Sherds and Turds: Some New Thoughts on Manuring in the Ancient World

The topic of manuring is near and dear to the heart of many survey archaeologists and particularly those active in Greece and Cyprus. For the last thirty years or so a debate has raged over the role of spreading manure on fields in the distribution of ceramics across the landscape. In fact, for many scholars the low-density halo of artifacts around settlements reflects the deposition of household trash along with manure in these fields. They marshall a small, but compelling body of ancient texts to support this perspective. Other scholars, however, have remained skeptical of this process and led by my colleague and collaborator David Pettegrew have proposed a wide range of well-attested behaviors from short-term habitation to non-domestic activities in the countryside that would account for the so-called continuous carpet of artifacts common to the immediate hinterland of nucleated settlements. As you might imagine, the conflict between those who see “offsite” sherd scatters as a product of manuring practices and those who see them as the low density remains of past activity areas – including habitation – in the countryside has a significant impact on how we understand both rural life in antiquity and the structure of ancient settlement.

In a recent, small volume on manuring in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Hamish Forbes offers an ethnographic perspective on the issue of manuring. Forbes is both a survey archaeologist and an ethnographer whose work has recently focused on the Methana peninsula where he conducted both a survey and a major ethnoarchaeological study. Forbes makes several significant observations concerning the modern practice of manuring on Methana in a ver recent articles “Lost Souls [sic]: Ethnographic Observations on Manuring Practices in a Mediterranean Community,” in Manure Matters: Historical, Archaeological, and Ethnographic Perspectives. R. Jones ed. Ashgate 2012 (159-172). (Apparently the original title was Lost Soles in reference to the regular appearance of shoes in fields, but it was changed by an overzealous copy editor at the 11th hour.)

1. Manuring as strategy. He emphasizes that the practice of spreading manure is part of a larger series of agricultural strategies. Manuring does not occur on every field, it has an economic cost in that it requires labor to transport the manure to the fields, and has seasonal rhythm that intersects with household behavior and the growing cycle of various crops. Manure is collected from the courtyard of the house and animal stalls in the late summer or fall when it is driest and lightest. Some household trash can be mixed in with manure so long as it does not add significant weight to the manure or run the risk of damaging the bags in which the manure is carried in to the field. Potential sharp objects such as glass rarely would make their way into manure piles because of the risk of cutting the bag or the farmers feet as they may plough barefoot. Finally, the amount of manure produced from the average household is likely to be small so only certain fields receive manure.

2. Rough and Rocky Methana. Forbes tests some of his hypotheses regarding manuring behavior on the scatter of “offsite” material in the Methana survey and found that broad fields more likely to support grain for bread (rather than lesser cereals for feed) tended to produce more ceramics. These fields, Forbes reckons, were more likely to receive systematic manuring because they were easier to cultivate and dedicated to crops important for human consumption. He also notes, however, that Methana is particularly challenging terrain for agriculture compared to other places in Greece. In fact, he notes that manuring practices in Boeotia or the Corinthia – two territories where scholars have studied the evidence for offsite scatters – might be significantly different from the more rugged terrain of the Methana peninsula.

3. Manure and Livestock. One of the most interesting observations that Forbes offered was that to produce large quantities of manure, large numbers of animals are required. Large scale animal husbandry rarely occurred on the household level. As a result domestic trash was unlikely to find its way into the manure produced by large flocks of animals. For Methana where the rugged terrain assured generally small fields and limited opportunities for the economical spread of manuring, manuring is perhaps best understood as a household practice. In the larger fields and more level terrain surrounding the nucleated centers of Boeotia, it would be possible to transport larger quantities of manure into the countryside via cart. To collect such substantial quantities of manure, however, one might be better off imagining larger flocks of animals and practices that are less likely to mix manure and household discard.

While Forbes does not offer a solution to the manuring problem among survey archaeologists, his work offers some important new perspectives on how we understand manuring as a process rather than as simply the human byproduct of an archaeological reality.

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