Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.15


Oliver Rackham and Jennifer Moody, The Making of the Cretan Landscape. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. Pp. xvii + 237. 74 ills, 10 pls. £19.99. ISBN 0-7190-3647-X (pb).


Reviewed by Nicholas Purcell, Oxford, purcell@fyfield.sjc.ox.ac.uk.

This must be a strong contender for ancient world Book of the Year. Any classical or archaeological visit to Crete must now take Rackham and Moody (in handy paperback form) as vade mecum; and such a visit, so accompanied, should be an integral part of the formation of every classicist, ancient historian or Mediterranean archaeologist. No other work so lucidly conveys the quiet revolution of the last twenty years in our understanding of how the history of Mediterranean landscapes has worked. I have read nothing to compare with this (not even the very important, if more specialized, archaeological and palaeobotanical studies previously published by the authors themselves) for matter-of-fact and good-humoured correction of deep-seated misconceptions about environmental history, especially that of Greek and Roman Antiquity.

The title proclaims an allegiance to W.G. Hoskins, The making of the English landscape (1955), a pace-setting and revolutionary statement of historical geography which has been hugely influential on the historical study of the environment in England. Why has this method not been applied to the Mediterranean before? This account shows how illuminating it can be.

It is not perhaps quite true to say that it has absolutely never been applied. Survey archaeology in the British tradition is a cousin of historical geography of the Hoskins school, and it has become traditional, especially in Greece, for a holistic approach to be taken to the archaeology of the human landscape. The famous survey of Melos (A. C. Renfrew and M. Wagstaff, edd., An Island polity: the archaeology of exploitation in Melos, Cambridge 1982) is a case in point. This book remains extremely novel for all that. First, because of the scale and scope of the undertaking. Hoskins, and Rackham and Moody, are concerned with a big picture, and with processes which work across a whole, albeit extremely varied, landscape; their remit is in some senses a much more general one than that of any survey-team is likely to be. Second, Hoskins was aiming, very successfully, at a wide and diverse audience, and this is certainly the aim of The making of the Cretan landscape too. The universal scope of archaeological surveys does not mean that they are necessarily easy to digest by the non-specialist, and that goes for the non-archaeological historian or classicist as much as the general reader. This is a model of accessibility, not least because it does not talk down to the lay reader, and entices by offering quirky value-judgements and personal opinions. We should remember, when attempting to write for educated people who are not professional academics, that in making it more widely comprehensible we need to add to the sere materia of our discipline -- add illustration, variety, controversy, amusement -- and not just subtract the difficult bits. Here there is no compromising of the scientific truth by the description of the common hillside plant Euphorbia dendroides as 'extremely distasteful' (p. 205: I can't agree, especially considering the dramatic scarlets and yellows of its foliage in some places, when summer begins, but some people are funny about Euphorbia in any form). But the projection of very sympathetic personae for the authors is skillful and effective.

It may be said, additionally, that the inclusive scope of many field-survey projects does not always result in an entirely satisfactory integration of disparate evidence and diverse periods. One sometimes feels that the inclusion of the early modern documentary record or the classical epigraphy is a duty rather than a conviction on the part of the field archaeologist: and there are still many traditions in which the combination of research on different periods involves impossible liaisons across the boundaries of specializations. This book should be translated into French, Catalan and Castilian: the writing of a Making of the Spanish Landscape has long been delayed by the refusals of the medieval landscape archaeologists of the Iberian peninsula, whose work has produced sensational progress in understanding the Islamic period, to have anything to do with the pre-Visigothic landscape. It could, in an Italian version, do much to bridge the still unfortunate chasm between classical archaeologists and specialists in the alto medioevo. In German and in Greek, it could promote the gradual composition of a Hellenic archaeology which makes real sense of the transitions into and away from the 'Glory that was Greece'. I hope that Manchester University Press are quicker in seeing the possibilities of huge sales in translation than they have been in producing the book, which was announced a very long time ago.

But Anglophone readers are not in the position of being able smugly to ignore this book. For it is not an amateur composition of material relating to different periods in Cretan history: it is informed throughout by a professional scientific understanding of environmental history, and by a great acuity of methodology and a level of common sense notable in a field which goes on attracting crazies. Here the programmatic second chapter 'History, pseudo-history and the use of evidence' is crucial. Its maxims (p. 10) are worth repeating here. '1. Don't over-generalize. The Mediterranean is not a unified region. 2. The key to the past lies in the functioning of the present landscape. One should not assert that goats eat everything without having watched goats. 3. Do not rely entirely on written evidence. If you do, you will never learn about periods when nobody was writing. 4. Verify the evidence. Be suspicious of information written down by people living long after the time, or who had not been to the locality. 5. Consult the original texts; do not rely on scholars' interpretations of them. 6. Use all the evidence. An argument based on an allusion in Plato or Homer is weak; it becomes much stronger if corroborated by evidence from archaeology, geology, or the behaviour of the present landscape. 7. Don't be afraid to say that you don't know. Pseudo-history is created by scholars clutching at straws.' Of these, if 3 to 6 sound obvious, the ground-rules of most historical research, it is very strange how far they are neglected by those who have written on the history of the Mediterranean environment. The authors are gentle with such error -- it is not in their nature to be polemic -- but in its mild way this is a manifesto against much of the subject as it has been practiced, which has involved the systematic abuse of ancient literary evidence (it is splendid to see such a reasonable attitude to that most travestied of all texts about the ancient landscape, Plato, Critias 111, p. 18). I should be inclined to add to 4 the injunction not to believe without reflection everything which countrypeople aver. Sometimes they may mislead for safety's sake (it is very likely that L. G. Allbaugh's official study in 1957 [Crete, a case-study of an underdeveloped area, Princeton 1953] was flawed by the fatal combination of development-ideology and protective reticence); but they may also make extreme suggestions for the sake of seeing how far they can push the fieldworker's credulity. Principle 2 is the Hoskins credo, and I shall return to it. 1 and 7 are subtler points, and 7 in particular, the ars nesciendi, is a methodological goal which is hard for any of us to attain.

In this code of practice, one of the principal findings of the long experience that the authors have had of Crete already appears. This is the stability of the landscape, against the proponents of what they label 'ruined landscape theory'. Various kinds of argument (in accordance with Maxim 6) are accumulated, to the point at which (Chapter 20) even the changes of our times and the prognosis for the future can be looked at with equanimity. The goat has certainly been exculpated (111-6); deforestation is not the landmark catastrophe in environmental history that so many have made it (decisive account 128-39); only the bulldozer seems to rattle them (see the substantial list of entries s.v. in the wonderful Index). One could cite another methodological maxim here, one which is even harder to employ than their number 7: 'beware of arguing for conditions without which your work would be impossible'. The landscape has to be stable in certain ways to a significant extent for the Hoskins method to work. They need this outcome. Which is not to say that I don't believe it But even within a catastrophe-free environmental history there is room for some radically different human productive systems, and this account goes slightly further in the direction of historical homogenization than it needs. The guarded optimism with which even the onset of mass tourism is regarded is matched by a certain insouciance about colonial-style exploitation by Venice. It is indicative that there is no entry under 'labour-relations' in the Index, though the entries under 'slave' and 'services, labour' point in some suggestive directions. The actions of people in the landscape fitted in to an overall pattern of broad continuity as far as the shaping of the land and its plant and animal communities went: but what changed, often profoundly, was who did what for whom under what pressure to whose ultimate benefit. Obeying their Maxim 7, Rackham and Moody confess that they don't know about the reasons for the transformation of the landscape from the Gortyn Laws with their serfs living on rural estates to the hamlet-studded scene of the later middle ages (p. 90). In this case, however, the authors' unemphatic honesty conceals the importance of the change. However inexplicable it may remain, perhaps it deserved more pointing up, and more investigation, against the prevailing picture of rural stability.

This is a matter of nuance, since the authors are extremely careful not to make incautious generalizations and qualify their conclusions about general continuity in a great variety of ways. But it is important nuance: their is a hidden political point here about the attitude of researchers towards societies and periods different from theirs. The romantic environmental history of catastrophe and ruin which they criticize so effectively is often linked with an unacceptable degree of alienation from the realities of the world about which the doom-laden historian despairs. The still less acceptable counterpart of this is the tendency, very much alive today, to describe the social history -- and the present -- of everywhere except the nicest bits of the first world in terms of appalled rejection (see, for instance, R. Kaplan, The ends of the earth, London 1997). This is the reaction to the failure of the hopes of the Allbaugh generation that underdevelopment could be bulldozed by modernity. The unmitigated and uncontrollable violence, corruption and decay which writers of this kind identify in our world is the counterpart of the dramatic disasters of environmental history. The answer to it is to show that variety and change are normal in human behaviour as they are in the history of the environment: to build the full variety of changing social relations into the landscape alongside the diversity of its geomorphological or biological experience. Providing this answer is an important reason for bothering with history in the first place.

The book is beautifully illustrated, with very helpful maps and diagrams (there is an irksome discrepancy in the key to the geological map on p. 16, concerning phyllite-quartzites). It seems unfair to ask for even more: but they are so helpful an illustration, that they would often have further enriched the argument. In particular, some more regional maps actually showing segments of landscape like those of the Lassithi plain (p. 152) or the transhumance routes of Sphakia (p. 161) would have been a big help. On the largest scale, they are scrupulous about locating all toponyms within their eparchy; and there are many excellent illustrations on the smallest scale; but the interactions across the microregional topography for which they argue so cogently are not so easy to envisage.

The fragmentation of the landscape and its extraordinary variety are one of the important contentions of the book. A few others are: the importance of inter-annual and intra-annual variability of rainfall (p. 36); the local and periodic nature of erosion and deposition, against the neo-Vita-Finzians (p. 23); the need for diversity in production and the disadvantages of exclusive reliance on a narrow range of cereals (p. 76); the significance of bee-keeping (pp. 85-6: though fig-enthusiasts will rebel at the curious suggestion that honey and onions were the only sugary foods of Antiquity); the sensible approach to carrying-capacity (p. 96); the remarks on shepherding (Ch. 14: though I missed an analysis of the inter-relationship of husbandry with cultivation); the prudent attitude to continuity in the landscape of cult (p. 187); and the fascinating discussion of the peripheral islets (Ch. 19) with the stunning revelation of why Knossos and Heraklion have always been so important (p. 200). This list gives some idea of the range of topics covered; and if, in the interests, once again, of accessibility, the treatment is often brief, it is startling how much information these unprolix pages contain.

At the end of the book we feel a curious Hoskinsian tie between this strange, often extreme, Mediterranean mini-continent, which the authors love so much, and the alien temperate Atlantic English landscape. This is reinforced by the odd, but intellectually refreshing, detachment of Crete from its geographical setting. Not that there was space to do much about this; and the insularity of Crete has obviously been responsible for many of its salient characteristics. Writing this review at Agios Kirikos on the also very singular Ikaria, it is impossible to avoid asking about the nature of the similarities and differences between Crete and other parts of the Aegean. Some things are presented here as distinctively Cretan which are certainly widespread elsewhere. In fact, the degree of insularity itself is one of the principal variables in the human history of the island landscapes: if Crete has often presented façades aveugles à la mer (in the words of E. Kolodny: cf. pp. 194-5), there have been many periods (like the early Hellenistic) when the coasts assumed at least a somewhat greater importance, which presumably affected large areas of the island's economic and social life. This oscillation between introversion and extroversion is another more labile element in the history of the human landscape. In this context it is strange that Kommos is only mentioned in the context of archaeological finds of shark vertebrae, and the Phoenicians do not feature in the Index. Rackham and Moody have shown how to study the vast congeries of diversity that is Crete, giving Omalos, Sphakia, Gavdhos, and Chania their proper places. What we need to do next is to show how a Mediterranean environmental history can be constructed which gives Crete, Karpathos, Cyprus -- and Cyrenaica, Laconia and Caria -- their proper places too. This is a superb contribution to that task.