This weekend I attended the Dumbarton Oaks Spring Colloquium on Byzantine Survey Archaeology. The papers were remarkable and focused. The hosts and colloquiarchs, Margaret Mullett, John Haldon, and Sharon Gerstel put together a congenial environment for a wide ranging conversation on survey archaeology in a Byzantine context. While John Haldon did an admirable job weaving the various papers together at the end of the day’s proceedings, I couldn’t resist offering my own observations.
1. Survey Comes of Age. One of the most refreshing things about the meeting was the lack of heavy-handed apologies for survey. Most of the participants understood the limits of their methods and located their conclusions within the constraints of their evidence. Rather than universal apologies for survey as a method, we have moved to reflexive understandings of the limits of our data.
2. Multiple Methods. The recognition that survey produces a particular and legitimate kind of archaeological data opened the door to admitting to the multiple methods present in the current survey world. People presented projects that ranged from extensive – single person – survey to projects that collected data that exceeded our ability to produce historical analyses on the basis of this data. For example, I felt the recent extensive survey work from Limnos collected data that was every bit as significant historically as a project that collected “observation point” density data at 10 m intervals from each unit. It’s not that one method was superior to the other on the grounds of methodology, but that we can recognize the utility of various types of survey data sets. This is an important step in the development of survey work and locates our method in a rather different context than excavation where the link between field methods and results tends to be far less explicit.
3. Long Shadow of Texts. While the Byzantine component of many survey projects developed from projects directed by their prehistoric colleagues, Byzantinists have long recognized that texts in some cases have great utility for understanding the Byzantine landscape. On the other hand, Byzantine survey archaeologists are constantly on guard against the undue influence of texts on their analysis. The papers showed particular interest in attempting to understand how texts focused on regional trends could be generalized to explain assemblages across the Mediterranean. Moreover, we all returned to longstanding discussions of how imperial economic and political policies shaped changes in the countryside. Some of these conversations date to the 19th century and involve how we understand the development of feudalism as a stage within the Marxist paradigm of how economies developed. This is deep history.
4. Area versus Assemblage. One thing that was pretty interesting is that most of the survey project continued to have an interest in areas and sites rather than assemblages. Some of the projects were explicitly siteless in design, but nevertheless returned to the site based paradigm in order to integrate their results with a larger historical discourse (see above). In contrast, there was relatively less conversation about assemblages and cultural and economic composition of the material culture produced by survey. It seems that we still wanted to see survey data as representing past activities (habitation, settlement, fortifications, et c.) rather than being produced by past activities.
5. Less Technology and More Curation. Typically when survey archaeologists get together there is lots of talk about the latest and greatest piece of “kit”. This might be a remote sensing technology, some kind of infield data collection device, or the latest analytical tool. To be sure, some papers used innovative methods, but on the whole, there was much more talk about the curation and study of physical objects than electronic ones. I think this represents development of both digital standards and a stable tool kit of technologies that support archaeological fieldwork. Now, we have to turn our attention to the much more challenging issue of working with host countries to curate the objects and sites that survey produces.
6. Toward a Byzantine Survey Archaeology. There was some discussion of what is necessary from an institutional, methodological, and disciplinary standpoint to produce a distinctive Byzantine approach to survey archaeology. Some of this will revolve around research questions and academic alliances and collaborations. Some of this might revolve around particular field practices. For example, survey in a Byzantine context will likely pay particular attention to formation processes attendant to standing Byzantine monuments. Byzantine archaeologist in a survey context might also go further to make arguments for the coherence of surface assemblages and produce some horizontal stratigraphy where the regular association of coarse wares and known fine wares can allow us to make certain tentative chronological arguments. These are not features exclusive to Byzantine period, but they are areas where Byzantine archaeology has begun to make a contribution. Finally, we have the advantage of a field that is located at the very earliest moment where a genuinely historical archaeology is possible. This positions us as scholars to contribute and critique the enter historical archaeology undertaking from the rather unique perspective of survey archaeology.
There were a few areas where there was not much conversation although these are typically part of the larger chatter among survey archaeologists.
1. Sharing Data. First, with the exception of Jim Newhard the conference lacked any major player in the recent trend toward data curation. How we make our results visible to the world and our colleagues remains a major issue for archaeologists in general, and survey archaeologists in particular. The born-digital nature of survey data makes survey practitioners particular important contributors to these conversations. The idea of a distinctly Byzantine survey archaeology could involve a stronger commitment to digital data curation, distribution, and analysis.
2. Beyond the New Archaeology. Most papers at the conference showed a strong commitment to quantitative methods that drew upon the core tenants of processual and new archaeology. Almost no one was willing to push a little further to consider post-processual practices. The idea of the landscape remained something produced through systematic collection of physical data from the countryside. There was little in the way of reflexive practices on more “qualitative” forms of data collection although survey archaeology’s close relationship to landscape archaeology has long opened the door to these kinds of approaches.
3. Cyprus. The contributions of Cypriot survey archaeologist once again remained around the fringes of the conversation. To my mind the Sydney Cyprus Survey Project represents one the model regional scale survey projects in the Eastern Mediterranean and its successor TAESP will probably be even more important. The work of M. Rautman in site-based survey and the historical data collected on the Byzantine landscape from the Cyprus Survey and other projects on the island makes it one of the most thoroughly investigated landscapes in the Mediterranean. I think it’s high time that we hold a “Survey Archaeology in Cyprus in Comparative Context” workshop that looks at how we can compare the results of surveys to answer questions that have relevance at both a regional and transregional level.