From Little Things

Despite having written and blogged about slow archaeology and the importance of being in the landscape and various expressions of embodied knowledge, I’m nevertheless always surprised by how time with ancient artifacts helps me think through archaeological problems.

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The last two weeks in Cyprus have focused on the artifact assemblages from the site of Polis-Chrysochous and Pyla-Koutsopetria. At both sites, we’re working to finish processing artifacts from excavations. Over the past decade, we read most of the ceramics from these sites and documented their type with brief descriptions. A handful of objects, however, receive more detailed descriptions and study. Generally speaking these artifacts represent the most chronologically or functionally diagnostic types from the assemblage. We focused on fine table wares, amphora, and cooking pots at Polis and Koutsopetria and spent a good bit of energy looking carefully at each artifact and preparing a catalogue entry. 

This kind of work has got my thinking about the end of antiquity in Cyprus and the role that various types of artifacts have in understanding the end of the kinds of economic and social pattern that have historically defined antiquity. Individual classes of ceramics from Roman red slip fine wares (particularly African Red Slip, Phocaean Ware, and Cypriot Red Slip (LRD)) not only provide elusive dates for end of ancient patterns of trade connecting production sites and consumers across the Mediterranean but reflect tastes in pottery types (as well as foodways) that persisted for half a millennium. The same can be applied to cooking pots and even humble transport amphora. This intersection of economic patterns and social habits embodied in these tiny, broken sherds fascinated me over the last two weeks and located the world of antiquity in smallest fragment of the past.

Images from Polis

I’ve been working on the last few figures for an article on our work around the South Basilica at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. For various reasons we do not have a digital site plan, so I’ve been building one piece meal from the excellent hand drawn plans made over the past three decades. My goal was to combine the two so that I didn’t have to redraw the entire site map and so I could preserve some element of the original plans while highlighting certain features.

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From Cyprus to Greece

I head from Cyprus to Greece this morning and transition from our work at Polis (which is publishing an excavated site) to field work with the Western Argolid Regiona Project

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I haven’t quite finished the last bits of my season report for Polis and there are a few little database issues to resolved over the weekend. It was a good season overall, and I’ll miss spending time with artifacts and colleagues. More on my work at Polis in the next few days.

Onward to WARP!

Working at Polis

For the last week or so, I’ve been working with Scott Moore and Brandon Olson at Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus. This is a ongoing publication project focused on the study of the Hellenistic and later material. We started our work in the area around the South Basilica (or E.F2 in Polis lingo), and Brandon Olson continues to work on the Hellenistic material from there. 

Scott Moore and I have shifted our attention from E.F2 to a small excavated area around E.F1. Over the last week, we’ve read most of the pottery from the area and unpacked the stratigraphy as best we can. Now, we’re working on writing up the phases and commenting on the function of the area.

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This work has yielded some intriguing results.

First, we’re beginning to define certain horizons across the area and seem to have at least two phases of Late Antique activities at the site. One is earlier, perhaps dating to the 5th century, and the other seems to date to late 6th and early 7th century, and both are defined by ceramic assemblages. We also have an earlier 1st c. BC/1st c. AD horizon across the site and Brandon is working to put together an assemblage of Early Hellenistic material. (What is particularly cool about these early Hellenistic assemblages is that they link our material from Polis to some of our excavated assemblages from Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern part of the island.) We hope these assemblages both inform how we understand the site of Polis, but also how we understand these periods across the island as a whole.

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Secondly, so far the areas we have studied at Polis have shown signs of industrial activity ranging from ceramic production to iron work. EF1 has a rather expansive and clearly defined level filled with iron slag. We also found an usually large number of pithoi (storage vessels), a few amphora stands, and a funnel which also may have industrial functions. We hope that our work will not only help us date the slag and various utilitarian ceramics as well as slowly piece together the history of settlement in this section of the city.

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Finally, the area of E.F1 showed several phases of architectural activity which begins at bedrock. With any luck we’ll be able to unpack these architectural phases to understand the shape of this room and hallway at various times in its history. The site is small, the assemblages manageable, and the problems seem relatively minor, but part of the fun of archaeology is that everything seems to make sense before you try to write it down.

As someone with very uneven archaeological experience consisting of several years of survey, a few seasons of excavation, and some weeks in storerooms looking at pottery and notebooks, projects like Polis help me learn to think more systematically as an archaeologist. Going through past notebooks, scrutinizing ceramics and building schematic diagrams of horizontal and vertical relationships has helped me learn to understand how excavation produces knowledge. I may never be a good or “real” archaeologist, but I hope that working through the site of E.F1 (and E.F2) and taking a few weeks a year to immerse myself in the complexities of spatial relationship, chronology, artifact typologies, and ancient actives will help me be better able to understand archaeological evidence when it’s deployed in the service of historical arguments.

Summers are for Ideas

Summertime is a great time for ideas, problem solving, and field work, but it’s not a great time for blogging or any kind of long-form writing. I do keep a little notebook of ideas and keep notes in my phone using the irresistibly twee Vesper application for my iPhone. 

So, I have a few idea, most of which I (subjected?) shared with Scott Moore over the last few days.

1. Polis: City of Work. This summer we’ve been working to understand an industrial area of the site of Polis-Chrysochous. It was an area that probably did not enjoy as much attention as the monumental remains of the city in the recent Polis: City of Gold exhibition and catalogue. This was a shame, because we have a ton of evidence for production both in the area where we’re working – including a ceramic kiln and some evidence for possible glass production, metal working, terra-cotta sculpture, and probably other activities that are not associated with the glamorous life of monumental buildings, well-appointed sanctuaries, and other elite manifestations of ancient urbanism.

2. Wall and Holes. This year, the small team at Polis right now has focused on an area laced with walls and deep trenches. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to associate the trenches with walls and walls with floors and surfaces with fills. The big problem is that many of the excavators struggled to see foundation cuts in the difficult soil. Compounding this (and probably the major reason that foundation cuts went undetected) is the numerous “later” burials in the area and the constant rebuilding and adaptation of the area.

The end result is that we have walls, we have fills, and we have surfaces, and it is very difficult to link any of these together. So we have to find a way to publish the site that recognizes the challenges associated with the excavations and the limits to our knowledge as well as the potential the site and excavation have to contribute to archaeological knowledge on the island.

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4. Wall atop Walls. One of the coolest things about our corner of the Polis site is that it features walls atop wall over a span of nearly 1000 years. The basic grid plan of the area was probably established by the Hellenistic period and it persisted into Late Antiquity and probably beyond. As a result, the area of our current work has massive evidence for the reuse of architecture throughout. 

While the use of spolia is fairly well studied for monumental architecture like fortification walls and churches, it is not as considered in its most banal and practical form. Our area provides a window into the everyday life of an “ordinary” neighborhood at Polis on Cyprus. The reuse of blocks, the cuts, fills, and reconstructions, and the collapses and debris are all preserved as the fabric of the area’s history. 

3. Zombies and Ceramics. This summer, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working alongside an expert on Roman and Late Roman ceramics and zombies: R. Scott Moore. 

I’ve begun to prepare a treatment for a small-budget film that features Scott Moore as the only man who can save humanity from the onslaught of zombies propagated through contact with Late Roman ceramics. The first zombie, of course, was John Hayes whose work defined the field of ceramics in Late Antiquity. The disease soon spread to a group of scholars desperately trying to understand how to use his volume on the Roman ceramics from the site of Paphos. Others are stricken working their way through his volume on the Roman and Late Roman fine wares from the Agora or material from Saraçhane in Istanbul. Graduate students are particularly susceptible, but the cursed virus slowly begins to take down all the ceramicists in the Mediterranean, then excavators, then site directors, and finally tourists. 

Only Scott Moore remains immune. No one knows why or how, but what is more important is that he is the only person who can read Late Roman pottery without becoming a zombie.

Changing Landscapes of Rural Cyprus

I was pretty interested to read the latest article by the Athienou Archaeological Project team in the most recent issue of Journal of Field Archaeology: Shedding Light on the Cypriot Rural Landscape: Athienou Archaeological Project in the Malloura Valley, Cyprus 2011-2013. The article documents the most recent few years of excavation at the rural sanctuary of Athienou-Mallora which is just to the north of our coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria in southeastern Cyprus.

The article focused on the dynamic nature of rural sites and contribute yet more evidence that challenges the view of rural life in the Mediterranean as backward and  somehow less prone to change than life in urban centers. The sanctuary of Athienou-Malloura clearly underwent a number of significant changes over its long history and there was ample evidence for the reuse of even prestigious objects (like monumental and life-size sculpture) in renovations throughout its active history. Of particular interest was the presence of lamps with Christian symbols dating to Late Antiquity along with lamps with less overtly religious symbolism. This hints that the sanctuary might have been the site of some kind of syncretic religious practices at the end of its long life. We still do not know much about the afterlife of “pagan” sanctuaries on Cyprus especially when compared to the considerable scholarly attention paid to the late life of sanctuaries and temples in Greece. 

The article also features a brief report on the resurvey of several sites documented in the Malloura Valley Survey in the early 1990s. Returning to these sites nearly 20 years after their initial survey confirmed once again the dynamic character of the Cypriot countryside. While the results of this work were rather less surprising with mechanized agriculture and modern building practices intensifying the neglect witnessed by abandoned rural structures and sites, it was nevertheless revealing how little remained visible at abandoned mud brick buildings. In one case the entire building had vanished; in another, the mud brick walls had collapsed into the stone soccle at such an accelerated pace that human interference was suspected. 

The only bummer about the article is that I received an offprint from a colleague which was great, but I the offprint does not provide access to the supplementary material which requires a Manley log in to see. While the information on these pages is – presumably – supplementary and not vital to understanding the content of the article, it is nevertheless a bummer that I can’t see it. It is one more example of how we no long own content in a true sense, but simply rent access. As I work with some of the same authors on this article to develop a paper+digital+web edited volume based on papers from the Mobilizing the Past conference held this spring, I’m going to have to think hard about how to ensure persistent access to our supplementary material on the web.http://uwm.edu/mobilizing-the-past/

The Walk to Dinner

Two days with some thunder in a row has given us some interesting skies to enjoy on our evening walk to dinner.

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And some interesting light to savor during our evening meals.

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Polis Notebooking Season

Before the dirty, exhausting, and incremental (let’s say) season of actual field work begins in the Western Argolid, I’m taking a few weeks to work amid notebooks, pottery, and architecture in the village of Polis-Chrysochous on Cyprus this summer.

People who read my somewhat jet lagged and unapologetically grumpy post from yesterday may have some idea of what I’m up to, but I should probably be a bit more specific. Over the next few weeks, Scott Moore, Brandon Olson, and I will be working our way through the final gaggle of notebooks from area E.F2 excavated by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition on Cyprus. Over the last few years, we have focused on sorting out the stratigraphy and chronology of the 6th to 10th century AD basilica-style church at the site, and now we’re turning our attention to its larger context in the urban grid. 

Unlike most people’s idea of what archaeologists do, we’re not digging. We’re not even walking around the countryside. In fact, we’re spending our time in doors, staring at laptops and in storerooms surrounded by dusty trays of ceramics. (We walked over to the site itself yesterday and tried to orient ourselves on the basis of the notebook we had been reading, and let’s just say it was not entirely successful…). We’re pouring over notebooks from trenches excavated 20 years ago and looking at context pottery to make sense of the excavated contexts. Most of the areas we’re studying have material that dates from the Hellenistic, Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine periods.

The notebooks are a decidedly uneven affair. Some are models of efficient descriptions of contexts and features. Other notebooks are baffling and frankly psychedelic odysseys into the excavator’s mind. Sorting the pseudo-stratigraphic relationships from these notebooks requires patience and the tolerance for a certain amount of informally probabilistic interpretation and fuzziness that typically archaeological analysis avoids. The uneven character of the notebooks makes every day a wild ride between straightforward interpretation of archaeological contexts and wild comedy (er.. tragedo-comedy… excavation is destruction, kids, remember that!). Scott Moore gives an impression of our work on his blog.

Our plan this season is to sort out the history of the area south and west of the basilica which in the Hellenistic and Roman period appears to be a busy thoroughfare and an industrial area with a kiln, perhaps some metallurgical workshops, and maybe domestic space. There is a well preserved road with rather extensive drainage system designed to manage the flow of water down the slope of the hill on which the site sits. After the Roman period, the area seems to have been somewhat neglected with the drains being filled in, burials made on the road, and other signs of neglect and some slight hints at destruction. Our current research questions focus on the process of change in the area and whether these were punctuated by earthquakes or other destructive episodes or simply the changing function of the space through time.

So this morning, we’re off to the Princeton apotheke to begin sorting out the ceramics from the trenches. Wish us luck!

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