More on Lolos’s Sikyon and Regional Scale Archaeology

The arrival of the Journal of Roman Archaeology – by mail no less – is one of the highlights of my year. I was very excited to see an extensive review of Y. Lolos’s Land of Sikyon: The Archaeology and History of a Greek City State. (2015) by long-time colleague in Corinthian archaeology, Joe Rife.  It’s “Surveying Sikyon from the State to the Land,” JRA 29 (2016), 864-874.

(As an aside, it’s one of two reviews of recent work on Sicyon (the other being a review by K. Slane of Conor Trainor’s The Ceramics Industry of Roman Sicyon (2015)) and this reflects the quantity and quality of work being done in the northeast Peloponnesus. In fact, it shocked me that there were two books on Sikyon and no books reviewed on Roman Cyprus.)

Joe is smarter and better scholar I am, and his review is smarter and more expansive than mine. The review not only deals with the book in detail, but addresses the larger issue of how to think about regional level archaeological projects. Rife points out that while Lolos’s work is carefully considered and reasoned (which it is!), he, nevertheless, tends to view the territory of the city of Sikyon as a persistent lens for social, political, and economic analysis. While the Lolos’s focus on the Sikyonian chora was undoubtedly appropriate for the pre-Roman era, Rife rightly asks if such “state-bound” approaches are optimal for regional level studies. The association of places with say the defensive needs of the state implies that existence and persistence of boundaries though time.

Likewise, Rife is skeptical of the stability of roads through the landscape which also shaped Lolos’s interpretation and is reflected in the thorough studies of his mentors Y. Pikoulas and W. K. Pritchett. Rife’s view of a “land-bound” approach to regional work would account for the shifting routes of roads across territory and decouple long-term settlement patterns from the more ephemeral pattern of routes through a territory.

Rife’s review also comments on the challenges of narrating a regional level archaeological project. The tension between a narrative confined artificially at times by archaeological, practical, and political boundaries. As he states, there is a need “to balance readability and referability.” Digital publication of the maps and maybe, in the future, the data could open Lolos’s careful documentation to new forms of scholarly attention and analysis. 

None of these observations are new, of course, but Rife’s review offers them in a compact and specific way and in clear reference to a well-done and thorough survey.

Three Years of WARP

As the last field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP) winds down this week, I got to thinking about what I’ve learned working with a remarkable group of graduate students and friends. While it’s impossible to compare archaeological projects, I can honestly say that this one provided me with an advance course on archaeological work. I was largely free from thinking about logistics, budgets, or even meals, and could think about 90% of my time about archaeology.

I got to see some remarkable sites, think expansively about our 30 sq km survey area, take in some amazing views, and play with an impressive dataset. We have years of work ahead of us to understand our field work. 

At the same time, I think I’ve learned some things about archaeological projects over the past three years. Most of these observations are personal (and not entirely professional), and speak to my interest in the personal mechanics and procedures at the core of archaeological work more than formal methods.  

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1. People Power. On both of my major archaeological field projects, we had great team leaders and trench supervisors. Over the course of three or four field seasons, these graduate students became increasingly autonomous in the field. During the most recent season on WARP, our team leaders more or less ran the day-to-day field program. The directors would provide big picture ideas of how to approach various goals and the team leaders would then organize the teams and take them to various areas and offer quick reports at the end of the field day. They’ve increasingly taken ownership of the data that they collect and their approach to our larger field program and with any luck this ownership will extend through the analysis, writing, and publication process.

The other thing I learned on WARP is that nothing makes up for people power. On WARP we had 6 field teams with 5 teams in the field at once and this allowed us to churn out about .3 sq km per day. No improvements in efficiency – using technology or other Taylorist methods – makes up for simply using more people in the field. More people allows us to do more work. Archaeological work is still a matter of person power and the more survey teams in the field, the more gets done.

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2. Communication.  One thing that I know I need to improve is my ability to communicate consistently and clearly with our team leaders, my colleagues, and our students. On the one hand, we tried hard to communicate the big picture to our students and team leaders. We did a series of lectures at the start of the season and interaction in the field. The problem, as always, is that the big picture is always changing and as parts of the landscape start to “make sense,” we end up reformulating hypotheses and shifting our priorities appropriately. Communicating this on the fly is a challenge and even more challenging to communicate across six field teams and their field walkers.

It was also challenging to keep lines of communication open between the folks working in the apotheke and in the field. While this year, they managed (remarkably) to more or less keep pace with the field teams so we had a pretty decent idea what we were finding and where. But there was always a bit of lag between weekly plans and daily discoveries so that teams often found themselves just a bit out of sync.

Finally, there is a balance between overwhelming team leaders with daily meetings (and impinging on their already limited free time) and having meaningful conversations on a regular basis as to the plans and logistics of a project. At the same time, we had to balance conflicting levels of commitment to the project, different research interests, and daily personnel changes.

3. Structuring my Days. I am a creature of routine and my routine helps me to anticipate how long things will take and how much energy things will require. In other words, structure dictates my productivity in a very straight forward way. I got up around 5 am to do email and blog, and then fieldwork runs from 6:30 AM to around 12:30 or 1 pm. After lunch and a short nap, I spend some time on data management, my notes, and planning the next field day. 

Structuring my day became all the more important because for the first time in my archaeological career, however, I had to divide my attention between long-term academic (writing, publishing, thinking) projects and my daily fieldwork regimen. Fortunately, my colleagues here on WARP made it easy for me to structure my afternoons out of the sun so I could focus on my myriad little projects and responsibilities that do not vanish when I get into the field. My daily schedule is the key.

4. Pacing and Patience. I’m impatient. I want all the data, all the knowledge, all the field work, and all the features, sherds, and places at once. Of course, archaeology doesn’t work like that. Archaeologists must be patient, stay focused on a method, and record diligently, and for the most part I do that. But it takes a massive effort on my part to reinforce our methods in the field, to stick to a plan, and to communicate this plan effectively to our students and team leaders. Archaeology takes time.

Pacing then becomes a really important part of field work, because it ensures that our patience can keep up with our work. We’ve been fortunate the last two seasons to have a running start. We tend to work long days in the first two or three weeks of the season and then let our foot off the gas in the last two weeks or so. For example, we leave the field a bit earlier and I tend to take a day off per week to recover and process data. This means that as the project develops and as we have more data from the field, we have more time to process, organized, and analyze the data coming out of the field. 

This isn’t to say that we’re not exhausted at the end of the season, but that our pace has ensured that our patience was exhausted at the same point the we accomplished our research plan for the field season. 

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5. The Archaeological Body. I’ve blogged a bit about how archaeological work – especially intensive pedestrian survey – punishes the body. Archaeology does more than simply exhaust the body, but the entire process of archaeological work exerts a tremendous force upon our person. Our schedules become dictated by the demands of archaeological work on our bodies. Physical fatigue influences our patience, frustration levels, attention to detail, and our ability to concentrate, and this, in turn, shapes how we document the landscape.

In a more productive way, our body in the landscape becomes a way of understand scale and movement through space. Gentle slopes on maps become steep climbs in the field. Densely vegetated hill slopes give way to easy paths. Points on the map maybe closer than they appear or much further apart depending upon the ease of movement through the landscape.

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The First Days of the Western Argolid Regional Project 2016

Today was the first full field day of the final full field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP). It was immeasurably better than the first full day of the project last year and probably a bit better than our first field day in 2014.

While we still have some open plains around the Inachos river, for this season, our survey area is a striking mix of narrow valleys and steep hill slopes. 

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Oranges, apricots, olives, peaches, vineyards, and the occasional pomegranate trees, planted in neat rows organize our survey units.

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More than any other year, we’ll have to contend with the early modern and modern landscape.

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So think of us as we stagger to our cars at 6:30 in the morning.

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The Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in Review

After a couple of days at the AIA annual meeting in San Francisco, I started to wonder whether archaeologists should only be allowed to go to the meeting once every two or three years. This is not meant as a criticism to those there or the bustle of the conference (or the need for structured and unstructured opportunities to interact), but as a way to observe that changes in the field are thrown into high relief after taking a few years aways from the conference.

Here are a few observations:

1. Late Antiquity. When I first started to attend the AIA, panels on Late Antiquity were shoved unceremoniously into the Saturday or Sunday morning sessions, safely sequestered from the proper business of Classical archaeology. Over the past few years, however, Late Antiquity panels have migrated to the grown-up table, and this year, a panel on Greece in Late Antiquity happened at 8 am on Friday, prime time for the conference. 

The panel was a nice blend of senior scholars and new comers and established projects and new field work. The focus was on ceramics (3 papers) and to a lesser extent architecture (2 papers) and skewed later, into 6th and 7th century (4 papers) abandoning to some extent the 4th and 5th century sweet-spot favored by earlier scholars of this era. Three of the papers featured explicitly quantitative analysis, and two of the paper drew upon recent field work: a survey and an excavation. 

While 5 papers are hardly a representative sample of the work in Late Antiquity, the distribution of papers in this panel offers vague confirmation to my gut feeling that Late Antiquitists are working on later period and more fixated on ceramics than ever before.

2. Survey Archaeology. Like Late Antiquity, it wasn’t very long ago when you’d expect someone to stand up at any panel on survey archaeology and ask whether we could really base any arguments on material found on the surface. Those days have passed, it would seem (whether we have resolved the underlying issues associated with survey archaeology and formation processes or not) and the panel at this year’s AIA drew a standing room only crowd.

The papers were good, and projects appeared sound. None of the paper appear to genuinely embrace an analysis based on siteless survey, and in almost all cases preferred to talk about the landscape as a series of sites with distinct functions. At the same time, none of the paper really talked about any sites smaller than the ambiguous “settlement.” I don’t recall any farmsteads, sanctuaries, or site functions defined by size. There was also very little discussion of method.

3. Abandonment. I enjoyed the twin sessions on abandonment which both problematized abandonment as a symptom of decline, as well as a key stage in the formation of sites in the archaeological landscape. The convergence of concerns about periodization (period are frequently defined by episodes of abandonment) and archaeological formation processes points creates an intriguing and productive space around historical narratives that have become so dependent upon patterns of rise and fall. In fact, the ambiguity surrounding abandonment offered a temporary respite for anyone exhausted by popular narratives of decline that are so prevalent in our media today.

We can’t avoid change.

Efficiency

Since we’re all about efficiency and archaeological Taylorism here on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I decided to run some numbers, out of curiosity more than anything.

The primary productive unit of the survey is the five member field team. It consists of a team leader and four field walkers. They walk an average of slightly over 100 units per day with occasional outings in the mid-100s. We run 5 field teams a day since one team is in the pottery storerooms. It takes field teams about 7 minutes to walk the average unit with some units taking as much as 7 or 8 times that long (and others taking almost no time). Most teams start their first unit a little after 7 am and finish their last unit around 12:45 pm.  So our field day runs for about 6 hours (to simplify). The teams walk for about 2 hours, 15 minutes per day (or about a third of the time their in the field). The rest of the day is devoted to filling out forms and traipsing from one unit to the next. Lest this makes our field walkers sound lazy, I should point out that, over the course of our field season field, walkers walked over 1000 km (that over 600 miles for Americans). There’s no lack of energy and commitment on the part of our field walkers!

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What I discovered is that the average field team used only 3 walkers for field walking. In fact, the average number of walkers per field was almost exactly 3 (the mode was also 3). This got me thinking that, next year, we should take our 6 field teams of 4 field walkers and divide them into 8 field teams with 3 field walkers. This would have the clear advantage of putting 7 field teams into the field daily (with one team heading to the pottery storerooms each day), and this should increase the number of units walked per day by about 40%. 

When I pitched this to a few team leaders, they responded that the teams often used the fourth field walker to help record information when not walking units. If resulted in an increase in efficiency, we should see that 3 walker units are completed more quickly than 4 walker units. The numbers, however, don’t bear this out. Both 3 and 4 walker units get done in about 9 minutes despite 4 walker units being generally longer (by around 25 meters) than 3 walker units. So, there doesn’t seem – on the face of it – to be any real efficiency gained by 3 walker teams. (I do know that some field teams operated at below full strength, but even when I did some rough work to control for this, it didn’t seem to impact the overall numbers very much).

There is one hitch: Around 65% of our units used fewer than 4 walkers, but about 20% units used 4 walkers exactly. But this, I think, is an artifact of our units being mapped to accommodate 4 walker teams. This might account for why units with more than 4 walkers (but less than 9) average about 11 minutes which is a substantial increase over those with 3 or 4. This is the result of teams having to double walk the unit; that is: walkers having to walk the unit once and then again. Curiously, the 11 minute average is not twice the time taken to walk a unit where every walker walks only once. This is probably because we tended to make larger units from areas where the fields are disturbed and unlikely to produce much pottery. While I haven’t run the numbers recently, historically our ceramic densities decline as unit size increases. So, I suspect one thing that might happen if we shrink our field teams is that we’d shirt our unit size to accommodate the smaller teams. So we’ll do more units, but maybe not survey more ground. 

Of course, to make this all work, we have to find two more excellent team leaders to complement our fine group of six. Moreover, we’d have less margin of error for individual teams. This year we lost a few field walkers each week to ailments ranging from dehydration to sea urchin attacks. Teams dropping to two walkers would struggle to be flexible enough to walk large units and would probably suffer just walking average sized units.

Embiggening the number of teams (by debigulating the number of walkers) might also lead us to increase the number of cars and would almost certainly require us to increase the number of devices assigned to team (cameras, GPS units, Sharpies, et c.). But as a good buddy once quipped, if you can’t afford to do maximum archaeology, perhaps you should just stay in the library. 

Curated versus Automated Revisits

There’s a good bit of buzz lately about Apple Music’s “curated” playlists, and TIDAL, my preference for a music streaming service, offers a range of curated music playlists as well. In general, the term curation, like crafted, artisanal, or any of the other tech-media, marketing buzzwords has come to mean that a human, rather than an algorithm has produced a collection. As many, many have observed, the term curation is annoying and overused.

But I still want to use for a little bit in reference to our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project. This morning, I took some time out of the field to start to analyze some of our finds and field data. We plan to revisit a few units before the season concludes and to collect some more material. Our hope is that these targeted revisits will help us both to refine our survey methods by offering some points to calibrate our sampling strategy, they’ll help us produce more robust assemblages of types of pottery that might only appear in very small quantities using our typical collection approach, and revisits will allow us to document archaeological features a bit more intensively than we would have time and resources to do over the course of intensive survey.

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We target sites for revisit in three ways. First, our field teams can tick a check box and provide a brief explanation for why a particular unit is worth revisiting. Our ceramicists, Scott Gallimore and Sarah James, can also identify units as being interesting, important, or confusing and consequently worth revisiting. Finally, we can analyze data through our GIS and databases that target units with certain characteristics (such as low visibility with either high densities or diverse assemblages). Our revisit lists generated by team leader and ceramicists are not fortified by statistics, but generated through careful observations and total situational awareness. These units represent the slow archaeology approach to landscape and artifact analysis.

So far, it has been heartening to recognize that the lists of revisit units curated by our team leaders and ceramicists are remarkably consistent with the units generated from my analysis of our various databases. In fact, combining the curated list of unit with list of units generated through our analysis of GIS tend to complement each other by expanding the potential target units for revisit. As we nuance the criteria for revisit a bit over the next week, I’m sure that we’ll discover some counterintuitive units that will serve as tests of our archaeological instincts. For now, though, we’ll proceed into the final week of the season with just a bit of confidence that our experiences in the field and at the pottery tables reflects the complexity of our study area.

Speed

One of the more interesting trends emerging so far during the Western Argolid Regional Project season is competition among field teams. At the end of each field day, I typically ask team leaders how many units they have walked. This seemingly benign question helps us measure our progress through the survey area and gauge how much mapping is necessary to keep ahead of the survey teams. A quick tally of the number of units walked lets me begin to plan the next day as soon as the previous field day is over. 

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Generally our 5 field teams walk between 15 and 20 units and around 90 total. Each unit is around 3000 sq m. so we walk about 1.3 and 1.5 sq. km per week. The number of units we walk depend considerably on the character of the terrain, the size of the units, and the density of artifacts, vegetation, and other distractions to artifact recovery. The size of our field teams is four plus a team leader, but this week we lost a few field walkers to dehydration and bumps and bruises. So a team down a walker will move a bit more slowly than one at full strength especially if the units are slightly larger than average. Historically, field teams walk about 4 units per hour over a 6 hour field day with a couple of breaks for water, znacks (snacks), and transit to and from the field site. 

Teams generally develop a routine where one walker writes tags, one takes a center GPS point, one walker helps with forms, one takes photographs et c. This streamlines the bookkeeping and data recording aspects of intensive pedestrian survey and as the season progresses, small efficiencies occur based on familiarity with the process as much as anything. As the process become more efficient, we usually have to nudge the team leaders to slow things down just a bit to ensure that the teams recognize where they are in the survey area, fill out forms properly, and actually, you know, enjoy the process. Since our project runs as a field school, we see very little benefit to an overly mechanical process that makes our field walkers (and team leaders) into field walking robots (beep, boop, boop, beep, boop).

One thing that I did not anticipate this summer is that teams would start to compete with each other to walk the most units per day. It’s hard not to like the harmless morale boost that comes with walking the most units or besting a team nearby is fun. Moreover, we recognize the field walking – particularly in challenging topography which is difficult to grasp as a coherent space – can be boring and seem pointless. The assembly line was soul crushing in part because of the repetitive character of the work and, in part, because the repetition could obscure the role an individual played in the work’s final result. Unit counts keep the field day interesting.

At the same time, we’ve starting wonder whether there are some less than desirable byproducts of this competition. For example, we don’t want the push to walk more to exhaust field teams more quickly and to contribute to the attrition of team members. We also don’t want to compromise our data collection for some good-natured fun. Finally, we don’t want teams who walk more challenging areas to feel like their contributions are less significant because they didn’t walk enough units. The last thing we want is sad field walkers.  

  

Survey Archaeology and Forms

Anyone who has done archaeology lately knows that we almost spend as much time looking at form (or its digital equivalent) as the trench, survey unit, landscape, or architectural feature. In general, forms are unattractive and at best functional (at worst, they are overwhelming belches of blank lines, boxes, and cryptic instructions. 

Tomorrow the 2015 Western Argolid Regional Project season starts. We had a few little tweaks to make to the database and that led to some tweaking of the form and that led to some modifications in its appearance. 

I’m sure I’m violating several laws of graphic design in my efforts, but I think I’ve improved our forms legibility and added a bit of style. The font is Prime; it’s a free, sans serif, highly geometric font which adds some bling without encroaching too much on the utility of the form. 

I also tried to standardize the placement of boxes. Almost all archaeological forms that I’ve encountered try to do too much in too little space. For WARP, we want to keep the form to a front and back page. So I tried to find ways to negotiate the constrained space of the form so that it was a little bit easier to follow and I tried to play a bit with orientation by extending some things to the right of the margin and some boxes to the left (in an orderly way) to index the form a bit and to give some more room for the free text boxes. 

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Managing the Modern in Intensive Survey

I’ve made it over to the Argolid and am ensconced in the comfortable accommodations in the village of Myloi for the next two months. My colleagues Dimitri Nakassis and Scott Gallimore have been in the village for a week or so already getting ready for the second field season of the Western Argolid Regional Project. 

I’m excite for this year’s survey area because it encompasses at least two modern settlements which are in states of abandonment. We’re anticipating already a greater amount of modern and early modern (for Greece this is the 19th century) material associated with these settlements. Most recent intensive survey projects make a big deal about being diachronic, but to be fair, the modern period tends to present particular challenges to survey projects. In general, survey archaeologists recognize that we cannot treat the modern period the same way that we treat earlier periods. 

The reasons are both complex and simple. The simple reason is that we simply cannot accommodate the super abundance of most modern material in our survey units. As Richard Rothaus and I discussed a few months ago on our podcast, there is a storage crisis in archaeology, and collecting modern material will only make this worse. In the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey we tried to document modern material without collecting using a “modern sweep” form. This form consisted of a long list of check boxes that tried to take into account the most common form of trash found in the Greek countryside. In practice, however, the survey teams mostly checked the box for “scattered modern trash,” and either failed or refused to distinguish between the various events that created the distribution of modern material through agricultural lands around contemporary villages. 

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I suspect that the difficulties dealing with the modern landscape also speaks to more complex challenges involving how we understand modern artifact distribution in the countryside where most modern survey projects are based. Modern material represents both very familiar practices – typically those associated with opportunistic discard of unneeded objects – and practices that are rather unfamiliar to archaeologists who are not well versed in modern, sometimes ad hoc, use of modern material in contemporary Mediterranean agricultural practices. For example, last year, I took numerous photographs of modified plastic water bottles hung from trees throughout the Argolid and the ingenious use of beer cans in modified irrigation systems.

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Our familiarity with the primary use of objects and simple discard practices has perhaps made it easier to overlook creative examples of reuse in the countryside. Modern objects have become so specialized, so disposable, and so common that we have to train our eyes to see them and our archaeological awareness to consider the range of uses possible in the countryside.