Three Years of WARP

As the last field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) winds down this week, I got to thinking about what I’ve learned working with a remarkable group of graduate students and friends. While it’s impossible to compare archaeological projects, I can honestly say that this one provided me with an advance course on archaeological work. I was largely free from thinking about logistics, budgets, or even meals, and could think about 90% of my time about archaeology.

I got to see some remarkable sites, think expansively about our 30 sq km survey area, take in some amazing views, and play with an impressive dataset. We have years of work ahead of us to understand our field work. 

At the same time, I think I’ve learned some things about archaeological projects over the past three years. Most of these observations are personal (and not entirely professional), and speak to my interest in the personal mechanics and procedures at the core of archaeological work more than formal methods.  

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1. People Power. On both of my major archaeological field projects, we had great team leaders and trench supervisors. Over the course of three or four field seasons, these graduate students became increasingly autonomous in the field. During the most recent season on WARP, our team leaders more or less ran the day-to-day field program. The directors would provide big picture ideas of how to approach various goals and the team leaders would then organize the teams and take them to various areas and offer quick reports at the end of the field day. They’ve increasingly taken ownership of the data that they collect and their approach to our larger field program and with any luck this ownership will extend through the analysis, writing, and publication process.

The other thing I learned on WARP is that nothing makes up for people power. On WARP we had 6 field teams with 5 teams in the field at once and this allowed us to churn out about .3 sq km per day. No improvements in efficiency – using technology or other Taylorist methods – makes up for simply using more people in the field. More people allows us to do more work. Archaeological work is still a matter of person power and the more survey teams in the field, the more gets done.

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2. Communication.  One thing that I know I need to improve is my ability to communicate consistently and clearly with our team leaders, my colleagues, and our students. On the one hand, we tried hard to communicate the big picture to our students and team leaders. We did a series of lectures at the start of the season and interaction in the field. The problem, as always, is that the big picture is always changing and as parts of the landscape start to “make sense,” we end up reformulating hypotheses and shifting our priorities appropriately. Communicating this on the fly is a challenge and even more challenging to communicate across six field teams and their field walkers.

It was also challenging to keep lines of communication open between the folks working in the apotheke and in the field. While this year, they managed (remarkably) to more or less keep pace with the field teams so we had a pretty decent idea what we were finding and where. But there was always a bit of lag between weekly plans and daily discoveries so that teams often found themselves just a bit out of sync.

Finally, there is a balance between overwhelming team leaders with daily meetings (and impinging on their already limited free time) and having meaningful conversations on a regular basis as to the plans and logistics of a project. At the same time, we had to balance conflicting levels of commitment to the project, different research interests, and daily personnel changes.

3. Structuring my Days. I am a creature of routine and my routine helps me to anticipate how long things will take and how much energy things will require. In other words, structure dictates my productivity in a very straight forward way. I got up around 5 am to do email and blog, and then fieldwork runs from 6:30 AM to around 12:30 or 1 pm. After lunch and a short nap, I spend some time on data management, my notes, and planning the next field day. 

Structuring my day became all the more important because for the first time in my archaeological career, however, I had to divide my attention between long-term academic (writing, publishing, thinking) projects and my daily fieldwork regimen. Fortunately, my colleagues here on WARP made it easy for me to structure my afternoons out of the sun so I could focus on my myriad little projects and responsibilities that do not vanish when I get into the field. My daily schedule is the key.

4. Pacing and Patience. I’m impatient. I want all the data, all the knowledge, all the field work, and all the features, sherds, and places at once. Of course, archaeology doesn’t work like that. Archaeologists must be patient, stay focused on a method, and record diligently, and for the most part I do that. But it takes a massive effort on my part to reinforce our methods in the field, to stick to a plan, and to communicate this plan effectively to our students and team leaders. Archaeology takes time.

Pacing then becomes a really important part of field work, because it ensures that our patience can keep up with our work. We’ve been fortunate the last two seasons to have a running start. We tend to work long days in the first two or three weeks of the season and then let our foot off the gas in the last two weeks or so. For example, we leave the field a bit earlier and I tend to take a day off per week to recover and process data. This means that as the project develops and as we have more data from the field, we have more time to process, organized, and analyze the data coming out of the field. 

This isn’t to say that we’re not exhausted at the end of the season, but that our pace has ensured that our patience was exhausted at the same point the we accomplished our research plan for the field season. 

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5. The Archaeological Body. I’ve blogged a bit about how archaeological work – especially intensive pedestrian survey – punishes the body. Archaeology does more than simply exhaust the body, but the entire process of archaeological work exerts a tremendous force upon our person. Our schedules become dictated by the demands of archaeological work on our bodies. Physical fatigue influences our patience, frustration levels, attention to detail, and our ability to concentrate, and this, in turn, shapes how we document the landscape.

In a more productive way, our body in the landscape becomes a way of understand scale and movement through space. Gentle slopes on maps become steep climbs in the field. Densely vegetated hill slopes give way to easy paths. Points on the map maybe closer than they appear or much further apart depending upon the ease of movement through the landscape.

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