More Late Antiquity (or at least a start)

For the last week or so, I’ve been trying to get back into the academic groove and thinking about Late Antiquity. I have done some reading and, more importantly, some writing about the 7th century both in Greece and on Cyprus. Mostly, I’m working to get a first draft of a paper documenting and analyzing a 7th century site in the Western Argolid.

Here is the first draft of the first couple paragraphs. It’s rough, lacks citations, and I’m sure it’ll change, but at least it’s going somewhere.

The past two decades have witnessed a major change in how archaeologists understand the Late Roman and Early Medieval landscape of Greece. The rise of survey archaeology in the late-20th century fueled the growing awareness of the “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity. This complemented work in urban areas across Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly demonstrating that Late Roman cities and their countrysides experienced continued prosperity, social vitality, and political and economic significance into the 5th and 6th centuries. For Greece, scholars argued that the Slavic invasions of the late-6th century brought an end to this Late Antique prosperity and initiated a period of economic, political, and social dislocation often called the “Dark Ages.” Over the last 20 years, work at urban and rural sites has started to question this narrative. Work at the site of Corinth, in particular, has shown that the city continued to prosper into the 7th century. Moreover, imported ceramics and storage vessels indicate that Corinth enjoyed persistent connections across the Mediterranean even if these connections appear to be less dynamic and consistent then earlier centuries. At the same time, regional networks in the northeastern Peloponnesus emerged that supplied cooking and utility wares to communities well into the final third of the 7th century. The results from Corinth suggest that the city experienced economic change in the 7th century with fewer imports and a rise in regionally produced vessels, but this change was not the same as decline and indicated continuity with earlier centuries as much as new patters of economic and social relations.

Stratigraphic excavations formed the basis for this revised assessment of the 7th century in Greece. The assemblages produced through excavations at Corinth and at the Pyrgouthi Tower near Berbati in the Argolid, in particular, have helped to revise the dates of earlier excavation across Greece and challenged the assumption that destruction deposits associated with the Slavic invasions should have 6th century dates. Deposits from the Baths at Argos and the Stadium at Nemea, for example, now are better dated to the 7th century than to the later 6th century as their original excavators suggested. This revised chronology has also extended to our analysis of intensive survey assemblages. For example, pushing the date of certain well-know finewares into the late-6th and early-7th century Phocaean Ware 10C and the later forms of African Red Slip (105 and 106) illuminates areas of possible 7th century activity in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey area (Pettegrew 2007, 777; Caraher 2014, 157-158). In other contexts, Chris Cloke’s study of the off-site material from the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project has revealed a 7th century landscape with remarkable continuity with material from the 5th and 6th centuries. This article takes Cloke’s assessment of 7th-century landscape of the Nemea Valley and work at Corinth and considers it in the context of recent work in the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

Diagnostic Ceramics and WARP

One of the nice things about a study season is that there is time to do little studies that can get lost in the bustle of a field season. There’s also time to catch up on some reading that all too easily gets set aside during the academic year.

This week, for example, I spent some time with a recent article by Elizabeth Murphy and collaborators in the most recent JFA (2019) (and here) Since we’re working on a preliminary report for WARP, it was useful to read how another project introduced their work, their methods, and their goals. More specifically, however, Murphy and her collaborators offered some insights into a collection strategy that was markedly different from ours at WARP.  The LASS project in Sardinia counted 19,176 artifacts and collected 1371. In other words, 7.1% of the seen artifacts were diagnostic (7). This likely speaks to the relatively poor state of ceramics knowledge for Sardinia and what defines an artifact as “diagnostic” than any shortcomings of method on the part of the LASS team.

In contrast, WARP had the advantage of working in the general vicinity of a large number of well-know and thoroughly excavated sites (in varying degrees of publication) that helped us expand what we regarded as diagnostic. This also complemented a rather robust sampling strategy which provided us with a large assemblage of material for analysis. Here’s a short study that considers the significance of our collection strategy in the context of ceramic knowledge in the larger WARP region. 

At WARP, over the course of standard transect walking, we counted 119,414 artifacts including sherds, tiles, lithics, and “other”. We collected 64,983 artifacts or 54.4% of all the artifacts seen. This was consistent with a sampling strategy that asked field walkers to collect all visible sherds, but to sample only unique examples of tiles on the basis of fabric and part of the tile (e.g. edge). In the end, we collected 39% of the tiles that we counted. Considering that 78% of the collected tile was either chronologically undiagnostic (what we called “Tile, Ancient Historic”), Modern, or Early Modern, this seems like a good decision.

A cursory statistical review of the collected artifacts likewise demonstrates that a more robust sampling strategy of each survey unit produced archaeologically significant results. While the definition of “diagnostic” pottery is largely in the eye of the field walker and ceramics experts, rims, bases, and handles (RBH) are almost universally recognized as potentially diagnostic and almost always collected. For WARP, these accounted for approximately 10% of the artifacts collected during typical field walking. The remaining 88.9% of the material were body sherds. During revisits to units where we collected more intensively over a more limited area, we produced assemblages that were 87.8% body sherds and 12.2% RBH. This suggests that the sample produced through regular field walking reflected the percentages of material in the plowzone. Interestingly, we also told our teams that they should collect any material from their units that they thought might be diagnostic, but did not fall into a swath, and designate this material as a “Grab” sample. We also designated as “grab” any material from units that we did not survey using our standard survey methods including amid the collapse of Early Modern houses and the overgrown and rocky acropolis of Orneai. These grab samples were 83.6% body sherds. When we filtered out tiles from this assemblages, which produce a large number of body sherds and appeared in an almost continuous carpet across our survey area, the percentages remained more or less the same. For standard survey, 78.9% of our sherds were body sherds, for more intensive resurvey, 81.7%, and for grabs, 77.7%

Of course, most surveys – including LASS – recognize that decorated body sherds are diagnostic. Like most surveys, WARP found that only about 9.3% of our body sherds preserved decoration. Of these decorated sherds, about 45% of them could be dated to a period more narrow than 1000 years. What’s more remarkable, however, is that of the 90% of our body sherds that lacked decoration, 33% of these sherds could also be dated to a narrow period on the basis of preserved shape or fabric. For grab samples, which are by definition more diagnostic, our ability to data undecorated pottery to less than 1000 years improves to 67.1% which is not far from the 72.6% for decorated sherds.

For some periods, like EHIII, Classical-Hellenistic, Hellenistic, and Roman and Late Roman, undecorated body sherds far outnumber decorated body sherds. As a result, a collection strategy that overlooked these sherds would have significantly biased our view of the landscape.

Settlement in Byzantine Greece

As this semester is winding down, I’m drifting toward a kind of “read everything” mode that is as fun as it is rather unproductive and unfocused. First on the list was Athanasios Vionis, “Understanding Settlement in Byzantine Greece: New Data and Approaches for Boeotia, Sixth to Thirteenth Century,” DOP 71 (2017), 127-173. It’s massive and insightful and humbling to anyone who has thought about the historical Greek landscape in a diachronic way. 

Vionis tracks the change in settlement structure across in the Medieval period in Boeotia drawing largely on survey data, ceramic study, and GIS analysis produced over the course of the various surveys in Boeotia. In some ways, this work is an extension of his interest in using “central place theory” to understand the transformation of the Mediterranean landscape over the Longue Durée, and, in other ways, it demonstrates continuity with John Bintliff’s longstanding interest in structural change over time in the Greek landscape.

For the Late Roman period in Boeotia, Vionis described the transformation of the major urban centers and the emergence of a new, monumental landscape centered on newly-constructed churches in the 6th century. It’s interesting that in Boeotia, as elsewhere, these churches stood in prominent positions in the settlements and often disrupted or violated the existing urban grid. In Corinth, however, churches tended to stand around the periphery of the settlement despite the historical and institutional significance of the bishop of that city (although, to be fair, there might be a large church closer to the ancient city center which is obscured today by the modern village). Likewise, in Argos, which features numerous Early Christian basilicas, none appear to encroach on the core of the Roman city with its agora, theater, and bath, but several stand in the in close proximity and one stands atop the Aspis hill with its ancient sanctuary. These alternate examples are not meant to suggest that Vionis is wrong or overstates his observations, but wonder out loud at the variety of monumentalizing strategies undertaken by the institutional church and Christian communities in Greece.  

Vionis also adds new vocabulary to the analysis of the Late Roman landscape in Boeotia and describes the rise of rural “microtowns” at the end of antiquity (in the late 7th century) and the consolidation of “megavillages” in the Middle Byzantine period. These microtowns continued some basic civic functions of Late Roman cities, including the presence of bishops, commercial activity, and fortifications, and often stood on or near the sites of ancient cities. They were distinct from smaller, unfortified settlements in the countryside that stood as “secondary settlements” and depended in some way on regional microtowns. Thus, a new settlement hierarchy emerged in the early Middle Ages. By the middle Byzantine period, the megavillage served as the central place for communities distributed into smaller settlements and farms in the countryside. Once again, Vionis presents the organization of the Boeotian countryside in hierarchical terms with the central places representing religious, political, and economic nodes for the surrounding region. 

There are three things that give me a bit of pause in this article (and I’ve only scratched the surface of it with my idiosyncratic mini-review), and they probably reflect more of my own interests at present than any weakness in the article.

First, I wonder how our ability to control chronology and, by extension, time shapes the kind of landscapes that Vionis envisions. For example, there’s a tendency to see rural sites like farms or hamlets, which are often recognized and defined on the basis of rather small and limited assemblages of material, as being contemporary with one another. At the same time, because their ceramic assemblages are so limited, it is possible that, say, from a group of five rural sites datable to one or two centuries, only one existed at any given time or maybe all five did for just a very limited span or two of the five did for one 50-year span. On the one hand, we might say that this is an intractable problem because of the imprecision of archaeological dating practices and the variability of site discovery in the landscape. As a result, we make the assumption that all of the sites visible for a period existed simultaneously and that this might compensate for the vagaries of site recovery across the landscape. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this kind of methodological compromise makes the larger project of making settlement hierarchies less viable in general.

This leads me to my second observation. Myrtou Veikou’s work in Epirus which covered a similar period proposed the existence of an emerging kind of Byzantine “third space” during the period that Vionis’s studied. The concept of third space came from the post-colonial theories of Homi Bhabha and was applied to geography by the late Edward Soja. These spaces existed explicitly outside of the kinds of hierarchies that Vionis presents and represented all together less stable entities which resist classification. These places are more dynamic over time and do not map neatly onto either concepts like the rural or the urban or institutional structures like bishops, civic officials, or markets. The uncertainty and ambiguity of these places in the landscape resists our more structural efforts to define the function, scale, or relationship between settlements which can be demoralizing for scholars who work to understand Byzantine space at scale. At the same time, the notion of third-space also allows us to adapt our landscapes to the chronological ambiguity of archaeological data practically when it is collected through different methods and practices as well as at different scales and resolutions. The ambiguity of the Byzantine third space reflects the kind of data at our disposal and normalizes the fuzzy and sometimes contradictory results of our analysis.

These more dynamic spaces within the landscape also imply movement at various scales. Vionis’s work does a nice job at understanding the slow shift of settlements as they contract, reform, and reconceptualize across Boeotia. I’d be intrigued to understand how these shifts represent the flow of people, wealth, goods, and resources through the area. Vionis’s attention to walking distances from central places as a way to understand the scope of agricultural productive area in the vicinity of settlement is useful. It prompted me to think about the cultural, political, environmental, and economic variables that might shape these models for understanding movement in the countryside. For example, the decision to cultivate fields beyond a two or three hour walking distance from home or a settlement might represent the results of exogamous marriage, forms of risk management, environmental strategies, or even acts of religious piety or efforts to develop social capital. Moreover, a range of strategies in the countryside might also reflect the movement of individuals to local pilgrimage sites, visits to relatives who live in settlements that do not map onto the local hierarchical nodes, or even economic forays into new markets, new resources, or to take advantage of variability in the political landscape. Obviously it is impossible to anticipate all potential forms of fluidity in the Early and Middle Byzantine landscape, but it would be interesting to think about how the notion of settlement hierarchies intersects with Horden and Purcell’s more dynamic notion of microregions and connectivity as defining the Mediterranean world.

These comments should not be regarded as criticism of Vionis’s work, of course. It reflects both careful attention to the nature of evidence from Boeotia as well as a deep understanding of Byzantine social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical organization and history. His work, however, has prompted me to think about our efforts to understand the space and settlement of both the Western Argolid and on Cyprus during these same periods. It’s a good way to start looking ahead to my summer study seasons and some walks in the Greek and Cypriot landscape.

Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia

Last week I worked my way through John Haldon, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, Archaeology and Urban Settlement in Late Roman and Byzantine Anatolia: Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü and its Environment (Cambridge 2018) in preparation for my annual trek to the Eastern Mediterranean for field work. As the major field seasons for the survey phase of the Western Argolid Regional Project have concluded, we have begun to think more about what we need to do to publish our results. While I have tended to focus on the sherds on the ground (and in the project’s GIS), Haldon et al. reminded me that there was much more than just field data to producing a significant regional study. 

I don’t really write reviews here, but here are four or five thoughts on the book:

1. Low Density and Limited Collection. The area around Euchaïta-Avkat-Beyözü produced very few sherds and even fewer that were diagnostic. Moreover, they could only collect sherds from the Roman period and later, and this created a particularly challenging relationship between their study assemblages and the distribution of material on the ground. James Newhard’s clever methods for smoothing ceramic densities over different sized units, different surface conditions, and different visibilities provided a foundation for interpreting the assemblages collected and studied from the survey area. 

A bit less clear was the relationship between these artifact densities and the kinds of sites that the project asserted existed in the landscape. It was a bit hard to understand the difference between an independent structure, house, farmstead, and watchtower, for example, in the text itself, but the detailed discussion of these functional categories appeared in a later appendix. I’m still not entirely sold on this method of creating sites, but there is something compelling about the complexity of the historical, landscape, and archaeological variables considered in site definition.    

2. Climate and the Environment. I tend to look at the surface and artifacts when I think about archaeology. In a pinch, I’ll think about a building or a strata. I rarely step far enough away from the artifactual landscape to think clearly about the environment and climate as important factors in understanding how people in the past lived in their world. This is obviously a blind spot in my research focus, and as I extend my interests into more recent periods, the pressing realities of climate change, for example, and our adaptation to the changing environment in the last 50 years, has nudged me to expand how I think about the archaeological universes that I study.

Archaeology and Urban Settlement demonstrated the potential of a careful study of the ancient environment at a regional scale for understanding the development of settlement, agriculture, and land use in their region. Interestingly, their study area had rather few opportunities for sampling pollen or other scientific approaches to studying paleoenvironmental variable. Nevertheless, the team was able to draw one evidence from Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern texts as well as modern agricultural and climate date to model the ancient environment in useful ways. They demonstrated that the landscape around Avkat was not unproductive, but as relatively marginal in antiquity as it was in the 21st century with most communities surviving on the cultivation of cereals and pastoralism. Climate change appears to be just one of the variable that shaped changes in agricultural practice, settlement and life in the area. 

3. Roads and Routes. In the Western Argolid, we think constantly about roads and routes through our survey area. In fact, travel through the Inachos valley and its relationship both to neighboring Arcadia and Corinthia as well as the Argive plain to the east, was part of the original plan for the survey project from the onset. So far, we’ve written a few papers that attempted to understand settlement and movement in our landscape and have thought about the relationship between water, routes, bridges, and churches. In general, we have not used least-cost path kinds of analysis, in part because we have some ethnographic and archaeological information on movement through the valley, and in part, because the flat or gently sloping Inachos River valley bottom exerts a strong pull on any path through the area. As a result, we’ve leaned a bit more heavily on cultural factors on movement through the valley, and considered the ways and reasons for which known routes defy least-cost expectations to avoid crops and fields, to follow the line of an aqueduct, or to pass close or far from settlements.

 Archaeology and Urban Settlement does a nice job integrating historical and topographic information into mapping movement in their survey area. This not only provides context for the relationship between sites and routes, but also demonstrates the tension between persistent major routes that shaped the significance of major settlements in the region and the dynamism of smaller routes that linked settlements to their fields or rural sites to other rural sites. While such temporal variability across the landscape is hardly surprising, it is worth noting the trans regional movement on major routes likely represented a less common and regular kind of movement in a landscape. The permeability of the countryside, in contrast, might have reflected myriad, changing smaller routes that accommodated more regular traffic on a daily basis. 

4. Foodways and Ceramics. One of the more intriguing sections of the volume was Joanita Vroom’s chapter of Byzantine foodways and ceramics. Because the local ceramic typologies were relatively poorly know, it was rather difficult to identify and date the surface assemblages. Rather than create an unmoored typology or speculate too wildly on potential economic or social links between the ceramics present in the survey area and potential production sites, Vroom focused on the evidence for Byzantine foodways in the region. By compiling evidence for food, trade, and the related vessels need to provide sustenance to communities who lived in the region.

On the one hand, there is little that is specifically related to the region around Avkat, but, on the other hand, her chapter continued her effort to redefine the study of ceramics from the vessels themselves to their role in the everyday life of Late Roman and Byzantine communities. When this attention to foodways intersects with routes through the area, paleoclimate studies, and agricultural history and ethnoarchaeology, and, of course, excavated and survey ceramics, I can imagine an opportunity to connect the broadly general with the individual at the scale of the landscape, and this is an exciting proposition. 

5. Publishing Data. One particularly intriguing element of the book is that most of the maps and many images were published digitally via Open Context rather than printed in the book itself. This is useful for the digital book, where, if you’re on wifi, the image is just a click away. I was reading on my iPad, on a flight, so I lost a bit of that convenience, but back at my laptop everything worked fine. I imagine that for a reader of the paper book, this would be a bit more inconvenient. 

More promising still is the prospect that the project will publish its full datasets on Open Context in the future.  

 

Sometimes Survey Makes Sense: A View from Chelmis

The formation processes that produce the surface context studied through intensive pedestrian survey are really annoying. They hide things that you know MUST be there (like Late Roman material on a prominent coastal height overlooking a Roman to Late Roman settlement). They make visible things that have no rational explanation (like the famous one sherd of Classical black-slipped pottery on a lonesome hillside). Various formation processes scramble and smear and move and interrupt and complicate assemblages across the landscape and force survey archaeologists to keep stepping back and back and back until the picture comes into a kind of blurry focus. Outliers are noted, but major patterns become the basis for analysis.

This past week, I’ve been working on an article with Grace Erny on the houses of Chelmis in the Argolid which we are study as part of the Western Argolid Regional Proect. Grace is going to give a paper on our preliminary results at the annual Archaeological Institute of America meeting next week (check out a list of all the WARP papers here). These are “Early Modern” to “Modern” period houses around which we conducted intensive survey in 2016. To get a sense for the impact of the houses on the distribution of artifacts in their immediate vicinity, we did 10 m of very intensive documentation counting all the roof tiles, ceramic artifacts, and other objects around the houses. We grouped our survey into three units on each side: one of 2 m in width walked by a single walker and two of 4 m in width walked by 2 walks. These units produced largely consistent patter of a 65% percent drop off between the 2 m unit and the first 4 meter unit and then a 25% drop off between the first and the second 4 m unit.

Chelmis4Blog

Not every house produced this distribution, but it was consistent enough both at Chelmis and at the two other sites where we conducted intensive survey to qualify as a pattern. And this is worthy of note in a universe where the trickeration of formation processes often makes any small scale patterning of artifact densities in the landscape either rare or suspect.

Hoping that all your survey assemblages pattern predictably in the new year! 

Siteless Survey and Artifact Densities

This week, I’m continuing to work on producing a preliminary report for the Western Argolid Regional Project. One of the particular challenges in writing a report is the tension between the granularity of our survey data and the size and complexity of our survey area. As a project committed to conducting siteless, “artifact-level” survey, field walkers spaced 10 m apart collected all artifacts visible on the surface from their 2 m wide swaths. These artifacts were all analyzed and given a chronological range, a functional category, and, whenever possible, a place within existing artifact typologies. At the same time, we also counted each visible artifact using a clicker counter allowing us to have an almost instant assessment of the quantity of sherds present in each walker’s swath and each unit. We recorded this data, along with basic environmental data collected from each unit, on a survey form that we then entered into the project database and projected into our project’s GIS.

In a traditional intensive survey, artifact densities serve as an indicator of sites in the landscape. These projects then documented these sites with a different level of intensity usually through gridded collection or some other more spatially rigorous sampling strategy. This allowed survey projects to distinguish the assemblages produced by these “on site” practices from those produced by “off site” survey practices which generally involve larger transects and less intensive sampling regimens.

Artifact level survey, in contrast, tends to emphasize a consistent method for sampling the landscape, in part, because they recognize the complexities of site formation in the landscape and approach any definition of a site with skepticism. In fact, my colleagues and I argued over a decade ago that many sites in the Corinthian represented the complex interplay of assemblages from multiple periods rather than a single “multi-period” site with recognizable continuity in activity. In this context, then, overall artifact densities offer only the coarsest indication of activity in the landscape or, worse, are illusory when they occur only when the edges of unrelated, narrow-period scatters overlap. A growing awareness of geomorphological and geological processes, varying levels of artifact visibility, and changing vegetation, the presence of background disturbances and the character of the surface clast, further complicate any argument that high density sites produce meaning in the landscape. 

As this approach to intensive survey fundamentally questions the value of artifact densities as the basis for the historical analysis fo the landscape, are artifact densities meaningful in siteless survey? 

As I work on the WARP preliminary report, I argue that they are for three reasons. First, artifact densities do provide a measure of artifact recovery rates from a particular unit especially when combined with surface conditions like visibility. A unit that produces a high artifact densities in relation to visibility is probably a unit with a significant quantity of material obscured by the independent vagaries of surface conditions. Knowing this kind of information, for example, allows us to consider more carefully issues like the extent and continuity of an artifact scatter datable to a particular period. While we may not be able to control for all the site formation processes that shape a context as complex as the surface, we can sometimes control for the variables that impact artifact recovery from the plowzone.

The second advantage of collecting density data for intensive survey is that it provides a context to measure the diversity of the assemblage present in a unit. We recognized in studying data from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey that the chronological and functional diversity of an assemblage tends to increase with artifact densities. In other words, we had very few examples of units where a single period – or even artifact type (think: modern tiles) – increased artifact densities in a significant way. We then applied this realization to lower density units that often result from compromised surface visibility or other conditions. In these contexts, we discovered that some units with low artifact density tend to produce more diverse assemblages than others. These high diversity, low density units may provide windows into more complex scatters that the vagaries of surface conditions and site formation obscured. 

Finally, artifact densities do provide insights into large-scale, diachronic patterns in the landscape. Diachronic intensively survey has some chronological challenges in that artifact level survey tends to push us to fragment the landscape into the finest periods possible. In some cases, these periods are quite narrow (final decades of the 4th century) and in other cases quite broad (Medieval or Classical-Roman).  The broadest and narrowest periods create some challenges of commensurability as they tend to produce vastly different meanings in the landscape. A narrowly dated artifact, for example, might well represent a particular activity – such as a funeral practices or household activities – whereas a broadly dated artifact tend to represent broader and more persistently uniform functional categories: storage or roofing. Understanding the relationship, then, between landscapes defined by narrower chronological (and usually functional) categories and and those defined by more broad categories is difficult and always risks stripping from countryside the temporal aspect of persistent activities while pocking it with episodic behaviors tied closely to more precisely datable artifacts. Total artifact densities offer a big picture way to see human activity in all its complexity and consistency across the landscape. These densities must, of course, be read critically and contextually, but that’s true of all archaeological evidence.

 

 

Writing WARP Wednesday

Over the last week or so I’ve been working on writing a draft of the preliminary report from the Western Argolid Regional Project. Yesterday, I returned to one of the more interesting issues facing intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean: the matter of intensity.

WARP was a siteless survey and we took this quite literally. We did not return to sites after our initial survey to conduct more intensive investigations or gridded collections. In fact, we tended not to talk about sites at all (outside of the commonplace naming convention associated with particular known ancient places in our landscape, like the walls of the polis of Orneai) and assumed that high density scatters in the landscape could as easily represent a single period as the overlap of a number of periods through time. (Our experience in the Eastern Korinthia had suggested that many areas of high artifact density in the landscape reflected the overlap of single period scatters that may or may not be contiguous.)

This being said, we did recognize that more intensive practices – such as total collection or intensive sampling across small grid squares or other forms of “hoovering” – produced more robust assemblages of material. We experimented a bit with this on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeologcial Project and while our results are very, very boring to read, they demonstrate that careful collection with our noses to the ground produced artifact densities that we much higher than traditional field walking. At the same time, the uniformity of the assemblage at Pyla-Koutsopetria ensured that more intensive collection strategies did not produce a more diverse assemblage. In other words, on PKAP, where our assemblage was pretty uniform, doing more intensive artifact collection did not yield more nuanced results.

In the Western Argolid, the situation is a bit different. The survey area is larger and encompasses a generally wider range of environmental conditions. Moreover, our artifact scatters across the survey area tend to reflect more complex and varied historical processes than we found at our “large site survey” on Cyprus. As a result, it seemed like a good place to run another series of experiments to see whether more intensive collection strategies produced different kinds of assemblages across the survey area. In particular, we were interested in seeing whether more intensive collection strategies revealed the presence of “hidden landscapes” consisting of pottery that tends to be overlooked during traditional survey field walking.

To do this, we set down slightly over 100 2m radius total collection circles across our survey area. These resurvey units fell within our existing units and we intended to use them to compare the resurvey assemblages to the assemblages produced by traditional intensive survey.

This proved pretty challenging for a number of reasons. Some involved research design. Our resurvey units were total collection circles with a 2 m radius (i.e. 12.57 sq m) and we typically did two per unit for about a 1% sample of the survey units which averaged about 2500 sq m. This sample could then be compared to the must larger, but less intensive ~10%-20% sample collected using typical survey procedures of field walkers spaced at 10 m intervals looking 1 m to each side. This comparison, of course, isn’t all that great. First, we recognize variation in the surface assemblage across the unit so it makes sense that our resurvey circle may well capture an assemblage with a different character than the assemblage produced by field walking. Ideally, they two assemblages are similar in some way, but some variation is likely to reflect that, short of total collection of the entire survey area, surface sampling is not designed to discover an example of every kind of sherd present in every survey unit, but a representative sample of the area generally. More than that, there was a general tendency to locate the resurvey circles in areas with higher visibility than the average visibility across the survey unit in general shifting slightly the recovery conditions for material.

That being said, our preliminary analysis of the material has produced some other challenges as well. First, it’s very difficult compare complex assemblages. We have remarkable ceramicists who are capable of defining pottery in very granular ways both in terms of typology and chronology. This granularity makes it difficult to compare two assemblages because the variation inherent in how we analyze ceramic artifacts. For example when I compared the resurvey and the survey assemblages this past summer, the vast majority of assemblages showed little chronological overlap based on the specific periods assigned to each chronotype. On the one hand, this meant that our resurvey circles were producing different kinds of chronological information from the larger survey units in which they were situated, but, on the other hand, this chronological need not result in substantively more knowledge about the artifact scatter. An artifact datable to the “Late Hellenistic to Early Roman” period is different from a “Hellenistic to Early Roman” artifact, to be sure, but this kind of granularity is as likely to represent the irregular distribution of chronological knowledge across a typology than it is to represent a general pattern of artifact dates that would influence the identification of the function of the site, for example. (I.e. some kinds of pottery, say fine ware, can be dated more specifically than other kinds of pottery.)  

It is worth noting, however, that in general, standard survey units produced more artifacts with narrower chronologies than the resurvey units did. While this, in and of itself, is not meaningful (as, for example, prehistoric pottery dated quite specifically still tends to have wide chronological ranges than historical period pottery), it suggests that our standard survey practices produced assemblages that were susceptible to chronological analysis that are at least comparable and perhaps more fine grained than our total collection circles.   

To mitigate this, I started to generalize the chronological categories a bit, grouping the finely honed chronology offered by our ceramicists into “Prehistoric,” “Greek,” “Roman,” “Greek/Roman,” “Medieval,” “Modern,” and “General” for artifacts only dated to broad spans of time. This aggregation, predictably, made the comparison between our two assemblages easier. For example, it showed that over half of the assemblages produced pottery of broadly the same date. Moreover, it allowed us to observe that the smaller the assemblage the less likely overlap occurs. In other words, our smallest assemblages from either standard survey or resurvey were not just producing worn, undiagnostic pottery that we tend to aggregate into more general chronological categories, but that they also produced variation. 

It also gave us a way to see if the resurvey units had any particularly telling trends. It appears, however, that the resurvey units did not yield, as a general pattern, assemblages that could be dated to narrower periods than their standard survey collections. This tells us that our more intensive collection circles are not producing more narrowly datable pottery in general, but not necessarily that they don’t produce pottery datable to particular narrow date ranges.   As an example, the only the resurvey assemblages produced any examples of Final Neolithic and FN-Early Helladic I in those units that we resurveyed. Other units in the survey area, of course, produced material from those periods.  

 

 

 

 

Writing the Western Argolid

Over the last few days, I’ve been working on a preliminary report for the Western Argolid Regional Project. I mentioned on Monday how writing a preliminary report is always a bit of a fraught exercise, but when actually writing, it is easy enough to put that out of your head and focus on the words on the page.

As part of writing the report, I re-read some of the rather scant ancient sources on our survey area. Pausanias 2.25.4-6 discusses our survey area specifically and twice he notes that there isn’t much to see. In general, Pausanias sees the Inachos valley as an extension of Argive territory and a route between Argos and the neighboring city of Mantinea in Arcadia. This same lack of interest shaped how 19th century travelers treated the region with none that I have encountered venturing beyond the Venetian (?) period fort at the site of Skala where the Inachos valley widens out onto the Argive plain. 

Later scholars – namely Kendrick Pritchett – attempted to reconcile Pausanias’s description of the site of Lyrkeia being 60 stades from Argos and Orneai being 60 stades from Lyrkeia. This involved him poking around the sites of Melissi where the French excavated some Mycenaean chamber tombs in the early 20th century and Chelmis, where there is a substantial scatter of Classical period material around a church dedicated to the Panayia. Since Pausanias’s notes that Lyrkeia was in ruins by his day and suggested that it was destroyed before the Trojan War, and hence, was left out of the the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, Pritchett is content to identify it with something in the vicinity of the Melissi tombs rather than in the neighborhood of Chelmis. More than that, he suggested that Chelmis does not seem to be on a major route through the area so seemed to be an unlike stop for Pausanias who seemed mostly concerned with sites along the Inachos river bottom. Greek scholars, Ioannis Pikoulas and Ioannis Peppas, have explored the region a bit more thoroughly but also tend to follow the routes along the valley bottom that Pausanias’s traced in his sojourns from Argos.

The entire effect of the tradition from antiquity to modern times is that this region is peripheral to Argos and a mostly a travel corridor from the Argive plain to points west and north. Our project essentially tested this hypothesis both by exploring intensively the valley bottom and surrounding region to determine whether Pausanias’s somewhat laconic description was justified, and by considering the region in its own right to understand whether networks of settlement and movement functioned independently of the “central places” of the Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern world.

As a hint, we have found some evidence that this was, indeed, the case and the Pausanian landscape suffered from his general (and well-documented) lack of interest in post-Classical sites, but also the tendency of central places and their political and economic networks to overwrite and obscure patterns of settlement and movement in the landscape that reflect decentralized and more local traditions. As Tom Gallant noted 25 years ago, these decentralized networks of relations supported a kind of social insurance for communities by allowing them to diversify the risk that came with overly strong ties to central places. While these networks are pretty hard to see in archaeology, there are signs that they exist throughout our survey area and not only help us understand the presence of sites that don’t conform to the Pausanian itinerary but also reflect a dynamic countryside that was more than simply the productive coda to the consumer city.

Lakka Skoutara and Abandonment: PrePrint with Pictures

Over almost 15 years, David Pettegrew and I have been revisiting the rural settlement of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and documenting the changes. At first, our interest was to document site formation processes at the site and observe how abandoned buildings and houses fell down over time.

Figure 8 house7 image20 2009 d263338a90

After only one or two visits, however, we discovered that these houses were not simply left alone to collapse in the Greek countryside, but continued to be centers of a wide range of rural activities. For example, several of the houses lost their ceramic tile roofs during over the past 15 years, and others have seen regular maintenance and, in at least one case, expansion. As a result, our research shifted from a rather abstract (and naive) view of this settlement as a case study for site formation to a more dynamic and complex project designed to document the material engagement with the Greek countryside over a period of 15 years.

While it goes without saying that the history of rural Greece continues to attract attention from anthropologists, historians, geographers, as well as local antiquarians, there has been relatively less formal and systematic archaeological study of 20th century rural sites. Our work at Lakka Skoutara is not entirely unique, but it makes a useful contribution to the small number 20th century rural sites that have received systematic and sustained archaeological study in Greece.

You can download a draft of our paper here. Or read about our most recent visit to the site here.

Boeotia Project, Volume 2: The City of Thespiai

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!