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.


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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Contingency, Roads, and Formation Processes in the Greek Countryside

This last week I’ve been working on transforming a paper that Dimitri Nakassis and I wrote from the 2016 Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting. The paper was for a panel organized by Deb Brown and Becky Seifried on the topic of abandoned settlements. Dimitri and I wrote not so much about settlements as about roads and routes through the Greek countryside using the Western Argolid as an example. 

As I’ve worked to transform the paper into a proper article, I’ve started to try to weave together two complicated little strands related to regional level intensive pedestrian survey. One strand understands the countryside as contingent and dynamic and challenges the perspective that rural Greece was backward or unchanging guide to ancient practices. The view of the Greek countryside as stagnant and conservative drew heavily on both contemporary Western views of conservative rural life as well as Orientalist ideas that the East was resistant to change and, as a result, and unreceptive to the forces of progress (and perhaps resistant to the transformative power of capital). The most obvious expression of this among Classicists was the tendency to look to rural life and practices as a place that preserved ancient culture. Efforts to conflate ancient places with modern villages by the modern Greek state reinforced the plausibility of a conservative countryside. This, in turn, supported the nationalist narrative advanced by both the West and the Greek state itself that the modern Greek nationstate had it roots in the Ancient Greek world. By changing Slavic, Albanian, or Turkish place names to the names of Ancient Greek places, the modern state sought less to overwrite the more recent history of the region and more to restore the authenticity of the Greek countryside.

For archaeologists, this confidence in a stable Greek countryside arrived with the early travelers who took ancient texts as their guides and consistently noted practices that evoked those in ancient sources. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, intensive pedestrian survey and processual archaeology had begun to produce evidence for a more dynamic view of rural settlement patterns where even major settlements expanded, contracted, appeared, and vanished over the centuries. Attention to the Early Modern and Ottoman Greek landscape by the Argolid Exploration Project and in the Nemea Valley demonstrated that far from being ossified and unchanging, rural life, economic strategies, and settlement in the northeast Peloponnesus was in constant flux as denizens of the countryside adapted to local and regional economic and political opportunities. To put their conclusions in starkly contemporary terms, scholars like Susan Buck Sutton demonstrated that precarity of capitalism was alive and well in the Greek countryside throughout the Early Modern and Modern periods. While this may initially feel like something to celebrate as it makes clear that Greece was not an Oriental backwater, it should also give us pause as it reminds us that the self-sufficient farmer so celebrated for their independence was every bit a product of larger economic forces as any kind of individual will. Removing the condescending (and racist) burden of the Oriental conservatism from the backs of the Greek peasant and replacing it with forces of capital does not, necessarily, impart more agency in the Greek villager, farmer, or pastoralist. Agency within the capitalist system may appear more “modern,” but in some ways, it is only an inversion of an Orientalist reading of Greece by hinting that the instability, contingency, and precarity of rural life anticipates progressive modernity.  

Whatever the larger metanarrative at play, contingency is now a significant paradigm for understanding Early Modern and Modern Greece, and understanding the process of abandonment plays an important roles in recognizing change in the Greek countryside. Attention to abandonment involves a greater commitment to reading artifact scatters in the countryside as the products of archaeological and natural formation processes rather than palimpsests of settlement or other rural activities. As we come to privilege the contingency and dynamism of the countryside more, we also lose some of our confidence in assigning tidy functional categories to rural survey assemblages. Low density scatters of artifacts, for example, may well represent short-term habitation, low intensity rural activities, or even redistributive practices like manuring or dumping.

For our paper, the significance of contingency and our reading of formation processes intersect in our analysis of two seasonal rural settlements in the process of abandonment and the routes that connected these sites to larger networks of travel in the region. In traditional reading of the landscape of the Inachos Valley and the Western Argolid, scholars have tended to see modern routes along the flat valley bottom as more or less following ancient routes. In this context (and putting aside the role played by topography and geography, for example), long-standing roads serve as indicators of persistent patterns of movement, settlement, and the political relationship between places. A more contingent view of the countryside, however, forces us to consider the more ephemeral routes through the landscape that leave only fleeting traces in the landscape and connect less persistent settlements. 

Moreover, and this to my mind is really neat, roads and routes through the countryside also shape the formation processes at individual sites. For example, the proximity of an structure to an unpaved dirt road seems to have influenced whether that structure was maintained and used for storage or provisional discard. The dirt road, however, may not have any relationship to the earlier, simpler path that originally connected the settlement to other places in the region. Access by modern dirt road shaped the formation processes at play in the settlement. Structures only reached through footpaths tend to see less modern activity.  

For our paper, we present an example from the Western Argolid to demonstrate the presence and significance of these contingent routes through the countryside, to unpack the relationship of roads to formation processes at abandoned settlements, and to suggest that the contingent countryside is not simply about places, but also about all the interstitial spaces that define social, economic, and political relationships in the changing landscape. 

The Seventh Century

Just a short post for today. Over the last few weeks here in the Western Argolid, Scott Gallimore, Guy Sanders, and I have talked a good bit about the seventh century A.D. The three of us are working with Sarah James to publish an assemblage of seventh century material from the Helleniko pyramid near Myloi in the Western Argolid (initially published by Louis Lord in 1938) as well as a growing body of seventh century material from the Western Argolid Regional Project (WARP).

When I was working on my dissertation in the late-1990s and early 21st century, the number of seventh century monuments in Greece was tiny, and they were mostly ignored or considered with skepticism. 

Over the past decade, the number of 7th century sites has slowly increased. Some of these sites appear to be associated with political, military, or economic disruptions (like the Andritsa Cave and the Tunnel at Nemea), but sites like the island the island of Dokos and the the tower at Helleniko suggest that the seventh century assemblages represented more than just cowering communities in a time of disruption. There seems to be an emerging 7th century landscape that show some signs of continuity with the previous two centuries in contact between regions, persistent prosperity, and the beginnings of change in both material culture and settlement structure. There are hints at ethnic change as well. On WARP, our ceramicist, Scott Gallimore, are piecing together a dynamic and diverse 7th century landscape that defies simple categorization as refuges or farmsteads or even settlements.  

So over the next few years, I’m going to spend some time working through the evidence for 7th century change in Greece with my colleagues on WARP.  

Foto Friday from the Western Argolid

Some photos from my first couple of weeks in the Argolid.

The first photo is taken by Dimitri Nakassis using his fancy Canon EOS 5DS with a 50 mm Zeiss lens. This is me in my natural environment:

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Some provisional discard:

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When your irrigation pipe leaks and you have sheeps to water:

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Sheeps and sheeplets in the Western Argolid:

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A long and winding road:


And as a bonus (they couldn’t stop barking at EVERYTHING, so now they’re practicing being bored):

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Foto Friday from the Western Argolid

For the last week or so, I’ve been ensconced in the Western Argolid doing some digital work and getting our feet set for a short study season focused on six sites that fell just outside the area that the Western Argolid Regional Project surveyed for the last three intensive field seasons. 

The sites are pretty rugged, but the views provide amazing perspectives on rugged countryside of the northeastern Peloponnesus.

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The Medieval Countryside at a Regional Scale in the Western Argolid and Northeastern Peloponnesus

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a call for papers for a panel  on the Medieval Countryside at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting next January.

Life intervened and we missed the deadline to submit a paper. Fortunately, the organizer, Effie Athanassopoulos was merciful and nudged the deadline a bit for us.

Here’s our abstract:

The Medieval Countryside at a Regional Scale in the Western Argolid and Northeastern Peloponnesus

Dimitri Nakassis, University of Colorado
Sarah James, University of Colorado
Scott Gallimore, Wilfrid Laurier University
William Caraher, University of North Dakota

The study of the Medieval Mediterranean is paradoxical. On the one hand, scholars have continued to define the master narrative for the Medieval and Byzantine periods in the Mediterranean through politics and church history. On the other hand, few periods have seen as concerted an effort to understand the life and experiences of non-political classes from villagers to monks, mystics, and merchants. At the risk of simplifying a complex historiography, historians of the Annales school pioneered the study of everyday life in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. At the same time, Byzantine historians have drawn influence from concepts of cultural materialism to critique the co-development of particular economic and political systems and to recognize the fourth to fourteenth century as a period of rural transformation. This work has found common ground with landscape archaeologists who since the 1970s have sought to emphasize long-term, quantitative methods within tightly defined regional contexts to understand the tension between local and regional developments in the Medieval the countryside.

Recent work in the Peloponnesus and central Greece by the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, The Argolid Exploration Project, the Boiotia survey, the Methana Survey Project among others, provides a methodologically-sophisticated, regional perspective on the Medieval countryside that is almost unprecedented in the Mediterranean. This paper add to this existing body of regional evidence based on three seasons of the Western Argolid Regional Project. From 2014-2016, this project documented 30 sq km of the Inachos river valley through highly intensive pedestrian survey. This work has revealed significant post-Classical activity ranging from Late Antique habitation to 13th century settlements and Venetian towers. These sites derive greater significance from both the impressive body recently published fieldwork on the countryside of the northeastern Peloponnesus and the well-documented histories of the urban centers of Argos, Nafplion, and Corinth. The existence of both rural and urban contexts in this region offers a unique opportunity to consider the tensions between town and country and rural life and urban politics in the post-Classical centuries. The result is a study of the Medieval countryside that probes the limits of the long-standing and largely urban and political master narrative while also demonstrating significant regional variation.