Doing Work at Polis

For the third straight year, I’ve sequestered myself for a few weeks in the lovely village of Polis-Chrysochous to commune with the notebooks from the Princeton Polis Expedition. These notebooks detail the excavations at the site of E.F2 on the Princeton grid. This site dates from the Hellenistic to Medieval period and the most conspicuous feature is an Early Christian to Medieval basilica style church. This church and the great group of colleagues working at Polis drew me to the site initially.

Since 2009, I’ve been working on producing a database from the notebooks, assisting Scott Moore and Brandon Olson in analyzing the context pottery, and integrating their work with the notebooks and the existing registry of finds.  This means getting three databases to talk to each other. Two of the three – one designed to accommodate our notebooks and one designed to accommodate the new readings of the context pottery – meld together smoothly. The database accommodating the registered finds is a different matter. It was built over 20 years and is not normalized. It can only link to the other databases through a series of concordances. This is tedious stuff to develop and test.

The greatest challenge, however, is to understand the notebooks. Polis was one of the last large-scale Mediterranean excavations not to be excavated stratigraphically. Instead, excavators defined “Levels” which could be stratigraphic or simply spatial and then made “Passes” through these levels which could also be stratigraphic or simply spatial or just arbitrary. What I’ve tried to do is to superimpose a stratigraphic system on top of the existing system of levels and passes in order to understand the depositional processes that formed the archaeological record.

This is both a nightmare and a rush. Whereas some people love archaeology for the thrill of discovery, I have to admit to getting my rush in the problem solving aspects of the discipline. I love reconstructing the spatial relationships through the irregular lens of the Polis notebooks. This is a process of course. Here are the steps:

1. Read the notebooks and transcript the Level and Pass descriptions. Nothing works better than transcribing to study the details of excavation. This practice also allows me to organize the levels and passes which tended to appear almost randomly throughout the notebooks as the trench supervisors often had multiple contexts open at once.

0009Polis Notebook Page

2. Once we have the notebooks transcribed and analyzed, I build an informal pseudo-Harris Matrix (sometimes I call them a Franco Harris Matrix). I used Tuft University’s VUE program to attempt to illustrate the relationships between various levels. 

3. This allows me to identify sensitive contexts that might be able to inform architecture or activity areas. In most cases, we can simple identify a handful of contexts that must be earlier or later than each other. Inevitably numerous contexts are lost to contamination, irregular or obscure excavation decisions, or ambiguous depositional relationships.

4. The ceramics from these contexts are read in the museum by Scott Moore or Brandon Olson, and we draw in the registered finds (typically more distinct or diagnostic objects) from that database to produce a comprehensive dataset of the finds from the level and pass.

5. Finally, at the end of the year, I bring together the read pottery, the stratigraphy, the architecture, and the finds to try to make arguments for the history of the site. We’ve been targeting specific areas of E.F2 each summer and will hopefully have the entire basilica documented by the end of this field seasons. We’re really close.

SCottatWorkScott Moore watching a movie from Netflix
when he should be analyzing pottery.
(Actually, he’s looking up a form in a scanned pottery volume on his iPad.)
The photo is with Camera Noir on my iPhone 5.

One Comment

  1. This is challenging work, Bill, and an under-appreciated aspect of the archaeological process.


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