Unfolding a Mountain

One of the particularly challenges that we faced on the Western Argolid Regional Project was how to understand a site at a rock shelter known as Daouli. The site featured a series of fortified rock shelters complete with cisterns and what we interpreted as “gun slits” (actually loopholes) that overlooked the Inachos River valley in the neighborhood of the village of Lyrkeia in the Argolid. The fields around these fortifications produced some Late Roman and Final Neolithic pottery as well as modern material. The fortifications themselves proved difficult to date; they are likely 19th century, but graffiti in the plaster of at least one cistern included dates from the 1940s.

Last weekend, I finally finished Niels Henrik Andreasen, Nota Pantzou, Dimitris Papadopoulos, and Andreas Darlas’s Unfolding a Mountain: A historical archaeology of modern and contemporary cave use on Mount Pelion. (2017). A used copy is available now for $21 on Biblio.

The book is really great. 

It describes a two year survey of caves on Mt. Pelion and considered the range of recent and contemporary uses of the caves through a variety of lenses ranging from archaeological survey, ethnography, epigraphy, and regional history. Mt. Pelion is the rugged and beautiful stretch of mountain that extends roughly southeast of Volos. There are a number of villages on the island, a narrow gauge railroad, orchards, overgrown terraces, stone mansions, and caves. 

The book does a few things that were really helpful. 

First, they demonstrate the wide range of ways that caves have been used in the modern and contemporary period. These range from a field hospital during the Greek Civil War to occasional shelters for shepherds, temperature stable storerooms, hermitages, and even periodically for housing new arrivals on the peninsula. The varieties of use reflect the cave’s location, their shape and size, and the changing political, economic, and social situation on the peninsula over the course of the 19th and 20th century. 

Second, they document the caves, related material culture, and graffiti carefully. Historical archaeology in Greece remains in its infancy, and while many projects recognize the significant of modern and contemporary material culture, most continue to document it in a rather less systematic and intensive way that ancient or medieval material. In Unfolding the Mountain, modern graffiti and stacked stone walls are documented with almost the same care that an ancient inscription would receive. Joanita Vroom’s study of the modern and contemporary ceramics emphasized that we still do not have the same chronological resolution for modern pottery as we do for certain periods in antiquity or, more accurately, other sources of evidence for the recent past offers more precision than we can extract from the long-lived ceramic forms.  

Graffiti on the other hand, often included specific dates or, at very least, years, which provided the authors with a more precise, if not entirely consistent, proxy for cave use during the 19th and 20th centuries. While they did acknowledge that the epigraphic habit changed over time, with certain decades less well represented than others, graffiti nevertheless offered insights into the broad patterns of cave use on Mt. Pelion.

The ebb and flow of resources, migrants, and challenges (including Italians, Nazis, Allies and the combatants in the Greek Civil War) shaped the use of the mountain over time. The agricultural practices and the construction of the railway drew Albanian migrants to the mountain and these workers left their marks on caves where they sometimes resided during their short-term stays in the region. Resistance fighters during the German Occupation and the Civil War used the caves to hide weapons, command posts, and hospitals. Miners and shepherds modified caves in various ways when there were markets for goats (and their cheese) and Pelion stone. 

What’s more striking, in their account is how today many of the caves have slipped into obscurity. Their informants described the mountain as “closed” and even denied the existence of caves in its rugged heights. The absence of grazing goals and cultivated fields outside the immediate vicinity of the villages has allowed the caves to disappear into tangled webs of vegetation. Pave roads, the end of transhumant practices, and fewer large flocks have also resulted in access to the caves being impossible. The authors readily acknowledged that their sample of caves only represented a fraction of what likely existed but was lost to knowledge or now too difficult to access.

As someone who has spent a good bit of time at the margins of the cultivated area in the Argolid and Corinthia, I’ve found it impossible to miss the signs – terraces, buildings, cisterns, wells, paths, et c. – that early modern agriculture and habitation was once far more extensive than it is in the 21st century. As a result, our intensive survey methods, wedded as they are to the flatter, more open, and often still cultivated fields of the valley bottoms and lower slopes around modern villages, can produce a pretty distorted view of the earlier land use. In fact, our tendency to conclude that modern and pre-modern land use and settlement were similar often owes itself, at least in part, to the part of the landscape that we can easily sample. 

The Pelion team does a nice job connecting this sampling bias to larger regional trends and demonstrating how the mountain, its villages, caves, and fields responded to larger regional and transregional trends, which, in turn, defined how archaeologists can understand the mountain today. 

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