PARIS — It may seem like a bizarre controversy, but experts on ancient Greece have been debating for more than 60 years why potsherds so often surround archaeological sites there. These scattered fragments of pottery are routinely found in explorations.
Some regard it as simple — obvious even. They hold that, as was common in most areas of temperate Europe, people threw their household and barn waste into the fields. The theory is that people were essentially composting and enriching the soil with food, manure and other scraps, and that pottery shards sometimes found their way into these piles.
According to these archaeologists, what they find when they survey the ground of the Hellenic countryside is nothing more than centuries-old trash. Indeed, ceramic was to the ancient Greeks what plastic is to us now. It was abundant.
Still, Hamish Forbes, a professor at the University of Nottingham, decided to review the entire subject from scratch. In an article published in Hesperia — the journal published quarterly by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens — he concludes after 30 years of careful observation that, No, the ancient Greeks did not populate their fields with garbage.
First of all, it seems they didn’t have a sophisticated understanding about the beneficial properties of manure. True, authors back then used to have many conversations about the respective advantages of donkey and sheep dung, whose beneficial properties paled in comparison to waste from hens. But there’s no indication that they actually went out of their way to add manure into soil mixtures or fertilizer.
What also seems highly unlikely to the British professor is the idea that ancient Greeks, who used to plough barefoot, deliberately discharged sharp shards in their fields. This came to him while analyzing his own garden in the English Midlands. He found it impossible to prevent small waste items from finding their way into the compost that he carefully prepared from leaves, garden stems, dust and organic waste from his home. And this was despite meticulous waste sorting.
By becoming his own garden’s archaeologist, he realized that previous generations seemed to have had the same problem. He has found remains in his garden dating back to Roman times. And because his house is located in an area that has been cultivated for thousands of years, he began to think that the trash probably came from agricultural practices.
Though the Greek peasants the young Hamish Forbes studied in 1970 carefully removed the large fragments they found in their manure, they didn’t bother with the small debris in their fertilizers. It was probably the same in ancient Greece, as the majority of shards found during the surveys are small and particularly worn out. Perhaps they had long been trampled, lying in a house or in other place of passage and they were eventually being swept into the farmyard.
To support his claim, Forbes engaged in a clever calculation that inculded the thickness of the land plowed by the Greek hoe — tsapa — the frequency with which farmers added fertilizers, the maximum weight a donkey could carry, and the proportion of shards that archaeologists find when they excavate. The result is this: an average of one shard (or even fewer in some cases) per fertilizer bag, which fully explains the density of ceramics in the Greek countryside.
So there’s no need to imagine that, back then, the fields were open dumps.