Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean

Rebecca M. Seifried and Deborah E. Brown Stewart, eds., Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean (Grand Forks: The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, 2021). 9781736498613.

Reviewed by Eric W. Driscoll, Harvard University, edriscoll@fas.harvard.edu.

When modern archaeological survey began in the 1950s with Robert Adams’ fieldwork east of Baghdad, and later in the Aegean with the Minnesota Messenia Expedition in the 1960s, it already necessitated a diachronic perspective running from prehistory to the twentieth century, even though the research questions were normally rooted in a particular period. Indeed, survey is almost by definition concerned with the agrarian history of landscapes over the long term and thus with patterns of intensification and abatement centered around small settlements in that landscape. Adams’ 1965 Land Behind Baghdad was structured like a classic rural-history Annales dissertation: part 1 presents the “major natural variables” of the landscape (climate, flora and fauna, land and water), regional agriculture, and recent settlement trends—the very same topics discussed in the first part of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Les paysans de Languedoc published the following year—before going on to reconstruct the settlement history of the region around the Diyala river from 4000 BCE to 1900 CE. Many surveys in the Aegean have included ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological efforts to record vanishing memories of pre-mechanized agriculture.

Meanwhile, the classic ethnographies of Greece—also researched and composed in the 1950s and 60s—took village communities as their subject (Ernestine Friedl’s Vasilika in 1962, John Campbell’s Honor, Family, and Patronage in 1964, and Juliet du Boulay’s Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village in 1974) even as historical and archaeological interest in abandoned Mediterranean villages was also rapidly growing. In their introduction to this volume, Seifried and Brown Stewart highlight the 1952 foundation of a Deserted Medieval Villages Research Group in the UK, and one could add that in the 1960s Braudel catalyzed a multidisciplinary exploration of deserted Mediterranean villages that led to volumes such as the hefty 1965 Villages désertés et histoire économique and the 1970 Archéologie du village déserté. The study of medieval houses also has a long if attenuated history in Byzantine archaeology (wherein the lion’s share of attention has gone to churches), while household archaeology proper has slowly been making inroads into Classical and medieval archaeology. Moreover, interest particularly in the vernacular architecture of Greek village houses, but also in the villages themselves, peaked at several moments during the twentieth century, motivated in turns, as Brenningmeyer, Kourelis, and Katsaros explain in their contribution, by the folklorist’s interest in traditional lifeways, the architect’s in documenting Nazi atrocities during the occupation, and the archaeologist’s in establishing cultural continuity as part of the Greek national narrative. Finally, the twenty-first century has seen the theory-driven mainstreaming of the archaeology of the recent past (AKA contemporary archaeology), a deepening of attention to materiality, duration/temporality, and reuse, and, most recently, revolutionary new techniques for archaeological study and documentation—all of which have had or begun to have major effects on the discipline of Greek archaeology.

The village has thus been a focal point for interdisciplinary inquiry. The abandoned village proves especially good to think with, as it forces issues of site formation and contingency to the fore, ideally dislodging both the “Pompeii premise” and a romantic assumption that agrarian life is unchanging and harmonious. The contributions to Deserted Villages: Perspectives from the Eastern Mediterranean draw in various ways on all these scholarly trends and endeavor to contribute significantly to the study of the (Greek) village “as a complex and stratified material object” (p. 349). Individual chapters can be read in isolation, as each is anchored in its own specific research agenda and program of fieldwork, and they resist easy synthesis or reduction to a single message. Yet the book as a whole is carefully sequenced to build a subtle argument about the value of studying “abandoned” rural sites and landscapes. Deserted Villages is the uncommon collective work that fully repays a cover-to-cover read.

Let me get one predictable criticism out of the way: the volume focuses on Greece. Its central seven chapters deal with sites in Greece (five of them in the Peloponnese), bookended by a chapter on late Roman and Byzantine Çadır Höyük (in central Turkey) and another on Wheelock, North Dakota. That sudden leap in space is fun and provocative, but if the book is intended to explore thematic and theoretical issues in settlement abatement and the abandonment of eastern Mediterranean villages as such, chapters on other sites (such as Byzantine Pergamon, repeatedly alluded to in the first two chapters, or the numerous towns in southern Italy that have long been undergoing gradual abandonment as a result of economic processes similar to those canvassed in the volume’s introduction—a scope, in short, more like The Corrupting Sea’s “four definite places”) should have been included. That said, the volume has considerable value as a series of sustained case studies and reflections whose methodological and chronological diversity more than compensate for their restricted geographical focus.

Indeed, a major strength of the volume is precisely that the chapters vary so much in intellectual orientation. Vassi’s strictly descriptive summary of excavation and conservation work at Anavatos on Chios, for instance, is immensely illuminating and helpful for visualizing the form, syntax, and histories of other broadly similar sites such as Geraki in the Peloponnese, Paleochora on Aegina, or Sifnian Kastro. Vassi’s chapter ends by declaring that archival work on Anavatos belongs to a different area of research, whereas the subsequent chapter by Tzortzopoulou-Gregoy and Gregory attempts exactly to combine archaeological fieldwork with archival evidence (from censuses and similar records) to pin down the rhythms of settlement abandonment on Kythera.

After an introduction explaining the volume’s history and situating it contents within village research, the volume is divided into two halves: “Abandonment in the Archaeological Record” (chaps. 1–4) and “Abandonment in the Recent Past” (chaps. 5–9). The difference is not only one of chronology and method but also of analysis and causality, since the abandonments in the second part are primarily driven by familiar modern macroeconomic trends whereas the archaeological case studies tend to be more contingent, particularist, and resistant to monocausal explanations.

The nine chapters (titles and authors may be found in the table of contents at the end of this review) are hefty; while some are richer than others, all are well worth reading. The first chapter is about Çadır Höyük in central Anatolia. It uses “resilience theory” to look at how the site—or really one building complex at the site—experienced changing patterns of occupation and abandonment from the late Roman to the end of the Byzantine period. Turning to Greek villages and landscapes abandoned in the early modern period, chapters two through four look at Anavatos on Chios, the island of Kythera, and the Mani peninsula. As mentioned above, Vassi’s chapter is incredibly helpful for visualizing the compact, labyrinthine medieval Greek fortified village, and I would also single out Seifried’s chapter on abandoned stone structures and settlements in the Mani (or Palaiomaniatika) as especially impressive. Drawing on her 2016 doctoral thesis, Seifried succinctly presents what (relatively little) can be confidently asserted about the chronology and nature of these settlements and demonstrates that the settlements’ layout and (more surprisingly) the architectural features of individual houses are topographically conditioned (thus, for instance, houses in more defensible hilly locations tend to be built of thinner walls than those in the plains). Seifried closes with a laudable call for a true household archaeology of medieval and early modern Greece, also reviewing the intellectual, institutional, and logistical impediments to such inquiry.

The four Greece-based projects in chapters five through eight explore the recently abandoned settlements of Penteskouphi and Lakka Skoutara, both in the Corinthia; Chelmis and Koutsopoulou in the western Argolid, and Aigition in Aetolia; chapter nine turns to the town of Wheelock, North Dakota. Although the historical patterns of the Greek villages studied in this part are very broadly similar (with their occupation and exploitation abating as part of the general depopulation of the rural village since the 1950s) the chapters avoid repetitive because each focuses on a different aspect of the abandonment or study of deserted Greek villages: the close human-environment relationship and archaeological formation processes at Penteskouphi, a long-term perspective on abandonment as a cultural process at Lakka Skoutara, changing patterns of connectivity in the western Argolid, and architectural study and documentation at Aigition. None of these chapters report on excavation, since they grew out of field survey projects (or, in the case of the lovely chapter by Sanders, Yoo, and Sanders, out of long-term residence in Corinth), and each displays a flexible approach to data collection and analysis, all drawing to some degree on both survey and local informants to understand the patterns of desuetude at each site. Chapter eight includes a thorough account of the history of study of Greek villages, which could helpfully be read following the volume’s overall introduction. In short, this quartet of chapters is now essential for thinking about the material dimension of settlement abatement in the late modern Greek countryside, especially at the level of the individual landholding.

Finally, the Wheelock chapter most explicitly situates its topic within an economic matrix: the authors argue that Wheelock was essentially a creation of the railroad that would never have organically developed on its own; its population has been all but completely tied to cycles of resource extraction in the upper Great Plains, including the 2010s boom. The chapter flirts with affect theory to suggest alternate ways of thinking about temporary and “abnormal” habitation in ways that retroactively color the different approaches of the other chapters. While it is clearly out of place in some ways, I found this chapter to be stimulating as well as unsettling. If the key fantasy behind certain attitudes towards the traditional village is that of a pristine, timeless harmony between man and nature (an agrarian ideology that must be greeted with critique), Wheelock rudely shakes one out of the reverie. Created and discarded by the flux of economic forces, neither its occupation nor its abandonment seems particularly susceptible to the kind of valuation that some authors readily reach for in other cases.

One theme running through the book is that occupation and abandonment are not a simple binary but a continuum along which a given settlement might oscillate; it is better to speak of intensification and abatement than to imagine a light switch flipping on and off. While seemingly quite obvious as an abstract point, such fluidity and contingency are not necessarily easy to see in practice, nor do they mean that single events cannot have a major impact or that structure fully prevails over agency. The fortunes of war and natural disasters intersect with evolving demographic patterns and economic strategies in a complex fashion that archaeology can sometimes highlight in ways inaccessible to textual history. Abandonment is rarely more than partial and, in any case, can be seen as positive once understood as a “resilient” response to a changing world.

Even as it stretches out towards these grand issues, though, I was struck by how archaeology emerges in this volume as a discipline haunted by its material basis, generated by specific people and actions, concretized in a sequence of largely mundane objects: a broken cooking pot, a blocked-up doorway, a sheepfold sheltering unburied bodies. Neither the proverbial handmaiden of history nor an unerring guide to economic and social structures over the longue durée, the archaeological record is a fragmented and partial product of natural processes that by turns destroy, transform, and preserve the traces of innumerable minor and often insignificant human actions. Indeed, some chapters prompt questions about how much archaeological evidence can actually “elucidat[e] what is missing or misrepresented” (1) in other grand narratives about abandonment. The idea of intermittent or seasonal habitation, for instance, has been around for a long time, yet the sparse archaeological record (whether from excavation or survey) cannot always allow researchers to distinguish between a site occupied periodically, seasonally, or permanently; and simply learning that some people continue to live in some houses for some of the time even after most people leave a settlement is not really a surprise.

Thus, the most illuminating arguments, I found, flow out of the intersection of several kinds of evidence and the best chapters are those nurtured by long engagement with the sites and landscapes in question: some chapters report on research undertaken over many years and can thus delineate specific family properties, strategies of partition and inheritance, the intersection of economic rationality, affect, and curation, and changing patterns of site use over nearly twenty years. Whether from living informants or Ottoman tax records, “non-archaeological” data turns out to be essential to constructing fuller narratives of rural life than those visible from finds analysis, architectural study, or regional approaches alone. At the same time, the archaeological eye contributes enormously to even those chapters that are most able to draw on oral information, for instance in noting a sprig of rue nestled between doorframe and wall at Penteskouphi (p. 228), exploring the psychic implications of divided living spaces (pp. 362–63), or interpreting the semiotics of mixed fieldstones and cinderblocks in rebuilt houses (pp. 291–95).

Indeed, several chapters offer a blueprint for small-scale archaeological fieldwork in Greece that can bring genuinely new data and perspectives to the table without massive financial and logistical investment (I would single out chapters 4, 5, and 6 as especially inspirational in this regard). Additionally, a pedagogical dimension is key to several chapters, particularly 5 and 8: Penteskouphi will be familiar to many alumni of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, while the Aigition or Lidoriki project takes up the mantle of training students in several disciplinary traditions (the American and Greek students who participated are listed at pp. 356–57). Yet another strength of the volume is that most chapters generously reference Greek-language scholarship, which will help orient future researchers to an important corpus of work that tends to be under-utilized by western European and American scholars.

In short, then, the papers of this volume are individually rich presentations of their authors’ fieldwork, and they form a brilliantly edited collection. The volume is now key reading for those trying to understand the seemingly abandoned contemporary Greek countryside and the changing rhythms of rural life during the past century or two.[1] Those whose focus remains on Greek antiquity rather than the postclassical will also learn a great deal, particularly if they are also willing to think analogically about the lifecycle of archaeological sites. Anyone interested in the Greek past should read it.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Deborah E. Brown Stewart and Rebecca M. Seifried (1–23)

Part I: Abandonment in the Archaeological Record
1. Positive Abandonment: The Case from Çadır Höyük / Marica Cassis and Anthony Lauricella (27–66)
2. The Deserted Village of Anavatos on the Island of Chios, Greece / Olga Vassi (67–99)
3. Ayios Dimitrios (Paliochora) and Georgadika in Kythera: Abandoned Settlements in a Historically Abandoned Environment / Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory and Timothy E. Gregory (101–51)
4. The Stone-Built Palaiomaniatika of the Mani Peninsula, Greece / Rebecca M. Seifried (153–205)

Part II: Abandonment in the Recent Past
5. Landscapes of Home and Thereafter: The Condition, Educational Potential, and Natural Environment of Penteskouphi Hamlet / Isabel Sanders, Miyon Yoo, and Guy D. R. Sanders (209–68)
6. Life in Abandonment: The Village of Lakka Skoutara, Corinthia / David K. Pettegrew and William R. Caraher (269–317)
7. Roads, Routes, and Abandoned Villages in the Western Argolid / William R. Caraher, Dimitri Nakassis, and Ioanna Antoniadou (319–46)
8. Drones and Stones: Mapping Deserted Villages in Lidoriki, Greece / Todd Brenningmeyer, Kostis Kourelis, and Miltiadis Katsaros (347–88)
9. Wheelock, North Dakota: “Ghost-Towns,” Man Camps, and Hyperabundance in an Oil Boom / Richard Rothaus, William R. Caraher, Bret Weber, and Kostis Kourelis (389–419)

Notes

[1] Many works coming out of the scholarly lineages described in the opening paragraph are cited throughout Deserted Villages. Just a few of the most important—at least to this reviewer’s mind—are Christopher Mee and Hamish Forbes, eds., A Rough and Rocky Place: The Landscape and Settlement History of the Methana Peninsula, Greece (Liverpool, 1997), Susan Buck Sutton, ed., Contingent Countryside: Settlement, Economy, and Land Use in the Southern Argolid Since 1700 (Stanford, 2000), Hamish Forbes, Meaning and Identity in a Greek Landscape: An Archaeological Ethnography (Cambridge, 2007), Sharon Gerstel, Rural Lives and Landscapes in Late Byzantium: Art, Archaeology and Ethnography (Cambridge, 2015), Sharon Gerstel, ed., “Perspectives on the Greek Village,” special issue of Journal of Modern Greek Studies (38.1, 2020) and—last but not least—previous publications by a number of the contributors to Deserted Villages.

Note that Deserted Villages is available both as a printed book and an open-access PDF; those reading in print will want to consult the PDF as well, as the color illustrations become a rather mushy greyscale in the printed version. (I noticed only one or two typos; a more significant editorial problem in my copy, whereby a few sentences dropped out between pp. 245 and 246, has now been corrected on the PDF and should not appear in copies printed on demand in the future.)

Discussion

1. Inasmuch as many of the authors emphasize the contingency and complexity of abandonment, I found it interesting that the volume didn’t include a chapter on resettlement of or the return to once-deserted villages. In general, neither Greece’s growing authenticity tourism industry (the massive AirBnBification of the “traditional stone house” out in the countryside, the appearance of agriturismi, etc.) nor other intentional attempts to resuscitate and/or preserve village populations play a big role in the book. Given the power of modern economic phenomena like urbanization, emigration, and so on to reshape the traditional countryside, does archaeology have anything to contribute to understanding why and how some villages do nevertheless endure or experience a reintensification of settlement?

The first question here is really “Why doesn’t this book talk about rural resettlement and/or tourism?” This is undoubtedly an area that deserves exploration, so I’m grateful for the chance to highlight how this book came to be. Most of the chapters were contributed by members of the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology Interest Group (MAPMA) of the Archaeological Institute of America, where the colloquia that inspired the volume were held. Thus, the book reflects the interests of particular scholars who, by and large, have focused their work on still-abandoned villages, rather than villages that have been permanently reinhabited or made into tourist destinations. As to the second question, I have no doubt that archaeology can help us understand the phenomenon of “reverted” villages (as opposed to “deserted” villages), particularly through a blending of the archaeology of the contemporary era and the archaeology of tourism. I would add that, in my experience, deserted villages aren’t experiencing a “reintensification of settlement” so much as a further absorption into the increasingly urbanized global world. Converting ruined towers into luxury villages with infinity pools doesn’t bring about permanent settlement or a return to traditional ways of life, but rather enables urbanized life to continue by offering urban dwellers a temporary respite from the realities of day-to-day city life. Why some villages become sites of tourism and others don’t is precisely the kind of question that archaeologists can investigate (particularly in concert with historians and ethnographers). At the macro scale, factors to explore could include the cost of living in urban centers, generational access to capital, availability of services in the countryside, and so on; while at the local scale, property ownership and a family’s particular financial circumstances would be more important determinants.

2. I usually associate archaeological fieldwork, at least in Greece, with a lengthy, risky, and expensive process of planning, fundraising, applying for permits, and making logistical adjustments on the fly. I liked how some chapters in Deserted Villages illustrate how a small team (or even just one researcher) can devise and pull off really cool and impactful fieldwork that is almost DIY—it doesn’t require excavation or huge grants. Was this one of the goals of publishing these colloquium papers in book form? What other audience impacts did you have in mind when you decided to publish these pieces of research in this format?

I wish I could say that our goal was to showcase the full potential of small-scale, humbly funded research projects. As more and more academics pursue alt-ac careers, projects that rely on big grants and institutional swagger are becoming harder for many scholars to actualize, and the examples in our book could provide a template for alternative approaches. It’s also worth pointing out that because post-medieval structures are often partially preserved above ground, it can be logistically possible to carry out a small architectural survey (without the need for a survey or excavation permit) where it would be impossible to do this for older sites. But, alas, our goal was more humble: to promote research on people and places in the eastern Mediterranean that have been largely overlooked by traditional academic scholarship. The chapters in this book deal exclusively with rural sites in the medieval and post-medieval eras, places that rarely (or to a limited extent) appeared in historical texts, so studying them means prioritizing the material record first and foremost. As a result, the kinds of research questions our authors ask are just as relevant to prehistoric archaeologists and archaeologists who work at non-urban sites. And yet, there isn’t really a natural home for publishing about these sites: the most “impactful” journals either have a too-narrow chronological focus or a preference for geographical regions elsewhere in the world. With this volume, we wanted to prioritize making the publication open-access and highly visible, with the hope of bringing research on post-antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean into closer dialogue with the fields of classical and historical archaeology. The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, with a track record of publishing well-designed, open-access digital books, was the ideal partner to work with to realize this goal.

3. This question is for Rebecca Seifried. Your chapter ends with a call for a household archaeology of abandoned rural villages in Greece, almost as if you view the research you have been able to perform to date as preparation for finally excavating some Palaiomaniatika. Could you say a bit about other research avenues you (or others) might pursue in the future—whether in the Mani itself or more generally in medieval household archaeology—if excavation itself remains out of the picture?

Indeed, the not-so-subtle message at the end of my chapter is that architecture and administrative documents can provide only so much insight into the day-to-day, lived experience of people in the past. To even begin exploring questions about household-scale social interaction, economic processes, the gendering of space, and so on, excavation is the logical tool to use. But my call to household archaeology reflects a desire to ask more specific questions about specific sites, and I appreciate the invitation to think more broadly for a moment. In the last decade, we’ve seen game-changing technological advances in the realms of photogrammetry, lidar-based elevation modeling, and computer vision, all of which could be fruitfully applied to the study of medieval and later archaeological sites. Several of the chapters in this book involved studying the same structures over time, observing them as they succumbed in postabandoment to various natural processes. Supplementing this qualitative approach, photogrammetry could be used to create highly detailed 3D models of a given structure during repeat site visits, with the goal of using image-to-image change detection to more accurately and more precisely understand how abandoned structures change over time. At the landscape scale, lidar—a technology that is becoming ever more affordable and accessible (albeit not quite yet in Greece)—can capture built structures above the earth’s surface in extraordinary detail, often on the order of 10 cm resolution. Computer vision approaches could automate the digitization of these features and, paired with interpretive approaches like historic landscape characterization, archaeologists could explore changes in agricultural practices at the regional scale over the past several centuries or even millennia.

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