Defining Early Christian Archaeology

Over the weekend, David Pettegrew and I have been putting the finishing touches on the introduction to our Oxford Handbook to Early Christian Archaeology. We’re not only engaged in our typical struggled between length and content, but I also find myself returning again and again to the definition of Early Christian archaeology. Recently, I’ve been thinking a good bit about later late antiquity and the 7th century, in particular. While it is without a doubt that most of the connections, institutions, and trends present in the 7th century represent continuity with the preceding centuries and are properly described as part of “Late Antiquity” (whatever the limitations of this term), it is less clear whether we should see the 7th century as part of the Early Christian centuries or sufficiently far removed to be better associated with Medieval or Byzantine Christianity.

Determining the chronological limits to Early Christian archaeology involves defining what we mean by an Early Christian archaeology. To some extent, we can rely on the historiography which assigns the usual array of dates from Constantine and the peace of the church to late 5th century or the  reign of Justinian. In many ways these dates are associated with either political events in the life of the church (like the reign of Constantine) or dates that are political and “secular” in nature such as the reign of Theodosius and his legislation against paganism, the various sacks of Rome, or the death of a particular emperor. In many ways, these dates coincide with episodes of traditional interest among scholars of antiquity and late antiquity and represent the close connections between the study of late antique archaeology and the archaeology of Early Christianity.

The particular challenge of an archaeology of religion is that beliefs tend to leave very complicated traces in the material record. Sites like the famous fountain of the lamps at Corinth, for example, with their assemblage of inscribed lamps baring Christian, pagan, and completely ambiguous sentiments. These kinds of sites are not terribly unusual in the Mediterranean and, like the presence of pagan imagery on the floors of Early Christian churches, paint a picture where complicated notions of belief and religious identity are not clear cut and obvious in the material record (and this may well reflects the ambiguity of ancient religion (all religion?)). All this is to suggest that an archaeology of Early Christianity offers only a rather coarse tool to understand the spread of Christianity as a system of belief. This tends to be a major area of focus for scholars interested in the Early Christian period irrespective of methods.

With the archaeology of religion remaining a challenging intellectual task, scholars have looked to connections between the study of Late Antiquity and Early Christianity as a plausible reason to extend our definition of Early Christianity into the 7th century and to argue that the networks and relationships in which Early Christianity developed persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries in many parts of the Mediterranean. In this context, an Early Christian archaeology could well be defined by the networks that allowed for Christian material culture to circulate in the Mediterranean. The spaces of interaction present in this network ensured that distinctive development of Christian forms of representation and perhaps offer a useful perspective on understanding the development of Christianity as a system of representation. 

At the same time, recent discussion of archaeological methods, particular those focused on late antique archaeology, have considered whether there are distinctive methods that define an archaeology of late antiquity. This could, of course, be applied to the study of Early Christianity. There are, of course, types of monuments that are characteristic of the rise of the Christianity, particularly basilica-style churches, and particular questions that are salient to the study of Christian practices (i.e. liturgy, burials, and iconography) associated with those buildings. Whether these requirements rise the level of methodological concerns is difficult to say, but unlikely. Similarly, Christian burials (on a small scale) and Christian landscapes (on a larger scale) offer two extremes that might benefit distinctive methods and attendant methodologies. Indeed, some recent scholarship has hinted that Christian (and late pagan) ways of viewing the landscape has pushed archaeologists to think about existing sites in different ways. The long tradition of Christian archaeology and the wide range of techniques and levels of documentation used to publish Christian monuments presents an opportunity for archaeologists of this period to synthesize different traditions, types of evidence, and levels of certitude. This approach to studying Christian landscapes offers some new interpretative opportunities , but perhaps these have not risen to the level of methodology.

To return to the point of this post, as we wrap up the introduction to our Oxford Handbook, we are reminded of the challenge of defining Early Christian archaeology in terms of chronology, themes, and methods. None of these criteria are significant enough alone to map out a discrete (or unique) field of study, but perhaps in combination they set out the limits to what an Early Christian archaeology can know.

Cyprus in the 7th and 8th centuries

Over the past week or so, I’ve worked my way through Luca Zavagno’s new book, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (AD 600-800): An Island in Transition (Routledge 2017). As the title suggests, the book examines the 7th and 8th centuries on the island and brings together in a single volume arguments that Zavagno had made in a number of significant articles in Dumbarton Oaks PapersReti Medievali Rivista, Byzantion, and the Mediterranean Historical Review. He argues that the position of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean allowed it to enjoy significant interregional connectivity with Asia Minor, Egypt and North Africa, the Aegean, and the Levant throughout this period, and this allowed for a remarkably resilient economic and social structure on the island that allowed it to survive the disruption of the weakening Roman trade networks (particularly the annona), Arab raids and other military interventions, and the island’s changing place within the political organization of the Mediterranean. Zavagno builds his argument on archaeological sources and challenges ideas grounded in texts that by the late-7th century, the island and the ancient Mediterranean had entered a period of terminal decline.

In many ways, Zavagno’s book will complement David Metcalf’s recent effort to aggregate evidence for Byzantine Cyprus, and follow current trends toward reconsidering the 7th and 8th century Eastern Mediterranean in light of revised ceramic chronologies that have fueled a renewed skepticism toward the apocalyptic narratives so common in textual sources. In many ways, this work is bringing to fruition Peter Brown’s famous arguments for a long late antiquity extending the basic sinews of the Roman (and ancient world) in the 8th century across the Eastern Mediterranean.

I won’t write a full review of this book (yet?), but have a few bullet point type observations:

1. Middle Ground. Like Greg Fisher’s recent book on the Late Roman Near East, Zavagno draws upon  Richard White’s idea of “middle ground” to describe the generative character of the encounter between the Late Roman, Christian, Greek-speaking polities and economic networks of antiquity, and the emerging Arab, Muslim, polities of the Levant and North Africa over the course of the 7th century. To Zavagno’s credit, the manages to avoid a view of the middle ground that essentializes the influences on Cyprus as Christian/Muslim, Greek/Arab, Byzantine/Islamic. In fact, Zavagno recognizes the echoes of the recent political situation in Cyprus in the interpretations of the so-called “condominium” period on the island when scholars speculated that Byzantine and Arab states jointly administered the island’s fiscal and political organization. This arrangement is unlikely, and in its place, Zavagno suggested a more fluid political and economic structure where various relationships across the region, including, but not limited to those mediated by centralize political entities in Constantinople or Damascus, constantly negotiated their stake in the island. The residents of the island itself and its institutions – ranging from the church to imperial and local elites – also contributed to this network of negotiated arrangements which occasionally produced relatively large-scale violence, like raids, and the payments of taxes, but often resolved itself in myriad local actions across a range of institutions and communities, including visits by Arab merchants, Arab settlers on the island, and not excluding the possibility of an Arab garrison.

2. Political and Economic Continuity. As one might expect, Zavagno sees the fluidity of the middle ground as allowing for a remarkable level of political and economic continuity. By examining the archaeological record carefully and with particular attention to recently revised ceramic chronologies, Zavagno is able to argue that the economic relationships between Cyprus and the surrounding regions persisted in the late-7th and 8th centuries. Late Roman D ware, for example, once thought to fall out of producing by the late 7th century has not been shown to persist into the 8th or even 9th. Our ability to recognize and date various forms of Late Roman amphora dating to the late 7th and 8th centuries have similarly allowed archaeologists to trace the persistence of economic connection in the region in new ways. Recently published seals, for example, have demonstrated that continued institutional relationships between Byzantine institutions and local elites as well as between ecclesiastical communities and various elites. These have, in turn, thrown the limited evidence in textual sources (particularly hagiography) for continued contact across the region into higher relief. 

This persistence of ties between Cyprus and institutions, individuals, and communities, almost certainly supported some continuity in settlement both in urban and rural areas. The decline of rural and coastal communities – like our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria – or more marginal settlements like Kalavassos-Kopetra, may reflect shifts in the intensity of economic connections with the surrounding regions and the emergence of a more contingent and dynamic rural settlement structure designed to take advantage of the middle ground of the 7th and 8th century while continuing to exploit longterm environmental and cultural resources present on the island. Cities likewise enduring the changing access to administrative resources and institutional patterns while continuing to function as population centers and nodes of local authority across the island well into the 8th century. 

3. Political and Economic Contingency. Continuity on Cyprus, then was mitigated by the needs to be responsive to the contingent world of White’s middle ground. I was particularly intrigued by Zavagno’s use of the term “resilience” to describe Cypriot communities and institutions. Too often, I think, we imagine local economies and institutions as the products of centralized fiat, and this is certainly true for Late Antiquity where so much archaeological and historical visibility for regions like Cyprus depends upon systems shaped by administrative connections or texts that provide glimpses of the margins from the center.

For Zavagno, the visibility of this evidence presents an illusory stability for Cypriot landscapes. As the relationship with the center – particularly the core imperial lands of the Aegean and Asia Minor – underwent change, the visibility of the connections between Cyprus and the wider region became more contingent and fluid. This is different from arguing that these connections disappeared. In fact, Zavagno insists that connections between Cyprus and the region continue to function but in more contingent and fluid ways that speak to the resilience of Cypriot communities, cities, and settlements as they negotiated new economic relationships amid various competing influences. 

This is clever stuff and while the argument is not entirely compelling (other than as a salutary reminder that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence), it offers a persuasive hypothesis that should shape continued scrutiny of Cypriot material culture. Hand-made vessels, objects like cooking and utility wares, and less visible (or widely recognized) activities associated with building traditions, decorative arts, and agricultural production may well provide hints at contingent practices engaged on a generational scale that often go overlooked in textual studies and archaeology’s tendency to privilege long-term economic and social trends.   

4. The Long Late Antiquity. This book represents a really nice contribution to recent trends toward a longer Late Antiquity. From the 18th century, scholars have seen Late Antiquity as both a period of decline and a period that generated many of the core institutions of the Western world. The break between the ancient world and the Middle Ages reflects no only a key chronological division in our understanding of the past, but one that defines disciplinary boundaries among academics with Classicists working before the Middle Ages and the Medievalists working after. Moreover, since the early 20th century, the division between the ancient and Medieval world has also been geographic with the loss of the Near East and North Africa to the Roman Empire marking a more or less permanent break between the Western, Christian world, and the Eastern, Muslim one.

By challenging the tidiness of this break on the island of Cyprus (and by implication and comparison elsewhere), Zavagno’s book (and the other major and minor works dealing with the 7th century) begins to pick at the very seams of both our academic discipline-making and our definition of what it means to be “western” and “eastern.” Zavagno does not go in for sweeping statements, but on a granular level he is clear. Cyprus in Late Antiquity absorbed influences from around the Mediterranean through travelers, trade, institutional ties, and economic relationships. This was both a characteristic of Cyprus and its insular location, but not also reflected larger trends in connections between regions in the wider Mediterranean. As a result, the long-standing idea of a break between east and west, Christian and Muslim, ancient and Medieval increasingly appears to be gentle elision throughout the 7th and 8th centuries where cultures mingled and mediated in local ways. The birth of the West (if this retains any value), then, comes from myriad local engagements that defied any simple dichotomies.  

5. What is Culture? The biggest critique that I have with this book, which is remarkably detailed and valuable, is that the island of Cyprus sometimes comes across as too unified an object of study. The sites on Cyprus, as some of our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria showed – had remarkable variation in terms of material culture. The distribution of fine wares, alone, suggest that issues other than access and chronology shaped the preference for one kind of table ware over another. The same can probably be said for church decoration, architecture, and other aspects of daily life (particular that associated with display).

The variation across Cyprus, of course, speaks to the varying levels and kinds of engagement with other regions, but also undermines the idea that Cyprus is a useful object of study. The tendency to conflate or attempt to synthesize settlement types on the island, material culture, and even the fate of cities and the countryside, reflects a concession to modern political boundaries that might at times subvert his larger argument for middle ground. 

Moreover, I wonder whether the tendency to see Cyprus as an place unto itself (in an insular ways, as it were), has limited the impact of the remarkable archaeological work on the island in larger considerations of the Late Roman Near East. Zavagno does a great job looking beyond the shores of Cyprus for comparanda and evidence for larger trends and connections. At the same time, I wonder whether our view of Cyprus would be much improved if we considered the sites on the island as extensions of the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt and North Africa? 

6. An Archaeological Quibble. This is really just a quibble, but at times, I found Zavagno’s description of archaeological contexts occasionally not compelling. While the book is not, strictly speaking, the publication of a site, but a book that uses a range of published archaeological data to make an argument, there were times when I wondered whether the quality and character of the excavations would sustain the kind of arguments that Zavagno was building. For example, late examples of Late Roman D ware (Cypriot Red Slip) in a sealed deposit with late-8th century with glazed white wares from Constantinople does not make a compelling case for LRD wares being 8th century without much more detail. In fact, all things being equal it would seem that the LRD wares are residual, but without more detail, it is impossible for me to know for certain.

In the end, this is quibble and my other critique has more to do with the book that I’d write than an actual critique of Zavagno’s book. As it stands, this book is a useful addition to the growing body of work on the 7th century. 

Future Directions in Early Christian Archaeology

Over the last few weeks, David Pettegrew and I have been slowly working to revise our introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology. The final part to be written was a brief section on the prospect for an archaeology of Early Christianity. While one could identify any number of significant future lines of research for Early Christian archaeology (in fact, this could be an article in its own right), I focus on a number of areas which I think reflect the growing convergence of Early Christian archaeology, the archaeology of Late Antiquity, and trends within the larger field of world archaeology.

Nothing, of course, is cast in stone. So, let me know what you think:

As the archaeology of Early Christianity continues to converge with major currents in world archaeology, it continues a trajectory that fortifies archaeology as an independent source of knowledge about the Early Christian past and expand and complicated perspectives offered by sophisticated reading of Early Christian texts. This confluence opens up Early Christian archaeology to new research directions but also exposes the discipline to new challenges grounded the complicated issues of chronological and geographic definition and methods and questions. At the same time, Early Christian archaeology remains committed to traditional sites of biblical importance, architectural forms, and iconographic traditions that ensures continuity with the long tradition of Early Christian archaeology.

The archaeology of Late Antiquity, for example, has increasingly extended the chronological and geographic limits of the ancient world beyond the conventional definitions of the discipline of Classical or Mediterranean archaeology. As efforts to refine the chronologies of Late Roman sites and monuments have demonstrated that the economic, social, and cultural relationships that defined the ancient world persisted centuries later than earlier scholars had anticipated. Scholars have increasingly subjected to scrutiny arguments for traditional divide between Christian Europe and Muslim Asia and Africa marking the end of antiquity. As a result, it now appears that conversion to Christianity was a much longer and less thorough process, longstanding economic relationships and expectations persisted into the 7th and 8th centuries, and Early Christianity communities continued to thrive even during the disruptions of the Arab invasions of Asia and North Africa. Complementing the expanded chronological definition of the Late Antique world is an expanded geographic range. With antiquity no longer being limited to simply the Mediterranean basin, there is a greater interest in exploring the spread economic and even political relationships, including the Christian church, across Asia and into Northern Europe. The chronological and geographic redefinition of Late Antiquity is part of a larger process of redefining the origins of the West at the end of the ancient world, and the distinct place of Christianity within this narrative will continue to play a key role in this reconsideration as well.

The convergence of Early Christianity archaeology with the larger discipline of Mediterranean archaeology has also expanded the context in which scholars have understood Early Christian monuments and artifacts. While churches continue to represent examples of Christian iconography, provide insights into liturgical practices, and trace the contours of Christianization, churches also represent important manifestations of economic organization, administrative functions, and even social order. Phenomena like pilgrimage, the production of objects with Christian symbols, or the craft workers required to decorate monumental Christian buildings provide significant evidence for organization of labor, connections between regions, and the economic health of communities. Churches and artifacts associated with Christian practice have come to stand as surrogates for settlement, particularly in the countryside and contributed to arguments for rural settlement patterns and integration of rural and urban life in the Roman world.

The continued interest in scientific practices range from efforts to date Early Christian monuments using dendrochronology or C-14 to the use of remote sensing technology to document buildings without excavation. These advances have expanded the traditional tool kit of archaeologists that has for so long depended upon excavation, seriation, typologies, and stratigraphy to produce meaningful, if relative, chronological relationships between sites and between classes of artifacts. The use of carbon-14 dating, dendrochronology, and other scientific approaches to measuring absolute age will refine archaeologists’ ability to link archaeological material to events more closely datable in textual sources. At the same time, the more systematic use of remote sensing technologies to locate and identify buildings beneath the surface of the ground offers a way to expand the number of known buildings especially in remote or difficult of access locations where traditional excavation is simply unviable. Finally, greater attention to the chemical composition of ceramics, plaster in wall painting, and even marble has played a growing role in articulating the economic relationships between areas, the role of various work crews in constructing Christian buildings, and patronage practices that simple typological or unaided visual inspection of artifacts and decoration can not reveal. These scientific approaches have real limitations ranging from expense and access to the very small number of trained individuals, and the time needed to process samples and data, but they do present new ways of approaching chronology, regional connections, and spaces that sometimes fall to the margins of accessibility and field work.

Scientific approaches to Early Christian material culture complement a growing interest in the larger context for the rise and development of Christianity in the Mediterranean. Interest in climate science, for example, has just started to explore connections between the “Late Antique Little Ice Age” and the rise of Christianity and Islam in the 6th and 8th centuries (e.g. McCormick 2012; Brooke 2014; Izdebski et al. 2015; Haldon 2016; Büntgen et al. 2016 with citations). This work steers clear of simplistic environmental determinism and instead locates the workings of culture within a dense network of human and environmental factors. Recent work in bioarchaeology, and paleo-epidemiology in particular, has refined our understanding of the various Mediterranean wide plagues in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries which appear in the work of Early Christian authors and which shaped the mortuary landscape of Christian communities (Harper 2015, 2016; McCormick 2012, 2015a, 2015b). Like climate change and other environmental factors, the biological and microbial landscape of the ancient world also shaped the development of Christianity and Christian culture (Little 2007; Stark 1996).

These new directions in the study of Christian archaeology have emphasized the embedded nature of Christian practices, objects, and culture within the wider matrix of the Roman and Late Roman Mediterranean. The recognition that objects, the environment, and even microbial entities all contributed to the network of relationships in which Christianity developed. For the most part, archaeologists of Early Christianity have only begun to explore the potential of understanding the development of Christian culture amid the dense web of relations and to recognize the potential of applying theories of agency, materiality, and the critical attention to ontology to sites, buildings, and artifacts associated with Christianity. Glenn Peers’s anarchaeologie, for example, offers one way forward to examining the series of small interventions that created a portable icon (Peers, this volume).. Considering the growing interest in this approach in archaeology more broadly (e.g. Hodder 2012; more citations here), at least one significant route forward for the archaeology of Early Christianity seems clear.

The past and future of Early Christian archaeology rests firmly on its autonomy as a source of knowledge about the Early Christian past. This autonomy, however, has never undermined its deep connection with other approaches and other evidence for the first Christian centuries. It is this tension between its status as an independent source of historical knowledge and its close connections to the study of texts, art, ritual, and theology that has ensured its ongoing relevance to scholars committed to understanding both these transformative centuries and the emergence of Christianity as a world religion. The last few decades has seen the archaeology of Early Christianity tap more fully into currents developed in world archaeology as well as by their colleges in Classical and Mediterranean archaeology. This has opened the field to new methods, new technologies, and new ways of understanding and presenting the Early Christian world. The contributions presented in this volume capture the field amid its ongoing transformation. The major currents, however, of both its past and future remain visible, and we hope that it stands as a meaningful and representative summary of this field as well as an indicator of new directions.

Some Fotos on Friday

Just a few quick photos today instead of anything more substantial.

First, you know the device that you’re using is high tech when it features a MONORAIL on its start-up screen:

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Good luck:

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It’s important for Argie to have Eli and both the bones:

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And it’s important for Milo not to care:

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Have a great weekend!

20 Years of Field Work: What I’ve Learned

On my flight home from Greece last week I got to thinking about archaeological field work and what I learned over my 20 years in the field. I think most of what I learned has had more too do with how to be an effective academic (and colleague) and less to do with any particular period or class of objects or buildings.

So here’s my list: 

1. Collaboration. The biggest thing that I’ve learned from doing field archaeology is the absolute necessity (and extraordinary privilege) of collaboration both in the field and on all aspects of a project. It’s not that I ever doubted this, but field work really drove home that point that most knowledge in my field (and probably in all fields) comes as part of a long conversation with colleagues and a familiarity born of the shared experience of practice.

My understanding of the collaborative experiences of fieldwork has seeped into almost everything I do. The Digital Press is a collaborative press, my work on the North Dakota Man Camp Project is essential a collective (although we still portion out the writing and “credit,” there is real reason to imagine every work from this project as the product of our collective), and my future plans to produce a introduction to Early Christian archaeology is a collaboration as well.

2. Budgeting. One the most basic skills that I’ve learned (painfully in many cases) is how to budget money and time on an archaeological project. The basic limiting factors in most academic excavations are time and money, and both require careful budgeting. Fortunately, for the last 20 years, I’ve worked with people who have more or less managed our budget on a day-to-day basis (and we avoided overruns  with the exception of maybe one year). 

For better or for worse, I’ve generally had significant influence over how we budget our time. While I’d never claim to have avoided the two most basic mistakes in all archaeological time management – running a team ragged and not budgeting enough flexibility into a schedule to accommodate discoveries – I think our teams have worked at a relatively steady and productive clip while still being humane in our treatment of field teams and staff. The longer I’ve done archaeology, the less I can wrap my head around these projects that work 10 or 12 hour days in the field or chew through their staff with brutal daily schedules and unrealistic expectations of efficiency. I can understand when projects work below idling bulldozers or under obligations to host countries or communities, but for most my, purely-academic projects, I have come to internalize the need to couple tightly available resources, research questions, and basic humanity (especially as I get older and start to physically break down). 

3. Flexibility. In most parts of my life, I’m totally dependent on a schedule. It might be a crazy schedule or a schedule that only exists in my own head, but it’s a schedule. Schedules don’t work very well on archaeological projects. Someone forgets their boots. Someone else gets stung by a wasp. Someone else finds a cool site that the field directors have to see despite it being lunch time. The best finds are always recovered on the last day. 

As someone who depends on a schedule to produce order in an otherwise chaotic world, archaeology has taught me that I have to be flexible in my daily schedule, in data collection, in my ability to understand and process information, and in my approach to producing meaningful results. I think that this is slowly spilling into my life outside of field archaeology and allowing me to spend less time expecting the world to conform to my schedule and categories.  

4. Patience. A close friend of mine once told me when I was becoming impatient at the pace of fieldwork that “there is always more archaeology.” While I still bristle at the need to approach fieldwork and writing patiently, I recognize – more and more each year – that archaeology takes time. I’m slowly learning (see what I did there) that slow archaeology is more than just being patient in the field and taking the time to understand not only what we are studying, but how we are studying it, but it also involves recognizing that all the archaeology can’t be done at once.

Writing takes time. Reading takes time. Thinking takes time. Revising takes time. Tidying up datasets takes time. Preparing illustrations takes time. And just because I’m frantic to do something and get something done doesn’t mean that everyone else will be. I constantly have to remind myself that every collaborator is also collaborating (er…cheating on me?) with other people on other projects that also demand our time.   

5. Collegiality. Finally, academia offers space for all kinds of marginal personalities and difficult people. I think I probably rank among them. But on a field project you have to at least try to rein in your personal crazy to get along with other people and pursue common goals. I’m not going to say that I’ve always been successful doing that, but I think working closely with other people has made me more aware of my social quirks and better able to manage collegial behavior. I still have work to do, but field archaeology has certainly helped me become a more collegial person. 

20 Years of Mediterranean Archaeology

This year marked my 20th field season doing archaeology of some description in the Mediterranean. From field walking in the Corinthia and Kythera to running a project in Cyprus, hunkering down in dusty storerooms, and documenting mountain-top forts, I’ve been tremendously lucky to work with amazing people, make lifelong friends (and partners!), and think critically about the history and material culture of the Mediterranean world in situ

Today is my last day here in Greece and I’m at the airport at 5 am waiting for my flight. I’m eager to get home, but I’m also feeling nostalgic. For some reason I always feel like this might well be my last summer being able to do this kind of work.

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Foto Friday from the Western Argolid

Some photos from my first couple of weeks in the Argolid.

The first photo is taken by Dimitri Nakassis using his fancy Canon EOS 5DS with a 50 mm Zeiss lens. This is me in my natural environment:

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Some provisional discard:

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When your irrigation pipe leaks and you have sheeps to water:

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Sheeps and sheeplets in the Western Argolid:

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A long and winding road:

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And as a bonus (they couldn’t stop barking at EVERYTHING, so now they’re practicing being bored):

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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.

Foto Friday from the Western Argolid

For the last week or so, I’ve been ensconced in the Western Argolid doing some digital work and getting our feet set for a short study season focused on six sites that fell just outside the area that the Western Argolid Regional Project surveyed for the last three intensive field seasons. 

The sites are pretty rugged, but the views provide amazing perspectives on rugged countryside of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

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