Why I like archaeological survey

Over the past several months, a couple of different people have asked me why I like survey. My initial response is always intellectual. I talk about the importance of understanding the countryside, about the urban bias of our texts and excavations, the approach of books like The Corrupting Seaand so on. In both cases, that wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted. What they wanted to know was, why did I like getting up before dawn to wander around the Greek countryside for six hours or more over six+ weeks?

Strangely, that’s a more complicated answer. As a student, I wasn’t immediately drawn to archaeological survey, although I was of course exposed to it as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, especially in the classes that I took from Sue Alcock and John Cherry. I first got seriously interested in survey because of the senior thesis that I wrote on settlement and state formation in Minoan Crete. I knew that I was interested in state formation (thanks to classes with John Cherry and Kent Flannery) and I knew that it was too big a topic for an undergraduate thesis. So I had spent the summer reading Colin Renfrew’s The Emergence of Civlisation (1972) — a book, incidentally, that convinced me that I wanted to be an Aegean prehistorian — and went into John Cherry’s office with a list of areas that interested me. One of them was settlement, and that sealed my fate: I ended up writing my thesis on published survey data from Crete from the Bronze Age, with a focus on the relationship between settlement data and state formation.

So my initial interest in survey was based on thinking, not doing. I had done survey for two weeks in Tunisia on the Leptiminus project back in 1995, and I liked it, but it wasn’t immediately my passion. But my intellectual interest in landscape and settlement led to me working on survey projects as I entered graduate school, both on the Iklaina Archaeological Project and especially the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey.

So that’s part of the story… but the way that I’ve told it might suggest that I like survey as an intellectual and analytical activity but not in practice. That’s not the case. So when I’ve been asked why I like to get up before dawn and wander around the Greek countryside, I tend to talk about a couple of different things:

(1) The Greek landscape is really beautiful. I won’t ever get tired of looking at this:

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And this isn’t even the most iconic form of the Greek landscape (the deep blue Aegean up against the painted white houses of the Cyclades), but it’s still wonderful and variegated. Some of my favorite moments in Greece have been driving around a corner to be greeted to a wide and beautiful vista (the road to Kato Zakros in Crete is one of the best).

(2) The Greek landscape is endlessly surprising. This is true both generally — there are so many beautiful little valleys and harbors in Greece that you could spend your whole life visiting them — and in particular — walking through a familiar landscape will yield all kinds of little surprises.

(3) I love to explore and to hike. Loving survey is about embracing that spirit of exploration: of wanting to hike the trail that you haven’t yet hiked, not knowing where it goes. It sounds cheesy, and it is, but to love survey I do think you need to want to hike up to that hill in the distance to see what’s there.

This will sound familiar to veterans of the American School’s regular program, which involves a lot of hiking up to hills to see what’s there. When I went to Priene on the Ionia trip led by John Camp, my first thought and first question to John was, “Can I hike up to the acropolis?”

After being asked why I liked survey and giving these three responses, I started to wonder where (3) came from. Why do I have this strange desire to hike up to hills and mountains to see what’s up there? Was it drilled into me at the American School? Or does it come from somewhere else?

Thinking back on it, I spent an awful lot of my childhood hiking up hills in Greece. Most of my father’s family never left Greece, and so my summer vacations as a child involved going to Greece to visit my uncle, my cousin, and my grandparents. And Nakassis family vacations basically involved eating, swimming, and wandering up to hills.

Me at Mycenae, 1982 (or 1981?)
Me at Mycenae, 1982 (or 1981?)

Doesn’t it look like I’m having a great time? We wandered up hills like this one, with world-famous, UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites on them, but we also hiked up to castles (like the Frankish castle above Voidokoilia beach, which we did without bringing any water with us!) and also up mountains with nothing on them at all, like when we were on vacation on Kos and Lesvos.

I do think that there’s something to this idea, that I like survey not only for intellectual reasons that emerged from my undergraduate education and my exposure to professors who were and are passionate about the ability of survey to shed light on the ancient world, but also because it involves a bodily practice and a bodily engagement with the Greek landscape that is almost literally hard wired in me from years of childhood vacations with my family. I managed to turn vacation activities into serious research. I’m not too upset about that.

WARP at the 2015 annual meetings of the AIA

The preliminary program of the 2015 annual meeting (in New Orleans) of the Archaeological Institute of America  is out, and our talk is scheduled for a Friday morning session called “Reports from The Field: Greece.” The name of the session is boring, but the content should be fascinating: the audience will hear about the exciting work of our friends at the Mazi survey and the most recent work at Mantineia, Olynthos, and Molyvoti in Thrace. It’s a testament to the growing internationalization of Greek archaeology and the AIA that these are Canadian (WARP), Swiss (Mazi), British (Olynthos), American (Molyvoti), and (I think) Greek (Mantineia) projects.

Here’s the abstract that we submitted to the AIA:

The Western Argolid Regional Project: Results of the 2014 Season

Dimitri Nakassis, University of Toronto, Sarah James, University of Colorado
Boulder, Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University, and William Caraher,
University of North Dakota

The summer of 2014 was the first of three planned field seasons for the Western Argolid Regional Project. This interdisciplinary project, carried out under the auspices of the Canadian Institute in Greece, is centered on an intensive diachronic archaeological survey of the upper valleys of the Inachos river to the north and west of Argos. Our survey seeks to investigate the nature of the relationships between the communities in and around the western Argolid. This is a significant issue, since although Argos is a major center in virtually all periods of Greek history, its regional context and its connection to other cities in southern Greece is poorly understood, in part due to the paucity of research in the western Argolid, especially in comparison with the eastern half of the prefecture.

In 2014 the survey worked in the region of ancient Orneai (modern Lyrkeia), an independent polis destroyed in the late 5th century BC by Argos (Thucydides 6.7.2, Diodorus Siculus 12.81.4-5), and through which the Klimax, a major road connecting Argos and Mantineia, passed (Pausanias 2.25.4-6, 8.6.4). The region thus lay at the edge of Argive influence and at the intersections of several overland corridors and roads that connected the communities of southern Greece.

In the course of a six-week field season, the project surveyed an area of 5.5 square kilometers and investigated seven major sites in addition to numerous minor scatters, all ranging in date from the Early Bronze Age to the Ottoman-Venetian periods. The survey was highly intensive in its spatial control and in its collection strategy: individual survey units, defined primarily by modern agricultural fields, were very small (on average, 0.21 hectares), and field walkers, spaced at 10 meter intervals, collected all artifacts other than tile, which was sampled.

Our preliminary analysis of the 2014 season suggests that there were two major shifts in the settlement history of the valley. First, there was a massive increase in activity during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, with settlement focused on low, defensible hills. These low limestone outcrops also seem to be favored loci for pre-Classical activity. This pattern shifts dramatically in the Roman period: Roman and post-Roman settlement is characterized by nucleated habitation on the lower slopes on the north side of the valley, less than half a kilometer from the Inachos river.

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Some old images of the Inachos river valley

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This summer I picked up a cool little book on the ancient rivers of the Argolid in my favorite bookstore in Argos.  It’s got some interesting stuff in it, including some reproductions from Christopher Wordsworth’s Greece: pictorial, descriptive, and historical (London 1840), which includes nearly 400 images, mostly wood engravings but also some steel engravings too. There are two images of our survey area.

The first is a steel engraving entitled “Scene on the Inachus, near Planitza, from a sketch by Hervé.” Planitsa (or Planitza, or Panitsa/Panitza) is actually the old Greek name of the Inachus river, so perhaps there’s some confusion here in the label; or perhaps there was a local toponym also called Planitza?

Scene on the Inachus, near Planitza, from a sketch by Herve

In any case, you can see in the distance the distinctive profile of Mount Artemision, which looks like this, from a slightly different angle:

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The sketch, assuming that it’s reasonably accurate, must represent the narrowing of the valley just to the west of the village of Sterna, near the church of Ayios Nikolaos.

The second image, a wood engraving, is entitled “Scene on the River Planitza from a sketch by Hervé.” I’m honestly unsure where this is supposed to be…

wordsworth_planitza_p340Hervé, incidentally, was an English artist and author commissioned to create portraits of the leaders in the Greek War of Independence. He wrote a book about his travels, but there are only a couple of drawings in it, including one of Argos, and he spends more time talking about the snakes and dogs of Greece (“Another of the offensive objects in Greece consists in the dogs…”) than about Argos or the Argive countryside. I really need to track down his lithographs, despite his less than charitable views on early modern Greece (e.g., “the Greeks are so totally destitute of any idea of the art of painting” or “The mixture of rich luxury with primitive barbarism [in their clothing] is worth of remark” although he does say that men from Hydra are “particularly good looking” — useful information, I guess).

At any rate, it’s interesting that the first sketch includes a bridge over the river; in our survey we weren’t able to detect any traces of old bridges. It’s something that I meant to follow up on with some of the men in the village who have an enormous wealth of local knowledge that they’re interesting in sharing with me, but in the rush to finish up all of our work, I never managed to ask them. Next season!

 

Some Quick Notes on Intensive Survey Method in the Argolid

This weekend I finally got around to putting together my various notes from database and GIS crunching and field observation on the Western Argolid Regional Project. Since we’re still working to analyze finds from this season, our main body of data derives from artifact densities. That being said, we have been able to spend a little time figuring out what variables had the greatest influence on artifact recovery throughout the survey area.

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Visibility. The overall visibility in the survey area was right around 50%. Surface visibility did not correspond with artifact densities in a linear way, as survey archaeologists have come to expect. The highest artifact densities peaked first in units with 50% visibility and then in units with 70%—90% densities before dropping off in units with 100% artifact densities. In fact, units with 100% visibility produced fewer artifacts per ha then the average for all units. This serves as a useful reminder that visibility and artifact densities are independent variables even if the drop in density at 100% visibility hints that something strange must occur to artifact recovery rates in fields which have been finely plowed and cleared of all vegetation.

Surface Clast Size. We also recorded surface clast size for each field. Most of our fields consisted of 19-75 mm coarse gravel and these fields along with those with cobble sized (>75 mm) surface clast produced the highest densities. The average visibility in these fields falls between 41% and 53% respectively. Cobbles tended to produce more artifacts per ha than average visibility alone might suggest, but not by a vast margin (1040 artifacts per ha rather than the 913 artifact per ha that units with 50% visibility tend to produce). Units with coarse gravel were consistent with visibilities. Interestingly, units with fine gravel or sandy soil produced fewer artifacts than their average visibilities would suggest. Sandy soils, although relatively rare, had 41% visibility but produced only 390 artifacts per ha. It’s tempting to see sandy soils as recently deposited riverine sediments, but they don’t necessarily pattern that way across the survey area.

Background Disturbance. Recently, survey archaeologists have begun to think about background disturbance as a major influence on artifact recovery. This term describes the amount of objects in the soil matrix that distract the eye from the ceramic and man-made lithic objects we are supposed to be identifying.  We recorded background disturbance as either light, moderate, or heavy (or none). Our data showed that units with moderate and light background disturbance performed more or less consistently with their visibility. Units with heavy, background disturbance, however, had much higher than average visibilities (70%) and much lower than predicted artifact densities than this visibility alone would predict. This suggests that high background disturbance might influence recovery rates in a substantial way.

Dominant Vegetation Height. For each unit we recorded the dominant vegetation height. This correlated strongly with surface visibility – as one might expect – with densely overgrown units with vegetation head high or higher (!) having average visibility in the teens (18% and 17% respectively), and waist high vegetation averaged a paltry 33% visibility. Interestingly, head high or higher vegetation produced lower artifact densities than suggested by visibility alone, but we’ve long reckoned that our visibility scale runs to imprecise with very low visibility fields. Units with vegetation at knee height coincided produced densities that coincided with expected visibility, but units with ankle height vegetation produced more artifacts than one might expect from visibility alone.

These short studies demonstrate that artifact recovery rates are influenced by a range of variables present in the landscape. Using visibility and artifact density as a baseline for understanding artifact recovery allowed us to recognize the influence of a range of variables that impacted field walker performance. The highest recovery rates appear to come from units with cobble or coarse gravel, ankle high vegetation, plowed, loose soils, and light or moderate background disturbance producing visibilities of between 70% and 90%.

Western Argolid Regional Project T-Shirts

Every real archaeology project needs a t-shirt for every field season. Experienced archaeologists collect these shirts as a living symbols of their archaeological prowess. (And I mean living literally. After a few days or weeks in the field archaeology t-shirts come to support a thriving ecosystem of bacteria, funguses, and tiny insects).

On WARP we invited our students to contribute suggestion for the shirts. All of the contributions were good, but two were the best. 

The front of the shirt shows a field walker in profile holding a compass in his or her left hand. The rakish hat and backpack add a bit of style to the figure. The text says Western Argolid Regional Project 2014.

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The back of the shirt, designed by a different student, shows the great Larissa fortress that overlooks the Argive plain. Beneath it roll the six cars transporting the eager field teams through the dawn light to their assigned tasks. 

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We think they’re pretty nice!

The end is nigh

The end of the season, that is. Tonight was our last regular group dinner at Γραμμές, after which we took a group photo with the Argolic gulf as our backdrop (we’ll post that later). Bill told everyone to pick up a rock, and that led to skipping stones. Even Lena gave it a go. It was a triumph.

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Others preferred quiet contemplation.

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The sunset was lovely.

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There was much laughter. There were some tears. It’s sad to leave such a beautiful place and such good company.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on the Western Argolid Regional Project 2014

Yesterday was the last full field day with our field teams on the Western Argolid Regional Survey. So I thought I should do a traditional “Good, Bad, and Ugly” post from our field season.

I should emphasize that the project was pretty remarkable. We covered an amazing amount of territory (almost 5.5 sq km), our field teams held up well, our team leaders remained (more or less) in good spirits, and we produced interesting results. With one week remaining we mostly have odds and ends to sort out, some drawings and photographs, and the usual work of data curation.

So without further ado:

The Good.

  1. Units, Resolution, and Efficiency. We walked close to 2400 units while keeping our average unit size to under 2500 sq. m. and through most of the field season we walked an average of 92 units per day. The average unit took a little over 5 minutes to walk so taken together our field teams walked for around 7 hours and 40 minutes per day or about 2 hours per team per 6 hour field day. There are certainly gains to be made in efficiency, but the cost will be steep with our current manpower.

  2. Good Field Clothing. The project produced a spectacular display of innovative, synthetic, hip looking field clothes. The maquis, heat, spiders, and sweat took a toll on all field clothing. I destroyed a pair of decent field pants, but my Mountain Khakis held up with only one repair (generously made by Sarah James). Better still, my sub-$20 Dickies long-sleeve work shirts proved their reputation for indestructibility. Whatever I lost in terms of being stylish, my clothes survived the rigors of a 6+ week field season.

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  1. Beautiful Landscapes. We could not ask for a nicer survey area in terms of scenery. The upper reaches of the Inachos Valley was beautiful especially in the morning light which filtered through the olive trees and the vanishing dew.

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  1. Maps. We mapped our survey units using two sets of very recent satellite images on we printed on a sheet of paper and other we carried with us on our Garmin Oregon GPS units. The two maps were taken at different times of year so they provide different views of the vegetation in our survey area. Mapping onto these high resolution and very recent satellite images was much easier than our practice with earlier surveys where we mapped onto 1:5000 maps or the 1960s era aerial photographs taken by the Greek army.

The Bad.

  1. I’m old. This was the hardest field season that I have ever experienced. My body started to ache about week 4 or 5 and by the end of week 6, I was ill with some kind of fatigue induced cold. My ankle is swollen, my knee is glitchy, and I’m riddled with little cuts, sores, and rashes.

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  1. Boots. The sharp-edged limestone of the Argolid and Corinthia is absolutely brutal on boots. So far this season, I’ve seen gashed soles, torn leather, eviscerated nylon, and other boot related disasters.

  2. Puppies. I’ve never been a dog person, but I’ll admit that watching the puppy saga unfold this year on WARP was heartrending. I’m glad that we managed to save the “micro-dog” although I’m worried that it’ll never learn to walk properly (although people say at 6 weeks no puppy can walk properly). So this is not a bad thing in a traditional sense, but it was an unexpected emotional outlay.

The Ugly.

  1. Spider Sticks. The Western Argolid is filled with large spiders who build beautiful webs between closely spaced trees. These things are creepy and the webs are sticky and annoying especially when you come upon them unexpectedly while field walking. Students (and staff!) discovered the value of a the spider stick. This is a stick – usually made of olive wood – that can brush aside spider webs as you field walk. Unfortunately, they can also be used as weapons to beat down a team leader who has pushed a bit too hard. We only narrowly averted a spider stick uprising in the waning weeks of the season.

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  1. Paper Forms. Our data recording involved two steps. Writing on paper forms in the field and keying the data into a database. The days of paper forms are almost over, however. We saw how the Mazi Project is using iPads to streamline data flow from the field to the laptop. I think there is also a chance that iPads will allow for better, more robust datasets that include more images, more field drawings, and more integrated data both in the field and in the lab.

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3. Larry Potter.  This season was the season of Larry Potter. As my colleagues pointed out, this cohort of students have been involved with Larry Potter from the time they learned to read and the novels, movies, and soundtracks dominate their world. In fact, we had to talk about the possibility that the bamboo sticks used to separate lots in our workspace might be tempting swords, Quidditch sticks, or wands and how that might be facilitate an unhelpful blurring of the line between the productive space of the archaeological workroom and the fantasy space of Larry Potter and friends.

The last day

Today was our last day in the field. We ended our fieldwork on the slopes above and below the acropolis site above the village of Lyrkeia that was, in many ways, the epicenter of our work in 2014. Alyssa and Melanie led a team in a ravine below the acropolis and right next to the modern highway to Tripoli and Kalamata:

IMG_20140710_094414It involved some pretty serious climbing around in terraced (and not-so-terraced) fields with some extreme slopes.

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IMG_20140710_102325In the meantime, Grace and Phil were leading a team on the slopes just above the acropolis that involved just as much climbing and hiking. I didn’t see anyone fall or falter. It was an impressive display.

As hard as fieldwork is — it leaves us with sweat-stained clothes, our hiking boots broken down from stepping on ancient limestone, our skin scratched by maquis, our noses tickled by wild sage, our knees sore from climbing — it is even harder to leave the field. We work in a beautiful landscape and in it we get to find new things every day. It’s really a lot of fun, so as glad as we all are for the rest, and as much accomplishment as we feel for working hard for six weeks, the last day isn’t really a day of celebration or triumph. It is a bittersweet feeling.

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Here is one tired, accomplished, hard-working team leaving the field:

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Western Argolid Regional Puppies

Every archaeological project experiences a crisis at some point. Fortunately, the Western Argolid Regional Project managed to avoid all serious crises until the very last week of intensive field work.

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Over the last week or so a dog and her puppies has been hanging out at the church of Ay. Eleni and Konstantinos in our survey area. Apparently they were left in the care of the saints at some point in the last few weeks. A local woman was feeding the dogs and we provided them with some food and water. On the whole, it was not a very good situation, but one that was stable.

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One of the puppies grew up and “went off to college,” but the other puppy seemed to be doing fairly well. This weekend, the mother decided that she had done her best and left to try her luck elsewhere leaving the puppy alone.

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When we understood the situation, Dimitri Nakassis and I immediately panicked. We then called Sarah James. And I then called my wife. All the while Machal Gradoz was bonding with the puppy and decided to take it back to adopt it on the spot. We made a quick run to the vet in Argos and got some puppy supplies and puppy formula and the crisis has been averted.

The puppy’s name is Eleni after the saint who looked after her for the first few weeks of her life.

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So for today, we are the Western Argolid Regional Puppy (project).

Photo Friday on the Western Argolid Regional Project

Now, I’m almost entirely sure that there is only one more week of full on field work. This past week was cooler and slightly less exhausting, but we still have two weeks to go before we wrap up the first season of the Western Argolid Regional Project.

This morning, I did some field walking for the first time this year. As we filled in a few units that the survey teams missed, Dimitri Nakassis and Stephanie Steinke check the GPS unit to make sure that we are in the right spot.

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The day before I hiked up to the rock shelter fort for the last time this season to fill in a few points on our plans and finish one drawing. It was a cool opportunity to think about how archaeological field work shapes how we hold our bodies.

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I continue to document the things Greeks hang from trees:

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I’ve also been drawn to other agricultural equipment in the field. For example, I liked how these irrigation heads looked in a klouva and the alternative:

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Sunrise over the survey area.

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And some high-tension electrical wires:

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The survey area from the north:

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And a field selfie for kicks:

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