Survey Archaeology and Regionality in Roman Boeotia

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Dean Peeters’ Shaping Regionality in Socioeconomic Systems: Late Hellenistic – Late Roman Ceramic Production, Circulation, and Consumption in Boeotia, Central Greece (c. 150 BC–AD 700) (2023). It’s quite a book and certainly has helped me get into the necessary groove for this summer’s work in the Corinthia as well as to think more broadly about some research questions that I’ve been mulling for nearly a decade now on Cyprus.

This book is clearly a revised dissertation and as a result it has much of the positive and some of the negative elements of these kinds of books. There is an imposing amount of theorizing in the first few chapters frames the data in interesting ways, but also is a bit overwhelming and one wonders whether it necessary adds to the arguments that Peeters builds carefully from the evidence. In fact, the other challenge of this book is the quantity (and evident quality) of detailed evidence deployed to support his arguments.

A proper review of this book will require a massive investment in the nitty-gritty of Peeters’ arguments and theorizing. I don’t have the energy or attention span for that right now, but I want to draw attention to some of the more interesting parts of this book. To begin, it’s necessary to understand that Peeters arguments are based on the remarkable assemblages produced and studied over almost 50 years of work by survey archaeologists in Boeotia (mostly associated with Cambridge Boeotia Project and its various manifestations).   

1. Regions. One of the coolest observations that Peeters makes is that regions are both the product of political and economic forces and reciprocally create contexts for the political and economic relationships to manifest. Peeters observes that history, natural resources, political relations (especially proxenoi ties), economic connections, physical routes, and even cultural connections shaped the distribution of material in Boeotia. Moreover, these variables are not independent from one another, but entangled in ways that we probably can’t unpack through archaeological material alone. That said, we should not assume the integrity of regions, but work to explore the limits of the concept. 

2. Local fabrics and pXRF. Peeters produces a nice catalogue of local fabrics and forms as well as arguments for production sites based, in part, on the distribution of wasters, kiln furnishings, and other evidence for production. He complemented the more traditional macroscopic analysis of Boeotian fabrics with a focused campaign of sampling with a portable XRF device. This allowed him to ground truth, so to speak, his assessment of fabrics by determining whether the chemical composition of various fabrics reflected their macroscopic differences and suggested different sources. Peeters’ approach with XRF was pretty limited in scope and generally based on the comparison of only two minerals at a time. As a result, he recognized that his conclusions were provisional (and this reflected a realistic appraisal of the limits of pXRF as well), but nevertheless suggestive and I might go so far to say plausible.  

3. Rural and Urban. One of the most intriguing analyses that Peeters conducted was comparing material from urban areas (Thespies and Tanagra, in particular) to ex-urban and rural areas. This meant not only comparing material associated with urban, ex-urban, and rural sites, but also assemblages of material produced through both on-site and off-site survey methods. In doing this he engaged in a good bit of source criticism of the material collected (drawing quite heavily on David Pettegrew’s fine work!) in an effort to make sure that different assemblages collected using different methods and studied by different scholars were commensurate.   

4. Time. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that Peeters uses aoristic analysis as a way to smooth the comparison of ceramics datable to different scales across time. In other words, Peeters assumes that any sherd datable to a particular range of dates is equally likely to appear in any year during that range. This allows him to compare ceramic assemblages by 50 year interval. It also recognizes that some kind of coarse wares may only be datable to periods of 200 (e.g. Late Roman) or even 500 years (e.g. Roman) and including artifacts with varying degrees of “diagnosticity” or datable to various resolutions is particularly important to balance between well-known and narrowly dated imported wares and locally produced ceramics which tend to be have fewer secure stratigraphic context necessary to produce a narrow date range. To compensate for this, Peeters compares assemblages based on material datable to a 300 year range and then including all sherds datable to 500 year range. 

5. Regional Variation. The goal of this book was to assess and interpret regional variation in Boeotia. This meant not only the differences between rural and urban assemblages, but also the varying proportion of local, regional, and imported ceramics from across the Mediterranean. The results were, as one might expect, complex especially considering that Peeters sought to understand the changing character of Boeotian assemblages across the entire Roman period. More than that, Peeters demonstrates that different kinds of pottery — cooking, storage and transport, and table wares — often reflected different distribution patterns. This undermined the traditional argument that ceramics were a proxy for trade in all goods and that distribution of various ceramics reflected access to larger markets in general. The variations in the distribution of table wares hinted that communities may have had preferences for one type of ware over another. In other words, intraregional variation in ceramics seems to indicate a certain the existence of Roman “economies” present in the Boeotia which shifted independently from each other and at different rates and ways over time. Peeters supports these arguments through the use of remarkably robust data sets that he manages to simplify sufficiently (as simple as necessary, but no simpler) to isolate key variables. 

These conclusions, as tentative as they may be, offer a model for the kind of analysis that I’ve been attempted — in somewhat half-hearted ways, for Cyprus over the last few years. I’ve long wondered about the variation in Late Roman fine wares on Cyprus. I’ve argued, with a good bit of caution, that this might reflect local preference, but I’m also aware that some of the variation at sites might reflect chronological changes to the distribution of material on the island. Peeters’s work provides me with a model to consider as I continue to mull over the implications of inter-site and intraregional variation on the island. 

5. The Next Generation of Survey. Over the last couple of years there has been a nice uptick in innovative uses of survey data. Works like Catherine Kearns’s The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus (2022), Foteini Kondyli’s Rural Communities in Late Byzantium: Resilience and Vulnerability in the Northern Aegean (2022), and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018) seem to be charting new possibilities for the use of survey data that recognizes more explicitly its limitations without being apologetic. I think it is reasonable to add Dean Peeters’s book to this list. 

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