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.