Siteless Survey and Intensive Data Collection in an Artifact Rich Environment (15 Years Later)

It is hard to believe that my colleagues, David Pettegrew, Dimitri Nakassis, and I published “Siteless Survey and Intensive Data Collection in an Artifact Rich Environment: Case Studies from the Eastern Corinthia, Greece” in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 19.1 (2006) almost 15 years ago. This article has become my most widely cited publication and, in many ways, represents a touchstone for my thinking about intensive pedestrian survey until this day.

In fact, this past week, we’ve been working on a pair of articles from the Western Argolid Regional Project. One will be a fairly conventional preliminary report with a brief methodology section. We plan to submit it to Hesperia next month. The other will be a more methodological piece that we hope to submit to the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology before the end of the year. Both pieces are a bit challenging because they involve multiple authors and an effort to balance our desire to describe our work against an interest in providing some kind of larger analysis of our methods. Plus, there’s a pandemic which seems uniquely designed to unsettle even well thought out plans. 

The article that I’d like to see us prepare for the JMA would take our 2006 JMA article as a point of departure. It’s tempting to title our new piece ““Siteless Survey and Intensive Data Collection in an Artifact Poor Environment: Case Studies from the Western Argolid, Greece.” 

The main point of our new JMA piece could be that we’ve taken some of the lessons from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) that we outlined in the 2006 JMA article and applied them at scale to a rather different landscape in the Western Argolid. In particular, our survey in the Western Argolid demonstrated that applying intensive collection practices to low and moderate density scatters can unpack the complexities of artifact distribution across a landscape. This approach, while it might seem intuitive, runs counter to the traditions of site-based collection which approached the highest density places in the landscape through higher intensity collection strategies such as gridded or total collection. In this context, low density artifact scatters were often relegated to “off site” status and subjected both to less intensive collection regimes and generally mapped at a lower level of spatial resolution. 

In our 2006 JMA article, we argue that these practices tend to overlook evidence for short-term, season, or low-intensity activities in the countryside. We also argued that this approach obscures the fact that many high density consist of overlapping material from various periods which might extend in far lower densities into “off site” areas. Like a Venn diagram, then, the main area of artifact densities speaks less to the range and distribution of material at a single site either over time or from any particular period and more to the visible densities that their overlap creates. 

The main critique of the kind of rigorous, siteless approach employed by EKAS is that the intensity of this approach limited the area that we could survey. Our article recognized that the intensity of Mediterranean survey could be seen as leading to a kind of “Mediterranean Myopia” that treated surface assemblages like those produced by careful stratigraphic excavation where every sherd could be the type fossil that provides a terminus post quem for the level. While this attention is warranted in excavations, it limited the ability of survey to speak to regional issues because the scale of intensive survey projects remained limited.

WARP recognized these concerns and while many of the high-intensity siteless predecessors to WARP – namely the EKAS and PKAP, a large site survey on Cyprus – remained limited in spatial extent, WARP surveyed the majority of the 30 square kilometer area allowed by the Greek Ministry of Culture. While this is not nearly as expansive as the largest Near Eastern or North and Central American survey projects which could encompass hundreds of square kilometers, a survey that covered the majority of the territory allowed by the Greek state represented a much larger survey than the territory covered by EKAS or PKAP. Moreover, in the rugged landscape of the Western Argolid, the territory surveyed by WARP represented a topographically and historically plausible micro-region. In effect, we can propose that WARP managed to implement a highly intensive survey model in a way that responded to the historical geography of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Peloponnesus.

The article, as we now have it, includes two case studies. One examines the Roman period from the end of the Hellenistic period to Late Antiquity and shows how low density scatters shed light on the activities in the Roman landscape of the survey area. At the same time, it argues that certain periods, such as the Middle Roman period, produce less diagnostic pottery that only becomes visible under more intensive collection regimes that go beyond the typical focus on diagnostic artifacts. While the chronotype system was originally designed as both a standardized method for recording ceramics and a sampling strategy for artifact rich environments. On EKAS and PKAP, field walkers only collected one of every unique kind of artifact according to fabric, decoration, vessel type, and part of vessel (i.e. rim, base, handle, body sherd). This helped the projects manage the potential processing and storage burden associated with the collection of massive numbers of duplicate artifacts. Various experiment conducted on PKAP (and reported here) demonstrated that chronotype sampling did, in fact, preserve the functional and chronological range of artifacts in high density units, but under represented the diversity of chronotypes present. For a periods like the Middle Roman with less diagnostic artifact types susceptible to being overlooked in collection and recording, a more intensive collection regime increases the potential that we would recognize this material.

The second case study evokes the analysis of Kromna in the 2006 JMA article by examining the multiperiod scatter that constitutes the high density “site” of Panayia-Trelo in the Western Argolid. Like Kromna in the Corinthia, this site represents a series of overlapping scatters. The focus of the case study will be on the Archaic to Hellenistic period during which time the region’s relationship with Argos underwent significant change. The goal of the case study is to show that regional level analysis is not only possible from projects that prioritize higher intensity collection and spatial resolution over extent, but also requires the higher level of intensity to produce nuanced historical analysis.

Today’s blog post is just a the gentlest of sketch of what this piece needs to do to be compelling and significant. The most daunting task will be to review the scholarship published between 2006 and today to see how Mediterranean survey projects have adapted their methods to accommodate varying artifact densities. Needless to say, there’s a ton of scholarship to navigate. Stay tuned. 

One Comment

  1. Very much looking forward to ready this study! I will shortly turn my attention to the state of survey practice now that all these lessons/tensions have been fully digested and incorporated (or have they?).

    Reply

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