5. Agricultural Labour

Hellenistic and Roman economies experienced four general types of labour; free co-operation in a familial or community context, serfdom, paid employment and slavery (Descat 2011, 207). Descat's work is focused primarily on the problems in identifying relative proportions of those types of labour, and the problems inherent in trying to construct an economic history of free or servile labour within a chronological framework. I should stress that I'm not trying to do that here. I'm being purposefully reductive and thinking of labour in terms of work necessary for the operation of rural economic units, rather than in terms of the composition of the workforce, or the relative proportions thereof (Foxhall 2007, 72-5).

Approaching the landscape in this way might prove a useful corrective to the standard approaches of land ownership, rural residence, and demography. Robin Osborne (1992) asked 'Is it a farm?' and went on to discuss the idea of rural residence and the relative productivity of the land in Attica and its relationship to demography and taxes. Ultimately he tied his understanding of the productive capacity of agriculture to rural residence and the issue of land tenure.

Indeed, much of the literature surrounding Greek agriculture is taken up with the question of land ownership, of who owned what land, and the spin-off questions of who worked it, what strategies were employed, what were the relative yields per year, what proportion went to taxes, and so on. The literature is vast, but the key trends in thinking can be seen in Acheson (1997), Bogaard (et al. 2000), Carlsen (2002), Foxhall (1990, 1992 and 2001), Garnsey (1998), Halstead (2002), Hodkinson (2003), Jameson (1992), Krasilnikoff (2002 and 2008), Langdon (1991), Lohmann (1992), Osborne (1992 and 2001) and Pettegrew (2007). These are important questions, especially when it comes to identifying the nature of the archaeological remains in the countryside, but for the purposes of exploring the idea of identifying labour in the landscape, these fixations are, for the moment, irrelevant.

I'm interested, specifically, in the productive capacity of the rural landscape, and in many respects the productive capacity of the rural landscape was geared towards the end points of storage and transport of yields. All of the labour of the agricultural year was aimed at creating at least enough surplus to satisfy local subsistence, and that surplus needed to be kept and moved.

It has often been argued that Greek and Roman agriculture was incapable of producing a consistent surplus and often suffered from serious crop failures (Evans 1981; Garnsey 1999; Goodchild 2007, 376-7). To mitigate risk, a percentage of the crop was often stored for times of crop failure. Hamish Forbes' ethnographic work showed that modern Greek peasants from Methana stored two years' supply of wheat and four of olive oil as a 'normal surplus' (Forbes 1982; 1989). This should obviously have an influence on our understanding of the surplus available for trade, but it also means that the incidence of storage infrastructure should be read in a slightly different way.

Patterns of residence can, at this point, be set to one side since it is patterns of labour that determine these storage and transport needs. Whether you commute to your land or not, you still need to transport your produce and store it — sometimes for periods greater than a year. If you are producing sufficient surplus to trade, then you will need to take your produce further afield. And surely the aim of most Greek agriculturalists was the production of surplus, even if only in a limited sense (admittedly, not a universally accepted idea; see the discussion in Foxhall 2007, 38-42)? There is much scope for discussing the amount of surplus, and the integration of that surplus in local, regional and supra-regional networks, but at this stage of the analysis what is most important is that it exists, not where or how far it goes (Horden and Purcell 2000, 111).

Working the Land

As stated above, one of the ways that we might begin to approach the broader issue of storage in the ancient world is to step back from the particularist concerns of economic research and think in a more generalised sense, and focus on activities. Archaeologically speaking, there is a difference between the foci of past activity and the material traces we recover. For agriculturalists, the focus of their activity was their fields, and the range of behaviour carried out within those fields. Yet materially we do not recover each point in the sequence with equal clarity. Our knowledge of the range of activities, the time involved, and the season in which they occurred is not exact — it comes from the writings of agronomists, a few inscriptions, and ethnography (Stewart 2013a, 19-28).

Perhaps the most important evidence comes from surviving agricultural calendars (Frayn 1979, 47-8; Isager and Skydsgaard 1992, 162-4). Latin versions, such as the menologium, describe the annual activities of a small farm of mixed husbandry where tasks included harvesting, sheep shearing and grape gathering. The calendars are limited in the information they provide. They do not provide an exhaustive list of tasks, nor do they specify the amount of time each task takes. But they do give a sense of the most important behaviours for a small farmer. Supplementary evidence from agronomists suggests the amount of human effort necessary to cultivate certain crops, and ethnoarchaeological and ethnographic research broadly supports these assertions (Goodchild and Witcher 2010; Goodchild 2012).

Different crops require different intensities of work e.g. viticulture is much more labour intensive than cereal crop cultivation. In his discussion of annual labour in 16th-18th century England, White (1965, 102-3) observed that the 250-day working year of English farms approached that of the Roman period. O'Brien and Toniolo (1991, 397) point out that agricultural labourers from late 19th- and early 20th-century Italy worked approximately 265 days per year. None of this is definitive: Columella (a 1st century AD Roman agronomist) is writing of slave-based estates, after all, and most of the ethnoarchaeological data are drawn from Italian rural peasant production (Greek examples tend to focus on pastoralism and viticulture: Chang 1992; 1994; Forbes 1989; 2007; Margaritis and Jones 2006; Sarpaki 1992). However, the comparative evidence and the agricultural calendars suggest we might be able to apply these ideas more widely. As Rosenstein argued 'there is no reason to believe that small farmers would not, if necessary, have worked as hard or harder in order to feed themselves' (2004, 20).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Agricultural year, based on CIL VI 2305 (on the left) and Isager and Skydsgaard 1992, 162 (on the right).
CIL VI= Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum volume 6. Edited by G. Henzen, I. B. De Rossi, E. Bormann, Chr. Huelsen, M. Bang. 1876-2000. Berolini: apud W. de Gruyter.

In short, the evidence (summarised in Figure 2) suggests that there are around 270 days of fairly intensive work spread across dozens of possible agricultural products, requiring specific material culture toolkits. Ceramics are associated with only a limited number of those behaviours directly, yet they act as proxies for 'agriculture' writ large.

The activities during the agricultural year itself were driven by conditions, rather than rigid divisions. The nature of an agrarian lifestyle is inherently sequential. Taken in aggregate, increased incidence of storage vessels (for example) is therefore evidence of seasonality. Currently within archaeological survey interpretation, different chronological periods are identified largely on the basis of the presence (or absence) of identifiable and datable ceramics, but these ceramics are most often recovered from a relatively shallow planar surface where the law of superposition does not apply. Rather than a vertical slice through time represented by stacked layers of habitation and/or activity, many periods are represented in a single horizontal slice in survey assemblages (the nature of survey deposits are discussed in detail in Pettegrew 2007, Read 1986, Schofield 1991, Schon 2000 and Hope Simpson 1983).

This problem of knowing what period is represented and in what proportion is a central one in the interpretation of archaeological survey material (e.g. Pemberton 2003 and Stewart 2013, 33-6). By looking at the 'taskscapes' of the rural landscapes we can access a different type of temporality within the landscape, one that is centred around labour and seasonality and not periodisation. As such, we might envisage the agricultural year as comprising the activities seen in Figure 2.

Activities and Assemblages

This is not a problem-free solution. The nature of most of the evidence from surface survey makes it very difficult to try to identify the phases in the lifecycle of a particular ceramic corpus, as recovered from the rural landscape. This limits the potential of reconstructing the lifecycle of any one vessel or category of vessels accurately. But by thinking of labour instead of the ceramic ware or assemblage, we can conceive of the 'taskscape' as a way of conceptualising the behaviours required over time for the successful running of a farmstead. Let us pursue this experiment and consider cereal crop production.

Table 3: The tasks and stages required for cereal crop production (after White 1970, 86-110, 446-8).
Task Stages
Ploughing by hand, by animal
Sowing decanting of stored seed, seed dispersed by hand from a basket or a sack
Tilling by hand, by animal
Fertilisation 'accidental' fertilisation from grazing, manuring, fallow field rotation and green manuring
Harvest cutting of the crop (by hand), initial processing (sizing), bundling/tying, threshing, winnowing, crop collection, storage
Transport from field to processing site, from processing site to filling station, from filling station to waystation, to residence for use or residence for storage/market
Risk Mitigation storage for sowing, storage for consumption, storage of tools, fertilisation, water resources, boundary definition, pest control, religion

Cereal crop production requires at least seven tasks: ploughing, sowing, tillage, fertilisation, harvesting, transport, and risk mitigation (Table 3; White 1970, 86-110, 446-8). Within each of these tasks are a series of other stages. Some of these tasks are more likely to generate recognisable and persistent material culture within the archaeological record (although admittedly, there is a fuzziness in what defines these tasks). The important thing is that single categories of material culture may be representative of multiple activities, but they are not necessarily representative of entire sequences of activities. So using the example of a ceramic assemblage related to storage, we might envisage the storage taskscape of a 'typical mixed crop farmstead' to look like Figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3: The storage taskscape of a 'typical' mixed crop farmstead.

The thicker arrows represent the increased likelihood of those activities producing waste. So how does this help us understand assemblages recovered from survey contexts? In terms of a taskscape organised around agricultural labour, we can see that certain activities are more likely to be reflected in the archaeological record at particular points of the year; there is a seasonality to these activities that underlies the archaeological material. The 'smear' of recovered material on the archaeological landscape makes it difficult to identify the individual actions or behaviours that created that assemblage: the aggregate masks the temporally-staggered nature of the activities that produced the material. The agricultural year itself was driven by the occurrence of specific conditions, rather than rigid calendrical divisions. Ancient agriculture is sequential by its very nature (Foxhall 2000, esp. 495-6; Forbes 2007, 266-8.), and it is possible to see evidence of seasonality – of sequence – in changing patterns of storage vessel deposition.

However, working through the survey data as it now exists can be problematic. The Laconia Survey — one of the most thoroughly and accessibly published surveys from Greece — highlights the extent of the difficulties. Foxhall (2004) attempted to address this issue specifically for the Methana survey data by focusing on the composition of ceramic assemblages as recovered from rural sites identified during survey (presented here in Table 4). Her methodology for dealing with the problems of the ceramic data involved grouping all of the ceramic data from identified farmstead sites together so as to compare directly with the assemblages of larger nucleated sites (2004, 252). Farmsteads exhibit more coarsewares and fewer finewares, and there are more closed vessel forms (likely storage/transport vessels for the most part) in comparison to open forms (most frequently associated with food consumption). One of her conclusions were that rural sites tend to have a more restricted range of vessels within the assemblage than more 'urban' nucleated sites (2004, 266-7). The conclusion most relevant here is that small rural sites (traditionally interpreted as farmsteads) exhibited a higher proportion of closed vessel forms than other site types. Amphorae and 'closed' forms together accounted for 68.6% of the total ceramic assemblage in the Roman-Late Roman periods, and 17.6% in the Classical-Hellenistic periods (Foxhall 2004, 254, figs 2 and 3). In a coarse sense, the pattern of more closed than open forms broadly equates to more storage than serving/table wares.

Table 4: Methana survey ceramic data for the Hellenistic and Roman periods (derived from Mee et al. 1997, 283-343).
Also available as XLSX | CSV

Scale and Behaviour

By focusing less on wares and more on forms, it may be possible to move beyond simply identifying changes in settlement and find changes in behaviour. Whatever an individual's place on the economic spectrum, space and equipment for storage were essential; for subsistence-level agriculturalists and for states, for tenant-worked religious estates and for those engaged in transhumance. All of them required storage and, to a lesser extent, means of transport.

The need for storage brought into existence non-agrarian occupations to supply the demand. In much, though not all, discussion of Greek agriculture 'subsistence-level agriculture' is taken to mean relative self-sufficiency, but really self-sufficiency cannot have been the normative model of agriculture in the Greek world (Finley 1983, 72; 1999: 138; Foxhall 2007, 38-9; Jameson 1992; Krasilnikoff 2008; Millett 1984). Subsistence-level agriculture in a Greek context means being unable to maximise surplus for profit (or being unconcerned with so doing). However, the greater the amount of land owned and worked by a family, the more likely they are to have facilities for the production and maintenance of agricultural surplus. Large estate and villa agriculture, as ever, represents a different type of economic landscape than 'farmstead' agriculture (Carlsen 2002; Foxhall 2004; 2007, 40-42; Sutton 1994). For the committed small-scale agriculturist, pots, hoes, scythes, and amphorae were as essential as a reliable means of transport, but most small-scale agriculturalists are not making all of those things themselves (Handberg 2011; Hasaki 2011). Production centres for storage vessels therefore represent a key 'node', facilitating broader patterns of seasonality within agricultural labour.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Known kiln sites by period, based on Table 5. Numbers within shapes refer to the number of known kilns per locale.

An interesting case study can be found in the location of known kilns in the Peloponnese. The data can be found in Table 5, and plotted on Figure 4. One flaw in the data is that it is not possible to tie specific vessels or vessel types to the vast majority of these kilns. Nevertheless, there are some interesting patterns in the spatial distribution data. In the Hellenistic period, all of the known kilns are found in large centres of population (Figure 4). Taken alongside settlement data, this suggests a more community-centred approach to agricultural labour. This might well be families working their dispersed landholdings, but requiring communities to aid in the processing and distribution of the results in the Hellenistic period. Longer site occupation (Stewart 2013a, 90-5) and similar composition of assemblages by form (rather than ware) also suggest repeated patterns of labour within the countryside, as the same tasks produce the same types of waste over and over again.

Table 5: Known and recorded kilns, as of December 2012. Based on Hasaki 2002, appendix I.

In the Roman period, kilns are located in the countryside. I've written elsewhere about the increase in intensification and monocrop agriculture in the Peloponnese in the Roman period (Stewart 2010), and I think the movement of kilns into the landscape — in essence the dispersal of one of the significant nodes for storage and transport — reflects not only changing patterns of agriculture, but also changing patterns of labour among agriculturalists. Kilns are production sites, not storage or transport sites. However, the link between production of ceramics at certain locations and the market for storage vessels in the agricultural landscape more broadly may serve as a useful proxy for the nature of agricultural labour. Study of the data from several Peloponnesian archaeological survey projects has already highlighted the strong regional trends within this area of Greece (Stewart 2013a; Table 6).

Table 6: Peloponnesian site numbers by survey and period.

By contrast, this patterning in the spatial distribution of kilns in the Hellenistic period would suggest that nucleated, community-centred production was the norm, and these production centres catered to an agricultural labour force with distinct divisions between agricultural production and the distribution of those products. These nucleated, community-centred networks were being supplanted, in some areas of the Peloponnese, by more localised, intensive networks that combined production and distribution in the Roman period. Shorter site duration in this period is also interesting, suggesting a dislocation of previous patterns of labour and, by extension, a shake-up of previously existing mechanisms of storage (Table 6; Stewart 2013a, 90-9).

The combination of relatively high proportions of closed vessel forms among some small rural sites, more dispersed networks of storage vessel production, and a decline in site continuity is highly suggestive of a change in the pattern of agricultural labour. By placing human activity, and the seasonality of that activity, at the forefront of the analysis, it may be possible to integrate more of the survey material than we currently do in our analyses. Different approaches to the formation and character of the material record that stand outside (but alongside) strict notions of periodisation allow us to expand our repertoire of interpretative methods for understanding the rural landscape. What matters for many rural inhabitants is not where their ceramic assemblages originate, but how they can be used.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.

File last updated: Mon Jun 24 2013