BMCR 2023.05.12

A landscape of conflict? Rural fortifications in the Argolid (400–146 BC)

, A landscape of conflict? Rural fortifications in the Argolid (400–146 BC). Abingdon: Archaeopress, 2022. Pp. 328. ISBN 9781789699708



Archaeologists who research rural landscapes have long known that asking locals is often the most efficient and most reliable way of finding certain types of sites like towers and fortifications. Yannis Pikoulas famously turned this practice into an art form, identifying and cataloging a vast number and variety of rural sites with his kafeneio (coffee-shop) method of extensive survey.[1] Yet while scholars have benefited from local knowledge, it has been less common for them to agree with the functions that locals (at least in this reviewer’s experience in the western Argolid) often associate with fortified structures: as local places of refuge in times of crisis.[2] It has rather been more common for fort-seekers to interpret them as traces of an elaborate regional defensive network organized by a powerful political authority. This interpretive framework has been challenged, however, by scholars who argue that rural fortifications fulfilled a variety of functions. This ongoing debate informs Anna Magdalena Blomley’s approach. She systematically collects the archaeological evidence for 146 rural fortifications in the Argolid that can be plausibly dated to the late Classical or Hellenistic periods (4th–mid 2nd century BCE), and subjects them to a series of rigorous and sophisticated analyses in an effort to understand their emergence and functions.

The book consists of eight chapters, a catalogue of fortifications, and an appendix. Blomley begins (ch. 1) by laying the foundation for her project, briefly surveying the history of fortification studies and defining her research area as “the territory of Argos and…Akte” (5). Thus, she defines the Argolid rather broadly, stretching from Kleonai in the north to Zarax in the south, and from the slopes of the mountain ranges that mark the edge of Arkadia on the west to the southern Argolid on the east. Chapter 2 discusses the landscape of the Argolid and includes sections on geomorphology, paleoclimate, and ancient land use. With the stage set, Blomley can begin her study of the fortifications in earnest, starting with a typology of fortifications (ch. 3). She adopts Sylvian Fachard’s classification of fortified settlements, forts, towers, and drystone circuits, a typology that has worked well elsewhere in Greece and is appropriate for the Argolid.[3] Chapter 4 addresses the thorny issue of chronology. To some extent, features such as architectural forms (types of gates, towers, etc.) and masonry styles can suggest probable construction dates, but there are difficulties with these dating methods, and Blomley addresses them directly. Yet it seems that masonry styles suggest a chronological pattern in her dataset; by correlating masonry styles with dates derived from independent evidence (written sources, finds from excavations or surface collections, or specific architectural forms), she is able to propose a “rudimentary ‘local masonry chronology’” (44).[4] Even if it seems inevitable that this chronology will be modified by future work, it allows Blomley to tentatively assign rough dates to ca. 65% of the fortifications in her database. This is a critical step, since it makes an (admittedly coarse-grained) historical analysis of the fortifications of the Argolid possible. In the last of the introductory chapters (ch. 5), Blomley sketches the region’s political geography and settlement patterns. Although both are poorly understood, she makes effective use of past archaeological and topographical research, including the results of four intensive archaeological surveys.

Chapter 6 is the most substantial analytical chapter. Blomley subjects her geospatial (GIS) database of fortifications to a number of tests: the relationship between fortifications and roads, the latter modelled by least-cost-path analyses; the intervisibility of fortifications, to test the possibility that they served as watch-posts or signal-stations in a complex interlocking visual network or networks; and the relationship between fortifications and the territories of city-states, to understand what role rural fortifications played in defensive strategies. She concludes that most fortifications in the Argolid addressed small-scale, local (rather than regional) concerns; they do not provide evidence for the large-scale campaigns attested in literary sources. Chapter 7 explores additional potential functions of these sites as places of refuge for local populations or as primarily agricultural installations (farm towers), and concludes that there are good reasons to regard both functions as plausible, especially in cases where there is no obvious military explanation.

Blomley’s conclusions are compelling: most fortifications in her study area were “built for local ‘civilian’ communities” (127), were largely focused on small-scale conflict, and were structures with multiple and overlapping functions. This suggests to Blomley, rightly, a degree of local autonomy that is corroborated by other sources of evidence, historical and archaeological. From these conclusions, a number of lessons follow. First, fortifications diverge significantly across southern Greece: there is no one single pattern of rural defenses. Second, the fact that Blomley can make a number of convincing inferences about rural fortifications despite poor chronological control confirms, if proof were needed, the efficacy of landscape-based studies, especially when enriched by geospatial analyses using GIS. Third, rural fortifications can make significant and novel contributions to the study of socioeconomic aspects of ancient life, in addition to their obvious relevance to military history.

The 130-page catalogue of fortified sites that follows the bibliography is extremely valuable and represents an enormous amount of work. Each entry includes basic information such as altitude, location, size, masonry style, associated finds, date, and bibliography, as well as a description and commentary, and in most cases a plan and multiple high-resolution color images. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is its extensive use of high-quality illustrations throughout, many of which are GIS-generated maps and digital photographs of fortified sites and their landscape context.

This book is a great success: it is empirically rich, analytically rigorous, and it asks and answers important and interesting questions. Indeed, it represents a substantial and timely contribution to a scholarly debate about the role of rural fortifications in the Greek world. Blomley’s analysis is heavily indebted to Fachard’s “Landscape Approach” to rural fortifications, which criticizes the tendency to understand fortifications as mere cogs in well-organized regional systems of defense that emerged in specific historical moments; Fachard advocates instead for holistic analyses that account for topography, settlement, road networks, agricultural resources, and so on.[5] This landscape approach is in turn strongly influenced by modern archaeological pedestrian survey, which treats rural fortifications as just one form of evidence for diachronic patterns of past human activity of various kinds, often with heightened sensitivity to the micro-regional context. In many parts of Blomley’s study area, we lack the rich historical and archaeological context that would enhance our understanding of individual fortifications, but this book effectively demonstrates that even in the absence of fine-grained data (the sort provided by excavations and intensive survey), careful analysis and judicious assessment of the extant evidence can yield insights at scale. It thus deserves a wide readership of ancient historians and archaeologists, especially those with interests in military history, ancient landscapes, and rural life.[6]



[1] Ι.Α. Πίκουλας, Ὀδικὸ δίκτυο καὶ Ἄμυνα. Ἀπὸ τὴν Κόρινθο στὸ Ἄργος καὶ τὴν Ἀρκαδία (Athens: Horos, 1995), 11.

[2] Cf. J. McInerney, The Folds of Parnassos: Land and Ethnicity in Ancient Phokis (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 110, citing F.B. Welch, “The Folklore of a Turkish Labour Battalion,” Annual of the British School at Athens 23 (1918–1919): 123–125.

[3] S. Fachard, “Studying Rural Fortifications: A Landscape Approach,” in Ancient Fortifications: A Compendium of Theory and Practice, edited by S. Müth, P.I. Schneider, M. Schnelle and P.D. De Staebler (Oxbow: Oxford & Philadelphia, 2016), 207–230.

[4] The correlation of masonry styles and chronology is laid out in the Appendix.

[5] See Fachard (supra n. 2).

[6] I noted few errors, which were mostly confined to the bibliography: e.g., the title of Fachard 2012 should be La défense du territoire: étude de la chôra érétrienne et de ses fortifications; Fachard 2020 is in fact co-authored by Fachard, Murray, Knodell and Papangeli; Πέππα (genitive) should be Πέππας (nominative) throughout.