BMCR 2003.09.42

Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape: The Laconia Survey. Vol 1: Methodology and Interpretation. ABSA Suppl. 26

, , The Laconia survey : continuity and change in a Greek rural landscape. Supplementary volume ; 26-27. London: British School at Athens, 1996-2002. 2 volumes : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0904887227. £80.00.

What was the nature of life in the countryside in the immediate vicinity of Sparta between prehistory and the modern day? Two decades ago, historians would have addressed this question by pointing to a smattering of literary sources, a few inscriptions, and sites known through topographic survey. Now, with the long-awaited publication of the first volume of the Laconia Survey, scholars will be forced to interact with a new body of evidence — several hundred sites and artifact-scatters in the countryside east of Sparta — and the interpretations of the scholars who have produced that evidence. Continuity and Change, Volume 1 (hereafter: CAC) will constitute an important work of reference for classicists and ancient historians interested in settlement and land use in the ancient Laconian countryside and will be fundamental in demonstrating the relevance, as well as the problems, of applying the data of intensive survey to answer conventional historical questions.

The Laconia Survey (hereafter: LS) was undertaken by the British and Dutch in the 1980s across a 70 sq. km area east of the city of Sparta, and the results of the survey have appeared in archaeological reports, preliminary reports (Cavanagh and Crouwel 1988), a published catalogue of artifacts and sites (Cavanagh et al. 1996), and a number of recent articles (e.g., Mee and Cavanagh 1998). This new volume constitutes the fullest presentation of the background, methods, interpretations, and conclusions of the LS data and is based on the information presented in the previously published volume 2; consequently, the two should be read together. An introduction (Chapter 1) to the survey and its methodology is followed by chapters on soil and land use (Ch. 2) and Laconia’s natural vegetation (Ch. 3); five period-specific chapters (4-8) cover the results of surface survey for the prehistoric to the modern period, and a brief conclusion (Ch. 9) summarizes and reiterates the salient points of the volume. Like other survey volumes authored by multiple contributors, CAC is a highly particularized monograph, with individual chapters uneven in size and differently organized, with the result that the volume reads more like a compilation of articles than an integrated essay.

The first chapter (“The Laconia Survey: Background and Methodology,” by William Cavanagh, Graham Shipley, and Joost Crouwel; pp. 1-55) sets the survey into its methodological and historical framework. A long history of scholarship (ancient to modern) on the region of Laconia, excavation at the Menelaion, and topographic survey in Laconia formed the backdrop for the project. As the investigators note, the survey was initiated in 1983 in order to “clarify settlement changes in north-central Laconia between the late prehistoric periods and the foundation of the modern Greek state in the early nineteenth century; in particular, the relationship between the traditional heartland (the Evrótas valley, or Spartan plain) and the neighbouring rural landscapes, both in the plain and in the neighbouring hills. The project was designed to set in a regional context the programme of excavations by the British School at Athens: both those at Sparta and the Menelaion, and the School’s earlier work at prehistoric and historical sites in and around the plain.” (p. 1) To this end, the project conducted intensive survey in a relatively understudied contiguous block of land northeast of the city of Sparta over five field seasons, in conjunction with soil and soil phosphate studies, a vegetation and modern land use survey, gridded site collection, and geophysical prospection.

The brief second chapter (“Soils and Land Use Potential,” by Jan-Willem van Berghem and Jasper Fiselier; pp. 57-71) presents the methods and results of the soil and geological study of the LS area, a study carried out “in order to facilitate the interpretation of site patterns” (p. 57). The study concludes that despite considerable variety in soil types, climate, water availability, and land use potential, the land incorporated within the LS area must have always been marginal relative to other areas of Laconia (e.g., the more fertile Spartan Plain). While certainly wheat, grapes, and olives are all grown in the LS area, the sporadic amount of annual rainfall and the predominance of poor water-retaining soils must have made olives generally more suitable than wheat. A preliminary analysis of erosion suggests that significant anthropogenic erosional episodes were limited to two periods of agricultural expansion (the Early Helladic and early Classical).

In Chapter 3 (“Observations on the Historical Ecology of Laconia”; pp. 73-119), Oliver Rackham presents his botanical study of Laconia, carried out in 1984. Here we come into intimate contact with the particular plants of Laconia and the specific places where they can be found. The bulk of the chapter is detailed annotation of Laconian vegetation that will constitute a fundamental reference work for specialists but will be too specific for many readers interested in patterns of settlement in rural Laconia. More important perhaps are the conclusions that Rackham draws from the data: the limited impact of fire on trees and the adaptability of vegetation; the continuity of vegetation types over long periods of time; and the implausibility of an untouched ancient forest, destroyed since antiquity by browsing, woodcutting, or erosion. Vegetation patterns of antiquity are generally similar to those of the twentieth century, and significant changes in patterns of climate and vegetation occurred long before the Neolithic.

The fourth chapter of the book (pp. 121-150), by William Cavanagh and Joost Crouwel, details the settlement of the LS area during the prehistoric periods. The earliest evidence for human activity in the LS area dates to the Late Neolithic period — twelve small, low-density sites on poor ridgetop soils and limestone formations, likely oriented toward animal husbandry. There is no gradual transition between Final Neolithic and Early Helladic — EH I appears to be a generally dark time for Laconia — and small farmsteads (< .10 ha) and medium-sized farmstead clusters (.20-.70s ha) reappear in the LS area only in EH II, probably indicating an orientation toward mixed agriculture. Another sharp break divides the EH II period from the Middle Bronze Age: no EH III or MH I sites were identified in the survey area, and only three of ten MH sites yielded pottery dating to the EH period. The few MH II settlements are generally small (< .10 ha) and concentrated in areas suitable to mixed agriculture; two small hamlets (.25-.50 ha) are located in areas appropriate for defense. It is during the MH period also that the large site (Q360) of the Menelaion (25 ha) shows evidence for extensive occupation, indicating the beginning of a process of nucleation and population concentration that continues into the Mycenaean period. Excepting this site and a few 'villages', the few Mycenaean sites in the area are small scattered farmsteads (< .20 ha); most of these produce MH pottery, suggesting continuity in habitation and economic orientation (mixed agriculture). None of these sites survives the LH IIIC period, and, as the next chapter relates, there is no evidence for habitation of the LS area again until the sixth century. One should note Cavanagh's comments elsewhere (Mee and Cavanagh 2000), about how the LS data relate to the recent debate over hidden prehistoric landscapes in Greece.

What was the nature of settlement in Laconia directly outside of Sparta during the Archaic and Classical periods? R.W.V. Catling addresses this and other related questions in the fifth chapter (“The Survey Area from the Early Iron Age to the Classical Period”; pp. 151-256). The dark age that begins with LH IIIC continues through the seventh century. The mid-sixth century witnesses a sudden proliferation of 87 sites in the LS area, a phenomenon presumably caused by a growing population and pressures of competitive display, and the failure of the Messenian conquest and Tegean War to resolve the problem of landlessness; part of the solution to landlessness entailed bringing under cultivation lands considered marginal. The ensuing Classical period (450-300 BC) seems anticlimactic after the proliferation of the late Archaic period: there is widespread abandonment of many sites, although medium and larger sites now exist in greater proportion. Only a few of the larger hamlet-sized sites of the classical period survive through the fourth century BC. For many readers, the principal value of this chapter will likely be the lengthy and thoughtful discussion of how the archaeological data fits into an historical framework, and the implications of the survey data for our understanding of Spartan society, including, among other issues, the rural economy, population, nature of perioikic communities, prosperity of farmers, and the inhabitants of the sites. As one example, who was engaged in the farming: Spartiates, perioikoi, helots, or some inferior Spartan groups? If the Spartans themselves, what was the nature of their involvement? If the helots, what does this suggest about the condition of helotry in Laconia as compared with Messenia? Catling’s discussion is thoughtful and cautious, and considers the variety of interpretations allowed by the evidence.

Although the Hellenistic period (“The Survey Area in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” by Graham Shipley; pp. 257-337) begins with an explosion of rural habitations — small sites proliferate across the schist soils of the north, and large sites on the limestone-derived soils of the southeast, presumably indicating an orientation toward agricultural production — the general picture in the Hellenistic and Roman periods is one of a marginal area with low population living in fewer sites spread evenly across the survey area. The surprise for the Roman period is the paucity of material between the fourth and seventh centuries AD. Compared with other areas of Greece, where the Late Roman / early Byzantine periods witnessed increasing intensification and proliferation of sites, the LS area seems to indicate a drop in prosperity / activity. This lack of settlement, however, need not imply lack of material prosperity and a “somewhat dark picture for Laconia” (p. 331) but may instead indicate Late Roman preferences for landforms not sampled by the LS; in many regions of Greece, for example, the coasts have frequently exhibited abundant Late Roman material (e.g., Frost 1977; Rudolph 1979; Gregory 1985).

Chapter 7 (“The Survey Area in the Byzantine and Ottoman Periods,” by Pamela Armstrong; pp. 339-402) details the return of settlement to the LS area first in the Middle Byzantine I (Ninth to early Eleventh Centuries AD) period, and then more fully in Middle Byzantine II (Eleventh Century). The Middle Byzantine III period (AD 1081-1204) marks a veritable settlement explosion (67 new sites) oriented toward olive oil production and instigated by the Italian presence in Sparta. The Late Byzantine period (AD 1204-1460) marks a striking constriction of the Middle Byzantine III settlement pattern, likely a result of the rural depopulation caused by the Black Death. Larger village sites continue to be inhabited, but most of the smaller farmstead sites disappear throughout the survey area. The period from the Ottoman conquest to the nineteenth century exhibits further reductions in site numbers, suggesting that this was a rather poor period in the history of the territory of the LS.

The final period-specific chapter (“The Formation of the Modern Landscape of the Survey Area”; pp. 403-420) by Malcolm Wagstaff is surprising for its lack of discussion of survey data; the paucity of modern-period sites in the site catalogue of CAC Volume II perhaps suggests that this period was not treated systematically during intensive survey. The author instead relies on texts to detail the history, settlements, population, and land use of the survey area since the period of Venetian-Turkish rule. Despite turbulent wars and rebellions, population movements, political changes, and administrative restructuring of the province of Laconia, historical documents demonstrate a remarkable degree of continuity in the general pattern of settlement and land use in the LS area — most of the thirteen modern settlements in the survey area also existed in some form as early as AD 1700; olive culture and modern terrace systems reflect earlier patterns of land use as well. This does not, however, suggest a fixed landscape, as settlement size, population, and land use may fluctuate considerably over the course of a generation or two.

What is the diachronic thread that connects the various areas of the LS area? The concluding chapter (“The Laconia Survey: An Overview,” by William Cavanagh; pp. 421-437) reads like an afterthought attempting to summarize and highlight some patterns in a morass of details. Although the soils, vegetation, and climate of the LS area exhibit patterns of both continuity and change, the pattern of settlement that emerges in the LS area is one of tremendous diversity and complexity — each broad period of time laying down anew a unique pattern and hierarchy of settlement, with changing preferences for particular types of soil and land form, and very little long-term continuity in settlement. As the author concludes (p. 422), “the choice of where to settle and how to live is, here, emphatically a cultural choice,” although (as the author adds) that choice must have also been influenced by economic principles.

This volume is a fine product: the text throughout is divided into short readable sections, often including information of general and introductory nature (e.g., historical overviews); most chapters have brief sections that discuss, summarize, and conclude a mass of details. Although the chapters are considerably uneven in content and length, and sometimes are redundant and overlapping in material (e.g., the sectors of the survey area; modern land use and populations; climate, rainfall, and temperature; vegetation), in general they are carefully written, with good proofing and editing, perfect pagination, and high-quality images. There are few typographic errors and mistakes: an occasional misspelling (e.g., p. 206: “the followings estimates”) and inconsistency in accents and spellings of toponyms. In Chapter 1, the descriptions for LAR 08 on page 48 do not correspond to the plot of artifact densities as shown in Ill. 1.23 (page 50). In the fourth chapter, Table 4.2 (p. 132) notes a site U300 as 60.6 ha in size, but perhaps U3000 is meant (since U300 does not appear to exist), and the size cannot be 60.6 ha — surely .6 or .06 ha is intended! And in Chapter 7, individual farmsteads are said (p. 394) to average .45 ha, but the accompanying Table 7.9 (p. 395-96) suggests that .045 ha is the correct value. The column headings for Tables 7.9 (p. 395) and 7.12 (p. 398) are misaligned with the labels beneath the headings: the label (ha) should fall under the heading ‘size,’ not ‘zone’; the label (%) should go under the heading ‘slope’, not ‘size’; and (m) should fall under ‘altitude’. But these are scattered, minor mistakes of detail in an otherwise scrupulous compilation and presentation of the Laconian particular.

More generally, it is worth discussing how CAC relates to the genre of the survey monograph. On the one hand, this volume has much in common with previously published surveys. The goals and methods employed by the LS are consistent with those of other “new wave” surveys in Greece and the Aegean in the 1980s — finding and defining sites by walking transects across the landscape systematically at regularly-spaced intervals (in this case, 20 meters) in order to reconstruct settlement patterns and hierarchies. The delay of publication of CAC for two decades beyond the fieldwork mean, of course, that some aspects of the project (e.g., site-based survey and lack of attention to visibility) are seriously out of step with recent developments in regional survey, such as critiques of the idea of the “site”; adoption of siteless survey methodology; special studies of the effects of visibility, geomorphology, and land cover on locating cultural material; and the wide employment of GIS-based spatial analysis of artifact distributions, among others. Nonetheless, the survey methodology, diachronic approach, and attention to ecology, soils, geology, vegetation, and land use situate the LS and CAC comfortably among that corpus of intensive surveys carried out in the 1980s.

In two important respects, however, CAC diverges from previously published surveys. First, readers will be impressed by the remarkable (even exhaustive) attention to the particulars in this monograph: the two volumes of CAC together number nearly a thousand pages, longer than all but one (the Argolid Exploration Project) published survey monograph in Greek lands. This current volume focuses on issues common enough to landscape projects in Greece — forms of settlement and land use, soil types and agricultural resources, and historical interpretations — but the chapters of CAC are in the end much thicker and more thorough in detail, with sections of each chapter reserved for lengthy discussions of archaeological data (site size and function; preferences for settlement location in relation to landforms and soils), interpretive issues (site classification, relative prosperity of sites, rural economy, low-density scatters, population, communications, etc.), and historical problems (e.g., nature of religion and politics in the Mycenaean period; the extent of Spartan territory; the nature of perioikic involvement in agriculture; Roman Sparta and Laconia). In light of the paucity of literary evidence for the Laconian countryside, the contribution of CAC to Laconian studies is considerable.

The other salient aspect of the volume is its overt and conscious focus on historical issues that both classicists and ancient historians will find important. CAC is the first major published intensive survey monograph to focus on the immediate territory of one of the ‘big’ cities of ancient Greece, in an area already well-researched and known from literary sources. Consequently, as the authors make explicit in the introductory chapter (p. 11-15), those broad theoretical issues that assume such significance in many survey volumes — the birth and rise of civilization, human interaction with the environment, patterns of dispersed and nucleated settlement, and the like — were less important to the formulation of the project than were a long set of particular historical questions, a tradition of topographic survey in Laconia, and a history of excavation at Sparta and the Menelaion. Instead of addressing general anthropological (and theoretical) questions, the objective was rather “to clarify settlement changes” (p. 1) and attempt to answer questions framed by the written records (p. 437). The potential thesis of the book that gives the volume its subtitle — continuity and change in a Greek rural landscape — frequently gives way to individual (and unevenly-sized) studies of particular periods that fragment around specific historical questions: “What was the relationship between the homoioi of classical Sparta and the survey hinterland? What of the relationship between the archontes of Byzantine Lakedaimon and the farms, estates, and villages of east-central Laconia?…Some attempt has been made in this book to address these questions period by period, using our new archaeological evidence” (p. 437).

A close alliance of survey data with historical narrative and detail is, of course, not without its problems. As archaeologists working in Aegean survey archaeology know, the pottery found in surface scatters can rarely be dated more precisely than a one hundred or two hundred year period (cf. the pottery types in CAC Volume II, and Gill 1998: 132) — a fact that tends to undermine some of the precise historical conclusions that the authors attempt to draw from the data (e.g., p. 160: “Within fifty years, and perhaps less, an uninhabited landscape must have been transformed”). Moreover, identifying social and economic groups (e.g., Classical-period perioikoi, estate owners of the Roman period), differentiating levels of wealth (rich vs. poor), and categorizing types of sites (e.g., ‘small farm,’ ‘multiple farm,’ ‘hamlet’) from surface artifact scatters constitute acts of interpretation that are hardly straightforward. Even that basic concept ‘site’ — a methodological and interpretive category central to all of the discussion in CAC — has received a considerable share of hits over the last two decades. Regardless of these problems and potential pitfalls, many classicists and ancient historians will appreciate the degree to which CAC nonetheless pushes survey data to interact with historical issues.

In short, CAC is a fine volume whose significance lies not in the general but in the particular, not in a grand argument of the annales style, but in providing refinement, shade, and nuance to a large corpus of historical scholarship about the region of Laconia between antiquity and the modern period. It will be an essential read for anyone interested in Laconian studies. If this new archaeological evidence comes laden with a new set of interpretive problems, it is also good to remember that previously little evidence existed at all, and that, as the investigators conclude (p. 437), this volume of CAC is a “beginning, not an end.”


Cavanagh, W.G., and J.H. Crouwel, “Lakonia Survey, 1983-1986,” in Lakonikai spoudai 9 (1988), 77-88.

Cavanagh, W.G., J. Crouwel, R.W.V. Catling, and G. Shipley, Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape: The Laconia Survey. Vol. II: Archaeological Data. (Annual of the British School at Athens, Supplement 27.), London 1996. Frost, F.J., “Phourkari. A villa complex in the Argolid (Greece),” in IJNA 6 (1977), 233-38.

Gill, D.W.J. “Review,” in CR 48 (1998), 131-32.

Gregory, T., “An Early Byzantine Complex at Akra Sophia near Corinth,” Hesperia 54 (1985), 411-28.

Mee, C.G., and W.G. Cavanagh, “Diversity in a Greek Landscape: the Laconia Survey and Rural Sites Projects,” in W.G. Cavanagh and S.E.C. Walker (eds.), Sparta in Laconia, London 1998, 141-48.

Mee, C.G., and W.G. Cavanagh, “The Hidden Landscape of Prehistoric Greece: A view from Laconia and Methana,” in Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 13 (2000), 102-107.

Rudolph, W.W., “Excavations at Porto Cheli and Vicinity Preliminary Report V: the Early Byzantine Remains,” in Hesperia 48 (1979), 294-324.