Ceramicists take to the field!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good things

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Part of the thrill of archaeology is finding things. No matter how scholarly, serious, or scientific a project is (or pretends to be), people will always get really excited when something neat shows up in a survey unit or a trench. This interest even created a category called “good things” at the Corinth excavations, the peerless training ground of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Here’s how “good things” are described in the 2008 version of the Corinth excavation manual:

“GOOD THINGS FROM BAD PLACES” (GTs) This is a special category reserved for particularly nice or otherwise interesting finds that were not found in their primary context, that is, they have been disturbed since their original deposition in the ground and are chance finds in another context. GTs do not actually tell us anything about the context they were found in, but we don’t want to Throw them because of some special quality they have. GTs get weighed and counted with the rest of the context and that information is entered in the Original column. GTs need to go to the museum after pottery reading. Make sure to check the GT box next to this object(s) in the database.

This is my idea of a really good thing to find on an archaeological project.

All this is a kind of introduction to my thoughts on Alex Kord’s thoughtful blog post last week.  She is like every other archaeologist in the world in that she wants to find good things. We all get excited by the kinds of things that you get to see but not touch in museums. (Only a select few of us get excited by Linear B tablets and it’s probably not very cool to admit that you do). On the other hand, it would be a weird survey if we found high density units full of cool things everywhere, even in a place extremely rich in archaeological interest (like Greece), so part of the point of survey is to get positive and negative results: we find some high density units, but these are separated by units that are empty or that contain only a handful of finds.

In fact, for the past 40 years survey archaeologists have been obsessed with low-density units, and our survey is no different. High-density units are seemingly easy to explain: they are “sites.” People lived there (or did stuff there) and left behind material that we find, some of it good but most of it very mundane. But what about low-density units? What if we find a single Archaic bit of pottery in a field where the conditions are good for seeing and recovering artifacts on the surface? What do we do with that? This is partly what Alex was asking herself to do. It’s a difficult question and one definitely worth asking.

The answers have broadly fallen into three categories. The first is something like “I don’t care.” As Kent Flannery’s RMA (Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist) says:

surface remains are just that — the junk you find on the surface — and nothing more. And I say, screw them.

So, many early surveys ignored low-density fields. They instructed teams to keep walking until they found lots of stuff (high-density fields) and then they paid attention to documenting that stuff.

The second theory has to do with manuring. The idea here is that manure is a fertilizer that would have been kept on farms and spread onto and plowed into fields, especially nearby fields. In some cases, bits of broken and discarded pottery would have been thrown on the trash heap and transported out into the fields alongside the fertilizer. If this is the case (or perhaps, where this is the case), then low-density scatters would be an index of agricultural activity.

The third theory argues that most small-scale settlements — “farmsteads” — would have stripped of any useful material when they were abandoned. As David Pettegrew argues,

When Greek families did abandon their homes, they exhaustively moved all usable household items, including the construction material of the house, to the new place of residence. The material that was left behind was ‘garbage,’ broken or useless objects that the householders did not think worth the effort of carrying to the new place of residence. Scavengers
and neighbors sometimes picked clean even this remaining refuse.

If this is so, David went on to argue, then low-density scatters could represent settlement, albeit a form of settlement that doesn’t result in high-density surface scatters but instead in small amounts of non-salvageable garbage that wasn’t stripped when houses were abandoned.

These competing models for understanding low-density units aren’t mutually exclusive, of course: some lonely sherds may be random junk, others may be the result of manuring, while others represent abandoned small settlements that have been stripped and salvaged. But these are questions that have been central to archaeologists for decades and that continue to be investigated. So Alex showed us that walking fields doesn’t just build character; it also pushes you into thinking seriously about how we get material on the surface and what it can mean.

Radio silence

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at WARP, hence the radio silence, which I finally have the chance to break thanks to our decision to take the last Friday of the field season off. So much has happened and is still happening as we rapidly approach the end of our field season. Yesterday was the last full field day with all of the students. Today the students will be working together with the team leaders to produce their teams’ final reports, which we’ve divided chronologically. The staff will have a couple of days in the field next week and then we’ll start wrapping up. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Archaeology in time of crisis

There is an awful lot of uncertainty in Greece right now, but it actually hasn’t affected us much. There are limits on how much people can withdraw from the Greek bank accounts (60 euros per day) but foreign accounts aren’t affected by this. This is fortunate, since we need to pay for things like food, and the preferred form of payment is cash. Credit cards aren’t commonly used in Greece — they’re expensive for the stores that use them — and now wire transfers are avoided since there are restrictions on withdrawals. There are lines at the ATMs, and our schedules are tight, so I’ve started waking up early and making ATM runs well before the sun rises.

sunrise

Other than lines at ATMs, and less activity at cafes and restaurants, there aren’t a lot of visible signs of the crisis. There is a lot of talk, of course: everyone talks about the crisis all the time in Greece. But the crisis has been borne with about as much nobility as I can imagine.

Work, work, work

Everyone has been incredibly hard at work the last couple of weeks, so much so that our day off was more or less forced on us. Most of us, especially me, would have happily gone back into the field today. In fact, yesterday I was telling everyone how much I wanted to go back into the field — as I lay on a cold concrete slab at lunch. We all clearly need some time off. (This did not, however, stop about 20 project members from playing three hours of soccer with our friends here in Myloi from 9:30 pm to 12:30 am last night; needless to say, the old men of the project, Bill and I, didn’t go).

Over the past couple of weeks the degree of difficulty of our units has increased, as we’ve started covering the ridges that run through our survey area. Walking unit after unit like this, especially when the fields are rocky (they’re almost all very rocky) is physically exhausting and tough on the ankles:

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The toughest bit has perhaps been the village of Chelmis, where we spent a day documenting the abandoned houses as a big group; the slopes above the village were surveyed by Teams 1 and 3 using a method that was convenient for mapping but tough on the field walkers: walking straight upslope! These are not easy slopes to walk:

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I’ve been really impressed by our students’ willingness to work really, really hard. They’ve embraced the challenge of walking these slopes, which often don’t yield much material. And we’ve been remarkably accident-free lately, too:  we’ve all been drinking lots of water and being careful in the field to avoid turned ankles etc.

In the field

On a personal level, this year has been very different from the last field season. Last year I spent a lot of time in Argos and Nafplio on administrative tasks associated with setting up our storage and laboratory space (our apotheke) etc. while Sarah and Scott were in the field. This year I’ve spent almost every day in the field, scouting, mapping, or field walking. And Sarah and Scott have read all of the finds as they’ve come in, something that was impossible to do last year. The systems that seemed to take so long to set up last year, moreover, which include everything from how we do our lunches to organizing teams in the field, have run smoothly this year, so that this year has had a very different feel to me than last year. A lot of the credit goes to our incredible team leaders. As I’ve said often to everyone who will listen, at this point we directors would have to begin an active program of sabotage (like sending them off to do crazy things) to derail them.

The results

We’re still figuring those out, of course; we’re not even done entering all of our data. But Bill just told me that our current, and essentially final, numbers are 2637 survey units covering ca. 6.8 square kilometers. Those numbers reflect the very real accomplishments of our wonderful team this year. Here we are, in all of our glory:

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(Bill is not in the picture because he’s taking it; no, Bill, we are not phasing you out!)

 

Η μπουλντόζα

I am fond of telling non-Greek speakers how most loan-words in Greek are neuter and don’t decline. Sometimes I have tried to decline them, usually with hilarious (for other people) results. Once I talked to my uncle about whiskies — ουισκιά, a made-up plural — and got laughed at. But some loan words, special ones, get a non-neuter gender and get to decline like real, grown-up, Greek words. You know, really important words, like Κόκα-Κόλα (Coca Cola) and μπουλντόζα (bulldozer).

We’ve been talking a lot about bulldozers these days on WARP because the landscape many of us are now encountering is so obviously shaped by bulldozers. As farmers convert their fields from olives to apricots and other fruit, they are preparing them through scraping and the removal of stones to the edges of the field. For example, this is what the edge of a Greek agricultural field normally looks like (with Melanie Godsey for scale):

field_wall

 

This is what some field walls look like in our current survey area, again with Melanie:

rock_pileThis is not even the largest of these rock piles, which stick out like a sore thumb on our satellite images and are composed of rocks of all sizes, from cobbles to enormous boulders. The farmers that we encounter in the field acknowledge the massive changes to the landscape wreaked by these machines.

We anticipated that the landscape of the 2015 survey area would be much more intensively used by modern farmers: even a casual glance at the maps made by the Greek army show many more houses and animal pens in this year’s area compared to last year’s, not to mention other installations like wells and (now abandoned) threshing floors. Still, it is striking when you come across heavily modified field after heavily modified field, especially after the much more traditionally maintained landscape of the 2014 field season around the village of Lyrkeia.

These landscape modifications are not uniformly destructive when it comes to the archaeological record: we’ve been able to recover useful data from scraped and bulldozed fields, and those scraped fields that have yielded virtually no material do not seem to differ significantly from their un-scraped neighbors with respect to the archaeological materials on the surface. But just because the bulldozer isn’t uniformly destructive, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive: of course it is. In many of these fields, for instance, it is likely that the surface assemblage is all that is left to document.

 

Our trip to the eastern Argolid

Our Saturday trip yesterday featured the other side of the Argive plain: the more famous  eastern Argolid. We visisted Mycenae, the Argive Heraion, and the middle Byzantine church of the Koimesis at Merbaka (Ayia Triada):

Photo Friday

Normally this is Bill’s thing, but since he’s already posted today I thought that I’d give it a go. It’s been a busy week, with wild weather for Greece in June (rain! more than once!) and three visitors (Joe Desloges, Pam Tetford, and Alexis Young) joining our ranks. And despite the setbacks, it was an enormously productive week for the project.

Blood, sweat, and fleas

Some days are better than others.

Today I was tripped by a metal wire while walking around this house and jacked up my shin:

This farm house is evil.
This farm house is evil.

Sarah says that nobody wants to see a picture of my jacked-up shin so I’ll just post a link here for those of you who want to see it. In the process I also destroyed the lens on my brand new camera (a Sony α6000). Now it takes pictures like this:

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After we got back to the car and I cleaned up my wound, we then decided to explore a nearby abandoned village. While taking a look at a threshing floor that had been turned into an animal pen, we got fleas.

It hasn’t been much fun today. Sometimes archaeology hurts; today it hurt more than usual.

The beginning of the 2015 season

We just began the first (half-)week of the 2015 field season. Whereas last year we worked in the dramatic mountainous valley around the village of Lyrkeia, this year we’re operating in the lower reaches of the Inachos river, near Schinochori and Malandreni, as the river begins to spill onto the Argive plain:

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It’s an equally pretty part of the Argolid, albeit much more intensively farmed. There are, for instance, many more vineyards in this part of the Argolid, and in the 1:5000 maps produced by the Greek army in the 1960s, there were many more investments in the agricultural landscape, especially wells and threshing-floors. Today we experienced on-again, off-again rain in the field, something that has become something of a tradition for us early in the season. Eventually, however, the clouds parted and the sun shone down.

Here are some pictures that I took in the first week:

Fieldwalking on the first day
Fieldwalking on the first day
Dark clouds looming on 5 June
The clouds begin to part
The clouds begin to part
Surveying a vineyard after it cleared up
Surveying a vineyard after it cleared up
Dawn, 3 June
Dawn, 3 June

Some views of the Argolid

Yesterday afternoon Scott and I hiked up to the Frankish castle above the village of Myloi. From the top of the hill there were some magnificent views of the Argolid (click to see the full image):

We also heard a good story at dinner: that the castle was the home of the queen, and that under the castle is an underground passage that the queen used to go to the beach.

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:

Kaparelli

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.