Periods and Peasants

David Pettegrew and I are working on a paper (very slowly, I might add) about peasants for a conference next winter. Our current plans are to look at three contexts for peasants: the Isthmia corridor outside of the ancient city of Corinth, a fortified area around a small harbor southeastern coastal of the Corinthia, and a rather more isolated inland valley called Lakka Skoutara in the far southeastern Corinthia.  We plan to approach these three areas through the lens of methodology.  In each area, we conducted intensive pedestrian survey and produced different assemblages. The rural nature of these assemblages qualified the inhabitants of these areas as “peasants” (using an incredible broad definition of this term).

My recent reading of Kathleen Davis’ Periodization and Sovereignty has made me reconsider my ease with such seemingly transhistorical categories like “peasants”.  While I am neither qualified to speak with any authority on ancient, medieval, or even modern peasants, I do recognize that the identification of an individual or group of individuals as peasants is not unproblematic. This is a category rooted, at least in part, in assumptions of pre-modern modes of production, like subsistence agriculture, and various kinds of economic and political relationships associated with these practices.  Peasants play a key role in our definition of the pre-modern and consequently undeveloped world.

The transhistorical category of the peasant, in fact, made it easy for early ethnographers and archaeologists to find parallels between modern Greek “peasant” farmers and their ancient predecessors. This not only provided the foundations for at least some of our understanding how ancient Greeks worked the land, but also (in a circular way) provided a justification for the persistence of ancient Greek culture and practices in the attitudes, practices, and beliefs of 19th and 20th century rural denizens.  In short, the peasant became one of the crucial points of contact between ancient and modern and represented both the stability of the Greek culture and its backwardness.

The question is, of course, what do we as archaeologists do when studying such transhistorical figures as peasants in the ancient landscape? Archaeological approaches traditionally embrace the kind of generalizations that create typologies (and ultimate feeds into periodization schemes both informed by the material culture and also informing our interpretation of objects).  While Davis’ book does not reject the need for periodization schemes, she does insist that we locate these themes historically and understand how they serve to structure power relations in the present.  Our paper leans toward a diachronic reading of peasant landscapes rooted in a particular set of methods which insist on the similarities in material culture among groups living in (demonstrably?) different historical circumstances.

An additional challenge comes from the spatial and material definitions of peasants in the landscape and asks that we mingle the spatial with the chronological in ways that reveal another layer of how we understand the the relationship between the pre-modern and modern worlds.  By writing the rural/urban dichotomy into ancient landscapes and locating the peasant in the rural sphere, we run the risk of isolating rural areas as spaces of historical stability (or even spaces “without history“) and set them against the dynamic culture of the urban.  Thus the rural/urban dichotomy reinforces the division between the developed and the undeveloped while locating the impetus for historical change within the confines of a dynamic urban space capable of modernization.

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