Another look at Land of Sikyon

One spring day in 2005, I ran into Yannis Lolos at the Blegen Library in Athens carrying around his recently completed monograph on the history and archaeology of the region of Sikyon, the polis immediately west of Corinth. He told me at the time that the hundreds and hundreds of freshly printed pages in his hands, destined for the publication desk of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, had required a tremendous amount of work. Now that I’ve seen the final product, Land of Sikyon: Archaeology and History of a Greek City-State (Princeton 2011), I can see he wasn’t exaggerating. This is truly a magnum opus representing a massive undertaking that could only have required thousands of hours of work. I spent a couple of days last week working through the volume, but I felt like one only scratching the surface—much like Caraher’s cat attacking a sofa

The most impressive aspect of Land of Sikyon is its comprehensiveness. Lolos has produced the first topographic study of the entire region of Sikyonia (360 km) from prehistory to the Early Modern period. He mines and discusses all relevant ancient and medieval texts and early modern literature, summarizes relevant excavation finds, and presents page after page of original observation and interpretation of the finds from his reconnaissance survey of the territory. While he claims in places that his work is not the final say for the history of the region but only a new beginning, it is most certainly comprehensive in its regional framework, diachronic perspective, and attention to a wide range of evidence. One might compare it to James Wiseman’s The Land of the Ancient Corinthians, but double the word count and twice the number of photos, maps, plans, and tables. At 635 pages, it rivals in size any regional survey volume, but, unlike most survey volumes, Land of Sikyon was authored (almost) entirely by one person.

This outline and structure of the book shows Lolos’ thematic breaks, which, as he notes in the intro, correspond to the stages of his research (For a descriptive summary, see Bill Caraher’s BMCR review):

Introduction (pp. 1-6)

Ch. 1. Physical Environment and Resources (pp. 7-58): topography; boundaries and resources of ancient polis, land use in the premodern era

Ch. 2. Sikyonia from Prehistoric Times to the Ottoman Era (pp. 59-92): a history of the region based mainly on textual evidence

Ch. 3. Land Communications (pp. 93-180): a reconstruction of the road network of the territory based on Lolos’ topographical survey (1996-1998 )

Ch. 4. Defenses (pp. 181-268): discussion of the region’s fortifications based on topographical survey in 1996-1998 (forts, guard houses, patrol houses)

Ch. 5. Settlements: The City and its Countryside (269-376): diachronic reconstruction of settlement system based on extensive survey in 2000-2002

Ch. 6. Sacra Sicyonia (pp. 377-414): sacred landscapes based on survey, excavation, and textual evidence

Ch. 7. Conclusion (pp. 415-418)

There follows seven appendixes. The most detailed and extensive covers the register of sites (pp. 419-548), while there are also chapters by Lolos on aqueducts, public land, and a building inscription, and chapters from his colleagues on the Cave of Lechova, roof tiles, and an inscribed sherd. Six neat maps show political boundaries, topography, rivers and streams, fault lines, geological strata, vegetation patterns, modern settlements and toponyms, archaeological sites, ancient roads of the Sikyonia and the western Korinthia, and the features and sites of the Ancient Sikyon plateau. These are freely available for downloading as PDF files via their DOI names (listed at the end of the book).

The structure of the work reveals Lolos’ principal interests. The introduction and the first two chapters establish the context for understanding Sikyonia’s history, while the subsequent chapters of the monograph (3-6) detail the results of the topographical survey and the extensive pedestrian survey.  For the general reader interested broadly in the history and archaeology of the northeast Peloponnese but with no knowledge of Sikyon per se, chapters 1 and 2 could be the most useful in the volume. The first discusses agriculture and the natural resources of Sikyonia while the second provides a summary of Sikyon’s political and cultural history over four millennia. Both highlight how Sikyon’s and Corinth’s history were entangled in many different ways —by natural resources (e.g., the famous coastal plain between Corinth and Sikyon, the flora and crops of the regions) and parallel political developments (neighboring poleis in the Archaic-Hellenistic periods, complex interactions with external powers in the Hellenistic period). From the Roman period to the early modern era, Sikyon’s history, in fact, was directly overshadowed by the megalopolis Corinth. Indeed, the selection of Carl Rottmann’s oil painting, Sikyon-Corinth (1836-1838), for the cover of the book, draws attention to this theme of Sikyon’s relationship and interaction with neighboring Corinth, its acropolis visible in the distance.


Chapters 3-5 are without question the heart of the monograph, each numbering 80-100+ pages. These do not make for light or easy reading but require attention to Lolos’ topographic arguments (based on the maps at the end of the volume), archaeological arguments (based on references to scattered remains of roads, fortifications, and settlements), and textual arguments about the interpretation of ancient literature and early modern sources. The general reader can gain a quick overview of Lolos’ arguments through the useful summaries at the end of each chapter, but will still benefit from dipping into particular sections of interest and examining the images, figures, and tables (cf., for example, the walking distances and travel times from Corinth in Table 3.1). The scholar of the northeast Peloponnese will want to spend some time wading through Lolos’ arguments. For example, the author reconstructs an extensive road network across the Sikyonia from wheel ruts (most of which, he argues, are deliberately cut), natural corridors, road bed cuttings, historical sources, bridge locations, and graves, and argues that almost all of these roads originated in antiquity, primarily the era of the polis. The connection between these scattered bits is necessarily speculative as most of these features are not especially diagnostic, but the author’s arguments are still compelling. I found convincing his argument (pp. 98-110) for the existence of a Roman road across the coastal plain connecting the regions of Corinth and Sikyon, especially as it corresponds to modern village locations and lines up nicely with David Romano’s observations about an artery that structured the Roman centuriation of the Corinth’s western territory. Lolos’ arguments about the functions of rural towers and fortifications in the territory—mostly for the defense of the polis, mostly guarding interstate roads—are balanced, coherent, and defensible.

I was less convinced by Lolos’ reconstruction of settlement patterns (Ch. 5), based on his extensive survey of the territory.  While the discussion is nuanced and sensible, recognizing (p. 272) the major methodological differences between extensive survey and intensive survey, he nonetheless attempts to reconstruct demographic patterns on the basis of relative changes in the number of sites identified for each period. So, for example, he sees a mostly empty Geometric countryside (9 sites), a surprisingly sparse Archaic period (26 sites), a spike in the Classical era (45 sites), a decline in the Hellenistic (22 sites) to Early-Middle Roman (34 sites), and a spike in the Late Roman period (61 sites), etc..—archaeological patterns that seem out of sync with the picture from textual sources (e.g., the early Hellenistic period is a bright phase in Sikyon’s history under Aratus). Whether or not these could reflect true demographic change or the changing demographic relationship of town and country, as Lolos ponders, I found two main weaknesses in his assessment of the pattern.

First, Lolos’ survey was not intensive, and therefore not likely to detect the smaller farmsteads, tenant residences, and seasonal habitations that must have been common throughout Sikyon’s history. The investigator followed the kapheneion method: his research began at the village cafes and pursued local knowledge of farmers and inhabitants.  This method was a certain path to locating sites but also led him inevitably to examine the most visible sites of the territory. By my count, 94 of the 148 habitation sites listed in the catalogue are associated with structures or architectural fragments like cut stone, rubble, and ashlar blocks; only 1/3 of the sites in the volume were identified from pottery scatters alone. There can only be an enormous corpus of unidentified smaller sites in the Sikyonia that escaped detection from Lolos’ survey. When Lolos completes an intensive survey of a sample of the territory, we will have a much better sense of the range of settlements in the region. But until he does so, his results based on extensive survey cannot be reliably compared with that of intensive survey projects. 

Lolos, of course, recognizes the important methodological difference between extensive and intensive survey (p. 272) in this work as well as in his decision to undertake a high-resolution urban survey of the Sikyon plateau, but maintains that the chronological layers documented in his extensive survey are still meaningful relative to one another.  In recent years, I have come to doubt our ability to reconstruct demographic changes from simple changes in the quantity of “sites” of different periods.  As several of us have argued from the Eastern Korinthia Survey data (here, here, and here), knowledge of ceramic periods is always differential: the Late Roman period, for instance, has much greater visibility than the Hellenistic or Early Roman because of its more identifiable coarse ware body sherds with their characteristic combed and grooved surface treatments. One cannot reliably assess change in rural settlement without also assessing the degree to which successive periods within a region are differently visible during survey. While Lolos acknowledges these issues and also notes some of the artifacts identified at each site, he does not give the reader enough information about the artifacts to determine whether the patterns are really a product of changes in deposition of artifacts over time, or simply a result of the biases of identification. I left this chapter wondering whether the 61 Late Roman sites were really an indication of “the return of the population to the countryside” (p. 367), or just a result of greater visibility in diagnostic tiles and “hundreds of ribbed body sherds” (p. 366). I also wondered whether 22 Hellenistic sites and 34 Early Roman-Middle Roman sites were really much less than 45 Classical sites. In some regions of Greece and the Aegean, after all, changes between these periods have been much more drastic. Could not one put a more positive spin (e.g., settlement continuity) on these patterns? 

These sorts of methodological questions can best be answered in subsequent phases of intensive survey which Lolos plans to undertake eventually in the territory (p.272). They do not detract from this volume’s major accomplishment, which is to move the history and archaeology of Sikyon from political history of the urban center to the broader framework of territory and landscape.


Further Reading:


Categories: Agriculture, Archaeological Survey, Books and Articles, Corinthia, Diachronic, Economy, Fortifications, Landscape, Western Plain, Sites, Sikyon, Territory, Travelers

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