Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia

Last week I worked my way through John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018) in preparation for my annual trek to the Eastern Mediterranean for field work. As the major field seasons for the survey phase of the Western Argolid Regional Project have concluded, we have begun to think more about what we need to do to publish our results. While I have tended to focus on the sherds on the ground (and in the project’s GIS), Haldon et al. reminded me that there was much more than just field data to producing a significant regional study. 

I don’t really write reviews here, but here are four or five thoughts on the book:

1. Low Density and Limited Collection. The area around Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü produced very few sherds and even fewer that were diagnostic. Moreover, they could only collect sherds from the Roman period and later, and this created a particularly challenging relationship between their study assemblages and the distribution of material on the ground. James Newhard’s clever methods for smoothing ceramic densities over different sized units, different surface conditions, and different visibilities provided a foundation for interpreting the assemblages collected and studied from the survey area. 

A bit less clear was the relationship between these artifact densities and the kinds of sites that the project asserted existed in the landscape. It was a bit hard to understand the difference between an independent structure, house, farmstead, and watchtower, for example, in the text itself, but the detailed discussion of these functional categories appeared in a later appendix. I’m still not entirely sold on this method of creating sites, but there is something compelling about the complexity of the historical, landscape, and archaeological variables considered in site definition.    

2. Climate and the Environment. I tend to look at the surface and artifacts when I think about archaeology. In a pinch, I’ll think about a building or a strata. I rarely step far enough away from the artifactual landscape to think clearly about the environment and climate as important factors in understanding how people in the past lived in their world. This is obviously a blind spot in my research focus, and as I extend my interests into more recent periods, the pressing realities of climate change, for example, and our adaptation to the changing environment in the last 50 years, has nudged me to expand how I think about the archaeological universes that I study.

Archaeology and Urban Settlement demonstrated the potential of a careful study of the ancient environment at a regional scale for understanding the development of settlement, agriculture, and land use in their region. Interestingly, their study area had rather few opportunities for sampling pollen or other scientific approaches to studying paleoenvironmental variable. Nevertheless, the team was able to draw one evidence from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern texts as well as modern agricultural and climate date to model the ancient environment in useful ways. They demonstrated that the landscape around Avkat was not unproductive, but as relatively marginal in antiquity as it was in the 21st century with most communities surviving on the cultivation of cereals and pastoralism. Climate change appears to be just one of the variable that shaped changes in agricultural practice, settlement and life in the area. 

3. Roads and Routes. In the Western Argolid, we think constantly about roads and routes through our survey area. In fact, travel through the Inachos valley and its relationship both to neighboring Arcadia and Corinthia as well as the Argive plain to the east, was part of the original plan for the survey project from the onset. So far, we’ve written a few papers that attempted to understand settlement and movement in our landscape and have thought about the relationship between water, routes, bridges, and churches. In general, we have not used least-cost path kinds of analysis, in part because we have some ethnographic and archaeological information on movement through the valley, and in part, because the flat or gently sloping Inachos River valley bottom exerts a strong pull on any path through the area. As a result, we’ve leaned a bit more heavily on cultural factors on movement through the valley, and considered the ways and reasons for which known routes defy least-cost expectations to avoid crops and fields, to follow the line of an aqueduct, or to pass close or far from settlements.

 Archaeology and Urban Settlement does a nice job integrating historical and topographic information into mapping movement in their survey area. This not only provides context for the relationship between sites and routes, but also demonstrates the tension between persistent major routes that shaped the significance of major settlements in the region and the dynamism of smaller routes that linked settlements to their fields or rural sites to other rural sites. While such temporal variability across the landscape is hardly surprising, it is worth noting the trans regional movement on major routes likely represented a less common and regular kind of movement in a landscape. The permeability of the countryside, in contrast, might have reflected myriad, changing smaller routes that accommodated more regular traffic on a daily basis. 

4. Foodways and Ceramics. One of the more intriguing sections of the volume was Joanita Vroom’s chapter of Byzantine foodways and ceramics. Because the local ceramic typologies were relatively poorly know, it was rather difficult to identify and date the surface assemblages. Rather than create an unmoored typology or speculate too wildly on potential economic or social links between the ceramics present in the survey area and potential production sites, Vroom focused on the evidence for Byzantine foodways in the region. By compiling evidence for food, trade, and the related vessels need to provide sustenance to communities who lived in the region.

On the one hand, there is little that is specifically related to the region around Avkat, but, on the other hand, her chapter continued her effort to redefine the study of ceramics from the vessels themselves to their role in the everyday life of Late Roman and Byzantine communities. When this attention to foodways intersects with routes through the area, paleoclimate studies, and agricultural history and ethnoarchaeology, and, of course, excavated and survey ceramics, I can imagine an opportunity to connect the broadly general with the individual at the scale of the landscape, and this is an exciting proposition. 

5. Publishing Data. One particularly intriguing element of the book is that most of the maps and many images were published digitally via Open Context rather than printed in the book itself. This is useful for the digital book, where, if you’re on wifi, the image is just a click away. I was reading on my iPad, on a flight, so I lost a bit of that convenience, but back at my laptop everything worked fine. I imagine that for a reader of the paper book, this would be a bit more inconvenient. 

More promising still is the prospect that the project will publish its full datasets on Open Context in the future.  

 

Writing the Western Argolid

Over the last few days, I’ve been working on a preliminary report for the Western Argolid Regional Project. I mentioned on Monday how writing a preliminary report is always a bit of a fraught exercise, but when actually writing, it is easy enough to put that out of your head and focus on the words on the page.

As part of writing the report, I re-read some of the rather scant ancient sources on our survey area. Pausanias 2.25.4-6 discusses our survey area specifically and twice he notes that there isn’t much to see. In general, Pausanias sees the Inachos valley as an extension of Argive territory and a route between Argos and the neighboring city of Mantinea in Arcadia. This same lack of interest shaped how 19th century travelers treated the region with none that I have encountered venturing beyond the Venetian (?) period fort at the site of Skala where the Inachos valley widens out onto the Argive plain. 

Later scholars – namely Kendrick Pritchett – attempted to reconcile Pausanias’s description of the site of Lyrkeia being 60 stades from Argos and Orneai being 60 stades from Lyrkeia. This involved him poking around the sites of Melissi where the French excavated some Mycenaean chamber tombs in the early 20th century and Chelmis, where there is a substantial scatter of Classical period material around a church dedicated to the Panayia. Since Pausanias’s notes that Lyrkeia was in ruins by his day and suggested that it was destroyed before the Trojan War, and hence, was left out of the the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, Pritchett is content to identify it with something in the vicinity of the Melissi tombs rather than in the neighborhood of Chelmis. More than that, he suggested that Chelmis does not seem to be on a major route through the area so seemed to be an unlike stop for Pausanias who seemed mostly concerned with sites along the Inachos river bottom. Greek scholars, Ioannis Pikoulas and Ioannis Peppas, have explored the region a bit more thoroughly but also tend to follow the routes along the valley bottom that Pausanias’s traced in his sojourns from Argos.

The entire effect of the tradition from antiquity to modern times is that this region is peripheral to Argos and a mostly a travel corridor from the Argive plain to points west and north. Our project essentially tested this hypothesis both by exploring intensively the valley bottom and surrounding region to determine whether Pausanias’s somewhat laconic description was justified, and by considering the region in its own right to understand whether networks of settlement and movement functioned independently of the “central places” of the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern world.

As a hint, we have found some evidence that this was, indeed, the case and the Pausanian landscape suffered from his general (and well-documented) lack of interest in post-Classical sites, but also the tendency of central places and their political and economic networks to overwrite and obscure patterns of settlement and movement in the landscape that reflect decentralized and more local traditions. As Tom Gallant noted 25 years ago, these decentralized networks of relations supported a kind of social insurance for communities by allowing them to diversify the risk that came with overly strong ties to central places. While these networks are pretty hard to see in archaeology, there are signs that they exist throughout our survey area and not only help us understand the presence of sites that don’t conform to the Pausanian itinerary but also reflect a dynamic countryside that was more than simply the productive coda to the consumer city.

Lakka Skoutara and Abandonment: PrePrint with Pictures

Over almost 15 years, David Pettegrew and I have been revisiting the rural settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and documenting the changes. At first, our interest was to document site formation processes at the site and observe how abandoned buildings and houses fell down over time.

Figure 8 house7 image20 2009 d263338a90

After only one or two visits, however, we discovered that these houses were not simply left alone to collapse in the Greek countryside, but continued to be centers of a wide range of rural activities. For example, several of the houses lost their ceramic tile roofs during over the past 15 years, and others have seen regular maintenance and, in at least one case, expansion. As a result, our research shifted from a rather abstract (and naive) view of this settlement as a case study for site formation to a more dynamic and complex project designed to document the material engagement with the Greek countryside over a period of 15 years.

While it goes without saying that the history of rural Greece continues to attract attention from anthropologists, historians, geographers, as well as local antiquarians, there has been relatively less formal and systematic archaeological study of 20th century rural sites. Our work at Lakka Skoutara is not entirely unique, but it makes a useful contribution to the small number 20th century rural sites that have received systematic and sustained archaeological study in Greece.

You can download a draft of our paper here. Or read about our most recent visit to the site here.

The Site

This summer I spent a good bit of time thinking about “the site” in survey archaeology. After four seasons of intensive pedestrian survey in the Western Argolid, we have started to analyze the data from our intensive pedestrian survey. We designed our project as a siteless survey and covered nearly all the small survey units (~2500 sq. m), high intensity sampling (10 m spacing), and no systematic change in method for higher density units. As a result, we produced a distribution map of artifacts across the landscape of the Western Argolid that shows gradations of artifact densities rather than dots on the map as one would see from a site-based survey project.

IMG 2765

Despite this approach to our survey area, we have come to realize that the vast majority off our pre-modern ceramics are concentrated in about 20 “clusters” across the landscape. This causes a bit of productive intellectual tension on our project. Were these clusters of artifacts “sites” produced by our siteless survey? Where these sites real? Were they the product of unrelated and overlapping period-specific phenomena or did they actually represent significant places for people, communities, and material in the landscape? As a siteless survey project we were caught in an intellectual grey area situated between the site as an apparent reality of our distribution of material, the site as a central discursive element of Mediterranean archaeology, and the site as a methodologically constituted (and produced) result from certain archaeological practices from the gridded collection of early survey projects to excavation. In practical terms, we began to speak easily of “off site scatters” even though this kind of language tended to imply a methodological distinction between “on site” (typically gridded) and “off site” (typically produced by transect walking) that did not apply to our field work.

IMG 2462

This got us thinking about sites on our project and whether the use of the term simply represented a convenient shorthand for our evident concentrations of material or whether we should spend some serious thought about understanding how to talk about these “sites” in the landscape. As I have noted in an earlier post, we spent some time tracing period specific clusters of artifacts across the landscape and applying buffers of various sizes to produce assemblages that go beyond groups of units with particular periods present and tries to capture the larger material landscape (including surface conditions and other variable that impact artifact recovery). With this kind of analysis, our sites or concentrations of artifacts in our survey area become overlapping clusters of material shaped by past activities in the landscape and surface conditions.

IMG 2674

The careful study of the overlapping and interlacing period clusters could demonstrate, if not exactly continuity, at least general patterns in the way in which various assemblages drew upon (1) common contemporary aspects of the landscape (i.e. that impact recovery rates), (2) persistent features in the landscape (i.e. heights, resources, et c.), and (3) historical relationships through time (i.e. continuity, reuse, memory, et c.). Moreover and perhaps more importantly, I think we could integrate siteless survey with an approach that respects the discursive significance of sites in Classical archaeology by showing how our method both problematizes sites and defines them in new but commensurate ways. For WARP, sites could become space where surface conditions, historical processes, and topography, geology, geography, and other natural and cultural features intersect to produce archaeological visible and meaningful places. 

IMG 2634

In this ways, sites become true indicators of the limits of our method, windows into the diachronic use of the landscape, and spaces for problematizing interpretation rather than the functional results of interpretive processes.

Distributional Analysis

One of the challenges of siteless survey is shifting our intention from a focus on sites to the distribution of artifacts across a landscape. Over the last four years at the Western Argolid Regional Project we have collected artifact level data from over 7000 survey units that cover a significant percentage of our 30 sq km survey area. 

IMG 2463

The material includes several clear clusters of high density units some of which are associated with known sites as well as a wide scatter of material clustered in different ways across the modern countryside. The temptation is to focus on the larger and higher density clusters which have produced more robust assemblages of material and are more susceptible to analysis on the basis of function, chronology, and settlement structure. In fact, there is no escaping from the fact that the more material an area produces, the more we are able to say about the areas history, use, and regional context. What is harder to understand is how areas or even single survey units that produce small assemblages can contribute to the greater understanding of the landscape and region. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks attempting to figure out how to describe the contours of the artifactual landscape of our survey area as a whole and to pull apart the high and low density clusters that constitute the artifact distribution. Some of the things that I had to consider are how to define a cluster: is it related to the number of objects? do the units that produced artifacts have to be contiguous or can they be interrupted? how do we control for surface visibility, background disturbance, and other variables that impact recovery rates on individual units? 

Even when I was able to use various kinds of buffering and neighborhood analysis to create archaeologically plausible clusters of units with material from various periods, we then had to determine the arrangement of these clusters across the landscapes. The distance of one group of cluster from another (and the impact of the vagaries of our survey area on this kind of distribution) would appear to offer at least one indication of connectivity in our survey area and perhaps an indicator of density or intensity of human activity in the landscape. At the same time, factors such as period length and recovery rates associated with particular classes (or types) or artifacts likewise shape the visibility of periods and functions in the landscape.

Developing a template or a lens through which we define and construct assemblages for analysis is among the most challenging aspect of siteless survey and one that will likely occupy my time and energy for a quite some time to come!

Views of Digital Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a good bit about digital archaeology lately. This is partly because I’ve been working on a paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association meeting and in part because I’ve been doing digital stuff over the last week or so.

My colleague Dimitri Nakassis wrote a little post about archaeology being hard over on the Western Argolid Regional Project page last week. This is a bit of a response in a series of photographs. I’m not so much arguing that digital archaeology is or isn’t hard, but that it is not very scenic or beautiful. I’ve spent some quality screen time over the past few days.

IMG 2391

IMG 2393

IMG 2440

Two Book Tuesday: Atari Age and Artifacts in Silicon Valley

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of reading casually just a bit in two books. First, I’ve read most of Michael Z. Newman’s Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT 2017), and at the same time, I discovered Christine A. Finn’s Artifacts: An Archaeologist’s Year in Silicon Valley (MIT 2001). Both books offer distinctive impressions of late 20th century digital culture and contribute in some way to my long term research trajectories.

The utility of Newman’s book is more immediate. He frames the emergency of video game in the 1970s and 1980s against the backdrop of the video arcade with its seedy reputation inherited from gaming parlors of the early 20th century. (In my own experience, I never really understood why my parents did not let me go to the Silver Ball Arcade as a kid. There was something seedy about it in my parents’ mind (and a waste of money) that placed that space out of bounds for me and my brothers). Atari’s success involved translating the thrill of arcade games while domesticating them. The early advertisements for Atari, then, emphasized their domestic setting and showed families playing the games together. By the mid-1980s, however, the idyllic family setting had taken on a more male slant as mothers and daughters disappear and fathers, sons, and brothers remained, but still in the relative comfort of the domestic environment. The domestication of the arcade took place in two stages with the first locating the games at home among the entire family and the second returning game play to a male realm while still safely ensconced in the home. The final stage involved transporting the players from the home to the fantasy world of the game which almost alway was encoded male. Sports, war, and adventure outside the home (in space, in fantastic worlds, or as the protagonist of a feature film) remained the male domain for most of the 1980s (and perhaps today) as the safely domesticated games invited players to engage in less mundane adventures in fantastic landscapes. 

Finn’s book was one of this books that I should have read earlier. Finn, an Oxford trained archaeologist who had a career as a journalist, traveled to Silicon Valley in 2000 to experience the most talked about landscape in late-20th century American geography. While the book isn’t exactly a tourist guide, like that offered by Forrest Mims Siliconnections (1986), Finn is clear that her work “is a kind of Cook’s tour of my own, a brief one, and from the perspective of an archaeologist as foreign correspondent” (xiii).

As someone who just wrote a tourist guide to a 21st century landscape, I was thrilled to find that someone else had had this idea before me. Finn is a better writer than I am, but she also views Silicon Valley less through the lens of the tourist and more as a journalist. In particular, she focused on the characters whom she met during her travels. More than that, though, she demonstrates a keen eye for history and change in the Silicon Valley landscape and the often ironic efforts to reclaim some of the historical landscape of the Valley, but in a way that does not disrupt development and a sense of progress. A historic cherry farm gives way to high end shopping that includes a shop that sells imported cherries and cherry themed gifts. A retired computer engineer recreates a rustic garden in his backyard including a writing shed to escape from the very bustle that allowed him this luxury. Historic buildings are celebrated and moved to more convenient locations for visitors coming to the region for technology related business or travel. The landscapes that Finn creates demonstrates the deep ambivalence toward the changes in our late-20th century world. Her book bridged the gap between William Least Heat Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map), which is filled with compelling characters, and my own book, The Bakken, where I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully) to push the changing Bakken landscape to the fore.  

Writing up the Excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus, Part 1.

A few weeks ago, I boldly complained (in my head) that this is the February of Pyla-Koutsopetria. Since then, my colleagues and I have been working frantically to get the second volume of our work at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus completed and ready for submission. The second volume documents our three seasons of excavation and a couple of seasons of early excavation at the site by the Department of Antiquities on Cyprus.

I was tasked with wrapping up the conclusion while I have most of the basic summary work done, I’m working this week on the historiographic components of the conclusion that frame my more summary remarks. I’m arguing that contemporary archaeology of Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine Cyprus is primarily concerned with three things: first, it continues the tradition of placing Cyprus within the economic and political context of the Roman East; second, it has expanded from being a largely urban archaeology (with a few notable exceptions) to an archaeology invested as much in the landscape and countryside as in the monumental urban centers; and finally, work on Cyprus has contributed to the growing interest in the “long Late Antiquity” in the Eastern Mediterranean that argues from continuities between the 5th and 8th or even 9th centuries there.

This is how I started this section today (and please excuse the incomplete and, perhaps, inaccurate citations!):

Historically, urban archaeology has dominated the study of Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine Cyprus. The impressive urban sites of Paphos, Kourion, Salamis, Soloi, Amathus, and even Polis-Arsinoe have received the majority of archaeological attention. This has largely followed long-standing interests in the Iron Age kingdoms of the island and the island’s reputation as one of the most urban landscapes of the Eastern Mediterranean. For Late Antiquity, this attention to urban contexts produced a bumper crop of monumental Early Christian basilicas and excavations at Paphos, Amathus, Kourion, and Salamis revealed multiple examples of elaborate Christian buildings. The emphasis on urban sites and Christian buildings contributed to argument for long-term continuity of settlement on the island from the Iron Age into the Roman and Late Roman periods. Moreover, it provided archaeological evidence for the antiquity of these urban episcopal sees that represented the famously autonomous Cypriot church in antiquity and demonstrated ecclesiastical continuity into the modern period. The archaeological attention received by monumental Christian architecture exerted a formative influence over the trajectory of Late Roman and Byzantine archaeology on the island. Church plans, architectural typologies, and less frequently decorative techniques, particularly mosaic and wall painting, formed the basis for interpreting the place of Cyprus in the both the history of Late Roman and Byzantine architecture, and in the Eastern Mediterranean. From G. A. Soteriou’s ambitious arguments for the central role of Cypriot churches in the development of Byzantine architecture more broadly (1935; see Davis and Stewart 2014) to A.H.M. Megaw’s famous article that asked whether Byzantine architecture on Cyprus was metropolitan or provincial (1974) and Slobadon Curcic’s 2000 reformulation of that question as provincial or regional, architecture, floor plans in particular, provided evidence for the relationship between Cyprus and the rest of the Mediterranean world. Unfortunately, in many cases, these urban churches remain little known beyond their plans (and their impressive remains) with few receiving careful publications and only two, the Episcopal Basilica at Kourion and the South Basilica at Polis, resting on a thorough study of stratigraphy supported by the analysis of small finds and context pottery. As a result, these buildings remain difficult to date archaeologically. Moreover, in many cases, these buildings remain detached from their larger urban contexts as excavators either focused their attention on monumental architecture or chose primarily to publish the results from this work. There are obvious exceptions to this, of course, at Salamis, Paphos, Kourion, and Polis, but the overall unevenness of both publication and excavation has made it difficult to contextualize Cypriot architecture and urbanism within the larger Roman and Late Roman world.

Recent work on Cyprus has looked to recontextualizing the archaeology of in three basic ways. First, archaeologists have sought to continue the long-standing effort to locate Cyprus within the larger Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine worlds. G. Hill’s and T. Mitford’s argument that Cyprus was a quiet backwater of the Roman East, based largely on historical sources, has been fundamentally challenges by the work of Dimitri Michaelides (e.g. 1996), John Hayes’s publication of the ceramics from the House of Dionysios at Paphos (1991), and the work of John Lund (xxxx). These scholars and their younger contemporaries (Leonard xxxx, Gordon 2012, xxxxxx) have demonstrated that during the first seven centuries AD, that Cyprus was deeply embedded in the economic life of the Roman East, trading extensively with their neighbors, reflecting wider trends across the empire, and exploiting their natural and agricultural resources for both public and private expressions of power and wealth. In the 21st century, recent work on connectivity, globalization, revised ideas of insularity, and hybridized culture have shaped our view of Roman Cyprus as a sphere for distinct forms of cultural and economic interaction that extend far beyond monumental architecture. The quantitative analysis of imported and local ceramics, evidence from shipwrecks and ceramic production sites, and survey and excavation at small harbors, emporia, villages, and non-monumental buildings have all contributed to a view of Cyprus that is deeply embedded in the Roman and Late Roman world.

Contingency, Roads, and Formation Processes in the Greek Countryside

This last week I’ve been working on transforming a paper that Dimitri Nakassis and I wrote from the 2016 Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting. The paper was for a panel organized by Deb Brown and Becky Seifried on the topic of abandoned settlements. Dimitri and I wrote not so much about settlements as about roads and routes through the Greek countryside using the Western Argolid as an example. 

As I’ve worked to transform the paper into a proper article, I’ve started to try to weave together two complicated little strands related to regional level intensive pedestrian survey. One strand understands the countryside as contingent and dynamic and challenges the perspective that rural Greece was backward or unchanging guide to ancient practices. The view of the Greek countryside as stagnant and conservative drew heavily on both contemporary Western views of conservative rural life as well as Orientalist ideas that the East was resistant to change and, as a result, and unreceptive to the forces of progress (and perhaps resistant to the transformative power of capital). The most obvious expression of this among Classicists was the tendency to look to rural life and practices as a place that preserved ancient culture. Efforts to conflate ancient places with modern villages by the modern Greek state reinforced the plausibility of a conservative countryside. This, in turn, supported the nationalist narrative advanced by both the West and the Greek state itself that the modern Greek nationstate had it roots in the Ancient Greek world. By changing Slavic, Albanian, or Turkish place names to the names of Ancient Greek places, the modern state sought less to overwrite the more recent history of the region and more to restore the authenticity of the Greek countryside.

For archaeologists, this confidence in a stable Greek countryside arrived with the early travelers who took ancient texts as their guides and consistently noted practices that evoked those in ancient sources. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, intensive pedestrian survey and processual archaeology had begun to produce evidence for a more dynamic view of rural settlement patterns where even major settlements expanded, contracted, appeared, and vanished over the centuries. Attention to the Early Modern and Ottoman Greek landscape by the Argolid Exploration Project and in the Nemea Valley demonstrated that far from being ossified and unchanging, rural life, economic strategies, and settlement in the northeast Peloponnesus was in constant flux as denizens of the countryside adapted to local and regional economic and political opportunities. To put their conclusions in starkly contemporary terms, scholars like Susan Buck Sutton demonstrated that precarity of capitalism was alive and well in the Greek countryside throughout the Early Modern and Modern periods. While this may initially feel like something to celebrate as it makes clear that Greece was not an Oriental backwater, it should also give us pause as it reminds us that the self-sufficient farmer so celebrated for their independence was every bit a product of larger economic forces as any kind of individual will. Removing the condescending (and racist) burden of the Oriental conservatism from the backs of the Greek peasant and replacing it with forces of capital does not, necessarily, impart more agency in the Greek villager, farmer, or pastoralist. Agency within the capitalist system may appear more “modern,” but in some ways, it is only an inversion of an Orientalist reading of Greece by hinting that the instability, contingency, and precarity of rural life anticipates progressive modernity.  

Whatever the larger metanarrative at play, contingency is now a significant paradigm for understanding Early Modern and Modern Greece, and understanding the process of abandonment plays an important roles in recognizing change in the Greek countryside. Attention to abandonment involves a greater commitment to reading artifact scatters in the countryside as the products of archaeological and natural formation processes rather than palimpsests of settlement or other rural activities. As we come to privilege the contingency and dynamism of the countryside more, we also lose some of our confidence in assigning tidy functional categories to rural survey assemblages. Low density scatters of artifacts, for example, may well represent short-term habitation, low intensity rural activities, or even redistributive practices like manuring or dumping.

For our paper, the significance of contingency and our reading of formation processes intersect in our analysis of two seasonal rural settlements in the process of abandonment and the routes that connected these sites to larger networks of travel in the region. In traditional reading of the landscape of the Inachos Valley and the Western Argolid, scholars have tended to see modern routes along the flat valley bottom as more or less following ancient routes. In this context (and putting aside the role played by topography and geography, for example), long-standing roads serve as indicators of persistent patterns of movement, settlement, and the political relationship between places. A more contingent view of the countryside, however, forces us to consider the more ephemeral routes through the landscape that leave only fleeting traces in the landscape and connect less persistent settlements. 

Moreover, and this to my mind is really neat, roads and routes through the countryside also shape the formation processes at individual sites. For example, the proximity of an structure to an unpaved dirt road seems to have influenced whether that structure was maintained and used for storage or provisional discard. The dirt road, however, may not have any relationship to the earlier, simpler path that originally connected the settlement to other places in the region. Access by modern dirt road shaped the formation processes at play in the settlement. Structures only reached through footpaths tend to see less modern activity.  

For our paper, we present an example from the Western Argolid to demonstrate the presence and significance of these contingent routes through the countryside, to unpack the relationship of roads to formation processes at abandoned settlements, and to suggest that the contingent countryside is not simply about places, but also about all the interstitial spaces that define social, economic, and political relationships in the changing landscape. 

2018 AIA Abstract: The Medieval Countryside at a Regional Scale in the Western Argolid and Northeastern Peloponnesus

It’s Archaeological Institute of America Season, and I offered to take the first swing at our paper for this January’s annual archaeology festival.

Here’s our abstract:

The Medieval Countryside at a Regional Scale in the Western Argolid and Northeastern Peloponnesus
Dimitri Nakassis, University of Colorado, Sarah James, University of Colorado, Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University, and William Caraher, University of North Dakota

The study of the medieval Mediterranean is paradoxical. On the one hand, scholars have continued to define the master narrative for the Medieval and Byzantine periods in the Mediterranean through politics and church history. On the other hand, few periods have seen as concerted an effort to understand the life and experiences of nonpolitical classes from villagers to monks, mystics, and merchants. At the risk of simplifying a complex historiography, historians of the Annales School pioneered the study of everyday life in medieval and early modern Europe. At the same time, Byzantine historians have drawn influence from concepts of cultural materialism to critique the codevelopment of particular economic and political systems and to recognize the fourth to 14th century as a period of rural transformation. This work has found common ground with landscape archaeologists who since the 1970s have sought to emphasize long-term, quantitative methods within tightly de ned regional contexts to understand the tension between local and re- gional developments in the medieval countryside.

Recent work in the Peloponnesus and central Greece by the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, the Argolid Exploration Project, the Boeotia survey, and the Methana Survey Project, among others, provides a methodologically sophisticated, regional perspective on the medieval countryside that is almost unprecedented in the Mediterranean. This paper adds to this existing body of regional evidence based on three seasons of the Western Argolid Regional Project. From 2014–2016, this project documented 30 km2 of the Inachos River valley through highly intensive pedestrian survey. This work has revealed significant postclassical activity ranging from Late Antique habitation to 13th-century settlements and Venetian towers. These sites derive greater significance from both the impressive body of recently published fieldwork on the countryside of the northeastern Peloponnesus and the well-documented histories of the urban centers of Argos, Nafplion, and Corinth. The existence of both rural and urban contexts in this region offers a unique opportunity to consider the tensions between town and country and rural life and urban politics in the postclassical centuries. The result is a study of the medieval countryside that probes the limits of the long-standing and largely urban and political master narrative while also demonstrating significant regional variation.