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The Ancient Greek Farmstead

The Ancient Greek Farmstead

By Maeve McHugh. Oxford: Oxbow. 2017. Pp. 208. $55. ISBN 9781785706400 (paper).

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Most ancient Greeks were farmers of one sort or another: there were freehold subsistence farmers, tenant farmers, farm laborers, slaves, and large landowners who sometimes farmed themselves but more often used overseers to supervise the free laborers or slaves who did the actual farm work. The sites of their agricultural work are generally referred to as farmsteads. McHugh’s goal in this book, in her own words, is to “develop a [sic] criteria for the identification of farmstead types and place them within their socio-economic context by understanding their agricultural role” (153). On the whole, she accomplishes this goal admirably and provides valuable contextual material as well: information on trade, marketing, transport, consumption, and more. McHugh describes these situations comprehensively, exploring virtually every possible variation. She has a penchant for exhaustive cataloguing, whether she is describing farmstead types, farming strategies, or any of the related aspects of ancient agriculture.

McHugh describes three types of farmsteads characterized by occupation, processing, and storage, largely identifiable by the types of ceramics associated with them. Occupation sites have considerable pottery that she terms “domestic,” including vessels associated with food preparation and consumption as well as loomweights and spindlewhorls; processing sites yield remnants of threshing floors, mills, and presses used for transforming grains into flour and pressing olives and grapes into oil and wine; while storage sites are characterized by the presence of pithoi, cisterns, and subterranean pits for the storage of agricultural products. These are not rigid classifications, however, as many sites combine more than one of these features. Some farms were lived in year-round while others hosted cultivators from nearby villages, towns, or cities who commuted on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. The inhabitants of some occupation sites did their own processing and storage, whereas others shared centrally located facilities. McHugh wisely limits her investigation to the Classical period of 450–300 BCE and hews pretty close to that time period with her examples. Nevertheless, there is considerable variation even within this limited time period, especially from region to region.

There are two sources for McHugh’s arguments: textual and archaeological. The textual sources are the usual suspects, including among others Hesiod, Herodotus, Pausanius, Demosthenes, Homer, Xenophon, and Theophrastes, whereas the archaeological data come mainly from three regions: the Akte peninsula, Methana, and the Eurotas Valley in Laconia, with some comparative data from other parts of the Peloponnese, Attica, Eretria, some Greek island sites, and even the Black Sea region. Neither the textual nor the archaeological sources alone are sufficient to settle most questions raised by the data, and often the two together cannot resolve certain problems.

Modern ethnographic data are invoked here and there, but McHugh ignores the large body of ethnographic work on rural Greece in favor of one source: Hamish Forbes. Forbes is a good choice, as he has worked extensively with his archaeologist wife, Lin Foxhall (who is extensively cited), on the Methana peninsula, but there are so many other ethnographic sources that could have enhanced McHugh’s discussions. In particular, the ethnoarchaeological work of Claudia Chang (to cite just one example) could have added important insights, especially about pastoralism, which is rarely mentioned by McHugh despite its close ties to agriculture. In her limited references to transhumant pastoralists, there is no discussion of their symbiotic relationship with cultivators nor, in her discussion of manuring, does she point out that pastoralists often graze their flocks on the stubble of harvested fields, the animals traversing back and forth and depositing their rich fertilizing feces as they go. 

It is also a bit curious that McHugh does not provide any demographic data. She makes no mention of the size of the various settlements she references, nor does she try to estimate the carrying capacity of the farmlands she surveys. Such data would have added considerably to her arguments. That she is not averse to employing quantitative data is seen in her extensive discussion of time and motion connected with travel on ancient roads (ch. 4). 

Unfortunately, McHugh is not much of a stylist. Her writing is dense and repetitious and she tends to go on and on. There are paragraphs almost two pages long and hardly a one that is less than half a page. Nor has she been well served by her editors, who failed to catch a number of grammatical errors: “the data records” (52), “this criteria” (59), “less sherds” (65), “cattle was” (151), “a criteria” (152), and “choose” for “chose” (152). Moreover, on page 63 she refers to the “storage” of slaves, an unfortunate term that seemingly renders human beings as commodities; “housing” would have been a kinder word.

Ultimately, this is a book for the specialist. It would never work as a text for a class and is more of a reference than a read for most scholars. It should be in all serious libraries for the wealth of data it contains and the insightful analyses. McHugh has performed a valuable service, providing scholars of ancient Greece with a comprehensive summary of the myriad aspects of the universal occupation of most of the ancients.

Peter S. Allen
Rhode Island College

Book Review of The Ancient Greek Farmstead, by Maeve McHugh
Reviewed by Peter S. Allen
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Allen

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