Blog Post #8: Grad Student Feature with Grace Erny

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study?

My name is Grace Erny, and I’m a PhD candidate in Classical archaeology in the department of Classics at Stanford University. My dissertation research focuses on inequality and social differentiation on the Mediterranean island of Crete (Figure 1) from the Geometric to the Classical periods (circa 800 to 300 BCE). While Crete is most well-known for its Bronze Age archaeology, especially the Minoan “palaces” at sites like Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia, it was also home to multiple Greek city-states, or poleis. Cretan poleis produced the first known monumental inscribed laws in the Greek world, beginning in the seventh century BCE. These laws, as well as later literary sources, suggest that many of these communitieswere characterized by strictly limited political participation and by systems of unfree labor. My project takes an archaeological approach to understanding social relationships in Cretan communities during these periods. I’m especially interested in the evidence from small rural sites outside major settlements, which can reveal how agricultural practices, labor, and social roles changed in tandem with the formation of new political communities

Map of the Aegean Sea, highlighting Crete
Figure 1. Map of the Aegean Sea showing location of Crete

What sources of data do you look at?

One of my main sources of data is the information collected by intensive archaeological surveys. Often when we think of archaeological fieldwork, excavation comes to mind: archaeologists carefully digging a few parts of an archaeological site to reconstruct an in-depth history of a specific place. Archaeological surveys, by contrast, focus on a larger region (in Greece, surveys conducted today have a maximum size of 30 km2). The surveys that I discuss in my dissertation all used roughly similar methods: members of field teams walk in parallel pathways called transects to systematically cover the ground surface within the study area, documenting architectural remains on the surface and collecting artifacts as they go. Survey data poses some difficult interpretive challenges, but it remains one of our best ways of understanding settlement patterns and rural history over the long term.

My work looks in detail at the finds from these rural sites to try to understand site function and activity differentiation in the Cretan landscape. Small sites recovered by Mediterranean surveys are often categorized as single-family farmsteads occupied year-round – an interpretation based mostly on literature from fourth-century BCE Athens. But by looking at the Cretan survey data more closely, I have been able to discern sites with more specialized functions: some that are focused more heavily on agricultural processing, some with assemblages dominated by fineware dining and drinking vessels, and some with evidence for long-term ritual practice. I’ve taken several site visits to observe the architectural remains at these rural settlements and to better understand their spatial relationships to each other (Figure 2). I have also studied the ceramics collected by surveys in two geographically distinct Cretan regions: the mountainous Vrokastro survey area near the Mirabello Bay in east Crete, and the fertile Mesara Plain in south central Crete – so ceramic collections are another key source of data for my research.

The author photographing ancient walls on a site visit in the Mirabello region, East Crete (photo credit: A. Crowe)
Figure 2. The author photographing ancient walls on a site visit in the Mirabello region, East Crete (photo credit: A. Crowe)

How does your research shed light on real people in the past?

Many of the tools that archaeologists have used to study inequality in the past focus on consumption. For example, archaeologists might look at graves in a cemetery and observe that some graves have a whole lot of grave goods or more elaborate architecture, while some graves are simpler. Or they might measure the sizes of houses at a settlement to determine if they are all more or less the same size, or if there is a wide variation in sizes between them. They would then make inferences about inequality in the society, sometimes even calculating economic statistics like the ones modern economists use to study income and wealth inequality in today’s societies. Many archaeologists, for example, have used a statistic called the Gini coefficient to represent inequality in the distribution of a single resource. The Gini coefficient ranges from zero (everyone in a society has the exact same amount of a resource) to one (one person has all of a given resource, and everyone else has none of it).

Gini coefficients can be helpful, but they have a few problems. First of all, house size and burial wealth can relate to a lot of different things besides inequality. Maybe there are topographic constraints at a site that limit the size of houses, or maybe family size or the need to fit into a street plan has a stronger influence on house size. Burials are notoriously tricky for archaeologists, as their form is heavily mediated by ritual. A cemetery in an extremely wealthy North American community today, for instance, might not have any grave goods in the burials at all – but that is because many 21st-century death rituals don’t involve the deposition of grave goods, not because the dead didn’t have access to abundant resources during their lives.

By focusing on rural settlement outside larger population centers, I am seeking to better understand social inequality from the side of production, rather than consumption. What were the experiences of the people who produced the agricultural goods that formed the basis of wealth in ancient Mediterranean societies, and where did they live, work, worship, and die? And what relationships linked these people to those living in larger settlements?

One other topic that I’m exploring in my research is the concept of “austerity” or restraint in material culture. Archaeologists sometimes assume that people who have access to the most material resources will expend those resources as ostentatiously as possible. In fact, though, historical, archaeological, and anthropological examples from across the world show that there are all kinds of ideological and cultural systems that work to curtail display. In Crete in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, for example, there is a cultural choice to avoid elaborate ceramics and fancy imports. Cretans know how to manufacture high-value black-figure pottery – they produce it for export – but they largely choose not to consume it at home. This opens up all sorts of interesting questions about how people actively use material culture to send messages about individual or collective identity.

Author's picture

Grace Erny is a PhD candidate in the Classics Department and Archaeology Center at Stanford University. She is currently as Student Associate Member at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Her dissertation research investigates social differentiation and economic inequality in Geometric through Classical Crete and incorporates both household archaeology and evidence from archaeological survey. Her other interests include the archaeology and history of modern Greece, archaeological ethics, and public archaeology.

Grace is an active field archaeologist and has worked in Israel, Cyprus, and the American Southwest. She is currently involved in three archaeological projects in Greece: the Anavlochos Excavations in East Crete (area supervisor and ceramic analyst), the Bays of Eastern Attica Regional Survey (co-director of intensive survey), and the Western Argolid Regional Project (publication team).

Further resources:

Brisart, T. (2014). “Isolation, austerity, and fancy pottery. Acquiring and using overseas imported fine wares in 6th and 5th century Eastern Crete.” In O. Pilz and G. Seelentag (eds.) Cultural practices and material culture in archaic and classical Crete: proceedings of the international conference, Mainz, May 20-21, 2011, 263-84. De Gruyter.

Erickson, B.L. (2010). Crete in transition: pottery styles and island history in the Archaic and Classical periods. Hesperia Supplements 45.

Erny, G. (Forthcoming) Review of Timothy A. Kohler and Michael E. Smith, eds. Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: the Archaeology of Wealth Differences. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018. In Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.

Hayden, B.J. (1997). “Rural Settlement of the Orientalizing through Early Classical Period: The Meseleroi Valley, Eastern Crete,” Aegean Archaeology 2: 93-144.

Lewis, D. (2018). Greek Slave Systems in their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC. Oxford University Press (especially the chapter on Classical Crete).

Pettegrew, D.K. (2001). “Chasing the classical farmstead: assessing the formation and signature of rural settlement in Greek landscape archaeology.” Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 14: 189-209.

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