- Meaning and Identity in a Greek Landscape: an Archaeological Ethnography
Hamish Forbes's Meaning and Identity in a Greek Landscape: an Archaeological Ethnography is a panoramic but deeply textured study of the regional landscape of the Methana peninsula in the Greek Peloponnese. An archaeologist and cultural ecologist who has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on Methana since the early 1970s, Forbes has published important articles on the Greek countryside, and this volume is the fruit of long-term ethnographic research. Forbes identifies the book as an "ethnography for archaeologists" and as such it is concerned, in particular, with righting the wrongs of armchair archaeology and guiding archaeology towards a more socially embedded practice rather than on breaking new ground in social theory. The book is nevertheless also a serious contribution to the cultural anthropology of rural Europe.
Enriched by Forbes's extensive work in the ethnohistory and survey archaeology of the region, this book concentrates on the post-WW II and [End Page 351] late twentieth century landscape. While it is therefore a portrait of a vanishing (arguably, vanished) way of life, Forbes does not indulge in or draw a picture of local nostalgia for the past. To the contrary he emphasizes that for Methanites, " life in the past was a time of evils, hardships, and ignorance" and that " their positive emphasis has been on the future, via the concept of "πρόοδος "(…) progress" (219). Life in the past was harsh; former farming families are enthusiastic about"modernity," which includes salaried employment, residence in the city and abroad, old age pensions, and so on. Since Forbes's aim is to produce a description of the meanings the landscape holds for ordinary people (a "landscape from within") this frank reading of agropastoralism—always deeply embedded in global political economy but inarguably also marginalized—is at the core of his analysis.
The book begins with a useful, if polemical, assessment of landscape archaeology and anthropology as these have emerged since the 1930s. Forbes is critical of both utilitarian and phenomenological interpretive schemes, while appreciating their contributions: both, he argues, are inflected by cosmopolitan and urban biases and are at a vast distance from the sense of place that emerges from the everyday experiences of rural peoples. Forbes wants to avoid the mechanistic ecological reductivism of processual archaeology, but he also resists anthropomorphizing the landscape. Instead he wants to convey the local body of Methanite knowledge relating to place that is embedded in the "meaningful features" –what Forbes calls "prompts"—of the landscape and the quotidian "monuments" of the built environment (houses, sheepfolds, cisterns, churches, etc.) that anchor collective and personal histories. His focus on synchronic prompts is supplemented with detailed documentary history and a geo-archaeological profile.
Forbes has especially little patience with the "dehumanizing" vocabulary of post modern philosophers of place (Tilley, de Certeau, et al.) whose viewpoint is, in Forbes's words, that of " the exogenous disengaged tourist, not the native" (25) But he cites Johnson's study of landscape and power among the Gitksan in North America approvingly, and admires Fred Myers's approach to movement and subsistence among Australian aborigines (28). He also draws self-reflexively on his own farm childhood as well as on his experience laboring alongside Methana's farmers to distance himself from "objectified and framed landscapes which engage only the eye" or what he calls the " frame-and-tame" school (95). He is critical, too, [End Page 352] of the bias of archaeologists towards drawing on exotic examples to understand European prehistory: why not, he suggests, look to that anthropological stepchild, Europe and the Mediterranean, for a better reading of ancient material culture?
Methana is in some sense a perfect subject for an anthropology of the ordinary. A small peninsula in the northeastern Peloponnese, it has a generally unremarkable, if pleasant, physical profile and has had a modest role in official history. It is neither exotically remote nor in any sense central; but it is, after all, nearly an island, being all but encircled by water, and Methanites have a strong sense...