A clear day in the Argolid


Yesterday’s cloudy weather yielded a remarkably clear day. I took a couple of pictures of the Argolic Gulf from the town of Myloi. First, looking east towards Nafplio:

The Argolic Bay, from Myloi

And later in the afternoon, looking north towards Argos:IMG_20140530_161111

And in the evening:


Databases and Digital Natives for the Western Argolid

The last few days here in the Western Argolid have been punctuated by database development in the lead up to our first days in the field next week. I’m a bit terrified at the prospect of managing data for five field teams walking 20-30 units a day and producing 500-800 units per week. In a single week, the Western Argolid Regional Project will produce as much data as as my previous project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project produced over all their field seasons and by the end of the season we’ll have produced more data than the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey produced in its three-seaon run. Lots of data.

More and more projects are turning the data management load over to a dedicated IT person or even a team of IT people who set up a local server, develop an integrated data management plan, and supervise the initial collection and processing of data. We don’t have a dedicated IT guy. We have me and a GIS person and a couple of digitally savvy co-directors, and a good group of team leaders. 

This situation has led to some particular decisions in our digital workflow. So, in this context, I can offer three observations:

1. Paper Forms. We’re sticking with paper forms in the field for a few reasons. First, we have no resources to devote to developing a tablet application for digital data capture. This means that we don’t have the staff to develop, maintain, or trouble shoot it. And we don’t have the resources for the actual hardware. So, we’re going to stick with paper forms.

Paper forms do have some advantages beyond being cheaper and easier to implement. They also ensure that there is an intermediate stage between data collection in the field and data entry into our field databases. This step allows us to vet our data at an intermediate stage and to familiarize ourselves with the data as its arriving from the field. This is possible with a digital field collection, but necessary with paper forms. We also enjoy the flexibility of paper forms. This will be our first year in the field and while we’re reasonably confident that our form and database will work to represent the archaeology of our region, we also have to be flexible and a paper form is a very flexible tool which can be easily edited on the fly to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.   

2. Decentralized Databases. Since we don’t have a server here and we don’t have the skills or the resources to set one up, we have to run multiple versions of the database in an unsynchronized way and then integrate them periodically throughout the season. 

This is less than optimal on a number of levels, but it does bring the our team leaders and project directors all into the data management process. It also pushed us to keep our databases simple. These databases are largely flat tables without complex one-to-many relationships. This will not only facilitate our regular merging of multiple copies of the database, but also makes it easier to integrate with our GIS.

3. Changing Student Skills. When I was at the American School of Classical Studies as faculty in 2007-2008, Jack Davis, then director, and I (and I believe a Skyped Sebastian Heath) did a short seminar on GIS one afternoon. At the start of the seminar, we asked the assembled graduate students from some of the best programs in the U.S. who had GIS experience. I think only one students raised their hand. 

This summer, we are joined by a great gaggle of graduate students who will run our field teams and ALL of them have experience using GIS. These students are capable of performing almost all the daily GIS-related tasks for an intensive survey and some more complex analysis on landscape data. We have a dedicated GIS person, but she’ll serve more as a coordinator than a dedicated specialist.

The level of digital competence among the students also allowed me to beta-test my database with them and they were able to provide remarkably focused and knowledgeable feedback. They not only understood the basic function of the database, but showed a clear understanding of the structure of the data.

Times are changing in Mediterranean archaeology!

A year or so ago, I gave a paper describing the uneven flow of digital technology in the world of Mediterranean archaeology. I argued – in a roundabout way – that we’re no longer in a world where archaeologists are skeptical of the value of using sophisticated digital tools, but that resources tend to dictate access to technical skills and the necessary hardware to embrace digital technology to the fullest. 

WARP does not have the resources this season to leverage every tool in the digital archaeology tool kit, but we do have the resources to create a cohesive plan that is consistent with best practices. I’ll let you know how things go as the season progresses. Follow us on the Twitters and Facebook at the #WestARP hashtag.

Late Antiquity in the Western Argolid

The Western Argolid Regional Project has the distinct benefit of two senior staff members who specialize in Late Antiquity. Scott Gallimore, one of the co-directors, recently finished a dissertation on Late Roman Crete, and people who read this blog should be pretty aware of my interest in that period

This concentration on the Late Antiquity is, at first blush, appropriate for a project in the Argolid which scholars have long understood to be a center of activity in this period. The city of Argos, for example, appeared on most of the prominent Late Antique geographies, and had a prominent bishop in Late Antiquity who attended the council of Constantinople in 381, Chacedon in 451, and Constantinople II in 680. The ancient city was riddled with Early Christian basilicas, cemeteries, and mosaic fragments of Late Roman date. So-called, “slavic” pottery, appeared in Argos suggesting that it saw a change in material culture consistent with sites elsewhere in the northeastern Peloponnesus.

Outside of Argos, there is evidence for rather intensive activities throughout the coastal region of the Argolic Gulf. The village of Myloi, where we stay, produced a Late Roman building, probably an exurban villa, of Late Roman date, and Late Roman activity extended inland from there around the village of Skaphadaki. Across the Gulf, Nauplion produced inscriptions of the 4th century (and an informal walk through town reveals spolia of Late Antique date) and a villa was discovered near the site of Asine – better known for its earlier remains. In the well-explored Southern Argolid, Halieis and Hermione witnessed signifiant activities in Late Antiquity with the former a production center for Late Roman 2 amphora and the latter featuring a Early Christian basilica complex with impressive mosaics and inscriptions mentioning a bishop Hermias. Troezene appears in Hierokles and was a center of ecclesiastical activity with a basilica and inscriptions, and despite its coastal location it appears to have survived into the 8th century with a bishop appearing at the Second Council of Nicaea reinforced with evidence from seals. The churches in the area of Epidauros are well-known and long thought to be among the earliest in Greece (on the dubious basis of architectural style). At Ano Epidauros a substantial quantity of Late Antique activity appeared, including the intriguing church at Lailoteika which may date to the 7th century or later. Scholars have long debated the reason for the Late Antique flourishing of activity on the small islands of the Saronic Gulf like Spetses, Dolkos, and Chinitsa which seems to have continued in the 7th century.   

The Late Romans did not spare the Argolid’s famous Bronze Age sites, with the neighborhood of Limnes, Prosymna, and the mighty Tiryns producing Early Christian graves and the citadel of Midea featuring activities in the 5th or 6th centuries. 

To use a vivid Appalachian saying: you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Late Roman or Early Christian remains in the Argolid.

In contrast, the valleys of the Western Argolid including our survey area which follows the upper reaches of the Inachos River from the village of Kaparelli east through Lyrkeia and ancient Orneai, toward Sterna and the northwestern suburbs of  Argos. This region is a blank space without almost no published sites of Late Roman date. In fact, the most prominent Late Roman site in our survey area appears in a two-page reference to some Early Christian remains around the village of Lyrkeia by Dimitrios Pallas in the ADeltion of 1960 (pp. 100-101). 

Needless to say, this is odd. The valley bottom is fertile and the river provided a transportation route between the densely settled Argive plains and Arcadia which continued to prosper at least judging from the numerous buildings of Late Roman in this region. Moreover, the (relatively) easily traversed passes, strategic hill tops, and accessible valley walls, presented exactly the kind of topography to attract the attention of Late Roman military planners. This kind of “marginal land” also tended to attract Late Roman settlement. Recent scholarship has seen 5th and the first half of the 6th centuries as a period of population growth and settlement expansion manifest in monumental architecture and extensive trade in easily recognized ceramic types. In other words, the upper Inachos valley is exactly the kind of place where you’d expect Late Roman activity.

Planning a Project

Unlike most research in the humanities, archaeological field work requires a significant amount of logistical preparation and organization. During the first year of a project, it frequently feels like the logistics overwhelms the archaeology in terms of time and attention. The number of participants in a project also increase the level of complexity and the time committed to making arrangements and plans. 

This summer, instead of directing my own project with my colleagues R. Scott Moore, David Pettegrew, and Brandon Olson, I’m taking some time to work with Dimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and Scott Gallimore on their project, the Western Argolid Regional Project, a new intensive survey that will focus on a valley in the western hinterland of Argos.  

As the project is gearing up, I’ve had a chance to contribute to creation of the database, preparing the GIS, and getting our field team leaders up to speed on survey methods and procedures. Fortunately, I’ve been spared most of the logistical aspects of the project (so far), and I have to admit that I do not miss them at all.

To give you a sense of the kind of logistics, I’ll offer a few examples.

1. Rooms. One of the biggest expenses and headaches on a project is figuring out how to organize the rooms in an efficient and humane way. We are in the small village of Myloi (or Mili) on the Argolic Gulf. The student accommodations are first rate, but they are expensive and when the entire team is here, the project will have students scattered throughout the village. I suspect each hotel has different rates, different room types, and different availability. On my first day here, I witnessed a rather intense conversation among the project directors as they sought to sort out the various rooms available for the team leaders and myself. The goal is to use the rooms as efficiently as possible and adapt the accommodations so the changing needs of the project. This is a nightmare, but one that WARP has handled well.

IMG 0715

2. Food. The next great logistical hurdle for any project is arranging meals. Right now we eat in the village for dinner and have lunch and breakfast in our rooms. The savings on lunch and breakfast make it easier to spend money on dinners, but when the entire team arrives next week (25 undergraduates), dinners will come from local tavernas, but lunch will still be served in the rooms. This may sound simple enough, but it means that food must be purchased daily, prepared, cleaned up, and arrangements have to be made at multiple establishments for dinners. This involves different rates, different receipts, lots of contact with taverna owners, and this all takes tons of time. It is vitally important that our field teams (and staff!) be well fed to keep morale high and field work consistent and efficient. 

3. Budget. The biggest nightmare for archaeology in the 21st century is the budget. Unlike our friends in the hard and applied sciences, archaeologists do not have a support staff dedicated to streamlining the receipting and budgeting process. So it generally falls on the archaeologist – often in the field – to make sure that all activities fall within the increasingly restrictive accounting guidelines. In the last few decades budget guidelines have become more and more restrictive as universities seek to demonstrate fiscal responsibility in an era of spiraling tuition and heavily critiqued budgets.

(Of course, the irony is that every accountant hired to scrutinize submitted receipts likely costs more than an assistant professor in the humanities contributing in their own way to increased tuition, but this is the cost of good political theater in a risk adverse environment.)

So the project directors, particularly Sarah James, have to be careful how they spend their money not just to stay within budget, but to stay within budget guidelines that often do not apply to the real world in Greece. To make matters worse, our budget for this summer draws on multiple grants that each have their own restriction.

I’m immeasurably grateful for the efforts that the project directors have made to keep my insulated from the financial and logistical challenges of running a project on this scale and in this environment. It frees me up to actually think about archaeology, but watching them deal with the intricacies of leasing a apotheke (a secure storeroom for artifacts), negotiating the changing assemblage of rooms, and building up the contact and social capital to make all the other logistical aspects of a project run smoothly.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter with the hashtag #WestARP!

Forms and Features in the Western Argolid

Those of you who follow this blog regularly probably caught hints of my newest adventure in the Western Argolid. Starting this past weekend, the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) began its maiden season. To be fair, the project’s directors, Dimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and Scott Gallimore, have been working hard for weeks and months leading up to this weekend to make sure the local logistics, funding, and permits are in the works, but the team of archaeologists have only begun to arrive over the last few days. I’m part of that team.

The plan is to conduct an intensive pedestrian survey in the Western Argolid near the modern village of Lyrkeia and the ancient polis of Orneai. The region consists of an east-west running valley formed by the Inachos river and providing a major land route between the city of Argos, which stands beyond the eastern limits of our survey area, and Arcadia to the west.  

IMG 0693

The method we use to document this valley will be familiar to all lovers of Mediterranean intensive survey. Teams of 4 field walkers, spaced at 10 m intervals, will walk units of between 3000 and 5000 sq. m., and count and collect all the artifacts they see in their 2 m wide swath. Ceramicists will study the artifacts, the teams will record the context of these artifacts in a database, and we’ll map the units in a GIS application. The general approach is time-tested and straight forward in Mediterranean archaeology and familiar to anyone who has worked in Greece over the past thirty years. 

My job on the project will focus on helping with field and digital aspects of data collection. So, this week, for example, I’ll work on preparing the databases that the project will rely upon to record information as it comes out of the field. I’ll also work closely with our GIS specialist to prepare a daily workflow that ensures that field teams have maps for the field, have guidance and support when entering their spatial data (e.g. survey units) into the project’s GIS, and have a system set up for daily data recording by team members and project leaders in a series of databases. I fulfilled a similar role on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project over the past decade, and much of our data structure will come from that project.

So far, we have a form:

WARP 2014 unit form

WARP 2014 unit form 2

The only part of the form that’s not complete is the feature field. We had a monster 8 hour meeting yesterday focused largely on features. I proposed a romantic and impossible idea of arming each team with a 1:1000 plan of each units with a satellite image as a faint base map. The teams would then prepare a sketch plan of the unit including any cultural (terrace walls, cisterns, piles of plastic pipe, ancient tholos tombs, Early Christian basilicas, et c.) and natural (slope, subtle soil changes, drainages, et c.) features on this map. We anticipate being able to walk 500-700 units this summer and I was enthralled with producing an amazing mosaic of hand-drawn interpretative maps of the neighborhood of Lyrkeia. My colleagues – bless them all – systematically demonstrated how this would not work procedurally with out slowing the pace of the field teams to a crawl, confusing and annoying our rather exceptional corp of team leaders, and burdening our GIS person with an endless routine of preparing over 100 individual maps each day. It could also be a challenge economically: the cost of printing hundreds of maps daily would soon tax our limited “office supply budget” and cut into, say, the availability of food for the survey methods and data specialist. So, to keep the peace, I relented. (Scott Moore and David Pettegrew will recognize my willingness to let go of impossible plans gracefully a hallmark of Bill 2.0). I still plan to mention the idea from time to time. 

So without my genius plan for preparing hand-drawn maps of the entire valley (which is very much in keeping with my interest in Slow Archaeology), we are forced back to something less elegant (but probably more possible) like a combination of field notebooks and free-text boxes in the database which is probably better than an unwieldy and swarm of check boxes associated with features. Maybe I can get the directors to relent and encourage the teams to produce daily maps of their area…

IMG 1440

Keep checking back here for more on the project this summer and we’ll even post sometimes to the Twitters using the hashtag #WestARP.

Starting up

Sunset over Mount Artemision from Myloi
Sunset over Mount Artemision from Myloi

This week has been the first official week of the 2014 WARP season. Beginning on Saturday the 24th of May, graduate students and senior staff gathered in the village of Myloi, our base of operations. It affords us wonderful views of the Argolic gulf, the town of Nafplio across the water, the acropolis of Argos, and gorgeous sunsets (at right).

This post is also an introduction of sorts to this blog, which will attempt to document various aspects of the project, from serious archaeological and historical issues to the silly. In this we’re following in the footsteps of other projects that we’ve worked on. We’ll hopefully be cross-posting from Bill Caraher’s blog here. Those of you who are in need of constant updates can follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Waiting in an office

Thus far, things are going well. Much of my own time has been spent moving between, and waiting at, busy offices (right). We are renting a space for storage and study of the artifacts we gather from the field, and that has meant getting a lot of paperwork in order. I’ve quickly become much more familiar with Greek bureaucracy, and it with me — I am now a recognized figure at the local tax office, and I now have an accountant in Nafplio. I’ve translated two official letters from Greek into English, and then paid a lawyer to translate those same letters back into Greek, and taken those letters to the courthouse to have them stamped and authenticated by the local bar association — an example of a typical morning activity.

It’s been a fascinating and exhausting week (plus, as I’ve been here in Myloi since the 15th of May). It’s also given me a lot of appreciation for all the work, most of it behind the scenes, that directors of archaeological projects do!