Ottoman Peasants and their Local Elite

I’m always excited to read something my Michael Given who has published a series of intriguing articles unraveling the complexities of the Cypriot landscape during the Ottoman period. I was particularly intrigued by his recent piece in the Journal of Islamic Archaeology 4.1 (2017) titled “Global Peasant, Local Elite: Mobility and Interaction in Ottoman Cyprus.”

As the title suggest, the article looks to invert the old paradigm of local peasants and global elite by observing that peasants on Cyprus understood their place in an economy that was far from local. By looking at the way in which peasants speculated on their cotton crops, moved goods to profitable markets across the island, and negotiated rents and loans from landowners, Given contributes to a larger conversation that recognizes peasants as active participants in their own economic lives. Recent scholarship in the Mediterranean has sought to revise the idea that peasants were “people without history” or, more frequently in the eastern Mediterranean, figments of history that had somehow persisted in the Early Modern era. Given’s peasants are unapologetically historical individuals who recognize the contingencies present in their own economic strategies and existence. 

Given’s work has recently interested me for two reasons. First, as I’ve blogged about before, he has explored Ivan Illich’s idea of conviviality in the context of Mediterranean landscapes.

More importantly, in this case, is Given’s interest in mobility in the Mediterranean landscapes and particularly the role of monopati, cart tracks, and roads not only in linking together communities but creating spaces for economic and social activities. That these routes were more than simply passive links between communities and activated opportunities for interaction along their routes offers a way to understand the formation of seasonal settlements along these routes as preserving and building upon the common space of the roads. While it may be self-evidence, a model that understand roads themselves as space of interaction reminds us that road do more than manifest interaction between settlement “nodes”; they create settlement “nodes” as well. (My work in the Bakken allowed me to observe this phenomenon accelerated into hypermodern realty (in a kind of literal dromology); I’m now eager to read Erin Gibson’s work on roads that I first noticed in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and which I now see that she’s expanded to North American cart roads!).    

Our work in the Western Argolid Regional Project has likewise focused on road and tracks through our survey area that preserved the course of Early Modern routes that were partly bypassed by modern paved roads. The appearance of seasonal settlements along these routes tied the season movement of flocks from villages outside the region demonstrated the dynamism and movement present in the early modern landscape. The presence of threshing floors around the larger of these indicated that these settlements were more than simply winter pastures for flocks, but also served as anchors for fields in the region and the processing of the late summer harvest. These seasonal settlements also provided access to markets at Argos (and the Aegean) and further diversified opportunities for villages like Frousiouna which stands at the head of a north-south valley oriented toward the Corinthian Gulf. 

Satellite Remote Sensing in the AJA

I have to admit to being equal parts geeked out and creeped out by recent advances in satellite (or, more broadly, aerial) remote sensing in archaeology. I am excited as anyone to read about the latest “lost city” to appear from the use of LiDAR in the jungle and recognize that ever increasingly resolutions of multi-spectral satellite images provides new ways for archaeologists to tease out subsurface features from subtle variations in vegetation, soil color, and even elevation. Moreover, as someone interested in regional-level intensive survey, I appreciate the potential of satellite images to help us understand large-scale phenomena in the landscape. We use satellite images to map our survey units and have even used some basic multispectral analysis to target potentially significant subsurface features in the Western Argolid. In this context, I was excited to see the recent article of J. Donati and A. Sarris in the American Journal of Archaeology 120.3 (2016):  “Evidence for Two Planned Greek Settlements in the Peloponnese from Satellite Remote Sensing.”

Donati and Sarris combined historical excavation data with satellite remote sensing to reveal the ancient city plans of Hellenistic towns of Mantinea and Elis in the Peloponnesus. The article is an impressive blend of traditional archaeological data from excavations and remote sensing, historical sources, and the technical analysis of satellite data. The analysis of satellite images through the use of various band combinations and enhancements to pull out subsurface features is a major point in the article.

When I had finished the article, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy. Maybe I’ve seen too many haunting images of satellite and drone images from the Middle East (check out Bard’s Center for the Study of the Drone). Or maybe I have read too much on technological solutionism over the past couple years. I could even be that I just spend 7 weeks hiking around the Greek countryside and felt put out that my physical labor could so easily be replaced by digital tools.

Whatever the reason, there was something disconcerting about the remote study of the landscape, and I was hoping that the article included some brief discussion of the ethical issues surrounding using satellite images in archaeology. This is not to suggest, even obliquely, that Donati’s and Sarris’s fine work had any ethical flaws, but the use of increasingly sophisticated remote sensing tools in archaeology is already having an impact on the discipline. For example, the use of drones and satellite images to monitor the looting and destruction of archaeological sites is almost common practice, and saturated with a kind of irony: the same technologies that have contributed to the political and social instability in the Middle East are being used to monitor the consequences of this instability.

AJA1203 02Donati pdf page 8 of 40

Of course Donati and Sarris weren’t using drones to monitor looting or to document the changing landscape of an off-limits prison camp. And I recognize that military technologies – ranging from the basic organization of excavation “campaigns” to the extensive use of GPS, satellite images, and drones – have shaped archaeology since its emergence as a modern discipline. At the same time, I do wonder about the de-spatialization of archaeological work. I won’t invoke my long-standing reflections on the significance of physically being in an archaeological environment. Any reader of this blog is probably familiar with my painfully romantic sensibilities.

Instead, I couldn’t help think that the use of remote sensing to take archaeological work from the field and to transport it to the lab, office or library seems to represent the obverse of the call by communities for the repatriation of archaeological objects. Our ability to analyze the material culture of a region and a community from miles in the sky or through millimeter accurate digital surrogates offers a potent challenge to those who see objects, sites, and heritage as profoundly local. Satellites, for example, defy the authority of local communities and national governments to grant access to sites in the same way as high resolution 3D scans challenge what it means to posses “the original artifact” in new ways. These perspectives should not necessarily lead us to rejecting the use of digital or remote sensing tool, but I’ll continue to feel a vague sense of discomfort when I encounter the use of new technologies without any reflection on its ethical impact. 

Paths and Quotidian Movements

As I catch up on some of my reading, I really enjoyed Cam Grey and company’s (James R. Mathieu, Antonia Arnoldus-Huyzendveld, Andrea Patacchini, and Mariaelena Ghisleni) article: “Familiarity, Repetition, and Quotidian Movement in Roman Tuscany,” in the most recent Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology (28.2 (2015)). The article is decent, but more importantly, it cuts across a number of my interests lately both in Greece and in North Dakota. 

Grey and colleagues argue that their region of Tuscany is connected through a “meshwork of connectivity” consisting of pathways that do not always follow the routes established by least-cost path algorithm produced in GIS software. The authors looked at routes between settlement sites and sources of building material and recognized that the routes generated by least-cost path were extraordinarily sensitive to slight changes in variable (slope or vegetation, for example). Recognizing this, they decided to ground truth various routes between sites and sources to determine how seasonal factors, human decision making, and other forms of intervention, like bridges or fords, would shape movement through the landscape. Their conclusion is that the variability in routes through the Tuscan landscape argued for a meshwork of connectivity rather than a network of persistent roads and routes.

This has relevance, of course, to our work with the Western Argolid Regional Project where the major route through the region runs along the bottom or the lower elevations of the Inachos River valley. This would essential follow the modern road through the region. At the same time, we’ve come to recognize that the relationships between settlements in the region do not align neatly with the dominant routes. In our 2016 AIA paper, we argued for the existence of a number of routes that linked communities together but ran perpendicular to the major routes through the region. These connections would likely depend on the kind of meshwork linking places across a region.

The work also resonates with my recent efforts to describe movement in the Bakken oil patch. Unlike Tuscany where topography dominates movement in the landscape, the Bakken has a pre-existing grid of roads which shape the warp and weft of the region’s meshwork. Major arteries, road conditions, the need to stop for fuel, food, rest, and to reload and drop off oil, people, and equipment shapes movement through this space and literally carves paths into the roads that form the Bakken landscape. It is exactly these everyday movement that my Guide to the Bakken sought to present to a traveler who would be moving through these same spaces. 


I’ve been thinking about roads a bit over the last month. First, my colleagues with the Western Argolid Regional Project and I are giving a paper this week at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting on roads, routes and abandoned villages. I then had an interesting conversation about the role of roads as a form of local power in the Bakken oil patch. Finally, I enjoyed parts of Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox’s book Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (Cornell 2014). 

Dimitri Nakassis and I drew upon some of the early research in the Western Argolid to argue that roads and routes play a key role in constructing a “contingent countryside” in Greece. We identified three abandoned sites – two settlements and a fortification – and argue that they make sense in a landscape understood through a series of dynamic connections linking mountain villages to intermediate lands that ring the fertile plain. Families from mountain villages used these intermediate lands as a source for both winter pasture and hardy crops that did not require irrigation. Rugged, but well-defined mountain roads marked the social and economic relationship between mountain villages and their intermediate lands, but these routes had limited value to the state which invested in major arteries linking politically and economically important villages to the major regional markets. The state supported the paving of these major routes for carts and then motorized transportation over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, and in time, these major routes came to dominate the structure of settlement across the landscape. The spread of roads complemented the political organization of the state and the development of institutions like schools and government in towns linked to the center by roads further transformed the relationship between settlements. Roads, then, reflected both growing influence of the state on the structure of settlement in the 20th century. Abandoned villages and other rural places reflect social relationships that the material authority of the state has overwritten.

Roads have been an important focus of attention in the Bakken oil patch. From tragic road accidents to the need for greater investment in core infrastructure, roads have were a key issue in how people have come to understand the impact of the Bakken boom. Historically, routes linking western North Dakota to market and production centers elsewhere shaped settlement in this region. A grid of local roads provided access for farmers to plots of land at a remove from major overland or rail lines. The maintenance of these local roads remains a concern of the county, whereas major interstates – like US Route 2 and 85 or state roads in the area – are under the control of extra-regional entities. As a result, major arteries into the Bakken are developed much more quickly than local routes and with an eye toward state and even national economic interests. At the same time, the county does have the right to close or limit access to roads and many of the rural roads designed to provide access to agricultural land and homesteads are now routes plied by heavy trucks accessing remote oil wells. The tension between the interests of the state and the interests of local communities plays out in attitudes toward roads through the area.

Finally, Harvey and Knox’s book, Roads, provides a convenient set of comparative and conceptual tools to articulate the role of roads in the political, economic, and social life of communities. My reading focused primarily on the sections related to the state involvement in road building in Peru and how this both formalized and disrupted relationships between communities and settlement patterns there. While none of this counts as profound, I do think that the relative invisibility of roads as archaeological artifacts in regional level survey has perhaps led to their under appreciation as a structuring element in both pre-modern and modern settlement.