Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.54

Stella G. Souvatzi, A Social Archaeology of Households in Neolithic Greece: An Anthropological Approach.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. xxi, 309.  ISBN 9780521836890.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by J. A. Baird, Birkbeck College, University of London (
Word count: 2290 words


Everyday life and households have been the topics of increased scholarly examination in recent years, and Souvatzi has been part of a recent upsurge in studies of ancient housing and households.1 The book under review claims no less than to be "the first to address the household as a process and as a conceptual and analytical means through which we can interpret social organisation from the bottom up." In it, Souvatzi, after setting out current approaches to the household in the social sciences generally and archaeology specifically, uses detailed examples from the Greek Neolithic to look at the ways in which households can be a means of interpreting social organisation.

The first chapter gives an overview of approaches to the household in the social sciences. Souvatzi brings together the broad body of scholarship on the concept of the household to demonstrate that it is a process and thus she moves away from earlier, more static definitions. This approach allows her to go beyond the tendencies towards essentialism in earlier work and to allow for fluidity not only in defining the household but also in approach; Souvatzi demonstrates that research should be dynamic to allow for the household as a dialectical process. An important archaeological ramification in this chapter, which does not include archaeological approaches, is the understanding of household space that is defined by activities rather than, necessarily, physical structures. This allows for an approach to the household which is culturally and historically embedded and that can be productive without relying on co-residence for its definition. Drawing broadly on the social sciences, Souvatzi's analysis and critique of approaches to households will be useful reading for archaeologists and others seeking to study the topic. This aspect alone makes the volume a worthwhile read, and Souvatzi carefully avoids culturally-specific arguments while making good use of salient, if sometimes repeated, examples.

The overview of archaeological approaches to households in the second chapter is similarly useful. Souvatzi argues that previous approaches have largely seen the household as being formed by and reacting to larger-scale changes, rather than investigating daily life and households in their own right. The repeated assertion that there has been a lack of interest by archaeologists in the everyday is true, but it is curious that Souvatzi does not engage with the substantial body of theory on this topic beyond Bourdieu's habitus and the work of Giddens (e.g. de Certeau, Lefebvre, and the recent work of Highmore). In this second chapter Souvatzi also sets out her alternative framework for the interpretation of the household. This alternative framework is one which is decidedly not prescriptive on specific terms. The social sciences, Souvatzi argues, have addressed the indeterminate nature of the household as a process, but archaeology has not done this because of its lack of focus on the household qua household. Souvatzi notes the problem of integrating understandings of agency and social dynamics in archaeological approaches which use economic indicators to assess difference within and between sites. After addressing this "problem of indeterminacy" Souvatzi broaches "the issue of variability" which addresses a range of problems, including the way in which archaeologists tend to create 'ideal' households or household types for settlements. In refusing to address the gap between the ideal and the real, as Souvatzi puts it, variation (including between households and over time) and the reasons for it are missed. One despairs for the state of archaeology, though, if such detailed critique is really necessary to encourage the use of (basically) a contextual approach and the employment of different categories and scales of evidence. Something that is not fully explicated here is how the temporality of activities works within this new framework; it seems that something which archaeology could bring to broader understandings of the household (given its chronological depth) is a problematised understanding of time, beyond households as process. Souvatzi does more to tackle this issue in her case studies than in the general framework.

Another part of Souvatzi's framework is household economics, where she argues for a study of household economy which sees the limits of discussions framed within terms of rationality and instead seeks to understand the household economy in terms of not only self-interest but also morality, and in so doing to recognise the household's place as more than a pragmatic entity. Souvatzi also moves away from tendencies in much recent archaeological writing to focus on the individual with such questions as "If individuals are the most pertinent agents of action and change, then why do they persist across time and space in organising themselves into such complex productive, distributive, and reproductive groups as households?" (p39). A very good question, but one that itself suggests a degree of agency amongst household members with regard to their membership in that group and also a leap of logic when it comes to the definition of household that Souvatzi has never really provided. The rest of the second chapter consists of sections on 'the individual and the collective', 'social complexities' and 'structure and agency, reproduction and change: a historical dimension'. All of these topics are complex, and Souvatzi cuts a swath through them to develop an approach to the household that incorporates "complexity, dynamics, historical specificity, and dialectics" (p. 46). The points made by Souvatzi on the theories and problems of studying the household are valid, but (in part due to the structure of the book, with its separate theory and case-study chapters) these theoretical households might be too theoretical for some readers. And while Souvatzi is arguing for, to an extent, a definition of household that is more 'fuzzy' and contextual, some of the assertions are a little too vaguely substantiated; the households described just "are". Souvatzi is indeed so effective in her quashing of previous approaches and assumptions about what a household is that the reader might be left wondering if it is a worthwhile concept after all.

The chapters that follow seek to put the approach set out in the first part of the book into practice. Chapter three, on the Neolithic in Greece, is an overview of the period for the purpose of framing the subsequent chapters. The fourth chapter, entitled "The Ideal and the Real: the examples of Early Neolithic Nea Nikomedeia and Middle Neolithic Sesklo" uses the evidence of these sites to implement Souvatzi's perspective as set out in the previous chapters. At Nea Nikomedeia, Souvatzi demonstrates (using evidence including a structure likely used as a communal building and burials throughout the site which respect similar patterns) that there seems to be a complex social organisation evident there, with spatial and social organisation and functional differentiation of space which belie usual interpretations of the such early Neolithic settlements that presuppose loose groupings of households engaged in subsistence activities. While Souvatzi is convincing on this community level of organisation, its relationship to the assumed households is unclear. Middle Neolithic Sesklo, one of the most intensively investigated Neolithic sites of Greece, is the other example in this chapter. Souvatzi shows that the open spaces associated with houses were an important part of the settlement and uses this observation to argue for a lack of a division of space between 'public' and 'domestic'. Space at the site is shown to be highly structured, with domestic space (both interior and external) being, broadly, symmetrically organised, and "[t]hese patterns suggest that the organisation of space may have been defined on a system of order and classification which revolves around the principles of symmetry and articulates links between the social structure, the symbolic order, and the 'natural' order or the cosmos" (p. 90). One can, at this point, almost hear Bourdieu and Lévi-Strauss whispering over Souvatzi's shoulder. Patterning in the material culture also indicates a socially regulated use of particular spaces for certain activities, and material culture indicates a degree of craft specialisation. The patterning throughout the site is indicative, argues Souvatzi, of "community-wide standards" (p. 95), and the treatment of external space and placement of houses in relation to 'community space' including lanes and squares indicates "collective planning" (ibid.).

The fifth chapter uses the case study of Dimini, and usefully demonstrates how the limitations of legacy data can be overcome using a multi-pronged approach of archival data, new fieldwork, and careful study of ceramics and small finds. Souvatzi shows that households might be seen to inhabit particular houses, but that they also can be seen in other spatial configurations, including external spaces and other structures. Overall, this chapter is successful at demonstrating the ways in which the patterning of space and objects is indicative of community organisation and practices, and, as the title of the chapter asserts, that "complexity is not only about hierarchy". When, as Souvatzi demonstrates, the spurious connection to Homeric texts is broken, the archaeology shows not elite 'megaron' households leading but rather a community of connected households using a range of communal and individual (household) strategies.

The sixth chapter, "Homogeneity or Diversity? Household as Variable Processes", uses a range of Greek Neolithic evidence to examine households from different contexts. The variation evident demonstrates that, in the Greek Neolithic, as elsewhere, the notion of 'type sites' or typical sites is problematic. Among the interesting commonalties Souvatzi does identify between sites is the importance of the household as a ritual unit in addition to an economic one (p. 195). Overall, Souvatzi sees a "relatively uniform Greek Neolithic culture" (p. 203) within which households are diverse in (for example) morphology, ideology, and economic activity. A problem is that these are among the things which define the household in the first place.

In the seventh chapter, Souvatzi discusses the place of households in broader models of change and asserts that households themselves generate social change. Heterarchy prevails in Souvatzi's explanations of social organisation rather than hierarchy. This is a very useful discussion, but it is odd that much of Souvatzi's framework claims to work from the 'bottom up': one wonders where this apocryphal bottom is, if there is no hierarchy. Souvatzi proposes a Greek Neolithic so complex that no model can contain it-this is part of Souvatzi's stated agenda, in that too much attention has been paid to making generalisations and not enough to micro-level processes. There is a danger, though, that this analysis replaces one type of generalisation with another, creating a Neolithic so variable and so complex it is almost impossible to conceptualise. That said, societies are indeed variable and complex, and Souvatzi's work embraces this rather than seeing it as a problem. The eighth and final chapter is a short conclusion examining the broader implications of the book for social archaeology.

This important volume does have some of the common problems of having evolved from the author's PhD thesis (2000, Cambridge), for example the often turgid prose and the structure. Souvatzi makes many interesting and important points on the Neolithic, in particular concerning the nature and form of the communities and the use of space, and makes excellent use of the ceramic evidence. These observations do not always arise from or relate to households, and the choice from the start of the volume to use the household as the defining group of Souvatzi's study almost does injustice to the breadth of material she covers in the second portion of the book. It might be considered a strength, though, that households and larger communities are considered together and that households are not extracted as a unit of study from the society of which they are a part.

Similarly, the abrupt break between the theory and data chapters contributes to a problem of terminology, namely that much vocabulary discounted in the first section of the book is used in the second. This is particularly irritating in the use of 'domestic' and the sometimes indiscriminate movement between the terms house and household (on occasion even "house/household" is used, as at p. 115) which is problematic given the theoretical stance set out at the start of the book, the repeated assertion that singular buildings are not necessarily conterminous with households, and that (p. 150) households use a variety of spaces within settlements. Household composition is not discussed, and the definitions are so dynamic (partly in Souvatzi's reaction against a body of archaeological theory which she argues places too much emphasis on the individual) that it is difficult to imagine people into these communities. While some might consider this depopulation unproblematic, one of the lures of the study of archaeological households is precisely their immediacy and the ease of analogy, and, although it can be appreciated that household as a concept should be culturally and historically situated, it is equally true that it is people that make them up and that examining the micro-level evidence, as Souvatzi does, might be a way of accessing them. Souvatzi cannot be expected, though, to reconcile all the problems of archaeology, as seen, for example, in the tension in current archaeological approaches between the individual, identity studies, issues of agency, and grand narratives and models.

This book is particularly successful in showing that the household can be usefully examined not by looking for spatially discrete units or architectural structures but by examining, contextually, activities. It also successfully bridges micro and macro as levels of analysis and shows that households cannot be studied separately from the broader societies they are a part of. Its central problem is that it makes the reader work very hard to appreciate both the breadth of the analysis and the relevance of its approach to broader studies. Despite these issues, this is a useful book that adds much to our current understandings of the household. It will be of interest to those studying the Neolithic and to those interested in the variable nature of housing and households more generally.


1.   See for instance her contribution in Westgate, Ruth, Nick Fischer and James Whitley, eds. (2007). Building Communities: House, Settlement and Society in the Aegean and Beyond. London, British School at Athens.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 09:13:03, Monday, 20 July 2009