Problematizing Peasants in the Corinthian Countryside

As readers of this blog know, David Pettegrew and I are working on a paper on peasants in the Corinthian countryside. We’ll give the paper at the 113th AIA/APA Joint Annual Meeting in early January in Philadelphia (or at least David will!) in a panel organized by Kim Bowes and Cam Grey.  I’ve been mulling ideas for the last few months and posting various bits and pieces here.

Today, I thought I’d post some fragments of an introduction and a case study.  It is important to note that this is a very early draft and that once David makes his contribution it is possible that the entire paper will look quite different. He gets the final say on content, organization, and problematique, since he is actually delivering the paper.


The term peasant presents a uniquely problematic opportunity for archaeologists.  The concept of a peasant derives from an understanding of the premodern economy which assumes that there must be individuals whose primary role in society is to produce agricultural surplus to support those who are not involved in food production. In this system, peasants rarely controlled or owned their own land, produced little capital, and tended to approach agricultural production through a series of highly-localized, risk-adverse, subsistence practices. In this admittedly broad definition, the peasant is a highly local manifestation of an generalized abstract category. They appear throughout the world and are central to Marxian interpretations of pre-modern economic systems.

The existence, then, of peasants as a diachronic, trans-national, ready-made analytical category has exerted an understandable attraction to archaeologists.  The most sophisticated study of the ancient Greek peasant is Thomas Gallant’s book, Risk and Survival in ancient Greece, where he unpacks the  potential for applying the peasant as an analytical category to the material culture of the ancient and medieval Mediterranean.

As with any analytical category, however, applying the concept of the peasant to the ancient world involves some widely recognized risks, some of which are particularly problematic in the history of ancient and modern Greece. For example, the temptation to apply diachronic comparisons between ancient and modern peasants is particularly fraught in Greece because such comparisons have played such an important role in arguments for a persistent Greek national identity. The Greek peasant stood both outside of time as the persistent locus of Greekness, or, in a more condescending view, the persistence of rural peasant in Greece marked it out as a nation unprepared for full integration into the modern global economy. In an effort to resolve the latter view, in particular, recent archaeological work in Greece has identified the peasant –  (ironically) both ancient and modern – as the dynamic creator of a “contingent countryside” and challenged any view of peasants that regarded their economic position as isolated, static, or persistent.

The challenge to understanding the presence of peasants in the Corinthian landscape, then, is as much a question of the value of the peasant as an analytical category (what exactly should a peasant look like?) as a question of understanding the material culture of Greek countryside. In short, we must determine what a peasant is at the same time as we identify the remains of a particular form of economic relationships and agricultural practices in the landscape.

Case Studies:

To make our assumptions clear, we might begin this challenge by looking at a rural settlement called Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern corner of the Corinthia. This settlement consists of over a dozen late 19th to early 20th century Balkan style long-houses scattered about a crossroad set in a mountain hollow some 7 km east of the major village of Sophiko and 5 km west of the small harbor at Korphos. By-passed by the modern roads in the area and filled with swarms of stinging bees and biting flies, this cluster of houses is neither historically significant nor unique in the region. The material signature of the late 19th and early 20th century activities at the site includes roof tiles, some fine wares, various utility and kitchen wares, as well as evidence for the primary production of agriculture such as large built alonia (threshing floors), numerous cisterns, and terrace walls. The terrace walls and alonia, at least one of which appears to predate the remains of the earliest visible house in the area, indicate that the grain production was the central concern for region. A small, single aisled church stands amidst the fields anchoring the place within the sacred topography of the region.  Today, the valley is filled with olive trees and the rapid expansion of pine forests has taken over terraced fields and shows the scars of resin production. Today, some of the houses serve as storage during olive harvest, rural getaways for older villagers, or stopping places for shepherds and their diminishing herds of goats; others slowly collapse.  Plastic containers, metal tools and drums, and fragments of ceramics occupy a complex landscape which straddles a practices that range from modern, subsidized cash farming to various levels of engagement with the local, regional, and even global economy.


Interviews with several individuals who lived and worked in Lakka Skoutara reveal the contingent character of the lakka. During times of difficulty – like World War 2 – the valley saw year around occupation. In other times, residents in the village of Sophiko resided in the valley when they worked the fields but lived most of the year in the village.  The assemblages associated with activities in the village offer little to distinguish between seasonal and full time habitation.  The long houses themselves could appear in a village or alone in the countryside. Even today, the sagging wooden roofs and splaying mud mortar walls are protected by assorted roof tiles of various dates, fabrics, places of production, and shapes. In other words, the evidence for peasants in the countryside conflates a series of past practices and reveals little in terms of the economic structures that define the category.


The problematized peasants of the modern landscape can cast a revealing shadow back on the countryside of the central Isthmus. Using similar methods to the survey of Lakka Skoutara, the survey of the central Isthmus revealed a similar cluster of activity around the so-called site of Cromna.  As we have argued elsewhere, this high density scatter of pottery across the central Isthmus represents a series of overlapping clusters of activity ranging in date from the Archaic to the Late Roman period…


So that’s where we are at the moment. We have around 1000 more words to think about the ancient peasant using the problematized model that we created for Lakka Skoutara. We’ve been reading our Eric Wolf on peasants (for proof) and reveling in our reading of James C. Scott (especially his brilliant Moral Economy of the Peasant and his The Art of Not Being Governed). How did I miss this stuff in graduate school? It has blown my mind.

Crossposted to the New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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