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!

Forms and Features in the Western Argolid

Those of you who follow this blog regularly probably caught hints of my newest adventure in the Western Argolid. Starting this past weekend, the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) began its maiden season. To be fair, the project’s directors, Dimitri Nakassis, Sarah James, and Scott Gallimore, have been working hard for weeks and months leading up to this weekend to make sure the local logistics, funding, and permits are in the works, but the team of archaeologists have only begun to arrive over the last few days. I’m part of that team.

The plan is to conduct an intensive pedestrian survey in the Western Argolid near the modern village of Lyrkeia and the ancient polis of Orneai. The region consists of an east-west running valley formed by the Inachos river and providing a major land route between the city of Argos, which stands beyond the eastern limits of our survey area, and Arcadia to the west.  

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The method we use to document this valley will be familiar to all lovers of Mediterranean intensive survey. Teams of 4 field walkers, spaced at 10 m intervals, will walk units of between 3000 and 5000 sq. m., and count and collect all the artifacts they see in their 2 m wide swath. Ceramicists will study the artifacts, the teams will record the context of these artifacts in a database, and we’ll map the units in a GIS application. The general approach is time-tested and straight forward in Mediterranean archaeology and familiar to anyone who has worked in Greece over the past thirty years. 

My job on the project will focus on helping with field and digital aspects of data collection. So, this week, for example, I’ll work on preparing the databases that the project will rely upon to record information as it comes out of the field. I’ll also work closely with our GIS specialist to prepare a daily workflow that ensures that field teams have maps for the field, have guidance and support when entering their spatial data (e.g. survey units) into the project’s GIS, and have a system set up for daily data recording by team members and project leaders in a series of databases. I fulfilled a similar role on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project over the past decade, and much of our data structure will come from that project.

So far, we have a form:

WARP 2014 unit form

WARP 2014 unit form 2

The only part of the form that’s not complete is the feature field. We had a monster 8 hour meeting yesterday focused largely on features. I proposed a romantic and impossible idea of arming each team with a 1:1000 plan of each units with a satellite image as a faint base map. The teams would then prepare a sketch plan of the unit including any cultural (terrace walls, cisterns, piles of plastic pipe, ancient tholos tombs, Early Christian basilicas, et c.) and natural (slope, subtle soil changes, drainages, et c.) features on this map. We anticipate being able to walk 500-700 units this summer and I was enthralled with producing an amazing mosaic of hand-drawn interpretative maps of the neighborhood of Lyrkeia. My colleagues – bless them all – systematically demonstrated how this would not work procedurally with out slowing the pace of the field teams to a crawl, confusing and annoying our rather exceptional corp of team leaders, and burdening our GIS person with an endless routine of preparing over 100 individual maps each day. It could also be a challenge economically: the cost of printing hundreds of maps daily would soon tax our limited “office supply budget” and cut into, say, the availability of food for the survey methods and data specialist. So, to keep the peace, I relented. (Scott Moore and David Pettegrew will recognize my willingness to let go of impossible plans gracefully a hallmark of Bill 2.0). I still plan to mention the idea from time to time. 

So without my genius plan for preparing hand-drawn maps of the entire valley (which is very much in keeping with my interest in Slow Archaeology), we are forced back to something less elegant (but probably more possible) like a combination of field notebooks and free-text boxes in the database which is probably better than an unwieldy and swarm of check boxes associated with features. Maybe I can get the directors to relent and encourage the teams to produce daily maps of their area…

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Keep checking back here for more on the project this summer and we’ll even post sometimes to the Twitters using the hashtag #WestARP.

Starting up

Sunset over Mount Artemision from Myloi
Sunset over Mount Artemision from Myloi

This week has been the first official week of the 2014 WARP season. Beginning on Saturday the 24th of May, graduate students and senior staff gathered in the village of Myloi, our base of operations. It affords us wonderful views of the Argolic gulf, the town of Nafplio across the water, the acropolis of Argos, and gorgeous sunsets (at right).

This post is also an introduction of sorts to this blog, which will attempt to document various aspects of the project, from serious archaeological and historical issues to the silly. In this we’re following in the footsteps of other projects that we’ve worked on. We’ll hopefully be cross-posting from Bill Caraher’s blog here. Those of you who are in need of constant updates can follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Waiting in an office

Thus far, things are going well. Much of my own time has been spent moving between, and waiting at, busy offices (right). We are renting a space for storage and study of the artifacts we gather from the field, and that has meant getting a lot of paperwork in order. I’ve quickly become much more familiar with Greek bureaucracy, and it with me — I am now a recognized figure at the local tax office, and I now have an accountant in Nafplio. I’ve translated two official letters from Greek into English, and then paid a lawyer to translate those same letters back into Greek, and taken those letters to the courthouse to have them stamped and authenticated by the local bar association — an example of a typical morning activity.

It’s been a fascinating and exhausting week (plus, as I’ve been here in Myloi since the 15th of May). It’s also given me a lot of appreciation for all the work, most of it behind the scenes, that directors of archaeological projects do!

DN