Tag Archives: archaeological survey

Archaeology and destruction

Archaeological sites are sites of destruction. They are destroyed by people for all kinds of reasons, including good ones. Excavation, too, after all, is a kind of destruction. And some destruction is inevitable. Especially in countries like Greece, there has to be a balance between development and heritage. People need to build houses and roads, after all. And farmers need to work their fields, which in this day and age often requires modifying the natural landscape to make it more conducive to mechanization and irrigation.

One of our sites from 2014 was pretty badly bulldozed this year. I found the evidence of it two days ago, when I was driving around our survey area inspecting our old sites. A farmer has purchased (or perhaps he always owned) a large number of contiguous plots of land, and he’s bulldozed and plowed them in order to make a large apricot grove. In the process, he used his bulldozer to make large terraces up the hillslope. These cuts have clearly sectioned archaeological levels. There is freshly-broken material everywhere.

It was upsetting to see the destruction, and it was disorienting to walk around a once-familiar landscape that suddenly made no sense to me. I couldn’t quite remember what exactly had been there before, where the fields were where in 2014 we had found some whole loomweights and spools.

On the one hand, I can’t really blame the farmer. If I had to guess, I’d guess he didn’t know what he was destroying. He also needs to earn a living. The field isn’t so big; it wasn’t some faceless, evil agroindustrial villain that did this, I don’t think. Agricultural modification of the landscape is as old as the hills (figuratively). And this is what survey is for: rescuing some information for archaeological research. In 2014 we collected an enormous amount of data about this site. Short of excavating it, we’ve extracted almost as much data as we can, and in our publication we’ll be able to say quite a lot about it. And part of the reason to do survey is to capture this information before development destroys it forever.

On the other hand, the destruction bugs me. I wish that this farmer hadn’t done this, that our site could have stayed the way that it was, split into little, grassy fields.

I know. It’s a dumb, romantic wish.

Good things


Part of the thrill of archaeology is finding things. No matter how scholarly, serious, or scientific a project is (or pretends to be), people will always get really excited when something neat shows up in a survey unit or a trench. This interest even created a category called “good things” at the Corinth excavations, the peerless training ground of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Here’s how “good things” are described in the 2008 version of the Corinth excavation manual:

“GOOD THINGS FROM BAD PLACES” (GTs) This is a special category reserved for particularly nice or otherwise interesting finds that were not found in their primary context, that is, they have been disturbed since their original deposition in the ground and are chance finds in another context. GTs do not actually tell us anything about the context they were found in, but we don’t want to Throw them because of some special quality they have. GTs get weighed and counted with the rest of the context and that information is entered in the Original column. GTs need to go to the museum after pottery reading. Make sure to check the GT box next to this object(s) in the database.

This is my idea of a really good thing to find on an archaeological project.

All this is a kind of introduction to my thoughts on Alex Kord’s thoughtful blog post last week.  She is like every other archaeologist in the world in that she wants to find good things. We all get excited by the kinds of things that you get to see but not touch in museums. (Only a select few of us get excited by Linear B tablets and it’s probably not very cool to admit that you do). On the other hand, it would be a weird survey if we found high density units full of cool things everywhere, even in a place extremely rich in archaeological interest (like Greece), so part of the point of survey is to get positive and negative results: we find some high density units, but these are separated by units that are empty or that contain only a handful of finds.

In fact, for the past 40 years survey archaeologists have been obsessed with low-density units, and our survey is no different. High-density units are seemingly easy to explain: they are “sites.” People lived there (or did stuff there) and left behind material that we find, some of it good but most of it very mundane. But what about low-density units? What if we find a single Archaic bit of pottery in a field where the conditions are good for seeing and recovering artifacts on the surface? What do we do with that? This is partly what Alex was asking herself to do. It’s a difficult question and one definitely worth asking.

The answers have broadly fallen into three categories. The first is something like “I don’t care.” As Kent Flannery’s RMA (Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist) says:

surface remains are just that — the junk you find on the surface — and nothing more. And I say, screw them.

So, many early surveys ignored low-density fields. They instructed teams to keep walking until they found lots of stuff (high-density fields) and then they paid attention to documenting that stuff.

The second theory has to do with manuring. The idea here is that manure is a fertilizer that would have been kept on farms and spread onto and plowed into fields, especially nearby fields. In some cases, bits of broken and discarded pottery would have been thrown on the trash heap and transported out into the fields alongside the fertilizer. If this is the case (or perhaps, where this is the case), then low-density scatters would be an index of agricultural activity.

The third theory argues that most small-scale settlements — “farmsteads” — would have stripped of any useful material when they were abandoned. As David Pettegrew argues,

When Greek families did abandon their homes, they exhaustively moved all usable household items, including the construction material of the house, to the new place of residence. The material that was left behind was ‘garbage,’ broken or useless objects that the householders did not think worth the effort of carrying to the new place of residence. Scavengers
and neighbors sometimes picked clean even this remaining refuse.

If this is so, David went on to argue, then low-density scatters could represent settlement, albeit a form of settlement that doesn’t result in high-density surface scatters but instead in small amounts of non-salvageable garbage that wasn’t stripped when houses were abandoned.

These competing models for understanding low-density units aren’t mutually exclusive, of course: some lonely sherds may be random junk, others may be the result of manuring, while others represent abandoned small settlements that have been stripped and salvaged. But these are questions that have been central to archaeologists for decades and that continue to be investigated. So Alex showed us that walking fields doesn’t just build character; it also pushes you into thinking seriously about how we get material on the surface and what it can mean.

Why I like archaeological survey

Over the past several months, a couple of different people have asked me why I like survey. My initial response is always intellectual. I talk about the importance of understanding the countryside, about the urban bias of our texts and excavations, the approach of books like The Corrupting Seaand so on. In both cases, that wasn’t the answer that the questioner wanted. What they wanted to know was, why did I like getting up before dawn to wander around the Greek countryside for six hours or more over six+ weeks?

Strangely, that’s a more complicated answer. As a student, I wasn’t immediately drawn to archaeological survey, although I was of course exposed to it as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, especially in the classes that I took from Sue Alcock and John Cherry. I first got seriously interested in survey because of the senior thesis that I wrote on settlement and state formation in Minoan Crete. I knew that I was interested in state formation (thanks to classes with John Cherry and Kent Flannery) and I knew that it was too big a topic for an undergraduate thesis. So I had spent the summer reading Colin Renfrew’s The Emergence of Civlisation (1972) — a book, incidentally, that convinced me that I wanted to be an Aegean prehistorian — and went into John Cherry’s office with a list of areas that interested me. One of them was settlement, and that sealed my fate: I ended up writing my thesis on published survey data from Crete from the Bronze Age, with a focus on the relationship between settlement data and state formation.

So my initial interest in survey was based on thinking, not doing. I had done survey for two weeks in Tunisia on the Leptiminus project back in 1995, and I liked it, but it wasn’t immediately my passion. But my intellectual interest in landscape and settlement led to me working on survey projects as I entered graduate school, both on the Iklaina Archaeological Project and especially the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey.

So that’s part of the story… but the way that I’ve told it might suggest that I like survey as an intellectual and analytical activity but not in practice. That’s not the case. So when I’ve been asked why I like to get up before dawn and wander around the Greek countryside, I tend to talk about a couple of different things:

(1) The Greek landscape is really beautiful. I won’t ever get tired of looking at this:


And this isn’t even the most iconic form of the Greek landscape (the deep blue Aegean up against the painted white houses of the Cyclades), but it’s still wonderful and variegated. Some of my favorite moments in Greece have been driving around a corner to be greeted to a wide and beautiful vista (the road to Kato Zakros in Crete is one of the best).

(2) The Greek landscape is endlessly surprising. This is true both generally — there are so many beautiful little valleys and harbors in Greece that you could spend your whole life visiting them — and in particular — walking through a familiar landscape will yield all kinds of little surprises.

(3) I love to explore and to hike. Loving survey is about embracing that spirit of exploration: of wanting to hike the trail that you haven’t yet hiked, not knowing where it goes. It sounds cheesy, and it is, but to love survey I do think you need to want to hike up to that hill in the distance to see what’s there.

This will sound familiar to veterans of the American School’s regular program, which involves a lot of hiking up to hills to see what’s there. When I went to Priene on the Ionia trip led by John Camp, my first thought and first question to John was, “Can I hike up to the acropolis?”

After being asked why I liked survey and giving these three responses, I started to wonder where (3) came from. Why do I have this strange desire to hike up to hills and mountains to see what’s up there? Was it drilled into me at the American School? Or does it come from somewhere else?

Thinking back on it, I spent an awful lot of my childhood hiking up hills in Greece. Most of my father’s family never left Greece, and so my summer vacations as a child involved going to Greece to visit my uncle, my cousin, and my grandparents. And Nakassis family vacations basically involved eating, swimming, and wandering up to hills.

Me at Mycenae, 1982 (or 1981?)
Me at Mycenae, 1982 (or 1981?)

Doesn’t it look like I’m having a great time? We wandered up hills like this one, with world-famous, UNESCO World Heritage archaeological sites on them, but we also hiked up to castles (like the Frankish castle above Voidokoilia beach, which we did without bringing any water with us!) and also up mountains with nothing on them at all, like when we were on vacation on Kos and Lesvos.

I do think that there’s something to this idea, that I like survey not only for intellectual reasons that emerged from my undergraduate education and my exposure to professors who were and are passionate about the ability of survey to shed light on the ancient world, but also because it involves a bodily practice and a bodily engagement with the Greek landscape that is almost literally hard wired in me from years of childhood vacations with my family. I managed to turn vacation activities into serious research. I’m not too upset about that.