This weekend I read an article in the most recent issue of Antiquity titled “Agricultural terraces in the Mediterranean: medieval intensification revealed by OSL profiling and dating” by (takes a deep breath) Sam Turner, Tim Kinnaird, Günder Varinlioğlu, Tevfik Emre Şerifoğlu, Elif Koparal, Volkan Demirciler, Dimitris Athanasoulis, Knut Ødegård, Jim Crow, Mark Jackson, Jordi Bolòs, José Carlos Sánchez-Pardo, Francesco Carrer, David Sanderson, and Alex Turner.
The article, as the title implies, uses optically stimulated luminescence to date terraces from across the Mediterranean. The date of terraces is a perennial problem in the archaeology of the Mediterranean countryside. Not only are terraces ubiquitous in many areas of the Mediterranean basin, but they present a series of intriguing archaeological challenges. For example, terraces often functioned for multiple generations, underwent repairs, and contributed to landscape that reflected a palimpsest of economic, social, and political relationships to rural agricultural production. Developing a system to date terrace walls successfully and at scale has become a bit of a white whale for archaeologists interested in the Mediterranean countryside with targeted excavations, complex GIS analyses, and ethnoarchaeological approaches offer limited, but at times valuable insights.
The project described by Turner et al. uses optically stimulated luminescence at scale to date terrace walls from sites across the Mediterranean. From what I understand, OSL allows one to date samples according to when they were last exposed to light. This appears to involve some kind of science. By taking a series of samples at various depths from behind terraces, Tuner et al.’s work was not only able to identify how the terrace was built, often by recognizing the reverse stratigraphy associated with a cut-and-fill approach to construction, but also, in many cases, date the terrace. Since the article is open access you can go and read it and appreciate the authors’ careful attention archaeological process in their evaluation of the the OSL dates for terrace walls. Note that they also provided the data that supported their arguments as a download, but oddly presented it in as an .xlsx file rather than as a more basic file format.
The article is more than just methodology. The authors’ argue on the basis of the samples that the terraces that there were two major periods of terrace building and modification: the mid-12th century and the early-16th century. On Naxos, where some of the samples were taken, these periods did not necessarily coincided with known settlement in the same region. More significantly, the dates associated with the terrace walls do not seem to coincide with artifact scatters on the surface or more monumental features in the landscape.
In other words, the construction of these terraces is not something that left a marked trace in the landscape. Of course, it is hardly surprising that the construction of terraces didn’t leave a material trace in the landscape, but one would have liked to see traces of increased activity associated with the terrace walls. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of terraces not as necessarily productive features in the landscape, but as aspirational features that reflected the hope for increased agricultural productivity. It may be that the factors that encouraged the investment in terraces at one point in the past did not mature according to plan or perhaps only supported episodic use. In other words, the scenarios that resulted from the increased investment in the landscape may not have left a clear material signature outside of the investment itself.
In this context, the ability to date a terrace or a terrace system consistently offers a window into a aspirational landscape that may or may not coincide with other material traces. This alone offers a distinctive perspective on rural life.