Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


5 June 2012

Stella G. Souvatzi, 2008. A Social Archaeology of Households in Neolithic Greece: An Anthropological Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hardback, 320 p., 82 figures, 7 tables, 25.3x17.7 cm, ISBN 978-0521836890

Reviewed by Maria Chaloglou, PhD candidate, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
(mchaloglou [at]


This monograph is the product of Stella Souvatzi’s doctoral thesis which she received from Cambridge University in 2000. The volume adds to an already existing literature on the use of domestic space and households in Neolithic archaeology (for example Hodder 1990, Bradley 2005). S. attempts to follow, as suggested already in the title, an anthropological approach within the frame of social archaeology, using case studies from Neolithic Greece and incorporating her material within the theoretical models she chooses most successfully to adopt. Two chapters in particular (Four, The Ideal and the Real: The Examples of Early Neolithic Nea Nikomedeia and Middle Neolithic Sesklo, and Five, Complexity is not only about Hierarchy: Late Neolithic Dimini, a Detailed Case Study in Household Organisation) are entirely devoted to three of the most important Greek Neolithic sites, while, throughout the work, providing the reader with a wide spectrum of examples from the Greek Neolithic, thus mixing archaeological material and theory in a most coherent manner.

In Chapter One, the author discusses The Household in the Social Sciences. S. sets the scene for what is to follow, by considering the link between the household’s three main analytical levels (morphology, activity and ideology) and stressing that the relationship between them is never monocausal but rather interactive (19). Unfortunately, she also offers a rather unsatisfactory definition of the household, clearly a crucial element of such a study. Her description (9–12) is so verbose and rambling, that it seems to lose the point. She is right, however, to argue that the household is a process rather than a thing (20).

From there she proceeds to Chapter Two (The Household as Process in a Social Archaeology) where current archaeological theory of the household is approached in a critical way. The author distances herself from the tenets of both processual and post-structuralist archaeology, as for the former “the household is merely an adaptation to social environment”, while the latter “overemphasise(s) symbolism and ideology” (32). Meanwhile, although she is correct to state that one of the household’s most interesting features is that it simultaneously looks both at society and self (39), S. uses much of what she discounts in this chapter in those that follow. For example, she frequently uses the notions of ‘symbol’ and ‘symbolism’. What is more, it would have been helpful to the reader if this non-archaeological terminology had been carefully defined and explained in relation to the material. Since this has not been done, there is inevitably a degree of vagueness in many parts of S.’s subsequent discussion. For example, in the case of Sesklo, “the symbolic focus on floor sections and activities, the energetic and symbolic investment in the layout of interior” (98) and at Dimini, the “symbolic and ritual practices are evidenced in the form of foundation deposits, burials, possible rites of abandonment, and ritualised food consumption” (144), statements which lack any further interpretation based on the importance and specific function of symbols.

Chapter Three, The Neolithic of Greece, offers a brief though coherent and well-structured overview of the available data while acting as a bridge between the book’s first theoretical part and the following chapters. In Chapters Four and Five, the sites of Nea Nikomedeia, Sesklo and Dimini are reviewed systematically in relation to the notions of spatial organisation, social action and household life. Regarding Sesklo A and Sesklo B, the author emphasises the social, economic and ideological connections between the two sectors, despite their differences in longevity, an observation that stresses the strength of collectiveness over individualism (105–106). In the case of Dimini, and while taking into consideration the difficulties the author faced in dealing with the material (for example, the pottery has not been systematically studied and much of the data remain unpublished), she argues that the production and use of pottery involves many complex and distinctive activities which imply that pottery formed an important part of the socioeconomic and ideological life of the site (123). The same is true of households, which in different ways, but with equal force, played a central role to the viability and welfare of the society (153).  

Chapter Six, Homogeneity or Diversity? Households as Variable Processes, is where S. considers the larger picture. Are there variations between and within sites and, if so, how can these be detected in the archaeological record? S. travels with relative ease from Thessaly and central Greece to the Peloponnese and the Aegean islands, concluding that the overall picture is one of uniformity rather than heterogeneity. At the same time, there are regional characteristics differentiating one site from another, as evidenced in pottery and the rest of the “domestic equipment”, while cultural uniformity was maintained through the establishment of a stable communication system (203). In other words, is it the amalgamation of diversity and homogeneity, an interesting mixture of internal and external forces that provide an overall complex picture which is far from easy to disentangle fully?

In Chapter Seven, Evolution or Contingency? Households as Transitional Processes, the author discusses the social context of artefacts. This is where the social theories reviewed in Chapter One and material culture coherently meet. For example, S. argues that the highly decorated Neolithic pottery stresses the value of food consumption in socialisation and the maintenance of social order (225), strongly reminiscent of David, Sterner and Gavua’s concluding remarks in their 1988 paper Why Pots are Decorated, although S. begins her argumentation from a completely different angle, as she does not adopt the ethnoarchaeological perspective of David et al. Despite the title’s emphasis on the study’s Anthropological Approach, S.’s theoretical base is heavily sociological and does not, therefore, encompass the wider spectrum of anthropological plurality. Nonetheless, her discussion of the social context of production of artefacts is solid and consistent. She argues that the household and the individual emerged in response to social integration, the central element of Neolithic communities in Greece (p. 234). It is thus heterarchy, rather than hierarchy, that shapes social relations. Commonality and human agency coexist in Neolithic Greece, functioning in a constant dialectic relationship.

Finally, the concluding Chapter Eight, Household and Beyond: Implications and Prospects for Social Archaeology, summarises the aims of the study and considers avenues for further research.

The book offers a well-written, credible review and discussion of households in Neolithic Greece. S. is successful in demonstrating how the archaeological material, particularly pottery assemblages, can be incorporated into theory. She correlates social and domestic structures from the very early stages of Neolithic Greece until its end while careful not to fall into the usual trap of over-generalisation as her arguments are consistently tied to specific case-studies. Although our reading would have been fruitfully complemented by a more in-depth and less reluctant insight into anthropological matters, the author’s interpretation is important and comprehensive.



David, N., J. Sterner & K. Gavua, 1988. ‘Why Pots are Decorated’, Current Anthropology 29.3: 365–389.

Bradley, R. 2005. Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe, London.

Hodder, I. 1990. The Domestication of Europe: Structure and Contingency in Neolithic Societies, Oxford.


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