The Greek Crisis

Our field season at the Western Argolid Regional Project has felt the impact of the Greek economic crisis in rather direct ways. Suddenly all the undergraduates decided that they needed cash and our graduate students have discovered long-neglected piles of receipts that require immediate reimbursement. We’ve made more trips to the ATM than usual, have begun to conserve cash, and have started to feel a bit nervous about the complex web financial arrangements that an archaeological project relies upon to survive.

Our insecurity and inconvenience, however, are nowhere close to what most Greeks are experiencing right now.

The media appears to share our concerns about how the current crisis in Greece will impact both Greece and the rest of the world. Despite this concern, it would seem that many commentators struggle because they have only a very basic understanding of modern Greek history and, as a result, are only too ready to fall back on unhelpful statements about Greece’s ancient traditions of democracy or their foundational role in European civilization. It is nice to remember that our notions of democracy owe a debt to ancient Greece, but it is more important to recall that in the modern world, democracy remains more a lovely Western, historical fantasy than a consistently applied set of political principles.    

This tendency to look back seems to have obscured any critical understanding of Greece’s recent past. For example, few commentators have noted that Greece is among the oldest nations in Europe, but even at the very moment of its birth the powers of Western Europe took an active role in shaping its future. Few have recognized or discussed the difficult periods of financial dependency which robbed Greece of political independence throughout the last 150 years. Finally, commentators have generally overlooked the painful political experience of the Greek Civil War and rule of the military junta which shape Greek attitudes toward modern democracy and European intervention. 

Whatever the outcome of Sunday’s referendum, the results will express the unique history of the modern Greek state more than any Classicizing fantasy about the ancient origins of European and Western democracy. 

Industrial Archaeology and Student Resistance

Fridays are good days for me at the Western Argolid Regional Project. I don’t go into the field allowing my aging body to recover and spend the morning processing a week’s worth of data from the project, producing maps for the local archaeological authorities, and doing some more complex queries that’ll help guide our field work.

It’s great to see our progress over the week (at present writing we’ve walked over 1300 units and over 4000 individual walker swaths). Because we’re consciously old school and “paperful,” we collect data in the field on paper forms that are then keyed by our students in the afternoons. I’ve argued elsewhere that the process of breaking the flow of data from the field to the digital form is part of a practice that I call “slow archaeology.” We keep things analogue in the field to encourage care.

At the end of the day, though, we have to go digital eventually, and the point of contact with the digital realm is when the students key the paper forms into the project databases. Copies of the database are circulated each week on a USB drive and these drives are collected on Fridays when I merge the data. This is an inelegant, but generally reliable process. Because our permit limits us to 3 years of field work, we have shied away from investing too much energy into a digital infrastructure. We do not have a data server, iPads data entry, or any bespoke technology in our workflow.

(Before people get spooled up telling me how easy it is to create a more elegant process for collecting data, I’d like to assure them (everyone really) that WE KNOW. I’ve been managing archaeological datasets for over a decade and recognize that there are better, more reliable, and more efficient ways to move data from the survey unit to the database. I KNOW, but this is the best solution for our project because it balances our investment of energy into data infrastructure with the interpretative and analytical requirements of a three-year field project.)

The amazing thing about data entry duty is that our well-meaning, generally well-educated, and interested students never fail to mess it up. The kinds of mistakes they make in data entry are really quite staggering. One team managed to make an entire field vanish from their database. Another team keyed into a database labeled DONOTUSE which they found buried on some hard drive. Another team decided to add random numbers to their unit numbers. Another managed to break the database by repeatedly trying to key in a unit that had already been keyed causing the LAPTOP (the hardware, mind you, not the software or the database) to finally just reset in an desperate act to protect all involved from such a relentless, unmistakably human assault on common sense.

Why do students do this? Data entry is not difficult, nor particularly time consuming. Each member of the team does it for about 2 or 3 hours a week. The database appears to be straightforward and is fronted by a simple form that more or less follows the paper form. Our hope, of course, is that by asking our students to key the data they become more familiar with the units they’ve walked during the week in much the same way that Medieval monks became more familiar with devotional texts, scriptures, and theology by copying these texts in monastic scriptoria.

The results, however, suggest otherwise. Students take this opportunity to resist data entry as a basal assault on their humanity. Their actions argue against reducing the work of archaeologists, past humans, and the complexities of nature to a set of limited data is profoundly dehumanizing. Our students are committed to demolishing the straight forward data entry process by entering nonsense data. They take pleasure in robbing the computer, database, and even data structure of agency by showing the powerlessness of these tools in the face of human ingenuity. They remind the rest of the project to slow down and appreciate the gentle sounds of olive trees in the wind, the rich taste of Greek coffee, and the crunch of plowed fields beneath our feet.

So, I wanted to take this blog post to thank our students for showing us that no matter how efficient, well-designed, carefully-constructed, and time-tested archaeological data structures are, they will always fail in the face of student ingenuity. Humans will never be data.

All the fears that our education system is turning our students into cogs fit only to power the dehumanizing machine of industrial capitalism may well be overstated. There is something in the human condition that persists into the early college years that we cannot break even by subjecting students to the most mundane tasks designed to wear down their resistance to tedium. The will to resist continues and manifests itself in simple, every day forms that we are only too quick to read as sloppiness, laziness, or incompetence. To misappropriate slightly a quote from the great James C. Scott:

“One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay “in shape” so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is “anarchist calisthenics.” Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

Origins

This week, we made a quick trip to the village of Frousiouna in the far western Argolid. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, some of the residents of this village would make their way toward the Argive plain to winter their flocks. The village of Frousiouna was the origin of the small hamlet in our survey area.

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Archaeologists are often interested in origins whether these are the origins of particular kinds of material culture or groups of people. The Western Argolid Regional Project has as one of its main research focuses is movement through our survey area and the transhumant pastoralists from Frousiouna are part of that history. 

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The well-watered mountain village with impressive two-storey homes is far cry from the rocky fields and simple long houses of their winter settlement in our survey area. 

Survey Method and the Modern Landscape

A few weeks ago, I posted on the problem of “managing the modern landscape in intensive survey.” This week, my conceptual musings actually require operational decisions. By the end of the week, we’ll be surveying around an abandoned modern settlement in the Western Argolid.

The site is beautiful, relatively secluded settlement established by transhumant herders probably in the late 19th or early 20th century. There are a gaggle of traditional Balkan-style long houses which are generally divided into two spaces: one for the animals and one for the people. There are corbeled ovens, leaning sheds, alonia (threshing floors), and mandres (animal pens). The site is surrounded by fields and the houses themselves form an uneven scatter across the lower and middle slopes of a narrow valley. 

The project directors and survey team leaders visited the site yesterday afternoon during a gentle rain shower and thought about how to approach the complexity of the modern period site, the abundance of artifacts, and the relationship between houses and other features in the landscape.

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The site offers a few challenges.

1. Artifact Distribution. Over the past 12 hours, we have discussed endlessly how to deal with the dense scatters of artifacts associated with the abandoned houses. These scatters consist primarily of roof tiles, but since each house may have as many as 3,000 tiles, there is a real opportunity to blow out our ceramics team and storage facilities for very little new information.

So how do we go about documenting the scatter of tiles surrounding these houses? If we simply survey the houses as part of our traditional 2000 sq m survey units, the unit will show a density influence largely by the scatter of material associated with the immediate vicinity of the house. This approach will not represent the “reality on the ground” in the most effective way. 

If we attempt to isolate the artifact scatters associated with the houses in the area by excluding them from larger survey units or make them the center of small units focused on the artifact scatters, we have introduced a rather unconventional method to the area and risk producing data that is not necessarily consistent with the data that we’ve collected from elsewhere in the survey area.

We are stuck between the rock of needing to manage modern abundance and the hard place of treating all material from our survey area with a consistent method.   

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2. Architecture. We also need to think about how we are going to document the houses at the site. The houses preserve hints of a wide range of archaeological processes, modifications, and uses. David Pettegrew and I considered many of these same issues in our work to document the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia. It’ll be a great opportunity to encourage students to look closely at a building in the landscape and to consider how material transitions from its primary context to an archaeological context. At the same time, we’ll need to provide some consistent guidance to ensure that the students, team leaders, and directors document the buildings in a consistent way while also being able to describe each building with as much detail and nuance as possible.

We need to figure out whether it is worth doing some illustrations of the houses or should we rely on photographs to capture details that might elude textual descriptions. I generally favor taking the time to illustrate the houses because it forces the documenter to slow down and notice small details that might not appear as clearly through the photographer’s view finder. At the same time, there will be a need for efficiency so we will almost certainly have to document the houses in as efficient way as possible.

3. Features. The final issue is that houses stand in relation to other features and these clusters of features need to be identified and documented. Like documenting architecture, we need to decide whether to produce illustrations that capture significant detail, rely on textual descriptions, or create a set of maps that emphasize particular spatial relationships. 

We need to proceed efficiently and capture data at a scale that is relevant for the kinds of arguments that we intend to make. In an ideal world, we could collect “all the data,” we fortunately occupy a world where “all the data” is not a realistic or helpful goal.

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Photo Friday in the Western Argolid: Cars and Trash Edition

This week was hot. As a result, I was not my usual photographic self. 

It was THIS HOT.

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Despite that, I mapped (that’s not me; actually I wander around offering astute commentary and our amazing team of graduate students map).

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Checked out some neat cars in the field.

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The highlight of the week was a sudden rain shower on Thursday that imparted olive trees with a golden-green glow. I tried (rather unsuccessfully) to photograph it.

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I also had the good luck of discovering a spectacular modern trash dump in a ravine that was later cut by an erosional event. The trash dated to the late 1990s or early 2000s. The dating was done by Machal Gradoz, our project soccer expert (as well as a fine archaeologist) who identified an image of David Beckham on a Pepsi can and dated the uniform, basic information on the can, and hair to the turn of the century.

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The dump was stratified indicating more than one depositional event. The size of the dump, however, suggests that it probably did not represent the primary dump of a village, but was perhaps the dump for one of the small communities in the area. The location of the dump on both sides of the ravine indicates that the dump was cut by the ravine. 

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Age, Priorities, and the Cars

This summer the six survey teams on the Western Argolid Regional Project are working with clock-like efficiency. They churn through units at a remarkable pace and with a remarkable consistency. The good cheer, competence, and general responsibility of our graduate team leaders is amazing. The rest of the team, field walkers, project directors, and our faithful automotive transports have struggled a bit this week to keep up.

So, three quick consideration that have shaped my week in archaeological survey:

1. Age. Survey archaeology is a young person’s game. This week kicked my ass. I mapped for four days straight, demolished my poor feet, tripped over a terrace wall, dehydrated myself, and got grumpy. Our routine has become that one team leader and I map ahead of our ravenous survey teams trying to keep enough mapped units on the board to keep our fast moving teams busy.

On a good day, the team leader (with my help… cough, cough) can map about 100 units or so and that represents about a day worth of survey work for the teams. This is exhausting work, but it gives me a change to look at almost every survey unit  at least in a superficial way.

The downside is that by the end of the week, I’m completely wrecked. This is despite having exercised systematically over the past 12 months in preparation for the season, almost two decades of field experience in the Mediterranean, and careful precautions against the sun, dehydration, and little injuries. There is nothing more that I can do to keep in the game. Mother nature is taking is pound of flesh. Survey archaeology is a young person’s game. 

2. Fieldwork is all about priorities. For our project that means figuring how when to diversify from the hard work of intensive pedestrian survey and deploy resources to do other important tasks.

There is an overwhelming temptation to revel in the efficiency and steady growth of our fine-grain survey grid across the arable land in our study area. In fact, our methodological predilections eschew more intensive sampling of higher density scatters (places formerly known as sites), and have resisted the temptation to lay out grids, create total collection circles, or indulge in unsystematic grab sampling.  We’ve even gone so far to encourage out team leaders to mark units for revisit (especially units with higher density and lower visibility), but we’ve yet to shift the resources to revisiting or recollecting sites.

Next week, some of that might have to change. We’re going to have to start slowly shifting resources to documenting buildings, walls, features, and unusual artifact scatters. This not only breaks our routine, but also forces us to make difficult decisions about what is more important. Do we document an early modern farm house, first, and then a Venetian fortification? Do we do some more intensive sampling as a way to understand that small scatter of Medieval pottery or do we focus on a partially hidden landscapes from the Early Bronze age?

3. Cars. The final challenge to a well run survey project – more so than aging directors or conflicting priorities – was how we get into and out of the field. Bruno Latour would be impressed, because nothing impacts the progress of field work more seriously than cars breaking down. This week we’ve had two flat tires on the same car. Clearly, the car is less than impressed with our interest in completing field work. Or maybe the car is on my side and keeping me from completely collapsing under the grind of field work.

Fragments of a Conclusion

This past week, I’ve been twisting and tweaking an article documenting our work at the Alamogordo Atari Excavation. The article was primarily authored by Andrew Reinhard and represents a formal, (we hope) publishable report on our work over a few days in Alamogordo at what was probably the most publicized excavation of 2014. 

Here’s a fragment of my revised conclusion. Since I’m not sure whether it’ll appear in the article, I’m posting it here with very little comment:

(Also this is what happens when you try to write during a field season):

Atari Archaeology Conclusions

Archaeology of the contemporary world has often relied on special pleading to justify its practices, methods, and relevance. The excavation of Atari games in the Alamogordo desert is no exception to this tendency. The hyper-abundance of modern material has led to challenges in managing and documenting artifacts. The potentially toxic character of assemblages extracted from landfills, disaster sites, and industrial contexts require specialized handling skills that are rarely possessed by archaeologists and rules and regulations that may not be suited to traditional forms of archaeological investigation. As a result, the documentation of modern period assemblages often requires special accommodations. In the New Mexico desert, we were not able to enter the trench, manually excavate, or handle large quantities of material for extended periods.

As in both contract and academic archaeology, time represents a key limiting factor in the methods employed in the field. Generally speaking, ethical responsibilities serve as a counterweight to time pressures with archaeologists seeking to collect as much information as time pressures will allow. In the archaeology of the contemporary would, however, our ethical obligations are complicated by the uncertain status of material present in the Alamogordo landfill. If this material is genuinely archaeological, it is only because we documented it according to archaeological field procedures. According to most standards in our discipline and common sense, household and corporate discard do not and should not automatically command the levels of ethical care as objects and contexts of greater antiquity. Many of the challenges facing archaeologists of the contemporary world go well beyond procedures established to ensure the careful documentation of fragile or scarce archaeological resources.

Finally, the Atari excavations presented a unique opportunity for archaeologists to inform, document, and, in subtle ways, subvert the narrative produced by a media company. The goal of this report was to provide a more typical professionalized narrative of the Atari excavation. The documentary film, Atari: Game Over featured only about 10 minutes of footage on the excavation itself. This article expands and reframes these scenes with additional information collected through our participation in the production. While the story we tell does not contradict that told in the documentary, it does reveal that the halting flow of information between the production team and archaeologist limited genuine collaboration during the hectic two days of field work. At the same time, the production company supported various requests by the archaeologist that did not contribute directly to their production goals. We were able to cross the safety cordon to document the excavator’s progress, were given space to document buckets of trash from the landfill, and given brief time to sort and study the Atari cartridges. These opportunities made this article possible and demonstrate that potential of collaboration between media companies and archaeologists moving forward.

Pierre MacKay

I was saddened to hear this morning that Pierre MacKay passed away over the weekend. I didn’t know Pierre well, but was fortunate enough to spend a year with him in 2001/2002 at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

During that time, I was putting the final touches on an article documenting a series of fortifications on Mt. Oneion in the Corinthia. The latest were Venetian. Pierre had been working on the fortification of the Venetian town of Negroponte (now Chalkis) on Euboea. He was only too happy to discuss Venetian fortification strategies with me as well as any other topic of post-ancient Greece.

The highlight of that year was a trip to the city of Chalkis by train and then touring the course of Venetian fortifications of that city. The catch is that the fortifications were destroyed in the 19th century, but Pierre managed to make the course of the fortifications as vivid as if the walls were still standing. We had a long discussion of the church of Ayia Paraskevi which was a Frankish period church built on Early Christian foundations. His willingness to discuss Frankish, Venetian, and earlier material with us during the trip to Chalkis, and throughout my year at the American School, was a model of scholarly generosity.

From my perspective (and many others) his knowledge of Venetian and Ottoman Greece was virtually limitless, and he combined it with a deep and sophisticated understanding of the Classical world. His sensitivity to the long history of Greece is something that I admired and, in my own way, aspire too (although without his staggering knowledge of languages from Medieval Venetian to Ottoman Turkish). 

Speed

One of the more interesting trends emerging so far during the Western Argolid Regional Project season is competition among field teams. At the end of each field day, I typically ask team leaders how many units they have walked. This seemingly benign question helps us measure our progress through the survey area and gauge how much mapping is necessary to keep ahead of the survey teams. A quick tally of the number of units walked lets me begin to plan the next day as soon as the previous field day is over. 

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Generally our 5 field teams walk between 15 and 20 units and around 90 total. Each unit is around 3000 sq m. so we walk about 1.3 and 1.5 sq. km per week. The number of units we walk depend considerably on the character of the terrain, the size of the units, and the density of artifacts, vegetation, and other distractions to artifact recovery. The size of our field teams is four plus a team leader, but this week we lost a few field walkers to dehydration and bumps and bruises. So a team down a walker will move a bit more slowly than one at full strength especially if the units are slightly larger than average. Historically, field teams walk about 4 units per hour over a 6 hour field day with a couple of breaks for water, znacks (snacks), and transit to and from the field site. 

Teams generally develop a routine where one walker writes tags, one takes a center GPS point, one walker helps with forms, one takes photographs et c. This streamlines the bookkeeping and data recording aspects of intensive pedestrian survey and as the season progresses, small efficiencies occur based on familiarity with the process as much as anything. As the process become more efficient, we usually have to nudge the team leaders to slow things down just a bit to ensure that the teams recognize where they are in the survey area, fill out forms properly, and actually, you know, enjoy the process. Since our project runs as a field school, we see very little benefit to an overly mechanical process that makes our field walkers (and team leaders) into field walking robots (beep, boop, boop, beep, boop).

One thing that I did not anticipate this summer is that teams would start to compete with each other to walk the most units per day. It’s hard not to like the harmless morale boost that comes with walking the most units or besting a team nearby is fun. Moreover, we recognize the field walking – particularly in challenging topography which is difficult to grasp as a coherent space – can be boring and seem pointless. The assembly line was soul crushing in part because of the repetitive character of the work and, in part, because the repetition could obscure the role an individual played in the work’s final result. Unit counts keep the field day interesting.

At the same time, we’ve starting wonder whether there are some less than desirable byproducts of this competition. For example, we don’t want the push to walk more to exhaust field teams more quickly and to contribute to the attrition of team members. We also don’t want to compromise our data collection for some good-natured fun. Finally, we don’t want teams who walk more challenging areas to feel like their contributions are less significant because they didn’t walk enough units. The last thing we want is sad field walkers.