More on Manuring in the Most Recent Hesperia (or Sherds and Turds II)

It’s always exciting to get a new volume of Hesperia and even more exciting when it has an article on the famous “manuring hypothesis.” For those unfamiliar, the manuring hypothesis relates to archaeological site formation in the context of intensive pedestrian survey archaeology particularly in Greece. This hypothesis seeks to explain the deposition of ceramic artifacts in “off-site” halos around settlements as the product of transporting manure and assorted inorganic rubbish from the settlement center to peripheral fields. This hypothesis was introduced by the team led by Anthony Snodgrass and John Bintliff to understand the high density offsite scatters surrounding the polis of Thespies in Boeotia (or here).

Since its introduction, scholars have debated the viability of this hypothesis to explain off-site scatters in across Greece. My PKAP and Corinthian colleague David Pettegrew became a leading opponent of the idea when he suggested that, for the Corinthia, much of the offsite material derived from a combination of offsite activities associated with temporary or short-term habitation in the immediate vicinity of the city of Corinth. Hamish Forbes’ article in Hesperia 82.4, “Off-Site Scatters and the Manuring Hypothesis in Greek Survey Archaeology: An Ethnographic Approach” challenges David’s arguments as well as those offered by other scholars who have been skeptical of manuring as an explanation for off-site material in Greece.  

Forbes’s approach develops further some of the ideas that he proposed in a 2012 book chapter where he began to demonstrate the value of careful ethnographic comparisons to understanding manuring practices in the ancient world. In his Hesperia article he stresses the importance of understanding the various contexts in which manuring would have occurred in antiquity and the idea of the different “waste streams” for organic and inorganic material (like pot sherds) in both modern and ancient practices. He introduces this ethnographic approach with a lovely and clever discussion of inorganic material in his own kitchen garden and then brings in examples from his field work on the Methana peninsula in Greece. In England, he noteFrom Methana, he noted that his garden produced a small, but consistent quantity of inorganic material that either came from gardening practices (i.e. plastic baling cords that came with hay or metal nails that traveled along with ash used as fertilizer) or despite his best efforts to remove these objects. On Methana during the 1970s, manure collected for fertilizer followed a very different path from the animal to the fields than household waste. The risk of household objects like broken pottery, metal, or sharp plastic tearing the bags used to transport manure to sometimes distant fields, adding unnecessary weight to the bags of manure, or injuring humans or animals in the field motivated Methanite farmers to keep such detritus separate from manure just as a kitchen gardeners will remove inorganic waste from their garden plots. Ethnographic parallels, in other words, demonstrated that there was a disincentive to mix organic and inorganic material so only small quantities of pottery would enter off-site scatters through the manuring process.

Forbes then tested these practices against the rather low density off-site scatters on the Methana peninsula (and by implication elsewhere) to determine whether the such scatters could be the result of the occasional contamination of manure with ceramic material in antiquity. He does some “back of the notebook” calculations to estimate a conservative total of the quantity of pottery in the plow zone from the Classical period and suggests that this is not inconsistent with inadvertent transport of pottery with manure on Methana and in other locations where off-site artifact densities are quite low (less than 1000 artifacts per ha). While I suspect some will quibble with his calculations for the “total assemblage” of material present off-site, I think his estimates are reasonable and conservative for something that probably needs continued testing to assert with much confidence. 

The final part of the paper returns to Boeotia and examines the significantly higher density off-site scatter from that area (5000+ per ha.). For Forbes some of this increase in density derives from the combination of small sites and genuine “off-site” scatter in the halo around Thespies. More importantly, the waste-stream at Classic Thespies appears to have been different than in Forbes’ kitchen garden or 1970s Methana. First, the terrain of Boeotia is suitable for moving manure in carts rather than in sacks. It may be that the carts of manure from the more built up area in the cities became an easy place to discard both organic and inorganic material because the risks associated with passing inorganic material into the organic material waste stream was less significant. That being said, Forbes also notes that the deeper plow zone in the fertile Boeotian plains was likely to produce more material invisible on the surface than the shallow soils of Methana. After attempting to factor for these variables, Forbes argues that, in fact, the quantity of material in Boeotian off-site scatters was not much higher than one might expect. In fact, he suggests that there is some evidence for the removal of inorganic material from the manure if we assume that the territory around Thespies was rather more intensely manured to support the higher population of the Boeotian city.

The article is a good one and worth considering carefully. Forbes does a nice job of managing the ethnographic comparisons and including a brief discussion of his garden comes off as clever and useful rather than distracting (as sometimes anecdotal evidence can be).  I do wonder whether the estimates of material in the plow zone (the mythical and elusive “total assemblage”) remains difficult foundation for any argument without greater testing (an unlikely prospect in Greece where excavation permits are difficult to obtain and it is rare to be allowed to ground truth survey units). That being said, an approach that considers ethnographic parallels and focuses on discard practices continues to be a way forward. 

I can’t wait to hear (and read?) David Pettegrew’s thoughts on this article!

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