BMCR 2001.09.10

Contingent Countryside: Settlement, Economy, and Land Use in the Southern Argolid since 1700

, , , Contingent countryside : settlement, economy, and land use in the southern Argolid since 1700. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. xii, 391 pages : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 0804733155. $85.

Contingent Countryside is the fourth in a series of publications resulting from the Argolid Exploration Project that includes previous volumes on the archaeology, prehistory, and ecology of the Southern Argolid. While the emphasis of several previous publications has been archaeological (though the point of the project is precisely to erase any firm distinction here; see Kardulias 1994), Contingent Countryside focuses on ethnographic research and on the connection of ethnographic research to archaeological knowledge. This collection of essays by ethnographers, ethnoarchaeologists, and historians is dedicated to the memory of Robert McCorkle Netting, a pioneer in ecological anthropology and mentor of several of the contributors. It’s not an inexpensive book, but it is beautifully presented in large format (layout, photos, charts, illustrations are clear), and the text is expertly edited. It also contains an excellent bibliography of rural Greek ethnography, ethnohistory, and archaeology.

As Michael Jameson explains in his foreword, the subject of the AEP was no less than “all periods of human settlement, including the contemporary, in a particular regional environment” (xi); in other words, “how the region was settled and its resources exploited over a period of some 50,000 years, what were the processes of change, and what was the interaction between those who lived there and their environment” (ibid.). This rather daunting charter reflected what Kardulias (1994:5) has called a paradigm shift in Greek anthropology towards processual, multidisciplinary regional-scale studies. Precursors of the AEP include the Minnesota Messenia Expedition, and the British School Melos project; successors include the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (see Wright et al, 1990).1 Sutton argues here as elsewhere (1994: 313-335, with reference to the Nemea Valley project) that such regional and diachronic perspectives show that a rural Greek ethnography based in synchronic “village” studies is at best partial, at worst quite erroneous.

Jameson notes two major conclusions from the field studies represented in this volume: the fluidity and flexibility of settlement over time, and the importance of the relationship between a given area of study and its “region”, that is, of a “middle range view” situated between the village and the global.

Susan Sutton’s intelligent framing in her introduction as well as in her own essay on demographic transitions gives the volume coherence and theoretical sophistication. In a series of contributions from the late 1970s to the present, Sutton has insistently asked us to rethink the way we understand the Greek social and physical landscape. A number of ethnographers have emphasized migration, regional networks, the house and territory (see especially M. Kenna, R. Hirschon) but Sutton’s essays are remarkable for their methodological versatility, ethnographic specificity, and theoretical clarity (like A. Karakasidou, who has also worked in collaboration with archeologists, she is an archivist as well as an ethnographer). Sutton has a way of taming intractable questions through clear-headedness. What constitutes a ‘region’ in the middle range, after all? A set of relationships between fields and settlements, farmers and shepherds, and their markets. What’s the aim of a regional study? Not regional generalization, which would really set up impossible boundary questions, but an inquiry into varied responses to similar circumstances. The ‘timeless village’ is gone. Conjured up by, as Sutton puts it, survivalism, romanticism, urban disdain and modernization theory, it was, or is, made up by people at a distance. It’s hard to find that ‘closed-system, functionalist’ mirage even in the ethnographies of the fifties or sixties that were meant to have enshrined it (mobility, patronage networks, the market were all there, though “the state” and the “nation” were less explicit as ideological concepts); but there have been significant revisions in how and what ethnographers study in Greece and elsewhere since the 1970s. And, of course, there have been demonstrable changes in rural life.

Sutton traces a shift in ethnography from “normative rules and enduring cycles” to “strategy and circumstance” and a shift in archaeology from the monumental to survey archaeology and daily life (though you can’t have either without the other). The fieldwork represented in these essays began in the 1970s and has extended in some cases to the present. This presents us with two situations: the advantages of long-range study on the one hand, and the question of how twenty year old data (or data heavily weighted in that direction) is to be presented. But precisely because the project always was a diachronic project it does not suffer from the datedness that afflicts functionalist ethnography. Not having adopted the ethnographic present, it doesn’t have to get rid of it now.

The contributions are ethnohistorical and intermittently salvage-historical in the sense of capturing a recent past at a moment of remarkable transition. There was undoubtedly increased or changed penetration of the market in the ’70s and ’80s in rural areas. The changes were rapid—massive electrification of villages off the network, introduction of telephones and televisions, new forms of consumption. Despite this the studies avoid the trap of before and after: the research extends before the time of primary fieldwork with historical, archaeological, and demographic data; and into the present with continuing observation. The result is a contribution to Greek studies that is enduringly relevant.

The focus in these essays is certainly on material culture: subsistence strategies, craft production, markets, the built environment, ecology, inheritance, exchange. Sutton implies that the interpretive dimension (the representation of informants’ views, the rendering of local meanings, symbolic experience—see Herzfeld 1991, Pavlides and Sutton 1995) could be stronger here, while interpretive approaches elsewhere might well benefit from more—or at least more meticulous—attention to the material. It is interesting to see where in the volume this bias towards the material matters more and matters less. In H. Koster’s “Neighbors and Pastures” (Chapter 12) the density of the ethnography, and the breadth of the perspective combine to yield a sense of local values and struggles in the absence of explicitly interpretive interview material. The result is a first rate analysis of the many forms of cultural and material value involved in the dense mesh of exchanges among neighbors, a sense of life that exceeds the dichotomy between material and interpretive and renders clearly the logic of past and future changes in material strategies. N. Kardulias’s briefer portrait of a potter in Ermione is less satisfactory on that level although it remains archaeologically informative. Structural and idiosyncratic constraints conspire to make ‘material,’ here, say less in the present: there’s only one informant, it’s an informant who is inconsistently forthcoming on technical matters (materials, technique, costs, sources, distribution) and a provincial craftsman whose skill was (he no longer is dependent on potting for a living) his capital. One wishes that Kardulias had varied his methodology to capture more of the quality of this apparently passing occupation and its diffident practitioner. At the same time the sense of recalcitrance or ambivalent engagement tells us a lot about the state of the art.

Topping—whose critical analyses of population history in the Peloponnese have been essential to the work of most ethnographers working in that area—sets the stage with an expert summary of population records from Byzantine to Ottoman times. Together the following essays sketch out the transitions from the early 18th-century, when the landscape was dominated by the large holdings of monasteries and estates, through the rise of regional elites in the late 18th- and early nineteenth centuries, and the decline of regional centers with increasing centralization and integration into world markets. Finally, there are some considerations of the effects of European integration between 1982 and the present. Small-holder agro-pastoralism in the mid twentieth century is placed in its historical and social context.

Some of the most important contributions of this collection center on the question of ‘egalitarianism.” The sociological effect of the “kinisi” (motion, migration, commerce) produced in the twentieth century by a semiperipheral economy and an increasingly centralized bureaucracy was the “flattening of differences among settlements and a loss of settlement hierarchy” (Sutton, 99), and the distintegration of local social hierarchies. As Hamish Forbes notes, the social evenness perceived in field studies was not the result of—or not solely the result of—an ethic of egalitarianism. Rather, it was the consequence of “the steady draining away of those [at the top and bottom] who do not fit the ‘small family farm’ category” (225). Marina Petronoti provides a brief but expert social history of local cosmopolitanism in Kranidhi: the town was once divided into quarters according to status and occupation as sea traders of the 19th-century absorbed the resources and influences of their foreign circuits. As foreign trade declined with statehood, so did their local capital. Equally significant is Mari Clarke’s observation that if rural consumption patterns changed in the 1970s, it was not because of better prices for agropastoral products, but “rather [through] the intensification and diversification of the rural family’s labor (Karpostolis 1983)” (188).

The ethnographic research presented here consistently corrects perspectives “subordinated to overly broad models” (240). Joan Bouza Koster’s study of hand textile production links textile types to ethnicity, technologies of production, social and cultural values, and the changing status of women in the household. Keith Adams provides evidence to challenge the conventional wisdom that equal partible inheritance causes undue land fragmentation. (I found it fascinating to learn that American aid experts in the 1950s were at the root of this conventional wisdom, which indeed makes more sense in Iowa than in the Argolid.) Both Mari Clarke and Claudia Chang give us new understandings of the relationship between household economy and the built environment and expand the domain of analysis beyond the village proper to all associated structures. Clarke examines the inverse correlation between house size and population and the significance of structures such as terrace walls, threshing floors, animal folds, and field huts in understanding household production and values. Chang asks us to reconsider the animal fold as an object of archaeological significance that can be read as a signature of associated practices. Koster and Forbes reconsider the assumption that common lands must always be subject to relative neglect and over exploitation; rather, they show, private and communal tenure are linked in common strategies of care and exploitation. Attacking such old saws as “the tragedy of the commons”, “amoral familism”, and “the image of the limited good”, Koster and Forbes eat away at stereotypes of the Mediterranean peasant by meticulous observation of actual practices and attitudes.

In asking simple questions and offering redefinitions of familiar terms the essays encourage us to step back and look again at what we see in a landscape. In their survey of man-made sites in the Argolid, P. Murray and N. Kardulias quietly pose some revolutionary questions. What is, after all a “site”? What are the things that do or do not identify “places”? How do we know that the presence of a thing indicates a practice? How do we know that those things that identify practices in the present, did so in the past?

Contingent Countryside offers different readers a range of pleasures. For those who study rural Greece there is pleasure in the details and the depth of the ethnography. For those interested in theoretical questions from a comparative perspective-even those not especially interested in Greece—the volume constitutes a model of collaborative regional research. Above all, the book shows us the great value of challenging common wisdom about rural life with field research, and field research with archival and archaeological perspectives.


1.An earlier collection of work resulting from collaboration between ethnographers, historians and archaeologists (Dimen and Friedl 1976) was influential-though possibly not influential enough—in the development of rural ethnography in Greece. It anticipated, in its careful attention to historical change, population movements, and social agency, later critiques of rural anthropology.

1.References Dimen, Muriel, and Ernestine Friedl, eds. 1976. Regional Variation in Modern Greece and Cyprus: Towards a Perspective on the Ethnography of Greece. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 268.

1.Herzfeld, Michael 1991. A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1.Hirschon-Philippaki, Renee 1989. Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe. The Socila Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

1.Karakasidou, Anastasia 1997. Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nationhood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990. Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

1.Kardulias, P. Nick 1994. “Paradigms of the Past in Greek Archaeology”. Pp. 1-24, in P. Nick Kardulias, ed.. Beyond the Site: Regional Studies in the Aegean Area. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

1.Kenna, Margaret E. 1995. “Where the Streets Have No Name: Constructing and Reconstructing Tradition with Vaults and Cubes”. In: Constructed Meaning: Form and Process in Greek Architecture. Ed. Eleftherios Pavlides and Susan Buck Sutton. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, University of Minnesota. 1976. Houses, Fields and Graves: Property and Ritual Obligation on a Greek Island. Ethnology 15: 62-76.

1.Pavlides, Eleftherios and Susan Buck Sutton, 1995. Constructed Meaning: Form and Process in Greek Architecture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, University of Minnesota.

1.Sutton, Susan B. 1994. “Settlement Patterns, Settlement Perceptions: Rethinking the Greek Village”. Pp. 313-336, in P. Nick Kardulias, ed., Beyond the Site: Regional Studies in the Aegean Area. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

1.Wright, James C., John F. Cherry, Jack L. Davis, Eleni Mantzourani, and Susan Buck Sutton. 1990. The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project: A Preliminary Report. Hesperia 59:579-659.