A Career in Landscapes

We have about one more week of field work on the Western Argolid Regional Project. The project has been at full strength for the last three and a half weeks and the field teams have been remarkably efficient, averaging about .3 sq km per day.

I’m tired. My body aches, and fieldwork has increasingly become an exercise in pacing, energy management, and hydration as teams wrap up surveying difficult units or work on special documentation projects across our survey area.

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It dawned on me that this could be my final field season on a major project in my career. I’m in my mid-40s and by the time this project is published and my other projects are done, I’ll be pushing 50.

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Whatever type of fieldwork I do as a 50 year old won’t be the same – or probably even similar to what I’m doing now. Last week, I went on one more hike just to check if a web of goat tracks could have been a route between two areas of our survey zone.

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It was obviously a way, but clearly not a route (much less a path or road). These long walks were my archaeological calling card for years, particularly in the Eastern Corinthia, but after this week’s hike, I’m pretty sure my boots will be reserved for the more mundane and low impact tasks like keeping my socks clean.

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The biggest thing I’ll miss (other than, you know, finding stuff and the bizarre conversations one has while stomping through dense maquis in the Greek countryside) are the unexpected vistas that appear as one rounds craggy hills or looks back on ones path.

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They seem to scale endlessly across ever shifting foregrounds and backgrounds. Hills become ridges, ridges become plateaus, plateaus become fields. The landscape goes from olive trees and plough marks to fields and the countryside. Paths so obvious from maps or photographs disappear into vegetation.

I’m sad that I’ll likely never again hike around with the same sense purpose as I did last week and on-and-off over the previous 20 years.

Landscapes, Olive Sieves, Tiles, and Pallets

Another week in the landscape of the Western Argolid brought another little assemblage. This time we discovered four or five olive sieves in a group. An olive sieve removes leaves and twigs from the olives making it easier to prepare the olives for pressing or curing.

They’re little studies in design and improvisation with bike wheels, snow fencing, chicken wire, and rebar attached to improvised frames and boxes. 

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We also checked out a few small houses that dot the olive groves. Most of them look pretty recent in date, but they have collapsed roofs and tile scatters. 

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And, of course, landscapes:

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Oh, and pallets!

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WARP Gear: Pants, Watches, and Socks

I like stuff. Readers of this blog know that my interest in things extends from by interest in archaeology, things, and ancient artifacts to modern audiophile gear and the things that archaeologists use in the field. As the first week of Western Argolid Regional Project is almost done, I wanted to share some of my new favorite things.

Last spring, Richard Rothaus and I chatted at some length about what’s in our bags, our trucks, and our archaeological tool kits. A few years earlier, I presented what was in my bag. Most of that still holds, with a few exceptions. For example, I’ve upgraded my headphones, my amplifier, and my portable music player. I accidentally left my beloved Wonpro plug strip in the Polis storerooms. Otherwise, my bag looks pretty much the same.

I did add a little gear to person, though, that makes intensive pedestrian survey and archaeological fieldwork, in general, better.

  1. Mountain Khakis. A few years ago on a lark, I bought a pair of Moutain Khakis to wear in the field. These pants changed my life. For the past four field seasons I’ve worn them almost every day in the field. They’re thick enough to prevent all but the most insistent thorns from getting through and they’re cotton which breathes well in the hot Mediterranean summer. These are canvass pants. They’re great. Get them for field work.

  2. Seiko Watches. I wear a watch in the field for lots of reasons. Mostly I like to wear a watch, and, in particular, I like to wear a mechanical watch. It’s not that digital and quartz watches aren’t fine things, but for the dollar, a well-made mechanical watch is the way to go, and they don’t have batteries to worry about. Last year, I relied on a trusty Seiko 5, a more or less bullet proof Seiko watch that runs about $50 on Amazon. This year, I upgraded to something a bit more rugged, a Seiko dive watch, and a SRP777 in particular. This watch is a reproduction of the iconic 6309 diver made in the 1970s and 1980s which was known for its cushion shape and slightly recessed, polished bezel. It has a solid, mid-range, Seiko movement in it, is hacking, automatic, and hand winds. I get about two days of reserve on it. It’s a nice watch and great field work piece.

  3. Smart Wool socks. Dimitri Nakassis mentioned these socks to me last year in an offhand way, and when I started looking for a some field socks this spring, they were there staring at me at a local sporting good store. So I got a few pairs to trial this season. So far, they’re great. Not only are they super comfortable, but they dry super quickly which is important when quick turn around after washing is important.

The First Days of the Western Argolid Regional Project 2016

Today was the first full field day of the final full field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP). It was immeasurably better than the first full day of the project last year and probably a bit better than our first field day in 2014.

While we still have some open plains around the Inachos river, for this season, our survey area is a striking mix of narrow valleys and steep hill slopes.

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Oranges, apricots, olives, peaches, vineyards, and the occasional pomegranate trees, planted in neat rows organize our survey units.

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More than any other year, we’ll have to contend with the early modern and modern landscape.

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So think of us as we stagger to our cars at 6:30 in the morning.

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Spring cleaning!

You know you’re gearing up for a new season in the field when you’re cleaning up a winter’s worth of dust, cobwebs, etc. in your storage and study facility. This is really sensitive work that only people with highly specialized degrees and extensive archaeological experience are capable of doing:

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Dimitri vacuuming
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My camera lens isn’t dirty; that’s the distinctive blur from fine dust agitated by sweeping and suspended in the air…

Archaeology and destruction

Archaeological sites are sites of destruction. They are destroyed by people for all kinds of reasons, including good ones. Excavation, too, after all, is a kind of destruction. And some destruction is inevitable. Especially in countries like Greece, there has to be a balance between development and heritage. People need to build houses and roads, after all. And farmers need to work their fields, which in this day and age often requires modifying the natural landscape to make it more conducive to mechanization and irrigation.

One of our sites from 2014 was pretty badly bulldozed this year. I found the evidence of it two days ago, when I was driving around our survey area inspecting our old sites. A farmer has purchased (or perhaps he always owned) a large number of contiguous plots of land, and he’s bulldozed and plowed them in order to make a large apricot grove. In the process, he used his bulldozer to make large terraces up the hillslope. These cuts have clearly sectioned archaeological levels. There is freshly-broken material everywhere.

It was upsetting to see the destruction, and it was disorienting to walk around a once-familiar landscape that suddenly made no sense to me. I couldn’t quite remember what exactly had been there before, where the fields were where in 2014 we had found some whole loomweights and spools.

On the one hand, I can’t really blame the farmer. If I had to guess, I’d guess he didn’t know what he was destroying. He also needs to earn a living. The field isn’t so big; it wasn’t some faceless, evil agroindustrial villain that did this, I don’t think. Agricultural modification of the landscape is as old as the hills (figuratively). And this is what survey is for: rescuing some information for archaeological research. In 2014 we collected an enormous amount of data about this site. Short of excavating it, we’ve extracted almost as much data as we can, and in our publication we’ll be able to say quite a lot about it. And part of the reason to do survey is to capture this information before development destroys it forever.

On the other hand, the destruction bugs me. I wish that this farmer hadn’t done this, that our site could have stayed the way that it was, split into little, grassy fields.

I know. It’s a dumb, romantic wish.

Over Hill, Over Dale

[Ed.: Originally posted on the Canadian Institute in Greece‘s site]

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The Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) has just concluded its second field season. Whereas in the 2014 season the project surveyed in the area of the modern village of Lyrkeia, which sits on the northern edge of a wide open mountainous river valley, the 2015 season focused on the lower reaches of the Inachos river as the valley begins to flatten out and open up into the Argive plain, in the territories of the modern villages of Schinochori and Malandreni.

This farm house is evil.

 

Over the course of six weeks (3 June — 14 July), our six field teams intensively surveyed 6.8 square kilometers in 2,699 survey units, criss-crossing the sometimes rough and rocky terrain of this year’s survey area. Like last year, we found a wide variety of artifacts and sites, from the Early Bronze Age to the Modern period, with Archaic to Hellenistic predominating. The total artifact density for 2015 was about two thirds of that from the 2014 field season. This is very surprising considering that (1) we were operating in such close proximity to Argos (about 10 km) and (2) this year’s survey area is a much more actively utilized modern landscape, with many more field houses (kalyvia), threshing floors (alonia) and other agricultural installations. Many of these were no longer in use, giving us an opportunity to do some targeted survey and study of abandoned modern buildings. At next year’s annual meeting of the AIA we’ll be presenting a paper based in large part on this year’s work entitled “Roads, Routes and Abandoned Villages in the western Argolid” as part of a colloquium on deserted villages organized by Deb Stewart and Kostis Kourelis.

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Our team was bigger than last year’s: we added an extra field team and in total there were 22 field walkers, evenly split between students from Wilfrid Laurier University (Scott’s home institution) and the University of Colorado Boulder (Sarah’s home institution). They patiently endured the less fun parts of the Greek landscape, like spiders and ankle-turning fields of weeds, with good cheer, and even embraced the challenge of walking directly up rocky slopes! We were lucky to retain almost all of our graduate students from the 2014 season, so students were expertly guided by a remarkable group of very experienced, intelligent, and hard-working team leaders.

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Like last year, we took students on field trips to sites in the northeastern Peloponnese, including the CIG excavations at Stymphalos, but there were some changes, too: this year we went as a team to a performance at the Epidauros theatre. We saw a riveting performance of Euripides’ “Trojan Women” by the National Theatre of Greece. To help us appreciate the play, Professor John Gibert (University of Colorado Boulder) visited the project for just over a week and gave presentations on ancient theatre (in the ancient theatre of Argos) and on the “Trojan Women” specifically. Also unlike last year, this year we were joined by some new staff: Ioanna Antoniadou, an archaeologist and anthropologist who worked with the team for eight weeks as the project’s ethnographer, and Joe Desloges and Pamela Tetford, fluvial geomorphologists who studied the Inachos river and its effects on the landscapes of the western Argolid. These specialists are fleshing out our understanding of the recent past and the present of the local communities with and around whom we work, as well as the geological past and present of the region. Although these studies are still preliminary, they have already helped the project immeasurably, not only for research but also for student training.

For more information on WARP, please visit our project website and blog at westernargolid.org!

Real Tools for Academic Landscapes

Over the last few months, I worked my way through Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009). The book argues for the value of “real,” hard work which he distinguishes from the professions that dominate the white-collar, college-educated, information-based, and academic worlds. Crawford himself straddles the line between academia, where he’s been a fellow at various prestigious universities, and work at his Richmond, Virginia area motorcycle repair shop.  On the whole, Crawford finds the latter work not only more challenging, but also more morally rewarding in that the relentless reality of vintage motorcycles refuse to be re-imagined, to succumb to elusive academic arguments, or problematized in more nuanced ways. If he wanted to make a living, he had to fix real, mechanical problems for his customers. The book is well-known and has been reviewed by more thoughtful critics than me. 

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It was fun to think about this book while I worked away on the landscape of the Western Argolid with the Western Argolid Regional Project. My job on the project was relatively unspecific, but I spent most of my field days walking our survey with one of our talented graduate students team leaders and dividing it into units to be walked by one of our 5 or 6 field teams. On an average day, we walked 5-7 miles through olive, orange, and apricot groves, up and down terrace walls, and through dense patches of maquis. As I’ve noted on this blog before, it was hard work, but at the end of the season, I felt like I had a much more thorough understanding of the landscape than was possible from viewing the splendid World View 3 satellite images on my laptop.

This got me thinking about how important having the right tools for my job is. The right tools were not important in the abstract way that having the right software for my laptop made a job easier, but in a genuinely physical way. For example, having the right pants for hiking around the Greek countryside prevented my legs from being cut to shreds by the thorny vegetation of the Mediterranean. Over the past four or five years, I’ve discovered the value of long-sleeve work shirts to protect my arms from sun, thorns, and insects. Boots are another matter entirely. This summer, I wore a pair of decent (and rather expensive) boots that barely stood up to my day-to-day. They were rugged enough to not disintegrate, but they did not provide enough cushioned to protect my feet from the daily pounding. 

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The right pants, shirts, and (probably the wrong) boots did remind me that there were physical realities to archaeological work that directly related to the kind of data that we collected from the field. I realize that other academic scholars confront these kinds of realities daily – whether they relate to the access hours of an archive or the maintenance of a fussy instrument in lab. At the same time, I wonder whether the relationship between our research and our bodies in archaeology (and this is true of all of the field disciplines) anchors our thinking in the same landscape (and perhaps even a shared physical reality) as the people whom we study. 

Ceramicists take to the field!

All archaeological work is constrained: by budget, by personnel, by university structures, by local administrative structures, and so on. Our project is no different. Bill, Sarah and I worked on a project — the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) — where we were limited in our ability to collect artifacts. What this meant was that survey teams would collect artifacts and then leave them in the field. Artifact processing teams would then analyze these artifacts, usually under a shady tree. As you might imagine, this wasn’t what EKAS had in mind when the permit request was written, but the project managed to find some positives from this restriction. As we wrote back in 2006,

An unexpectedly positive response to the restriction on nonsite collections was found in the creation of in-field artifact-processing teams that examined the finds in their contexts of discovery. In-field processing became a fundamental component of our integrative philosophy, and serendipitously enforced our inclination to limit artifact collections for other reasons: the negative impact on the surface archaeological record and the crisis of storage space in Greek museums.

Having ceramicists out in the field isn’t normal for most field surveys. Instead, ceramic analysts are usually to be found in the lab, processing and analyzing material that field teams have collected. This is the way that WARP works, or at least, is meant to work: Scott and Sarah stay in our laboratory and read pottery during the day.

The reason that we do this, in part, is because of limitations placed on us: our laboratory is secured by the guards of the local museum, and they hold the keys and they know the security codes. (The material in our lab is, after all, their responsibility as guards). So they open the laboratory for us in the morning, and they shut it in the afternoon. That means that our lab time is limited to 8 am to 2 pm at best, as we work around the regular working hours of the museum guards. Our field time is also limited by these hours: we need to return from the field by 2 pm, so that the artifacts we collect can be placed in our secure labotary/storage facility. Other projects are allowed to work in the lab in the afternoon and evening, after the field-work is done, but this is a luxury that is not available to us.

So, if we’re going to keep up with the material we’re collecting (which is important for all kinds of reasons), Sarah and Scott need to be working full-time in the lab. The downside to this is that we miss their expertise in the field, and they miss out on experiencing the landscape as they would like (and as we would like them to).

But things changed on Tuesday, as our ceramicists took to the field:

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What you’re seeing there is an awful lot of expertise, collecting all the good stuff — by which I mean diagnostic bits of pottery and tile. What I want to stress is that what we gain in efficiency by having Scott and Sarah in the lab we lose in in-the-field expertise. We lose what EKAS had: all of its experts in the field at once. Indeed, having Scott and Sarah in the field on Tuesday was incredibly useful, as they were able to pick up material that gave us a lot more chronological and functional information about the areas that are of particular interest to us. It’s also incredibly useful for the project to have our experts out in the field because invariably the more sets of knowledgeable eyes we have on our survey area, the better our interpretations will be. Sarah will look at the landscape differently than I, but the best interpretations will take account of both of our impressions and understandings.

Perhaps this is yet another example of the trade-offs between efficiency and expertise. It is efficient, given the restrictions under which we work, for me and Bill to work in the field and for Sarah and Scott to work in the lab — mostly because Bill and I would make a hash of our survey pottery — but this really limits the very thing that fieldwork needs most to produce good knowledge: expertise at the edge of archaeological discovery.