Pastoralism and Islands

I was really excited to receive a copy of P. Nick Katdulias’s most recent edited volume titled The Ecology of Pastoralism (Boulder 2015). I’ve known Nick for as long as I’ve been active in the field of archaeology and his career which has spanned periods from Late Antiquity and Byzantium to the modern age and embraced excavation, field survey and remote sensing, has been a kind of model for my own, although he is far more of the anthropologist and archaeologist than I will likely ever be.

As readers of this blog know, I spent a couple weeks this summer with a team of graduate students and volunteers documenting an early modern pastoral site called Chelmis while on the Western Argolid Regional Project. Nick’s book will provide a cutting edge backdrop for our reflections on the history and archaeology of the site of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. I wish I had time right now to read this book, follow the various references, and begin to interrogate our evidence from Chelmis. The good news is that I’ll have to process at least some of this book before we give our paper on our work at Chelmis at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting this winter.

That being said, I couldn’t resist reading Nick’s contribution to this volume in large part because he documents a modern site on the almost abandoned island of Dokos off the coast of the Southern Argolid in the Aegean. The trips to this island were motivated in part by its proximity to the main land and other inhabited islands as well as Nick’s and Tim Gregory’s interest in deserted coastal islands in the Corinthian and Saronic Gulf. Like many of these islands, Dokos lacks a natural water source forcing any longterm residents of the island to rely on cistern for water. Tim and Nick worked to challenge the idea that during Late Antiquity (especially the 7th century) these islands became refuges for cowering imperial subjects as Roman (or Byzantine) control of Greece collapsed. Instead, they’ve suggested that settlements on these islands represented new strategies of economic exploitation brought on as much by population pressure and changing economic opportunities as disruptive invasions. This work has done a good bit to change how we think about Greece during Late Antiquity. (And a full publication of the Late Antique remains from Dokos would certainly contribute even more evidence to their larger arguments.)

Kardulias’s contribution to his edited volume does not deal with the Late Antique phase of activity on Dokos but draws on interviews with the modern residents of the island and some basic investigation of their settlement. The modern residents of the island consist of a single couple who have lived on-and-off on Dokos since the late 1940s. At that time they had herds of goats and sheep and grew grain and olives on the island’s rocky terraces. At times they’d move the flocks from Dokos to pastures in the Southern Argolid, but today, the couple keeps a goats, sheep, chickens, a few donkeys and a couple of dogs on the island full time.

Kardulias emphasized that their life on the island may be lonely, but it’s hardly isolated. Their family first settled on the island during the disrupted period of the Greek Civil Wars, but always relied on markets on surrounding islands and on the mainland. In fact, changes in the economic fortunes of the Southern Argolid in the 1940s and 1950s provided new opportunities for the residents on Dokos both in terms of markets and in terms of places for their  flocks to graze.

Like our work at Chelmis, Nick’s team complemented their interviews with archaeological documentation of the small settlement which consisted of the homes of the resident couple and on of their sons, a cheese making shed, pens for animals, and, of course, a cistern as well as a church. An abandoned cistern served as a dump for discarded household material and equipment. 

Our site at Chelmis shared certain characteristics with the settlement on Dokos. It clearly flourished in the period after the World War II as both a pastoral settlement and the site of agriculture with olives and grain being harvested by the same families whose sheep and goats grazed in the area. Moreover, despite the relatively marginal appearance and location of these sites, it is clear that they were deeply embedded in larger networks of travel and exchange. As the work in the nearby Southern Argolid has shown, the changing relationship of Greece with both Mediterranean and European markets had as much to do with the shifting strategies of settlement and creative opportunities to exploit even isolated landscapes for their value to nearby, regional, and even global markets.

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