Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fourteen Large: Grexiting the Late Bronze Age, 2

First, I've just read Oliver Dickinson's new attempt to synthesise the Greek Bronze Age--Iron Age transition.  Powerfully scholarly, Dickinson first sets the terms: whatever else we know or do not know about the "catastrophe" which ended the Late Bronze Age, there is an irreducible core of facts to consider. At the end of the Palatial Period, "Mycenaean Greek" civilisation was building monumental structures. At the dawning of the Classical Period, "Ancient Greeks" were again building monumental structures. Their nature had changed significantly over the course of 400 years, from spectacular tombs and not-quite-so-spectacular palace sites to temples, but from some kind of functional point of view, their absence in the intervening almost half-millennium constitutes definitive proof that some kind of social caesura had taken place. Call it a catastrophe, or a decomplexification, or a collapse of the Late Bronze Age state, but something.

However, Dickinson feels himself compelled to adopt the version of the thesis in which decomplexification leads to a significant local population decline. He wants to argue that whatever the problems so far invoked with using area surveys to measure populations, we are at the point where we can accept them as evidence. I am not convinced, so, all digressions aside, this post is mostly a disagreement with that. (Spoiler: I continue to be persuaded by the idea that they all went away to live in the hills. Still have to motivate the argument, though.)  

Second, since this is a blog about grass and technology, can a claim that technological exogeneity lies in back of the Late Bronze Age collapse be sustained? That is, for we moderns who worry that robots are about to take our jobs, is there a parallel example in iron axes, presumably taking the jobs, and perhaps lives, of the bronze merchants (bankers-in-bronze?) Or is technology endogenous, with Late Bronze Age society giving way to a new lifestyle which makes iron possible.

Or, even more radically, is technology an epiphenomena of economic growth, in which case the Late Bronze Age-Iron Age transition is an episode of economic-growth-with-political-catastrophe-characteristics? (That would be a contrarian interpretation, indeed.) 

Third, a little buried compared with the force of the anecdote: fourteen grand, in case you were wondering, is, I have just learned, what you pay in student loan-funded tuition to go to truck driver school in Vancouver right now.  All scholarly caution about overly dramatic intepretations of the end of the Late Bronze Age aside, I want there to have been an episode in which the peasants burned down the wanax's palace and went off to live in Arcadia. "By the time we're done, Linear B will be spoken only in Hell." 

There is evidence burning a hole in my pocket, and since this is a blog, and not a monograph, I can spend it. Right now. That evidence is locality. If you read about the Greek War of Independence, you are inspired by events in Bessarabia to land in called Messalonghi. You go on to see a war proclaimed at Arepoli and  Kalamata by the men of Monemvasia and "unconquered Mani" and bold klephts of Arcadia ("On horse they go to church/on horse they kiss the icons/on horse they receive communion/From the priest's hand"), who advance on TripoliNafplio and Ypati.and fight at Navarino and Petra. 

Even granted that we don't know as much as we think we do about the geography of Classical Greece, a striking number of turn-of-modernity Greeks seem to have been living in the wrong place. The hellenophiles of the time seem to have taken it that their contemporary Greeks were a bit degenerate, but that it was something that could be fixed. Greece's new Bavarian monarch chose Athens as his capital in 1834, and promptly announced the restoration of Sparta --the episode out of which this story springs. The people of Laconia of circa 1834 didn't think that Sparta needed to be restored, because although they did not call their town "Sparta," they were pretty clear that  Mystras was the new town to Sparta's old. The ancient Spartans had built a city in a pretty dumb place; the new location was better. 

They lost that argument, as the Peloponnese has been losing arguments with Athens ever since. The question here, if it is not too anachronistic, is whether or not the Greeks of 1830 had a point. Always tiptoeing around accusations of anachronism, we are already in the habit of interpreting the archaeological record of the Greek countryside at the end of the Late Bronze Age in the light of other eras. Why not start at Mystras?

"Botzaris Suprises the Turkish Camp and Falls Mortally Wounded," Eugene Delacroix
(Or Tripoli.)

So we know the outlines of things well enough. On 6 March 1821, Alexandros Ypsilantis led a small army across the river Pruth into Turkish Moldavia, with the intention of causing a Europe-wide revolution of liberalism, nationalism, etc. I'm more than a little scornful, but in the patriotic Greek narrative, the attention turns to the Morea for heroes, and Istanbul for a more legitimate casus belli.

the heroes in question are Theodore Kolokotronis, leader of the Arcadian yeomanry, and Black Peter Mavromichalis, Bey of Mani. Together, they raise an army which seems to have provoked the relatively well-off urban Turkish and Jewish populations of the southern and western Morea to flee to the provincial capital and stronghold of Tripolitsa, a town on a "a plain of oaks" which represents an eastward and southern extension of the high tableland of Arcadia intercepting the road between the Eurotas valley (Sparta!) and the Argolis. Set inland at an elevation of 2000ft, it is another of those Greek towns which seems so atypical of our idealised picture of Classical Greece. It is also, incidentally, one that must have a pretty compelling logic in terms of economic geography, since it is still one of the largest towns in the Peloponnese, and certainly larger and more important than (modern) Sparta. At the time, its strong walls seemed to offer protection to the non-Christian bourgeois of Laconia and Messenia.

Diamantis Goumas, at Panoramio
But enough about Tripoli. I don't want to cast my net too widely. I will try to keep this narrow enough to focus on Mystras, former capital of the Despotate of the Morea. A very important town from the establishment of the Despotate of the Morea to the Nineteenth Century, Mystras is now an abandoned city, and thus one of the few places in the Peloponnese that can compete with Classical ruins in the key field of picturesqueness. 

Here's what the locality looked like to a traveller in 1830. (Frontispiece map of William Martin Leake's Travels in Morea (1830).

Here's a picture taken two years ago. 
Guy Grober, at Panoramio
I know I promised to keep the focus narrow, but I want to show you a picture of Ypati in modern Locris. 

Robin Iversen Rönnlund, at Wikipedia
The location of both towns, on slopes overlooking river valleys, will be familiar to anyone who has travelled in a mountainous country. Building on slopes can save flat land, if you want to frame the choice in terms of frugal efficiency, or be a low-effort means of flood mitigation, if you think that the locals are degenerate or something.

I don't know, I'm probably overdoing the orientalising/hellenising voice of the 1830s.  Leake is more interested in telling us about his search for sites mentioned in Pausanias, but he has a great deal to tell us. Let's look at another screen grab!

Kalamata, if you haven't followed the link, isn't a familiar name by accident. The main town of the Gulf of Messenia, it gives its name to the local speciality of Kalamata olives beause it is an agricultural and trading centre which used to produce a great many olives and export them in large numbers Western European sailing ships found Kalamata to be a relatively easy town to make landfall in, and the Christmas-time "Levantine" cargoes of candied fruit, currants and, of course, olives, wine, nuts and textiles, often came from Kalamata. Seen in the 1840s, the surrounding farms, bordered with hedges of "cactus," with gardens of fig trees, mulberries, and olive trees, even receives a recommendation from the hypercritical Edinurgh Review. (Oh, Good Lord, Nineteenth Century Liberalism. Your snark does not endear you to the ages. I should go insult my kettle, now.) 

Anyway, the point is that although the Eurotas Valley opens to the sea itself, far to the east and south

This fine old German textbook map of the "ethnic" composition of the Peloponnese was used to illustrate the article on the "highly divergent Greek dialect of Tsakonian," although, as it makes clear, Albanian was by far the more important counter-hegemonic language. Albanians.

there is a sense in which Mystra is part of Kalamata's econonmic hinterland. The road which Leake sketches here is the "best route in this season [Spring], and whenver there is snow." Mules can come up from Eurotas via Mystra to Kalamata, and this is probably the way that the produce of ancient Sparta reached the market in 1800.

So I am asking you to situate yourself on the ride up from Kalamata to historic Mystra, on your way to see the ruins of the "old town of Sparta," eight kilometers beyond Mystas. Along the way, the most striking agricultural fact is the extensive mulberry groves, but I suspect that this is because they are planted along the roads to provide shade and some forage. Apparently, if you were an Ottoman tax assessor instead, the most striking feature of the countryside is the number of water mills --not something that I would automatically associate with the landscape of the Ottoman Morea! (I also notice that the Ottoman assessors see considerable evidence of millet and corn, both summer crops. I guess that I shouldn't be surprised, but the evidence does not sit well with my idealised picture of ancient Greek agriculture. You're not supposed to be ploughing and harvesting in high summer and early fall. Right?) From Mystras, Leake is on his way to Arcadia along a route along which he is more interested in Pausanias than the actual sights, it seems, but the broad picture is clear enough. The villages of Laconia are along the flank of the mountains, often at convenient crossing points, while the lowlands of the river are mostly in meadowland. I have a great deal of difficulty not concluding that the Greeks avoid building down in the valley because of flooding issues.

This raises the question of why the ancient Greeks did. The story of the formation of the great cities of Classical Greece is often told in terms of amalgamation. The larger polity being formed cannot be on the site of one of the existing cities, so perhaps the compromise choice is poorly located? The Edinburgh Review snarls that the site was ill-chosen "with regard to both air and water." 

Ancient Sparta certainly seems like a late and artificial creation. It is a very unlikely coincidence that it has the same name as Sardis (with spelling variations) in Lydia, and the absence of Mycenaean remains is a continuing embarrassment to the "Homer is so too historical!" school, to the point where Joachim Latacz, writing with all the entertaining vigour of a German academic controversialist, is reduced to asserting that ancient Amyclae was Homeric Sparta. Unfortunately, Amyclae is scarce on Mycenaean remains as well. Therapnis, a town on the ridge above the east bank of the Eurotas is a better candidate, and is even the site of the supposed Menelaion, but I think it's mentioned in the Iliad.  

The Edinburgh Review --I know, I know, I'm really letting this guy get to me-- starts off by complaining that travellers are returning with detailed accounts of what Greece was like, rather than what it is like, which is something we can agree on. He mentions Leake, too. The problem is that the Review instead focusses on what Greece should be like. There are not enough roads in the Peloponnese; the valleys are "half-cultivated." The villages are "straggling." There are not enough fine stone houses, or terraced hillsides. Local development is compared unfavourably to Sicily. Yet, contrary to the Review, the landscape was not unpopulated, nor unproductive, according to the Ottoman tax rolls. Agrarian production is not failing; but it is also not obvious to the observer. 

A fairly systemic pattern of building on the slopes and elevations, with the valleys apparently underutilised, seems to point to a neglect of intensive agriculture, whether of grain or of cash field crops such as cotton and tobacco, in favour of livestock. Nineteenth Century improvers hate that! But.... Valtetsi, the base camp of the Greek besiegers of Tripoli, evidently has its own local historian writing for Wikipedia: 

It was built around 1600 AD by Ethnic Greeks from Himara in Northern Epirus who escaping from the Turkish attacks, settled at first in the North Western parts of the Peloponessus to continue their final destination to the Arcadian hilltops.[2]
It was later improved by a migration of Tsakonians on their way to Attica due to their shepherd's life and also some Souliotes chased by the Ottomans resettled in the village.
Valtetsi used to be an isolated place, connected to other villages with three narrow paths only, each one guiding to the major mounts in the region: one to the Taygetus, other to the Menalus and the third to the Parnon. This is possibly the reason why it was one of the most famous dens chosen by klephtes and brigands.
. . . .
Every day life was extremely hard since cattle keeping (mostly sheep and also some goats) was the local profession for ordinary villagers. The typical family lived in a constant move. When it was not the Ottoman occupant's menace it was the strong winter which obliged shepherds to take their herds to milder weathers and pastures in the Argolid returning to Valtetsi in April. When September arrived, they started the herd's move again, this time to the summer camps in Tegea and Dimitsana. [local marshes led to dengue epidemics. . .]

The great danger in this kind of discussion is anachronism. Or, conversely, that accusations of anachronism will cut off useful discussion. Is this how postpalatial Greeks lived? Is it a better explanation for the supposed "refugiums" of Crete than a retreat from a raider-haunted coast? The traditional interpretation of the sub-Mycenaean site of Nichoria seems to be informed by this kind of account. Wary of too explicitly leaning on much later evidence, the rich faunal assemblage and relatively flimsy structures are intepreted as evidence of a wideranging "pastoral" lifestyle of the kind explicitly described for the old inhabitants of Valtetsi here: winter pasture in lowland marshes, fall pasture (although here labelled 'summer') in temporary camps, and actual residence in the village proper confined to the spring and summer months.

I'll point out, as the Nichoria excavators do not, that there is very good reason to have the herds close by in the spring and summer, especially if the Early Iron Age saw a summer crop added to winter. It is presumably in this period that the flocks exhaust the forage around the town proper, and, as always, the meadow makes the field.Taking seriously historians who argue that long distance transhumance requires largescale social order, I do not think that the Valtetsi model works for the Late Bronze Age collapse. The movement between the marshes of Nafplion and Valtetsi is too great to be organised informally by a village. The Mystra-Sparta-Taygetum axis is a very different matter. We even  have two timeframes in which a transition to and from these lifestyles actually happend. Sparta was built, abandoned, and rebuilt, in specific periods, presumably in response to social changes.

Can we say something more? Robin Osborne can.  Athens is obviously a highly atypical case. Working with back-of-the-envelope calculations, Osborne follows recent trends in arguing that the heavy taxation and liturgical burden on Attic land means that more than half of all agrarian production is for the market, and that the existence of  a capitalised agricultural sector means a market for land and a tendency for holdings to concentrate in oligarchic hands. Site survey indicates a high degree of nucleation in small villages, and where an isolated homestead is found on the evidence of roof tiles and pottery sherds, the inhabitants are likely to be slaves --socially marginalised. (this bit is orphan evidence for now.) Wattle-and-daub and other forms of temporary construction that do not survive in the archaeological record are presumably even stronger evidence of a poor or marginal population.

That said, Osborne is interested in why rural places are abandoned, and while it is hard to pursue this in ancient Greek history, there is a huge literature in medieval English rural history. I'm a bit chary of this literature, which originates in attempts to use the abandoned English villages revealed in early Ordinance Survey  maps as proxies for (high end) estimates of Black Death lethality rates. The literature has moved on from this, even though Osborne accepts the basic thesis, even giving the high end estimate for the overall population reduction (from 5 to 6 million English on the eve of the plague to 2.5 million a century later.) From later research, we actually now that these villages were abandoned over a very long time, some not finally given up until the Seventeenth Century. Now that detailed research gives us the actual date of abandonment, trends can be picked up.

-Villages where farms are owned by their inhabitants are less likely to be abandoned, even if crop yields are low;
-Villages in "champion," or open-field settings, are more likely to be abandoned, even though understood as more productive;
-Villages (and farms) which are poorly situtated with respect to conveniences such as parish churches are more likely to be abandoned;
-Woodland villages are less likely to be abandoned. (More productive, but producing less grain!)

Of course, the overarching trend is precisely one of abandonment. Whatever the cause (and I am intuitively more inclined to look to the rise of the wool trade than to epidemic), the nature of the land market had changed. None of these villages would have been abandoned had the owners found buyers for their homes --and sometimes fields. 

Osborne also looks at population mobility, noting that people move in and out of some villages in medieval datasets quite often, not at all in others. The exception is a Russian estate, and points to the old distinction between intensive and extensive agriculture. In the former, land is at a premium, and labour is sought to work it. In the latter, land is available in excess of labour, which is the scarce commodity that the rich try to control. This is a very traditional explanation for slavery and serfdom, and seems to apply to special cases where the land is imagined as vast and underpopulated. That does not seem to apply to little Greece, where we expect the supply of land to be a constraining factor.

But what about the forest? Ancient farmers certainly farmed forest land. As of 1992, 3.9 million hectares of Greece's 13.2 million was in forest per the FAO's definition, with another 2.3 million in the "other wooded land" category. The forests of Greece consist of deciduous, often oak broadleaf forests at higher elevations, giving way to pine and evergreen oak at lower elevations, and then finally to shrubland at the lowest. Much of the forestland in Greece is forest land because it is on steep slopes, and likely has always been forest, and if utilised agriculturally, must have been used for pasture and pannage. (Aha!)

What I am not finding is evidence that largescale ecological change occurred at the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age transition, consonant with the theory that once people got iron axes, they could cut down the forests.  On the contrary, there is pollen record evidence from Macedonia for precisely a peasant flight into the mountains during unsettled times, but at regular intervals, irrespective of technological horizons. (1, 2). You don't really need iron axes when you've got fire. 

1) Was there a place for people to go, if they decided to leave the Late Bronze Age palace settlements? Yes! The topography of Greece hasn't changed, and it looks like the ecology hasn't, either, in broad strokes. If anything, the forests were more extensive.
2) Is there an alternative to living in, and farming the bottom land? Yes! Call it the Velitsa model. Assuming that long-distance transhumance requires the state, we need a situation in which the meadows are at the bottom and the top of an individual mountain.
3) Is there a historic example? Yes! The Mystras-Sparta axis. (And, possibly, at the transition to the Archaic period, the Therapnis-Amyclae axis.)  
4) Could this have been a more economically productive regime? Yes: in that it is putting more human effort onto more biotically productive land. The product will not be grain, however, so it will be less taxable. But that might be the point, to begin with. Without taxes, there is less need to produce for the market; without the market for grain, there is no need for a market for land; without a market for land, there is less need for courts, for the state. The result is a more productive society, but one which is less capable of organising itself to built monumental structures. Tax regimes (or perhaps a bronze glut), not technological change, matter.

And, yes, there are some nods in the direction of a line of linguistic evidence here. Unfortunately, it's all terribly tentative given how little we know and how much we speculate. Tsakonian, everybody!


  1. "Leonidi is uninhabited until the early seventeenth century.24 In
    register TT 715 (1613/ 14) it is in fact characterized as mezra'a, that
    is a cultivated area without a permanently settled population. So,
    after its destruction by the Ottomans in 1476, Leonidi continued to
    exist without permanent inhabitants until at least 1613. However,
    the fact that the settlement is entered in the register as owing 506
    aspers in the mid-sixteenth century and correspondingly 5,000
    aspers in 1613, means that some inhabitants of neighbouring
    settlements came here seasonally and tilled its lands."

  2. Sorry, should probably credit that to Evangelia Balta. Apparently, there's a great deal of room to do early modern Greek rural history in the Istanbul archives.