Corinthian Exceptionalism in Western Civ Textbooks

In the comments to my post last week on Athens, Sparta, and Corinth in Western Civilization texts, Dimitri Nakassis pressed me to say a little more about how Corinth has figured differently into western civ textbooks over time—how changing times have differently imaged Corinth.  Since western civ textbooks were traditionally conceived to provide the foundations and western values to a broader public, I also wondered what knowledge of Corinth students would have taken away at different points in time. 

If we consider where Corinth has entered the narrative of the civilizations of the west, the dozen texts I examined suggest a strong conservatism in how textbooks have discussed Corinth.  In order of greatest frequency:

  1. Commercial Power in Conflict with Athens in Classical Age (11 of 12 texbooks): 1939, 1947, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1983, 1986, 2002, 2007, 2012
  2. Conflict with Rome and destruction in 146 BC (6 of 12): 1939, 1947, 1967, 1969, 1970, 2007
  3. Advantageous Geography, Commercial Economy, and Significant Culture in Archaic and Classical age (5 of 12): 1939, 1947, 1967, 1973, 1986.  Example: Barnes 1947: Classical Corinth is, like Athens, unique in its highly commercialized economy in contrast with the “bucolic simplicity” and “cultural backwardness” of the other poleis.
  4. Important Role in Archaic Colonization (5 of 12): 1967, 1973, 2003, 2007, 2012

Corinth has been important to the overall narrative of western civ for four reasons, especially: 1) its commercial interests led to conflict with Athens, which led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War; 2) its conflict with Rome led to its destruction in 146 BC; 3) it had a developed commercial economy which gave it significant culture in the Archaic and Classical eras; and 4) Corinth was an important colonizer.  The first two have the most staying power—noted in texts from the 1930s to the present day.  The latter two are fairly diachronic although Corinth as a colonizer appears only from the 1960s. 

Corinth is noted inconsistently for other reasons as well.  For the Archaic and Classical age, Corinth appears in respect to Greek tyranny (1939, 2003, 2007), Greek culture (1947, 1973, 1986), early temples (2002, 2007), resistance to Persian war (1974), exceptional level of prostitution (1947), and pan-Hellenic games (1986).

After the 5th century, Corinth appears inconsistently in connection to the congress of Philip II in 337 BC (1939), refoundation as a Roman colony (1939, 2007), Clement’s letter to the Corinthians in the late 1st century AD (1967), as a flourishing city of the Roman Empire (1983), and Alaric’s destruction in 395 AD (1939).

What I found interesting about this general pattern is that:

  1. The pattern generally relates in some way to Corinthian exceptionalism—the idea, first clearly articulated in Thucydides, that geography (location on an Isthmus) made Corinth unique in its orientation to the seas and commerce.  Corinth mainly enters these introductory historical narratives in respect to its maritime and commercial aspects: colonization, commercial economy and power, and conflict with Rome.  Even some of the occasional and singular mentions—like tyranny, Greek culture, prostitution, flourishing Roman city—relate to this notion. 
  2. What textbooks note about Corinth is almost entirely based on a traditional narratives
  3. The modern archaeological investigation has had almost zero influence on the traditional narrative. 
  4. Even modern histories have had little influence on the traditional narrative.  Cole et al. 2012, for example, note that Corinth’s great location but impoverished land encouraged them to the seas!  (contrast with Salmon 1984). 
  5. Corinth as a Roman city, or an Christian city (e.g., apostle Paul’s early Christian missions) is undeveloped despite the enormous modern scholarship on the subject. 

What is noted about Corinth in western civ texts, then, is mainly out of sorts with

Two other interesting patterns to note: 

First, western civ texts conclude that Corinth’s commercial interests were directly responsible for the outbreak of hostility.  As early as Watts 1939 and Barnes 1947, Corinth’s advanced economic position set it against the other major commercial player, Athens.  Threatened by the growth of Athenian power, the Corinthians persuade (a sometimes reluctant) Sparta to go to war with Athens.  This narrative remains constant with the exception of Kagan et al. 2002, who describe an Athens threatened by Corinthian intervention in the affairs of the Corcyraeans.

Second, assessments of Corinth’s destruction in 146 BC reflect changing historiographic assessments of Roman imperialism:

Barnes 1947, 157, for example, describes Corinth as an exception to the beneficial results of Roman expansion (157):

“Aside from the financial exploitation incident to Roman imperial administration, the Roman conquest of the entire Mediterranean world in some ways benefited the entire regional economically. Once the political supremacy of Rome was established, the pirates who had preyed up on commerce were slowly wiped out, and the Mediterranean was more efficiently policed. Pompey finished the task of clearing away the pirates. With the exception of the treatment afforded to Carthage and Corinth, which were senselessly destroyed, the commercial policy of Rome toward conquered regions was liberal.”

Hayes 1967, 33, on the other hand, advances the classic line of defensive imperialism.  Corinth and Carthage were Rome’s case studies of the futility of resistance:

“Dominion over the central and western Mediterranean made Rome an imperial power which, to protect itself, felt obliged to oppose any other Mediterranean state whose strength rivaled its own. Thus, expansion led to further conquest until the entire Mediterranean world was brought under Roman domination. A pretext for intervention in the eastern Mediterranean arose shortly after the fall of Carthage…Moreover, after a league of Greek cities which had taken up arms had been crushed, as though to teach the Greeks a lesson comparable to that of Carthage, Corinth was burned (146 B.C.) and thousands of Greeks sent to Rome as slaves. The city-state of Rome was henceforth mistress of the entire Mediterranean basin.”

Stromberg 1969, 54 is less kind in his description of an aggressive imperialism:

“The recipe for success the Romans used in building an empire appears to have been one that combined ruthlessness with mildness…Corinth was another city wiped off the face of the earth, an unpleasant habit the Romans formed in dealing with a troublesome enemy or rebel.” (54)

Easton 1970, 114, 137, draws attention to Rome’s role as arbiter in Greek affairs.  The Romans were drawn in reluctantly:

“The Romans, who had been loath to annex any part of Greece and had, indeed, in 196 B.C. solemnly proclaimed the independence of all the Greek city-states, found that they could not avoid interfering in Greek affairs.  The Greek leagues…were constantly quarreling with one another, and one or the other would appeal to Rome to settle their quarrels. In the end the Romans felt they had no option but to subject Macedon and Greece to their rule. In 146 B.C. they sacked and destroyed Corinth, the most important commercial city of Greece. By this time there were enough Romans with a vested interest in imperial expansion to override the views of those senators opposed to it, and thereafter the empire was expanded in accordance with their wishes, often without any excuse save the fact that they possessed the necessary power.”

Likewise, Kishlansky et al. 2007, 79, depict the Romans not so much as aggressive imperialists but drawn into conflict.  “Gradually, the Roman shadow fell over the eastern Mediterranean.”

All of these examples demonstrated well the point of our symposium session on the transforming book—that interpretation in foundational textbook narratives change significantly over time.  But what perhaps surprised me more was a recognition of how traditional western civ textbooks have been in rehashing the same ground (Corinthian exceptionalism, the Peloponnesian War) without incorporating major advances and changes in modern scholarship more generally. 

More on Sicyonia, fortifications, and Late Antiquity

I’ve continued to work my way through Y. Lolos’s massive tome, Land of Sicyon. Hesperia Supplement 39 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies, 2011) this weekend while waiting for the rain delayed Daytona 500.  I posted the first part of my review a couple of weeks ago and, so, I suppose this is part two.

There are three areas, in particular, which attracted my interest:

1. Rural Fortifications. As I noted two weeks ago, there remains significant work to be done on the rural fortifications of the Peloponnesus, and Lolos’s book does its part by documenting a significant number of undocumented or poorly documented fortified sites in the countryside. Of particular interest to me were the irregular fortifications at Kokkinovrachos (pp. 234-240)and the round towers at Profetes Elias hill (p. 231) and at Tsakouthi (pp.  240-244) which my colleagues and I reference in a 2010 Hesperia article. While the Kokkinovrachos fortification is much larger than our fortification overlooking Vayia in the southwestern Corinthia, they share the same irregular masonry and both combine a fortification with a free standing tower. Lolos argues that this fortification occupied a height with good views of the crucial intersection between Stymphalos, Phlious, Acrocorinth, and the Sikyonian sites of Titane and Thyamia. Maintaining a substantial stronghold on this hill allowed Sikyonian forces to command several significant routes into the city.

The round tower at Tsakouthi resembled closely the round tower at Lychnari in the Corinthia. Lolos suggested that the upper course of the tower at Tsakouthi were likely mud brick, and this construction, in fact, combined with the towers round shape would have made the tower less vulnerable to artillery blows from forces passing on the nearby road. Our tower at Lychnari may have also had a mud brick superstructure, although there is a sufficient stone in the area to allow for a stone tower of significant height. The smaller and poorly preserved round tower at Profetes Elias may be a good parallel for the smaller tower at the site of Ano Vayia.

The explanations for building a round tower as opposed to a square or orthogonal tower has never entirely satisfied me. It seems to me that a round tower would entail a significant increase in technical difficulty as each block had to be cut or at least trimmed to match either the interior or exterior diameter of the tower. (Blocks in square towers could fit in numerous different positions.)  While it seems likely the round towers were less susceptible to damage by artillery which would only ever inflict a glancing blow, the towers at Lychnari and Ano Vayia (and at Lolos’s Profetes Elias) do not seem close enough to major roads to make the additional work necessary. Moreover, there are numerous towers very close to major roads which are square or rectangular in plan.

Finally, Lolos contributes little the on going discussions of rural fortifications and land use. In fact, Lolos seems to be content suggesting that the fortification of Sikyonia primary served to allow the city to communicate with and deploy forces to across its hinterland. This may be the case, but for fortifications like the round tower at Tsakouthi, it seems like we should at least entertain the possibility that the tower was part of a agricultural complex serving the valley its overlooks.

2. The Late Roman Boom. Like most region in the Eastern Mediterranean, Lolos’s Sikyonia saw a boom in settlement and sits during the Late Roman times. The number of new sites is truly remarkable with over 60 site with Late Roman material and only 23 having material from immediately earlier periods.  While the extensive nature of Lolos’s survey which did not sample his study area in a systematic way, makes it difficult to determine whether this pattern he identified would survive a more rigorous sampling regimen, it is nevertheless consistent with findings published from the Eastern Corinthia, for example, which documented the Late Roman period as time of particular prosperity.

Of particular note is Lolos’s documenting of several previous overlooked or under documented Early Christian churches including a “Early Byzantine Church” at the site of Litharia you Rakka of Poulitsa. The rather small number of Early Byzantine churches in the Peloponnesus alone makes this structure worth additional consideration. The presence of rural church apparently situated apart from significant settlements appears increasingly to be a feature of Late Roman Greece. Lolos’s argument that the site of Klisi-Boukoura of Stylia might be a monastic foundation based on its size of over 3,000 sq. m. This would be rather unprecedented in the Peloponnesus in Late Antiquity, but does show how many significant interpretative gaps exist in our knowledge of the Early Christian landscape. Recent work in the Eastern Corinthia has shown that even in the hinterland of a major city, rural churches remain undocumented.

3. Diachronic Survey. Finally, one of the most interesting parts of Lolos’s book is his commitment to treating the history of Sikyonia in a diachronic fashion. He not only includes discussions of the Venetian period census record, but also of Medieval, Ottoman, and Early Modern period sites. This includes a brief comment on zevgolateio which are groups of kalyvia, or modest, seasonal dwellings, that form a small hamlet (p. 365). From his short remarks, it would seem that the settlement at Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia which my colleagues and I are now bringing to publication, represents a zevgolateio. The illustrations that he provides of the interior of a season dwelling coincide closely with those found in Lakka Skoutara, which is unsurprising, of course, considering the geographic proximity and similar ethnic make up of the populations.

I have a bit more to read and process from this rich, closely edited, and significant work, and I expect that I’ll provide some final words on the book in the coming weeks.

Crossposted to The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World.

On-site and off-site at Pyla-Koustopetria: A Response to Chris Cloke’s Interpreting Ceramic Assemblages

Last week Chris Cloke generously shared some of his work with the pottery from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project over at Corinthian Matters in a three part post. In a nutshell, he argued that there was evidence for manuring during Late Antiquity.

It’s a busy week, but I wanted to follow up on his suggestion that PKAP present some of its data to see whether we could detect similar trends. Our work at Pyla-Koustopetria, of course, is rather different in scope than the work of the NVAP. We focused on one, mid-sized, site rather than an entire region. Moreover, by Late Antiquity the built up area of our study area appears to have been rather large in relation to our overall study area.

Nevertheless, there is reason to think that the northern reaches of our study amount to an off-site zone. The distribution of tiles, for example, suggests that only the coastal zone of our study area had tiled buildings. (The tiny numbers in each unit represent the total number of Late Roman artifacts from each unit.)


Moreover, the distribution of fine and kitchen wares, most frequently associated with domestic activities appear to be concentrated in similar area.


In contrast, the distribution of coarse and utility wares, like amphora, extends of a much larger percentage of the study area.


Judging by these maps, it would appear that the northern part of our study area which comprised the coastal plateaus of Mavrospilos/Kazamas and Kokkinokremos saw a functionally different kind of activity than the coastal area. Cloke has suggested that the prevalence of less diagnostic sherds – and coarse and utility wares are almost be definition less diagnostic than fine and kitchen wares – might represent material scattered through manuring.

Cloke argue, however, that this is a product of smaller sherd size rather than a specific functional difference, and compares the percentages of diagnostic pottery from both on-site and off-site transects to demonstrate that similar proportions of diagnostic ceramics appear in both ceramics. Clearly, this pattern does not appear in the PKAP data.

Moreover, it does not appear that the average weight of the sherds varied in a consistent way across the PKAP study area.


The map above shows the average weight of Late Roman sherds (excluding tiles) across the study area. It is possible to imagine a slightly higher average sherd weight for the coastal units immediately below the height of Vigla in the left-center of the map, and a slightly lower average sherd weight for the material scattered to the north on the Mavrospilos/Kazamas plateau.

While this is slightly suggestive, I wonder, vaguely, whether this has something to do with the greater soil depth on coastal plain that “protects” sherds more. The plateau units tend to have thin soils with patches of exposed bedrock. This seems like a far more hostile environment for sherds and may have accounted for why they are more poorly preserved. In other words, the condition of the sherds has much more to do with post-depositional processes than how they were deposited.

I expect that David Pettegrew – the expert on survey site formation processes – might have some observations.

Crossposted to New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World.

Athens, Sparta, and Corinth in Western Civilization Texts

Every February, the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah College—where I teach—sponsors a symposium devoted to discussing a theme broadly relevant to faculty and student interest.  In the past, the center has sponsored themes on the subjects of culture and community, the two Americas, imagination, memory, and friendship, among others.  This year’s theme is “The Transforming Book”; our keynote speaker will be Anthony Grafton, former president of the AHA

The historians at our school are contributing to the symposium by organizing a session on the transformation of textbooks in our respective areas.  Each of us will take a few minutes this evening to discuss how textbook narratives and focal points have changed in American history, European history, and world history.  As these textbooks represent summary digests of narratives deemed important for the history of America, the world, and the west, the panel should be an interesting one.

I took this as an opportunity to consider how Corinth has factored (historically) into narratives of the Greek polis in Western Civilization textbooks from the 1930s to today.  I looked briefly at about a dozen texts that I could easily borrow via ILL or happened to own.  Arranged chronologically, they include:

  • 1. Arthur P. Watts, A History of Western Civilization, Volume I, New York 1939 (Prentice-Hall)
  • 2. Harry Elmer Barnes, A Survey of Western Civilization, New York 1947 (Thomas Y. Cromwell Company)
  • 3. Carolton J.H. Hayes, Marshall Whithed Baldwin, and Charles Woolsey Cole, History of Western Civilization, 2nd Edition, New York 1967 (The Macmillan Company)
  • 4. Roland N. Stromberg, A History of Western Civilization, Revised edition, Homewood, IL 1969 (The Dorsey Press)
  • 5. Steward C. Easton, The Heritage of Western Civilization to 1715, 2nd edition, New York 1970 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc)
  • 6. Edward McNall Burns, Western Civilizations: Their History and their culture, Vol. 1, Eighth Edition, New York 1973 (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • 7. Mortimer Chambers, Raymond Grew, David Herlihy, Theodore K. Rabb, and Isser Woloch, The Western Experience to 1715, New York 1974 (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • 8. John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler, A History of Western Society, 2nd edition, Boston 1983 (Houghton Mifflin Company)
  • 9. Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage, Brief Edition, Vol. 1: To 1715, Third edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ 2002 (Prentice Hall)
  • 10. Jackson L. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, Volume 1: To 1715, Fifth Edition, 2003 (Thomson Wadsworth)
  • 11. Mark Kishlansky, Patrick Geary, and Patricia O’Brien, A Brief History of Western Civilization: The Unfinished Legacy, Vol. 1: To 1715, Fifth Edition, New York 2007 (Pearson Longman)
  • 12. Joshua Cole, Carol Symes, Judith Coffin, and Robert Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History & Their culture, Brief Third Edition, Volume 1, New York 2012 (W.W. Norton & Company)

The problem with my approach, of course, is that textbooks are continually updated and few libraries hold on to outdated textbooks.  It is consequently hard to know whether a textbook’s fifth edition discusses a city like Corinth in a similar or different manner than a first edition.  Nonetheless, the results seem to show interesting patterns.

It was hardly surprising that Western Civilization textbooks written to establish the fundamentals of western society would focus on Athens over Corinth and Sparta.  Given Athens’ historic associations with democracy, philosophy, and the arts, most writers have devoted the most space to Athens.  That said, I was surprised to see these assumptions explicitly stated by author #1 (Watts 1939) (pp. 54-55):

“The Greeks were essentially the founders of European civilization… Between 500 and 338 B.C. all the Greek achievements in thought, literature, and art took place in one city: Athens. During the same period the Thebans, Spartans, and Corinthians distinguished themselves mainly by their stupidity.”

And I was equally surprised when I read in author #2 (Barnes 1947, p. 98 & 114):

“For a long time it was held: (1) that the Greeks were a pure race; (2) that all the Greeks were highly civilized; and (3) that they were biologically far superior to other historical persons…Such fantastic views have now been completely abandoned by historians and anthropologists.  The Greeks were a highly mixed race. Only a very few of the historical Greeks, chiefly in Attica and Corinth, ever achieved high civilization. Most of them, like the Boeotians and Arcadians, were culturally backward. And there is not the slightest evidence that even the Attic Greeks were biologically superior to the other peoples of the West in either ancient or modern times….This bucolic simplicity may have produced great soldiers, but it was not conducive to the creation of a great culture, and this accounts for the cultural backwardness of most of the Greek city-states.”

Watts and Barnes were forthright in what other early textbook authors may themselves have held.  Both display a strong bias to Athens – Corinth happens to make an entrance in Barnes’ text because of its commercial reputation.

But the bias to Athens is most obvious from the changing relative proportion of text devoted to the institutions and history of different Greek poleis.  The following shows the pages devoted to discussions of institutions and culture of Athens, Sparta, and other cities (in the case of the last two) in western civilization textbooks: 

  • Watts 1939: Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (14 pages on institution + 5 pages on culture and arts = 19 total pages)
  • Barnes 1947:  Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (2 + 10 = 12 pages)
  • Hayes, Baldwin, and Cole 1967: Sparta (1/4 page) vs. Athens (1 + 2 = 3 pages)
  • Stromberg 1969: thematic discussion on Greek science, art, philosophy, rationalism, focusing mainly on Athens.
  • Easton 1970: Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (2 + 15 = 17 pages)
  • Burns 1973: Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (2 + 4 = 6 pages)
  • Chambers, Grew, Herlihy, Rabb, and Woloch 1974: Sparta (1.5 pages) vs. Athens (5 + 6 = 11 pages)
  • McKay, Hill, and Buckler 1983: Sparta (1 page) vs. Athens (2 + 8 = 10 pages)
  • Kagan, Ozment, and Turner 2002: Sparta (1 page) vs. Athens (1.5 + 4 = 5.5 pages)
  • Spielvogel 2003: Sparta (1 page) vs. Athens (1 + 4 = 5 pages)
  • Kishlansky, Geary, and O’Brien 2007: Sparta (1.5 pages) vs. Athens (1.25 + 5.5 = 6.75 pages) vs. Corinth (1 page)
  • Cole, Symes, Coffin, and Stacey 2012: Sparta (1.25 pages) vs. Athens (1 + 3 = 4 pages) vs. Miletus (.75 page)

The figures show that while Athens has always stolen the show in textbook chapters on Archaic and Classical Greece, it has stolen much less of the show in the last three decadesBetween the 1930s and early 1970s, the proportion of text devoted to Sparta vs. Athens was typically between 1:6 and 1:10.  But since the early 70s, that relative proportion has more typically been in the order of 1:3 to 1:6.  Authors of western civilization textbooks have recently devoted much less space to Athenian history and culture compared to a discussion of Greek culture more broadly. 

The other interesting pattern in those figures is the 2-polis vs. 3-polis model.  For most of the 20th century, the only two poleis that mattered were Athens and Sparta.  The latter was important because it was impossible to understand Athens without understanding Sparta (thanks to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian Wars).  The real focus was on Athens.  Gradually, though, authors carved out more space for the political institutions of Sparta, eventually giving equal space to Athenian and Spartan political development. 

Other poleis entered the picture only as tangents.  Despite a strong textual tradition for Archaic and Classical Corinth, and scattered archaeological evidence, Corinth was important to the narrative in so far as it helped explain Greek colonization, the relationship between commercial wealth and tyranny, and especially the Peloponnesian War—the growth of Athenian commercial interests in the west (Sicily, S. Italy) threatened Corinth’s commercial interests and led to the outbreak of hostilities.

Only from the early 1970s did Corinth receive a more detailed treatment.  Burns 1973, for example, notes that “Corinth and Argos were leaders in the development of literature and the arts” (contrast with Watts 1939).  Others describe Corinth as an important city of AR and CL Greece.

In the 1990s, the first edition of Kishlansky, Geary, and O’Brien devoted an entire page to Corinth in a section titled “A Tale of Three Cities.”  Their description covers the traditional points—tyranny and oligarchy at Corinth, temple construction, colonization—but also brings in archaeological evidence from trade (Corinthian pottery in the west) and local excavations (building projects and Periander’s diolkos).

Kishlansky et al., however, are the exception rather than the rule.  This text shows that Corinth can potentially be an interesting case study in the Archaic and Classical polis.  As it turns out, though, Corinth makes its debut just before the entire textbook industry itself undergoes fragmentation and dissolution. 

Corinth appears in one other context in these western civ textbooks – the Roman conquest of Greece – which I’ll consider tomorrow.

A Working Paper on Lakka Skoutara in the Corinthia

With the recent preliminary publication of the work by the SHARP team at the site of Kalamianos in the southeastern Corinthia, it seemed like a good opportunity for David Pettegrew, Tim Gregory, Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory and I to dust off a long-in-progress manuscript dealing with the site of Lakka Skoutara.

This paper is still very much in-progress, but we have drawn upon it for a paper at the 2010 Modern Greek Studies Association Meeting and at the 2012 Archaeological Institute of America meeting. We have also made available our photographic archive from our work at this site.

With the growing interest in this particular section of the Corinthia, we thought it would be a good idea to get throw our ideas into the mix and get the history of this “small world” into the conversation.

We’ll undoubtedly revise this draft over the next year or so and keep an updated draft available. Over the past couple of weeks, David Pettegrew (the editor of Corinthian Matters) and I have talked about making Corinthian Matters a destination for working papers on … Corinthian Matters. The idea of working papers has strong roots in the hard and social sciences where researchers regularly circulate papers prior to publication. It also provides a way to make research available that escapes from pay-walls and other ways that corporations looks to profit from faculty research.  If you have a working paper that you want people to see, drop David or me an email.

Cross-posted to New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

Even an Earthquake?


A close one for Corinth.  An earthquake of 4.5 just east of Kenchreai. 

This week has been a page out of a late antique chronicle.

“Sirmium was struck with lightning, which consumed the palace and the market-place. This was thought by persons versed in such occurrences to be an omen of evil to public affairs. Earthquakes likewise happened in many places. Crete was very much shaken, as was likewise the Peloponnese, and all Greece, many places being destroyed; indeed, almost all were overturned.”

Interpreting Ceramic Assemblages from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project

Chris Cloke concludes his three-part series today on patterns of settlement and land use in the Nemea Valley.  If you missed the first two, start by reading Part 1 and Part 2Part 1 defines “site” and “off-site” (or “tract”) in terms of NVAP procedure.

In today’s final post on the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP), I’ll be looking at a final component of the finds – the variety of the types of ceramic vessels present in the sample – to assess what this can tell us about the differences between finds from documented sites and those from survey tracts.

A fuller picture begins to emerge when we look at the functional classes of pottery making up these assemblages. For the Classical period, as well as the Archaic and Hellenistic periods preceding and following, there is a clear and consistent functional shift between on-site and off-site ceramic finds:


While less well-represented functional classes – food preparation (various cooking pots) and table service (pouring and serving vessels) – are proportionally similar on and off sites (tracts), there is an inverse relationship between drinking and dining vessels (cups, plates, bowls, etc.) and household storage and utilitarian vessels (pithoi, jars, basins, mortaria, etc.). For the Archaic to Hellenistic periods, drinking and dining vessels made up easily the largest part (over 1/3) of site finds, while among off-site (tract) finds of the same periods this percentage sharply declines and is overtaken by a majority of household storage and utilitarian vessels (also over 1/3). Together with a higher percentage of amphoras among tract finds than at documented sites (a reversal of what one might expect), the predominance of household storage and utilitarian wares not only explains the heavier average weight of off-site sherds, but more importantly suggests that off-site material in these periods was not simply comprised of refuse from sites the survey located (which would produce comparable proportions of vessel types). Rather, this off-site tract material represents different types of activities going on away from places designated as “sites.”

In short, it seems that the tract finds for these periods are picking up traces of rural storage and domestic activities, indicative that many small rural foci of activity may have gone unrecognized by the survey during fieldwork. The idea that there are perhaps many unknown “sites” in the survey area is compatible with a picture of the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic countryside(s) characterized by dispersed small farms.

The Late Roman pottery, broken down by function, looks rather different:


The first notable trend is that the off-site (tract) material contains a high percentage of undetermined or unknown sherds (those too fragmentary to make confident identification of their original shape possible), due in large part to the many small, fragmentary sherds belonging to this period (the very thing we should expect from manuring-derived scatters).

Focusing on identifiable vessels, however, the basic proportions among on-site and off-site finds appear very similar:


The correlation of site and tract pottery in terms of function suggests that both “assemblages” of sherds recovered are products of a similar range of activities. Although we should also expect that the weights of sherds found on sites and those found in tracts would be similar, they are not; tract finds are less than half as heavy, on average, as site finds. That the on- and off-site finds of this period are, as a whole, similar in function, yet different in weight suggests the tract finds were derived from sites but underwent different depositional and/or post-depositional processes to get to where they were found. Given also that this material is found over a wide area and that densities (in terms of sherds per hectare) remain low even in the face of a spike in total sherd count during the Late Roman period, manuring seems a strong explanatory model for the observed patterns.

Granted, this type of analysis ideally must also take into account geomorphology and formation processes I have not discussed here, but by-and-large, I believe there are important differences in the artifacts themselves that speak to changes in farming methods and land use around Nemea.

The general pattern observed here is that, in pre-Roman periods “tracts” are concealing numerous small rural areas of activity, while in the Roman period, the “tract” material seems to have been derived from “sites” themselves. Although documented “sites” in the Early to Late Roman periods were few, landowners seem to have been intensive with their farming, manuring to gain better yields, and in the process seeding the fields with small bits of broken pottery and other refuse. There seem, generally, to be fewer and larger activity areas in the Roman period, indicating control of larger plots of land by fewer individuals or organizations centered in towns and at larger rural villas. Moreover, agents in just such a system could enable manuring more easily through mobilization of labor (something that was always a problem in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods). At the same time, changing policies of taxation, demanding, by the Late Roman period, payment in crops themselves encouraged farmers to get the most out of available land. Manuring and other practices aimed at increasing crop yields were therefore advantageous in such times.

While not every survey will be able to do something similar to this with data already collected (weighing sherds individually is not always standard practice, and is very time-consuming), David tells me that the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project (PKAP) has recorded finds in such a way as to enable this type of analysis (although the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Project, EKAS, has not). It will be interesting to see if similar or different patterns emerge in different locales. Manuring was not a strategy employed in all places at all times. Its implementation and success depended on local agrarian traditions, the soils and climates characterizing a locale, the types of crops being grown and their overall volume, and the ready availability of manure and other compostable waste (animal manure, for instance, was not easy to obtain in places where stock raising or transhumant pastoralism were not practiced).

I look forward to hearing David’s and others’ responses to this short case-study presented here this week. I hope also that there will be many future opportunities to synthesize and compare NVAP data with those of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) and other regional projects for the sake of enriching the picture of the Corinthia and its environs.

The Nemea Valley, Archaeological Survey, and Manuring

Chris Cloke continues his three-part series today on the interpretation of Greek and Roman artifact patterns in the Nemea Valley.  If you’re just joining in, start by reading Part 1


In this, the second of three posts looking at survey data from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP), I’ll be delving further into the world of manure and looking at ways in which survey finds can be used to examine past agricultural practices.

In the interest of minimizing the effort required by transporting manure from pits or heaps around farms, villages, and towns to the fields it was used to fertilize, it was prudent to remove any large intrusions (such as big potsherds) before this was attempted.  Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus (II.IV.1-8) offer anecdotal evidence that small bits of pottery abounded on heaps of manure. Likening an adulterous person to a pot, Epictetus allegedly remarked, “If you were a vessel so cracked that it was impossible to use you for anything, you would be cast forth upon the dunghills and even from there no one would pick you up.” Thus, scholars have assumed (and some have demonstrated through ethnographic work) that the sort of artifacts typically transported among manure tend to be small and light. So in the course of my work, I began recording the survey’s pottery in such a way as to test these assumptions about manure, its contents, and what this stuff might look like after the organic materials had long since decayed.

NVAP’s collection strategy was twofold: for intensive survey tracts (covering the totality of the walkable landscape) all sherds seen by fieldwalkers were counted. Those deemed to have any diagnostic properties (whether true diagnostics like vessel rims, or simply body sherds whose clay fabric might indicate what they were and when they were produced) were saved, studied, and stored in the Nemea Museum. When survey teams encountered “sites” (recognized by architectural or other clear remains, or set off by abnormal concentrations of artifactual material), more painstaking collection in grid squares or along transects was made, resulting in a fuller sampling of surface material.


Intensive survey tracts in the NVAP study area (C. Cloke).


Sites identified by NVAP (C. Cloke). Phlius is represented by the yellow dot at the upper left, while Mt. Foukas (ancient Mount Apesas) is at the upper right. The Nemea Valley is the light gray area in the center, and the modern highway from Corinth to Tripolis can be seen cutting across the lower half of the map.

By weighing each sherd found in the rural tracts walked by NVAP, I was able to observe patterns in the types of material found away from sites, and to compare these patterns to those of site finds. Artifacts found on sites are assumed to have been used and eventually discarded in the general vicinity of their findspots, while finds from tracts may have reached their current positions in a variety of ways, including through manuring. Thus, the expectation would be that, if manuring were taking place on any noteworthy scale, pot-sherds found away from sites would be, on average, lighter than the finds made at sites, because site finds would represent normal use and discard patterns, and tract finds (to some extent) would consist of the smaller bits of pottery not weeded out from manure before its use as fertilizer.

In general, the NVAP tract pottery for ancient historical periods (Archaic to Late Roman) has several peaks, as shown here (broken down first by total sherd count and then by cumulative weight):



The number of sherds found in tracts peaks clearly in the Late Roman period, but is also stronger than usual in the Classical period, an observation which is borne out in the breakdown by weight (wherein Classical pottery was the heaviest group as a whole).

When the average weights of sherds (that is the total weight per period divided by the total count) is compared on a period-by-period basis with the average weight of sherds found during on-site collection, a distinct difference between Roman and pre-Roman periods becomes clear:


While tract pottery of the Early, Middle and Late Roman periods (1st century BC to 7th century AD) is discernibly lighter than the on-site finds of the same periods, the opposite is true of earlier periods; in the Classical period in particular (5th to 4th centuries BC), tract pottery was slightly heavier on average than site pottery. In other words, during the Roman era around Nemea, bigger, heavier sherds were found on the surfaces of sites where pots were being used, while lighter, more broken-up sherds were common throughout the countryside.

Yet these types of patterns can be influenced by all manner of variables (frequency of fine vs. coarse wares among the sample, relative proportions of various sherd types – rim, handle, base, body-sherd – or changes in the classes of vessels represented – e.g., 10 sherds from large storage pithoi will weigh far more than 10 sherds from drinking cups). Thus, breaking these variables down on a period-by-period basis served as a means of checking this general pattern and of eliciting other important trends in the data.

In the interest of keeping these posts relatively brief, I’ll focus primarily on the Classical and Late Roman periods, when off-site finds peak.

One notable trend is that there was a higher proportion of coarse and very coarse Classical pottery found off-site than on-site. A preponderance of coarse wares goes some way toward explaining why off-site finds were slightly heavier, since coarser pottery is generally thick-walled and clunky.


Secondly, subdividing finds by sherd type not only reveals biases in the dataset in terms of what was recognized and collected in the field, but can also explain trends in weight data. Here are the average weights (based on all finds of ancient historical periods) for the different parts of pots:


Average Weight


53.09 grams


35.15 grams


27.79 grams

Body Sherd

22.29 grams

In short, rims tended to be the heaviest parts found, while body sherds were the lightest. When breaking the Classical material down by part, off-site finds differed from on-site finds in several ways:


For one thing, the tract finds of this period include a slightly higher percentage of rims (making them heavier), but they also have a higher percentage of body sherds (making them lighter on average). More handles than among site finds (heavy), and fewer bases (fairly light), make the Classical tract finds heavier on the whole.

Late Roman finds were coarser on-site than off…


… although the distinction between semi-coarse and coarse wares can be blurry. In both cases, there were very low percentages both of fine and of very coarse wares, which are the ones most likely to skew the data one way or the other.

The breakdown of Late Roman pottery by vessel parts is perhaps more interesting:


Tract finds contained fewer rims and more body sherds (skewing them lighter), but also more handles (skewing them back toward the heavier end). Yet the 35% of body sherds (the lightest category) among the Late Roman tract finds was lower than the 44% of body sherds among Classical tract finds (the peak in average weight for off-site ceramics!). Clearly, these breakdowns do not tell the whole story.

In part 3, tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the functional variety of these finds and begin to tie together these various patterns into a working explanation of the off-site survey finds.

Chris Cloke on Survey and Agriculture in the Nemea Valley

I was sorry to have missed Chris Cloke’s talk on the Nemea Valley at the recent meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.  He was kind enough to send me a draft of the paper which has got me thinking again about the human behaviors behind artifact scatters documented in archaeological survey.  Since Bill Caraher and I have recently been working on papers interpreting artifact scatters in the Eastern Korinthia and a large site in Cyprus, Chris’ paper has generated food for thought.

As Chris has undertaken some cutting-edge distributional survey analysis, I was delighted that he was willing to contribute an overview of his work here.  This three-part blog series discusses a component of his Ph.D. dissertation on a regional study of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project(NVAP).

For a little background, Chris Cloke is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, who has participated in fieldwork in Italy, Albania, Greece, Armenia, and Jordan and is broadly interested in Greek and Roman landscapes.  If you’re interested in reading more about his research in the Nemea Valley, check out p. 10 and 12 of the fall 2011 edition of Akoue (the newsletter of the ASCSA).  Chris’ essay starts here.


First of all, I’d like to thank David for offering me this space to share some of my research: I’m a great fan of David’s work and of this blog, and hope that presenting a few preliminary thoughts here over the next several days will further a productive dialogue about survey methodology and interpretation of results as they relate to the history of the Corinthia and northeast Peloponnesos.


NVAP survey tracts shown in red on a topographical map of the area (C. Cloke)

I’ve been working for some time now with the landscapes documented by the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project (NVAP). During the mid to late 1980s, NVAP intensively surveyed an area of roughly 80 square kilometers comprised of the inland valleys around ancient Nemea, a site neighbored by Kleonai on the east and the small polis of Phlius to the west. The sanctuary of Nemea, the site of Panhellenic games beginning in the 570s BC, has benefitted from a long-running program of excavations by the University of California, Berkeley, under the direction of Steven Miller and more recently Kim Shelton. Although Nemea’s ancient political ties were primarily to Argos and Kleonai (both poleisoversaw the games at one time or another), the sanctuary was situated just west of Corinthian territory. The survey area’s most striking landmark, the towering plateau of Mount Foukas (ancient Mount Apesas, site of an ash altar to Zeus pre-dating cult activity at Nemea itself), is equally magisterial when viewed from Acrocorinth and the plains to its southwest.


Map courtesy of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project. Drawing by Julia E. Pfaff, reprinted from page 581 of Wright et al., “The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project: a Preliminary Report,” Hesperia 59 (4):579-659.

The lone polis within the study area, Phlius was built on the foothills overlooking a broad valley just west of Nemea, and was the last major settlement before Stymphalos to the west and Sikyon to the north. The southern part of the NVAP survey area was criss-crossed by the Dervenakia, Tretos, and Kelossa passes, which offered the best overland access from Corinth toward Mycenae and Argos to the south. In short, Nemea’s importance was largely religious, but its surroundings also served as a key territory for getting from the Isthmus to places deeper into the Peloponnesos.


Map courtesy of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project. Drawing by Julia E. Pfaff, reprinted from page 586 of Wright et al., “The Nemea Valley Archaeological Project: a Preliminary Report,” Hesperia 59 (4):579-659.

As is the case with many surveys, one of the most difficult aspects of the data generated by NVAP is the rather low density of sherds dotting much of the landscape. Many archaeologists and historians, including David himself, continue to debate exactly how pot-sherds end up strewn across great distances, blanketing the ground, albeit fairly sparsely. My goal with the three posts I’ll be contributing here is not to provide a single, catch-all explanation for off-site sherd scatters but rather to consider some patterns among the NVAP material, and to offer a few conclusions about how historical phenomena in the past may be represented by archaeological finds.

One common explanation for the small quantities of sherds blanketing the areas walked by surveys is that these cultural artifacts were transported into fields together with manure (see, for example Bintliff and Snodgrass’s “Off-Site Pottery Distributions”; and for a different take on the problem, Alcock, Cherry, and Davis’, “Intensive survey, agricultural practice and the classical landscape of Greece,” in Classical Greece: ancient histories and modern archaeologies).

The reason archaeologists care so much about whether, and to what extent, ancient farmers spread manure over their fields is closely tied to any attempt to derive meaning from survey ceramics. Those who believe manuring by ancient farmers was considerable see the presence of sherds throughout the landscape as evidence of this practice, while skeptics are able to provide a wide range of other reasons that sherds and other artifacts have come to rest in seemingly empty fields. Some common ideas are that these finds are traces of small-scale, short-lived, or mobile rural activities, that they represent activity at small farms where any buildings were made only from perishable materials, or perhaps that the sherds once made up the fabric of ancient roads – pots in the potholes, as it were. We cannot begin to understand how and why artifacts become strewn across the landscape unless we fully engage with the details of a variety of past practices which have shaped the landscape in many different ways over the centuries.

Manuring is one such practice I will explore here. Manure is in itself a complex cultural artifact, which combines animal (and perhaps human) waste, domestic rubbish (including pottery), and all sorts of other discarded materials intermingled in a mixture which could be spread over fields, terraces, or gardens to improve their fertility. Ancient authors, particularly agronomists, recorded many thoughts on manure, and Xenophon (Oec. 20.10-11) remarked, “So, too, everyone will say that in agriculture there is nothing so good as manure.”

One possible sign of manuring frequently documented by survey archaeologists in Greece is the so-called “halo effect,” whereby sherds densities decrease as one moves away from sites. This phenomenon has been noted on a large scale around cities and towns, and on a smaller scale around individual farmhouses.


Densities of sherds declining with distance from NVAP’s site 704, a small Late Roman villa (C. Cloke)

Because this pattern appears among the NVAP spatial data, and because the area’s landscape as a whole is characterized by low numbers of sherds in a widespread, though discontinuous “blanket,” I began exploring the idea that manuring in various periods, by various agents, may have been responsible for at least some of the off-site material encountered.

In the next post in this series, I will describe some quantitative approaches used to supplement and question patterns in the spatial data such as the example shown here.

For their intellectual, moral and financial support of my work I’d like to thank Jack Davis, John Cherry, Kathleen Lynch, Steven Ellis, Alan Sullivan III, Jim Wright, Susan Alcock, Kim Shelton, Elizabeth Langridge-Noti, Heather Graybehl, Mark Hammond, Sarah James, Emily Egan, the University of Cincinnati Department of Classics, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, the staff of the Nemea Museum, and the 37th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Corinthos.

From the Corinthia to Sicyon

This weekend I spent some quality time with Y. Lolos newly published tome, Land of Sikyon. Hesperia Supplement 39 (Princeton: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2011). It runs to close to 650 pages and provides a nearly comprehensive view on (as his subtitle states) the archaeology and history of a Greek City-State.  With a book of this size and level of detail, I feel a bit like a cat attacking a sofa. The best I’ll be able to do is attack various parts of it and then race off. That being said, over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my observations on the book as I work my way through it. Scholars interested in the history, archaeology, and topography of the Corinthia and the northwest Peloponnesus have eagerly awaited this book (so eagerly, in fact, that it’s listed in World Cat as having been published in 2006, 2009, and 2011).

This weekend I took particular interest in Lolos detailed description of the history and land routes through the region. My very first article looked at a series of fortifications on the far eastern end of Mt. Oneion. In this article I discuss briefly the idea that an army could cross the eastern end of Mt. Oneion in order to enter the Peloponnesus while avoiding the fortifications around the city of Corinth.

From that article:

In addition, once an army crossed the mountain’s eastern end and moved south, it had bypassed the defenses of Acrocorinth and gained ac cess to a complex network of roads leading toward the population centers of the southwest Corinthia, such as Tenea, Kleonai, and Phlius, as well as the Sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea. Thereafter, an army could link up with routes into the Argolid or move toward the west through the uplands of the northeastern Peloponnese to descend into Sikyonia, Arkadia, and Achaia.

When I wrote this, however, I had only the faintest idea how a force could descend into Sikonia.  Historically, I knew it was possible, as Xenophon tells us (Hell. 7.1.18-19) that the Theban general Epaminondas did just that during his second invasion of the Peloponnesus in 386, despite efforts by the Athenians, Spartans, and Pellenians to hold the eastern side of the mountain.

Lolos’s book provides some crucial clarification on the route of this invasion. It seems likely that the Thebans must have marched to Phlious before moving south to Sikyon along the route of the Asopos river or alternately veering slightly further west and passing the sanctuary of Titane on a decent to the Sikyonian plateau.  Lolos’ book provides significant evidence for these routes through his thorough compilation of evidence for wheel ruts and road cuttings that suggest the presence of cart roads. Of course, the army of Epaminondas probably had very few carts as they had entered the Peloponnesus through a rather tricky march over the eastern part of Mt. Oneion.

While Lolos has worked out the routes west and south in Sikyonia and R. Bynum Jeanie Marchand, and Mike Dixon (all under the watchful eye of Prof. Ron Stroud) have pieced together the road networks of the southern and western Corinthia, as far as I know, no one has worked out the roads running south of Mt. Oneion from the area of Solygeia (and the modern village of Loutro Elenis) to the Xeropotamos River valley. This is a relatively small area, but one where one might expect to find areas of exposed bedrock that would preserve wheel ruts. Moreover, it’s tempting to imaging that the hills further south had watch towers to monitoring traffic obscured by the mass of Oneion.

As a side note, it feels strange to blog on ancient Greece at a time when the modern Greece is in such turmoil. I wonder whether reading, thinking, and writing about ancient Greece provides me with a safe way to keep that place in my head without incurring the emotional cost of reflecting on its current troubles.

Costposted to the New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World