Chelmis and Historical Archaeology in Greece

This fall, we received some really helpful reviews on an article that we submitted to the Journal fo Field Archaeology on our work documenting the Modern site of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. Among the comments was the suggestion that we develop the relationship between our work and historical archaeology more fully. Fortunately, I’ve been reading a good bit of historical archaeology over the past couple of years mostly for a project on the archaeology of the contemporary world. Below is my first effort to locate our work at Chelmis in this context. It’s rough, but very fun to write. 

First, historical archaeology has emphasized the impact of capitalism on our material environment. In fact, capitalism is one of Charles Orser’s famous “haunts” of historical archaeology along with colonialism, Eurocentrism, and modernity. While the archaeology of the modern Greek landscape remains in its infancy, there is a clear interest in how capitalism in both the recent past and in the 19th century shaped land use and settlement. [I blogged a bit on some related work yesterday, but one should include here Mark Groover’s survey of the archaeology of North American Farmsteads as well as his important work at the Gibbs farmstead as representative of the interest in capitalism.]  The famous “Contingent Countryside” of the Southern Argolid embodied the changing strategies of Greek communities as they adapted to the demands of regional and transregional markets. A. Vionis work in Boeotia has likewise recognized cycles of economic boom and bust in the Ottoman countryside that along with various political and environmental factors shaped the countryside in the 18th and 19th century. Changes in the furnishing of Greek houses, for example, paralleled the rise of Western bourgeois sensibilities that demonstrated both access to a wide range of middle class goods, capital to purchase these objects, and leisure time to enjoy small luxuries (Vionis 2012, 335-336).

The appearance of mass produced good in Chelmis, like milled nails and tools, aluminum pots and pans, and plastics, demonstrates this community’s changing relationship to markets, to the networks that supplied manufactured goods to the Greek countryside, and to rural practices. The relatively small assemblage of household goods, particularly ceramics, suggests that the buildings at Chelmis were primarily used for seasonal habitation prior to the appearance of mass produced goods at scale across the Greek countryside. A similar trend occurs throughout Western Europe and North America where the assemblages associated with the rural buildings change significantly in response to market penetration in the countryside.         

The study of settlement in the Greek countryside also represents an interest in the archaeology of rural settlement and the countryside that emerged in the UK and, to a less extent, in Western Europe. These studies are not necessarily separate from the longstanding interest in capital, but have tended to focus particularly on the role of modernity in shaping the use of the activity countryside. Chris Dalglish’s book, for example, focused on changes in rural life in Scotland brought about by various rural “improvement” programs of the 18th and 19th century. Charles Orser, on of the grand old dudes of historical archaeology, studied three Irish rural houses from the the same period and considered the changes to the rural landscape as part of the larger process of rationalizing the landscape. In fact, much of the work on the British landscape, as Matthew Johnson has unpacked, seeks to capture the relationship between the modern and premodern world in the countryside and understand not only the world that was lost but also the processes of change.

While the settlement at Chelmis is almost certainly later than many of the rural landscapes that underwent improvement, rationalization, and modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain, it nevertheless, was also shaped by efforts of the Greek state to transform the landscape. The development of settlements like Chelmis on land between the steeply terraced fields of the mountain villages and the fertile field of the Argive plain reflected efforts by the Greek government to encourage private ownership of formerly state lands. Transhumant pastoralists often developed these lands which were near their winter pastures and allowed themselves greater economy and social flexibility by creating relationships with villages on the plain. The end of season use of the settlement reflects several trends and policies as well. The decline of transhumant pastoralism in Greece, for example, which scholars have documented over the last 40 years reflects changing attitudes toward the movement of flocks through fields and toward the place of pastoralists in the economic and environmental life of the countryside. Mechanized agriculture has also changed the Greek rural landscape. It’s made temporary rural housing largely unnecessary and made it increasingly convenient for farmers to live full time in villages that also provided state and private amenities ranging from banks, to post offices, grocery stores, cafes, schools and government offices. Finally, urbanization and the inexorable draw of regional urban centers, like Argos and Nafplion, as well as Athens drew population from the countryside and away from rural life ways. 

These processes are not unique to Greece but the material evidence for these changing practices and relationships in the Greek countryside remains underrepresented in archaeological literature and rarely articulated in the context of either the broader fields of European (and particularly British) landscape and rural archaeology or (largely North American) landscape archaeology. Instead, there’s a particular strand of landscape archaeology in Greece which tend to look to Classical antiquity as its point of reference and contact, and this tends to imply a kind of continuity in the Greek countryside. At the same time, Greek scholars have a long standing interest in folkways, vernacular architecture, and historical studies of the countryside that often serves the development of national narratives. Our work at Chelmis is situated at the intersection of these analytical paradigms and also looks to historical and landscape archaeology to complicate our perspectives on the modern countryside. 

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