Rural Roman Landscapes of Greece

Now that I’m back working in Greece, I’ll have to start paying closer attention to the annually published Archaeological Reports, and a number of my colleagues helped me out by tipping me off to some of the nice contributions to this year’s edition. Generally speaking, Archaeological Reports summarize recent research in particular chronological period, and mostly they have focused on newly discovered and published sites.  

I was especially glad to read Daniel Stewart’s summary treatment of rural Greece during the Roman period. He does a nice job surveying (pun, pun) the work of intensive pedestrian survey projects in Greece, and this is no easy task as many of these projects have not published traditional archaeological volumes, but in scattered articles in edited volumes and journals. Better still, he goes a step further and considers the general direction of intensive survey in Greece with special reference to the challenges of the Roman period. This attention transforms what could have been a parochial survey of newly discovered Roman rural sites into a must read for anyone interested in intensive pedestrian survey.

Stewart identifies four major areas of development in intensive survey: challenges to ceramic typologies, refined collections strategies, studies across landscape zones, and interdisciplinarity. He does a nice job communicating the problems associated with ceramic chronologies for the Roman period and the vexing, but somehow inescapable dependence on the Early, Middle, and Late Roman chronological division. (I blame prehistorians for passing this chronological structure onto us.) David Pettegrew’s landmark Hesperia article on the “busy countryside” of Late Roman Greece was cited with approval (pdf here). 

At the same time, I think any close observer of survey archaeology would agree with these developments broadly speaking, although one could also say that these recent development have characterized the general trajectory of intensive survey since the 1980s. For example, survey archaeologists have always been working to refine their collection strategies to sample more effectively the material on the surface, and Stewart’s attention to re-survey is less a product of recent methodological refinement and more of a particular opportunistic, expression of longstanding interest in how best to sample and document kaleidoscopic surface assemblages. Stewart is right in recognizing that site classification remains a challenge for intensive survey projects and this is tied directly to the intensity of sampling. More rigorous sampling techniques produce a greater range of sites both in terms of size and, in many cases, in terms of functional assemblage. In some conditions, as few as a handful of fine ware sherds can represent activity in the landscape, but they intensity, type, and duration of activities at that particular place must remain undefined. 

The same could be said for recent attention to interdisciplinarity. The earliest efforts at intensive survey in Greece incorporated ethnographic and scientific components to their work embracing the twin influences of processual archaeology and the unstructured perambulations of early modern travelers. By the late 20th century, it was unthinkable to conduct a survey without geologists, a plan for sectioning pottery, biologists to help understanding flora and fauna, and ethnographers to interpret local knowledge. It was odd that Stewart did not mention the influence of geologists as being particularly important to recent trends in intensive survey. 

Finally, efforts to survey different landscape zones has been part of the survey archaeologist’s tool kit from at least the dawn of the Second Wave of survey projects. This is hardly a new trend or one deserving particular mention. In fact, one could argue that recent (21st century) permit limits that impose a 30 sq km maximum study area for intensive survey project have led to a shift from more extensive approaches to the Greek landscape to a more intensive focus on collection and sampling strategies. Intensive survey is committed to saying more with less.  

I also think that Stewart’s emphasis on the fragility of the surface assemblage in light of more intensive agriculture and development in Greece is misplaced or, at least, poorly defined. It seems hard to image even the most intensive collection regimes putting much of a dent in the abundant material present in a surface assemblage. In fact, our work on Cyprus in conditions in every way compatible with those in Greece suggested that typical sampling methods for intensive survey (20% of the surface) collect less than 10% of the material visible and that assemblage of material is only a tiny fraction of the material present. While deep ploughing/plowing does present a risk to archaeological remains (not to mention soil health), from the perspective of intensive survey, the danger is more closely related to movement of artifacts in the landscape than to any significant destruction of the archaeological record. 

I would have liked Stewart to focus more (any?) attention on the reluctance of the significant second wave survey projects (i.e. Pylos Regional Archaeology Project (update: I included PRAP accidentally in this list!), Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, Kythera Island Project, et c.) to make their raw digital data freely accessible. This has had a substantial impact on our ability to comparing and synthesizing the landscapes produced by these projects.

I might have also liked to see some critique of the tendency toward parochialism in Greek archaeology of the Roman period. Of course, this is a generalization that some might see as unfair, but it nevertheless would have been useful to understand how our understanding of rural Greece in the Roman period contributes or responds to similar interest elsewhere in the Mediterranean. For example, scholars invested in intensive survey methods have focused on rural Roman landscape across the Mediterranean basin. The work of these scholars have produced significant data both in terms of material and methodology for any understanding of Roman Greece.  

Despite my critiques (which are mostly saying that I’d write a different article!), Stewart’s article provides a nice summary of recent work and a great point of departure for anyone interested in staying abreast of recent research in the rural world of Roman Greece. 

Check out David Pettegrew’s review of this article here.

2 Comments

  1. Raw Pylos data has been available at classics.uc.edu/PRAP for the past fifteen years. In a few months Christian Cloke of the University of Cincinnati will defend a PhD thesis that fully sets forth Nemea data pertinent to Roman Greece.

    Reply

  2. Natalia,

    Ooops about the PRAP data. I knew that and fixed it in my post. I’m excited about the prospects of EKAS and maybe Chris’s NVAP dataset becoming available sometime soon. But I stand by my point that there are far more data available and of interest to Roman archaeologists than are available online.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Bill

    Reply

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