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3. Economic Theories and Archaeological Scales

Much of the theorising surrounding the economy deals with large- or macro-scale ideas of the ancient economy. It's a big machine, composed of variously sized cogs, wheels and gears, that either works efficiently or not depending on your outlook. So the theories tend to focus on the machine, what goes in to it, and what comes out (Archibald and Davies 2011; Gabrielsen 2011).

Yet much of the evidence for the ancient economy comes from fragments of those cogs, wheels and gears. We don't have the machine, we don't know what it looked like; we don't know how many parts it consisted of; we don't know how often those parts needed maintenance. We don't even know precisely how our fragments fit together. We have small-scale evidence for large-scale processes.

How we move from our partial material traces of the machine to its operation has been a topic of some debate, and in much of the scholarship of the last 30 years storage and transport (which, in broad terms, form much of our archaeological evidence for the cogs and wheels) have been approached from one of two perspectives: as an abstracted element of the big machine — as in the movement of amphorae from Spain to Italy (Koehler 1979; Will 1997; Panella and Tchernia 2002) or the spread and use of roads across Greece (Pikoulas 1992-98; Pikoulas 1999; Goette 2002; Lolos 2009) — or as meticulously recorded detritus from local industry: kilns (Hasaki 2006), millstones (Foxhall 1993), shipwrecks (Gibbons 2001), inscriptions (Garnsey et al. 1984; Osborne 1985; Langdon 1991; Jones 2000; Krasilnikoff 2008). In other words, at one end we have isolated pieces of material culture that are the result of a limited and definable set of behaviours, and at the other end we have the agglomeration of thousands (if not more) of those isolated behaviours, and abstractions about the structures underlying these behaviours. The problem comes in how we move between these scales (Paasi 2004; Stewart 2013a, 90-102) and in reconciling the exceptional and isolated with the agglomerative, true whether we are dealing with a pan-Mediterranean vision of the economy, or something much more local.

Identifying this problem of scale and structure is not something new, nor am I the first to point it out (Archibald 2005, 6-18 and Morris et al. 2007, for example). Neither is it a problem that is limited to broader discussion of the economy. Ever since scholars began conceiving of an 'ancient economy' in the 1860s, there have been attempts to find a unifying theory that, in the words of John Davies (2009, 436), 'accommodate[s] and explain[s] visible behaviour in antiquity, in terms which addressed both its long-term stabilities and its gradual changes'.

In coarse terms there is a problem of institutional scale, and of human scale (Reger 2007, 461-5), and these scales are matched by the problems of evidence. Roads, harbours, ships, wars and festivals are largely the province of states (Lo Cascio 2007, 621-7, 642-7; Hopkins 1980; 2002), but the traffic on the roads, the material for building and maintaining the harbours, the ship's crew, the soldiers at war, and the festival dedications (and all the things that contribute to and support these) is the province of people. And in the rural Peloponnese, thousands of people engaged in the mundane and vital task of agriculture and economic survival.

In short, one of the potential 'growth areas' for our understanding of the ancient economy is how we reconcile small-scale behaviour and large-scale systems and for the rural landscape, this is particularly problematic.


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