Diagnostic Ceramics and WARP

One of the nice things about a study season is that there is time to do little studies that can get lost in the bustle of a field season. There’s also time to catch up on some reading that all too easily gets set aside during the academic year.

This week, for example, I spent some time with a recent article by Elizabeth Murphy and collaborators in the most recent JFA (2019) (and here) Since we’re working on a preliminary report for WARP, it was useful to read how another project introduced their work, their methods, and their goals. More specifically, however, Murphy and her collaborators offered some insights into a collection strategy that was markedly different from ours at WARP.  The LASS project in Sardinia counted 19,176 artifacts and collected 1371. In other words, 7.1% of the seen artifacts were diagnostic (7). This likely speaks to the relatively poor state of ceramics knowledge for Sardinia and what defines an artifact as “diagnostic” than any shortcomings of method on the part of the LASS team.

In contrast, WARP had the advantage of working in the general vicinity of a large number of well-know and thoroughly excavated sites (in varying degrees of publication) that helped us expand what we regarded as diagnostic. This also complemented a rather robust sampling strategy which provided us with a large assemblage of material for analysis. Here’s a short study that considers the significance of our collection strategy in the context of ceramic knowledge in the larger WARP region. 

At WARP, over the course of standard transect walking, we counted 119,414 artifacts including sherds, tiles, lithics, and “other”. We collected 64,983 artifacts or 54.4% of all the artifacts seen. This was consistent with a sampling strategy that asked field walkers to collect all visible sherds, but to sample only unique examples of tiles on the basis of fabric and part of the tile (e.g. edge). In the end, we collected 39% of the tiles that we counted. Considering that 78% of the collected tile was either chronologically undiagnostic (what we called “Tile, Ancient Historic”), Modern, or Early Modern, this seems like a good decision.

A cursory statistical review of the collected artifacts likewise demonstrates that a more robust sampling strategy of each survey unit produced archaeologically significant results. While the definition of “diagnostic” pottery is largely in the eye of the field walker and ceramics experts, rims, bases, and handles (RBH) are almost universally recognized as potentially diagnostic and almost always collected. For WARP, these accounted for approximately 10% of the artifacts collected during typical field walking. The remaining 88.9% of the material were body sherds. During revisits to units where we collected more intensively over a more limited area, we produced assemblages that were 87.8% body sherds and 12.2% RBH. This suggests that the sample produced through regular field walking reflected the percentages of material in the plowzone. Interestingly, we also told our teams that they should collect any material from their units that they thought might be diagnostic, but did not fall into a swath, and designate this material as a “Grab” sample. We also designated as “grab” any material from units that we did not survey using our standard survey methods including amid the collapse of Early Modern houses and the overgrown and rocky acropolis of Orneai. These grab samples were 83.6% body sherds. When we filtered out tiles from this assemblages, which produce a large number of body sherds and appeared in an almost continuous carpet across our survey area, the percentages remained more or less the same. For standard survey, 78.9% of our sherds were body sherds, for more intensive resurvey, 81.7%, and for grabs, 77.7%

Of course, most surveys – including LASS – recognize that decorated body sherds are diagnostic. Like most surveys, WARP found that only about 9.3% of our body sherds preserved decoration. Of these decorated sherds, about 45% of them could be dated to a period more narrow than 1000 years. What’s more remarkable, however, is that of the 90% of our body sherds that lacked decoration, 33% of these sherds could also be dated to a narrow period on the basis of preserved shape or fabric. For grab samples, which are by definition more diagnostic, our ability to data undecorated pottery to less than 1000 years improves to 67.1% which is not far from the 72.6% for decorated sherds.

For some periods, like EHIII, Classical-Hellenistic, Hellenistic, and Roman and Late Roman, undecorated body sherds far outnumber decorated body sherds. As a result, a collection strategy that overlooked these sherds would have significantly biased our view of the landscape.

Abandonment and Post-Medieval Butrint

I don’t get much random reading in during the summer, in part, because I’m trying to be disciplined and, in part, because my time isn’t entirely my own on various archaeological project. This week, however, I made an exception and read David Hernandez’s article on Butrint in the most recent Hesperia.

The article is a wonderful archaeological synthesis of the final three centuries of primarily Venetian settlement in the city. He grounded his arguments for the conditions of the Venetian community at Butrint on several carefully excavated contexts derived from three 14th-century Venetian houses. The botanical remains provide insights into the diet of the residents of these houses which included the usual staples of grains, olives, grapes, and fava beans. Small finds included a thimble, kitchen utensils, and pottery. A more detailed description of the pottery would have been useful for considering the role of ceramics and metal vessels in the daily life of residents. The study of a small group of burials and human remains provides a chilling view of the health of residents in the settlement at the end of its life. I was amused that Venetian House I reused part of a Late Roman building. The Late Romans, of course, were famous for reoccupying and adapting earlier structures for domestic purposes.    

What is more remarkable, however, is that he considers the fate of Butrint after the end of Venetian settlement when most scholars had considered the city abandoned. Documentary sources, maps, paintings, and other records combined with the interpretation of small and stray finds to demonstrate that the “abandoned” landscape of Butrint was, in fact, socially and economic active. The malarial conditions brought about by the unchecked growth of local coastal marshlands, the location of the site at the periphery of the Venetian and Ottoman state, and the tension between local Albanian tribes and the communities seeking to systematically exploit the resources around Butrint shaped the character of abandonment.   

Finally, Hernandez emphasized that the “post-abandonment” exploitation of the area around Butrint as part of the long-standing relationship between Butrint and the neighboring island of Corfu. In fact, for much of its modern history, the island of Corfu depended on Butrint for food, wood, and exchange commodities, particularly fish. The proximity and interdependence ensured that despite the marginal character of the marshlands around Butrint, the fisheries, wildlife, and agriculture remained available for exploitation. 

The article does a much better job presenting the complexities of the post-Medieval history of Butrint than this post lets on. Do check it out!

Joy Williams, Islands, and Time

While on Cyprus this summer, I re-read Joy Williams’ The Changeling (1978). Most of the book is set on a mysterious island off, perhaps off the coast of Georgia (but it doesn’t really matter), where Pearl is drawn first by a mysterious man. When he dies a tragic death after they have a son together, she lives out her life on the island in an alcoholic haze. She is surrounded by children who are being raised by her husband’s brother and have largely free rein over the island. In the end, the children and Pearl’s son change and take over the island by reverting to their primordial states. The book is complex, dynamic, and worth reading.

It is also about an island. 

As I think about an island archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus, it’s hard not to think about island in the popular imagination. Jody Gordon’s recent contribution to an island archaeology of Cyprus in a special issue of Land cites Jules Verne’s description of the port at Alexandria as a fictional exemplar of the networked world of ports and islands in the Mediterranean. Williams’ island is the opposite of this. It’s isolated and connected to the mainland (and to the mundane world of reality) by a single boat and a dock almost completely devoid of cosmopolitan bustle.

The isolation of Williams’ island slows and distorts time. The children revert to a beastial, primordial past amid buildings chocked full of artifacts from the days of the island’s founding settler. To make this connection between time and place more clear, the book begins with Pearl drinking gin-and-tonics in a nondescript hotel bar which embodies the character of 20th century non-places as deeply as the island represents a place with its own time, past, and present. 

The leap from Williams’ fictional island to real islands is easy enough. Marshall Sahlins’ Islands of History offers a perspective on how island communities manipulate time and history to understand and construct their world. I don’t have any idea right now how to use these ideas to understand the island archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus. Re-reading Williams and thinking about my abstract, however, has made me consider that maybe the idea of historical contingency has less to do with a linear concept of archaeological or historical time that exists on island, on mainlands, in texts, and in material culture and more to do with the distinctive flow of time on Cyprus. In other words, maybe island archaeology has more to do with how time (and ultimately history) works on an island and less to do with how islands speak to history and time beyond their shores.  

End of Blogs?

Last week Neville Morely wrote a little piece on his declining blog statistics over at his Sphinx blog and has since followed it up with a new podcast. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet and I should have commented on his blog post when he asked other bloggers to chime in on their statistics. I feel like I let the community down.

If I look closely, I can tell that my visitor and page view numbers are down. At the same time, my monthly averages appear steady (or even slightly improved) over the past five or six years. My March numbers, for example, were 106 page views per day which is the highest since 2015 and the fourth highest total in the last 9 years. Two very popular posts, however, in the first half of the month drove a good bit of the traffic. These posts circulated rather widely (for me) on Twitter and Facebook, and social media platforms accounted for over 500 page views (or about 18% of the traffic). In an ordinary month, Twitter and Facebook account for 5%-8% of views. Despite my erratic use of social media to promote my blog, it is notable that for 10 of the last 12 months, my page views have been high than the previous year and for 8 of the last 12 months, they’ve been the strongest since 2015.

It is worth noting, however, that my 2014 and 2015 page views were also buoyed by a series of very prominent posts that led to spikes in traffic. Most of these spikes, like the publication of Punk Archaeology or Visions of Substance, tended to have a much longer tale and while they were abrupt, they attracted readers to my blog for months. 

It may be that the shorter term spikes in my blog’s page views reflects the function of blogs within at least American academia has changed. When I started my blog I wanted both to draw the public into my research and give them a bit of a perspective on how scholars (and, in particular, archaeologists) build their arguments. In fact, I celebrated the fuzziness of the knowledge making the process and the ragged edges of what we know. This seemed like a good thing to do at the time when fetishization of “facts” was undermining the careful work of scholars in the humanities to present a world where structures, power, and practice matter more than black and white judgements. Today, this mission seems more problematic and my audience, perhaps, less interested and sympathetic.

Today, my most popular posts serve as open letters which attempt to address issues that face my discipline and academia more broadly. The audience is more academic, more engaged with social, political, and economic situation within academia, and less curious about how knowledge is made in my little corner of the discipline. This isn’t meant as a critique or even criticism of my readers, blogging, or academia, but speaks to the shifting landscape of blogging as practice. Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields. This is not a bad thing, but it creates a different rhythm of blog viewing. 

Quick Thoughts on Open Access

Over the past week I’ve been thinking a good bit about publishing and disseminating archaeological data and yesterday I had some thoughtful conversations with Becky Seifried who was fresh from a recent conference in Athens on the topic (pdf).

I don’t really have anything profound to say about data except the observation that for archaeological projects, the more stakeholders involved, the harder it is to determine how best to disseminate project data. On the one hand, it is easy enough to envision how open data will allow our data savvy community to “dig into” the results of our field work. Moreover, those of us publishing both data and analysis of our projects can understand the value of making the link – no mater how fuzzy – between field work and interpretation clear. In fact, our field increasingly embraces this kind of transparency and openness as both a way to allow researchers and communities to engage with what passes as “raw material” in archaeology.

At the same time, we also recognize the rights of communities to control their own pasts and realize that the past – and its material and digital surrogates in the present – operates within diverse spatial, political, economic, social, and discursive regimes. As a result, openness in data can at the same time be decolonizing and colonizing, progressive and regressive, and collaborative and “going rogue” all at the same time. In fact, the more stakeholders invested in the data and the work, the more openness is seen as a challenge especially among communities who already feel that their control of their own past is vulnerable. 

What’s interesting, of course, is that we often position open, digital heritage as a way to engage more diverse communities in the process of understanding their own past. For archaeology, sharing archaeological data invariably engages those who want to use public data for personal gain (e.g. looters), those who see the digital surrogates of archaeological objects as deserving the same protections as the objects themselves (e.g. limited or highly curated access), and those who see the tools necessary for digital dissemination of archaeological data as a barrier to access.

I recognize that people have thought seriously and expansively about the challenges  of open publishing and digital heritage in practical and theoretical terms. I tend to be so deeply immersed in the data themselves (and the processes of moving data from the survey unit to the final database) to think very hard about these issues. It’s only now as parts of our dataset has taken on its final shape that I’ve had reason to think about its open or not so open after life. 

North Dakota Quarterly

I’ve been trying to stay on top of the North Dakota Quarterly website and blog this summer. This involves making sure that we have at least one post a week and keeping track of changes to our subscription website at University of Nebraska Press and our submission website via Submittable. Fortunately, I’ve also had some help from colleagues on the editorial board who have offered some thoughtful “Short Takes.”  NDQ 86 1 2 cover  1  dragged

This week’s posts at NDQ are pretty special. On Tuesday, I posted the introduction to our special issue on the late William H. Gass and, today I posted a rather long (by interweb standards) interview with the author. In the interview he touches on Gass’s friendship with William Gaddis, the Beats, and some of the leading lights in post-modern literature in the late 20th century. Both are by Crystal Alberts. 

These two article introduce a special section in this issue of NDQ that is a tribute to William Gass from some of his closest colleagues and admirers. It’s definitely worth checking out and while I’m proud of every issue of NDQ, I’m particularly proud of this one. Check it out.

Plans and Tables

Yesterday was uncharacteristically muggy her in Ancient Corinth and that fit my mood. Not only did I forget to save an ArcGIS project and lose a good bit of work when it crashed, but I also found myself mired in some curious database quandaries that while fun to work through, were frustrating. Whatever the weather here, I’m facing a few more days of similar data oriented challenges.

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On the other hand, staring at data from both my own project – the excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria – and the half-century old project at Isthmia in the Corinthia (not to mention the Polis on Cyprus) has pushed me to think about the future of archaeological publishing in new ways. Our data isn’t tidy because archaeology isn’t tidy. More than that, linking our not-so-tidy data to efforts to make compelling (and tidy arguments) reveals the inevitable disconnect between the data that we have and the arguments that we (ideally) believe. 

Nowhere in the archaeological process do we feel this disconnect more intensely than when we’re preparing material for publication. I wonder how much the aesthetics of our efforts to prepare data obscure the reality of archaeological knowledge making… 

From Cyprus to Greece (and an advertisement for myself)

Yesterday, I wrapped up the first of my of three little study seasons and traveled from Cyprus to Greece.

As a kind of poetic gesture, our long-gestating article on the South Basilica at Polis appeared yesterday in Hesperia 88 (2019). Here’s a link to it (and if you want an offprint and don’t get the Hesperia, drop me an email or a DM on the Twitter). 

The article offers an archaeological argument for the date of two phases of the South Basilica. The second phase will likely be of most interest to architectural historians for Early Byzantine Cyprus because it involves the conversion of the church from a wood roofed structure to a barrel vault. We also managed to phase, and date, the construction of the narthex and a portico that ran the length of the southern side of the basilica. Plus, there’s a massive “French drain” (and who doesn’t love Mr. French’s drains?) designed to help deal with the flow of water against the south wall of the church. 

MooreEtAlTitlePage

The weakest part of the article is our discussion of the urban context for the basilica, and, in fact, this is a work in progress for our understanding of the site of Polis and the arrangement of Early Christian churches in the changing urban landscape of Late Antique Cyprus more generally. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll undoubtedly know that this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately

We’re also happy that this article involved links to our publication of data from Pyla-Koutsopetria in Open Context. This summer, we’ve started to work a bit on the “digital backbone” for Polis in Open Context (as well as preparing the data from our excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla). This involves making our notebooks available as well as our analysis of the context pottery. The inventoried finds from Polis are already available on Open Context in draft form, but they will acquire addition significance only when linked to descriptions of the excavations and other material from the trenches. This is a big job for the area of E.F2 (in the Princeton Polis grid) which includes the South Basilica, but we hope to produce a model for organizing the E.F2 data using the smaller and more manageable area of E.F1 over the next few months.

Thinking about digital publication and curation of archaeological data is always good thing! For the next week, my old buddy David Pettegrew and I will be working with Jon Frey and Tim Gregory with some Isthmia Excavation data and trying to wrangle and think about how best to organize, disseminate, and curate their data. More on that over the next week or so…  

More Books by the Cover from The Digital Press

This summer, I’m doing a bit of design work for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as we prepare for a very busy fall.

We’re eagerly anticipating the publication of the Dakota Datebook in book form. For those of you who aren’t from North Dakota, Dakota Datebook is a beloved Prairie Public Radio program that offers short interesting (and often fun) stories about North Dakota history on a daily basis. Over the past decade, Prairie Public Radio has produced and broadcast over 3000 of these 300-500 word stories. The students in David Haeselin’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing class selected 365 of the best for the book. 

For the cover, which is not final, of course, we partnered with North Dakota artist Jessie Thorson who provided the menagerie of character for the calendar set into the outline of North Dakota. The bold color bars combine the shade of blue used by Prairie Public and the yellow from the North Dakota state flag. The font is the ubiquitous “ChunkFive”. 

Dakota Datebook WRC Draft2 01 01

The second book cover that I’ve been working on is for a new book of essays by the Electric Archaeologist, Shawn Graham. It’s titled Failing Gloriously, and we wanted a cover that was both uncluttered, a bit playful, and makes reference to the digital aspect of his work. Here’s the first draft:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 1 01

More on these two books (and their covers!) as we move forward this summer. The Digital Press is looking forward to an exciting fall!

Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.