A Small Book about Small Sites on a Small Island with Big Ideas

This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading Catherine Kearns’s The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus (2022). The book is fantastic (and I say this as someone who is both increasingly “Iron Age Curious” and has a more mature interest rural landscapes both on Cyprus and elsewhere).

Kearns’s considers the emergence of the rural during the Archaic period on Cyprus. This is a period famously known for the emergence of Iron Age polities that form the core the ten or so “City Kingdoms” on Cyprus during the Archaic and Classical period. Iron Age cities have long attracted the attention of archaeologists working on the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age on Cyprus. Kearns’s book flips this focus by looking at the emergence of rural communities during this period and how non-urban forms of life contributed to the formation of urban polities that became so prominent in the later Archaic and Cypro-Classical periods.

To do this, Kearns interrogates the faint traces of Cypro-Geometric and Cypro-Archaic material from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys which were surveyed in the late 20th century. Kearns complements this legacy data with resurvey and excavation, but the bulk of the evidence for her arguments comes a careful study of material from these periods across the entire island.

Kearns sets her study of the development of rural landscapes and communities amid a careful and measured understanding of climate conditions, the local environment, and resources. I have to admit to lacking the technical understanding of much of what is necessary to reconstruct paleoclimate data, but she appears to approach such efforts with a full grasp of how difficult aligning climate data with historical developments can be. Her grasp of local environmental conditions and resources in Vasilikos and Maroni valley allowed her to demonstrate how household units created small worlds in the difficult centuries after the collapse of Bronze Age states in Cyprus. Moreover, she is able to provide some examples for how the  the worlds created by these household unites, despite their faint traces in the landscape, leveraged the use of gypsum, copper, wood, and arable soils to create a society that both supported larger urban agglomerations as well as negotiate their own changing roles in Iron Age society.

This is obvious a pretty casual reconstruction of Kearns’s complex and highly nuanced arguments. I honestly can’t do a book like this justice, but it did leave me with several take aways that were peripheral to Kearns’s main arguments, but nevertheless made me particularly happy.

First, Kearns clearly draws upon trends in contemporary environmental history including a prominent shout out to William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991). This iconic masterpiece of contemporary environmental history traces the development of Chicago’s western hinterland in concert with the emergence of the city, its growing population, its industries, and its consumption practices. Cronon’s work marked a watershed in how we understood the relationship between the town and country in the US by demonstrating that the rural/urban divide was largely illusory. One could not exist without the other.

As someone probing the edges of contemporary environmental history lately, this got me very excited.  

Second, Kearns uses survey data in a thoughtful way. While there were moments where I wished that she had unpacked some of the methods used to produce the data that she so carefully analyzed, in general, I was pleased to see survey data being drawn upon in such a natural way. I feel like over the past decade, archaeologists have come to accept the inherent reliability of intensive survey data and felt less need to bracket archaeological landscapes created by survey methods with a heavy layer of methodological justification. The turn-of-the-century survey archeologist in me likes to imagine that this is the result of our careful rumination on the character of survey data. When I stop trying to make everything about my own work (see point one), I realize that Kearns just approached the landscapes of Vasilikos and Maroni valleys with a substantial portion of archaeological common sense.

Third, I was fascinated with how work like Kearns might contribute to how we interpreted the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla. While we had relatively little Iron Age material (and even less material that we could confidently assign to the Cypro-Archaic or much less Cypro-Geometric periods), the location of our site between territories traditional ascribed to Salamis and Kition makes it appealing to consider the locus for rural development outside of the control of any particular urban center. The presence of features in our landscape datable to the Iron Age complements its access to a significant agricultural hinterland, in possession of the topographic advantages of a significant coastal height, and nearby the Late Bronze Age site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos (with the potential for certain forms of landesque capital). We were guilty of attributing the site’s development to the emergence (or even persistence) of urban populations at Kition and Salamis. Kearns analysis urged me to consider whether our site emerged in the aftermath of the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition as the site of a rural community that ultimately contributed to the persistence of the community at Kition rather than as an extension of its efforts at rural control. 

In fact, we make a vaguely similar argument when we suggest that the expansion of the site in the Hellenistic to Roman periods reflected the breakdown of the centripetal influence of Salamis and Kition which would have encouraged the development of land that would have otherwise suffered from its politically and economically marginal position along the borders of states.

Fourth, the conclusion of Kearns’s book is a masterpiece in weaving together the often complex and hyper local strands of argument that she develops throughout her book. It demonstrates how the small worlds and faintly visible sites that she focused on in her chapters can propose a new narrative for the emergence of the rural landscape (as well as the urban areas) in the Iron Age. More importantly, though, she takes her arguments for the development of the rural and considers how these influence our view of the Anthropocene in its contemporary and its more expansive historical contexts (i.e. both “big A” and “little a” anthropocene). In other words, she demonstrates how specialized studies in how highly local communities (sometimes no more than family groups) adapted to climate change, local resources, and emerging political entities can contributed to creating a more variegated and socially responsible image of the Anthropocene. Understanding small scale adaptions reminds us that the increasingly global “we” that is responsible for anthropogenic climate change and obligated to resists or slows its progress is and was never as universal as the first person pronoun suggests. The causes, responses, and impacts of climate change in the past, in the present, and in the future are always local. And this is a brilliant reminder for anyone invested in understanding how to produce a just, responsible, and effective response to global climate change today.

Finally, there is no doubt that we live in an era of Big Books by Big Scholars on Big Topics. As I’ve said on this blog, I dislike big books and I cannot lie.

Catherine Kearns’s book is not a big book by any standard (although she is well on her way to becoming a Big Scholar). It’s runs to around 250 pages. Its deals with small worlds on a (relatively) small island situated as much at the margins of contemporary Mediterranean archaeology as it did in relation to past imperial polities. 

That said, this book is not small in terms of idea, significance, or impact. As someone who has a rooting interest in Cypriot archaeology, but no particular investment in the Iron Age, I read this book with more than a little enthusiasm! I’m sure that I’ll be annoying my friends and colleagues when I continue to recommend it to them over the coming years.

It’s the kind of book that one can read over a weekend, but whose ideas and provocations will simmer in my mind for years and it’ll have a bigger impact (at least in the small world of my mind) than any number of the Big Books by Big Scholars.  

Some Other Archaeology: Late Antiquity at Polis: Recent Research

In some ways, I’ve found the recent discussions of pseudoarchaeology energizing and thought provoking (and as I explain in this twitter thread, my development as an archaeology and a pseudoarchaeology have very much occurred in interrelated ways).

Next week, I’ll present some of my recent work in the village of Polis, where we work on the site of Late Roman and Byzantine Arsinoe. The talk is at 7:30 PM EEST (or 11:30 AM in CST). You can register for the talk via zoom here.

Here’s the abstract and some media. I’ll post a version of my paper next week and apparently it’ll be recorded. Here are some thoughts about my talk.

Starting in 1984, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated areas around the village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus. These excavations revealed a wide range of buildings and contexts dating from the Late Antique period including two Early Christian basilica style churches surrounded by various buildings that appear to stretch along the northern edge of the city. At some point in Late Antiquity, most of this area appears to have become a massive cemetery, presumably centered on the two churches. Recent research has revealed that the buildings along the northern edge of the city underwent continuous renovation and reconfiguration even as burials encroached.

William Caraher posterWilliam Caraher invitation

Thinking Big About Late Antique Polis on Cyprus

One of the things that I’m trying to do as I find myself well and truly a “mid career” scholar is to focus on small things. Maybe it has to do with my interest in craft and even slow practices. Maybe it has to do with my distaste for senior (generally male) scholars producing BIG BOOKS about BIG TOPICS. Maybe it just has to do with embracing the parts of archaeological and scholarly practice that I enjoy. 

At the end of the month, I’ll be giving a paper at the University of Cyprus’s Archaeological Research Unit (ARU). My paper will introduce our decade of work at the site of Late Roman Arsinoe at Polis on Cyprus. The first part of my paper will indulge my inclination to “geek out” on some of the more archaeological aspects of our work. I love the fussy forensics of archaeological argumentation and analysis and my hope is that the ARU will be a receptive audience to some of the work we’re doing to untangle chronology at Polis.

I also know that there will be an expectation that I demonstrate something more significant than my ability to think about chronology, stratigraphy, and architectural history within the confines of the trenches at our site. The second half of my paper (which will be a generous 50 minutes!) will try to focus a bit on how Polis can contribute to BIG PICTURE issues associated with both the archaeology of Late Roman and Early Byzantine Cyprus as well as the archaeology of Late Roman Mediterranean more broadly. This isn’t the most comfortable space for me to operate, of course, but I suppose a lecture like this is a good opportunity to get a bit out of my comfort zone and indulge a bit of “speculatin’ about a hypothesis.”

My goal right now is to discuss four (or five?) things at the end of my paper. Because my paper will focus on the material from EF2 (that is the South Basilica) and from EF1 (which I’ve largely written up here), my evidence will represent only a very modest basis for any “speculatin’,” but I reckon that it will still contribute to some larger conversations. 

First, I think it’ll be useful to establish the relationship between the chronology of some of our “horizons” and assemblages and larger conversations about the dating of Late Roman ceramics. Getting the dates of our ceramic evidence right is important both because ceramics represent the most ubiquitous form of datable evidence from the ancient Mediterranean, and also because the chronology of this material is beginning to shift. This shift is mostly attributable to archaeologists relying less dogmatically on deposits associated with particular historical events (earthquakes, invasions, and the like) and on Cyprus, this involved a critical re-examination of chronologies established on the basis of the Arab Raids. I think that the excavations at Polis (as well as other nearby sites in Western Cyprus) have the real potential to establish new dates (at least relevant locally) for Late Roman and Early Byzantine ceramics. 

Second, establishing new ceramic chronologies also allows us to make some new observations on the economic (and even social) landscape of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean.This means recognizing that there seems to be connections between production sites and markets that persist into the later 7th and even 8th century. This not only suggests that the political disruptions associated with the Arab Raids in the mid-7th century did not complete destroy the economic ties between the island and its neighbors to the west. The appearance of late forms of transport amphora, tables wares, and various cooking and utility seem to parallel the growing body of evidence from coins and seals to suggest that 7th and 8th century Cyprus remained an economic crossroad characterized as much by resilience as economic contraction and political isolation. 

Third, these conclusions have some significance for how we understand “Cypriot Archaeology” more broadly. On the one hand, Cypriot archaeology has long been associated with the study of the Iron Age kingdoms. With their demise of independent kingdoms and absorption of Cyprus into the Hellenistic and Roman world, scholars have argued that what made these communities “Cypriot” became subordinate to the political realities of new regional and transregional polities. Of course, any number of scholars have challenged this perspective and for the Late Roman period recognizing the regional variations in material culture across settlements and sites on Cyprus suggests that “Roman” material became a medium that supported the persistence of Cypriot identity rather than its erasure. This opens the door for us to expand what we consider as “Cypriot Archaeology” into periods that have traditionally stood outside its core concerns.

Fourth, Cypriot Archaeology has historically focused on the political, religious, and social life of the city kingdoms. Implicit in this work is a concern for urbanism on the island which resonates with an interest in the form of cities at the so-called “end of antiquity.” One of the interesting challenges of Princeton’s work at ancient Arsinoe is that most of our excavations took place outside the ancient city center, which remains under the modern village. That said, these sites do offer subtle proxies for certain aspects of urban life. The use of peri-urban areas first as monumental spaces for religious buildings, arches, well-appointed well-houses, and then as cemeteries in Late Antiquity suggests changing religious priorities that are visible elsewhere on the island as well. The rapid reconstruction of the buildings along the northern side of Polis suggest that these spaces remained not only significant for throughout the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, but also demonstrated that resilience and perhaps even the persistence of the basic urban structure into the post-Antique period.

The presence of large fills at the site of South Basilica offer a window into the material culture of Polis. Recent work that considers the character of fills in relation to peri-urban dumps, however, offers a lens through which to complicated views of these assemblages. This is particularly significant when comparing the massive fill level associated with EF2 and the South Basilica with the smaller fills associated with the construction and destruction of EF1. 

Finally, the ongoing concern for drainage along the northern slope of the city offers an opaque window into issue of water management at Arsinoe. Efforts to manage the flow of water around the South Basilica might indicate that the situation associated with upstream drainage had changed suggesting, perhaps, that certain elements of civic infrastructure had either fallen into disrepair or underwent a kind of catastrophic failure which permanently disrupted their consistent operation. At the same time, it is possible to imagine a model of urban change that suggests the use of marginal areas of the town — including those susceptible to flooding came into use.

Depending on length and my energy level, I might also talk a little about digital publishing and digital methods as a key component of our work at Polis, but I might be better served staying in my lane and talking about some of the larger issues that shape the Late Roman history of the island.

Two Things on Trash in the Roman World

I really enjoyed Kevin Dicus’s recent article in AJA 126.4: “Refuse and the Roman City: Determining the Formation Processes of Refuse Assemblages Using Statistical Measures of Heterogeneity.” This article pushed me to read Guido Furlan’s 2017 article in EJA 20.2: “When Absence Means Things Are Going Well: Waste Disposal in Roman Towns and its Impact on the Record as Observed in Aquileia.” Both articles dealt with the tricky issue of trash disposal in Roman cities and, more importantly, the character of secondary deposits in an urban setting. 

Dicus’s article uses two statistical measurements to provide a baseline for peri-urban dump sites: Shannon Diversity and Pielou J Evenness.  The former measures the range of types of objects that would appear in an assemblage or sample and the latter measures the distribution of material across the various classes present in the assemblage or sample. Excavated dump sites have proven to have high levels of Diversity and Evenness. For Dicus, this reflects the character of peri-urban dump sites as the end point of city wide refuse collection. This formation process brings together a wide range of discard practices in such a way to produce diverse and evenly distributed assemblages in peri-urban dumps.

Dicus compares the character of peri-urban dumps to material found in various fill context inside Pompeii. For example, domestic refuse tended, in Dicus’s study, to have lower diversity than that from dumps outside the city. This is presumably because it reflects a smaller range of activities (and perhaps developed over a shorter period of time). Curiously, other fills from around Pompeii show levels of diversity and evenness that are not all that different from the municipal dump sites. This suggests that despite their association with domestic spaces and their location within city walls, these fills nevertheless required material from assemblages produced by the more expansive formation process similar to those that formed municipal peri-urban dumps. Dicus’s willingness to unpack and explain the quantitative character of these fills and dumps is really commendable. He not only recognizes the limits of this kind of approach, but also explains it in a way that is both clear and replicable at other sites that have well-excavated dumps and fill contexts that can be compared. 

Furlan’s article is less sophisticated quantitatively and focuses on aoristic analysis of the chronology of fills and dumps. He argues that fill levels in urban sites are often far too variable and dependent on the formation process that created the fills to serve as proxies for the economic situation in a particular community. Parallel to Dicus’s later work, Furlan suggests that municipal dump sites which capture a wider range of formation processes from, presumably, a spatially and functionally more expansive catchment would represent more fully the economic life of a city.

This work is relevant to my recent work at Polis. The area of EF2 in the Princeton grid at the site included a massive fill deposits that presumably served to facilitate the leveling and drainage of sloping ravine. The presence of abundant cobbles in the fill suggests that it combined building material. Its location at the edge of the city also suggest a proximity to a per-urban dump. In fact, a large mound of slag to the north of the site suggests a dump from nearby industrial activities. There is reason to expect, then, that the fill incorporates aspects of industrial discard in its assemblage and the percentage of amphora sherds, for example, is suggestive. The significant quantity of fine and tables wares as well as cooking pots that we should probably associate with domestic use, however, indicates that the fill also draws upon a wider range of processes perhaps including those associated with both urban discard and disposal. 

Unfortunately, the material that we have available for the study of the fill level at EF2 is a sample of the material excavated in the 1990s. We expect that the excavators discarded a good amount of the course and utility wares that appeared as undiagnostic and this means these kinds of vessels are underrepresented in the assemblage. Or, conversely, table and fine wares are proportionally overrepresented in the assemblage that we studied. In other words, we can’t do the kind of thoughtful analysis performed by Furlan or Dicus. Despite these limitations, their work does give me something to think with when exploring the legacy data produced by the excavations along the northern side of the city of Arsinoë in the village of Polis. 

Lecture this Fall: Late Antiquity at Polis: Recent Research

I’m spinning my wheels a bit this fall and trying to get traction after a long and somewhat exhausting summer of research and other work. Fortunately, several projects have become a bit more insistent lately and some new projects have popped up to fill the void.

Among the projects that I have appeared from the ether to structure my semester is a talk that I was invited to give at the University of Cyprus’s Archaeological Research Unit.

Here’s the abstract that I submitted: 

Starting in 1984, the Princeton Cyprus Expedition excavated areas around the village of Polis-tis-Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus. These excavations revealed a wide range of buildings and contexts dating from the Late Antique period including two Early Christian basilica style churches surrounded by various buildings that appear to stretch along the northern edge of the city. At some point in Late Antiquity, most of this area appears to have become a massive cemetery, presumably centered on the two churches. Recent research has revealed that the buildings along the northern edge of the city underwent continuous renovation and reconfiguration even as burials encroached.

Along with a few photos:

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South Basilica POT

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My current plan for the talk is to start the talk with a broad overview of Late Antique Polis and then focus on four or five issues that have emerged from our work. These issues will start with the most “settled” (and even published) and move onto some more speculative ideas about the city of Arsinoe in Late Antiquity.

1. Untangling Legacy Data. The first thing I’ll discuss is the challenges of working with “legacy data” at a project that flirted with the dawn of the digital age while still adhering to analogue practices. This will be a nice way to introduce the audience to the archaeological contexts for my paper’s analysis.

2. The Phases of the South Basilica. In some ways, this section will confirm that the methods we employed to combine legacy data with new analysis have the potential to produce meaningful results. It will largely summarize conclusions published a few years ago in Hesperia

3. Regionalism and Trade on Cyprus. This section will start to take our research into more speculative areas by demonstrative the value of publishing larger ceramic datasets and showing how they can contribute to understanding connectivity within a broader regional context. Some of our conclusions here have appeared in various publications, but they’re very much still tentative because of the changing chronologies associated with Late Roman ceramics in the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly.

4. Creating Some Late Roman Horizons. As a follow up to the last point, I will introduce our efforts to construct some Late Roman “horizons” at Polis that have the potential to be starting point for both refining ceramic chronologies on the island and proposing new dates for the transformation of the built environment on the island from the 6th to 8th centuries.

5. Fragments, Features, and Functions in the Late Roman Cityscape. Finally, the paper will conclude with some observations on how excavations along the northern edge of Late Antique Arsinoe revealed by the Princeton Cyprus Expedition can offer a fragmentary, but suggestive view of the changing character of the city. In this way, we hope that the work at our site can contribute to our emerging understanding of Late Roman urbanism elsewhere on Cyprus.  

 

The lecture will occur, I think, on November 28th and delivered via The Zooms, so I should, hopefully, have a link to share with people closer to the date. I’ll also share the text of my paper once I get around to putting words on the page. 

What I Did This Summer: Polis on Cyprus Edition

The early fall is always an awkward time of year because it marks the intersection of summertime work and the more regular routine of the semester’s start (as well as baseball and football season).

Over the last couple of week’s I’ve been working to pull together some of our work from the past summer on Cyprus. This primarily focused at the site of Polis and, more specifically, on the area of E.F1 in the Princeton Cyprus Expedition grid. I’ve written a decent amount about the small excavations in the area, but, so far, we haven’t really produced much more than a synthetic studies of the work there. Our current plan is to produce a more comprehensive study as part of the first volume of a new series dedicated to the Princeton work at Polis.

As per usual, I suspect that it’ll take years for the final publication of this site to appear, but for now, we can provide a provisional (and perhaps ante-penultimate) draft publication of the area. As you’ll discover, if you click the link below, the catalogue is not entirely complete and lacks illustrations at present (but I’ll work to update this when they’re available), but we have completed most of the interpretative heavy lifting and we have largely connected the dots at the site. 

For those of you who don’t know Polis, much less E.F1, the excavations in the area revealed at least four phases of Late Roman activity at the site of which three left clear architectural traces and one was manifest in a burial. More importantly, perhaps, is the assemblage of Late Roman ceramics from the site and residual material dating primarily to the Roman period. The Late Roman fine ware is perhaps the most useful assemblage for scholars, although the site also produced a diverse array of Late Roman amphora and cooking pots. There’s a nice gaggle of lamps and lamp fragments from the site as well which should provide a window into lamp circulation in the western part of Cyprus (and will likely be more meaningful when we publish the illustrations).

Some of the point of publishing this is to run up a flag to show folks what we’ve been doing. It goes without saying that if you have interest or questions about work, please do reach out!

Here’s a link for the download!

Three Things Thursday: Late Antique Corinth, Travel, and End Games

In about 5 days, I return home from my first summer field season in the last three years. It was productive and honestly exhausting even if I never did any real field work and spent most of my time looking at material excavated years ago. Most of our progress, then, hasn’t been revealing or creating new knowledge, but marshalling what already existed into more easily digested forms.

Thing the First

Some of the most useful moments in a field season come from casual conversations over coffee, a meal, or a beer. Last week, my long-time buddy and collaborator, David Pettegrew and I talked about a article that we are writing that surveys research on Late Antique Corinth. The article starts predictably with Oscar Broneer’s famous description of Late Antique Corinth as an “unhappy period of twilight” in his 1954 article on the south stoa.

Within ten years, Dimitrios Pallas unearths the Lechaion basilica, which was among the largest churches in the world in the 6th century. The building was not only architecturally imposing and sophisticated in design, but it was also lavishly adorned with imported marble from imperial quarries. Whatever one thinks of the aesthetics of Early Christian Greece, this building does little to suggest that the city or the region has entered a period of “unhappy twilight.” In fact, the Lechaion church represents just one example of elaborate monumental architecture in the region revealed over the course of the middle decades of the 20th century outside the city of Corinth (and largely, although not exclusively conducted by Greek archaeologists). In this way, interest in the Late Antique city mapped onto the different political and academic agendas pursued by archaeologists with the Americans at Corinth continuing to research the Greek (and Roman) city and the archaeologists in the countryside often working to understand the substantial remains of Late and Post Roman within a different discourse. Archaeologists such as Dimitrios Pallas, for example, sought to locate Early Christian architecture within a continuous tradition of Greek Christianity and, in this context, it less about a twilight of some putative Classical past and more about the emergence of new forms of political, religious, social, and cultural expression both anchored in Classical antiquity and anticipating Medieval and even modern forms of identity. This tension is, of course, bound up in a wide range of commitments that range from the national (or very least broadly political) to the institutional.

Thing the Second

Man, traveling sucks. I spent about four hours in the Athens airport standing in line, sitting in waiting areas, and shuffling amid various crowds of travelers. I was surprised to see the number of American groups in the Athens airport. Most of the groups seemed to be students and there was a palpable excitement surrounding them.

I know it’s not nice to be annoyed by another people’s excitement, but it’s going to take me a while to acclimate to the experience of navigating the traveling public and both ignoring and (whenever possible) avoiding the outward manifestations of other people’s encounters with a new and different world.

On a more positive note, our global COVID sabbatical has certainly made some things more obvious and I wonder whether this will not only require us to re-establish our tolerance for others and consider whether this tolerance is a good thing.

Thing the Third

Now, that I’m back in Cyprus, we have to wrap up the 2022 Polis study season. This involves not only checking the various finds that we’ve catalogued, illustrated, described, and analyzed, as well as going through the massive document that we’ve produced over the last four weeks and figuring out whether all the moving parts work together and make sense.

This is, as you might guess, a pretty miserable task because the best case scenario is that we’re wasting time checking things that don’t need to be checked and worst case scenario triggers frantic work of revision and reassessment. So far, things have been balanced enough not to trigger panic, but also to feel productive. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our work with you next week!

Polis Sights

I’ve been in Cyprus for a couple of weeks now and starting to feel a bit more at home again in the village of Polis.

So I’ve had a chance to get to know this character again:

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I also can’t help thinking that the municipal market in Polis is a bit under utilized. It’s a wonderful and very modern, mid-century space. 

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It opens onto the touristic center of the old village which is distinctly not modern (even if it doesn’t quite feel traditional in a meaningful way).

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Finally, we do a good bit of archaeology here, but it mostly involves spending quality time with sherd.

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We also have continued to collect lovely sunsets.

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Three Things Wednesday: Study Season

This summer’s work at Polis in Cyprus has been a study season. This means that we spend our days in storerooms and at our laptops rather than in trenches or survey units.That said, over the past couple weeks, I got to thinking about our study season and the challenges and opportunities that come from traveling thousands of miles to stare at my laptop and sleep in an uncomfortable bed.

This will be the topic of my non-alliterative three things Wednesday:

Thing the First

Colloquially, archaeologists celebrate study seasons as somehow less intense and rigorous than field work, and this is certainly true on a physical level. I love that I’m not physically exhausted at the end of the day, but for some reason I still find that by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I’m beat.

I’m finding that I’m exerting a huge amount of mental energy on analyzing the results of past field work and putting together our study of finds, notebooks, and various plans. Much of the basic analysis occurred in 2016-2019 and the plan for 2020 was to simple review and finalize it. Over the past two years, we also decided to take work that was destined for a relatively concise (10,000-15,000 word article) and expand it into 30,000 book section. As part of that process, we’re unpacking the reasoning behind small decisions which form the foundations for our arguments. This also prompted us to question our reasoning and review evidence at a highly granular level. In practice this involved reviewing every stratigraphic relationship, checking key artifact identifications and chronologies, and reconsidering the processes that created the site as it was excavated.

What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting this kind of work would be.

Thing the Second

The other challenge that I’m facing this summer is that I went from juggling any number of projects: from teaching, to editing North Dakota Quarterly, doing college and community service, and fussing with various research projects. This kind of diffused attention allowed me to avoid some of the stress associated with burn out. When I got tired of doing one thing, I could switch my attention and do something else. It’s one of the great luxuries of academic life: we have multiple irons in the fire that allow us a range of opportunities and challenges.

Here on study season, I am focused on one thing. I go from being a fox to a hedgehog. And, it turns out, that being a hedgehog is especially exhausting not only because it involves a constantly (and relentless) level of concentration, but also because there are far fewer opportunities for taking a productive break. Even my beloved blog has fallen a bit to the wayside in the face of the insistent need to finish up projects here at Polis.

It never occurred to me that the structure of academia tends to reward foxes, but providing them with plenty of opportunities to recharge in productive ways. Even taking a morning off to catch up on emails or to grade papers is a relief when the alternative is grading or editing. The range of tasks available on a day-to-day basis ensures that even if I work long hours, there is enough diversity to ensure that I don’t get burned out or stuck in a rut.

This is not the case during a study season. Even moment I spend on something that does not require me to be here in Cyprus is a dollar ill spent.

Thing the Third

The biggest challenge facing us this season is “showing our work” and making the arguments, inferences, and conclusions that we have reached as transparent as possible. This means not only being explicit about our interpretations, but also preparing our data for publication. There is a lot of detailed work necessary to produce legible data for publication. Even just connecting various file types to one another (e.g. notebook pages, stratigraphic descriptions, tables associated with the bulk analysis of context pottery, inventoried pottery tables, and so on) is challenging and tedious.

It also requires attention to detail and a certain amount of concentration. More than that, I feel fatigued by our efforts to wade into the kind of fussy morass that archaeological thinking often produces and to bring order to this without obscuring the rough edges.

And maybe it is this kind of work, which involves making critical leaps, tracing inference in the data structure, and, at times, suspending skepticism, that is the most challenging and exhausting during a study season.