Over the last few weeks I’ve been snacking on John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass’s Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site (2017). It’s a big book that is both impressively synthetic and filled with many distinct observations on the distribution of ceramics and survey methodology. The book focuses on work done in the 1980s at the long-lived urban site of Thespiai. Like my own project at Koutsopetria on Cyprus, the intensive pedestrian survey was not designed to locate the site (or small ex-ubran sites in the countryside), but to document the assemblage, distribution, and extent of material at a “complex urban site.” The distributional analysis of the ceramic material from the survey interested me the most, although the book also brings together architectural fragments, epigraphy, Ottoman administrative documents, and ceramic analyses into a series of synthetic histories of the city.
I might venture a more thorough review of the book after I work my way through it all, but, for now, I wanted to record a few observations on chapter 3 which unpacks the distribution of ceramic material across this large urban site. There are five things that piqued my interest in these chapters.
First, the intensive survey around Thespiai was done in the mid-1980s meaning that this project drew upon a kind of legacy data. The authors were particularly up front about the challenges of these datasets, the occasional irregularity of their survey work, and the adaptation of their methods over time. It was a nice reminder that for all the methodological rigor associated with survey and for all the efforts projects make to demonstrate the systematic character of their artifact collection, intensive survey projects both adapt over the course of projects and in response to the landscape. Bintliff and his colleagues occasionally used irregularities to their advantage, such as when they compared an assemblage collected from units that were accidentally resurveyed with that from the original collection to demonstrate that larger assemblages tend to be more diverse.
Second, for many of the survey units Bintliff’s team conducted both standard intensive survey collection at 15 m spacing over units that were around 3000 sq m, as well as more intensive samples over 300 sq m from the same 3000 sq m units. Comparing the assemblages produced by these two different methods demonstrated that the more intensive collection samples did not necessarily produce more chronological information than the less intensive transect walking. This confirms some of the experiments that we ran at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project and the preliminary analysis of our data from the Western Argolid Regional Project.
It was a bit more striking that the density data from both collection methods produced more or less comparable. In my experience, more intensive sampling tended to produce much higher density per hectare than counting visible artifacts while walking units at 10 to 15 m intervals. The similarity in density counts and the distribution produced through the different methods is a remarkable sign that their less intensive methods were appropriately calibrated for the nature of the surface assemblage at this large urban site.
Third, over the last decade, I’ve been fairly concerned with issues of surface visibility in intensive survey. In fact, I’ve tended to think about visibility as having a particularly significant impact on the chronological and functional character of artifact assemblages. I’ve made two arguments for the role of visibility. First, as visibility decreases, assemblages tend to become less chronologically diverse and the most common artifacts, which tend to only date to broad periods, to dominate these assemblage. Second, low visibility units with particularly diverse assemblages likely represent windows into higher artifact density surfaces obscured by vegetation.
Because I’m not particularly interested in overall artifact densities, per se, I’ve been reluctant to correct artifact densities for visibility and, instead, focused on identifying units with anomalous densities or diversity for their surface visibility. Even if I was interested in overall artifact densities, however, I’d probably want whatever correction is applied to them unpacked more explicitly than the authors of this book provide. More than that, Bintliff’s long term interest in hidden landscapes might recommend greater attention to visibility as a key factor in obscuring and revealing periods that tend to be difficult to see on the surface.
Fourth, I was quite intrigued by the authors’ argument that earlier periods might be obscured by later period overburdens across the survey area. On the one hand, this is certainly the case particularly over the span of millennia, with evidence for prehistoric periods hidden, destroyed, or otherwise compromised by later eras that also tend to produce more materially visible marks on the landscape. I do wonder, on the other hand, whether the authors overstated their case a bit for the potential of various historical periods to obscure their earlier historical predecessors. The wide range of natural and human formation processes that shape contemporary landscapes ranging from cut terraces to erosional features, scars associated with historical (and contemporary) excavations, and the local movement of soil to level fields contribute significantly to the complexity to surface assemblages. While I don’t doubt that the area of the ancient city of Thespiai is relatively stable (or at least well understood by the surveyors), I suspect that the relationship between the plow zone and subsurface material is too tricky to make arguments for later overburdens in anything but very well understood situations.
In fact, one thing that I’ve come to appreciate from our soon-to-be-published work at Koutsopetria is how much earlier material finds its way into later buildings. For example, the annex room from the Early Christian basilica at Koutsopetria clearly stands atop a clear earlier Roman horizon, but the walls, the floor and roof collapse, and the erosional overburden across the Late Roman building featured a large quantity of Hellenistic and even earlier Iron Age (and Cypro-Classical) material. We have our doubts whether the area around the Early Christian basilica saw activity in the Iron Age or even Hellenistic period, but the material present in the Late Roman building ensured that the Hellenistic and Classical periods, nevertheless, appeared in the excavation. This led us to suspect that some of the earlier period scatter across the Koutsopetria plain, might well reflect material that entered the plow zone from later buildings. Needless to say, the famous example of the Pyrgouthi tower where a predominantly Hellenistic scatter obscured a significant phase of 7th century re-occuptation springs to mind as well.
The significance for understanding the the relationship between material from various periods also underscores the complexity of defining the extent of the site at any period as well as interpreting the presence of features like cemeteries or ritual activities in the landscape (much less estimating population size based on the size of a site!)
Finally, one thing that I really appreciate from this work is the authors’ willingness to bring to the fore the various archaeologists responsible for producing the assemblages from the site. This extends from the charming story of the “Mad Dogs of Thespaia” to various roles played by two generations of ceramicists who read the material in the 1980s and 1990s and re-examined it in preparation for the book. Intensive survey has, at times, embraced a kind of impersonal style that places quantitative analyses and well presented maps before the work of the individual survey teams and ceramicists who produced the data. On the one hand, this makes sense as the rigorous collection of information from the field and the ceramic assemblages produces datasets designed for quantitative analysis. On the other hand, anyone who has worked on a survey knows that time in the Greek countryside, with sherds, and in the company of other archaeologists can shape the results of a project in ways that the tidy analysis often obscures.
As I work my way through the volume, I’ll likely blog more on this book over the coming weeks. It’s an important and expansive book, so stay tuned!