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.

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.



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:


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.

Sometimes a Cave is Just a Cave

This past week, I went on a little hike up the side of a hill to look at a cave situated to the west of a high saddle in the mountains that bound the south of our survey area in the Western Argolid. The cave, of course, was natural and was probably used at some point as a shelter for local shepherds, their flocks, and their dogs (judging by the remains). 



The high saddle and pass associated with it probably did not serve as a high traffic route even for shepherds taking their flocks to the mandres in the surrounding uplands. The route is too steep. 


The walk itself, though, was worth it. It took me up through dense maquis beyond the highest and now neglected terraces to areas frequented by goats. The slopes of the valley were quiet except for the wind and an annoyed hawk floating in the updrafts.


The survey teams disappeared into olive groves, terraces, and fields of wild oats.


The trip down, of course, is always a bit more challenging then the trip up the hill. On the way up, there are certain economies of effort that lead to calculated decisions in how to ascend a hill. You tend to scrutinize the possible routes because the cost in ascending the wrong way is substantial and immediate.


Descending is another matter. I find that I tend to chose my paths more impulsively and get stuck moving carefully over steep rocks, entangled in impenetrable barriers, and negotiating sprawls of scree. 


It was a pretty exhausting hike, but we now have a set of notes on the hill, the cave, and the route up to the high saddle.


We’re off to the region around Lake Stymphalia and the lovely Cistercian Abbey  of Zaraka today since it’s Pentecost and everything is closed. Look for updates on this trip and some other #WestARP adventures tomorrow.

Photo Friday: The First Week in the Western Argolid

We started fieldwork this week on the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) and so it is only natural that I share some photographs of our time in the field.

I really like the valley-edge view of our survey area particularly the bands of olive trees on the sides of the valley above the village of Lyrkeia in the distance.


This is the view from where we generally eat dinner. The hill of the Palamidi outside of Nafplio is in the distance under the large cloud. It’s a great view, but generally we’re too tired to enjoy it much.

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I’ve been trying to get a photo of the teams working in the field that shows the paperwork side of things. This is my best so far:


The project directors, Dimitri Nakassis and Sarah James, have their dog with them in the field on most days. The dog is cute and named Holly. This is my best picture of the dog so far:


Survey Units are Unique Like Snowflakes

I had a mini database meltdown on the first day of field work and data entry. The specific problem with the database mostly involved how we were using it (and the limits on the particular tool we chose to use), but it highlighted the relationship between the unit as space and the unit as a procedural unit in intensive pedestrian survey. To put this another way, we can only walk the same unit once, and we are thinking about how to make our database reflect this.


We began the process of creating new unique number for each field by creating a value that reflected the space of the survey (keyed to a polygon in our GIS) and the procedure we used to walk the unit. We identified four procedures: standard survey, grab samples, resurvey, or unsurveyed (used to describe, for example, a fenced area or a unit that is too close to the edge of a sheer cliff). 


As I thought about this unique identifier for each unit in our database (and in our analysis), I got to wonder whether we need to refine this identification of a unit more. For example, there is the slim possibility that we could resurvey a unit more than once. So perhaps we should use as our unique identifier the space of the unit, the procedure, and the team leader. After all, this would allow us to distinguish as unique, different engagements with the unit led by different individuals. Even this might not be enough. If we’ve learned anything from Big Al Ammerman, it’s that you can never walk the same survey unit twice. Maybe we need to make the unique identifier the unit number, procedure, team leader, and date. 


This is all a good bit to think about on the first day in the field, especially when it was damp, overcast, and muddy. Maybe it was being out in the field, however, and away from the blue light of the computer screen that prompted me to think about how we imagine space. It could also be that I managed to help to screw up mapping a few units as I got my survey legs back. Nothing like real fields in a changing landscape to shade my understanding digital contexts.


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.

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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!