This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading Catherine Kearns’s The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus (2022). The book is fantastic (and I say this as someone who is both increasingly “Iron Age Curious” and has a more mature interest rural landscapes both on Cyprus and elsewhere).
Kearns’s considers the emergence of the rural during the Archaic period on Cyprus. This is a period famously known for the emergence of Iron Age polities that form the core the ten or so “City Kingdoms” on Cyprus during the Archaic and Classical period. Iron Age cities have long attracted the attention of archaeologists working on the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age on Cyprus. Kearns’s book flips this focus by looking at the emergence of rural communities during this period and how non-urban forms of life contributed to the formation of urban polities that became so prominent in the later Archaic and Cypro-Classical periods.
To do this, Kearns interrogates the faint traces of Cypro-Geometric and Cypro-Archaic material from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys which were surveyed in the late 20th century. Kearns complements this legacy data with resurvey and excavation, but the bulk of the evidence for her arguments comes a careful study of material from these periods across the entire island.
Kearns sets her study of the development of rural landscapes and communities amid a careful and measured understanding of climate conditions, the local environment, and resources. I have to admit to lacking the technical understanding of much of what is necessary to reconstruct paleoclimate data, but she appears to approach such efforts with a full grasp of how difficult aligning climate data with historical developments can be. Her grasp of local environmental conditions and resources in Vasilikos and Maroni valley allowed her to demonstrate how household units created small worlds in the difficult centuries after the collapse of Bronze Age states in Cyprus. Moreover, she is able to provide some examples for how the the worlds created by these household unites, despite their faint traces in the landscape, leveraged the use of gypsum, copper, wood, and arable soils to create a society that both supported larger urban agglomerations as well as negotiate their own changing roles in Iron Age society.
This is obvious a pretty casual reconstruction of Kearns’s complex and highly nuanced arguments. I honestly can’t do a book like this justice, but it did leave me with several take aways that were peripheral to Kearns’s main arguments, but nevertheless made me particularly happy.
First, Kearns clearly draws upon trends in contemporary environmental history including a prominent shout out to William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991). This iconic masterpiece of contemporary environmental history traces the development of Chicago’s western hinterland in concert with the emergence of the city, its growing population, its industries, and its consumption practices. Cronon’s work marked a watershed in how we understood the relationship between the town and country in the US by demonstrating that the rural/urban divide was largely illusory. One could not exist without the other.
As someone probing the edges of contemporary environmental history lately, this got me very excited.
Second, Kearns uses survey data in a thoughtful way. While there were moments where I wished that she had unpacked some of the methods used to produce the data that she so carefully analyzed, in general, I was pleased to see survey data being drawn upon in such a natural way. I feel like over the past decade, archaeologists have come to accept the inherent reliability of intensive survey data and felt less need to bracket archaeological landscapes created by survey methods with a heavy layer of methodological justification. The turn-of-the-century survey archeologist in me likes to imagine that this is the result of our careful rumination on the character of survey data. When I stop trying to make everything about my own work (see point one), I realize that Kearns just approached the landscapes of Vasilikos and Maroni valleys with a substantial portion of archaeological common sense.
Third, I was fascinated with how work like Kearns might contribute to how we interpreted the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla. While we had relatively little Iron Age material (and even less material that we could confidently assign to the Cypro-Archaic or much less Cypro-Geometric periods), the location of our site between territories traditional ascribed to Salamis and Kition makes it appealing to consider the locus for rural development outside of the control of any particular urban center. The presence of features in our landscape datable to the Iron Age complements its access to a significant agricultural hinterland, in possession of the topographic advantages of a significant coastal height, and nearby the Late Bronze Age site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos (with the potential for certain forms of landesque capital). We were guilty of attributing the site’s development to the emergence (or even persistence) of urban populations at Kition and Salamis. Kearns analysis urged me to consider whether our site emerged in the aftermath of the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition as the site of a rural community that ultimately contributed to the persistence of the community at Kition rather than as an extension of its efforts at rural control.
In fact, we make a vaguely similar argument when we suggest that the expansion of the site in the Hellenistic to Roman periods reflected the breakdown of the centripetal influence of Salamis and Kition which would have encouraged the development of land that would have otherwise suffered from its politically and economically marginal position along the borders of states.
Fourth, the conclusion of Kearns’s book is a masterpiece in weaving together the often complex and hyper local strands of argument that she develops throughout her book. It demonstrates how the small worlds and faintly visible sites that she focused on in her chapters can propose a new narrative for the emergence of the rural landscape (as well as the urban areas) in the Iron Age. More importantly, though, she takes her arguments for the development of the rural and considers how these influence our view of the Anthropocene in its contemporary and its more expansive historical contexts (i.e. both “big A” and “little a” anthropocene). In other words, she demonstrates how specialized studies in how highly local communities (sometimes no more than family groups) adapted to climate change, local resources, and emerging political entities can contributed to creating a more variegated and socially responsible image of the Anthropocene. Understanding small scale adaptions reminds us that the increasingly global “we” that is responsible for anthropogenic climate change and obligated to resists or slows its progress is and was never as universal as the first person pronoun suggests. The causes, responses, and impacts of climate change in the past, in the present, and in the future are always local. And this is a brilliant reminder for anyone invested in understanding how to produce a just, responsible, and effective response to global climate change today.
Finally, there is no doubt that we live in an era of Big Books by Big Scholars on Big Topics. As I’ve said on this blog, I dislike big books and I cannot lie.
Catherine Kearns’s book is not a big book by any standard (although she is well on her way to becoming a Big Scholar). It’s runs to around 250 pages. Its deals with small worlds on a (relatively) small island situated as much at the margins of contemporary Mediterranean archaeology as it did in relation to past imperial polities.
That said, this book is not small in terms of idea, significance, or impact. As someone who has a rooting interest in Cypriot archaeology, but no particular investment in the Iron Age, I read this book with more than a little enthusiasm! I’m sure that I’ll be annoying my friends and colleagues when I continue to recommend it to them over the coming years.
It’s the kind of book that one can read over a weekend, but whose ideas and provocations will simmer in my mind for years and it’ll have a bigger impact (at least in the small world of my mind) than any number of the Big Books by Big Scholars.