I’ve been reading a recently published study on the historical geography of the Maeander River Valley in western Turkey (Peter Thonemann, The Maeander Valley: A Historical Geography from Antiquity to Byzantium ), and it resonates with the section on ‘inventing and inventorying wetlands’ in the “Places in watery worlds” chapter by van de Noort and O’Sullivan from their book Rethinking Wetland Archaeology (2006) in this week’s readings. The authors suggest that
people in the past did not think in terms of environmental systems or ecosystems (e.g. wetlands), but developed ‘native ecologies’ using their own terms to define specific topographical features or places (36).
This is reflected in the way people name the watery landscapes around them, and especially the features in them. This is addressed specifically in Thonemann’s book:
An obvious indication of this sense of regional assocition comes from the names which the inhabitants of the Maeander valley gave to their settlements. The Greeks had always used geographical or descriptive ‘tags’ [akin to van de Noort and O’Sullivan’s -moor, -dyke, -fen, -bridge, -on-the-water, etc. (34)] to distinguish between homonymous cities… We should emphasize that these geographical designations represent a positive choice, a conscious decision to categorise a city in one way rather than another… the inhabitants of Magnesia on the Maeander could, like the inhabitants of Magnesia under Sipylus, have chosen to call their city ‘Magnesia under Mycale’ [a nearby mountain] or ‘Magnesia under Thorax [another mountain]; Antioch on the Maeander could have been called Antioch by Caria [the name of a region in western Turkey]. Instead, both communities chose to take their names from river Maeander… the Maeander continued to be a central element in the local identity of the city’s inhabitants (2011: 24-25).
This is particularly compelling in that while the course of the ancient Maeander river is traditionally associated with the river known in modern Turkish as the Büyük Menderes, outlined roughly in the image on the left (though any google search for photos Maeander river will demonstrate that the word we use in English to denote the wiggling, winding and sinuous course of a line comes from this historic feature!), this is not necessarily the case (Thonemann 2011: 20-21). The river named Maeander was historically contingent, and its course “can be dragged north or south by chances in the dominant channels of communication” (ibid.) because of the number of rivers in the area that could be designated the Maeander, as well as their geomorphological chances over time. This situation emphasizes not just the identity that humans find in their watery surroundings, but the fluidity of that identity and how it changes the very perception of the landscape itself.
To bring it back around to this week’s topic, the management of the Maeander river delta – and its marshlands especially – by various authorities is alternatively interpreted as disastrous and beneficial; while in antiquity the laborious canalizing of the wetlands to provide for agriculture was considered a necessity to support the rural population, the gradual reclamation of it into a marshland in the eleventh century
from one perspective may look like agrarian collapse, [but] may be interpreted from another point of view as a rational and profitable commitment to pastoral specialisation [“the marshy, humid meadows of the Maeander delta in its uncontrolled state…are very well suited to horse-rearing, providing as the do almost unlimited resources of lush pasturage” (305)].
In this way we can think not just about the fluidity of identity in the area but bring it back to Prof. Harmanşah’s stated focus for this week:
- wetlands as habitat (including but not limited to humans);
- wetlands as repository of environmental history and the archaeological record
As we continue discussing wetlands throughout this week’s lectures, class discussion and responses on this blog, it is important to keep those goals at the forefront because, as this case study demonstrates, they are so relevant when applied to a specific situation. In the end, this historical case study of the Maeander delta highlights what Thonemann calls a ‘cautionary tale’:
The economy of the delta wetlands was at all periods a highly sophisticated and complex system, made up of a variety of interdependent elements – fisheries, salt-panning, pasturage, fowling and agriculture. The point is that the intrinsic instability of this ecological system rendered it, with sufficient commitment of resources, magnificently flexible (306).