Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.34

John Bintliff, Phil Howard, Anthony Snodgrass, Testing the Hinterland: The Work of the Boeotia Survey (1989-1991) in the Southern Approaches to the City of Thespiai. McDonald Institute Monographs.   Cambridge:  McDonald Institute for Archeological Research, 2007.  Pp. xviii, 320.  ISBN 9781902937373.  $134.00.  

Reviewed by Kristina Winther Jacobsen, University of Aarhus (
Word count: 1742 words

This is the much anticipated first volume of the Boeotia Project, the last of the first generation of systematic surveys in Greece to begin final publication. The project started in 1979 and did ten full seasons of field work in the years until 1991. In the period from the end of the 1970s until the beginning of the 1990s systematic survey in Greece underwent major methodological changes, the Boeotia Project playing no small part in this development. Consequently, the data collected by the project are of greatly different quality. The present volume deals only with the Leondari Southeast/Thespiai South area (the LSE/THS sector), which is a 5.2 extension of the rural survey in 1989 and 1991. The LSE/THS sector embodies the final mode of analysis achieved by the Boeotia Project. Here the project pioneered a combination of field techniques involving careful correlation of site and off-site densities and a new method to calculate period prominence by weighing the periods against each other.

The volume consists of ten chapters and a large appendix, and a detailed site by site analysis. Besides introducing and concluding chapters (1 and 10), chapters 2-5 deal with methodological issues. Chapter 6 consists of a site summary. Chapter 7 written by Robert Shiel and Andrew Stewart comprises the geological data and agricultural potential analysis. Chapter 8 written by Phil Howard deals with spatial analyses, and chapter 9 consists of a period by period synthesis of the landscape. Furthermore, the volume includes a CD ROM with five additional appendixes consisting of Microsoft Explorer files of statistical information concerning finds and areas occupied. Finds descriptions and drawings are not included in this volume, but will appear in volume two.

Chapter 2 introduces very briefly the final mode of analysis achieved by the Boeotia Project which is elaborated on in chapters 4 and 5, while the periodization standards are defined in chapter 3.

Chapter 4 is the main theoretical and methodological chapter dealing with many of the difficult issues of modern survey. The author's 1988 suggestion that manuring is responsible for the dense blanket of off-site pottery originally sparked some criticism.1 In this volume the authors are careful to state that the manuring model is unlikely to be applicable to all areas of Greece or every period and that other processes such as erosion, weather, rubbish dumping and ploughing also contribute to the build-up of halos around sites and off-site scatters; however, they make a very strong case for their model in the Thespiai South/Leondari Southeast area during the Classical period using spatial and agricultural arguments. Beyond the halo, Classical period off-site scatters of densities up to 2340 sherds per hectare run up and down slopes without loss of density more than 1 km away from the nearest contemporary site. Almost the entire area is cultivated so manure from animals would not have been easily available (see below, on chapter 7); however the area is within 2-3 km of the city, where human waste would have been available. According to the authors this explains the high content of pottery and tile. Furthermore, more attractive areas for farming based on access and quality correlate with high off-site densities.

The main body of chapter 4 is focussed on the identification of sites during different periods and with explaining the new methods applied by the project to this end: first, the comparison of proportions of dated sherds in notional 500 sherd-samples and second, the necessity to calculate the discard rate per century for the notional 500 sherd-samples. Third, the project developed the residual analysis in order to test if quantitative evidence from site and surrounding halo diverges from the densities predictable from off-site finds in the immediate vicinity. This statistical weighing of site and off-site data by period is based on the notional 500 sherd-sample, but in cases with fewer sherds numbers were extrapolated from the available sample. Of course density calculations are based on total counts but the statistical weighting is based on the diagnostic sample. This adds a level of uncertainty since there are no studies to indicate the correlation between the total and the diagnostic sample. Furthermore, some sherds are diagnostic based on shape, fabric and/or decoration. Consequently, sherds recognisable by all three properties are much more diagnostic than others.

The identification and character of isolated farmsteads in the Greek hinterland is a much debated phenomenon.2 The authors believe they will be able to create an artefactual signature for the different types of farmsteads and that analysis of the type of artefacts is essential for this. Chapter 5 consists of a functional analysis of the finds based on shape according to the typology of Whitelaw, which appears to have become standard for surveys in Greece.3 For the Boeotia Project only diagnostic fragments were collected, and it would have been relevant to discuss how the dissimilar diagnosticity of sherds affects the data and what are the implications of making functional analysis based on chronologically diagnostic data alone, e.g., the very high proportions of table wares.

The level of detail involved in the discussion of the individual sites is staggering-- both the statistical analyses and subtle argumentation based on expert knowledge. In order to help the reader the data and their discussion have been divided into chapter 6, appendix A and several smaller appendixes of purely quantitative data. I find the separation of chapter 6 and appendix A confusing. Chapter 6 may be only meant as a summary, but it still opens discussions which are dealt with in full in appendix A, and so the reader ends up flipping back and forth. Chapter 6 and appendix A are very richly illustrated; however, some of the illustrations raised questions for which I could find no answers. The total counts of artefacts in the sampled 75 m2 units are indicated by dotting, which appear non-random (e.g. figure LSE1/15, p. 188). What type of spatial data were these generated from? Another type of maps show the main focus of finds outlined against the spatial distribution of finds often including areas with no finds marked (e.g. LSE1/20-21, p. 191). How were the main focus areas generated? Topography is often discussed in detail yet none of the maps in chapter 6 or appendix A have contours to guide the reader. For most sites the visibility ranges from moderately good to excellent which is slightly confusing since it is stated in chapter 4 that visibility was recorded on a scale from 1-10. The survey took place in July and August, and in all the photos the fields are covered in stubble or crops. Figure 4.1 shows the surface visibility, and these are corrected for in the density calculations, but considering the level of detail recorded a few words on the general physical conditions in the field when they were surveyed would have made it easier for the reader to appreciate the uniqueness of individual sites mentioned several times in the text.

Two very readable chapters, 7 and 8, deal with specialist knowledge outside the sphere of most archaeologists. The soil analysis and its implications for modern and ancient land-use are explained in great detail, but I would have appreciated a more in-depth discussion of the hypothesis that there was no land for grazing and therefore material for manuring came from the city. The statistics in the chapter on spatial analysis are explained well even if the results are a little disappointing since none of the variables concerned with location could be firmly established statistically.

Readers mainly interested in historical conclusions and demographics may go straight to chapter 9. A model with three different phases of rural expansion during the Final Neolithic-Early Bronze Age, the Late Archaic-Classical and Late Roman periods followed by phases of decline and gradual recovery is argued and explicated in great detail based on the survey data and epigraphic and literary sources. As stated in the text the demographic calculations are speculative; however, considerations and reservations are discussed comprehensively in this densely argued chapter. The calculations are focused around the changing agricultural capacity of the landscape and the town-hinterland population ratio during the different phases of occupation. Both of these issues are central to the construction of the manuring hypothesis and consequently they sit at the heart of reconstruction of the landscape of the Boeotia Project. For readers less interested in the deliberations and doubts chapter 10 consists of a narrative version of the conclusions from chapter 9.

Most of the first generations of systematic surveys in Greece were published in the 1980-1990s although some additional volumes have still not appeared. This brought about several seminars and networks dealing with the methodology of Mediterranean surveys.4 The authors of the present volume have chosen only to tap into this debate when it concerns the project results directly so the list of references other than Boeotia Project publications is not extensive. Consequently, the volume cannot be used as a broad introduction to the discussion of general advances in survey methodology. The volume promotes the statistical weighing of site and off-site data by period, but only the future will show whether this is generally applicable. The method requires large samples, which not all landscapes can provide, but one hopes that new projects will adapt the methodology and test it. For archaeologists and historians with an interest in settlement patterns the volume provides a mountain of data to sink their teeth into. The detailed site evaluations, rich illustrations and appendices of raw data should ensure the LSE/THS sector an important position among comparative data for future survey projects. In terms of comparison the problem to overcome is comparing diagnostic to total samples, as total samples in 2 m strips seem to be the current collection standard. Of course, when pottery is very dense on the ground this may not be an option, but the difference between a diagnostic and a total sample makes comparisons between surveys difficult.

Considering how many years it has been since the data for this volume were collected, it stands up remarkably well to current survey standards. All along the Boeotia Project has practised methodological self-criticism, and considerations and reservations are generally clearly stated; however, I do miss a discussion of the effects of diagnostic sampling and the extrapolation from diagnostic to counted sample. My remaining objections are of minor importance and it has been a pleasure to read this important volume, which is sure to be much quoted for both its methodological and historical conclusions.


1.   J.L. Bintliff & A. Snodgrass, Off-site pottery distributions: a regional and interregional perspective, Current Anthropology 29, 1988, 506-513; for criticism e.g. S. Alcock, J. Cherry & J.L. Davis, Intensive survey, agricultural practice and the Classical landscape of Greece, in: I. Morris (ed.), Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1994, 137-170.
2.   For the latest summary see D.K. Pettegrew, Chasing the Classical farmstead: assessing the formation and signature of rural settlement in Greek landscape archaeology, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 14.2, 189-209, 2001. Responses in same volume and in volume 15.2.
3.   T.M. Whitelaw, Colonisation and competition in the polis of Koressos: the development of settlements in North-West Keos from the Archaic to the Late Roman periods, in: L.G. Mendoni & A.J. Mazarakis-Ainian (eds.), Kea-Kythnos: history and archeology, Paris: Diffusion de Boccard 1998, 227-57. For the use of the typology recently e.g. G. Shipley, The survey area in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, in: W. Cavanagh et al., Continuity and change in a Greek rural landscape. The Laconia Survey: volume I: Methodology and Interpretation (Annual of the British School at Athens Supplementary volume 26). London: British School at Athens, 2002, 257-337.
4.   E.g. the Populus series, especially R. Francovich, H. Patterson & G. Barker (eds.), Extracting meaning from ploughsoil assemblages (Archaeology of the Mediterranean Landscape 4, Populus Monograph Series). Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2000.

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