of our rural Corinthians specifically as peasants. After a brief conversation on the phone this week (we were both on spring break!), we found that we did not have a clear definition of what a peasant was in antiquity. My gut feeling was that peasants were renters, and this was likely influenced by Guy Sander’s recent paper on share-cropping in the Corinthia (here’s a link to a pre-publication draft). David was not so sure and thought that peasants could have a range of economic relationships to the land that they worked. We both did agree, however, that we should define a peasant before we moved forward writing a paper on them!
We also agreed that peasants were likely to be poor and live at or near the variously defined subsistence level. As I have noted in some of my recent work, as individuals approach the barest levels of subsistence, their archaeological signature tends to diminish markedly. Not only do farmers living at the subsistence pursue economic strategies that are incredibly flexible and dynamic and less likely to produce patterns of use and discard that leave strong material signatures, but the poor tend to have few objects to contribute to the archaeological record in general. At the same time, peasants are barely visible in the textual records from the ancient world. The best preserved ancient authors have the well-known tendency to emphasize elite and largely urban concerns and spare little ink for the vast majority of the ancient population.
The absence of literary and traditional archaeological sources for the peasant accounts for both our problematic understanding of what exactly a peasant is, and makes it difficult to understand the foundational organization of the ancient economy. The growing interest in the archaeology of the ancient countryside has begun to problematize some of these issues in a more refined way and sketch out the limits to what we can say about ancient peasants in a more sophisticated way.
David and I propose to look at three area of the Corinthian countryside: the Isthmus, the recently published Late Classical or Hellenistic site of Ano Vayia, and the early modern site of Lakka Skoutara. The goal with our paper is to link the ancient peasant to a set of archaeological practices. Here’s the abstract:
Producing the Peasant in the Corinthian Countryside
W. Caraher and D. Pettegrew
The modern concept of the ancient peasant has been largely formed through the investigation of the places of rural habitation and work by archaeologists over the last forty years. In this paper, we present a series of case studies from the eastern Corinthia that place the ancient peasant experience at the intersection of our methods, both historical and archaeological, and the contingent processes of habitation and land use that created the human landscape in the short and long term. We juxtapose three case studies documented through the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey: 1) the diachronic and busy Isthmus, 2) a relatively isolated Late Classical to Hellenistic site near the harbor of Vayia, and 3) a small inland valley east of Sophiko. The first region, the Isthmus, represents the immediate suburbs of Corinth that always abounded in a range of settlements from farms to towns throughout antiquity and produced one of the densest artifact-rich zones of Greece and the Aegean. The coastal zones near Vayia represent more remote regions that experienced occasional and short-term bursts of investment in settlement, rural production, and fortification. Our third case study, the inland valley known as Lakka Skoutara, is a seemingly isolated upland basin with diachronic patterns of habitation that relate to broad processes of regional and global connectivity as well as quotidian cultural behaviors like habitation, discard, and abandonment. Through these case studies, we foreground the diverse experiences of Corinthian peasants within their connected and contingent worlds and underscore how our knowledge of their experiences follows the methods we employ.