Ruins and Curated Decay

This weekend I read Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017). It is a pretty great little book that filled my mind with ideas that cut across a number of things that I’ve been working on (or being tempted by) lately. Her book considers an alternative view of preservation that encourages allowing the formation of ruins rather than the continuous intervention necessary to arrest the decay in historical buildings. She draws on examples from the storm-battered coast of the U.K. and rural Montana that illustrate how allowing certain sites to decay and fall into ruination creates a different attitude toward our material world, nature, and time.

In particular, the process of decay undermines the view that historical buildings should persist forever outside of time. Instead, she proposes a post-human view of these buildings that locate them as part of the natural world, recognizes the dynamic character of the building’s materiality, embraces the potential of  fragmentation, and, nevertheless, still places ruins in historical and mnemonic landscapes. Above all, Desilvey emphasizes that conventional practices of preservation are not the only way to produce meaningful heritage.

The book spoke to three of my projects in slightly different ways.

1. Chelmis. Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on a paper that document the modern (20th century) settlement of Chelmis in the Western Argolid. The site consists of over a dozen Balkan-style long houses in various states of preservation and collapse. What drew us to this site was both a commitment to documenting the 20th century landscape of the Western Argolid, but also our interest in sites of ruin and decay that are not neatly preserved with color coordinated concrete, carefully manicured pathways, and thoughtful conservation plans. The decaying ruins of Chelmis (and sites like it), stand as a kind of counter monument in Greece as they have little legal protection as modern ruins that are both ubiquitous in the countryside and not particularly significant to some national historical narrative (e.g. Classical antiquity, Byzantine and Christian heritages, et c.). In fact, their modest form, association with rural life and transhumant pastoralism, and isolated location provides a scenario where nature and material culture collaborate slowly to obfuscate their history from the national landscape. Our efforts to document these buildings and integrate them into a larger discourse on the Greek countryside is not simply a race against nature and ruination, but part of a larger view of the landscape that is defined by the interplay between natural and cultural processes both diachronically and spatially. These buildings literally embody the work of landscape archaeology.

2. Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This year, I started a term on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. The Commission’s job, as far as I can gather, is both to document (or assigns to be documented) historic districts, neighborhoods, and buildings in Grand Forks and also to monitor existing historic sites and work with developers, the community, and city leaders to preserve the integrity of city’s historic landscape. This is a good thing, in general, but the work of this commission is complicated. Grand Forks, like most places in the U.S., continues to see growth and development, some of which runs counter to the commission’s charge of preserving the historical fabric of the community.

Desilvey’s book got me thinking about the various historical landscapes present in Grand Forks. These range from typical historic districts like downtown or the Near Southside Historic District to spaces with more complicated legacies, like the ruins of the Lincoln Park neighborhood and the ghostly traces of abandoned neighborhoods preserved on the wet side of the greenway’s flood wall. In fact, the tension between preservation and occlusion manifests in the city’s fabric and almost total absence of ruins represents the community’s struggle against the terrible destruction power of the almost-annual Red River floods.

3. Wesley College Documentation Project. My study of the four remaining buildings of Wesley College at the University of North Dakota didn’t really understand them as being ruins. I recognized, of course, their complex histories as dormitories, administrative offices, classrooms, and lab spaces. I also realized that what we were doing by documenting abandonment was actually documenting the process of these buildings becoming ruins even though this process was ultimately accelerated by the bulldozer. By taking the abandoned buildings serious, documenting their fabric and the objects left behind, ritualizing their final weeks, and commemorating their history in text, music, and images, we managed to engage with the final months of these buildings before their physical form was removed from campus.

What intrigued me the most was the conversation surrounding these buildings in their final months. There were, of course, those who looked for ways to conserve, preserve, or repurpose these buildings in order to remember the history of Wesley College, its leaders, and these “modern” buildings. By maintaining their presence on campus, they would have also served as a reminder that not all that is progressive, innovative, or modern is necessarily destined to persist, to grow, and to improve. The university administration, of course, had valid reasons to remove these buildings. The cost of ruins on a university campus remains steep and they were no longer contributing practical space to campus functions. They also likely saw these buildings as telling the kind of cautionary tale that they aspired to avoid (or at least obscure): progressive fantasies of campus renewal, innovation, and restoration may fail. Ruins, of course, are not particularly welcome by campus leaders because they remind them of their own futility in the face of social and economic change, nature, and taste. 

The potential of ruins to remind a community of time, materiality, decay, and our deep entanglement with nature make them particular valuable monuments. It is all too easy to consign ruins to the countryside where the traditional line between natural and civilization is ragged and blurred. The deeply progressive hopes of communities and campuses need ruins too to temper their own deeply modern impulse toward continuous improvement and remind us that the present rarely planned and always negotiated.   

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.

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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.

Writing WARP

Over the last few months, I’ve been hiding from a line in a minutes from an early June meeting of the Western Argolid Regional Project: Preliminary Report… “ideally ready for submission by Christmas.” I had volunteered to take the lead in writing it and to marshal the contributions from various other folks on the project including two case studies. Needless to say, this hasn’t happened.

What makes it worse is that I’ve been thinking a good bit about how archaeologists write and archaeological publishing more broadly. Just this weekend, for example, I re-read Rosemary Joyce’s “Writing historical archaeology” in the Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology (2006). I also read Rachel Opitz’s recent contribution to the Journal of Field Archaeology titled ““Publishing Archaeological Excavations at the Digital Turn” (which I blogged about here), Amara Thortons,  Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People (UCL 2018)  (blogged here) and thinking a bit about Ian Hodder’s well-known article from AntiquityWriting Archaeology: Site Reports in Context.” While these works all offer different angles on the archaeological writing and publishing, they did reinforce to me that archaeological writing and publishing are undergoing some pretty significant changes, but that these changes are also situated grounded in the goals of archaeological work. (In fact, I’m going to try to marshal some of my ideas on that in a paper that I’m giving at a conference at the University of Buffalo next year.) 

At the same time, I spent a few hours wrapping up the layout of volume two of the Epoiesen annual which should appear from The Digital Press before the end of the year. The Epoiesen annual is an interesting challenge because it is publishing a web publication in paper (and PDF form). Instead of thinking of the paper format as a degraded representation of a web version, I’ve tried to think of it as a transmedia opportunity to take something that was originally imagined in one media (i.e. the web) and reproduce in another. While we don’t take many risks in how we present Epoiesen on paper, the potential is certainly there and the very act of translating from one media to the next forces us to think about how entangled ideas and material are and how the paper (or even PDF version) of Epoiesen will offer readers a different experience than the online version.

Advertisement! You can get the first volume of Epoiesen at the low, low price of $6. SIX DOLLARS. That’s cheaper than a beer in New York City or about half the things on the Starbucks menu. 

A similar challenge will face my little press as we work on our next major project – a volume in collaboration with ASOR that presents a digital catalogue of votive figurines from Athienou on Cyprus. We will present these artifacts both through a traditional catalogue and high-resolution 3D scans presented both as a 3D PDF and through an online catalogue published by Open Context. It’ll be a big project full of challenges at the intersection of the paper codex and dynamic media.

While this might not seem immediately relevant to writing a preliminary report for WARP, it will push me a bit think about what kind of information is most appropriate for a print report and what kind of information is better to publish as data later on. 

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On top of that, I took a couple nice long walks with the dogs this weekend and those always give me a chance to think about big and small picture stuff. I started to think about the challenge of writing a preliminary report as a problem of definition. When is a project sufficiently complete for a preliminary report to offer provisional, but relatively secure, observations on method and results? On WARP, I get pretty anxious when I think of all the work we have left to do to make sense of our data; at the same time, I know that the artifact and main data collection phase of the project is over. What we have now is going to be the basis of both what we say in the final report and future analysis. Preliminary reports are hard to think about because of their liminal status. Archaeologists like to be authoritative in what they say about their work and analysis, and a preliminary report acknowledges that this is not the final word on the area and its material. 

Finally, there is a fear of the blank page. Fortunately, WARP has published a good bit already – here and there – so there is a kind of basis of already-written material upon which the preliminary report can draw. At the same time, there is the additional pressure of taking our analysis and presentation to the next level. This means more bibliography, more analysis, and more conclusions. This also means making sure that the voices of everyone on the project (and to be clear, folks will help me with this report!) will have space in the report even when we don’t all agree on how and what our analysis mean.  

The Site

This summer I spent a good bit of time thinking about “the site” in survey archaeology. After four seasons of intensive pedestrian survey in the Western Argolid, we have started to analyze the data from our intensive pedestrian survey. We designed our project as a siteless survey and covered nearly all the small survey units (~2500 sq. m), high intensity sampling (10 m spacing), and no systematic change in method for higher density units. As a result, we produced a distribution map of artifacts across the landscape of the Western Argolid that shows gradations of artifact densities rather than dots on the map as one would see from a site-based survey project.

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Despite this approach to our survey area, we have come to realize that the vast majority off our pre-modern ceramics are concentrated in about 20 “clusters” across the landscape. This causes a bit of productive intellectual tension on our project. Were these clusters of artifacts “sites” produced by our siteless survey? Where these sites real? Were they the product of unrelated and overlapping period-specific phenomena or did they actually represent significant places for people, communities, and material in the landscape? As a siteless survey project we were caught in an intellectual grey area situated between the site as an apparent reality of our distribution of material, the site as a central discursive element of Mediterranean archaeology, and the site as a methodologically constituted (and produced) result from certain archaeological practices from the gridded collection of early survey projects to excavation. In practical terms, we began to speak easily of “off site scatters” even though this kind of language tended to imply a methodological distinction between “on site” (typically gridded) and “off site” (typically produced by transect walking) that did not apply to our field work.

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This got us thinking about sites on our project and whether the use of the term simply represented a convenient shorthand for our evident concentrations of material or whether we should spend some serious thought about understanding how to talk about these “sites” in the landscape. As I have noted in an earlier post, we spent some time tracing period specific clusters of artifacts across the landscape and applying buffers of various sizes to produce assemblages that go beyond groups of units with particular periods present and tries to capture the larger material landscape (including surface conditions and other variable that impact artifact recovery). With this kind of analysis, our sites or concentrations of artifacts in our survey area become overlapping clusters of material shaped by past activities in the landscape and surface conditions.

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The careful study of the overlapping and interlacing period clusters could demonstrate, if not exactly continuity, at least general patterns in the way in which various assemblages drew upon (1) common contemporary aspects of the landscape (i.e. that impact recovery rates), (2) persistent features in the landscape (i.e. heights, resources, et c.), and (3) historical relationships through time (i.e. continuity, reuse, memory, et c.). Moreover and perhaps more importantly, I think we could integrate siteless survey with an approach that respects the discursive significance of sites in Classical archaeology by showing how our method both problematizes sites and defines them in new but commensurate ways. For WARP, sites could become space where surface conditions, historical processes, and topography, geology, geography, and other natural and cultural features intersect to produce archaeological visible and meaningful places. 

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In this ways, sites become true indicators of the limits of our method, windows into the diachronic use of the landscape, and spaces for problematizing interpretation rather than the functional results of interpretive processes.

Resurvey

This week on the Western Argolid Regional Project, I’ve been running a few queries that compare the data from our original survey field walking and subsequent efforts to expand the assemblages present in these survey units. We termed these later efforts “resurvey” on WARP and thought they might be useful both to expand our generally small assemblages into something a bit more susceptible to functional analysis and to calibrate our recovery rates (as David Pettegrew and I did on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project). 

The challenge with this kind of analysis is how do we compare two different assemblages. In general, these two assemblages did not produce the same specific types of artifacts on the basis of our narrow typologies (i.e. the odds seem small that we’d find, for instance, two examples of the same African Red Slip form or even two examples of a Classical cooking pot), so that is not a very useful way to compare things. 

To open up the potential for meaningful overlap, I did a quick comparison of our resurvey units and our initial survey units to see if they produced the same period. This involves comparing the exact periods present in the finds from our first walking of the units to those found in either re-walking the units or in total collection circles with 2 m radius. Generally speaking there was some overlap between periods from each collection type. A few units producing over 50% of the material from the same periods, but most resurvey units produced material that had much lower overlaps (10%-20%). In this context, overlapping periods represent specific chronological period overlaps, such as Classical or Early Roman. This does not account for overlaps that are more broadly defined, such as when one assemblage produced Classical pottery and the other produced Classical-Hellenistic.  This is the next step in analysis is to see if resurvey produced chronological (as opposed to simply period) overlaps. This is a more complicated query and not ideal for analysis in the field.

We also compared the artifact densities per hectare from the resurvey units and the original survey units. As we demonstrated on PKAP, looking more carefully at the ground produced significantly higher densities. The highest density resurvey unit – which consisted total collection circles with 4 m diameters – produced densities that were over 100,000 per ha, for a unit that produced a density of only 1,700 artifact per ha through standard field walking practice. (Despite this massive difference in density, the unit produce a period overlap of over 50%!). Other units showed a similarly massive increase in densities with the resurvey units often producing nearly the same amount of pottery as the original survey units which covered much larger areas.

The differences between the two densities likely reflect three trends. First – and most obviously – a team of two or three scouring a 4 m diameter total collection circle for 10 minutes is like to find more pottery than a field walker, standing upright, and scanning 1 meter to either side even at a leisurely pace. Total collection circles were also much more likely to be placed in high density areas. After all, part of the goal of resurvey was to produce more a robust assemblage of material for chronological and functional analysis. Finally, total collection resurvey circles tended to be in areas of the unit with higher surface visibility. For each survey unit we recorded the average visibility for the entire unit. We did the same for the total collection resurvey units and they generally were 20%-40% higher visibility than the original survey units.

In the end, my analysis of these units is just starting. Considering the functional character of the original and resurvey assemblages, the chronological overlap of the two sets of material, and whether they produced new information about the   

Distributional Analysis

One of the challenges of siteless survey is shifting our intention from a focus on sites to the distribution of artifacts across a landscape. Over the last four years at the Western Argolid Regional Project we have collected artifact level data from over 7000 survey units that cover a significant percentage of our 30 sq km survey area. 

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The material includes several clear clusters of high density units some of which are associated with known sites as well as a wide scatter of material clustered in different ways across the modern countryside. The temptation is to focus on the larger and higher density clusters which have produced more robust assemblages of material and are more susceptible to analysis on the basis of function, chronology, and settlement structure. In fact, there is no escaping from the fact that the more material an area produces, the more we are able to say about the areas history, use, and regional context. What is harder to understand is how areas or even single survey units that produce small assemblages can contribute to the greater understanding of the landscape and region. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks attempting to figure out how to describe the contours of the artifactual landscape of our survey area as a whole and to pull apart the high and low density clusters that constitute the artifact distribution. Some of the things that I had to consider are how to define a cluster: is it related to the number of objects? do the units that produced artifacts have to be contiguous or can they be interrupted? how do we control for surface visibility, background disturbance, and other variables that impact recovery rates on individual units? 

Even when I was able to use various kinds of buffering and neighborhood analysis to create archaeologically plausible clusters of units with material from various periods, we then had to determine the arrangement of these clusters across the landscapes. The distance of one group of cluster from another (and the impact of the vagaries of our survey area on this kind of distribution) would appear to offer at least one indication of connectivity in our survey area and perhaps an indicator of density or intensity of human activity in the landscape. At the same time, factors such as period length and recovery rates associated with particular classes (or types) or artifacts likewise shape the visibility of periods and functions in the landscape.

Developing a template or a lens through which we define and construct assemblages for analysis is among the most challenging aspect of siteless survey and one that will likely occupy my time and energy for a quite some time to come!

Views of Digital Archaeology

I’ve been thinking a good bit about digital archaeology lately. This is partly because I’ve been working on a paper for this fall’s European Archaeological Association meeting and in part because I’ve been doing digital stuff over the last week or so.

My colleague Dimitri Nakassis wrote a little post about archaeology being hard over on the Western Argolid Regional Project page last week. This is a bit of a response in a series of photographs. I’m not so much arguing that digital archaeology is or isn’t hard, but that it is not very scenic or beautiful. I’ve spent some quality screen time over the past few days.

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