Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.33

Effie F. Athanassopoulos, Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside. Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, 2.   Princeton:  American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2016.  Pp. xvii, 172.  ISBN 9780876619230.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Nikos Tsivikis, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz (

Table of Contents and Full View

Ancient Nemea, in the region of Corinthia in the Peloponnese, has been for decades one of the focal points for archaeological research of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA), notably with the long-standing excavation of the classical sanctuary of Zeus and the stadium. Beyond the excavation of the site of Nemea, since the mid-1980s a wider intensive regional survey project for the area was envisioned, the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP.) This was a project aiming to understand the ancient landscape in surrounding Nemea, encompassing a large number of settlements. This book by Effie Athanassopoulos presents the medieval component of the NVAP survey.

The book’s Foreword, written by the directors of NVAP, James C. Wright, Jack L. Davis, and John F. Cherry, sets out the aims of the project that also largely define Athanassopoulos’ monograph: 1) to establish the distribution of artifacts within the survey area; 2) to evaluate the extent to which this distribution adequately reflects the totality of past patterns of settlement, and 3) to provide some explanation for long-term changes in the human behavior that such patterns represent. Oriented toward these aims, Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside aspires to function both as an entry point to the state of the art of landscape archaeology of the later centuries of Byzantium and a detailed account of the evolution of the actual medieval landscape of the Nemea region. For reasons explained throughout the book and connected with the historical evolution of the region, the author decides to limit the discussion to material and settlements dated between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, covering partially the middle Byzantine period (seventh to twelth centuries) and the late Byzantine or late medieval period (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries). Athanassopoulos’s book is the only book-length study presenting the material of an intensive survey targeted only to its late medieval component, as is noted in the Foreword.1

The book is organized in five very diverse chapters: the three first chapters introduce Byzantine history and its archaeology, and survey scientific methodology; the fourth discusses the Nemean archaeological and historical material; and the last presents the data from the selected sites of the survey in a form of a gazetteer.

The first chapter presents a concise overview of the political history of Byzantium. Large parts of it, however, cover the period from the fourth to the tenth centuries, which lies outside the scope of the rest of the book. The second chapter functions as a second introduction, this time to archaeological and historical approaches to the study of the Byzantine countryside. It begins with a general note on the theory of archaeological survey and how survey is used when dealing with Byzantine material. At the same time, issues regarding the modalities of Byzantine agriculture are explored, including hot topics such as the use of traditional or alternative field exploitation by the Byzantines. This introductory discussion also extends into the various theories on local agricultural organization and economy, followed by a detailed presentation of Byzantine agriculture itself and its main cultivations: cereals, fruits, olive trees, and viticulture. By the end of the chapter, there is an attempt to focus on agricultural production in the Peloponnese itself during this period and to discuss the special role of sericulture. The most important contribution of this chapter is its treatment of the problem of how to use archaeology to comment on major historical events, and the many levels of inconsistency between these levels of analysis. At this point, we are first informed by the author that a tool that could possibly advance the discussion and integrate the different types of sources, archaeological and historical, are the approaches developed initially by the French Annales school.

In the third chapter, we arrive at the focus of the project, namely that of the survey and its methodology. The author focusses on the slow development of Byzantine archaeology, comparing it to the archaeology of medieval western Europe. Classical archaeology casts its shadow over the work of Byzantine archaeologists, although the situation is better now than some decades ago. The fourth chapter begins the discussion of the valley of Nemea in the Middle Ages. The author explores the possibilities of applying some of the theoretical models of Byzantine settlement patterns to the area under research. Mainly settlement size is considered. Settlement sizes are then categorized according to the relevant information of the middle Byzantine Marcian Treatise on Taxation, one of the very few original Byzantine texts on the collection of taxes and the countryside.2 All of the medieval sites located by the survey would fall into the two smallest categories of settlements in the Treatise, the proasteia and agridia. Only a couple of sites from the NVAP could possibly correspond to the size of proasteia, something like small villages, while the majority of the sites conform more to the agridion, isolated farms or clusters of houses. These isolated farmsteads established near fertile lands are utilized by the author as indicators that more land was opened up to cultivation in twelfth-thirteenth centuries.

One site, Polyphengi, stands out as the main settlement. The importance of the site is attested by its presence in medieval texts about the area of Nemea and also by its frequent appearance in the accounts of early modern visitors and travelers. At this point, texts are brought in to complement archaeological evidence.

Based on Polyphengi and the other settlement sites discovered by the survey, the author argues convincingly that medieval settlement trends in Nemea reflected political, social, and economic processes. The intense level of agricultural activity during the twelth-thirteenth centuries corresponds to the abundant evidence for dispersed habitation, economic growth, and expansion of trade. By contrast, drastic change can be seen in the late thirteenth century when nucleation of settlement became the norm. This is considered as evidence of the extreme fragmentation, insecurity, and conflict caused by the Latin conquest of the Peloponnese. The author applies Braudelian and Annales approaches to describe the cycles of expansion and contraction as belonging to the medium level, while the history of a single site, Polyphengi, presented through narrative and the study of architectural remains, is closer to a histoire événementielle.

The survey evidence connected with medieval sites is presented in detail in the fifth chapter. It largely consists of a gazetteer of NVAP sites as well as the publication and discussion of the archaeological evidence, mostly pottery. It is important to note that the sites presented in the gazetteer are the ones that produced significant numbers of ceramic dated to the period under discussion, and not the totality of walked plots. The gazetteer also incorporates data from the older survey of the area of the ancient city of Phlious undertaken in 1986 and published by Susan Alcock, focusing on those tracts that produced significant amount of medieval pottery. It is complimented by a brief explanation of the methodology and technical aspects of pottery collection and presentation of the material. The sites of possible medieval settlement are described in some detail and indicated on satellite maps that are up to date. Every site is complemented by a catalogue of pottery and other artefacts collected with excellent photographic documentation. The gazetteer is well-defined and the accompanying catalogues offer clear evidence for the dating of the sites. Site numbering can be occasionally confusing since it follows an internal system that is neither geographic nor serial.

The site of Polyphengi (sites 901, 902 and 910), discussed in detail through textual evidence in the previous chapter, here again draws special attention as it was a central settlement with especially purpose-built fortifications. Another interesting and large site in the gazetteer, that of Evangelistria (site 102), is a reminder of some of the interesting complications of intensive field survey, especially in hilly settings. On top of the low rocky hill of Evangelistria, the survey records the walls of a ruined fifth- or sixth-century basilica church that are still standing to the considerable height of 0,50 m. The pottery retrieved is limited to only a handful of sherds, none of them really diagnostic. In this case, one could argue that the choice to limit the presented material and the adjoining discussion to the later centuries of the Middle Ages also limits the option of interpreting sequences in settlement during the whole Byzantine period.

Athanassopoulos's book is an extremely valuable, one of a kind contribution. It is a pioneer in documenting solely the medieval material of a much wider and cross-temporal survey. In this way it is able to aptly address the historical questions of the Medieval Nemea and Peloponnese through the scarce evidence offered by a field survey. At the same time the study at hand shows the difficulties that many of us face in dealing with exclusively medieval material surveys in the regions of the Byzantine world. So, despite some debatable choices, such as the rather long introduction and the exclusion of earlier Byzantine history from the analysis of the material, the book offers a refinement upon the methodology of its field and focuses its use on a specific historical question. As it is only by pioneering work that Byzantine archaeology can strengthen its footing in the field of medieval archaeology, rather than remain an offshoot of the classical archaeologies of the Mediterranean.


1.   See the recent discussion about the importance of such studies in: Athanasios Vionis, "The Archaeology of Landscape and Material Culture in Late Byzantine – Frankish Greece,” Pharos 20 (2014), 313-346.
2.   More recent assessment of the Marcian Treatise, following a later date in Mark Bartusis, Land and Privilege in Byzantium: the Institution of Pronoia (Cambridge 2012), 84-85; for the earlier dating, Leonora Neville, "The Marcian Treatise on Taxation and the Nature of Bureaucracy in Byzantium,” Byzantinische Forschungen 26 (2000), 47-62.

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