Terrace Tuesday is NOT a Thing (But It Should Be)

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.      

Archaeology, Nationalism, Destruction

Earlier this summer, I was wandering around an “abandoned” 20th century seasonal settlement in the Western Argolid with a few colleagues, and while we spent time documenting the site and looking carefully at the buildings there, we were also using the site as a way to think (until I was attacked by some kind of bug that had gotten into the sleeve of my long-sleeve and started, understandably, to attack me. Then, there was no thought, just sheer panic. I still have scars, but no one on WARP seemed to really care.).


One thing that we discussed was how sites like these fit awkwardly into the dominant archaeological narrative of the Greek nation. The site was not monumental, for example, nor do its buildings and artifact celebrate the something singular, transcendent, and distinctive about either this corner of the Argolid or the Greek world. Moreover, the site did not fit into a clear stage in the settlement in the Greek countryside. It revealed neither progress nor persistence, but irregular adaptation and modification through time. In many ways, the episodes of abandonment and use defied the more linear narrative of archaeological history which celebrated the development of the Greek state, the Greek world, and – broadly speaking – the West over time. We wondered how publishing sites like these might complicate narratives of the past by showing how the present (or at least the recent past) defies the kind of tidy interpretative trajectory presented by the dominant archaeological and national narrative. Maybe attention to sites like these can disrupt some of the more colonial elements of Classical archaeology by recognizing a Greek past that doesn’t necessarily contribute neatly to a sense of shared or common heritage with the West or even the Greek nation as a coherent cultural unit.

Two recent articles have further engaged my thinking about archaeology and the nation (which has begun to feel a bit like an evergreen topic of study for a generation of archaeologists who came of age in the late 20th and early 21st century). A colleague (h/t Grace Erny!) sent a copy of Vasileios Varouchakis’s recent piece in Public Archaeology (2018), titled “Indigenous Archaeologies of Crete, 1878-1913.” Varouchakis considers the rise of a national archaeology during the period when Crete was an independent protectorate of the great powers (which he argued paralleled and anticipated the national archaeology when Crete became part of the Greek state). Instead of just tracing the emergence of archaeological institutions and projects at the state or international level, however, Varouchakis examined role of local communities in creating an indigenous archaeology on the island. In some cases, this involved working closely with archaeologists on projects that represented shared interest like a switch-back path to the cave above Psychro village which provided access for archaeological work as well as the nutrient rich deposits valued as fertilizer. Restaurants and hotels for visitors followed archaeological projects as did the opportunities for paid work for Cretan peasants. The interaction with both foreign and local archaeologists in these “contact zones” remains familiar to anyone working on a foreign project today, but also served as a space for Cretans to learn the value of archaeology and archaeological artifacts to the state and its partners. This knowledge, then, also provided a foundation for acts of resistance among communities on Crete who recognized the value of archaeology in securing attention for their grievances and advancing their cause. Acts of resistance involved damaging archaeological sites intentionally or by simply ignoring them, deliberate acts of looting, and constructing narratives of their landscape that reject the official narrative promoted by the state and foreign archaeologists. This indigenous archaeology, however, was not some autochthonous view of the past, but a dialogue with the official narrative and a constituent force in creating the contemporary archaeological landscape of the island. Varouchakis’s article gleans from the official record the barest glimpses of the interaction between archaeologists and peasants on the island, but it is enough to recognize the dynamic circumstances in which the formal archaeological narrative emerged.

Christopher Jones’s recent article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 6 (2018), “Understanding ISIS’s Destruction of Antiquities as a Rejection of Nationalism,” likewise considers archaeology’s key role in constructing the modern nation, by arguing that ISIS’s destruction of archaeological sites was less directed at various communities living in the Middle East (e.g. Christians, Jews, or various Muslim groups) or even some chimerical pagan past ready to reassert itself, but against efforts by secular states across the region to use archaeology to construct national identities independent of religious affiliation and grounded in a Western, colonial past. To make his argument Jones explored the use of the pre-Islamic past in the state propaganda of the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria and demonstrated how ISIS efforts to attack these sites had meaning as part of an explicit counter propaganda campaign.

What’s intriguing in both of these articles is not so much that they argue that archaeology has become part of national narrative, but that resistance to the power of the modern nation state has manifest itself in anti-archaeological ways. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising; but, on the other hand, it reminds me that archaeology is part of a larger modern discourse that exposes it to negotiations and challenges both from within modern view of the world and from without. 

The Slow Movement and Modernity

I keep turning over in my head ideas for a contribution to North Dakota Quarterly’s issue dedicated to the slow movement that I’m co-editing this fall (go here for the call for papers!). While I suspect I’ll write something on slow archaeology, I spent some time this weekend with Paul Halstead’s new book Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean (2014) and it got me thinking about our current fascination with slow in the context of the preindustrial world.

Halstead’s book looks, in part, on the rhythms of pre mechanized farming in Greece through several decades of ethnographic and archaeological research. One thing that comes through in his work is that very little about the process of farming in the preindustrial world was properly slow. In fact, during crucial times of the year – like when harvesting and threshing overlap or when multiple fields require plowing – there is constant pressure on the farmer to move from one task to the next. Halstead’s informant on Amorgos harvested in the morning, transported around mid-day, and threshed in the afternoon. Time pressure also accompanied sowing and plowing routines in the fall when delaying by even a day risks the loss of seed to birds or miserable situation of having to plow waterlogged fields. Constant communication with members of the community as well as strategic collaboration ensured that farmers kept abreast of situations present in distant or dispersed fields. 

At the same time I was reading this, I was reading over some of the buzz about the unplugging movement and the National Day of Unplugging (March 7-8). The idea behind unplugging relates somehow to an ancient practice of taking a day of rest where you disengage from the rest of the world. Whether the organizers have understood these “ancient” ideas correctly or not is less a concern than the general indulgence in anachronistic notions among unpluggers and slow advocates. They seems to hang onto this romantic notion that somehow life was slower, less rushed, less dominated by the press of time in the past. Advocates of the infamous “work-life balance” likewise harken back to a mythical day when work and life were sufficiently well defined to be set in balance against one another.

The irony, of course, is that questioning the value of a hectic pace of life is a luxury available only in modern, industrialized societies. In other words, it is a profoundly modern indulgence that we can slow down without fear of crops being ruined and we can disengage from our social networks without losing information vital to our survival as individuals or a family. 

Does this irony undermine the basic idea that a slower, less distracted pace of life is better? I don’t think it does. Certainly, the intense pace of life experienced by farmers in a preindustrial economy was not conducive to long, healthy lives. In fact, Halstead points out that the toil of harvesting alone was something that 20 or 30 years olds could endure best, but older folks – you know, in their 40s! – avoided, reminds us that the physical exertions of premodern life were intense and, by modern standards, debilitating. Maybe remembering this will help us keep our rhetoric in check a bit. Slowing down and unplugging are modern indulgences available to a very small number of individuals in the wealthy, western world. We should celebrate these opportunities, but always realize that they very tools that we blame for the robbing us of work/life balance are the the same tools that have allowed us to define work and life as separate entities.

A Review of Metaponto 4

This past month, I spent some time reading and reviewing Eremina Lapadula’s The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio. I’ve blogged about it already, but now I have a rough draft of the review ready for your consideration.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how I write book reviews lately. I tell my students that there are three kinds of reviews with three kinds of theses, and the best reviews explain how a book works rather than what a book says.

1. This book is good because…
2. This is book is good, but…
3. This is not a good book because… 

In practice, however, I’ve found it more difficult to pull this off. The review below is probably my least successful effort. On the one hand, it’s reasonably thorough and critical. On the other hand, it is entirely unremarkable.

(On the third hand, it is also more or less done and off my plate before my summer work commences…)

Late Roman Peasants

One of the best things about the holiday break is that I can make a small dent in my almost endless reading list. First on this list was Cam Grey’s Constructing Communities in the Late Roman Countryside (Cambridge 2011). This book continued a useful trend in the study of Late Antiquity by investigating economically marginal groups that scholars have traditionally overlooked. Grey studies the peasant to build a picture of rural communities during the Late Antique era. This not only resonates with longstanding interests in peasants (particularly among British Marxists) as transhistorical phenomenon, but also with the traditional questions that focus on the fate of the countryside (and by extension the economy) in Late Antiquity. Rather than emphasizing the rural basis for, say, the Late Roman economy, however, Grey explored the forms of social relationships formed by peasants (as agents!) in Late Antiquity.

As an aside, Grey’s book continued along a path first hacked out by T. Gallant in his Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece (Stanford 1991). This is one of my favorite books on ancient Greece and it works to bring together textual and archaeological evidence with global conversations about peasants in the contemporary world. While Gallant’s work is more theoretically explicit, Grey’s work continues on the trajectory that Gallant set out by looking at the complex set of social relationships that helped to manage risk and survival in the ancient world.   

This book has been out for long enough to generate some nice reviews, so I won’t add my meager musings to this chorus, but I will offer a few little observations:

1. Texts. Archaeologists usually imagine that their methods provide the key to understanding the non-elites in the premodern world.  Grey’s book is unapologetically historical and uses textual sources in new ways to sketch out a picture of the Late Roman peasant. In some cases, he does this by reading against the grain of traditional elite sources; in other cases, he uses the remarkable archive of papyrus sources from the Egyptian desert. (As a small critique, it does feel like he sometimes relies quite heavily on a small number of particularly robust papyrological sources). His approach to these texts is sensitive to genre, authorship, and regional variation. The last of these is particularly significant in that he is sensitive to the differences in peasant relations in the East and West.

2. Resistance. The elite bias of most of our primary sources and the historical interest in institutions over individuals has made the search for non-elite resistance in Late Antiquity difficult.  Grey does not provide revolutionary insights into the practices of peasant resistance, but does begin the difficult process of reconsidering elite sources by looking for ways in which dominance implies resistance, for the use of encoded transgressive acts (like demonic possession), and for the subtle negotiations that not only bond peasants to the elite, but also underscore the peasant’s role in creating their place within Late Roman society.

3. The Church and the Poor. One of Grey’s most valuable contributions was his effort to understand the role of the church in caring for the rural poor. He argues that the church was far more interested in helping individuals who had encountered a rapid change in wealth than those who permanently situated near the bottom of the economic system. This coincides well with the role of most institutions in the premodern world which were far better at providing momentary redress in a crisis than producing policies designed to redistribute wealth or mitigate endemic economical inequality. 

Grey’s book continues to open new perspectives on the life of the rural poor and the structure of rural society in the later Roman world. As archaeologists – like Kim Bowes who is also at Penn – develop more refined techniques and a growing interest in life in the countryside, Grey’s excavation of textual sources represents valuable complement (and surely at times a challenge) to a view of the ancient countryside fixated on postholes and pot sherds.  

A Paper on Corinthian Peasants

As regular readers of this blog know, David Pettegrew and I have been working on a paper about peasants in the Corinthian countryside for a joint APA/AIA panel at this years annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA.

Here’s the panel and the details:

Session 5J:
Joint AIA/APA Colloquium: Finding Peasants in Mediterranean Landscapes: New Work in Archaeology and History
1:30 p.m.−4:00 p.m.          
Independence Ballroom
Organizers: Cam Grey, University of Pennsylvania, and Kim Bowes, University of Pennsylvania

1:30 introduction (10 min.)
1:40 Producing the Peasant in the Corinthian Countryside 
David K. Pettegrew, Messiah College, and William Caraher, University of North Dakota (20 min.)
2:05 Placing the Peasant in Classical Athens
Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge (20 min.)
2:30 Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Cereal Farmer? The Evidence from Small Rural Settlements in the Cecina valley in Northern Etruria 
Nicola Terrenato, University of Michigan, and Laura Motta, University of Michigan (20 min.)
2:50 Break (15 min.)
3:05 Stuffed or Starved? Evaluating Models of Roman Peasantries
Robert Witcher, University of Durham (20 min.)
3:30 Excavating the Roman Peasant
Kim Bowes, University of Pennsylvania (20 min.)

And here’s the paper:

Crossposted to Corinthian Matters

Even More on Peasants

I finally got a copy of “Excavating the Roman Peasant I: Excavations at Pievina (GR)” by M Ghisleni, . Vaccaro, and Kim Bowes in the Papers of the British School at Rome (79 (2011), 91-145). I am co-authoring a paper on peasants on a panel this January co-chaired by Kim Bowes, so my co-author and I, David Pettegrew, thought that this article might give us valuable insight into the central questions that Mediterranean archaeologists are asking about peasants.

This paper documents their preliminary excavations at a rural site represented on the surface by a low density scatter of pottery. This excavation was part of a larger project designed to document site that could be associated with peasants in the Italian countryside. Their argument is that survey archaeology has not produced particularly robust assemblages of material from rural sites making it difficult to make arguments for chronology or function at site potentially related to peasant producers. By excavating a sample of rural site identified through survey, this team hopes to establish a closer relationship between surface scatters and subsurface remains, a clearer picture of the smallest class of rural settlement (< .5 ha), and an understanding of peasant life in the Mediterranean basin.

This is a long and substantial article, so I am only going touch on some main points. The most interesting point from the perspective of a survey archaeologist is that their excavation of a low density (“off site”) scatter did produce a rural activity area. While the excavators do not provide a figure for artifact density on the surface, they did note that the scatter was predominantly 1st century BC to 1st century AD. The confirmation that a low density, offsite scatter could produce a substantial rural site fits well with David Pettegrew’s arguments from way back in 2001 where he argued that contingent practices associated with rural settlement are apt to produce only ephemeral traces in surface assemblages. He goes on to suggest that we should look beyond mono-causal arguments for off site scatters (like manuring) and recognize that the surface assemblage most likely represented a wide range of relatively short term activities, diverse depositional practices, and site life-cycles.

The structures revealed at Pievina produced just that kind of site. They revealed a number of structures ranging from a kiln probably for tile production, a cistern, a possible granary, what might be the remains of a Late Antique house and a small “rubbish tip”. The kiln, granary, and cistern were probably almost contemporary and they enjoyed a rather short period of use. The kiln, granary, and cistern appear to have been buried by a “localized, but significant colluvial event, probably a landslide”.   The site appears to have been abandoned between the 2nd and 3rd centuries only to see renewed activity in the 4th century A.D. At this time it seems to have been the site of a short lived Late Roman house.

It is interesting that the same site sees renewed activity after two centuries of abandonment, and it speaks both to issues of historical memory and issues of persistent, productive places in the landscape. The relatively short periods of occupation at the site invite us to consider an ancient countryside made of short-lived, relatively low investment places that blink on and off when opportunity for gain present themselves. This fits will with recent interpretations of the peasant economy which have tended to see peasants as dynamic figures in the ancient countryside continuously modifying their practices to manage risk, take advantage of opportunities, and survive amidst the contingencies of history.

On other thing to mention briefly about the methods and procedures used by this team in excavating these rural sites. They make it clear that they employed techniques derived from CRM (Cultural Resource Management) practices to expedite the excavation and documentation of their sites. This included the use of earthmoving equipment to remove topsoil, minimal use of hand drawn plans, kite photography (which presumably served as the basis for their digital plans), and other “short cuts” that allowed them to excavate quickly while documenting at a satisfactory level of detail for their research questions. They also backfilled at the end of the season. As someone who is planning to excavate a relatively uncomplicated site this summer, their compromise between professional and academic practices is thought provoking. Archaeologists focused on rural sites should maybe learn from the people whose remains they excavate: come in with flexible tools, make minimal permanent investment, and leave little trace after you complete the project.

A new semester and a new year…

The new semester begins tonight at 5 pm (or something). This is my first semester with tenure which I officially received on August 15.  It felt a lot like my team winning the World Series (which I have experienced) or the Super Bowl.  I woke up the next day expecting things to be or feel different and then was disappointed when they were the same. My coffee tasted the same, the sky looked the same, my office did not become larger or smaller.

And my teaching and research loads did not change either. So here’s my fall semester:

1. Two old classes. I’m teaching two classes that I’ve taught every semester for the past four years. I love the routine, the opportunity to tweak the classes minutely and judge the results the next semester, the battle with boredom of going through the same material each semester (which I liken to acedia, a kind of monastic boredom), and the chance to compare students in very similar situations. And I often think of it as a kind of cricket match (as I watch Sachin Tendulkar in what is likely his last at bat in England). The patience to do the same thing over and over, but also the flexibility to adjust to variables and changes. The two classes are: History 101: Western Civilization I (online) and History 240: The Historians Craft, which is the required course for our majors.

2. A new class. I am also teaching a new class of sorts. I am teaching a digital and public history practicum. This course will focus on developing a boutique-y collection of digital artifacts to celebrate the Chester Fritz Library’s 50th Anniversary (The Fritz @ 50: 1961 to 2011).  I have a class of four diligent but inexperienced graduate students, some good allies in the Department of Special Collections, a Gigapan, a brilliant tech advisor, and a bunch of good will.  Like my effort in the Spring, our goal is to produce a small, well-curated digital exhibit, for the library using off the shelf components as much as possible.

3. Got Papers? I have somehow committed to four (?) conference papers this fall and winter. I have no idea how this happened. I’ve posted a rough draft of the first one here already. I’ll be giving “Liminal Time and Liminal Space in the Middle Byzantine Hagiography of Greece and the Aegean” at the International Anchoritic Society Conference here in Grand Forks. At the American Schools of Oriental Research Conference, I’ll be (co-)authoring a paper on our ongoing work at the site of Pyla-Vigla on Cyprus. (I might also be involved in a paper on my work on Polis at this conference, although this is not at all clear). Finally, in January I’ll be giving a paper with David Pettegrew at the Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting titled “Producing Peasants in the Corinthian Countryside“. This paper will draw on our decade old survey data from around the Corinthia.  (To make my life easier, I’ve decided not to actually attend ASOR or the AIA.)

4. Publication Projects. I also have four ongoing publication projects. The first and most pressing one is to shape my paper, “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth” from the Corinth in Contrast Conference into publication shape. I’ve received really good feedback from the editors of a volume that will come from this conference, and now I need to take it all in. I also need to push into final form my short encyclopedia article on Early Christian Baptisteries. I’ve also (more or less) committed to writing up a piece on post-colonialism in Byzantine Archaeology.  This will develop from a paper I wrote years ago, with every intent of publishing, and gave at a working seminar at the Gennadius Library in Greece. The last publication project involves the results of our survey on Cyprus. We have finally decided to publish the results of the survey aspects of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Survey separate from the results of our excavations at the site. We have a completed draft of this manuscript more or less prepared and have submitted a book proposal to the American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports Series.

5. And the other stuff:

So it should be a fun semester!!!

More on Peasants

This week, between grading final papers and planning for my research trip to Cyprus, I indulged myself and read (slowly and superficially to be sure) Eric Wolf’s Peasants (1966). This is one of those short books (just over 100 pages) that represents moment in time and captures many of the essential features of a particular topic. Wolf’s analysis of peasant societies recognizes the deeply interconnected character of peasant modes of production, social order, and ideological predilections. (This is part of a larger project on peasants that I have discussed elsewhere in my blog.)

Wolf identified the peasant first and foremost as an economic creature set within a larger and more complex system. Importantly, the peasant is characterized by: “an asymmetrical structural relationship between the producers of surplus and the controllers.”  In other words, peasants pay rent of some kind and this distinguishes the peasant from the group that Wolf calls a primitive cultivator.  Peasants live in a more complex society with a greater degree of social stratification that requires the “transfer of wealth from one section of the population to another.” (10)  In general, settlement patterns reflect this transfer of wealth with peasants living in the countryside and powerholders residing in more densely built up areas.

This economic relationship to other segments of a complex society and the way in which powerholders in society extract the peasants’ surplus for their own gain play key roles in the social, economic, and ideological organization of peasant society. The role of phenomenon like social insurance, the economic analysis of kinship and residential organization, and the existence of ceremonial funds intersect with the specific power relationships that characterize the extraction of wealth from peasant groups.  The influence of this kind of structural analysis persists in some form in many modern considerations of peasants. H. Forbes recent consideration of peasants on the Methana peninsula depended, in part, on a similar constellation of structural relationships (see my comments on this book here).

Such broad reaching conclusions are framed by the assumption that peasants are both transhistorical figures appearing in different times and places and historical figures in the development of human society:

“This book is concerned with those large sections of the mankind which stand midway between the primitive tribe and industrial society.  These populations, many million strong, neither primitive or modern, form the majority of mankind. They are important historically, because industrial society is built upon the ruins of peasant society. They are important contemporaneously, because they inhabit that “underdeveloped” part of the world whose continued presence constitutes both a threat and a responsibility for those countries which have thrown off the shackles of backwardness. While the industrial revolution has advanced with giant strides across the globe, the events of every day suggest that its ultimate success is not yet secure.” (p. vii)

Thus peasants become a kind of looking glass through which scholars can recognize earlier forms of human development in general, and the precursor to local phenomenon.

The challenge for archaeologists, particularly those studying the ancient world, is how to identify the material analogs to the kind of relationships that characterize peasant life.  While we know that peasant life did exist in antiquity and in ancient Greece in particular, it much more difficult to recognize the manifestations of peasant life in the countryside. It would be problematic to identify all rural producers as peasants, for example, because the Greeks used slaves for some forms of agricultural production and we also know that landowners could reside in the countryside for stretches of time.  It is ironic for the archaeologist, that peasants who through cultivation made such a tremendous impact on the lived environment of rural space would have left such complex and problematic traces in the material record.

Periods and Peasants

David Pettegrew and I are working on a paper (very slowly, I might add) about peasants for a conference next winter. Our current plans are to look at three contexts for peasants: the Isthmia corridor outside of the ancient city of Corinth, a fortified area around a small harbor southeastern coastal of the Corinthia, and a rather more isolated inland valley called Lakka Skoutara in the far southeastern Corinthia.  We plan to approach these three areas through the lens of methodology.  In each area, we conducted intensive pedestrian survey and produced different assemblages. The rural nature of these assemblages qualified the inhabitants of these areas as “peasants” (using an incredible broad definition of this term).

My recent reading of Kathleen Davis’ Periodization and Sovereignty has made me reconsider my ease with such seemingly transhistorical categories like “peasants”.  While I am neither qualified to speak with any authority on ancient, medieval, or even modern peasants, I do recognize that the identification of an individual or group of individuals as peasants is not unproblematic. This is a category rooted, at least in part, in assumptions of pre-modern modes of production, like subsistence agriculture, and various kinds of economic and political relationships associated with these practices.  Peasants play a key role in our definition of the pre-modern and consequently undeveloped world.

The transhistorical category of the peasant, in fact, made it easy for early ethnographers and archaeologists to find parallels between modern Greek “peasant” farmers and their ancient predecessors. This not only provided the foundations for at least some of our understanding how ancient Greeks worked the land, but also (in a circular way) provided a justification for the persistence of ancient Greek culture and practices in the attitudes, practices, and beliefs of 19th and 20th century rural denizens.  In short, the peasant became one of the crucial points of contact between ancient and modern and represented both the stability of the Greek culture and its backwardness.

The question is, of course, what do we as archaeologists do when studying such transhistorical figures as peasants in the ancient landscape? Archaeological approaches traditionally embrace the kind of generalizations that create typologies (and ultimate feeds into periodization schemes both informed by the material culture and also informing our interpretation of objects).  While Davis’ book does not reject the need for periodization schemes, she does insist that we locate these themes historically and understand how they serve to structure power relations in the present.  Our paper leans toward a diachronic reading of peasant landscapes rooted in a particular set of methods which insist on the similarities in material culture among groups living in (demonstrably?) different historical circumstances.

An additional challenge comes from the spatial and material definitions of peasants in the landscape and asks that we mingle the spatial with the chronological in ways that reveal another layer of how we understand the the relationship between the pre-modern and modern worlds.  By writing the rural/urban dichotomy into ancient landscapes and locating the peasant in the rural sphere, we run the risk of isolating rural areas as spaces of historical stability (or even spaces “without history“) and set them against the dynamic culture of the urban.  Thus the rural/urban dichotomy reinforces the division between the developed and the undeveloped while locating the impetus for historical change within the confines of a dynamic urban space capable of modernization.