Some New Views of Mediterranean Landscapes

This month’s Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology has two interesting articles on Mediterranean Landscapes. The first is by Michael Given. It continues a trend urging survey archaeologists to look beyond the dots on the map. Weaving recent work on agency with perspectives drawn from phenomenology, Given urges survey archaeologists to look up from their carefully measured transects and settlement maps to consider the human scale of the landscape. The social experience of walking between activity areas, the aural landscapes, and the smells. For Given, the experience of the landscape represents the interaction between natural and manmade objects and people. It extends from the people and objects from centuries earlier to the boots and studied gaze of the archaeologist. He reframes the term “commotion” to mean the collaborative movement of people and objects to create a dynamic landscape. Our archaeological interpretation of the landscape is simply another form of a continuous commotion that creates meaning landscapes.

Archaeologists have increasingly come to recognize the symmetry between objects and people in defining the interpretative space of our discipline. The agency of the unformed clay, tools, and the potters hands collaborate in the production of a ceramic pot. The pot contributes to the social rituals of its community (conviviality, in Given’s terms)) because – like the space of a home or church – the pot influences and structures the kinds of interaction possible at any given moment (no pun intended). When the pot no long functions (or dwells?) in its “primary context” and becomes part of another community associated with discard, it continues to interact with its surroundings. Given notes that farmers recognize sherds in the field and see these objects as markers of space and, in that regard, the sherds of the pot collaborates in the extension of the convivial moment. (On a recent AIA lecture series stop, a farmer who was donating his collection of projectile points to a local college remarked that before no-till farming and the adoption of moldboards it was common to see all manner of projectile points turned up and to become familiar with these objects.) 

Given frames the emergence of a symmetrical archaeology of landscape as the next step in Mediterranean survey archaeology. It remains difficult, however, to understand exactly how archaeologists can apply these kinds of interpretations to the extensive and complex assemblages produced by our currently intensive method. On the one hand, the tools that contemporary archaeologists use exist in a complex mesh of relationships that include the archaeologists, the remains of the past, and the local environments (from the storeroom to the survey unit). On the other hand, re-imagining the complex “formation processes” that create the “commotive” landscape seems like a tall task.

C. Papadopoulos’s article in the same volume looks at human intervention in the abandonment and post-abandonment history of a modern Cretan village. Papadopoulos documents the various processes that occurred over the post-abandonment life of a Cretan village. David Pettegrew and I have worked on a  similar study for the settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia. Among the interesting observations offered by Papadopoulos is that at his site, tiles were not systematically recycled but doors and door frames were taken, presumably for the wood as well as for their “vintage” appearance. One particular interesting episode of recycling involved a pair of monks who scavenged wood from support beams for icons because its old and distressed appearance would add a patina of age and authenticity to the icons and allowing the monks to sell them for a higher price. Papadopoulos also treats the various household item that were absent or left behind by considering the economic and social processes that create the assemblages visible to archaeological inquiry.

Unlike Given’s work, Papadopoulos’s work is grounded in processual archaeology and M. Schiffer’s description of site formations processes. Adapted to the specific case of a Cretan village demonstrates the range of impacts that human aspect of site formation has on these processes. It is worth noting that Papadopoulos and his team who documented the site took particular care not to interfere with ongoing site formation processes.

Between site formation studies and an expanded understanding of the role of objects  and agency in the production of landscapes, intensive pedestrian survey continues to undergo a significant shift in how we interpret artifact assemblages. Far from being the persistent palimpsest of past settlement, artifact assemblages now represent a diachronic range of both human and non-human activities among which the archaeological intervention is simply the most recent episode.

One Comment

  1. I found Given’s use of “agency” highly problematic. For instance, he argues that “If we allow, as we must, unconscious human activity and the unintended consequences of human action, then objects and material can have real social consequences in just the same way.”

    This is a logic fail. Theorists interested in the agency-structure problem have always emphasized the unconscious and unintended aspects of human action (I’m thinking here of Giddens and Bourdieu primarily, but one could name others). I does NOT follow logically, however, that “objects…can have real social consequences in just the same way.” How can it? When Bourdieu, for instance, talks about unconscious human activity, he often uses the example of sports. When I’m playing football, much of the time I’m not consciously thinking — I’m reacting instinctively to what I see and feel. You hear people talk about this all the time — the best athletes don’t think, they react (this is not to say that I am a good athlete; I’m not). Does it follow from that that the ball can have consequences to the particular game I’m playing IN JUST THE SAME WAY as I do? Of course not. This is not to say that material agency is a bad idea – although I think “agency” is a bad word to associate with the idea that things matter – but that theoretical concepts need to be articulated clearly and logically for them to be useful. Otherwise we’re just using a bunch of fancy words to talk about the same old ideas.


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