BMCR 2022.09.09

The archaeology of seasonality

, , The archaeology of seasonality. Studies in Classical Archaeology, 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 420. ISBN 9782503593951 €120,00.

[The Table of contents is listed at the end of the review]

This attractive volume—the result of a conference hosted in Copenhagen in 2019 and published with an impressively rapid turnaround—brings an important theme to the agenda. Namely, seasonality, and, more specifically, the questions of how one can identify seasonal activity in the archaeological record and how one can understand ways in which ancient people responded to seasons on an individual and community level. ‘Seasonality’ refers here both to the natural seasons of the year (e.g. summer, winter) but also to other (conceptual) types of season, e.g. the seafaring season, religious cycles. For classical archaeologists and ancient historians, there has been interest in these issues for some time, notably with the publication in 1989 of Paul Halstead and John O’Shea’s Bad Year Economics, and through the development of a number of sophisticated studies in archaeological science, many of which use archaeobotanical evidence. But the present volume brings the discussion up to date and aims to set individual studies in a wider framework, with a broad-ranging synthesis of both new discoveries and legacy data. Moreover, the papers in this volume are explicitly cautious about the limitations of the data used.

The conference ‘The Archaeology of Seasonality’, organised by Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, took place in 2019 at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen and was supported by Carlsberg Foundation and Danish National Research Foundation and Fritz Thyssen Foundation. The conference website indicates that speakers pre-circulated papers of 8,000–10,000 three weeks prior to the event to elicit more directed discussion at the conference. This strategy appears to have paid off well with each of the papers being rich in content, heavily referenced, and critically focussed on the conference theme. There is limited dialogue between each of the published papers (perhaps surprising given the pre-circulation), but the organisation of the chapters by the editors —in addition to a substantial thematic introduction— introduces the reader informatively to the framework of seasonality. All papers are in English (except one, by Monica Baggio, which is in Italian), and even though there are no paper abstracts, the editors’ introduction does a good job of summarising the content and salient points of each chapter.

The first and largest section of the volume is devoted to ‘Economic Strategies in a Seasonal Perspective’. The editors’ own paper on seasonality and urban economy at Gerasa in the Decapolis comes first. It very neatly introduces a range of evidence and themes that subsequent papers all touch upon: the landscape and its seasonal agricultural activities, religious cycles, archaeobotanical evidence, and the ‘punctual seasonality’ of certain events that create time capsules in the archaeological record, e.g. an earthquake in the region of Gerasa in AD 749. In addition, Lichtenberger and Raja make clear that, although data points are few and far between, the seasonality framework can be usefully applied across such ‘scattered’ evidence. The archaeobotanical evidence from the site, for instance, is far too minimal and widely distributed to say anything certain about cultivation in the region of barley, flax, grapes and lentils; but when this evidence is combined with literary sources (notably Varros’s De agriculture 44) the case for growing these crops locally in Gerasa becomes more compelling. And it is this kind of layering of the evidence that this first paper of the volume demonstrates so effectively.

Papers by Erica Rowan (on seasonal diet) and Daniel Fuks et al. (on the archaeology of rubbish middens from Early Islamic Shiva) focus on archaeobotanical remains. Both papers combine detailed and technical analysis of ancient plant-based data with a wider discussion on the growth and harvest cycles of various crops; in addition, the second paper sets the evidence against other components of ancient diets, such as meat and fish. While very effective at shedding light on patterns of seasonality, the authors add a note of caution that archaeobotanical and archaeozoological evidence—effective for building detailed and specific case studies—can be rare in an excavation. Moreover, the data are of little use when collected incorrectly or to an inappropriate level of detail. Werner Tietz and Cristina Caruso, by contrast, combine text, ethnography, and epigraphic evidence and extrapolate figures to consider production and agricultural cycles more broadly. Given that one of the aims of this volume is to consider the response of individuals and communities to the seasons, this pair of papers is very useful for illustrating that different sorts of tasks and different scales of workforce are required throughout the year. Particularly interesting is the idea that certain tasks not immediately considered seasonal (such as temple building) necessarily become seasonal owing to the availability of personnel who might be engaged in other tasks throughout the year. Finally, papers by Stefan Feuser and Steven A. Rosen take the most longue-durée view in this section. Adopting similar approaches, they synthesise the range of evidence that can be used to think about the turn of the seasons on the sea and in the desert, respectively. Both papers consider the range of human activities undertaken in these spaces while also emphasising that it is deep knowledge of seasonal cycles and advance planning that enable such things to take place.

The next section on ‘Seasonality, Time, and Chronology’ encourages the reader to think most explicitly about what the editors outline in their introduction as a shift from the ‘spatial turn’ to the ‘temporal turn’. Jesper Olsen’s offering is a rather technical paper on solar flare events, on interpreting the relevant radiocarbon evidence. The date of the Thera eruption is discussed and the evidence presented here sets up the discussion for papers that appear later in the volume returning to this same question. Anke Walter’s paper on the turn of the seasons in Ovid’s Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto is the least archaeological of all chapters in the volume but it is nonetheless useful for thinking about how individuals’ lived experiences are affected by seasons. The first section of this volume has already made clear that the granularity of data available for exploring seasonality makes it very difficult to consider specific moments or specific individuals so to have a paper here that looks so closely at a poet’s own thoughts is a welcome addition.

Two papers on ‘The Seasonality of Religion’ approach ritual largely from opposite angles. Jan Kindberg Jacobsen et al. investigate two cave sites (Grotta del Caprio and Grotta Campanella) and a sanctuary (Monte Manfriana). With a ‘bottom-up’ approach, the authors consider ritual and weaving, noting that wool would have been readily available only in certain seasons of the agricultural cycle. This discussion is set against the charred bone evidence: the author considers what age these sheep might have been at time of death (i.e. the age at which they were consumed), and, therefore, an estimate is made on whether or not these sheep were at the right age when eaten for producing wool. Michael Blömer examines bones too, but in discussing the Sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus at Doliche his starting point is more ‘top-down’, beginning with the calendars for ritual activity. As he notes, these calendars might show us the ‘ideal programme’ but it is almost impossible to assess the extent to which these rules were followed.

The next two sections on ‘Seasonality and the Individual’ and ‘Iconography of Seasonality’ might usefully be discussed together. The central part of this volume focuses predominantly on case studies from the Roman world, including papers on baths (Cristina M. Hernández), villas (Mantha Zarmakoupi and Annalisa Marzano) and a variety of public monuments (Edmund Thomas). Papers on the iconography of seasons in the Greco-Roman world (Monica Baggio, Marion Meyer and Dietrich Boschung) also consider Roman period evidence, as does Glenys Davies’ paper on seasonal dress. This should not be surprising: although the tradition of depicting the Horai that in visual media goes back at least to the François Vase (c. 560 BC) and in text to Hesiod, some of the most familiar representations of the seasons as anthropomorphic figures are from well-known mosaics and sarcophagi of Roman Imperial times.

Marion Meyer’s contribution highlights that there was a shift around the Early Hellenistic period from representing three generic Horai to depicting four named (female) seasons. Dietrich Boschung examines similar evidence, also highlighting examples where the seasonal figures are represented not as female but as male. And, beyond iconography, it is not surprising that, given the existence of an equally rich architectural dataset there is ample opportunity to discuss the extent to which different sections of Roman public and private buildings were constructed with different types of light or temperature condition in mind. Both Mantha Zarmakoupi and Cristina M. Hernández explore the idea that various rooms were built and decorated with different times of the year and different effects of light in mind; the latter author uses a sophisticated set of virtual reality models to simulate the angle and intensity of sunlight entering public baths throughout the year. And Annalisa Marzano approaches architecture and seasonality in a slightly different way: she suggests that the vista created by a maritime villa and its landscape was best appreciated when one approached by the sea. This helps to confirm a long-held view, therefore, that one might consider these spaces were best visited during the sailing season of the Spring and Summer months.

The final section on ‘Seasonal Dimensions of Catastrophic Events’ picks up on many of the themes raised elsewhere in this volume. Felix Höflmayer returns to the Thera Eruption (assessing the case for and against a summer eruption), while papers from Massimo Osanna and Chiara Comegna and from Penelope Allison look at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Lisa Nevett considers a much smaller scale ‘catastrophe’: namely, the destruction (however gradual) of house B ix 6 at Olynthos in northern Greece. It is the discussion of her data, though, that brings us back full-circle to the start of the volume. Nevett notes that the resolution of the data provided by the ‘old’ excavation of Olynthos (David Robinson, 1928–1938) leaves little room for identifying seasonal activity in the archaeological record. By contrast, in the renewed twenty-first century excavations, it is only through careful data collection and analysis of things, such as seeds and residues, that one can even begin to understand the seasonal use of space. Analysis of the data is still ongoing and so no firm conclusions are offered: but Nevett discusses the potential for looking at organic residues and the location of pithos fragments within the recently excavated House B ix 6 to reveal calendrically seasonal activities such as wine production. It might only be fairly recently that scholars have chosen to engage with the concept of seasonal activity in the ancient world, but, on the other hand, it is only fairly recently that suitable datasets have become available.

The production quality of this volume is high with a full set of colour and black-and-white images to each chapter, substantial bibliographies, and useful indices of key terms and places.

Overall, this volume has certainly done the job that it set out to do: not to be exhaustive in its coverage of data, chronology or topography, but to ‘[bring] to the forefront a neglected dimension of archaeology…opening new perspectives through which archaeological evidence can be approached’ (p. 6). This is a promising framework, and this volume is a solid foundation on which the conversation on an archaeology of seasonality can continue.

Table of contents

“The Archaeology of Seasonality: Widening Archaeology’s Interpretational Framework” Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, 3

I. Economic Strategies in a Seasonal Perspective
“Seasonality and Urban Economy: The Case of Gerasa in the Decapolis” Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, 9
“Seasonal Labour and Migratory Work in the Roman Empire” Werner Tietz, 25
“Seasonal Diet in the Mediterranean” Erica Rowan, 39
“Seasonality and the Sea” Stefan Feuser, 59
“The Seasonality of Building Works in the Athenian Epigraphic Evidence” Cristina Carusi, 73
“Flowers and Faeces: Seasonal Signals from Shiva’s Early Islamic Rubbish Middens” Daniel Fuks, Guy Bar-Oz, Yotam Pepper and Ehud Weiss, 85
“To Everything There Is a Season: The Dynamics of Seasonality in the Deserts of the Southern Levant in Ancient Times” Steven A Rosen, 99

II. Seasonality, Time, and Chronology
“Solar Flare Events and Archaeology” Jesper Olsen, 121
“Seasonality and the Calendar in Ovid’s Exile Poetry” Anke Walter, 127

III. The Seasonality of Religion
“The Seasonality of Timpone della Motta (Northern Calabria) during the Iron Age and the Archaic Period” Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, Felice Larocca, Joos Melander and Gloria Mittica, 143
“The Sanctuary of Jupiter Dolichenus at Doliche and the Seasonality of Sacrifice” Michael Blömer, 165

IV. Seasonality and the Individual
“Seasonal Dress in the Greco-Roman World” Glenys Davies, 181
Lumen ab occidente hiberno: Seasonality in the Pompeian Domestic Bath” Cristina M. Hernández, 209
“Roman Luxury Villas: Environmental Considerations and Seasonal Uses” Mantha Zarmakoupi, 243
“Maritime Villas and Seasonality” Annalisa Marzano, 263
“Seasonally Adaptive Design in Roman Public Architecture and Urban Space” Edmund Thomas, 279

V. Iconography of Seasonality
“L’iconografia delle Stagioni nella ceramic magno greca” Monica Baggio, 305
“Visualizing the Passing of Time: Personifications of Seasons in Greek and Roman Imagery” Marion Meyer, 323
Tempora anni: Time Recurring” Dietrich Boschung, 349

VI. Seasonal Dimensions of Catastrophic Events
“Tracing the Season of the Santorini (Thera) Eruption” Felix Höflmayer, 365
“The Complicated Problem of Seasonality at Classical Olynthos, Greece” Lisa Nevett, 381
“New Evidence for the Date of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius” Massimo Osanna and Chiara Comegna, 393
“Pompeian House and Seasonality: A Contextual Approach” Penelope Allison, 403