New Work at Isthmia: Old Excavations, Traces, and Memory

I was thrilled to see Jon Frey and Tim Gregory publish a lengthy article on their ongoing research at the site of Isthmia in Greece. In “Old Excavations, New Interpretations: The 2008–2013 Seasons of The Ohio State University Excavations at Isthmia” (Hesperia 85 (2016) 437-490), Frey and Gregory re-examine decades old excavations around the Roman Bath and the Hexamilion wall at the Panhellenic sanctuary of Isthmia in the eastern Corinthia.

The article is remarkably rich and detailed (in the way that Hesperia articles can be) so there’s not much point for me to try to summarize it. Frey and Gregory identify some new buildings, they add to our scant knowledge about the earliest Roman phases of the re-established sanctuary, and, in general, offer evidence that makes Isthmia look more like a Panhellenic sanctuary. What is more interesting to me, is the big picture value of their work as a model for approaching older excavations without conducting massive new field work campaigns. Since I’ve started working at the site of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus where we have worked to publish 30-year old excavations, I’ve become convinced that the future of Mediterranean archaeology is in returning to old sites with new perspectives, questions, and technology.

So here are a few observations.

1. Notebooks. Excavation produce so much information ranging from physical evidence (architecture, ceramics, scarps) to illustrations and plans and notebooks. It is hardly surprising that these artifacts can support multiple interpretations of the history and archeology of a site. This kind of work reminds us that there is not a linear relationship between excavation “data” and archaeological knowledge production. Archaeological documentation is messy, copious, and complex making old excavations not “done deals,” but abundant sources for new interpretations and new analysis. 

2. Trenches. Frey and Gregory returned to trenches that had been excavated and neglected for decades. I visited Frey a few times while he was removing weeds and straightening scarps in a trench that I had walked by dozens of times without thinking much of it. His work in these trenches, however, revealed features that the original excavators overlooked allowed for new measurements, and recognized details that had received only inconsistent reporting. For example, he recognized evidence for looter pits that the original excavators had missed, connected architectural features across multiple trenches at the site to reveal an massive porticoed gymnasium building, and identified new evidence for early Roman work at the site that previous excavators had no reason to even note in their work.

When I first started working on the notebooks at Polis-Chrysochous, I had this naive idea that I could largely reconstruct the excavation of the site from the notebooks and various plans. As archaeologists, we imagine that our documentation preserves the site even as we “destroy” physical evidence through excavation. In fact, “preservation by record” policies reflect this basic assumption about how archaeology works. A recent article, for example, celebrates this very idea and suggests that digitization will help us overcome the reality with the title: “Excavation is Destruction Digitization.” Most archaeologists know, however, that archaeological excavation is not really destruction, but the production of archaeological knowledge. While field work will always will come at a cost (both literally and figuratively in the reorganization and physical displacement of material), it seems to me that the disciplinary arguments for excavation as destruction do more to occlude alternate interpretation grounded (literally!) in the same space and documentation than to discourage careless digging. After all, the irregularities in the excavation methods used even 30 years ago at Polis are as much a source for the sites interpretation potential and vitality as carefully excavated sites present their interpretations as the natural outgrowth of rigorous methods. There’s a certain irony that sites excavated in less rigorous ways then have the potential to create more archaeological foment than those produced through the hyper-confidence of methodological rigor. Isthmia would seem to be a good example of this.

3. Memory and Architecture. Jon Frey has done significant work on the study of spolia and construction practice in Late Antiquity (we talked to him about his book on the Caraheard podcast here). Lurking in the background of this article on Isthmia is the ghostly outline of a massive porticoed gymnasium associated with athletic events at the Panhellenic sanctuary. Frey argues that the Hexamilion wall, the massive 5th-century AD fortification wall that bisected the Isthmus of Corinth, followed the outline of the gymnasium and incorporated not only spolia from this building, but also part of its foundations and walls. The reasons for this would appear to be profoundly practical. The Hexamilion was a massive building project and any opportunities to take advantage of existing structures offered significant labor savings. The use of part of the gymnasium, then, reflected the practical realities of such a massive construction project, but at the same time, it the course of the wall preserved the imprint of the gymnasium through spolia and its shape.

I have tended to think of memory in antiquity as a conscious act to commemorate an earlier monument, ritual, event, or person. In the context of Isthmia, it may be that memory of the earlier monument is less a conscious act and more like the muscle memories that we develop as we type, ride a bike, or even go about our daily lives. We remember how to hit the brake pedal at a stoplight, but we don’t consciously think “I remember last time I was hear I moved my right foot juuuuust so to slow down the car.” Instead, we just act and move in a way that consistently produces certain results. The practical element of memory preserve the outline of an earlier building in the same way that a palimpsest preserved the record of an earlier text. This commemorative practice was not bound up in a series of conscious efforts to preserve the past, but in a kind of muscle memory embodied in the practice and contingencies of construction.

Just as excavations and their documentation produce evidence for past practices that do not necessarily lead inevitably to certain conclusions, construction practices in antiquity preserve the traces of past landscapes in unexpected and perhaps even unintentional ways. Frey and Gregory weave together these two kinds of practices – one modern and one ancient – in a paper that should serve as a model for archaeological work at old sites in the present.

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