Systematically Sampling the Large Site

It was good timing that the newest Hesperia (85.1 (2016)) on the first weekend of my spring break. I particularly enjoyed the field report on the 2013 season of the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (MTAP). This project has explored a large coastal site (approximately 50 ha) located on the Molyvoti peninsula in northern Greece. The current project is a collaboration with the Greek Archaeological Service and built upon their earlier topographical and excavation work at the site.

The article is one of those massive article that only places like Hesperia can publish. It runs to 65 pages and includes a little of almost everything from ceramics to coins, faunal remains, geophysical prospecting, surface survey, and, of course, excavation. The main focus is on a site that flourished in the 4th century BC and was at least partly reoccupied in Late Antiquity. Go read the article (if you can) in all its expansiveness. Here are my more limited observations.

1. Sampling the Large Site. The last decade has seen some interesting work done on large and midsize sites in the Mediterranean world. The combination of geophysical work and targeted excavation has started to replace the old “big dig” mentality for both practical and methodological reasons. On the practical side, Mediterranean archaeologists no longer have access to the vast resources of previous generations nor do they have the luxury of decades to excavate and expose large tracks of the urban plan. In terms of methodology, archaeologists have come to understand such massive scale excavations are not necessarily the most desirable approach to understanding the the dynamics of human activity across a large settlements. Our focus on economic activities, movement through space, expansive sampling strategies, and other concerns that are not necessarily rewarded by large-scale excavation focused on monumental architecture.  

While projects still look for monumental buildings and spaces, make efforts to reconstruct the urban plan, and, of course, trace city walls, archaeologists are becoming far more interested in also sampling artifacts from across the site generally through pedestrian survey. The goal of these more spatially extensive sampling methods is not necessarily to find specific variation in function across the site, but to produce a more diverse assemblage of largely ceramic artifacts that allows scholars to consider diachronic change, economic and cultural connections with other regions, and the presence of activities that may not manifest in monumental architecture.

2. Amphoras and Trade. One of the key contributions of this report is a more detailed understanding of the place of this peninsula in regional trade particularly in the Classical period. The majority of the amphoras came from the northern Aegean indicating that trade was rather localized. This may fit into a model of Mediterranean trade that emphasized dense networks of local connections rather than large-scale interregional exchange. In other words, a site like Molyvoti may well represent a local node in a network of exchange that expands largely by short connections between places rather than long-range economic ties. It was interesting to note that intensive pedestrian survey of the site produced more amphora sherds than excavation demonstrating that an more spatially expansive sample can lead to different conclusions about a site.

3. Late Roman Reoccupation. It’s now almost expected to find Late Roman material at any site in Greece. In fact, the absence of evidence for Late Roman occupation in a region is now met with skepticism. It appears that the site on the Molyvoti peninsula was re-occupied during Late Antiquity. The material present at the site included imported fine wares from North Africa (ARS) and from the Aegean (Phocaean Ware). Most of the material looks to be 4th or perhaps 5th century with some later sherds. The relatively early date of most of the Late Roman material accounts for the absence of explicitly Christian imagery. The faunal remains associated with Late Roman levels demonstrate a change in diet with an increase in pork. 

4. Diachronic Study. One of the coolest things about this report is that the authors documented a strange, post-Late Roman round structure of uncertain function. They also documented trenches dug across the site by Bulgarian soldiers during World War I. Rather than simply “digging through the Byz” or ignoring modern features of the landscape as later intrusions into otherwise “pristine” ancient levels, the excavators and surveyors took seriously these features and took pains to document them appropriately. It remains shocking, however, that the Bulgarian trenches preserved no modern artifacts. In our age of abundance, this is almost inconceivable. 

5. Co-Authors and Collaboration. Congratulations to Nathan T. Arrington, Domna Terzopoulou, Marina Tasaklaki, Mark L. Lawall, Demetrios J. Brellas, and Chantel E. White for their collaborative publication. They were a far cry from the Hesperia record of 11 co-authors, 6 is a nice start and obvious evidence for the collaborative, transnational nature of archaeological work. I only wish it was available open access… 

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