From Atari to the Argos: Mediterranean and Modern Archaeology at UND

June 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last month, I was prompted to write a little press statement for office of university relations at the University of North Dakota. It appeared on UND’s home page today with a little story. What made this even cooler was that my story appeared at the same time as the announcements that a paper by one of our undergraduate’s, Joe Kalka’s, had won the Merrifield Prize.

UND University of North Dakota

It’s always interesting to see how the office of university relations changes my text. Here’s the original:

Less than a month after excavating the famous Atari burial ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Bill Caraher traveled to the small sea-side village of Myloi, in the region of Argos, Greece to start his newest field project. The Western Argolid Regional Project is a collaboration between scholars at the University of Colorado, University of Toronto, and Wilfred Laurier University to study the archaeology of settlement and movement in a valley in the rural Greece. Caraher was invited to participate in this project as a specialist in Mediterranean archaeological survey, Geographic Information Systems, and data management.

The work in Greece is very different from his punk archaeology adventures in the New Mexico desert where he encountered a media circus surrounding the well-publicized excavation of thousands of Atari game cartridges from a landfill. The three-day dig in New Mexico attracted international media attention and even earned mention in the Grand Forks Herald.

“Being part of the team supervising and documenting the Atari dig in New Mexico was great. It gave me more first hand experience working in late-20th century archaeological contexts. This is work at the fringes of the traditional disciplinary definitions of archaeology which has tended to privilege the ancient or at least ‘really old’ artifacts.

“The Atari dig, however, can speak to us a in a very immediate way about how we live today. The rapid pace of change in contemporary world propels objects from being things we can’t live without to things that we cast aside, want hidden away from us and buried in a landfill. Archaeologists tend to study things that were, for whatever reason, cast aside, but with the Atari dig we had a chance to witness and participate in the rapid cycling of culture where something as common and popular as Atari games is desired, discarded, and, then, excavated as cultural, and historical artifact. So for us, the process of discard and discovery creates a cultural artifact, and the interest of the Smithsonian in some of the excavated games confirms the enduring importance of what we did and what it produced.”

His work in the Argolid, Greece is more consistent with what we imagine as traditional archaeological practice. The field project will focus on a valley that connected to prominent regions of the ancient world. Caraher will help manage the archaeological data both in the field and in the digital realm. He will draw upon over a decade of running his own projects on the island of Cyprus:

“Unlike the Atari dig where we basically has to combat the idea that what we were doing wasn’t archaeology because the objects and processes that we studied were so recent, work in Greece has to challenge the idea that the seemingly remote and picturesque Greek landscape has never been modern. In fact, the valley we’re studying has been a significant thoroughfare for thousands of years including today where Greece’s most modern highway runs along its north slopes. This should lead us to see the valley as unchanging over time, but to push us to understand how this region functioned in different economy regimes, political powers, social and religious systems over time. So to put it another way: by saying that the ancient is so similar to the modern, we’re observing not that the rural world of modern Greece is somehow static, but rather that we have every reason to assume that rural Greece in antiquity was every bit as dynamic as our modern age. The ceramics scattered across the surface of the ground are antiquity’s Atari cartridges and can tell us about how people lived and worked in the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, or Medieval periods.”

The progress of the Punk Archaeology movement, his work on Greece and Cyprus, in the digital world, and all sorts of other stuff appears almost daily on his blog:

His work this summer can be followed on the hashtag #WestARP on the Twitters.

Archaeology with your Feet

June 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

June 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

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

June 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

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.


First Day in the Field on the Western Argolid Regional Project

June 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

Most of you have figured out that I’m in Greece and helping some excellent colleagues put together a new field project called the Western Argolid Survey Project. After a couple minor set backs, including a one-day delay on the permit and some rain (!), we are heading out into the field for our first day in about a half an hour.

It’s 5:15 here and I was WIDE AWAKE at 4 am excited and apprehensive about all the moving parts that are vital to making the first day and all the subsequent days work smoothly. These moving parts range from the field forms, mapping procedures, databases, the GIS, walker morale, and artifact counting and collection. There will be bumps in the road, for certain, but I think we have covered enough of our bases to ensure that the first few days in the field are a success.

I’ll report back later this afternoon, but for now I’ll leave you with a dramatic image of clouds snagged on the top of Mt. Artemision overlooking our survey area. Our hope is that these clouds are dispersing leaving us with a clear field season, but they are always provide a hint of doom!


Be sure to follow us at #WestARP on the Twitters.

Coming Back to the Corinthia

June 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

In my first decade of archaeological fieldwork, I focused my energies on the Corinthia. Yesterday, in the lead up to the start of the Western Argolid Research Project, the field teams made a quick trip to Ancient Corinth to look at a sample of pottery from the region. I was able to slip away to meet up with my old colleague David Pettegrew and check out a few Corinthian landmarks for his book.


In particular, we checked out the course of the trans-isthmian wall documented by James Wiseman in the 1960s (pdf). Pettegrew is putting the final touches on a book that will document the history of the Corinthian Isthmus. I’ve read a draft; it’s good. So I tagged along, and we walked part of the course of the trans-isthmian wall along the various ridges that dominate the Isthmian “plain”.



I then met up with the WARP team at Nikos’s taverna in Ancient Corinth for a lovely lunch, and we wondered out to the largely abandoned Pentaskophia village to look at formation processes. Taking the field teams to the abandoned village gave us a chance to talk about formation processes. We looked at the way in which tiles collapsed from roofs, the use of sherds and tile fragments as temper in the mud brick, and the various ways in which houses continue to function in the rural landscape after they no longer serve as homes.






From Pentaskouphia village we headed up to Acrocorinth to check out the imposing citadel of the city of Corinth. The grey sky gave our visit some nice flat light for photography and an appropriate romantic ambiance for the place for Byron’s:

Arise from out the earth which drank
The stream of slaughter as it sank,
That sanguine ocean would o’erflow
Her isthmus idly spread below :
Or could the bouts of all the slain,
Who perished there, be piled again,
That rival pyramid would rise
More mountain-like, through those clear skies,
Than yon tower-capt Acropolis
Which seems the very clouds to kiss.








In the final picture, you can just make out the height of Mt. Artimision in the far distance to the left of Pentaskouphi castle. Artimision overlooks our survey area in the Argolid.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter at #WestARP!


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