Forced building of character

[Ed.: This is a guest post by Alexandrea Kord,  an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Boulder and member of WARP Team 5]

As a field walker, my job is to collect data contributing to a overall understanding of the survey area. I suppose anyone reading the WARP website would understand the purpose of the project and the job of a field walker. The problem is that I mistakenly saw my job as finding things, and became focused more on trying to find interesting artifacts than to collect data. This ultimately leads to disappointment as we walk empty unit after empty unit. By the end of the day, I’m left feeling disappointed and jealous of the other teams’ success: neither feeling is one I particularly like.

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The only way I have found to combat these feelings is to think about my worker in relation to the bigger picture of WARP, discovering the nature of human activity in the Western Argolid (yes, I did steal that phrase right of the WARP  website). Doing this forces me to ask questions about every unit and see them all in relation to each other.  So on a day when my team has found nothing, but the team working in units right next to ours has high density units, I start thinking about why that might be.  Is it because we worked higher up on the hill and everything eroded down, or was this area used for other purposes then settlement?  Focusing on finding answers instead of artifacts has made these last few weeks of the project much more enlightening then the first week.

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I suppose to someone wiser than I, the difference between collecting data and finding things would be obvious. Collecting data is all about asking questions and looking for answers, finding things is just that: finding something. But that in itself doesn’t tell you much about anything. So despite all the sarcasm the team leaders say it with, walking fields really does build character: it forces you to look at the bigger picture than just your unit and just your team… A lesson that every 20 year old probably needs to learn.

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Efficiency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curated versus Automated Revisits

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

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

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

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

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. 

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):

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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.

 

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.

P1140358Prof. Nakassis instructing the beat to drop.

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 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.