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). 

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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. 

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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.

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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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Some reflections on Week One

WARP has just finished its first week, and although it was a short one — our first day in the field was on Wednesday — it was exhausting. Results have been encouraging, however. In only three days of survey, we have surveyed 177 units covering 0.435 square kilometers (these figures were kindly calculated for me by Sam Walker). If that doesn’t sound like much, it’s worth noting that we only started work on Wednesday, the first several hours of which were taken up by training exercises. We’ll get faster. We’ll need to become faster and more efficient with experience if we’re going to cover most of the 10 km2 that constitutes our study area for 2014, but I’m confident that we will. Our team leaders and student field walkers are excellent.

Our average unit size is just under 2500 m2, which is slightly smaller than we’d like it to be, but our survey units are largely based on modern agricultural fields, and many of these are very small, narrow fields that are very different with respect to the factors that allow them to be effectively surveyed. For example, survey archaeologists often focus on a field’s visibility — that is, the percentage of the ground surface that is visible to field walkers. Obviously the higher the visibility, the more likely it is that field walkers will be able to see and collect artifacts. We therefore break up fields with different visibilities into different survey units. If we don’t — if we lump them together — then it becomes very difficult to unpack the processes that shape our data. For instance, in an area full of material, one field yielded no pottery. That might be a meaningful pattern, but in actuality that field’s visibility was extremely low, suggesting that we’re simply unable to see artifacts in that field. So, unless the fields become larger and more uniform in size, we’ll probably be stuck with relatively small units. One the one hand, this gives us greater spatial control; on the other, it does slow us down.

On a personal note, I continue to be overwhelmed by the non-archaeological tasks that remain to be done. On Friday, Sarah and I spent a good hour or two waiting for the technician from the phone company to install the phone line in our storage facility, only to be told that the phone line couldn’t be installed because (a) the phone company’s line to the building was faulty, and (b) someone had cut the phone lines within the building, so that even if their line was functioning properly, we would need to get the phone line repaired on our end. We’re still waiting for security measures to be installed and for electricity, in addition to our phone. We’ll also spend much of Tuesday attending to similar administrative issues.

Tomorrow is a holiday, however, so we can’t work in the field, or deal with administrative tasks, because offices will be closed. So we’ll take the students on a trip to some archaeological sites that are always open to the public, supplementing our usual Saturday trips to local sites of historical and archaeological significance.

Day two: here comes the sun

It rained again last night, but the day itself was sunny and warm. We just had a touch of mist in the morning on the mountainside:

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The weeds and grain were still wet from last night’s rain, though, so my shoes and pants quickly became really wet:

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But the sun came out and it felt like a regular day in June in Greece: sunny, clear, and beautiful.

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And here’s a dead almond tree from an abandoned field that ended the day:

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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.

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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). 

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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. 

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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.

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A very muddy first day in the field

Last night’s rain made our first day in the field a very muddy experience. That isn’t normal for Greece in June. Mud caked the bottom of our shoes, making them heavy and unwieldy. At some point I tried to kick mud off of my shoe and the entire shoe came off my foot, flying across an olive grove. (At another point I was also successfully kicking mud at Bill, which amused me and annoyed him). It was also unseasonably cool and overcast:

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But it didn’t rain, and that allowed us to stay in the field. After a training session on survey methodology (run by Bill) and identifying tile (run by Sarah), we began walking units. Between our five field teams, we managed to cover over 40 survey units, even though some of them were difficult to walk and others were full of surface material (both of which tends to slow walkers down).

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The team leaders and field walkers all did an excellent job. You never would have know that this was entirely new to almost all of them. All in all, it was an extremely good, productive, and tiring day. This afternoon the teams will start entering their data from their field forms.

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A clear day in the Argolid

 

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

The Argolic Bay, from Myloi

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

And in the evening:

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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.