Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Mediterranean landscape archaeology

Within the broader research theme Town and Country which unites the Classical, Mediterranean and Near Eastern Archaeology Department, the Classical-Mediterranean staff and PhDs are active in a wide number of regions and periods of the Circum-Mediterranean lands.

Bleda Düring

Testing the Hinterlands

The work of the Boeotia Survey (1989-1991) in the Southern Approaches to the City of Thespiai
edited by John Bintliff, Phil Howard and Anthony Snodgrass
The Boeotia Survey in Greece is widely recognised as a milestone in Mediterranean landscape archaeology in the sophistication and rigour of its methodologies, and in the scale of the 25-year investigation. This first volume of the project's publication deals with the landscape that formed part of the territory of the ancient city of Thespiai. This landscape acted as the laboratory in which the project refined its methodology: the entire territory was traversed systematically by survey teams, and artefacts were collected not only from every archaeological site located but also as 'off-site' material indicative of land use practices such as manuring. The methodology made possible the construction of detailed period and density maps of rural activity, throwing unprecedented light on the interaction of the city with its hinterland particularly in its period of maximum size between the 5th century BC and the 6th century AD, as well as providing an exemplar for Mediterranean landscape archaeology more generally”. 320p, 457 b/w illus, 50 col illus, CD (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2007) )(From Oxbow Books Catalogue)


PhD research on Greece

Emeri Farinetti's PhD project is focused on a GIS-based spatial analysis of the long-term settlement maps for the province of Boeotia, Central Greece, from Prehistory to Modern times.

Marina Gkiasta's PhD research is an analysis of the history of Landscape Archaeology in Crete over the last 200 years, assisted by GIS technology.

Marc Bajema's PhD thesis centres on the changing settlement systems of Greece during the ‘Dark Age’ or Early Iron Age, between the fall of the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization and the rise of Archaic states. Comparisons with other civilisational collapse phenomena, for example Post-Classic Mesoamerica, will eventually form part of the research.

The city of Tanagra and its countryside

Our large field team of Dutch, Greek and Slovenian staff and students are accommodated at the Evangelistria Ecclesiastical Research Centre due to the enthusiastic support for our work by Bishop Hieronymus of Livadhia and his personal assistant Mr. George Kopanyas. As of 2004 we are in the study and checking or problem-solving stage for the Tanagra phase of the wider Project, so that it is timely to offer a provisional overview of what has been achieved so far.

Neolithic and Bronze Age Habitation

It appears that the first settlement at the City site is a small Neolithic (early farmers) village, followed by similarly small settlements in all phases of the subsequent Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age. Although there are some large and rich cemeteries in the Tanagra region in the Late Bronze Age or Mycenaean era, these turn out not to belong to the City village as sometimes hypothesized, but to larger and more important settlements lying both by the modern village of Tanagra several kilometres to the west of the City, and near the modern villages of Agios Thomas and Kleidi some kilometres south of the City.

The post-Mycenaean Dark Ages

Indeed the ancient City does not begin either in the post-Mycenaean Dark Ages but can first clearly be recognised at the dawn of Greek history, during the Late Geometric and early Archaic period around 700 BC, when the first textual references to a town fit with the earliest graves in its surrounding cemeteries (excavated over a long period before our Project began). We do not yet know how large the first, early historic (Archaic and early Classical era) City was, as the overlay of the buildings of the next 1000 years of the City have left little surface architecture of that period and only scant small pieces of pottery for us to find on the surface.

Putative plan of the Greco-Roman city of Tanagra, based on earlier fieldwork by Duane Roller and current geophysical and surface architectural work by the current project under the direction of Prof. B. Slapsak (Ljubljana University).

Putative plan of the Greco-Roman city of Tanagra, based on earlier fieldwork by Duane Roller and current geophysical and surface architectural work by the current project under the direction of Prof. B. Slapsak (Ljubljana University).

The Classical Greek Town

Our surface finds remain too rare to say much about the Classical Greek town so far, and far more informative have been the remarkable results of the Ljubljana team under the direction of Prof. Slapsak and using the technical excellence of his chief geophysicist Dr. Brane Music. The application of subsurface prospection without destructive excavation offers one of the other major ways – beyond surface pottery and architecture study – in which we can study the history of an archaeological site without digging it up. Combining different methods of detecting walls and ditches and industrial installations underground, - electrical resistance, magnetic anomalies, radar signals, one can produce maps of roads, walls, kilns, etc of astonishing detail and clarity. In the case of Tanagra, almost the entire 30 hectare walled town has been studied through geophysics [Figure 6], and we can now test the hypothetical street and house block plan of Roller against the subsurface realities. It turns out that the streets running at regular intervals north-south in Roller’s plan are indeed as he suggested, but his east-west regular avenues are often not quite where he claimed. Furthermore his location for the central square or Agora seems incorrect, and it lies a good deal further west and nearer one of the major City gates.

The Hellenistic and Early Roman Era

The ceramics of the subsequent Hellenistic era are still rather rare and we cannot as yet tell much about life in the City then, although there is a humorous short account in the travelogue of Heracleides Kritikos from this time. The great 4th century BC plan and rewalling do attest to a large and wealthy City in Classical Greek times, and it is perhaps to the arrival of Roman power when we might expect some radical change in its prosperity. Previous work during the earlier Boeotia Project made it clear that ancient writers’ emphasis on the decline of Southern Greece in the Early Roman Empire as far as population levels and overall economic output, seemed accurate when we observed the surface survey evidence for the shrinkage of urban areas in the region. We might expect that Tanagra could well have likewise shrunk in size and population. So far the pottery recovered from the City surface does indeed seem to be notably low for Early Roman times, but the analysis is far from concluded and there are problems with close dating of some pottery types with long lives well beyond this period.

Tanagra in the Late Roman Period

There seems to have been certainly a large and busy City in the Late Roman period however (ca. 400-600 AD), as the vast bulk of all surface finds from Tanagra belong to Late Roman forms. This was also a time when Barbarian raids brought real insecurity to Greece, and we see a wave of refortification of cities throughout the province. The fact that Tanagra repairs its entire Classical Greek City walls suggests that at least now its population was considerable. Tanagra in Roman times naturally saw extensive rebuildings and modifications to its original 4th century BC gridplan.

Tanagra in Late Antique, Byzantine and Ottoman Times

Late Antique Tanagra had a bishop but the historic sources do not attest to the town after Late Roman times, and so far the Medieval or Byzantine sherds found over the City seem to betray no more than scattered farms. During the middle Ottoman Turkish period, of the 16th-18th centuries AD, a discrete hamlet was found lying on the Acropolis of the City, represented by a row of 4 interlinked longhouses in rubble construction, of traditional house type for this region and a limited radius round the houses of ceramic rubbish from this period. Probably this represents a dependent serf-farm of ciftlik typical for this period in Greece.

The Countryside of Tanagra

It is time to turn to the Chora or Countryside of Tanagra, the area which in ancient times would have formed its supportive agricultural hinterland. Our experience in regional surface survey has shown that one cannot begin to understand either urban history or the history of the countryside unless you study both components of a past settlement system, since in pre-Modern times the two are interdependent aspects of a single society.

Onsite and Offsite Finds

Two kinds of information comes from such rural fieldwalking. Firstly we find isolated concentrations of pottery and sometimes also building material, which depending on the extent and quality of the finds can be interpreted as farms, villas or villages, or perhaps rural cemeteries. Secondly, in between these foci of activity, especially in Boeotia, we find entire carpets of broken potsherds, at lower densities than material emanating from past settlements, but still significant enough to mark a major form of human activity. This latter kind of surface material is usually referred to as ‘offsite pottery’ and its characteristics in Boeotia are so clear that we can put a very likely explanation forward for its origin. At Tanagra this is as clear as anywhere else: the offsite pottery is at its highest density around the edges of the ancient City and then gradually declines in density with an almost perfect relationship to distance from the town. Taken together, these aspects of the offsite pottery argue for its origin in intensive agricultural manuring out of the City, with urban residents storing their rubbish for recycling out into the fields in order to enhance the fertility of their estates. The organic components have long since been absorbed into millennia of crops, so what we have left are the tough inorganic rubbish items – notably the ubiquitous broken household pottery.

The Boeotian offsite carpets hold a potential for more insightful conclusions: a sample of this material has been collected for dating, and we await with great interest when exactly this practice was common. In the largest city studied by the earlier Boeotia Project, Thespiae, the offsite carpets were almost entirely dated to the Classical Greek era, when the City was at its largest, and we could interpret this then as a symptom of population pressure.

The Neolithic and Bronze Age Sites

The other feature of rural survey is the discovery of discrete foci of settlement or burial, or ‘sites’, and here the picture from the hinterland of Tanagra is also in agreement with that obtained earlier in our surveys of Central and North Boeotia. Prehistoric sites consist of Neolithic and Bronze Age villages at regular intervals of some half an hour apart, between which lie shorter-lived farms probably occupied by a single family. The Neolithic farmers lacked ploughs and did not obtain diary products or wool from their flocks, and tend to be closely associated with the presence of well-watered valley soils where hand agriculture is most easily applied. In the Bronze Age the diffusion of ox-drawn ploughs and the knowledge of secondary products from domestic animals caused a massive explosion of settlement into the drier zones of the landscape and a general rise in population.

The Countryside in Archaic and Classical Greek Times

The next major spread of settlement in the countryside coincides with the founding and rapid expansion of City of Tanagra, in Archaic and Classical Greek times, with a likely peak of urban and rural population around 400 BC as in the rest of Boeotia. We found a number of rural family farms and many small rural cemeteries. Usually the farms begin only some distance away from the town where it became worthwhile to live most or all the year rather than walk home every evening from one’s estate to the town. But actually our Boeotian survey work and that of other intensive Greek surveys have shown conclusively that although the Classical countryside is full of farms and small villages, their total resident population cannot be more than 20-25% of the regional population, with the vast majority dwelling in the large and closely-spaced cities or poleis of this period.

The Countryside in Late Hellenistic and Early Roman Period

In the final centuries BC and the early centuries AD, the times we know as Late Hellenistic and Early Roman, Boeotia goes into a general decline. At Tanagra specifically we cannot yet tell if the City shrank now, but in the rural hinterland there is certainly so far an absence of farms. Recovery begins in the Middle Roman Imperial era (ca. 200-400 AD) and peaks in a new florescence of rural sites in Late Roman times (ca. 400-600 AD). Now as elsewhere in Boeotia there is the appearance of numerous villas or elite farms in the landscape, larger and more elaborate architecturally than the small family farms of the Classical era. It is customary to interpret this contrast as a shift by Roman times to a form of landownership favouring wealthier farmers over a previously dominant class of petty farmers. Indeed it is possible that the urban population at Tanagra may by now have formed a dependent labour pool working on these large estates, as salaried labour or sharecroppers maybe.

Late Antiquity and the Countryside

If the City dies at the end of Antiquity, we would normally assume that life went on somewhere not far away. It is true that sometimes a great natural disaster or human catastrophe may empty a region of its human population completely, but this is exceedingly rare. More typically we expect that even if towns rise and fall, and overall population performs in the same way, some people will always be living in a district with good resources to make a livelihood – and Tanagra is at the centre of a very fertile area agriculturally with not too severe a climate. One of the main purposes of intensive rural survey is therefore to locate those places where occupation continues or shifts too when most settlements go out of use, and this is the case at the end of the Late Roman era. We know that there were serious barbarian raids through Roman Greece from the 3rd through to the 7th century AD, and in particular numerous Slav tribes colonised the countryside in the late 6th and 7th centuries. In addition the bubonic plague may have cut the population of the Roman world by up to a half over the same period.

The Byzantine Countryside

We can match the historic sources well with the next phase of landscape occupance in the Tanagra hinterland. By the 8th century AD the Eastern Roman Empire, based at Constantinople, had reconquered the Greek countryside from the Slave, including Boeotia, and this ushered in a period of steady growth of rural population and at the major regional towns (such as Thebes in Central Boeotia). We can match this picture from Byzantine sources with the results of our rural survey around Tanagra – a whole series of small villages or hamlets was established at regular intervals of every few kilometres, datable by characteristic Middle Byzantine ceramics found on their surface to foundations in the 10th-11th centuries AD. These continue to flourish into the next period of Crusader feudal conquest of our region (13th-14th century).

The Countryside under Ottoman Rule

All the Byzantine villages disappear in the 14th century, and this can be related to the return of the Bubonic Plague and to the devastating wars between the Franks, the Byzantines and the Turks which left most of the southern Mainland of Greece cleared of population, which either retreated to upland villages in each region or was carried off into slavery. Eastern Boeotia with the large plains and plateaux around Tanagra is especially empty. To recolonise this landscape between 1400-1500 AD the final Frankish Dukes of Athens and then the Ottoman rulers invited large numbers of new settlers, from Albania, with the specific direction to locate new villages near abandoned ones from the previous settlement system. After some 100 years of Ottoman rule, the peaceful conditions of the Pax Ottomanic saw population rise for both Greek and Albanian villages, as well as new village foundations.

Key Developments

The site and landscape of ancient Tanagra sees no tourists, and hardly any scholarly visitors. Yet we have been able to show that the town site and surrounding countryside contain in a microcosm many of the key developments in the story of Greek cities and rural populations, from the arrival of the earliest farmers from the Near East in the 7th millennium BC right up to the establishment of the modern villages of the district between the 14th and 19th centuries AD.

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