Even More on Peasants

I finally got a copy of “Excavating the Roman Peasant I: Excavations at Pievina (GR)” by M Ghisleni, . Vaccaro, and Kim Bowes in the Papers of the British School at Rome (79 (2011), 91-145). I am co-authoring a paper on peasants on a panel this January co-chaired by Kim Bowes, so my co-author and I, David Pettegrew, thought that this article might give us valuable insight into the central questions that Mediterranean archaeologists are asking about peasants.

This paper documents their preliminary excavations at a rural site represented on the surface by a low density scatter of pottery. This excavation was part of a larger project designed to document site that could be associated with peasants in the Italian countryside. Their argument is that survey archaeology has not produced particularly robust assemblages of material from rural sites making it difficult to make arguments for chronology or function at site potentially related to peasant producers. By excavating a sample of rural site identified through survey, this team hopes to establish a closer relationship between surface scatters and subsurface remains, a clearer picture of the smallest class of rural settlement (< .5 ha), and an understanding of peasant life in the Mediterranean basin.

This is a long and substantial article, so I am only going touch on some main points. The most interesting point from the perspective of a survey archaeologist is that their excavation of a low density (“off site”) scatter did produce a rural activity area. While the excavators do not provide a figure for artifact density on the surface, they did note that the scatter was predominantly 1st century BC to 1st century AD. The confirmation that a low density, offsite scatter could produce a substantial rural site fits well with David Pettegrew’s arguments from way back in 2001 where he argued that contingent practices associated with rural settlement are apt to produce only ephemeral traces in surface assemblages. He goes on to suggest that we should look beyond mono-causal arguments for off site scatters (like manuring) and recognize that the surface assemblage most likely represented a wide range of relatively short term activities, diverse depositional practices, and site life-cycles.

The structures revealed at Pievina produced just that kind of site. They revealed a number of structures ranging from a kiln probably for tile production, a cistern, a possible granary, what might be the remains of a Late Antique house and a small “rubbish tip”. The kiln, granary, and cistern were probably almost contemporary and they enjoyed a rather short period of use. The kiln, granary, and cistern appear to have been buried by a “localized, but significant colluvial event, probably a landslide”.   The site appears to have been abandoned between the 2nd and 3rd centuries only to see renewed activity in the 4th century A.D. At this time it seems to have been the site of a short lived Late Roman house.

It is interesting that the same site sees renewed activity after two centuries of abandonment, and it speaks both to issues of historical memory and issues of persistent, productive places in the landscape. The relatively short periods of occupation at the site invite us to consider an ancient countryside made of short-lived, relatively low investment places that blink on and off when opportunity for gain present themselves. This fits will with recent interpretations of the peasant economy which have tended to see peasants as dynamic figures in the ancient countryside continuously modifying their practices to manage risk, take advantage of opportunities, and survive amidst the contingencies of history.

On other thing to mention briefly about the methods and procedures used by this team in excavating these rural sites. They make it clear that they employed techniques derived from CRM (Cultural Resource Management) practices to expedite the excavation and documentation of their sites. This included the use of earthmoving equipment to remove topsoil, minimal use of hand drawn plans, kite photography (which presumably served as the basis for their digital plans), and other “short cuts” that allowed them to excavate quickly while documenting at a satisfactory level of detail for their research questions. They also backfilled at the end of the season. As someone who is planning to excavate a relatively uncomplicated site this summer, their compromise between professional and academic practices is thought provoking. Archaeologists focused on rural sites should maybe learn from the people whose remains they excavate: come in with flexible tools, make minimal permanent investment, and leave little trace after you complete the project.

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