Daniel Stewart, on Rural Sites in Roman Greece

Bill Caraher’s review of Daniel Stewart’s recent article on Rural Sites in Roman Greece inspired me to plow through the piece this morning before turning to grading final exams and projects from my course in Historical Archaeology. I won’t repeat Caraher’s insightful points of review of the survey methods section of the article except to note that Stewart’s essay offers a selective, but valuable overview of the study of rural Roman Greece today. There’s an up-to-date bibliography, a good selection of trends in intensive survey method (in respect to Roman Greece), and excellent figures. As a table-lover, I enjoyed his tabular presentation of the periodization schemes for regional survey projects and the comparison of site classification by regional surveys.

On the broadest level, the article outlines the sorts of methodological and interpretive issues that are now vital to consider when studying the Roman landscapes of Greece. Stewart begins in the same place Susan Alcock began her work on Graecia Capta (1993)—with an outline of the problem of the picture of depopulation and decline presented by textual sources of Roman Greece. However, recognizing that this article was not the place to synthesize our knowledge of Roman rural Greece, Stewart sticks to a series of interpretative and methodological issues. Especially important are the concepts of dissonance and fluidity in human and archaeological landscapes:

“The landscape itself is an ephemeral thing: seemingly static but constantly in motion; appearing timeless but subject to radical morphological change. Though walking through a Greek landscape frequently feels like you are stepping through history, it is not the same landscape as that traversed by the inhabitants of Roman Greece. Even the coastline is different. The predominant material evidence itself is also unusual in archaeological terms: a partial surface reflection of subsurface remains that appear as a smear across the landscape, lacking depth, temporality and only crudely associated spatially. Most of what is recovered cannot be dated, only counted (for a summary of issues in landscape archaeology, see Stewart 2013b: 6–14). Unlike urban locales, the places where archaeological evidence exists are not even necessarily the foci of the most significant ancient behaviours – most of our evidence relates to agricultural production, storage and transport, yet these are ‘end-point’ evidence of behaviours that are focused on fields of crops or flocks of animals.”

A range of disjunctures and complexities separate us from past landscapes. In place of master narratives is regionalism, the recognition that things were different in different places. There is no single approach to studying rural landscapes but a multiplicity of “negotiations between the landscapes of the imagination and the physical landscapes we encounter in Greece.” While this is not particularly satisfying, Stewart’s piece neatly represents our new age of reflection on the problems and meaning of survey archaeology data.

My only quibble is that Stewart seems to downplay the value of literary sources. With many other scholars, Stewart notes that textual sources have created our principal interpretative problem for understanding rural landscapes of Roman Greece—the trope of depopulation and decline—and that intensive survey methods mark the best approach to studying landscapes. I value the contribution of regional survey, of course, but I have increasingly seen the value in more integrative approaches to bringing literature and material culture together in our studies of Roman Greece.

If you’re interested, Stewart has written more extensively on the subject in Reading the Landscapes of the Rural Peloponnese: Landscape Change and Regional Variation in an Early “Provincial” Setting. BAR International Series 2504. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013.  I’ve added this to my January term reading list. Speaking of which, this brief post will be the last from me for the year. The other contributors to this blog may post, but I’m out on vacation. Happy holidays! We’ll see you in January.

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Categories: Archaeological Survey, Books and Articles, Landscape, Periods

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