Agricultural and artisanal production and distribution in the Peloponnese during the early and middle Byzantine periods (4th-12th c.)

Anna Lambropoulou


The redefinition of the archeological research’s goals during the last forty years, with the shift of its orientation from just presenting urban and monumental spots towards the inclusion of places of agricultural and artisanal production and processing, resulted in the multiplication of the information on the number of rural and artisanal installations, as well as the character, the functions, the organization, the location and the variety of the products, the available infrastructure and storage facilities, allowing the tracking –wherever possible– of the product distribution network of primary and secondary production, inland and abroad, through the known land- and sea-routes and ports. These new data are in many ways useful for historical research, as they contribute both to the acquirement of new knowledge and the formulation of new considerations regarding the level of agricultural economy and processing, the domestic and foreign trade.

The Peloponnese is a geographical entity which connects Constantinople with the West, due to its privileged position on the sea trade routes, thus constituting an ideal region for the study of the agricultural and artisanal production and distribution during the Byzantine period, between the 4th century (395) –when Roman Empire was divided into East and West– and the beginning of the 13th century (1204), when the Franks settled in the region, marking a change in the economic and social conditions. Systematic archeological research, mainly in the cities of Corinth, Elis, Messene, Tegea-Nikli and at the rural settlements of Olympia, Pylos and Nemea, the rescue excavations at Argos, Sparta and Patras, as well as the surface surveys in many rural settlements and farmsteads, contributed to the discovery of numerous evidence of economic life in the field of primary production and processing.

The main city of the Peloponnese, Corinth, due to its unique position and its two large ports (Lechaion and Kenchreai), played an important role in the economic and commercial development of the peninsula, since via the Isthmus could communicate both with the Greek mainland and Constantinople, building relationships with the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. The city's economy was based on production, processing and trade of agricultural and artisanal products, as witnessed by the excavations and confirmed by the content of the numerous early Byzantine inscriptions which reveal a series of artisanal branches active within the city (such as stonecutters, sharpeners, marble-workers, tailors, shoemakers, vendors or manufacturers of clothing, fur makers, etc.) that reflect the economic potential of the urban and rural population. A similar picture is portrayed by the data resulting from the cities of Argos, Sparta, Messene and Patras, where archaeological traces show an important artisanal activity on all sectors (rug-makers, dyers, medicine producers, glass makers, potters, etc). Moreover, archaeological research in the rural settlement of Olympia revealed a unique variety of agricultural and artisanal activity carried out within the ancient temple, such as winemaking, textile production, pottery production (production of lamps and vessels), glassmaking (production of glass lamps and glass panels), carpentry, stonecutting, etc. The number and volume of the coins found reveals the size of the transactions, while the quality of the imported pottery depicts the living standards of the settlement during the early Byzantine period.


The sources indexed and used in the present database include a large number of historiographical, narrative, hagiographical texts, as well as published archaeological findings from excavations and surveys (rural settlements, farmsteads, artisanal remains, inscriptions, seals, coins, etc.). However, the user of the database should be aware of certain restrictions posed by the very nature of the material. Literary sources, even when they are accurately dated and free from exaggerations and mythological elements, do not permit the extraction of specific information on the products, their quantity, price, handling, etc. In most cases, the relative testimony is considered random and coincidental. In addition, the archaeological findings are often fragmented and, consequently, the extracted information is also incomplete. We may remind that, from a total of 256 farmsteads identified in the region of Patras, very few are fully published. In any case, the study of wastes from pottery or glassmaking workshops together with the study of relevant findings from other residential sites in or out of the Peloponnese, provide traceability –under strict conditions– of the mode of transportation and distribution of the specific product, both in the domestic and foreign markets. Finally, a restricting factor derives from the imprecise dating of part of the archaeological material generally included to the Byzantine or Medieval period, which constrains their full utilization.

Based on the above, we attempted to display the agricultural or artisanal products, the production amount and, in some isolated cases, the ways of its trading in the Peloponnese during the early Byzantine and middle Byzantine periods. Moreover, we recorded the artisanal facilities, the available infrastructure (pottery kilns, limekilns, glass workshops, carpentry workshops, wine presses, oil mills, bakeries, metal workshops, quarries and mining areas), the tools (hoes, shovels, scythes, helm), etc.


The economy of the Peloponnese during the period under examination is still based, as in Antiquity, mainly on purely agricultural production, including stock-raising, and on artisanal production. Agricultural production was limited to the well-known Mediterranean Dietary Triad, as defined by Sir C. Renfrew[1], i.e. in wine (grapes), olive oil (olives), wheat, as well as cereals, various nuts, legumes, vegetables, figs, honey, etc., that constituted the main components of the population's diet. A large amount of winepresses were located, as well as craft shops for the production of gypsum for the conservation of wine, mills –mainly watermills and millstones for the processing of grains and cereals–[2], bakeries and wineries for the production of bread and wine respectively[3], etc. Moreover, in the farming sector, people were occupied with the breeding and exploitation mainly of sheep and goats, pigs, cattle, poultry, bees, possibly silkworms, as well as with fishing[4] and the gathering of sea snails, from which Tyrian purple was produced for the dying of silk fabrics, and so on. The production of meat and dairy products, such as milk and cheese, must also have been important[5]. Finally, artisanal and trade activity comprised the basic fields of the economy and a main source of wealth for the inhabitants.

From a total of about 670 entries in the present database regarding agricultural and artisanal installations from the Peloponnese of the early and middle Byzantine eras, most of them concern olive oil presses, wine presses, mill stones, namely constructions for the crushing of main agricultural products, such as olives[6], grapes and grains. Next come the ceramic furnaces for the production of building materials, such as bricks and tiles, roof tiles, and pottery in general (cooking and utilitarian vessels, amphorae, storage vessels, lamps, etc.), as well as glass furnaces for the construction of a variety of objects (bracelets, lamps, tableware, pharmaceutical implements, grooming utensils, etc.). Artisanal sites are also included, where fragments of dies, molds and clay models for jewelry, lamps, buckles, etc. were found. We must not neglect to add the craft shops for the weaving of wool and silk fabrics –which were found in excavations– as well s fabric dyeing workshops, leather tanneries and workshops for the production of ivory objects. Moreover, surface surveys and excavations contributed to the location and study of many mining quarries for a variety of precious marbles (mainly in Laconia, where porphyry and lapis lacedaemonius were mined), as well as simple stones, such as tufa, limestone, shell stone (mainly in Corinthia, Arcadia, Laconia, Messenia, Elis, and the island of Cythera). Finally, in seafront installations, as in Tigani, salt evaporation lakes (salterns) have been located that were active during the Byzantine era.

The database resulting from this project constitutes a case-study characterized by thorough indexing of information on agricultural and artisanal production in the Peloponnese. Maybe in the future it will serve as a trigger for a more advanced research and recording of related evidence from other regions of the Greek area.

[1] Sir C. Renfrew, The Emergence of Civilisation: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium BC, London 1972.

[2] For the grinding of the grains, water mills –as those found in the Peloponnese and in Southern Greece– were necessary. See S. Germanidou, “Watermills in Byzantine Greece (fifth-twelfth Centuries). A Preliminary approach to the Archaeology of Byzantine Hydraulic milling technology”, Byzantion 84 (2014), 185-201.

[3] On the artisanal production of wine, see G.C. Maniatis, The Byzantine Winemaking Industry, Byzantion 83 (2013), 229-274.

[4] In the animals in the Peloponnese during Byzantium, see H. Kroll, Tiere im Byzantinischen Reich. Archäozoologische Forschungen im Überblick, Monographien des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums Band 87, RGZM Mainz 2010, 29-42, 171.

[5] On the production of cheese, see G. Maniatis, The Byzantine Cheesemaking Industry, Byzantion 84 (2014), 257-284.

[6] On the production of olive oil, see G. C. Maniatis, The Byzantine Olive Oil Press Industry: Organization, Technology, Pricing Strategies, Byzantion 82 (2012), 259-277.

Ilias Anagnostakis

Anastasia Yangaki

Maria Leontsini

Angeliki Panopoulou

Research directed by: Ilias Anagnostakis, Anastasia Yangaki, Maria Leontsini, Angeliki Panopoulou. Collaborator: Marilia Likaki, Christos Makripoulias, Zografia Mpidikoudi. GIS Cartography: Panagiotis Stratakis