Fifth Annual M.I. Rostovtzeff Lecture Series - Displacements: Migration, Mobility, and Material Culture in the West Mediterranean

Lecture 3: Rural Connections

Peter van Dommelen (Brown University)

Migration is usually thought of as involving, if not being dependent on, big cities and major ports. While that may be true in some cases, and is perhaps more prevalent in modern times, ‘urban nodes’ like New York and Rome are nevertheless not the inevitable conduit for or the indispensable catalyst of migration. Certainly in pre-capitalist contexts, where land was the main resource and agriculture a key economic activity, rural districts offered more work and may thus be assumed to have been destinations of migration at least as attractive, if not more so, than urban conglomerations.

In the third lecture of the series, I leave urban contexts to one side and focus primarily, although not exclusively, on the west Mediterranean countryside. Through a number of in-depth case studies of agrarian production and rural settlement, I explore how specific forms of rural organization, often revolving around particular (cash) crops, developed in tandem with migration and the mobilization of rural labor.

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Series Abstract - Displacements: Migration, Mobility, and Material Culture in the West Mediterranean

Migration has long constituted a major topic in archaeology, because people have moved over shorter and longer distances since early prehistory, as they continue to do today. The Mediterranean is no exception in this respect and similarities in material culture between distant regions as well as straightforward transfers of particular objects have long been seized upon as evidence of prehistoric migrations. For classical and later times, written sources bear direct witness to migrations from for instance mainland Greece to the South Italian and Sicilian shores, and thus leave us in no doubt whether migrations took place. They clearly did.

As it is therefore no exaggeration to claim that migrations may be seen as the stuff that (pre)history was made of, there has been remarkably little archaeological interest in this topic in recent decades. As theoretical agendas have shifted attention to local developments and indigenous agency, migration and external influences were downplayed by prehistorians and they were simply not an issue for archaeologists and historians studying later periods. As a result, past migrations remain a poorly understood and, as I will argue, underrated phenomenon, as research has not kept up with recent insights in and innovative approaches to contemporary migration. At the same time, or perhaps as a result, few scholars of modern migration studies are aware of the deep (pre)histories of the processes they investigate in the modern world.

It is my intention in this lecture series first of all to take a fresh look at past migration. In doing so, it is not so much my aim to find ‘hard evidence’ of new migrations by resorting to new scientific techniques, even if such aspects may come into play when considering the range and variability of large-scale movements and migrant networks; it rather is my aim to examine the consequences of migration for both migrant and host societies. In short, this lecture series is about exploring the diversity and complexity of connectivity, mobility and migration in the past, both recent and distant, and about investigating the many dimensions of these broad processes. The emphasis thus falls as much on local actors, communities, practices and contexts as on overarching networks and long-distance connections in order to highlight the social and economic dimensions of migration and mobility of, within and between communities.

Because of the relative cultural coherence and connectivity of the Mediterranean throughout its (pre)history as well as the region’s rich archaeological and documentary records, I focus my attention on the shores and islands of this region. I pay particular attention to the western basin, because it witnessed a series of major and minor migratory processes, not least those of Greeks and Phoenicians in Antiquity and in recent centuries of French settlers and African refugees. As I will argue, a crucial step change in mobility and connectivity occurred in the first millennium BCE and this period will thus feature prominently in my lectures, without losing sight, however, of earlier and, especially, later, including modern, instances of mobility and migration.

About the Lecture Series

Michael I. Rostovzteff, a Russian ancient historian, came to the U.S. after the Russian Revolution and taught for many years at Yale University as Sterling Professor of Ancient History. Rostovtzeff's prodigious energies and sprawling interests led him to write on an almost unimaginable range of subjects. ISAW's Rostovtzeff series presents scholarship that embodies its aspirations to foster work that crosses disciplinary, geographical, and chronological lines. The lectures will be published by Princeton University Press.


Peter van Dommelen is Professor of Archaeology at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.

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