You are here

Summer Farms: Seasonal Exploitation of the Uplands from Prehistory to the Present

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Summer Farms: Seasonal Exploitation of the Uplands from Prehistory to the Present

Edited by John Collis, Mark Pearce, and Franco Nicolis (Sheffield Archaeological Monographs 16). Pp. xiii + 247, figs. 166, tables 21. Equinox, Bristol, U.K. 2016. $135. ISBN 978-0-906090-55-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Summer Farms: Seasonal Exploitation of the Uplands from Prehistory to the Present draws together research on seasonal farming presented in two sessions at meetings of the European Association of Archaeologists, one in Oslo in 2011 and one in Helsinki in 2012. The volume comprises 13 chapters including an introduction and addresses summer farming in several areas of Europe across a range of time periods from the Bronze Age to the recent past. The volume is weighted toward Italy, with six chapters addressing research in the Italian Alps and Apennines, but it also includes studies on the Swiss and French Alps, as well as the Czech Republic, the Eurasian steppes, northern Spain, and Iceland.

Much of the research presented in Summer Farms is the result of recent fieldwork documenting under-studied agropastoral landscapes, often for the first time. The volume seeks to address many of the problems archaeologists face when interpreting the more ephemeral remains often found in these landscapes. How can we determine what these structures were for? How can we distinguish seasonal from permanent exploitation and transhumant from sedentary pastoralism? How can we understand the range of human and animal mobility? How can we assess the “marginality” of upland economies? One of the strengths of the volume is the wide range of methodologies that are brought to bear on these questions. Ethnoarchaeology, isotope studies, palynology, sediment micromorphology, historical analysis, artifact analysis, and architectural typologies are just some of the lines of evidence employed.

The quality of the essays is high throughout, and several stand out as particularly successful examples of interdisciplinary work. Carrer’s chapter on differentiating between the material remains of dairying and nondairying pastoral strategies offers an excellent example of the use of ethnoarchaeological analysis to interpret archaeological remains. Kupiec et al. employ historical and literary analysis along with sediment micromorphology to provide a detailed, culturally situated study of a seasonal Icelandic shieling that became a permanent farm before finally being abandoned. Stagno provides a detailed historical and archaeological analysis of casoni in the Ligurian Apennines that documents a shift from locating these seasonal pastoral buildings in upland communal pastures to locating them on private property at lower altitudes, nearer permanent farming activities. This shift, which occurred during the 18th century, accompanied changes in both pastoral and agricultural strategies that emphasized monoculture over earlier, more diversified systems.

Several overarching themes emerge from the book, one of the most important being the uniqueness of local histories. While there is much similarity among the lifeways being studied—a fact that lends cohesion to the volume despite its broad geographical and chronological scope—seasonal farming is an active adaptation that is applied differently by specific groups in response to particular situations. A useful comparison in elucidating this fact can be made between Avanzini and Salvador’s chapter on pastoral land use in the Italian southern Alps between the 17th and 19th centuries and Walsh and Mocci’s chapter on high-altitude landscape exploitation in the southern French Alps over the longue durée. While Avanzini and Salvador find that use of the uplands correlated closely with changes in climate in their study area, Walsh and Mocci find little evidence that climate changes influenced the intensity of upland economic strategies in their region.

Another important theme highlights the additional economic strategies that are connected with upland pastoralism. An essential strategy is the development of hard-cheese technology. Addressed specifically in chapters by Pearce and by Andres but mentioned throughout, hard rather than soft cheeses were necessary to accommodate the longer storage times and greater transport distances necessitated by upland farming. In addition to addressing specifically pastoral strategies, many of the chapters note the probable or documented relationship between pastoralism and other economic activities. Mining activities are understandably common in upland areas and can have geographical distributions similar to those of pastoral sites; there may sometimes have been links between the two practices (Collis, Pearce, Migliavacca). Additionally, activities such as lime production, charcoal production, and seasonal farming of terraced fields are noted by González Álvarez et al. as being pursued by shepherds in the Cantabrian Mountains concurrently with summer herding.

Problems with the book are generally minor. One concern is that Shishlina and Larionova use sex and gender terminology interchangeably in their otherwise nuanced isotope study of human mobility in the Caspian and Don steppes; a more careful distinction between sex and gender and a discussion of how evidence for gender relates to biological sex in the kurgan burials being studied would have further contextualized their results.

Overall, Summer Farms is an interesting volume that contributes new data on under-studied upland economies and demonstrates the success of applying interdisciplinary methods to the challenges posed by less archaeologically visible lifeways. The volume will be a valuable resource for scholars studying seasonal, and especially upland, agropastoral strategies in any time period. As with many traditional economies that are threatened by increasing urbanization and industrialized production, there is a need to document the seasonal farming practices described in Summer Farms while they and the material remains they produce are still extant. These practices have ethnohistorical importance in their own right, and, as this book demonstrates, they provide invaluable insight for interpreting the human past.

Emily Holt
Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Miami University of Ohio

Book Review of Summer Farms: Seasonal Exploitation of the Uplands from Prehistory to the Present, edited by John Collis, Mark Pearce, and Franco Nicolis 

Reviewed by Emily Holt

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.holt

Add new comment

Plain text

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