Age, Priorities, and the Cars

This summer the six survey teams on the Western Argolid Regional Project are working with clock-like efficiency. They churn through units at a remarkable pace and with a remarkable consistency. The good cheer, competence, and general responsibility of our graduate team leaders is amazing. The rest of the team, field walkers, project directors, and our faithful automotive transports have struggled a bit this week to keep up.

So, three quick consideration that have shaped my week in archaeological survey:

1. Age. Survey archaeology is a young person’s game. This week kicked my ass. I mapped for four days straight, demolished my poor feet, tripped over a terrace wall, dehydrated myself, and got grumpy. Our routine has become that one team leader and I map ahead of our ravenous survey teams trying to keep enough mapped units on the board to keep our fast moving teams busy.

On a good day, the team leader (with my help… cough, cough) can map about 100 units or so and that represents about a day worth of survey work for the teams. This is exhausting work, but it gives me a change to look at almost every survey unit  at least in a superficial way.

The downside is that by the end of the week, I’m completely wrecked. This is despite having exercised systematically over the past 12 months in preparation for the season, almost two decades of field experience in the Mediterranean, and careful precautions against the sun, dehydration, and little injuries. There is nothing more that I can do to keep in the game. Mother nature is taking is pound of flesh. Survey archaeology is a young person’s game. 

2. Fieldwork is all about priorities. For our project that means figuring how when to diversify from the hard work of intensive pedestrian survey and deploy resources to do other important tasks.

There is an overwhelming temptation to revel in the efficiency and steady growth of our fine-grain survey grid across the arable land in our study area. In fact, our methodological predilections eschew more intensive sampling of higher density scatters (places formerly known as sites), and have resisted the temptation to lay out grids, create total collection circles, or indulge in unsystematic grab sampling.  We’ve even gone so far to encourage out team leaders to mark units for revisit (especially units with higher density and lower visibility), but we’ve yet to shift the resources to revisiting or recollecting sites.

Next week, some of that might have to change. We’re going to have to start slowly shifting resources to documenting buildings, walls, features, and unusual artifact scatters. This not only breaks our routine, but also forces us to make difficult decisions about what is more important. Do we document an early modern farm house, first, and then a Venetian fortification? Do we do some more intensive sampling as a way to understand that small scatter of Medieval pottery or do we focus on a partially hidden landscapes from the Early Bronze age?

3. Cars. The final challenge to a well run survey project – more so than aging directors or conflicting priorities – was how we get into and out of the field. Bruno Latour would be impressed, because nothing impacts the progress of field work more seriously than cars breaking down. This week we’ve had two flat tires on the same car. Clearly, the car is less than impressed with our interest in completing field work. Or maybe the car is on my side and keeping me from completely collapsing under the grind of field work.

Pierre MacKay

I was saddened to hear this morning that Pierre MacKay passed away over the weekend. I didn’t know Pierre well, but was fortunate enough to spend a year with him in 2001/2002 at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

During that time, I was putting the final touches on an article documenting a series of fortifications on Mt. Oneion in the Corinthia. The latest were Venetian. Pierre had been working on the fortification of the Venetian town of Negroponte (now Chalkis) on Euboea. He was only too happy to discuss Venetian fortification strategies with me as well as any other topic of post-ancient Greece.

The highlight of that year was a trip to the city of Chalkis by train and then touring the course of Venetian fortifications of that city. The catch is that the fortifications were destroyed in the 19th century, but Pierre managed to make the course of the fortifications as vivid as if the walls were still standing. We had a long discussion of the church of Ayia Paraskevi which was a Frankish period church built on Early Christian foundations. His willingness to discuss Frankish, Venetian, and earlier material with us during the trip to Chalkis, and throughout my year at the American School, was a model of scholarly generosity.

From my perspective (and many others) his knowledge of Venetian and Ottoman Greece was virtually limitless, and he combined it with a deep and sophisticated understanding of the Classical world. His sensitivity to the long history of Greece is something that I admired and, in my own way, aspire too (although without his staggering knowledge of languages from Medieval Venetian to Ottoman Turkish). 


One of the more interesting trends emerging so far during the Western Argolid Regional Project season is competition among field teams. At the end of each field day, I typically ask team leaders how many units they have walked. This seemingly benign question helps us measure our progress through the survey area and gauge how much mapping is necessary to keep ahead of the survey teams. A quick tally of the number of units walked lets me begin to plan the next day as soon as the previous field day is over. 


Generally our 5 field teams walk between 15 and 20 units and around 90 total. Each unit is around 3000 sq m. so we walk about 1.3 and 1.5 sq. km per week. The number of units we walk depend considerably on the character of the terrain, the size of the units, and the density of artifacts, vegetation, and other distractions to artifact recovery. The size of our field teams is four plus a team leader, but this week we lost a few field walkers to dehydration and bumps and bruises. So a team down a walker will move a bit more slowly than one at full strength especially if the units are slightly larger than average. Historically, field teams walk about 4 units per hour over a 6 hour field day with a couple of breaks for water, znacks (snacks), and transit to and from the field site. 

Teams generally develop a routine where one walker writes tags, one takes a center GPS point, one walker helps with forms, one takes photographs et c. This streamlines the bookkeeping and data recording aspects of intensive pedestrian survey and as the season progresses, small efficiencies occur based on familiarity with the process as much as anything. As the process become more efficient, we usually have to nudge the team leaders to slow things down just a bit to ensure that the teams recognize where they are in the survey area, fill out forms properly, and actually, you know, enjoy the process. Since our project runs as a field school, we see very little benefit to an overly mechanical process that makes our field walkers (and team leaders) into field walking robots (beep, boop, boop, beep, boop).

One thing that I did not anticipate this summer is that teams would start to compete with each other to walk the most units per day. It’s hard not to like the harmless morale boost that comes with walking the most units or besting a team nearby is fun. Moreover, we recognize the field walking – particularly in challenging topography which is difficult to grasp as a coherent space – can be boring and seem pointless. The assembly line was soul crushing in part because of the repetitive character of the work and, in part, because the repetition could obscure the role an individual played in the work’s final result. Unit counts keep the field day interesting.

At the same time, we’ve starting wonder whether there are some less than desirable byproducts of this competition. For example, we don’t want the push to walk more to exhaust field teams more quickly and to contribute to the attrition of team members. We also don’t want to compromise our data collection for some good-natured fun. Finally, we don’t want teams who walk more challenging areas to feel like their contributions are less significant because they didn’t walk enough units. The last thing we want is sad field walkers.  


The Fleas

The photo below might look like an ordinary enough farm house. In fact, the house and its neighboring farm yard are filled with FLEAS.

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For those of us who visited this interesting, multiphase building this morning, the fleas were more than a passing curiosity, but a profound annoyance.

We got covered in fleas. They got on our pants, on our shoes, on our shirts, then into our shirts, shoes, and pants. This situation quickly devolved into panic. First we tried to get the fleas off of our body in the field around the house. Then we realized that this was where the fleas were coming from and jumped in the car and raced off. But then we had fleas in the car and on our bodies. So we stopped at a nearby rural church and commenced a more thorough inspection and flea removal operation. Then we headed to our storeroom/laboratory for a quick vacuuming of our body and then the car keeping a safe distance from Holly Dog, the project directors’ beloved pooch.

The clothes went into the wash and I took a hot soapy shower and so far, aside from a few flea bites, we seem to have survived the flea attack no worse for wear. 

The worst part now is the fantom fleas that continue to jump around my body, inflicting imagined bites.

Photo Friday from my First Week in Greece

The morning light is amazing in the little village of Miloi.

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We’ve had a few days of afternoon rain leaving the fields of the area heavy with sticky mud.


The landscape, however, remains as striking as always with the wet winter leaving fields filled with green weeds.

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It wouldn’t be intensive pedestrian survey if we didn’t spend a good bit of time hunched over our maps and pointing. 


The use of an old rail car as a agricultural shed provides a nice example of some of things that I discussed in post earlier in the week.


One last tube-photo showing the village of Schinochori and a small outlying settlement (a kalyvi).



Managing the Modern in Intensive Survey

I’ve made it over to the Argolid and am ensconced in the comfortable accommodations in the village of Myloi for the next two months. My colleagues Dimitri Nakassis and Scott Gallimore have been in the village for a week or so already getting ready for the second field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project. 

I’m excite for this year’s survey area because it encompasses at least two modern settlements which are in states of abandonment. We’re anticipating already a greater amount of modern and early modern (for Greece this is the 19th century) material associated with these settlements. Most recent intensive survey projects make a big deal about being diachronic, but to be fair, the modern period tends to present particular challenges to survey projects. In general, survey archaeologists recognize that we cannot treat the modern period the same way that we treat earlier periods. 

The reasons are both complex and simple. The simple reason is that we simply cannot accommodate the super abundance of most modern material in our survey units. As Richard Rothaus and I discussed a few months ago on our podcast, there is a storage crisis in archaeology, and collecting modern material will only make this worse. In the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey we tried to document modern material without collecting using a “modern sweep” form. This form consisted of a long list of check boxes that tried to take into account the most common form of trash found in the Greek countryside. In practice, however, the survey teams mostly checked the box for “scattered modern trash,” and either failed or refused to distinguish between the various events that created the distribution of modern material through agricultural lands around contemporary villages. 


I suspect that the difficulties dealing with the modern landscape also speaks to more complex challenges involving how we understand modern artifact distribution in the countryside where most modern survey projects are based. Modern material represents both very familiar practices – typically those associated with opportunistic discard of unneeded objects – and practices that are rather unfamiliar to archaeologists who are not well versed in modern, sometimes ad hoc, use of modern material in contemporary Mediterranean agricultural practices. For example, last year, I took numerous photographs of modified plastic water bottles hung from trees throughout the Argolid and the ingenious use of beer cans in modified irrigation systems.


Our familiarity with the primary use of objects and simple discard practices has perhaps made it easier to overlook creative examples of reuse in the countryside. Modern objects have become so specialized, so disposable, and so common that we have to train our eyes to see them and our archaeological awareness to consider the range of uses possible in the countryside.

Traveling through Non-Place?

I’m sitting in the Larnaka International Airport reflecting on the Marc Augé’s idea that airports are quintessential examples on hyper modern non-places. Indistinguishable from one another and catering to displaced travelers, airports both ameliorate and exacerbate the sense of placelessness by being both familiar and non-local at the same time. As airports have become increasingly operated by multinational corporations and beholden to international security standards, they have only become more homogeneous in the 21st century.

At least that’s a simplified version of his argument brought up to date by some recent observations.


On the ride to the airport, though, my colleagues Brandon Olson and Dallas Deforest reminisced about old airports and their distinct character: the old Athens airport with its “flippy” list of arrivals and departures, the old Larnaka airport where you disembarked onto the tarmac with its distinct smell of the sea and jet fuel, and the chaotic nature of regional airports in Turkey. Maybe the de-placing of airports is a more recent phenomenon for many places in the world than Augéhas recognized.

Of course the airport in Cyprus has the added complication of being a product of the conflict that has seen the northern part of the island being governed by an unrecognized state. Prior to the invasion of 1974, the airport for the island was in Nicosia. It now stands in the UN controlled demilitarized zone. Few places on earth more poignantly reflect the character of late modern political space than these extranational zones which linger at the margins of formal political jurisdictions. At the same time, the old Nicosia airport has become a very local symbol of the island’s complicated last. It is simultaneously non-place and an highly nuanced political symbol.

I think my flight is starting to board now, but I wanted to write down a few thoughts (on my iPhone no less) while they were fresh in my mind. My next post will be from Greece!

Travelers Accounts and Formation Processes

I thoroughly enjoyed a recent article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies by my fellow WARP staffer Scott Gallimore: “‘The Saddest of Ruins’: Travelers’ Accounts as Evidence for Formation Processes at Hierapytna, Crete.” Scott considers travelers accounts of ancient Hierapyta on Crete, the site of his dissertation research, as evidence for archaeological formation processes. 

This is a cool project for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it provides a useful archaeological and intellectual context for early travelers’ accounts of the ancient landscape. Traditionally, scholars have recognized the value of these account and often bring them into their consideration of a region as something of a bridge between antiquity and the modern era. Many early travelers, particularly those explicitly interested in antiquities like Cyriac of Ancona or the much later William Martin Leake provide a faint echo of our own archaeological interests and archaeologists have often borrowed their perspectives (critically, of course) as a way to see landscapes radically changed my industrialization, mechanization, and other transformations of the modern world. At their best, scholars have sought to understand the various perspectives that these “early” travelers and porto-archaeologists brought to their seeing and writing; at their worst, scholars have seen earlier travelers as another source of “data” to be mined in an effort to reconstruct some kind of authentic ancient past. 

Scott’s article offers a different approach to how ancient travelers can and should be used. They represent a guide to understanding time and process in the long gap between the creation of ancient buildings and our work to reconstruct and recognize archaeological remains. In particular, Scott is clever in noting how travelers often tend to recognize short-term transformations to the local scene ranging from earthquakes, attacks, or changes in political or economic regimes. They are less savvy when it comes to understanding long-term change, but this is actually better for archaeologists. Many early travelers present static, rusticated, and ruined backdrop against which they set their moralizing views. The curious thing is, as Scott shows quite cleverly, this backdrop provides points along a continuum that actually subvert the travelers intentions by revealing more gradual but no less significant processes so crucial in the production of modern archaeological sites. 

In other words, the tension between the short-term catastrophes and the enduring ruins in the earlier travelers provides an intellectual framework for formation processes that tend to oscillate between moments of dramatic collapse and long periods of gradual deterioration. Whether this is universally true, is open to debate, but there is definitely enough anecdotal evidence for archaeologists to be familiar with this kind of tension: walls will continue to stand as long as the building has a roof, but when the roof fails, the walls will absorb water into their matrix and erode much more quickly.

Once you finish enjoying Scott’s article, be sure to check out the rest of this issue which includes a series of articles on the archaeological challenges associated with the division of Cyprus. Some good perspectives offered here. I’ll write up something on these