By Haïdo Koukouli-Chryssanthaki, René Treuil, Laurent Lespez, and Dimitra Malamidou (Bibliothèque de la Société Archéologique d’Athènes 254). Pp. 416, figs. 96. La Société Archéologique d’Athènes, Athens 2008. €80. ISBN 978-960-8145-68-9 (paper).
The Late Neolithic and Bronze Age site of Dikili Tash, located by the Philippi Marshes in the Plain of Drama, became known in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the excavations of Jean Deshayes. A new round of work was undertaken between 1986 and 2001, directed by René Treuil and Haïdo Koukouli-Chryssanthaki, and the study of the finds continues to date. This time, large surfaces were exposed, revealing house plans, yielding much domestic equipment, and permitting the study of the Neolithic village’s spatial organization.
All this is outlined in the introductory chapter by Koukouli-Chryssanthaki and Treuil, but the main part of the book, by Lespez, is a study of the evolution of the landscape in the Plain of Drama from the Neolithic to the Ottoman period, derived from Lespez’s doctoral thesis. It is based on examination of hundreds of exposed scarps throughout the plain and its side valleys and on analysis of sediment samples taken from the scarps. It also draws extensively on historical testimony from ancient and modern sources and on the long palynological record of the region already studied in the 1970s.
The first part of Lespez’s study describes the structural features of the Drama basin and attends to modifications of the relief in the course of the Pleistocene. The second part traces the history of erosion-deposition cycles during the Holocene, as that history emerged from the author’s extensive fieldwork (1993–1999). Two major episodes of erosion and colluviation have been diagnosed. The first began in the Classical period, but it did not intensify until Roman or even Early Byzantine times, when sediment accumulation occurred over large portions of the basin. The second episode began in the 15th century C.E. and ended with the state-coordinated drainage and land-improvement projects of the 1930s. Unfortunately, as Lespez candidly stresses, the evidence is less clear for the beginning of the Holocene and for the better part of the Byzantine period, but in both cases, a moderate degree of channel aggradation is suggested.
The third and last part of the study addresses the human use of the environment and its effects on the region and landscapes. It attends systematically to agricultural practices and to settlement distribution with respect to soils and terrain types, and it does so separately for prehistory (Late Neolithic to Iron Age), for Roman and Early Byzantine times, and for the Late Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Settlement remained quite stable for about 2,500 years, Lespez observes, during the long Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age, and the human use of the environment resulted neither in significant reduction of the primeval oak forest nor in soil exhaustion or erosion. Such stability was probably aided by the fact that agriculture at the time was limited to level areas and gentle slopes in the basin’s lowlands.
Late Bronze and Iron Age settlements show a preference, however slight, for higher, defensible locations. Even Dikili Tash, which had been founded on level, only slightly elevated ground midway between a steep hill and the edge of the marshland, had by the Late Bronze Age risen to more than 15 m above its immediate surrounds. It is also about this time that the first signs of (mild) erosion appear in the region’s geomorphological record. That erosion may have been initiated by partial removal of forest along the lower mountain slopes, but it was probably favored by increased precipitation (for which some independent evidence comes from the region’s palynological record).
The chapter on the early historical era, from the Classical to the Early Byzantine period, offers a generous summary of the historical sources regarding, especially, the founding and growth of the Roman colony, agriculture, mining, forest exploitation, and possible changes in the extent of the marshes. Both the basin floor and the foothills in its periphery were now settled more densely than before. Deforestation proceeded at a faster pace, and erosion in the upper sections of the side valleys set in. It was, however, only late in the period, between the third and the seventh centuries C.E., that its products were transported to the alluvial fans at the mouths of the water courses. This transport is attributed by the author to climatic change (increased precipitation), not to human factors.
In the last century of the Byzantine empire and the beginning of the Ottoman period, streams appear to have been incising rather than aggrading their beds. Lespez tentatively associates this geomorphological event with the political instability and demographic decline in the countryside that historical sources indicate for the period (13th and 14th centuries). Demographic decline, the hypothesis goes, could have favored forest regeneration, and this in turn would have reduced slope erosion. In any case, the trend was reversed later in the Ottoman period, as population once more increased, new commercial crops (cotton, rice, maize, and tobacco) supplemented the old cereal agriculture, the uplands were for the first time settled, and forest gave way to pastures. By the 19th century, if not before, floods were frequent and large amounts of upland sediment were carried and redeposited in the periphery of the plain. Once more, the author observes, this event cannot have been strictly anthropogenic; exceptional hydroclimatic events must be invoked to explain it. Moreover, those events may be related to the so-called Little Ice Age, the occurrence of which from the 15th to the mid 19th century is attested in most parts of Europe.
Let me stress that Lespez’s is not a study just in environmental change. He has devoted as much energy in reconstructing and describing rural landscapes around villages and towns. Most detailed and compelling in this respect is his work on the Ottoman landscape, for the reconstruction of which several kinds of historical evidence, including published information from the Ottoman census of 1467–1468, are put to good use. And so this turns out to be an excellent, useful study on a difficult and important subject. My only complaint is that it preserves the cautious style in which one writes (as one should) a dissertation.
The volume concludes with two archaeological maps of the Drama plain and its borders (395–416 [Koukouli-Chryssanthaki, Malamidou, and Lespez]), one for prehistoric sites and the other for sites dating from Archaic to Early Christian times. Basic information on location and chronology, as well as the relevant bibliographic sources, are also provided.
The volume reviewed is the first to have resulted from the most recent round of work at Dikili Tash and its region. Two more volumes, more narrowly focused on the excavated materials, are in preparation.
Department of History and Archaeology
University of Ioannina