The Greek Crisis

Our field season at the Western Argolid Regional Project has felt the impact of the Greek economic crisis in rather direct ways. Suddenly all the undergraduates decided that they needed cash and our graduate students have discovered long-neglected piles of receipts that require immediate reimbursement. We’ve made more trips to the ATM than usual, have begun to conserve cash, and have started to feel a bit nervous about the complex web financial arrangements that an archaeological project relies upon to survive.

Our insecurity and inconvenience, however, are nowhere close to what most Greeks are experiencing right now.

The media appears to share our concerns about how the current crisis in Greece will impact both Greece and the rest of the world. Despite this concern, it would seem that many commentators struggle because they have only a very basic understanding of modern Greek history and, as a result, are only too ready to fall back on unhelpful statements about Greece’s ancient traditions of democracy or their foundational role in European civilization. It is nice to remember that our notions of democracy owe a debt to ancient Greece, but it is more important to recall that in the modern world, democracy remains more a lovely Western, historical fantasy than a consistently applied set of political principles.    

This tendency to look back seems to have obscured any critical understanding of Greece’s recent past. For example, few commentators have noted that Greece is among the oldest nations in Europe, but even at the very moment of its birth the powers of Western Europe took an active role in shaping its future. Few have recognized or discussed the difficult periods of financial dependency which robbed Greece of political independence throughout the last 150 years. Finally, commentators have generally overlooked the painful political experience of the Greek Civil War and rule of the military junta which shape Greek attitudes toward modern democracy and European intervention. 

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, the results will express the unique history of the modern Greek state more than any Classicizing fantasy about the ancient origins of European and Western democracy. 

Origins

This week, we made a quick trip to the village of Frousiouna in the far western Argolid. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, some of the residents of this village would make their way toward the Argive plain to winter their flocks. The village of Frousiouna was the origin of the small hamlet in our survey area.

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Archaeologists are often interested in origins whether these are the origins of particular kinds of material culture or groups of people. The Western Argolid Regional Project has as one of its main research focuses is movement through our survey area and the transhumant pastoralists from Frousiouna are part of that history. 

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The well-watered mountain village with impressive two-storey homes is far cry from the rocky fields and simple long houses of their winter settlement in our survey area. 

Survey Method and the Modern Landscape

A few weeks ago, I posted on the problem of “managing the modern landscape in intensive survey.” This week, my conceptual musings actually require operational decisions. By the end of the week, we’ll be surveying around an abandoned modern settlement in the Western Argolid.

The site is beautiful, relatively secluded settlement established by transhumant herders probably in the late 19th or early 20th century. There are a gaggle of traditional Balkan-style long houses which are generally divided into two spaces: one for the animals and one for the people. There are corbeled ovens, leaning sheds, alonia (threshing floors), and mandres (animal pens). The site is surrounded by fields and the houses themselves form an uneven scatter across the lower and middle slopes of a narrow valley.

The project directors and survey team leaders visited the site yesterday afternoon during a gentle rain shower and thought about how to approach the complexity of the modern period site, the abundance of artifacts, and the relationship between houses and other features in the landscape.

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The site offers a few challenges.

(1) Artifact Distribution. Over the past 12 hours, we have discussed endlessly how to deal with the dense scatters of artifacts associated with the abandoned houses. These scatters consist primarily of roof tiles, but since each house may have as many as 3,000 tiles, there is a real opportunity to blow out our ceramics team and storage facilities for very little new information.

So how do we go about documenting the scatter of tiles surrounding these houses? If we simply survey the houses as part of our traditional 2000 sq m survey units, the unit will show a density influence largely by the scatter of material associated with the immediate vicinity of the house. This approach will not represent the “reality on the ground” in the most effective way.

If we attempt to isolate the artifact scatters associated with the houses in the area by excluding them from larger survey units or make them the center of small units focused on the artifact scatters, we have introduced a rather unconventional method to the area and risk producing data that is not necessarily consistent with the data that we’ve collected from elsewhere in the survey area.

We are stuck between the rock of needing to manage modern abundance and the hard place of treating all material from our survey area with a consistent method.

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(2) Architecture. We also need to think about how we are going to document the houses at the site. The houses preserve hints of a wide range of archaeological processes, modifications, and uses. David Pettegrew and I considered many of these same issues in our work to document the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia. It’ll be a great opportunity to encourage students to look closely at a building in the landscape and to consider how material transitions from its primary context to an archaeological context. At the same time, we’ll need to provide some consistent guidance to ensure that the students, team leaders, and directors document the buildings in a consistent way while also being able to describe each building with as much detail and nuance as possible.

We need to figure out whether it is worth doing some illustrations of the houses or should we rely on photographs to capture details that might elude textual descriptions. I generally favor taking the time to illustrate the houses because it forces the documenter to slow down and notice small details that might not appear as clearly through the photographer’s view finder. At the same time, there will be a need for efficiency so we will almost certainly have to document the houses in as efficient way as possible.

(3) Features. The final issue is that houses stand in relation to other features and these clusters of features need to be identified and documented. Like documenting architecture, we need to decide whether to produce illustrations that capture significant detail, rely on textual descriptions, or create a set of maps that emphasize particular spatial relationships.

We need to proceed efficiently and capture data at a scale that is relevant for the kinds of arguments that we intend to make. In an ideal world, we could collect “all the data,” we fortunately occupy a world where “all the data” is not a realistic or helpful goal.

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Photo Friday in the Western Argolid: Cars and Trash Edition

This week was hot. As a result, I was not my usual photographic self. 

It was THIS HOT.

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Despite that, I mapped (that’s not me; actually I wander around offering astute commentary and our amazing team of graduate students map).

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Checked out some neat cars in the field.

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The highlight of the week was a sudden rain shower on Thursday that imparted olive trees with a golden-green glow. I tried (rather unsuccessfully) to photograph it.

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I also had the good luck of discovering a spectacular modern trash dump in a ravine that was later cut by an erosional event. The trash dated to the late 1990s or early 2000s. The dating was done by Machal Gradoz, our project soccer expert (as well as a fine archaeologist) who identified an image of David Beckham on a Pepsi can and dated the uniform, basic information on the can, and hair to the turn of the century.

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The dump was stratified indicating more than one depositional event. The size of the dump, however, suggests that it probably did not represent the primary dump of a village, but was perhaps the dump for one of the small communities in the area. The location of the dump on both sides of the ravine indicates that the dump was cut by the ravine. 

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Age, Priorities, and the Cars

This summer the six survey teams on the Western Argolid Regional Project are working with clock-like efficiency. They churn through units at a remarkable pace and with a remarkable consistency. The good cheer, competence, and general responsibility of our graduate team leaders is amazing. The rest of the team, field walkers, project directors, and our faithful automotive transports have struggled a bit this week to keep up.

So, three quick consideration that have shaped my week in archaeological survey:

(1) Age. Survey archaeology is a young person’s game. This week kicked my ass. I mapped for four days straight, demolished my poor feet, tripped over a terrace wall, dehydrated myself, and got grumpy. Our routine has become that one team leader and I map ahead of our ravenous survey teams trying to keep enough mapped units on the board to keep our fast moving teams busy.

On a good day, the team leader (with my help… cough, cough) can map about 100 units or so and that represents about a day worth of survey work for the teams. This is exhausting work, but it gives me a change to look at almost every survey unit  at least in a superficial way.

The downside is that by the end of the week, I’m completely wrecked. This is despite having exercised systematically over the past 12 months in preparation for the season, almost two decades of field experience in the Mediterranean, and careful precautions against the sun, dehydration, and little injuries. There is nothing more that I can do to keep in the game. Mother nature is taking is pound of flesh. Survey archaeology is a young person’s game.

(2) Fieldwork is all about priorities. For our project that means figuring how when to diversify from the hard work of intensive pedestrian survey and deploy resources to do other important tasks.

There is an overwhelming temptation to revel in the efficiency and steady growth of our fine-grain survey grid across the arable land in our study area. In fact, our methodological predilections eschew more intensive sampling of higher density scatters (places formerly known as sites), and have resisted the temptation to lay out grids, create total collection circles, or indulge in unsystematic grab sampling.  We’ve even gone so far to encourage out team leaders to mark units for revisit (especially units with higher density and lower visibility), but we’ve yet to shift the resources to revisiting or recollecting sites.

Next week, some of that might have to change. We’re going to have to start slowly shifting resources to documenting buildings, walls, features, and unusual artifact scatters. This not only breaks our routine, but also forces us to make difficult decisions about what is more important. Do we document an early modern farm house, first, and then a Venetian fortification? Do we do some more intensive sampling as a way to understand that small scatter of Medieval pottery or do we focus on a partially hidden landscapes from the Early Bronze age?

(3) Cars. The final challenge to a well run survey project – more so than aging directors or conflicting priorities – was how we get into and out of the field. Bruno Latour would be impressed, because nothing impacts the progress of field work more seriously than cars breaking down. This week we’ve had two flat tires on the same car. Clearly, the car is less than impressed with our interest in completing field work. Or maybe the car is on my side and keeping me from completely collapsing under the grind of field work.

Speed

One of the more interesting trends emerging so far during the Western Argolid Regional Project season is competition among field teams. At the end of each field day, I typically ask team leaders how many units they have walked. This seemingly benign question helps us measure our progress through the survey area and gauge how much mapping is necessary to keep ahead of the survey teams. A quick tally of the number of units walked lets me begin to plan the next day as soon as the previous field day is over. 

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Generally our 5 field teams walk between 15 and 20 units and around 90 total. Each unit is around 3000 sq m. so we walk about 1.3 and 1.5 sq. km per week. The number of units we walk depend considerably on the character of the terrain, the size of the units, and the density of artifacts, vegetation, and other distractions to artifact recovery. The size of our field teams is four plus a team leader, but this week we lost a few field walkers to dehydration and bumps and bruises. So a team down a walker will move a bit more slowly than one at full strength especially if the units are slightly larger than average. Historically, field teams walk about 4 units per hour over a 6 hour field day with a couple of breaks for water, znacks (snacks), and transit to and from the field site. 

Teams generally develop a routine where one walker writes tags, one takes a center GPS point, one walker helps with forms, one takes photographs et c. This streamlines the bookkeeping and data recording aspects of intensive pedestrian survey and as the season progresses, small efficiencies occur based on familiarity with the process as much as anything. As the process become more efficient, we usually have to nudge the team leaders to slow things down just a bit to ensure that the teams recognize where they are in the survey area, fill out forms properly, and actually, you know, enjoy the process. Since our project runs as a field school, we see very little benefit to an overly mechanical process that makes our field walkers (and team leaders) into field walking robots (beep, boop, boop, beep, boop).

One thing that I did not anticipate this summer is that teams would start to compete with each other to walk the most units per day. It’s hard not to like the harmless morale boost that comes with walking the most units or besting a team nearby is fun. Moreover, we recognize the field walking – particularly in challenging topography which is difficult to grasp as a coherent space – can be boring and seem pointless. The assembly line was soul crushing in part because of the repetitive character of the work and, in part, because the repetition could obscure the role an individual played in the work’s final result. Unit counts keep the field day interesting.

At the same time, we’ve starting wonder whether there are some less than desirable byproducts of this competition. For example, we don’t want the push to walk more to exhaust field teams more quickly and to contribute to the attrition of team members. We also don’t want to compromise our data collection for some good-natured fun. Finally, we don’t want teams who walk more challenging areas to feel like their contributions are less significant because they didn’t walk enough units. The last thing we want is sad field walkers.  

  

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 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.