Managing the Modern in Intensive Survey

I’ve made it over to the Argolid and am ensconced in the comfortable accommodations in the village of Myloi for the next two months. My colleagues Dimitri Nakassis and Scott Gallimore have been in the village for a week or so already getting ready for the second field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project. 

I’m excite for this year’s survey area because it encompasses at least two modern settlements which are in states of abandonment. We’re anticipating already a greater amount of modern and early modern (for Greece this is the 19th century) material associated with these settlements. Most recent intensive survey projects make a big deal about being diachronic, but to be fair, the modern period tends to present particular challenges to survey projects. In general, survey archaeologists recognize that we cannot treat the modern period the same way that we treat earlier periods. 

The reasons are both complex and simple. The simple reason is that we simply cannot accommodate the super abundance of most modern material in our survey units. As Richard Rothaus and I discussed a few months ago on our podcast, there is a storage crisis in archaeology, and collecting modern material will only make this worse. In the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey we tried to document modern material without collecting using a “modern sweep” form. This form consisted of a long list of check boxes that tried to take into account the most common form of trash found in the Greek countryside. In practice, however, the survey teams mostly checked the box for “scattered modern trash,” and either failed or refused to distinguish between the various events that created the distribution of modern material through agricultural lands around contemporary villages. 

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I suspect that the difficulties dealing with the modern landscape also speaks to more complex challenges involving how we understand modern artifact distribution in the countryside where most modern survey projects are based. Modern material represents both very familiar practices – typically those associated with opportunistic discard of unneeded objects – and practices that are rather unfamiliar to archaeologists who are not well versed in modern, sometimes ad hoc, use of modern material in contemporary Mediterranean agricultural practices. For example, last year, I took numerous photographs of modified plastic water bottles hung from trees throughout the Argolid and the ingenious use of beer cans in modified irrigation systems.

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Our familiarity with the primary use of objects and simple discard practices has perhaps made it easier to overlook creative examples of reuse in the countryside. Modern objects have become so specialized, so disposable, and so common that we have to train our eyes to see them and our archaeological awareness to consider the range of uses possible in the countryside.

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