Isthmia Data

This past summer, I started a small pilot project at the first site where I ever worked: the Panhellenic Sanctuary at Isthmia in the Corinthia. The project brings together some colleagues from my work on Cyprus – including Scott Moore – with some colleagues from the Bakken days – Richard Rothaus and Kostis Kourelis – and my friend David Pettegew, who is an old Corinthia hand. 

Our main interest for this pilot project is some kind of publication of the Slavic pottery from Isthmia. This is material that my advisor Tim Gregory has been studying before his health had started to decline and a class of pottery of significance to folks looking to understand the 7th and 8th century in Greece. As readers of this blog know, the “long late antiquity” is a particular interest of mine both on Cyprus and in the northeastern Peloponnesus. Gregory published a preliminary study of the assemblage of Slavic pottery from Isthmia many years ago and more recently, John Hayes and Kathleen Slane has published Slavic pottery associated with some parts of the sanctuary at Isthmia in a new Isthmia volume. Our work on the Slavic pottery from the rest of the sanctuary aims to both complement and expand this existing work.

First thing, however, is always first and right after the pottery comes the data. Isthmia is a project that has material dating to 1950s excavations and they have long worked to make this data available in digital form. The ARCS project at Michigan State now provides a fairly complete digital collection of digital artifacts associated with Isthmia and this includes inventory cards for inventoried finds and scanned notebooks. Over a few seasons, the most recent being 2022, we also worked to excavate various datasets located at Isthmia and to produce various reports that sought to describe and understand these datasets and how they served to describe the material at Isthmia. This fall, I started to work on recoding, when necessary, and connecting these datasets in ways that will allow us to place various classes of pottery in their archaeological context.

The main challenge here is extracting context data from the inventory cards which will allow us to connect various inventoried artifacts to particular archaeological contexts (ideally, but not always, stratigraphic contexts). This will also allow us to connect the inventoried pottery to the “context pottery” from Isthmia which the ceramicist generally assigned to a particular stratigraphic or, at very least, excavated context. This, in turn, will allow us to produce more robust and comprehensive assemblages of material.

Historically, research at Isthmia proceeded from the notebooks where inventoried finds appeared in relation to particular archaeological contexts. A reader of a notebook could see the inventoried coins, pottery, lamps, architectural material and so on associated with a level and cross reference these with inventory cards organized by year and inventory number. This approach made it unnecessary to record inventoried material on the basis of “lot,” “basket,” or “box” (which are just Isthmia terms for stratigraphic or excavation context) because it was assumed that someone starting with the notebook would know the context for the object.

Being a survey archaeologist and in artifact level analysis, this approach to understanding the Isthmia ceramic assemblage was insufficient. In other words, I needed to recode the inventoried pottery so that I could more easily link it to context pottery and build assemblages from the artifact up (rather from the notebook down, if that metaphor makes sense). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that we will ignore the information contained the notebooks, but it allows us to work both from the artifact side to the notebooks and from the notebooks to the artifact side with greater ease.

First, it’ll allow us to identify similar classes of material across the entire site and then work back to their respective contexts. Ideally, we can then query the notebooks to determine the character of the contexts where the artifacts appears. This would allow us to determine, for example, whether the material came from use, sealed, or secondary contexts. These context could, in turn, be situated in stratigraphic relationships to other levels and situations across the site.   

It will also allow us to locate inventoried artifacts in particular trenches (and even potentially levels) on the GIS maps that Jon Frey, Isthmia Director, is preparing.

This kind of fussy data work will also allow us to develop an assemblage that we can, in turn, compare to assemblages from Corinth and, more importantly, from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) as well as other published assemblages of material from the northeastern Peloponnesus.

Finally, it moves us a step closer to being able to publish the Isthmia material and notebooks online in a more formal and stable way, which will allow more scholars to access and interpret this important site and its artifacts, architecture, and history.

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