Landscape and History in the Maeander Valley

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a good bit about how to approach studying a region. At the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I’ve worked with my colleagues to write the archaeological history of a microregion on the basis of intensive pedestrian survey. I’ve stood by and watched my buddy David Pettegrew bring together a century of excavations, survey, and texts to write the history of the Corinthian Isthmus. This next year, I embark on a project that will hopefully write the history of the Western Argolid. While the site is not dead, regions are where it’s at.

So it was with some excitement that I tucked into Peter Thonemann’s book: The Maeander Valley: A Historical Geography from Antiquity to Byzantium. (Cambridge 2011). This book was beautifully written, sweeping in scope, and conservative in approach. This final point is not necessarily a criticism.

1. No Theory. The book was almost completely devoid of explicit appeals to theory. The was no discussion of place and space, of place making, or phenomenology or any other late 20th century method of conceptualizing the contemporary encounter with the past. I’ll concede that the lack of theory was jarring, at first, but I soon got over it. In place of theory, the book is filled with careful descriptions drawn from the careful reading of a historical landscape through personal experience and historical texts. At no point in the book do you feel like the author is not intimately familiar with the Maeander Valley. (Thonemann shows his hand a bit more in the epilogue where he appeals to H. Lefebvre, Harvey, and others.)

2. No Archaeology. The books makes almost no explicit appeals to archaeology despite the presence of several long-standing excavations with Miletus and Priene being the being the best known. Throughout the book, Thonemann keeps archaeology at arms length appealing to it selectively such as when he notes the limits of archaeological evidence in documenting settlement change between the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the neighborhood of Miletus. Archaeological evidence is better, he argues, at showing activity in the countryside than explaining the nature of that activity or its causes. 

More interestingly, he provides little specific discussion of the results of excavations or survey. There is precious little on the details of ceramic chronology, the typology of fortifications, or the distribution of small scale artifact scatters documented by intensive survey. This is probably a weakness of the book, but his use of textual sources compensates for it in a substantial way.

3. Nature and Culture. The book does a remarkable job interweaving the nature of the Maeander River with the reception of this defining feature in the landscape. The discussion of the relationship between the river’s wandering course and its depiction on coins and in art was to be expected. What was more engaging was his treatment of the way in which folks living, exploiting, or moving through the valley floor interacted with the more substantial settlements on the slopes. Thonemann described the symbiotic relationship between, for example, the Turkish herders who brought their flocks in the valley in the 12th century and increasingly fortified Greek settlements on the valley slopes, and between pastoralists and cultivators in antiquity. The two communities negotiated agreements that ensured herders had access to grazing land and provided manure and weed clearance for agricultural fields. This is but the most simple of Thonemann’s examples of how the river, the valley, and communities interacted.

4. Diachronic and Dynamic. The most remarkable thing about this book was its diachronic scope. Thonemann is as comfortable talking about the sources of a Byzantine estate in the Maeander delta as presenting the complex prosopography of Roman period elites in the various ancient communities throughout the valley. Moreover, his use of these sources demonstrates a genuine understanding of the differing political and social contexts of these statements and the valley in these periods. In other words, Thonemann manages to study the valley in a diachronic way that does little to flatten the dynamism of the region in varying historical circumstances. This is not simplistic ethnohistory that searches for parallels in different periods to support a kind of environmental determinism. Thonemann’s comfort with Byzantine sources is particular commendable. 

5. Margins, Borders, and Frontiers. This summer I’m going to work in a valley at the very edge of Argolid territory. One of the issues that we will investigate is how these areas at the edge of a polis relate to the core and to the neighboring regions. Thonemann’s treatment of these issues through time in the Maeander Valley and argued that even the most seemingly obvious natural divisions between regions rarely reflected the political or cultural borders actually present. Thonemann argues that imperialism, more than anything else, shaped the territory of the Maeander Valley starting in the Attalid period and then continuing into the Roman and Byzantine period. These borders had less to do with the longstanding social practices in the region and far more to do with landscapes of control which the dominant settlement pattern often attempted to defy. Any natural boundaries persisted only because they received cultural affirmation.  

Finally, the book begins with a paraphrase of Marx and ends with references to Engels and E.P Thompson. That alone makes it worth reading.  

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