You are here

Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside

Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside

By Effie F. Athanassopoulos (Nemea Valley Archaeological Project 2). Pp. xxvii + 172. American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2016. $150. ISBN 9780876619230 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This study of the archaeological and documentary evidence for medieval land use and settlement patterns in the Nemea Valley is the second volume of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP). As the foreword by its directors explains, this project carried out intensive survey, combined with geomorphology, historical ecology, and anthropological studies, in 1984 to 1986 and 1989 (viii). The most striking feature of Athanassopoulos’ book, other than the careful gazetteer of medieval sites and decorated pottery, is her determination to view medieval material culture and landscape in its social and cultural context. The discussion covers the late 11th to the 15th century; the project was unable to identify anything substantial from the seventh to the mid 11th century (5).

Athanassopoulos distinguishes two clear phases during this period: a pattern of dispersed settlements and intensive agriculture in the 12th and 13th centuries; and abandonment, nucleation, and incastellamento from the late 13th to the 15th century. One contribution that has importance well beyond the confines of the Nemea Valley is the author’s characterization of rural settlement types and her attempt to identify the types known from documentary sources in the survey record.

At the heart of this volume, with its extensive chapters of historical background and historiography, is the attempt to “create a ‘dialogue’ between the archaeological remains and the existing textual record” (21). This is done partly by the use of documentary records—mainly from northern Greece, the Corinthia being relatively sparse in such documentation—and more specifically by using the 10th-century Fiscal Treatise, which explains Byzantine fiscal practices, including land taxation (28). From this, a variety, if not a hierarchy, of rural settlement types can be inferred, including small estates (agridhia), larger estates (proasteia) and villages (choria) (30). The author suggests that the two biggest sites found by the survey are proasteia and the rest are agridia, isolated farms, or clusters of houses beside fertile land (51–2). As she notes (51), identifying these in the survey record is more than just a matter of measuring their area, particularly given the difficulties of defining the boundaries of often amorphous pottery scatters in the field. What is needed, though, is a broader characterization of site types based on both documentary analysis and full interpretation of archaeological survey data.

The NVAP’s intensive survey methodology was particularly responsive to different configurations of artifact scatters (59), and this volume publishes interesting and wide-ranging material. Taken together, these certainly provide the potential to integrate documentary sources and archaeological survey data for addressing this crucial issue of site characterization. But the archaeological data are not actually mobilized to do this; with the exception of Polyphengi (discussed below), there is comparatively little engagement with the archaeological record beyond the publication of fine wares.

One way forward is to investigate how the distributions and proportions of pottery wares and functions could characterize each site. For example, the author notes that the substantial Site 600 has large numbers of cooking pots (95), but this is not followed up. What were the proportions of the decorated tablewares to cooking and storage wares, and how did that vary between different sites? The 26 sites published have significant numbers of millstones, olive presses, cisterns, ruined domestic structures, and churches. Dating such features can be challenging, of course, but at least some of these are likely to date to the Medieval period (e.g., 77, 127). The environmental context of each site could give useful data about soils, altitude, relief, and suitability for different types and intensities of agricultural production. Putting all this together, there is real potential for at least addressing questions such as characteristic site types, patterns of land use, and changing social relations in the countryside. It is overly pessimistic to say that these can be addressed only by local historical documents (57).

Key to understanding the Nemea Valley in the period of the late 13th to the 15th century is the mountain complex of fort, settlement, cisterns, and cave shelters at Polyphengi, which is discussed through an account of the relevant historical documents (54–7) and a detailed description of the archaeological features and decorated tablewares (130–49). Compared with the previous two centuries, the Nemea Valley in this period shows clear settlement nucleation strongly focused on Polyphengi.

There is a useful comparative discussion of the phenomenon of incastellamento in Greece earlier in the volume (33), but an analysis of the specific character and location of Polyphengi in relation to the surrounding landscape could have cast light on the workings of incastellamento in this specific case. For example, how far was the settlement from the nearest agricultural land? Is there visual control from the tower on the summit not just of the major communication routes but also of the fields below, the way back up to the summit, and any other relevant landscape features? Similarly, it would be interesting to compare the survey data with a published Ottoman register from 1512 (35) and tease apart precisely how this nucleated settlement pattern operated.

This volume publishes valuable and interesting material on a period for which, even after some four decades of intensive archaeological survey, there is a striking lack of fully published survey results. This in itself is a major contribution, particularly when combined with the high quality of the original survey, the care with which the pottery and site descriptions are presented, the extensive historical background, and the superb illustrations. The volume itself does not present a fully integrated archaeological, historical, and landscape analysis of this important material. Its real value, however, is that it allows us all to do our own integration and analysis.

Michael Given
School of Humanities
University of Glasgow

Book Review of Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside, by Effie F. Athanassopoulos

Reviewed by Michael Given

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1221.given

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.