NVAP II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside

It was pretty exciting to read through one of the most eagerly await archaeological volumes of the last decade, Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside (2016) published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The book is impeccably produced with lots of color, glossy pages, well-set and proofed texts, meticulous detail, and fine illustrations, maintaining the ASCSA’s standing as the most consistently elegant of the major archaeological publishers. 

The book itself is a hybrid, bridging the gap between the great second wave survey projects in Greece and more mature, contemporary attitudes to landscape and intensive pedestrian survey. Traditionally, intensive surveys in Greece are published in one of two ways: a series of articles dedicated to methods and particular periods or in a single, massive tome which approach the landscape in a diachronic way through various methods. Effie’s book is a single volume dedicated to the Medieval period from an intensive survey, and in this way is rather unique (or at very least comparable to F. Zarinebaf, J. Bennet, and J. L. Davis. 2005. A Historical and Economic Geography of Ottoman Greece: The Southwestern Morea in the 18th Century (2005)). Moreover, unlike Zarinebaf, Bennet, and Davis, NVAP II is strictly archaeological with only very cursory references to texts.

After an introduction of less than 60 pages, most of the book is dedicated to the intensive documentation of individual sites. This includes large and important 12th-13th century settlement site called “Site 600″ or Iraklio/Medieval or Turkish Fountain which extended over 34 ha and produced nearly 1000 potentially Medieval sherds as well as much smaller sites sometimes producing little more than a handful of Medieval fineware sherds. A number of the sites are associated with standing churches with a number of them (e.g. Site 501 and Site 509) also preserving evidence for agricultural production. What is interesting is that these sites are presented as from a survey archaeologists’ perspective with survey unit illustrations, ceramics, and brief descriptions that make almost no reference to standing architecture. In this way, Effie’s book differs from, say, Christopher Mee and Hamish Forbes’ Methana survey volume where significant attention was given to churches as architectural objects that stood apart – to some extent – from artifact level survey work. The significance of this approach in NVAP II is that it marks a shift in emphasis for Medieval archaeology in Greece away from its traditional focus on ecclesiastical architecture and toward the more mundane world of settlement. In this way, this book manifests a kind of confidence in the work of the survey and landscape archaeology which sets its own priorities and agenda without deferring too much to the past practice. 

That being said the majority of this volume is a well-presented site catalogue. This reflects in some ways the priorities of second-wave survey projects in Greece which were feeling their way forward from traditional gazetteers produced through extensive survey toward artifact level and distributional analysis. The greatest shortcoming of the book is the lack of distributional perspective that brings together the landscape of the Nemea Valley project into a single, methodologically integrated whole. While early articles from NVAP have stood as a significant contributions to the development of intensive pedestrian survey methods, this volume does not seem to return to methodology in a substantial way. This probably speaks the maturity of intensive survey in that not every presentation of survey results need be detailed treatment of methods and procedures. At the same time, I wonder whether some attention to methods might have given this book a broader relevance to current conversations about intensive survey. For example, the visibility of certain types of Medieval pottery, almost certainly shaped the kinds of landscapes that intensive survey recognized. Site size has prompted extensive methodological reflection over the past four decades and relates directly to how we understand function in the landscape. Geomorphology, routes and paths, micro-regional variations in climate, vegetation, and soils, all have shaped the distribution of artifact, settlements, and ultimately people across historical landscapes. So as much as this book reflects the growing confidence and autonomy of intensive survey as a mode for understanding the landscape, it also reflects an earlier tradition of site-based documentation with lavish catalogues, site maps, and illustrations. 

In both ways, it represents a significant contribution to the field.

One Comment

  1. I was also eagerly awaiting the arrival of Effie Athanassopoulos’s Nemea Valley Archaeological Project II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside and found it to be superbly produced as well.

    Reply

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