Three Thoughts from the Western Argolid Regional Project

I know it’s cliche, but archaeology provides a good context for thinking. Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten some good thinking done. In fact, my colleagues, The Directors of the project, have been extremely patient interlocutors this summer. I am convinced that an important part of archaeology remains the close and continuous intellectual and social contact between participants. In fact, I write about that very thing in the context of digital archaeological practice here.

Since it’s the middle of the middle week of the survey season on the Western Argolid Regional Project, and thanks to “a non-serious, fatigue-related, incident”, I’ve been stranded in my lux-u-ary apartment for the last two day, I’ve scrawled down a few thoughts about a few things:

1. Team Leaders. One of my arguments in favor of a return to a “slow archaeology” is that we have created an increasingly atomic view of the archaeological process. Our dependence on forms, digital data collection, and methodology to produce archaeological knowledge has inhibited our ability as archaeologists to understand and represent the complex interrelationships between objects, context, architecture, and landscape. In short, our tendency to parse archaeological knowledge ever more finely in the field has created a practice that runs counter to the integrative goals of the discipline. 

My fear is that archaeologists no long have a complete grasp of the archaeological universe, but only their little part of it. Our graduate student team leaders this summer have undermined my argument by demonstrating the ability to move fairly easily from the detailed documentation of a unit to the more expansive view of the landscape necessary for mapping units. Moreover, these team leaders not only have field experience, but also have experience with GIS and databases. Their training has prepared them to do more than simply collect data carefully in the field, but also to analyze it using the increasingly robust tools available to archaeologists. This shift in training is remarkable and suggests that the computer lab has become as much a place of analysis as the field.

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2. Internet Objects. One of my favorite finds so far this season was a very modern, mould-made, ceramic roof tile with the website of the manufacturer’s on it. Since it is not permitted to publish a possibly ancient artifact in a digital format prior to the end of the season, I can’t show you the artifact here, but I can offer a link to its digital object which has already been published. (Director’s Note: Actually Bill could show it, if he had a photo because it’s not an antiquity.) It is easy, then, to go and check out the location of production, the specifications of the tile, and even the cost. More interesting than that: the tile is a physical icon for a virtual object. This relationship between the tile and the website, however, is only temporary. When the website disappears, changes location, or is updated, the link between the particular tile and the virtual object is changed or broken.

 There is significant talk these days about the internet of things where physical objects and virtual objects exist side-by-side. The roof tile might be one of the humblest examples of these interconnections, but one that nevertheless demonstrates the archaeological complexities of the internet as a mediating entity between objects separated by vast distances and connected by unstable, mutable links.


3. Performing Archaeology and the Rhetoric of Fieldwork. We’ve had some interesting conversations at the dinner table and in the field about how archaeological field work employs performative positions grounded in traditions of masculinity. The “work hard, play hard” attitude, for example, which characterized an earlier, almost pre-professional model of archaeological field work clearly drew upon premodern labor practices. Experience in the field produced through apprenticeships to senior archaeologists counted as much as training and the ability to conform to social expectations of field practice.

There is a need to perform field work in such a way that conforms to social expectations that exist outside of formal methodological assumptions. For example, despite almost a half century of discussions of archaeological sampling and the limits to archaeological definitions of space and the landscape, there continues to be pressure for full coverage survey and grueling excavation schedules that produce more data than will ever be published in a project director’s lifetime. The “mo’ fieldwork, mo’ knowledge” paradigm holds its appeal to archaeologists, in part, because the discipline remains ambivalent toward modern practices even as it embraces technology and “scientific” practices in the field.

 So at the same time that the discipline is modernizing field practices and defining the landscape or trench as a series of tick boxes, numbers, and fields on a form, archaeology continues to have this patina of premodern practices that rely a largely hidden set of social expectations about doing archaeology “the right way”. It should come as little surprise that an “old boys club” are responsible for much of this unwritten pressure that still shapes certain aspects of the discipline. I have a longer post of this in the slow cooker where I try to work out some of the issues, but I think I need a few more conversations with my conspirators here on WARP to get the argument worked out.

Surveying Through Greek Fields

[Ed.: Today’s blog post is written by CU Boulder student Sariah Rushing].

When people ask what I am doing out here in Greece, no one understands what I am explaining. I try to explain how beautiful the landscape is and right after I will talk about the horror of the units filled with what are better known as spiders to the rest of the world. They wonder how I can cut my legs while wearing pants and I try to explain how sharp the maquis is and about the “tricky” flowers. The diversity of the units is hard to explain and everything about our survey area I try to explain generally leaves people back home confused.


From up higher it is easy to see the diversity of our survey units, but it isn’t until we are down in them that we can see exactly how different and unique each unit is.


Sometimes we have these awesome units where we can see the ground easily with about 90% visibility and we find pottery everywhere.


Then we get these fun fields with 0-10% visibility with wheat and/or weeds at or above our heads. Some of these lovely spider-filled wheat fields have trees like this one and others don’t. Its units like this that warrants a spider stick to whack them and their webs away!


Then we get a field like this that has no creepy crawlies and looks like we should be able to find stuff but the mowed down hay covers the ground almost completely making it hard to see anything but flattened hay.


The freshly plowed and sometimes freshly planted units are everyone’s favorite. A unit like this would be considered 90-100% visibility and we generally find a lot of artifacts if there are any to be found in the area.


There is always this little issue of background disturbance. To anyone else this would look like I took a picture of dirt and rocks but to us this picture tells us what the ground looked like when we walked through the unit. This is also what we stare at for about 6 hours a day 5 days a week and we are able to pick out what is pottery, tile, lithic and other various things.


Let’s not forget the beautiful landscape we walk in every day. Though this flower is beautiful to admire they have sharp spiky leaves that cut at your legs even through pants. Great flowers to admire at a distance. This is what I call a “tricky” flower.


Just to clarify: I might complain about the spiders, the “tricky” flowers, bushes that apparently have thorns, the heat and how tired I am at the end of each day, but what we do here is amazing and I wouldn’t trade a single moment for anything else. I don’t think I could ever get tired of looking up and seeing views like this one.


We never know what we will find each day and what type of units we will get. Some days we get crappy units, and other days we get awesome units, but we find awesome stuff each time we are out there working. Then there is always a little perk for someone like me; I am convinced that these two trees create a perfect doorway and that they lead to Narnia!

Fear and Loathing in the Field

[Ed.: Today’s blog post is written by CU Boulder student Lena Streisand].

In 30° Celsius weather the only dark cloud ahead is one of impending doom at being “flappled” (thank you, Bill Caraher) in the face by the likes of this thing:


You’re walking your first swath of the morning.  You see an artifact in the distance.  You hasten your step and soon you are face to face with this artifact and the only thing stopping you from grabbing it is the massive, intricate web of a spider the size of your left eye that has conveniently woven its way around your point of interest.  The clock’s ticking, the other walkers are waiting for you and just as you reach for that artifact the walker beside you asks if you need him to “hold on.”  Not remembering you’re diving face-deep into the web of doom you mutter “yes” and just as you do so you go face first into one of these:


You flail your arms around helplessly, ground yourself in the soil and stand up directly into the olive tree branch you were avoiding, effectively diving head first into another web.  Flustered and frazzled you trip over a rock and unleash a whole new kind of beast.


Trying not to totally freak out about the fact that you are in very close proximity to a scorpion you keep on the move.  Beetles of unimaginably large sizes propel themselves at all imaginable angles towards you and bees buzzing in various octaves swarm around you, but you keep moving through that field and away from that scorpion.

Finally you’ve left the realm of unmentionables for dinner when the delusion sets in: suddenly all sorts of things are flying past you and you think you hear buzzing and you feel something crawling on you and you’re waiting for a flapple when you look up and realize that you’re actually just sitting at a dinner table swatting, dodging, and flailing the air directly above your neighbor’s Greek salad.  It’s okay, she understands.

Tomorrow you’ll both wake up and face the treacherous inhabitants of the field once again because regardless of the delusion and the constant feeling of web-on-face, the possibility of finding that one artifact makes it all worth it.

Extensive Survey on the Western Argolid Regional Project

 It is almost inevitable. People invite me to join survey projects hoping that I can become a valued contributor to a well-ordered field season. Before long, however, I am sent off into the field as the “Extensive Team”.

Most intensive survey projects have a team responsible for exploring areas not suitable for intensive survey methods. These tend to be areas overgrown with vegetation, steep slopes, or marginal landscapes unlikely to support the kind of sustained human activities that tend to produce survey assemblages. The extensive team also serves as a good way to remove annoying people – like me – from regular contact with field walkers and staff. In my experience, extensive survey is practically defined as “survey of fields not near other people on the project.” That being said, I take my work seriously. I dutifully map areas onto a 1:5000 map and take detailed notes. 

Sometimes I find cool stuff in extensive survey (and this generally alarms people), but most of time I find spiky maquis, overgrown fields, goat poo, scree, and social isolation. 

So last week on the Western Argolid Regional Project where I serve as Assistant to the Directors, I was asked to take on Extensive Survey duties. Usually it takes a few weeks on a project to be “promoted” to the Extensive Team, but here at WARP everything takes less time. 

Despite the exile from all human contact, I find the Extensive Team a good chance to think. Today for example, I visited the remains of a well-appointed seasonal house or kalyvi near the village of Lyrkeia. The little house had lost its roof, but it was well-built.


Its two court yards were clearly defined and carefully constructed of slightly shaped field stones. The cypress trees were a nice touch.



Nearby, there are some beautiful terrace walls. It is well know that the team from the Argolid finished third in the International Terrace Building Competition held in Bern, Switzerland in 1928. A possibly apocryphal story holds that they would have finished higher had the Greek state appropriated sufficient funds to ship over 10 tons of local, Argolidic limestone to Switzerland for the Terrace Building Finals. Supposedly, Venizelos favored a Cretan team who finish first in the Greek Terrace Championship, but had been disqualified on a technicality. As a sign of support for Venizelos, the newly formed “five parties” coalition refused to support the shipment of stone for Greek team from the Argolid, and this cost them a better finish in Bern.

Whatever the case, the reputation of terrace builders from the Argolid was well deserved:


Near the elegant little kalyvi stood a similarly well-constructed mandra or animal pen. This animal pen crossed over a series of four small terraces. I suspect that animal pen was for goats. Its construction atop rather narrow terraces suggests the transition from growing grain on the steep and unforgiving slopes of the valley and using the slopes for grazing.  


Further along the same slopes were a number of lovely pocket terraces for olive trees. I haven’t seen many of these in my wanders around the eastern Peloponnesus so it was pretty nice to see them in our survey area.



The other advantage of being on the Extensive Team is enjoying a peaceful sunrise through the maquis.


Or over a lonely olive tree.


Snack-time views aren’t bad either. Note the cypress trees associated with the kalyvi in the center of the photograph.




Sweeping is a big part of archaeology. Some would say that 90% of archaeology is sweeping. In an excavation, it’s really important to keep your trench clean. In a survey, it’s important to keep your apotheke (storage space) clean. We’re hoping that our apotheke will be approved for use soon, so we took the opportunity to clean it up a bit:

Scott sweeping
Scott sweeping
Dimitri sweeping
Dimitri sweeping

Scott and I weren’t the only ones; Melanie and Adrian also pitched in and helped.

Cleaning the apotheke felt like a Sisyphean task: there was always more dust to sweep up. But after a couple of hours we were pretty satisfied that it was mostly clean. It would be cool to have a pressure washer or a really powerful vacuum cleaner, but alas those are pretty expensive compared to a broom. (And, as Bill would be quick to point out, it is very important that you buy the brush separately from the handle. All proper tools are sold that way in Greece. Don’t ask why: there is no why).

In other news, our survey area is really stunning:

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And here’s Bill writing in his Rite in the Rain™ notebook with his Zebra pen:2014-06-15 10.57.21



Week Two Field Trips

Dimitri, Bill and Liz in front of the pyramid at Elliniko
Dimitri, Bill and Liz in front of the pyramid at Elliniko

Today was our third day of field trips. We hit a series of minor and major sites on the Argive plain. Just like last Saturday, we started local, with the pyramid in the village of Elliniko and the church of the Zoodochos Pigi at Kefalari. Both are within 10 kilometers of our home base of Myloi. The pyramid is an interesting site, because although it’s almost certainly a 4th century tower, it has been claimed to be 5,000 years old, which would make it older than any pyramid in Egypt. Needless to say, we were somewhat less than enthusiastic about this interpretation.

The church at Kefalari
The church at Kefalari

The church of the Ζωοδόχος Πηγή is a beautiful church built into a cave just above the springs at Kefalari that feed the Erasinos River. In antiquity, these springs fed Lake Lerna, which occupied much of the territory between Myloi and Argos that we drive through on the way to work each morning.

Then we crossed to the eastern side of the Argive plain and went to Tiryns, the Mycenaean citadel whose walls are so magnificent, Pausanias (9.36.5) the travel-writer of the 2nd century AD claims they are no less marvellous than the pyramids of Egypt. It’s difficult to capture how massive they are in a photograph.

Sarah talking about Tiryns
Sarah talking at Tiryns


The Early Bronze Age "Round Building" at Tiryns
The Early Bronze Age “Round Building” at Tiryns

Tiryns makes for a nice counterpoint to Lerna, in that like Lerna it was a major Early Bronze Age center. Beneath the Late Bronze Age remains is a section of a massive round building with a tiled roof, commonly interpreted as an enormous granary(left). But the famous walls of Tiryns date to the mature Late Bronze Age, commonly known as the Mycenaean period. It’s unclear how Tiryns related to its more famous neighbor to the north, Mycenae. Some believe that Tiryns was ruled by the wanax (the king) of Mycenae, and that Tiryns functioned as a secondary center of administration and as a port town (the coast was considerably closer in the Bronze Age). Others think that Tiryns was an independent center. Our survey area, although it’s in the western Argolid, may shed light on some of these issues of political geography. The co-directors of the Nemea Valley Archaeological survey have argued in print that Mycenae expanded into the eastern Nemea valley in the Late Bronze Age. But what about the western plain? Our survey area is rich agricultural land and would have been attractive to Late Bronze Age leaders seeking to expand their authority. The southern part of our survey was probably under the sway of Argos in the 1st millennium, but what about the end of the 2nd millennium? These are very much open questions, and ones that we would like to address in our survey.

From Tiryns we went to the most important sanctuary in the Argive plain: the Argive Heraion.


This sanctuary of Hera was much celebrated in antiquity. It is where the famous story of Kleobis and Biton took place. Agamemnon was selected as leader of the Trojan expedition here. Io was reputed to be the first (or second) priestess at the sanctuary, and in fact Hellanikos of Lesbos constructed a chronology of Greek history from a catalogue of the priestesses of Hera, one that Thucydides makes us of.

A lonely (and upside-down) column capital
A lonely (and upside-down) column capital
Bill explaining the temple foundations
Bill explaining the temple foundations

Like Tiryns, it’s not entirely clear how the Argive Heraion fits in. Literature from the 1980s had assumed that the Argive Heraion was an extra-urban sanctuary that belonged to the city of Argos, but an article by Jonathan Hall suggested instead that early on (ca. 1000-450 BC), the Argive Heraion was a shared sanctuary of the communities living in the eastern plain, among whom were Mycenae and Tiryns, and not until the 5th century, when these communities were destroyed and absorbed by Argos, did the Heraion become truly Argive.

Dimitri pointing at Argos from the Heraion
Dimitri pointing at Argos from the Heraion

The Argive Heraion is a really nice site. It’s easy to understand, it’s famous, it affords wonderful views of the plain, and it’s free. Bill Caraher suggested that it’s one of the top three archaeological sites in all of Greece. I demurred, but agreed that it was very underrated. That led to a spirited discussion of the most overrated and underrated Greek archaeological sites. Maybe we’ll come up with a list one of these days.

Only two sites remained. On our way to Nafplion, we stopped at the small church of the Dormition at Merbaka (Ayia Triada), which is variously dated to the 12th century AD (Megaw) or the late 13th century AD (Sanders). The chronology makes a big difference: if the church dates to the 12th century, then it’s a Byzantine church with some western elements. If it’s 13th century, then it’s a church built by William of Moerbeke, a Latin (Catholic) Archbishop; this raises the question why the church was built the way that it was, and why the spolia (earlier architectural elements) were incorporated into the church the way that they were:

Bill lecturing at Merbaka
Bill lecturing at Merbaka


A 1st c. BC inscription built into the church
A 1st c. BC inscription built into the church

Our final stop of the day was Nafplio and specifically the archaeological museum in the main square of the city. It’s a magnificent museum, recently designed, and wonderfully presented. And it just happens to be located in one of the best tourist destinations in Greece, so we left the students in Nafplio to enjoy lunch and its many attractions.


Photo Friday on the Western Argolid Regional Project

It’s the end of the first full week of WARP, and I am glad we only have a few more days of field work left this season. 

So I stepped up my efforts for photo Friday in celebration of our vigorous activities.

First, I’ve been trying to capture the “essence” of survey archaeology. For me and for most of our dedicated team of field walkers, intensive pedestrian survey means forms and maps:



The look is familiar to most survey archaeologists. The head is inclined over a form:



I have also been trying to capture the range of things that Greek farmers hang from trees:



Finally, I’ve been working on some photographs of fields that convey the range of different textures and soils encountered in a field day:





And, of course, there’s this:


“Ignorant farmers”

This morning, I got all riled up about a comment on the blog for Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews in which an anonymous Briton decried the “ignorant farmers” who, by plowing their own fields (imagine the gall!), have destroyed ancient and Ottoman roads. I know that such things shouldn’t upset me, but they do.

The comment appeared as a response to Graham Shipley’s review of Yannis Pikoulas’ magisterial study of the ancient road network of Laconia. Pikoulas’ methodology in this book (as in his past work) is to talk to locals (most of whom are, of course, farmers), who then show him sites of interest, especially but not exclusively ancient roads. So these farmers are in fact helping Pikoulas to document and preserve antiquity.

Our experience in the field has been that local farmers are friendly, generous, and interested. They’ve helped us to locate areas of interest (local toponyms that show up in old archaeological reports but aren’t on the Greek army maps). They seem genuinely curious about, and interested in, what we’re doing. They do plow their fields, not out of ignorance, but because it’s their job to grow and sell agricultural produce. In fact, we’ve often wished that they plowed their fields more often, as it would make it easier to navigate the countryside, map survey units, and to find artifacts!

The permit

You can read our permit and the deathless prose of the Ministry of Culture and Sports here, on the website Δι@ύγεια (“tr@nsparency”), maintained by the Ministry of Administrative Reform and E-Governance (Yπουργείο Διοικητικής Μεταρρύθμισης και Ηλεκτρονικής Διακυβέρνησης). It seems amazing that this is the new normal in Greece: googling your name (in Greek, in the genitive) to find and download your permit.

Greeks often complain — to me, at least — about the difficulty of their bureaucracy, and they assume that things are much more efficient in North America (and moreover that this difference explains the economic differences between Greece and the US/Canada). North American archaeologists also like to complain about the difficulty of Greek bureaucracy. But I wonder. Greek bureaucracy sure seems difficult to me, but I’m a total stranger to it. And when I think about my (relatively few) encounters with bureaucracy in the US and in Canada, I can recall plenty of examples of difficult scenarios. I once waited six months (!!!) to get a new Social Security card issued so that I could take my driving test, only to be told when I showed up with the card that I didn’t need it. So although it would be easy to agree with my Greek friends who complain about the difficulty of Greek bureaucracy, I tend to agree with Michael Herzfeld, who wrote in 1992:

In the industrialized societies of Western Europe and North America, no less than in remote villages in Greece or Italy, people find it necessary to explain away their inability to deal effectively with the bureaucracy. Everyone, it seems, has a bureaucratic horror story to tell, and few will challenge the conventions such stories demand. Hearers know that they will soon want to use the same stereotypical images in turn.

Archaeology with your Feet

A good archaeologist once told me that excavation required hands in the dirt. The feel of the soil, the sound of the trowel in the matrix, and the appearance of each layer of strata combined to organize archaeological space. 

A survey archaeologist spends much less time with dirt between his or her fingers and no time at all with the ting or tang of the trowel (depending on the brand). We spend our days walking across units and feeling the differences in soil with our boots.

A field plowed several seasons ago feels different:

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From a field plowed this season:

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The loose soil in a field with cobbles and coarse gravel feels very different:

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from a field hard packed and baked in the summer sun:

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So as we spent the day on the Western Argolid Regional Project mapping units for our field teams to walk, I thought as much with my feet as my eyes.