Spartan details of daily life

The Laconia Survey: Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape Vol one
February 6, 2004

Laconia is Lacedaimonia, that is to say Sparta, and figures large both in story and in history. It was Helen's home till Paris seduced her and began the Trojan war. It was the land of hard living where the coinage was iron bars to make money unattractive and where soldiers setting off for war were told by their mothers to return only with their shields or on them. Later, relocated to Mistra 5km away, and with the region renamed Morea or Mulberry-Land, it was an outpost of Constantinople and a centre of silk production. Today, refounded on its ancient site, Sparta is again a thriving town.

The Laconia Survey , however, is not interested in Homer, in Leonidas and his Three Hundred, in the intricacies of either Byzantine brickwork or Venetian and Ottoman politics, but in the daily facts of daily life.

Surface surveys are a comparatively novel genre in archaeology. A part of the countryside that contained only one excavated archaeological site and where nothing memorable had ever happened was chosen for intensive investigation. It was about 70km2 in extent and lay across the river from Sparta. To begin with, small bands of trained walkers keeping 20m apart crisscrossed the area recording any manmade object they saw. This enabled possible sites of human activity or habitation to be identified. These were then checked and the boundaries more closely defined by a further foot survey. Finally, the sites were explored - many hundreds - on hands and knees in 1m square patches, every artefact being picked up and recorded.

It might be an obsidian blade, a flint or worked stone, a pottery fragment, a broken tile or a lost coin. Its date might be neolithic, bronze age, classical, medieval or modern. The total number was many thousand.

The scale is impressive, as is the range of experts who studied the material - not only did this include archaeologists but also chemists, physicists, geophysicists, geomorphologists, one palaeo-botanist, one historical geographer and two statisticians. Neither should one forget the length of time over which the project was maintained. The field work began in 1983 and the final outcome, these large meticulous volumes, were published (in reverse order) in 1996 and 2002.

So what do they tell us? A great deal about a great many things: the geology, the soil chemistry, the natural landscape, the likely density of human population throughout the different periods, and to what extent and at what periods people seem to have lived on the land they worked or walked to from towns or villages. There are numerous photographs - general (the river Eurotas in spring, Mount Taygetos at sunrise) and specific (the most southerly lime tree in Europe, an olive regenerating itself after a fire, black pine invading former pasture).

Written sources from antiquity onwards tell us about the natural history of Laconia and its plants and trees. Comparisons between then and now are therefore possible, and some conclusions made by Oliver Rackham, who writes the relevant chapter, are surprising. Ecologically speaking, a forest fire is not necessarily a disaster but an occasional necessity. There is probably more forest now than there used to be. Wild olives present in the maquis, if descended from cultivated ones, attest the antiquity of olive growing, but most existing olive trees in Laconia are less than 100 years old. This is not the case elsewhere in Greece and may be due to exceptional frost. In general, human settlement has not had radical or irreversible effects on the natural landscape.

So far as humans and human history are concerned, the thousands of pieces of fragmentary evidence add up to little in the way of solid conclusion.

The project was never likely to change the accepted dates of battles or explain why classical Sparta should have had such an odd constitutional feature as two kings and two independent royal houses, but one might have hoped it would shed some light on its equally unusual social arrangements.

The Spartans proper, or Spartiates, formed a small ruling class of landowners, but were secure only while they continued to pay what would today be called subscriptions; if they did not, they were expelled from the club. A larger population of "outsiders" had freedom but no power. At the bottom of the heap were the helots , or state serfs. It was a distinctive arrangement and one might have hoped that the survey would have found something distinctive to tell us. But it did not.

Another strange fact about Sparta was the speed of its decline. At the end of the 5th century BC it had crushed Athens, the superpower of the period; 30 years later, it was itself ceasing to count internationally. It ran short of manpower. Aristotle gives a neat legal explanation for this. When a Spartan (unlike an Athenian) died without a son, his daughter could inherit in her own right. So when she married her estate was amalgamated with her husband's. But this resulted in fewer estates and consequently fewer citizens for the army. Hence Sparta's eclipse. The survey results for the relevant period are consistent with the fact. They indicate an increase of prosperity in habitation sites and a diminution in their number. But they can say nothing about the explanation.

Occasionally, however, the raw data are sexed up with an unjustified knowingness. For instance we hear about elite villas, attempts by the elite to avoid tax, their economic strategies and how they wished to increase the gap between themselves and lower-status families. This division between the elite and the rest is assumed to apply to all periods - Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish, and imposes on the whole of past history a rather simplistic modern preconception that allows no room for gradations between rich and poor or for changes of category. In any case, these questions about social structure need the light of literary or archival evidence.

Pottery fragments can no more answer them than they can open the human heart or tell us what people in past ages thought about, or hoped for or enjoyed.

The information to be gained from surface archaeology is therefore bound to be unexciting in the first instance. But this is no reason to despair. The Sputnik seemed rather useless in 1957, but space technology has since led us to Teflon in the kitchen and satellite navigation at sea. The idea of a survey is to find out what is below ground without having to disturb it.

This is an entirely laudable aim and, since the techniques of pursuing it are improving fast, the face of archaeology and all other earth sciences are likely to change beyond recognition.

These two splendid volumes are beacons on the way, but I am afraid there will be few who will read them in their entirety.

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

The Laconia Survey: Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape Vol one: Methodology and InterpretationVol two: Archaeological Data

Editor - William Cavanagh, Joost Crouwell, R. W. V. Catling and Graham Shipley
Publisher - British School at Athens, Senate House, London
Pages - Volume one: 465pp, Volume two: 459pp
Price - Volume one: £80.00, Volume two: £70.00, Two-volume set: £120.00
ISBN - Volume one: 0 904887 22 7, Volume two: 0 904887 23 5, Two-volume set: 0 904887 21 9

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