Method in the Archaeology of Late Antiquity

This week I’ve started work on a rather more technical publication project for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.


I’m working to publish an archaeological field manual for a significant and long-standing excavation. The manual posses some interesting (but hardly unique) challenges. First, such documents with a few exceptions tend to be internal documents that assume a basic familiarity with a project and its infrastructure. For example, this particular manual talks about “the museum” as opposed to the “the lab” or “the apotheke” or the “storerooms.” This project had a unique cast of characters like “supervisors,” “a field director,” and “the Director,” whose responsibilities are not so much articulated but traced through their interaction in the manual. The organization or the manual and the balance between various sections rests on not only a long history of experience with the particular situation at that excavation, but also on institutional priorities, specific policies in the host country, and the character of an dense, multi-phase, urban site.

When I read the manual and talked it over with some members of my editorial board, we worried that this kind of work might be too site specific to be of general utility or that it would require a lot of contextualizing work to be applicable to another site elsewhere.

Then I started to read Luke Lavan’s newest volume in the epic Late Antique Archaeology series from Brill titled Field Methods and Post-Excavation Techniques in Late Antique Archaeology (2015). In his inflammatory (in a good way, I think) introduction, Lavan bemoans the uneven character of field work at Late Antique sites in the Mediterranean. While the reasons for the irregularity are wide range from the desire to remove levels quickly to present sites for visitor to particular national archaeological traditions, project directors who lack up-to-date archaeological training, and to intellectual (often related to political) isolation from wider trends in practice. Among the suggestions floated by Lavan is that archaeologists make their field manuals available so that exemplars of contemporary archaeological practices are available.

A quick Google search for field manuals turns up a pretty substantial number of manuals (particular from projects in the American southwest), but relatively few of them are from the Mediterranean basin and even fewer are from Greece. I couldn’t find any, even informally published manuals from projects on Cyprus. Needless to say, many of the manuals do not appear in WorldCat and exist as pdfs on the web where they run risk of being digital ephemera. In fact, these manuals are valuable as artifacts for the history of both excavations and archaeology, they’re an important means for circulating knowledge about excavation practices, and they’re invaluable lens for interpreting the results of a project. 

This got me thinking that maybe publishing a site-specific field manual, more or less “as is” isn’t a bad thing. They provide a snapshot of how a project operates or operated at a particular time and a guide that can be referenced when publishing the results or interpretation from a site. I wonder how many projects would be interested in doing that?

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