Agriculture and Subsistence Practices in the Dawn of Urbanization of Europe: The Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age

Evi Margaritis

Citation with persistent identifier: Margaritis, Evi. “Agriculture and Subsistence Practices in the Dawn of Urbanisation of Europe: The Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age.” CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:MargaritisE.Agriculture_and_Subsistence_Practices.2020

I used my time during the Fellowship at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard from October to December 2019 to focus on the place of Keros in the Early Bronze Age Cyclades. As the Assistant Director of the Keros Cambridge project, directed by Prof. Colin Renfrew and Dr. Michael Boyd from the University of Cambridge, I focused on collating all the available data from the post excavation studying season, in order to understand the function of the site of Keros and its position within Early Bronze Age Aegean archipelagos.

The site of Keros-Dhaskalio
The site of Keros-Dhaskalio

Specifically, my research focused on the agricultural systems employed at Keros. The project is examining the origins of the complex societies of the Bronze Age, in part by analyzing the agricultural practices, crop husbandry and land use of the period, along with the cultivation of new crops such as olive and grape. In contrast to prior approaches, the project employs a combination of new research questions and a multidisciplinary methodology in order to elucidate this important period in human agricultural and economic history.

The exploitation and exchange of natural resources has been a key parameter in the survival and evolution of early and modern societies. Subsequently, specialization, and control over these resources constitutes a major indicator of increasing social complexity. In the Mediterranean, aspects of social change such as proto-urbanization, technological sophistication and agricultural diversification and intensification are evidenced from the later fourth into the second millennia BC). Although these developments have been extensively studied in the past, archaeobotanical approaches – and so a whole swathe of crucial evidence – have not been systematically brought to bear on these questions, with notable exceptions.

A key element in understanding any complex society is the study of the means by which surplus staple resources are sequestered by non-food producing groups. There are three significant components of agricultural production connected with the emergence of social complexity in any time in the past: surplus production, labor mobilization and the production of what might be called ‘’cash crops’’. The term cash crops is used here to describe those crops the production of which is not essential for subsistence, in this case the olive and grape; instead their principal use is for the production of secondary products which may be for exchange and trade, or for social performance, in the form of olive oil and wine. Surplus production and the way in which communities produce, store and process surplus can provide insights into increasing social complexity.

In this context, through extensive literature review during the fellowship I focused on the on the investigation of the characteristics and processes of incipient urbanism in the Aegean in the third millennium BC, with particular emphasis on the site of Keros. The importance of the question under investigation lies in the fundamental transformations that began in the Aegean in the third millennium and underlie modern society. The individual transformations that make up the incipient urbanisation package presage deep social change leading to complex, hierarchical and (in many cases) state societies. These changes began in the third millennium and understanding what they were and how they came about promises a fundamental enhancement of our understanding of the roots of modern society. These transformations may be seen through the lens of centralization of resources, personnel, population, skills, and networks of interaction.

The unique relevance of Keros to the research question lies in its state of preservation and in its nature. It is the only site in this category which did not continue in use after the third millennium, leading to its exceptionally well-preserved archaeological resource. Moreover the site’s hinterland lies on an uninhabited island which has not been subject to the devastating superficial changes wrought in most areas by modern, mechanized farming, or recent urban expansion. The site demonstrates all the characteristics of incipient urbanism and so is therefore the ideal test case to answer these crucial questions in the development of Mediterranean and European society. Moreover, the data from Keros have been obtained using very intensive recovery protocols, making Keros one of the best-sampled excavations in the region.

The program of environmental research at Keros has been designed by me, as the Director of Environmental Studies of the project. A second focal point of the fellowship was the synthesis of the data and their writing up, in the initial form of an article on the role of agricultural transformations in the mid-third millennium, as well as in the form of detailed reports for the final publication of the excavation (the applicant is lead editor of the proposed third volume of the current Keros excavations). Therefore, during the fellowship I focused on the available literature on archaeobotany, phytholith and starch analysis deriving from Bronze Age Aegean. However, in the Early Bronze Cyclades archaeobotanical studies are scarce and our work on Keros will provide a unique opportunity as it is a single period site with great preservation, and it exhibits the characteristics of incipient urbanization identified as pertinent to project goals.

During the Fellowship, the new archaeobotanical samples retrieved from the 2016-2018 excavation seasons were compared with the data from the previous excavations to understand the similarities or differences between crop uses, agricultural activities and their relation to the socio-economic importance within the different areas and chronological phases of the site of Dhaskalio.

According to preliminary observations, the composition of the botanical remains is slightly different between archaeological contexts. In some trenches the predominant crop is cereals, mainly barley, with some presence of legumes, while in others there is complete lack of cereals and the majority are weed species. The presence of weeds and of cereal chaff could indicate evidence of crop processing in different areas of the site.

In some cases there is evidence of final stage processing of hulled wheat piecemeal  prior to consumption in a domestic context.

Complete or less fragmented olive stones (Olea sp.), fragments of almond (Amygdalus sp.) and smaller fragments of other fruit species are also represented. Almond (Amgydalus sp.) and almond/olive-type (Amgydalus/Olea-type); these remains are represented mostly in samples which originate from areas with metallurgical activity indicating possibly their use as fuel. Well preserved pips of grape vine (Vitis cf. vinifera) are represented in most trenches indicating the importance of the fruit tree at the site.

In addition, the presence of organic remains in the earlier phase of the site where most of the terraced areas of Daskalio were occupied is much higher than the later and final phase of occupation when occupation was restricted in a much smaller area at the summit of Dhaskalio islet. Sampling for organic remains at the recent excavations was very extensive and resulted of hundreds of individual samples for all categories (macro and micro plant remains, fish bones, microfauna etc). However, the sampling strategy was similar to that followed in the previous excavations which resulted in poor numbers of organic remains, suggesting that the absence of organic remains in the summit of Dhaskalio was rather the result of the specific use of certain areas than any deficiency in the sampling regime followed during the excavation.

During the fellowship two articles were drafted: one based on grape cultivation in 3rd millennium Aegean (for submission to Antiquity) and a second one on the olive oil production in ancient Greece (for submission to the Oxford Journal of Archaeology) on the basis of the plant remains from the Keros excavation project.

During the Fellowship I was also invited to give a series of lectures: at the Aegean Bronze Age Colloquium Series where I presented the Cambridge Keros Project; at the Department of Archaeology at the University of Baltimore where I presented the work on olive and grape cultivation in Bronze Age Greece; at the Universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Philadelphia where I talked about Classical economy on the basis of the archaeobotanical remains. The end of the Fellowship was marked by my participation at the Annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology where I presented an oral lecture on Keros (co-authored with key personnel of the Keros project) and I was a panelist at a round table ‘’Being an islander’’ which is organized by Dr. Anastasia Christophilopoulou as part of a forthcoming large exhibition, in which the Cyprus Institute is deeply involved, on islands of the Mediterranean at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK.




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