Category Archives: Bill Caraher

Three Years of WARP

As the last field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) winds down this week, I got to thinking about what I’ve learned working with a remarkable group of graduate students and friends. While it’s impossible to compare archaeological projects, I can honestly say that this one provided me with an advance course on archaeological work. I was largely free from thinking about logistics, budgets, or even meals, and could think about 90% of my time about archaeology.

I got to see some remarkable sites, think expansively about our 30 sq km survey area, take in some amazing views, and play with an impressive dataset. We have years of work ahead of us to understand our field work.

At the same time, I think I’ve learned some things about archaeological projects over the past three years. Most of these observations are personal (and not entirely professional), and speak to my interest in the personal mechanics and procedures at the core of archaeological work more than formal methods.

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(1) People Power. On both of my major archaeological field projects, we had great team leaders and trench supervisors. Over the course of three or four field seasons, these graduate students became increasingly autonomous in the field. During the most recent season on WARP, our team leaders more or less ran the day-to-day field program. The directors would provide big picture ideas of how to approach various goals and the team leaders would then organize the teams and take them to various areas and offer quick reports at the end of the field day. They’ve increasingly taken ownership of the data that they collect and their approach to our larger field program and with any luck this ownership will extend through the analysis, writing, and publication process.

The other thing I learned on WARP is that nothing makes up for people power. On WARP we had 6 field teams with 5 teams in the field at once and this allowed us to churn out about .3 sq km per day. No improvements in efficiency – using technology or other Taylorist methods – makes up for simply using more people in the field. More people allows us to do more work. Archaeological work is still a matter of person power and the more survey teams in the field, the more gets done.

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(2)  Communication.  One thing that I know I need to improve is my ability to communicate consistently and clearly with our team leaders, my colleagues, and our students. On the one hand, we tried hard to communicate the big picture to our students and team leaders. We did a series of lectures at the start of the season and interaction in the field. The problem, as always, is that the big picture is always changing and as parts of the landscape start to “make sense,” we end up reformulating hypotheses and shifting our priorities appropriately. Communicating this on the fly is a challenge and even more challenging to communicate across six field teams and their field walkers.

It was also challenging to keep lines of communication open between the folks working in the apotheke and in the field. While this year, they managed (remarkably) to more or less keep pace with the field teams so we had a pretty decent idea what we were finding and where. But there was always a bit of lag between weekly plans and daily discoveries so that teams often found themselves just a bit out of sync.

Finally, there is a balance between overwhelming team leaders with daily meetings (and impinging on their already limited free time) and having meaningful conversations on a regular basis as to the plans and logistics of a project. At the same time, we had to balance conflicting levels of commitment to the project, different research interests, and daily personnel changes.

(3) Structuring my Days. I am a creature of routine and my routine helps me to anticipate how long things will take and how much energy things will require. In other words, structure dictates my productivity in a very straight forward way. I got up around 5 am to do email and blog, and then fieldwork runs from 6:30 AM to around 12:30 or 1 pm. After lunch and a short nap, I spend some time on data management, my notes, and planning the next field day.

Structuring my day became all the more important because for the first time in my archaeological career, however, I had to divide my attention between long-term academic (writing, publishing, thinking) projects and my daily fieldwork regimen. Fortunately, my colleagues here on WARP made it easy for me to structure my afternoons out of the sun so I could focus on my myriad little projects and responsibilities that do not vanish when I get into the field. My daily schedule is the key.

(4) Pacing and Patience. I’m impatient. I want all the data, all the knowledge, all the field work, and all the features, sherds, and places at once. Of course, archaeology doesn’t work like that. Archaeologists must be patient, stay focused on a method, and record diligently, and for the most part I do that. But it takes a massive effort on my part to reinforce our methods in the field, to stick to a plan, and to communicate this plan effectively to our students and team leaders. Archaeology takes time.

Pacing then becomes a really important part of field work, because it ensures that our patience can keep up with our work. We’ve been fortunate the last two seasons to have a running start. We tend to work long days in the first two or three weeks of the season and then let our foot off the gas in the last two weeks or so. For example, we leave the field a bit earlier and I tend to take a day off per week to recover and process data. This means that as the project develops and as we have more data from the field, we have more time to process, organized, and analyze the data coming out of the field.

This isn’t to say that we’re not exhausted at the end of the season, but that our pace has ensured that our patience was exhausted at the same point the we accomplished our research plan for the field season.

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(5) The Archaeological Body. I’ve blogged a bit about how archaeological work – especially intensive pedestrian survey – punishes the body. Archaeology does more than simply exhaust the body, but the entire process of archaeological work exerts a tremendous force upon our person. Our schedules become dictated by the demands of archaeological work on our bodies. Physical fatigue influences our patience, frustration levels, attention to detail, and our ability to concentrate, and this, in turn, shapes how we document the landscape.

In a more productive way, our body in the landscape becomes a way of understand scale and movement through space. Gentle slopes on maps become steep climbs in the field. Densely vegetated hill slopes give way to easy paths. Points on the map maybe closer than they appear or much further apart depending upon the ease of movement through the landscape.

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The Last Days in the Field in Western Argolid

Earlier in the week, I posted on these final days with the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) and the thought that these might the final field days of my career as a survey archaeologist working with big project teams. We had a couple days of especially rugged terrain, and some remarkable finds. Alyssa Friedman, one of our exceptional group of team leaders, took some fun photos of me in the field. 

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We took a great team of students up into a densely vegetated hill slope and did some rather extreme intensive survey.

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Of course, these two days of surveying reinforced my general idea that I’m too old for this kind of work. In fact, I needed a little rest in a tangle of thorny vines.

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It feels like this is a fitting final image:

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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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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. 

Efficiency

Since we’re all about efficiency and archaeological Taylorism here on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I decided to run some numbers, out of curiosity more than anything.

The primary productive unit of the survey is the five member field team. It consists of a team leader and four field walkers. They walk an average of slightly over 100 units per day with occasional outings in the mid-100s. We run 5 field teams a day since one team is in the pottery storerooms. It takes field teams about 7 minutes to walk the average unit with some units taking as much as 7 or 8 times that long (and others taking almost no time). Most teams start their first unit a little after 7 am and finish their last unit around 12:45 pm.  So our field day runs for about 6 hours (to simplify). The teams walk for about 2 hours, 15 minutes per day (or about a third of the time their in the field). The rest of the day is devoted to filling out forms and traipsing from one unit to the next. Lest this makes our field walkers sound lazy, I should point out that, over the course of our field season field, walkers walked over 1000 km (that over 600 miles for Americans). There’s no lack of energy and commitment on the part of our field walkers!

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What I discovered is that the average field team used only 3 walkers for field walking. In fact, the average number of walkers per field was almost exactly 3 (the mode was also 3). This got me thinking that, next year, we should take our 6 field teams of 4 field walkers and divide them into 8 field teams with 3 field walkers. This would have the clear advantage of putting 7 field teams into the field daily (with one team heading to the pottery storerooms each day), and this should increase the number of units walked per day by about 40%. 

When I pitched this to a few team leaders, they responded that the teams often used the fourth field walker to help record information when not walking units. If resulted in an increase in efficiency, we should see that 3 walker units are completed more quickly than 4 walker units. The numbers, however, don’t bear this out. Both 3 and 4 walker units get done in about 9 minutes despite 4 walker units being generally longer (by around 25 meters) than 3 walker units. So, there doesn’t seem – on the face of it – to be any real efficiency gained by 3 walker teams. (I do know that some field teams operated at below full strength, but even when I did some rough work to control for this, it didn’t seem to impact the overall numbers very much).

There is one hitch: Around 65% of our units used fewer than 4 walkers, but about 20% units used 4 walkers exactly. But this, I think, is an artifact of our units being mapped to accommodate 4 walker teams. This might account for why units with more than 4 walkers (but less than 9) average about 11 minutes which is a substantial increase over those with 3 or 4. This is the result of teams having to double walk the unit; that is: walkers having to walk the unit once and then again. Curiously, the 11 minute average is not twice the time taken to walk a unit where every walker walks only once. This is probably because we tended to make larger units from areas where the fields are disturbed and unlikely to produce much pottery. While I haven’t run the numbers recently, historically our ceramic densities decline as unit size increases. So, I suspect one thing that might happen if we shrink our field teams is that we’d shirt our unit size to accommodate the smaller teams. So we’ll do more units, but maybe not survey more ground. 

Of course, to make this all work, we have to find two more excellent team leaders to complement our fine group of six. Moreover, we’d have less margin of error for individual teams. This year we lost a few field walkers each week to ailments ranging from dehydration to sea urchin attacks. Teams dropping to two walkers would struggle to be flexible enough to walk large units and would probably suffer just walking average sized units.

Embiggening the number of teams (by debigulating the number of walkers) might also lead us to increase the number of cars and would almost certainly require us to increase the number of devices assigned to team (cameras, GPS units, Sharpies, et c.). But as a good buddy once quipped, if you can’t afford to do maximum archaeology, perhaps you should just stay in the library. 

Curated versus Automated Revisits

There’s a good bit of buzz lately about Apple Music’s “curated” playlists, and TIDAL, my preference for a music streaming service, offers a range of curated music playlists as well. In general, the term curation, like crafted, artisanal, or any of the other tech-media, marketing buzzwords has come to mean that a human, rather than an algorithm has produced a collection. As many, many have observed, the term curation is annoying and overused.

But I still want to use for a little bit in reference to our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project. This morning, I took some time out of the field to start to analyze some of our finds and field data. We plan to revisit a few units before the season concludes and to collect some more material. Our hope is that these targeted revisits will help us both to refine our survey methods by offering some points to calibrate our sampling strategy, they’ll help us produce more robust assemblages of types of pottery that might only appear in very small quantities using our typical collection approach, and revisits will allow us to document archaeological features a bit more intensively than we would have time and resources to do over the course of intensive survey.

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We target sites for revisit in three ways. First, our field teams can tick a check box and provide a brief explanation for why a particular unit is worth revisiting. Our ceramicists, Scott Gallimore and Sarah James, can also identify units as being interesting, important, or confusing and consequently worth revisiting. Finally, we can analyze data through our GIS and databases that target units with certain characteristics (such as low visibility with either high densities or diverse assemblages). Our revisit lists generated by team leader and ceramicists are not fortified by statistics, but generated through careful observations and total situational awareness. These units represent the slow archaeology approach to landscape and artifact analysis.

So far, it has been heartening to recognize that the lists of revisit units curated by our team leaders and ceramicists are remarkably consistent with the units generated from my analysis of our various databases. In fact, combining the curated list of unit with list of units generated through our analysis of GIS tend to complement each other by expanding the potential target units for revisit. As we nuance the criteria for revisit a bit over the next week, I’m sure that we’ll discover some counterintuitive units that will serve as tests of our archaeological instincts. For now, though, we’ll proceed into the final week of the season with just a bit of confidence that our experiences in the field and at the pottery tables reflects the complexity of our study area.