This summer I spent a good bit of time thinking about “the site” in survey archaeology. After four seasons of intensive pedestrian survey in the Western Argolid, we have started to analyze the data from our intensive pedestrian survey. We designed our project as a siteless survey and covered nearly all the small survey units (~2500 sq. m), high intensity sampling (10 m spacing), and no systematic change in method for higher density units. As a result, we produced a distribution map of artifacts across the landscape of the Western Argolid that shows gradations of artifact densities rather than dots on the map as one would see from a site-based survey project.
Despite this approach to our survey area, we have come to realize that the vast majority off our pre-modern ceramics are concentrated in about 20 “clusters” across the landscape. This causes a bit of productive intellectual tension on our project. Were these clusters of artifacts “sites” produced by our siteless survey? Where these sites real? Were they the product of unrelated and overlapping period-specific phenomena or did they actually represent significant places for people, communities, and material in the landscape? As a siteless survey project we were caught in an intellectual grey area situated between the site as an apparent reality of our distribution of material, the site as a central discursive element of Mediterranean archaeology, and the site as a methodologically constituted (and produced) result from certain archaeological practices from the gridded collection of early survey projects to excavation. In practical terms, we began to speak easily of “off site scatters” even though this kind of language tended to imply a methodological distinction between “on site” (typically gridded) and “off site” (typically produced by transect walking) that did not apply to our field work.
This got us thinking about sites on our project and whether the use of the term simply represented a convenient shorthand for our evident concentrations of material or whether we should spend some serious thought about understanding how to talk about these “sites” in the landscape. As I have noted in an earlier post, we spent some time tracing period specific clusters of artifacts across the landscape and applying buffers of various sizes to produce assemblages that go beyond groups of units with particular periods present and tries to capture the larger material landscape (including surface conditions and other variable that impact artifact recovery). With this kind of analysis, our sites or concentrations of artifacts in our survey area become overlapping clusters of material shaped by past activities in the landscape and surface conditions.
The careful study of the overlapping and interlacing period clusters could demonstrate, if not exactly continuity, at least general patterns in the way in which various assemblages drew upon (1) common contemporary aspects of the landscape (i.e. that impact recovery rates), (2) persistent features in the landscape (i.e. heights, resources, et c.), and (3) historical relationships through time (i.e. continuity, reuse, memory, et c.). Moreover and perhaps more importantly, I think we could integrate siteless survey with an approach that respects the discursive significance of sites in Classical archaeology by showing how our method both problematizes sites and defines them in new but commensurate ways. For WARP, sites could become space where surface conditions, historical processes, and topography, geology, geography, and other natural and cultural features intersect to produce archaeological visible and meaningful places.
In this ways, sites become true indicators of the limits of our method, windows into the diachronic use of the landscape, and spaces for problematizing interpretation rather than the functional results of interpretive processes.