Geography, Environment, and Archaeology in Greece

(Figure 2.1)The Greek countryside.Mankind's relationship with the environment is always important, and this is certainly true in the Mediterranean area. The sea itself provided relatively easy lanes of transport and communications; the numerous islands and rough coastline encouraged the movement of people and goods, throughout the centuries. In addition, the sea provided a moderating climatic influence: the so-called "Mediterranean climate" brings hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters, commonly with enough rainfall to make farming without irrigation possible. Away from the sea the climate is more extreme, with hotter summers and colder winters. The whole of the Mediterranean area is mountainous, but the mountains are not inordinately high and they do not keep their snow during the summer; the mountains, however, are relatively irregular and they break the countryside into small areas of fairly flat land, separated by often inhospitable mountains. At one time much of the Mediterranean hinterland was forested and wild, inhabited by animals that are now virtually gone: bears, wild boars and wild goats, and even in some regions strange animals - such as pigmy hippopotamus - that are now completely extinct. The whole of the Mediterranean area is seismically active, the result of large- and small-scale tectonic movements, especially the movement of the African plate to the north, toward Europe. The result of this was - and is - the devastating earthquakes that frequently devastated various parts of the region. Archaeologists naturally have to consider the environment as a significant factor in the birth and development of the civilizations that they examine. Nonetheless, the study of geography in classical archaeology - until recently - mainly focused on the environmental factors that encouraged or inhibited the growth of individual ancient cities, and little attention was paid to the countryside, which was traditionally ignored for a variety of reasons, most especially the fact that most of ancient literature tends to emphasize human activities in cities and only underplay the sphere of countryside. Modern classicists, historians, and archaeologists largely accepted the ancient bias, focusing modern narrative primarily on war and politics; this is despite the fact that most ancient Greeks spent their everyday lives sowing, reaping, and toiling in rural areas. The shift in interest towards ancient environment has arrived with the recognition that one cannot understand ancient Greek society without understanding the ways in which Greeks interacted with their land. As a result, today one frequently encounters archaeologists walking in lines across the Greek countryside, collecting sediments from the middle of bogs, or counting pollen grains through a microscope as they ask new questions about the ancient Greek countryside (Figure 2.1).

(Figure 2.2) The Korinth Canal in Greece.Landscape archaeology is a relatively new approach to the study of the human-environment relationship in Greece. As will be discussed at length in a later section of this site, archaeologists are using the methods of intensive surface survey to illuminate the culture of farmer, peasant, and slave by the material remains left behind. With the help of geomorphologists, who study the processes in which landscapes are created and changed, archaeologists are now able to reconstruct the human exploitation of natural resources as well as the restrictions that geography and environment posed on local society. On the one hand, human utilization and demands on the landscape have resulted in a constantly (but gradually) changing appearance to the countryside so that the Greece of today is vastly different from the Greece of 2000 years ago (Figure 2.2). On the other hand, environmental, geographic, and climatic conditions, largely beyond the control of humans, both limited and encouraged the range of human activities for any given region. Moreover, environmental and landscape changes, such as shifting sea levels, fluctuating rainfall, uplifting land (from tectonic activity), and cooling temperatures, demanded adjustments and adaptation on the part of individual people. Humans in turn developed new technologies and ways of dealing with these ecological changes. The cycle of people effecting environment and environment limiting humans continues spiraling through time, leaving its traces on the modern landscape. Landscape archaeologists seek to illuminate this process during and between different periods of the past.

The Greeks and their Environment

(Figure 2.3) An anchient Greek road.The ancient Greek landscape included both city and country. The basic political unit of the Greek world was the polis that included an urban center (asty) and its surrounding land (chora), often incorporating additional towns and villages. The Greek word polis is usually t translated into English as "city-state". But, whereas we usually think of cities only as urban centers, the Greek concept was that of the city plus its surrounding land as an integrated whole. For example, the polis of Korinth included both the urban center of Korinth as well as the extensive territory of the Korinthia, delimited by the Oneion Mountain Range on the south, the Gerania Mountain Range across the Isthmus to the northeast, and seas to both east and west; the territory also included villages and religious sites (Figure 2.3). As mentioned above, the rocky mountains throughout Greece divide agricultural plains into discrete territorial units, delimited on all sides by the seas and mountains. This geography favors regionalism and an organization like the polis where a relatively small territory of land is controlled by an urban unit.

Despite ancient and modern biases towards the life of politics within the urban center, most Greeks played out their roles living and working in the countryside. While it is true that many people lived in the urban center and commuted daily to work in their fields, the archaeological evidence suggests a wide variety of settlement patterns. Especially where a family's parcel of land was located further from the urban unit, the preferred mode of settlement was living in farmsteads during seasons of high agricultural demands. Laborers who did not own their own land could hire out themselves to those who did, at least on a seasonal basis. But most social levels of society were involved in the production of food that was needed to support the population inhabiting the urban unit.

(Figure 2.4) The terrain of Greece.Greece is a varied country that presents numerous opportunities for subsistence, survival, and livelihood. Generally speaking, the terrain changes significantly from one region to the next, imposing limits on the forms of livelihood of individuals of any particular region (Figure 2.4). Coastal and flood plains provided some poleis with rich fertile lands capable of producing large amounts of barley and wheat. In dryer areas like Attica (the area around Athens), cities might not be able to produce enough grain to support the population and could trade their own products with other areas like the grain-rich Black Sea region to the northeast of Greece.

(Figure 2.5) Farmer in a field.Middle range farmers were probably able to own a few animals (no more than 10) that could graze on fallow land. The ubiquitous hill slopes might produce barley and were certainly good for cultivating grapes and olives; hill slopes that could not be cultivated could at least be turned over to shepherds to graze sheep and goats, animals used for milk, cheese, and wool. Moreover, there is evidence that some farmers recognized the problems of cultivating hill slopes and so manipulated their landscape, creating terraces to retain soil and thereby increasing amount of cultivable land (Figure 2.5). The steep mountains and rocky outcroppings that divide the plains of Greece might also be useful areas to graze animals and could provide a variety of raw material like stone and timber (less available after the Bronze Age) for construction, and precious metals like silver for currency. Workmen and slaves were always needed to exploit these materials for the constant construction projects in antiquity. The sea, never more than 50 miles from any part of Greece, created the roles of sailor, merchant, and fishermen. Most of these ecosystems provided a variety of environmental opportunities for most city-states.

Beyond these typical forms of economic endeavors, the individual in ancient Greece could use the land in a number of other ways. The shepherd could lead flocks from one patch of unused or unclaimed land to the next, following seasonal patterns of migration . Local potters could make use of clay beds to produce pottery and roof tiles; builders could use the same source to construct mudbrick houses. Moreover, the gathering and collecting of a variety of vegetation could supplement local diet, as could the hunting of hares and wild boar and fishing for a wide variety of sea creatures.

But even with the variety of exploitative strategies, nature was always unfair. The geography and the climate preferred some regions to others and provided limited economic opportunities for each city-state. The necessary result at many points in the past was forced specialization and trade. Cities often exploited what was the most advantageous to them based on the land they possessed. Geography had assigned different access to resources: timber, rich soils, building material, precious minerals, clays, and harbors. Moreover, nature occasionally turned its back on individual regions. The inhabitants of cities often kept a yearly surplus of grain in case of crop failure on the farmers' land. A citizen could always call on neighbors or kin to assist his family when the surplus was gone. Indeed, this exchange of favors between households apparently upheld the economy in temporary emergencies. It was only when famine and low rainfall continued over several years that an entire region would be endangered. At times like this, it was necessary for the city-state to have relations with other cities to provide grain in exchange for some product.

The history of ancient Greece is in many ways the story of how environment and geography shaped the ways that communities and individuals interacted with each other. A changing climate could demand the adaptation of any particular region to those changes, either by forging human ties and relations (e.g., trade/ exchange networks) or by encouraging revolutions in technology. The construction of terraces was a way of changing the face of the landscape to increase the amount of arable land for a region. In this regard, there is ample literary evidence that humans recognized the fertilizing value of manure and spread it on their gardens and fields to produce larger crop yields. Technological innovation in metallurgy, agriculture, and milling occurred at various points in antiquity, each time providing humans with a little more control over their environment. As we will discuss next, humans at different times in ancient Greece recognized the geographical importance of Isthmia in the wider Greek world.

The Place of Isthmia in the Geography of Greece

(Figure 2.6) The Diolkos pathway.The site of "Isthmia" gets its name from its location on the Isthmus, the narrow stretch of land separating the Peloponnesos from mainland Greece, and bridging the eastern and western seas. Today, the modern Korinthian Canal cuts through the sandstone and thick marl connecting the Korinthian Gulf (on the west) with the Saronic Gulf (on the east), providing a convenient way for ships and private yachts to get from the Aegean to the Ionian Seas. Although the canal dates to modern times the idea of cutting through the Isthmus was suggested many times in antiquity and once or twice work was actually begun - but never brought to completion. The Diolkos, a built roadway across the Isthmus, was used to haul boats from one sea to the other, and thus avoid the treacherous sea voyage around the southern tip of the Peloponnesos (Figure 2.6). The Isthmus thus held an important position in antiquity for the people of ancient Korinth and the rural inhabitants of the Korinthia.

(Figure 2.7) The port city of Kenchreai.Korinth from an early period realized the economic and strategic benefit of having the 7-km wide Isthmus within its territory and wasted no time exploiting this for economic gain. The Isthmus was a heavily trafficked crossroads between two worlds. On the one hand, all land traffic between central / northern Greece and the Peloponnesos (southern Greece) had to pass via the Isthmus. The passages from Athens to Korinth, Sparta, Olympia, Nemea, and Argos occurred by this path. During the Archaic Period, Korinth saw the economic importance of this passageway and charged a tax on all land commerce transported this way. At the same time, the "gateway" to the Peloponnesos could also be used at times of military distress and threat from the north to the advantage of the gatekeepers. The Isthmus was just short enough that with enough concentrated human effort, the area could be defended or even walled. This was discussed on a number of occasions, most notably at the time of the Perian Wars, and the walling of the Isthmus actually took place in the fifth century AD under the Emperor Theodosius II. On the other hand, the closest and safest connection between Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean was via the Isthmus. Ships could dock at one of Korinth's two harbors, Kenchreai (on the Saronic Gulf) or Lechaion (on the Korinthian gulf) and pay a fee to have their cargo transported across the Isthmus by the Diolkos (Figure 2.7). This innovation in connecting the seafaring worlds of east and west dates to the late seventh century BC. Many an ambitious ruler dreamed of cutting a canal through to connect the seas, and both the Hellenistic monarch Demetrius Poliorcetes and the Roman Emperor Nero actually began digging. As they discovered, this was a task next to impossible in ancient times and could only be accomplished at the end of the nineteenth century using heavy machinery and numerous men.

(Figure 2.8) Mount Geraneia (Gerania) in Greece.Isthmia lay comfortably within the agriculturally rich Korinthian territory that extended eastward as far as Mt. Gerania. The coastal plain (5km x 15km) of the Korinthia, which lay along the Korinthian Gulf between Korinth and Sicyon, was one of the richest agricultural areas in Ancient Greece and certainly a source of wealth, even from the Neolithic period (Figure 2.8). But Korinth's wealth also sprung from its ability to make use of more marginal (but not destitute) areas. The Isthmus itself was a plateau of thin rocky soil but still contained fairly flat arable land that was useful for cultivating barley, olives, and grapes. Today this land is often used for citrus groves, but this is only possible with artificial irrigation. In the ancient period, much of the area near Isthmia was covered with pockets of pine forest, which provided timber for building ships and exporting.

Thick sediments of marl (over 100 meters deep in spots), laid down during the Pliocene era, provided Korinth with an abundant source of white clay for fashioning ceramics, roof tiles, and terracotta objects. Indeed, during the sixth century BC, Korinth had a significant role in exporting its pottery throughout Greece and the broader Mediterranean world. Furthermore, the clay bed that underlay so much of the region of the Korinthia, created an impermeable floor for rainfall soaked into the ground. The water seeping through the soil and limestone would stop at the clay beds and flow downward, toward the sea, creating springs in various places in the Korinthia that could be tapped and manipulated for use. The greatest spring, the Peirene (in the center of the city of Korinth), could by itself supply the entire town.

Pleistocene deposits of lightweight sandstone, overlying the thick clay marl, created a popular building material that the Korinthians learned to exploit. The stone was easily cut and it was thus especially useful for large building programs where the effort to shape the stone must have been a major expense. Various outcroppings along the ancient road between Korinth and Isthmia show evidence today that they were ancient quarry sites. Sandstone was apparently exploited intensively from the Classical period onward and exported to places like Delphi and Epidaurus for the construction of their sanctuaries. Moreover, a level of hard limestone overlay the marl in the region from Akrokorinth to Mt. Geraneia.

(Figure 2.9) The cost of the Saronic Gulf.Like most city-states in Greece, the Korinthia was bounded by the sea, and its economy was based to a significant degree on commerce. This trade was based partly on products the Korinthians produced themselves (industrial and agricultural goods), but also included the "transit" trade of goods that were produced elsewhere but that were shipped through the Korinthia because of its favorable location (Figure 2.9). The site of Isthmia lies within walking distance of the sea (Saronic Gulf), and a small harbor of Schoinos, while the major port of Kenchreai was not far away. It would be reasonable to assume that Isthmia itself had a commercial function, although this has not been fully investigated.

The roads in the Korinthia followed the natural openings between mountains, entering Korinth at several places. Probably the most important route was that running from Attica and northern Greece along the Isthmus and entering the Peloponnesos right at the Sanctuary of Poseidon. This road, whose traces have been found by Professor Broneer in the Sanctuary itself, would have continued westward to Korinth itself, and from there to the rest of the Peloponnesos. From Korinth there were major roads running west to Sikyon and several roads running south, along the river beds, toward the Argolid. Roads also ran from Korinth to the ports at Lechaion and Kenchreai, and an important road probably connected Lechaion directly with the harbor at Kenchreai. These, along with the Diolkos (which ran along the course of the modern canal) would have seen vehicles of all kinds, carrying foodstuffs, manufactured products, and raw materials (such as sandstone blocks). The roads ran among the rich agricultural fields and also carried the foot traffic of politicians, pilgrims going to worship at the sanctuaries, and armies marching on maneuver or to fight in war. All of this activity, set against the mountains and seas that both limited and facilitated transport, characterized the Korinthia and made it one of the crossroads of the Ancient World.