The End of Methodology: Fragments and Notes

On the Western Argolid Regional project this summer, we’re slowly shifting from field work to study season and publication mode. I got to thinking about how I might contribute to the volume and, as you might expect, began to reflect about methods and methodology. Of course, my conversations with David Pettegrew have also inspired my thinking about the trajectory of archaeology, particularly intensive pedestrian survey.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed the relative decline in frequency of articles on intensive survey methods and archaeological methodology more broadly. I wonder a bit whether the great methodological flurry precipitated by the “Second Wave” of archaeological survey projects on Greece accomplished its goal and intensive survey has achieved the same level of acceptance as excavation in Mediterranean archaeologists’ tool kit. Are we no longer really concerned with whether 5 or 10 m spacing is ideal for producing a diverse and complex of assemblage of material? Are issues like visibility, background disturbances, and various sampling strategies less important was we have shifted from a site-based survey approach to distributional analysis of assemblages collected on the regional scale rather than attempting to reconstruct functional differences at sites across the landscape?

Perhaps hidden landscapes are only an issue as long as we assume that survey will produce an exhaustive image of a landscape. If we anticipate that survey archaeology always makes some landscape visible while hiding others, then the anxiety of hidden landscapes becomes more a matter of misplaced expectations and the lingering shadow of the Pompeii Premise over intensive survey. Our eagerness to concoct a method that reveals the functional complexity of the ancient countryside is noble, of course,  but probably an overly ambitious goal. Instead of producing a functional landscape (and I have some thoughts on this for a post next week), it seems like intensive survey is moving more and more toward landscapes that reflect connectivity, historic engagements between regions, and diachronic clusters of activity areas rather than neatly organized hierarchies of settlement or function. The move away from chasing the farmstead (or site – however defined) and toward building assemblages that reflect the complexities of our sampling strategies, recovery rates, and the political contingencies that dictate the limits of archaeological research.  

My feeling is that the shift from building settlement hierarchies and landscapes defined by functional spaces reflects a shift from a paradigm established in excavation toward a more distinctive kind of archaeological knowledge. With this shift, archaeologists no longer have to argue that intensive pedestrian survey produces knowledge that is somehow commensurate with excavation, and this has made the need for an apologetic tone less urgent. While there will always be questions of method in archaeology (and the growing interest in how digital tools have changed field practice is evidence for this persistent interest), the main thrust of methodology, at least in terms of intensive pedestrian survey, has seemingly dissipated and been replaced – at least for now – with an interest in assemblage making, reflexive practice, and arguments for connectivity. As someone who has written one of the most boring pieces on survey method in published history, I’m pretty happy for this change.

One Comment

  1. Some further thoughts.

    1) The shift also seems to coincide with a shift away from the processualism versus postprocessualism debate (field survey was one of the battle fields for this). With postprocessualism having become more or less obsolete/accepted by now, this has perhaps sent a focus on methodology to highlight differentiation between approaches to the background.

    2) Maybe survey approaches have had an impact on urban approaches to such an extent that classical archaeology has become more integrated as a discipline increasingly sharing approaches and perspectives, thus overcoming for instance the urban-rural divide, again shifting away from a focus on differences and making methodological issues less of a concern in disciplinary debates. (Could for instance the cross-over of remote sensing from landscapes into urban settings be regarded as a form of discipline-making cross-fertilization?)

    I think that what is still at stake is that production of knowledge should be commensurate between excavations and surveys, but that this convergence is precisely the result of the survey obsession. With the establishment of a common language, the emphasis in debates is no longer on methodology. “The main thrust of methodology, at least in terms of intensive pedestrian survey, has seemingly dissipated”, as you say.

    Anyway, I thought you avoid downplaying the impact of survey methodology debates in paradigm shifting for the discipline of classical/Mediterranean archaeology as a whole. The debates worked both ways. I’ll return to phrase this more elegantly.


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