Archaeology Stories

This fall I’m going to deliver a paper for the Archaeological Institute of Amerca’s roving lecture program at Valparaiso titled Ten Years at an Ancient Harbor in Cyprus. The over-arching goal of the paper is to give a lively and entertaining overview of the work of the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project. I also want to reflect on how I narrate the project’s history and interleave it with the history of the site.

I want to figure out how to integrate our archaeological decisions, particularly those that shaped our methodology, with the kind of landscape that we created. Here I am following Michael Given’s lead and taking inspiration (in a way) from his innovative introduction to the Sydney Cyprus Survey Project volume. As I toiled to figure out how to deal with telling two stories at once, I finally settled on a few little narrative aids that will (hopefully) help me shift between the various stories that I want to tell in my paper.

1. Telling Stories in Different Directions. Perhaps the most interesting things about narrating archaeology is that when one encounters a landscape or excavates, one starts with the most recent times and moves backward to earlier periods. In effect, this is the reverse of most forms of story telling which moves chronologically through time just as we as humans experience life. So to make the story of our project work with the (hi)story of  our site, one or the other needs to be set on its head. I’ve decided to move from the Late Roman period back in time to the Roman, Hellenistic and earlier periods in my historical descriptions and let my talk follow more realistically the course of our discovery.

2. Making Stories with Mistakes. Among the numerous amusing episodes from our 10 years of work at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project was our thought process that led to the excavation of the Hellenistic fortified site of Vigla. Our initial argument for the importance of Vigla and our need to excavate there centered on the presence of a fortified monastic complex that we thought we had identified through geophysical work at the site in 2007. Needless to say, we made a mistake, but the logic of this mistake fits within a narrative in which the later Roman material produced a mental overburden that occluded the possible earlier elements of the site from view. It was only with excavation – that literally removed the Roman overburden (such as it was) – and revealed the earlier phases of the site that we realized our mistaken interpretation.

3. Landscapes of Change. These narrational challenges (telling stories in different directions and integrating mistakes) reveal the most difficult aspect of presenting a landscape.  Landscapes – whether created by excavation or survey – represent dynamic entities that shift constantly depending on one’s perspective. Later discoveries make it difficult to narrate – in an authentic way – earlier assumptions which may end in dead ends or lead to minor episodes taking on surprising significance later. Time shifting through narration, however, brings to the fore the contextual character of dynamic landscapes and reveals through the artifice of story telling how evidence for the past in the present appears through time.

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