I was pretty intrigued to read Stefano Campana’s recent article in Antiquity on the concept of “emptyscapes.” This concept describes the areas in the landscape that do not produce a recognizable signature of ancient artifacts whether this is a ceramic scatter or visible architecture elements. Archaeologists have often regarded these spaces as the “connective tissue” of the ancient world where activities like travel, extensive agriculture and pastoralism, or other low intensity or episodic activities occurred. As a result, archaeologists were initially quick to define these spaces as “off-site.” More intensive pedestrian survey practices have served to populate these landscapes with both artifacts and activities and to start the process of blurring the distinction between on-site and off-site spaces in the Mediterranean world. Back in the day, David Pettegrew, Dimitri Nakassis, and I argued that emptyspaces – especially those produced by limited visibility – required archaeologists to increase the intensity of field walking (e.g. narrower walker spacing, total collection circles and the like), if they wanted to produce meaningful assemblages from the “hidden landscapes” that often left only the faintest traces in the countryside.
Even with greater intensity of field walking, we still recognize that some spaces in the landscape produce so few objects that it is impossible to discuss their character in antiquity even in the most general way, and these spaces remind us that absence of evidence is not evidence for absence.
Campana and his team have attacked the problem of emptyscapes by ratcheting up intensity even further by conducting large-scale geophysical work across areas that produced very little archaeological evidence. The emptyscape team was selective in where they worked, of course, identifying territory outside of the cities of Rusellae, Grosseto, and Vetulonium in Tuscany. They selected areas that produced very little material particularly from the Roman, Late Roman and Medieval periods and the emptyscapes project sought to use more intensive techniques to determine whether it was possible to tease evidence for past human activity from these empty landscapes.
Needless to say, they did produce some intriguing results including evidence for road networks, burial landscapes, and small fortified settlements that intensive pedestrian survey otherwise overlooked. In fact, their results were very impressive and expanded what we can learn about the landscape beyond artifact scatters. Of course, the emptyscapes team note that ground-truthing through excavation will offer even greater resolution and opportunities to understand the interstitial places that their geophysical work revealed.
The applicability for this kind of large-scale remote sensing practice will vary depending on local topography, settlement patterns, soil conditions, and geomorphology, of course, but anyone following the increasingly sophisticated technology and practices associated with remote sensing knows that the potential is there. The bigger concern, of course, is that every form of intensification reduces the scale of intensive pedestrian survey (or steeply increases the resources necessary to document each hectare). Increasingly powerful computing and streamlined data collection tools in the field do make it easier to collect geophysical data and to correlated datasets produced by various techniques from LiDAR to field walking, magnetometry, and even small-scale excavation. I still suspect that they won’t allow us to escape the accusation of “Mediterranean myopia” leveled against Mediterranean intensive survey practitioners over 15 years ago. As survey archaeology increases in intensity, we can say more about smaller and smaller areas. Historically, particularly in the New World, survey archaeology excels at speaking broadly about regions that are often hundreds of square kilometers. Sampling strategies established to accommodate the scale of regional level projects mitigated the challenge of emptyscapes as they limit the impact of environmental variability. Expanding the scale of intensive survey, however, does less to control for variation in the visibility and “diagnosticity” of particular classes of artifacts. If you miss certain classes of artifacts leaving gaps in your survey area, so amount of sampling for area is likely to resolve that without also developing sampling strategies that accommodate the range of likely artifact types present in a survey area. Large-scale geophysical work does just that by allowing the archaeologists to see beyond the surface of the ground and the usual scatter of durable, largely ceramic and stone objects and to sample subsurface features as well. At the same time, even the largest scale geophysical work offers a window into a much smaller area that regional level intensive survey. The real value of this practice lays not in its ability to fill a particular gap in the surface record, but in its ability to document emptyscapes at scale.