Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.07.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.07.05

Paul Halstead, Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean.   Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester:  Wiley Blackwell, 2014.  Pp. xi, 372.  ISBN 9781405192835.  $99.95.  

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (


It may surprise readers who have any familiarity with Paul Halstead’s research and my own that I asked to review this book. To be honest, having already read the ebook, the only version available at my library, and borrowed the print version from ILL, I wanted a copy. Halstead describes his own scholarship on his website: “My research has focussed chronologically and geographically on the later prehistory (Neolithic and Bronze Age) of Greece, thematically on the relationship between farming economies and social change, and methodologically on the contributions of zooarchaeology and ethnoarchaeology to the study of past animal and crop husbandry.” Many of his article titles are intimidating to the philologist, such as (with R. Fraser, A. Bogaard et al.), “Manuring and stable nitrogen isotope ratios in cereals and pulses: towards a new archaeobotanical approach to the inference of land use and dietary practices.” This book, though, is ethnoarchaeology with the weight on the ethno-. Although it keeps prehistory and classical antiquity in view, its main concern is the recent past. I read it because I am working on Hesiod’s Works and Days, but I think I would be glad that I had read it even if I were not. I could perhaps have learned some of the material that it covers in other ways, but not nearly so conveniently, or so enjoyably. I have learned a great deal about Hesiod from this book, even though he is never mentioned. Indeed, the early Iron Age, for which zooarchaeological data are thin, is lacking, while references to Neolithic, Bronze Age, classical, and Roman evidence are not. Halstead’s farmers operate in a far more developed market system than anyone thinks any ancient economy had, and grow crops that Hesiod never knew, like maize and potatoes, but the book is still full of material to think with. There are aspects that I am not at all competent to evaluate, and I certainly cannot helpfully locate this book within archaeological debates, but I hoped that my enthusiasm would have value precisely because this is not what I do. Archaeologists and social-economic historians are unlikely to need my recommendation, but many of us (readers of BMCR) know very little of farming, even modern farming, and our students know even less. Students in my Homer class did not know what winnowing is, so the winnowing-fan of Tiresias’ prophecy in the Odyssey was completely obscure to them, and others have no idea of the difference between wheat and barley. A colleague in English once asked me to explain what hay is.

The book is based largely on conversations with older farmers (including many women), mostly in various locations around Greece, but also in Italy, Provence, Andalucia, and Asturias in Northern Spain. Halstead looks at the varying strategies and practices of people who farmed without modern machinery. The book is permeated by his respect for his informants, whose voices come through clearly and whose resilience always impresses. The author’s voice is distinct, too (in the preface he explains why he did not obtain “informed consent” and the acknowledgements thank “infant passports to households closed to unaccompanied adults,” both named Halstead: ethnography has its tricky aspects). The informants, however, are by no means the only source: citation of scholarship is abundant, with references listed at the end of each chapter. Illustrations are small and not beautiful, but sometimes very useful, like the series of photographs of winnowing on Amorgos (Figures 4.2 and 4.3).

It is very readable and approachable: a short glossary aids readers who enter as ignorant as I did of basic terms like “glume” and “maslin.” It is full of detail that is fascinating even when not especially relevant for the classicist, like the bakers on Crete who produce a barley bread with a little chaff and awn (bristles) in it, to give an impression of authentic rusticity, in contrast with an anecdote from the desperate early 1940s about a woman whose poverty is revealed when she pays back a borrowed loaf of bread to a neighbor, and the flour has been stretched with bitter vetch, normally only an animal fodder (164-6). Some passages illuminate antiquity even when it is not mentioned. On 335-6, Halstead discusses how communities praised neat farm work, even when it was more precise than was practically necessary, and how the cultural capital produced by skill or extra effort (or lost owing to sloppiness) had material effects. The respected farmer would find it easier to conduct business, whether finding a partner or marrying a child.

The material is initially divided by the cycle of tasks, very much like the Works and Days: plowing and sowing, harvest, and threshing and sorting. One chapter considers the annual strategies for avoiding failure and promoting success: crop rotation and fallow, manuring, irrigation, and weeding. The next looks at longer-term planning: clearing land, terracing, drainage, balancing subsistence and cash crops, livestock, the domestic cycle (from having young children to support to having surplus labor from teenagers and young adults), negotiating with the larger community, and the last chapter addresses the value of comparison for understanding the past. Throughout, Halstead emphasizes the variety of strategies employed under different conditions, including the nature of the land, the livestock and labor available, and the circumstances of particular years. A small and irregular plot will be cultivated by hand with a hoe, and the seed dibbled or planted in a row; a larger field is plowed and the sower broadcasts. He also addresses the complexity of the farmer’s risks. If a grain grows too quickly, it is vulnerable to frost in some areas and to “lodging,” stem collapse. Sheep can be lightly grazed on such a crop so that it does not grow too high, but then if the spring rains are not good, the crop may not recover.

Halstead argues that local variation has always been greater than the changes in Mediterranean conditions over time, and that changes in vegetation and soil can be documented and incorporated in our understanding of date, but that the basic challenges of farming are still comparable. Farmers are more rational than scholars have often thought—farmers who explicitly base their practice on tradition are often selecting among alternatives and basing their decisions both on experience and on a varied repertory of traditional sayings. Modern analogy is to be used heuristically. It does not tell us what people did in the past, but helps formulate questions and provide possible interpretations of the evidence. He lists ten issues (349-353) that analogy usefully illuminates: the flexibility of actual farming practice; how a decision at one stage of production has effects through the cycle; how complex the calculations of costs and benefits can be; the importance of scale; buffering strategies, since production is uncertain year to year; how the cycle of family life brings both difficulties and opportunities; the integral role of livestock; the importance of exchanges of labor, livestock, land, and food; the way markets can increase inequality; the hierarchy of grain crops may be a better example of diffusion than developments in technology (I am not sure about this last). Inequality is a concern throughout.

One of Halstead’s informants defines “farmer” as two oxen ahead and one behind” (“dumb as an ox” rather than “strong as an ox” is the relevant saying). The book shows just how false that is.

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