The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside: An Interview with Effie Athanassopoulos

Moira Lavelle

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens is pleased to announce the publication of NVAP II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside, by Effie F. Athanassopoulos. Effie is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Classics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her major research interests are landscape archaeology, historical archaeology, Europe and the Mediterranean, archaeology and identity formation, and digital archaeology. This volume presents the results of the medieval component of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP) survey conducted from 1985-1990.

Q: What was the Nemea Valley like during the Byzantine era?
A: The Nemea Valley and adjacent smaller valleys, explored by the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP), were part of a “busy” agricultural landscape during the Medieval period. The intensive survey identified two large sites/settlements and many smaller sites, farmsteads or field-houses, distributed throughout the area. The sites appear to have been contemporaneous, with ceramic material dating to the 12th and 13th centuries A.D. These remnants of medieval habitation must reflect the intense level of agricultural activity in the Nemea area during this time. The lack of written records at the local level leaves the archaeological data as our main source for understanding land use and habitation in Nemea during this time. The political, economic, and demographic trends prevalent in medieval Greece provide the framework for interpreting the material patterns in Nemea.

Q: What relationship do the sites in Nemea have with the larger Byzantine world?
A: They are part of a growing and rich database of medieval sites and off-site material that has been generated by intensive regional surveys, undertaken in the last 35 years. Thus, for the first time we can approach medieval rural habitation and land use from the perspective of archaeology. The study of Byzantium has been dominated by extant historical sources, which in most cases favor an elite-centered narrative unfolding in the capital, Constantinople. Rural Byzantium is less visible, with the exception of regions mentioned in textual sources such as tax registers or monastic archives available only for few areas (e.g., Mount Athos in northern Greece).  Archaeological surveys have expanded our options and opened new paths to the study of the medieval countryside.

Q: What can we learn from the Nemea Valley in particular and Byzantine Greece more broadly from the survey?
A: We begin to understand the organization of rural settlement and land use in medieval Greece. In Nemea there is a proliferation of habitation sites and agricultural activity during the late 11th/early 12th-late 13th centuries documented through intensive fieldwork. Regional surveys undertaken in central and southern Greece have established a similar pattern (e.g., in Boiotia and Laconia) but this is by no means universal. For example, the Eastern Corinthia survey identified few artifacts dating to the Medieval period, a pattern which contrasts with earlier, notably Late Roman, and later periods in the same region. Thus, the availability of high quality data from several regions enables us to address the role of local topography and conditions in the formation of regional patterns of medieval settlement.


View of Tourkilias, a site in the Gazetteer


Q: What kind of material evidence are you looking at in this publication?
A: Our ability to establish medieval land use patterns is based primarily on the analysis of ceramics. The NVAP survey documented that medieval pottery, including glazed wares, is widely distributed in the area. Glazed wares, which are highly diagnostic, are an important dating tool and are better known than coarse wares. Thus, most of the dates of sites are derived from glazed pottery. The best comparative collections in the region are those of Corinth, where the development of the medieval pottery industry is well documented. Until the late 11th century, most glazed ceramics found in Corinth were imported from Constantinople. The quantity of glazed wares increased dramatically after the late 11th century, when the local Corinthian industry started to produce glazed wares in a variety of styles (e.g., painted, incised, slip painted). The quantity of glazed wares circulating in rural areas appears to have increased somewhat later, probably in the mid-12th century, and continued in the 13th century. This increase most likely indicates changes in the organization as well as the technology of glazed-pottery production during that time. This publication presents new material and information on ceramic production and circulation of medieval wares in a rural area, the Nemea region. The ceramic material is presented in its context, along with architectural remains, features and other finds documented by NVAP.

Q: There was a proliferation of sites in Nemea dating to the 12th–13th centuries that later decreased in the 13th–15th centuries. What caused this change?
A: In the Nemea region, there is abundant evidence for dispersed habitation and agricultural activity in the 12th and 13th centuries, a period of demographic and economic expansion. Economic historians have suggested that the 11th and especially the 12th centuries were a time of unprecedented economic growth in Byzantium, one that encompassed urban centers and the countryside. This period is also characterized by the growth of landed estates, which represent a major reorganization in land tenure, as most peasants were transformed into dependent farmers. In the past, this feudalization process was viewed as the source of Byzantine political and economic decline. More recent scholarship has reversed this picture and suggests that the growth of large estates was a stimulus that contributed to economic and demographic growth starting in the 11th century. The period of the late 13th-15th century provides a contrast to the patterns documented for the earlier period. Archaeological evidence of settlement and agricultural activity in Nemea becomes scarce. A complex of sites on a precipitous hill, identified in historical sources as Polyphengi, dominates the region. This drastic change is interpreted as a result of insecurity, conflict, and the extreme fragmentation of the social and political structure of the Peloponnesos after the Latin conquest in the early 13th century.

Q: What are the most interesting or surprising results of the survey?
A: The fact that we have the pattern of dispersed habitation and agricultural activity continuing into the 13th century. Initially, this defied expectations, which were based on well-known political developments. The Fourth Crusade resulted in the capture of Constantinople in 1204, and led to political fragmentation. Several small political units were created that replaced Byzantium, including the Principality of Achaia, established by western knights in the Peloponnesos (known as the Morea). Byzantine efforts to reconquer the Peloponnesos in the 13th and 14th centuries led to continuing competition and warfare and to the establishment of the Despotate of Morea in the mid-14th century. Thus the initial expectation was that the Latin conquest in the early 13th century would have been disruptive and led to the abandonment and depopulation of the countryside. Clearly, that was not the case. It appears that the agrarian infrastructure was not seriously affected by the fragmentation and redistribution of large estates in Frankish and Venetian territories soon after the conquest. Rather, we see a drastic change in the late 13th-early 14th century, as continuing warfare and incursions intensified. It is at that time that defense and security became important in the choice and location of settlement, which led to the growth of fortified villages around castles or towers. The hilltop site of Polyphengi, near the contemporary town of New Nemea, grew around a small fort and was the main settlement in the Nemea region during this period. It also yielded pottery imported from Italy, which is a rare find in the NVAP survey area.


Fortified rock shelter/chapel on Polyphengi


Q: Why has Byzantine/medieval archaeology long been overlooked in favor of earlier periods?
A: The reasons for the lack of interest in Byzantium and its material remains are complex and relate to the historical development of academic disciplines in Europe and the Mediterranean. Several intellectuals of the Enlightenment painted a dismal picture of Byzantium. One of the most influential figures, the historian Edward Gibbon, saw Byzantium as the degeneracy of Rome. It was perceived as a corrupt, despotic, theocratic state, the antithesis of ancient Greece. But to go even further, the negative attitudes of the Enlightenment toward Byzantium were an expression of western European hostility toward Orthodox Christianity. After all, the religious differences and competition between western and eastern Christianity had culminated in the conquest of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204, an extraordinary event that destroyed the core of Byzantium. Western European intellectuals of the 18th century were interested in ancient Greek heritage, a movement that gave rise to Hellenism. When the newly independent state of Greece was established in the 1830s, it adopted Hellenic ideals that emphasized the connections between modern Greece and the Classical past. Initially, the Byzantine period was viewed as a long dark age that interfered with the efforts to establish an unbroken continuity between antiquity and modern Greece. It was not until the end of the 19th century that Byzantium was rediscovered and rehabilitated. Still, the inclusion of Byzantium into the national narrative did not alter the focus of archaeologists, who continued to focus on the Classical period.

Q: How has that changed in recent years? How do you see your work fitting into that change?
A: Since the rehabilitation of Byzantium in the late 19th century, the field of Byzantine art and architecture has grown steadily and become synonymous with archaeology. Thus, Byzantine art and archaeology have focused mainly on ecclesiastical architecture, wall paintings, and icons. In contrast, archaeology of everyday life based on excavations of settlements is still poorly developed. Also, lack of interest in “late” periods resulted in the destruction or minimal recording of post-Classical strata in excavations of major Classical sites. Fortunately, these practices have faded away. In the last 35 years, the study of medieval material remains has entered a phase of growth and is rapidly catching up. The excavations at Corinth have been a pioneering project that has paid a great deal of attention to medieval layers and material culture. Such projects have produced a wealth of information on daily life grounded in standard archaeological methods such as stratigraphy and ceramic analysis. Archaeological regional surveys have also contributed to this rapid growth. Intensive surveys like NVAP incorporated the Medieval, post-Medieval, and Early Modern periods into their research design and publications. My work adds to the growing number of regional projects that have invested in the study of later periods. It offers an in-depth presentation of material culture from a rural area, Nemea, known mainly for its Classical remains, the Sanctuary of Zeus, and the Nemean Games. This publication adds another dimension, the transformation of this area into a thriving agricultural community during the Medieval period.

Q: What were the biggest challenges you encountered with this project?
A: There were many challenges, but the biggest was to work with the diverse databases generated by NVAP in order to pull together material pertaining to the Medieval period. NVAP was one of the first archaeological projects to use computers and digital databases. That was a novelty in the mid-late 1980s when fieldwork for NVAP took place. There were multiple databases that recorded counts/densities of finds, diagnostic pottery from individual fields and sites, photographed objects, spatial information, etc. Soon, however, with the rapid change of digital technology, it became difficult to work with these databases, as various software programs used for the original records became obsolete and the record files had to be converted for use with newer versions or different software entirely in order to remain accessible. Also, NVAP took place before digital photography and Google Earth aerial imagery became widely available. The original photographs of ceramics, most of them in black and white, did not meet current standards. Thus, I had to rephotograph most of the material included in this publication and create digital illustrations, combining photographs and drawings, to satisfy current publication requirements. This was time-consuming, labor-intensive work that I had not foreseen. I am satisfied with the results, though. I think that the Gazetteer of medieval NVAP sites will be useful to other researchers. This experience has also led me to explore available options for archiving and sharing archaeological data in formats that promise to be sustainable for the foreseeable future.


Medieval pottery from Polyphengi


Q: What questions still remain following the publication?
A: One of the questions that remain is to establish the origin of medieval wares in the Nemea area. The survey identified a medieval pottery workshop that most likely produced glazed pottery. Even though there is evidence for local production in the Nemea region, we are not currently in a position to document the distribution of locally produced pottery or the duration of the ceramic workshop. The available archaeological evidence suggests that glazed pottery in the Middle-Late Medieval period was produced in regional workshops located in urban as well as rural areas. It is through materials analysis approaches, such as fabric analysis, petrographic examination, and chemical composition, that we will be able to establish the origin of different types of wares, reconstruct trade networks and learn more about the distribution of locally produced glazed pottery in rural areas.

Q: What are your plans for upcoming projects?
A: My work in Nemea has entered a new phase through my participation in the research and publication program of the Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. In collaboration with Kim Shelton, the Director of the Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology, I have been working with the medieval deposits from the excavations at the Sanctuary of Zeus and Stadium in Nemea. The excavations have produced plentiful evidence of farming and related activities dating to the Medieval period. One of the components of the ongoing study is to compare ceramic material recovered from the NVAP survey with excavated deposits. Availability of surface and sub-surface archaeological material from the same area is not common. In that regard, Nemea provides a rare opportunity for research and may serve as a model for other excavations with a Classical focus that may have substantial, unpublished medieval assemblages in their collections. I also plan to pursue more synthetic work, bringing together information on rural settlement in southern Greece documented through survey and excavation. I envision a pilot digital project that would bring together settlement/land-use data from a variety of sources, present them in an accessible form, engage a wider community of researchers, and, hopefully, enhance the contribution of archaeology to our understanding of the medieval rural landscape.


NVAP II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside
200 pp, 85 col figs, 35 b/w figs, 3 tables
Cloth, 9" x 12"
ISBN: 978-0-87661-923-0

NVAP II: Landscape Archaeology and the Medieval Countryside can be purchased from our distribution partners: click below for information on how to order from Casemate Academic (in North America) or from Oxbow Books (outside North America).