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Farm fragmentation in modern Greece

Viewed from a vantage point, and in the clarity of its celebrated light, the Greek landscape contains much to charm and interest the observer. But in the mundane aspects of its agriculture, many imperfections may be detected including such features as primitive farming techniques, meager crop stands, insufficient fencing, and neglect of the principles of soil conservation. Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that the arable land generally presents the aspect of an intricate mosaic of tiny fields set in a matrix of roads, paths, and field divisions.

More careful study of the landscape reveals a grossly anomalous pattern of proprietorship since the minuscule, awkwardly-shaped fields (perhaps better termed plots) are rarely in contiguous ownership. Usually a single farm consists of a number, even 30 or more, of widely separated, tiny plots. The dismemberment of land has gone so far that a plot of 20 stremmata (about 5 acres) is now considered a large piece of property. Truly, the fabric of Greek agriculture has been cut to pieces.

Thus begins Kenneth Thompson’s classic Farm Fragmentation in Greece (1963, 1). The fragmentation of the landscape into small plots was a nightmare for Thompson, who wrote his study for the monograph series of the Greek Center of Economic Research (the preface is written by Andreas Papandreou!). Thompson clearly didn’t understand, and couldn’t understand, the fragmented Greek systems of land holding. Most archaeologists and historians now interpret farm fragmentation positively, as a sensible, risk-averse economic strategy (e.g., Gallant 1991).

In any case, I had occasion to look at Thompson and the other literature of farm fragmentation for different purposes. My forthcoming monograph is a prosopographical study of Late Bronze Age Pylos. I argue that in many cases, we can plausibly show that when a personal name appears in multiple Linear B texts, it represents a single historical individual who was active in multiple areas under palatial administration. One obstacle to these prosopographical identifications is geography. Although in some cases the same name appears at the same place-name, in others the same name is listed against different places. Now, sometimes we know where these places are, sometimes we don’t. But if we do know where these places are, when it is reasonable to say that they are TOO far apart? Clearly if the places are 1 or 2 km apart, it’s not impossible to believe that a single person could have been active at both places. After all, according to Google Maps my office is a 1.4 km walk from my home, a short distance that isn’t very troublesome, even in the coldest depths of a Toronto winter. But what about 10 km? 20 km?

The farm fragmentation studies were one way for me to approach an answer this question. Like most Greek archaeologists, I was familiar with Greek farm fragmentation and the fact that Greek farmers were generally willing to travel great distances (or what seemed to me like great distances) to work their land, but I hadn’t looked at the primary data. Thompson is the most comprehensive study, but there is also information about Melos (from Renfrew and Wagstaff 1982), Methana (from Clark 1988) and Messenia itself (from McDonald and Rapp 1972). On Melos, the travel time to the most distant landholding  ranged from 5 minutes to 6 hours, with a mean of 2 hours. Here is the breakdown based on the 97 farmers interviewed for the Melian study:


The Melian results are basically compatible with those from Methana and the survey of Thompson, which covered several different parts of Greece. Thompson found that the average distance to the furthest landholding was 7 km, or a walk of about 1.4 hours. Clark (1988, 58-59) reports that most fields on Methana are 5 minutes to 1 hour’s walk from the village, although some were as far as 3 hours away, Some Methanites owned land on the plain near the village Τροιζήνα and travelled there by mule, a journey of 5-8 hours (Clark 1988, 92). Unfortunately the Minnesota Messenia Expedition did not report distances to the furthest landholding. Instead, they report that “the average travel distance between the farmer’s home and his fields is about 1.3 km…” (van Wersch 1972, 178). This is significantly less than the average of 2.2 km for the Peloponnese reported by Thompson (1963, 32). For my purposes, the furthest landholding is the most useful statistic. But in any case, we can concluded that farmers in mid-20th century Greece were generally willing to travel 1-2 hours to their furthest landholding, although in some cases they would be willing to travel 5-8 hours. The average field, however, was closer to the farmer’s home, on average about 20-30 minutes away.

If the modern farmers are anything to go by, then, distances of 10 km should be no major obstacle to prosopographical identification. That is, it is not difficult to imagine a Bronze Age Messenian walking 2 hours from this place of residence to a plot of land, or the location of some other part-time work. Indeed, it might even be possible to see 20 km distances as no great obstacle, if we assume that the individual in question lived midway between the two locations recorded in the Linear B documentation (although I don’t operate on this assumption in my book).

In any case, I’m not sure that geography is all that significant in prosopographical identification. After all, many (if not all) of the individuals identified by name in the Linear B tablets were likely to be individuals of some standing, who could have had holdings and interests that were taken care of by kin or dependents. But in some cases, it’s possible to show that a name listed against two different toponyms can reflect one person who, although not itinerant, does regularly move across significant distances in the landscape. Many Linear B scholars, when confronted with the same name at two toponyms, concluded that two individuals with the same name were being referred to. A closer look, however, suggests the opposite conclusion: that in many cases we’re looking at references to the same person who moved around the Messenian countryside.