Legacy Data as Data

In January, I am contributing to a panel at the annual Archaeological Institute of America meeting on legacy data. I’ve already blogged a bit on this last week

One of the unanticipated aspects of this work is that I’ve had to think about what constitutes “data” in an archaeological setting. For example, we’re studying a small corpus of lamp fragments from a particular area at the site of Polis. The “legacy data” consists of a notebook of preliminary observations from a scholar who has more or less abandoned the project. The notebook entries range from cursory descriptions to detailed documentation with measurements and comparanda. There is little in the way of analysis or synthesis.

At the same time, these legacy notebooks are data points that can be integrated into larger contexts. In fact, part of the lamps data already exists on Open Context where a version of the inventoried finds database for Polis currently lives

Recontextualizing legacy data was perhaps the most interesting part of our work this summer. Part of the challenge is negotiating the flow between streams of data that constitute arguments. As I think more about flow – whether workflow or flow in a Deleuzian sense – I’m wondering about the relationship between flow and the character and structure of archaeological arguments. Historically, I think, archaeologists have seen data points as the structuring element of archaeological argument. In this highly empirical form of knowledge making (not to say positivistic) “data” forms foundation upon which stable archaeological arguments are built. In its most extreme manifestation, the presentation of archaeological data points can be rather “siloed.” In this situation it becomes difficult to navigate between examples of objects found at one site or in one region, for example, and those found at another site or another region. There is a tension, then, between describing objects at a site effectively and aligning an object with a type common across a region.

For archaeologists, interpretation and analysis is often about resolving this tension. At its best, archaeological work is tied to organizing and understanding objects, buildings, and contexts between the level of the site and that of the state, region, time period, or proposed trajectory of development. In other words, archaeology is concerned less with objects (however defined) and more with the relationships between objects. These relationships are navigated – vividly in a digital context – by the flow between sets of data. Workflow describes both the production of datasets from contexts and negotiating and structuring the relationships between contexts.

Analyzing and interpreting legacy data is all about finding this flow.

Western Cyprus

One of the downsides of looking at notebooks, pot sherds, and databases all day is that sometimes you forget to look around. Last week we cruised around the Chrysochou Valley a bit to check out some of villages that stand along its east side.

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From Pelethousa, we got a nice view of the Limni mines and Chrysochou Bay in the distance. We also visited the church at Chorteini.

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The church is likely Medieval (or even Byzantine) with its cross-in-square plan. The presence of a ruined aisle along its north side suggests that at some point it may have had a more basilican plan. Tiles building into the wall of the north aisle are almost certainly Late Roman or Early Byzantine in date which doesn’t do much for understanding the date of the church, but suggests that there likely was a Late Roman settlement in the area. Recent survey results, I think, confirm this. 

We also visited the Panayia Chryseleousa in the village of Lysos. This church is probably later than the church at Chorteni (with some very late additions).  My photo is overly dramatic, but the sun behind the dome seemed like a good idea at the time.

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The heraldic crests of various branches of the Lusignan family and the various Gothic touches give the church a distinctly Late Medieval Cypriot vibe.

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We have a ways to go before we understand the settlement history and landscape of the Chysochou Valley in the Roman, Late Roman, and post-Roman period. Moreover, the landscape is deceptively complex with the hill countryside east of Polis (ancient Arsinoe) is made of abrupt hills, rolling rises, and variations in landforms, resources, and access. Sorting this all out to understand the larger context for the city of Polis will be a challenge, but one with appealing views and intriguing vistas.

Update from The Digital Press

The Digital Press has been quiet lately, but don’t read this as a sign of inactivity! My plan is to write some short posts updating folks on what we’ve been up to and what we’ve been thinking about over the last few months.

There’s been a ton going on behind the scenes with a record number of books in various states of production from the proposal stage to final review. That means, this late summer and fall will be busy with new book releases and announcements.

That also means that I’m learning a good bit about the managerial roles in the publishing business, the concept and practice of workflow, and thinking more seriously about how The Digital Press can contribute to the changing world of scholarly and academic publishing.

Peer review is fundamental to the academic publication process, but it also has seen some significant recent critique. Among the critiques that I found most intriguing comes from the Peer Review Transparency report sponsored by the Open Society Foundations. The report is here

One of the key aspects of The Digital Press’s workflow is close collaboration with the authors. This often involves a commitment on the part of the authors and the Press to see a project through to its publication. Unlike a typical academic press that might not commit to a project until it has received positive peer reviews, for many Digital Press projects, peer review does not have a “gate keeper” function that some imagine, but it part of the production and revision process. 

As a result, I became interested in the way in which the Peer Review Transparency report articulated the variations in peer review and I was charmed by their clever little icons that signaled the kind of review that a work underwent. They aren’t entirely straight forward, of course, but they do demonstrate the range of kinds of peer review present in academia today. Lever Press, a new and apparently very well funded, open access venture has already started to use these symbols to represent the level and kind of peer review present in their works. (This update from Lever is really interesting, by the way. I can assure my authors and readers that I won’t become a bishop any time soon!)

I’m thinking of experimenting with these little symbols in an effort to be more transparent about not just whether a particular volume is peer reviewed but the kind of peer review that the books we publish receive.  

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

As I haiku-ed this morning on the Twitters, I am working on an abstract for a paper that I’ll give at the 2019 Dumbarton Oaks colloquium “The Insular World of Byzantium” in November.

Here’s the haiku:

Writing an abstract
During the summer season
evokes autumn cold

Here’s the abstract:

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

Over the past 20 years the work of historians and archaeologists has complicated the our understanding of the 6th to 8th century on the island of Cyprus. The tidy narratives of devastating invasions, earthquakes, condominium, and social dislocation have given way to more messy and nuanced understandings of these centuries. Some centers saw continued prosperity while other experience decline. Innovative architecture existed along side more modest forms of ceramics. Invasions created destruction and new economic relationships. The complexity of this era offers some insights into character of Cypriot insularity.

This paper is grounded in recent work at the sites of Polis (ancient Arsinoe), modern Polis, in western Cyprus and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern side of the island. Both sites produced a substantial assemblage of Late Roman to Early Byzantine pottery and a basilica style churches. Architecture and ceramics offer perspectives on how the Cypriot islandscape mediates distinctive economic relationships and forms of cultural and religious expression. The connection between these sites and other places on the island, across the region, and around the Mediterranean suggests the contours of an insular culture that is neither uniform nor consistent.

On the one hand, the difference in the character of assemblages and architecture across the island (and between Koutsopetria and Polis) makes defining a singular Late Roman or Early Byzantine Cypriot insular identity impossible. On the other hand, these difference reflect both historical trends that defined the island’s political and social landscape for centuries and distinct pressures of the 6th-8th century. In the case of Cyprus, an island archaeology informed as much by historical contingency as geography provides a context for a new understanding of the Early Byzantine era.

Excavating Nostalgia

My colleague Scott Moore and I visited the site of our former excavations at Pyla-Vigla near Larnaca today. The trip up the rutted road from the Koutsopetria plain to the flat topped hill of Vigla is always familiar, nostalgic, and a bit strange. We spent a good bit of time driving that road and thinking (and writing) about the site.

Last year, we visited the site and I mused a bit about how our project, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, had an endgame under the direction of myself, David Pettegrew, and Scott Moore. This year, we visited our colleagues Brandon Olson and Tom Landvatter (as well Melanie Gadsey who worked with my at WARP for a half-a-decade). Unlike our tentative engagement with the site where we opened little “key hole” trenches designed more or less to ground truth our survey and some geophysical work, the PKAP 3.0 team (PKAP 1.0 was the survey and PKAP 2.0 was our excavation) has gone “whole frog” and opened up several large trenches designed to do more than prove that something happened there in antiquity. 

It was great to see the bustle of activity on this flat-topped coastal height with three teams of excavators working at three trenches. It was really exciting to be there as project directors and the trench supervisors moved between the trenches, excavators discussed the features in each trench, and all concerned strategizing about the moves. Excavators and supervisors showed off recent finds, flaunted their newly constructed sieves, and enjoyed some relaxed banter. Punk archaeology even made an appearance with the most punk sieve ever. (The ones that they built this year are much better, but far less punk):

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I left the site feeling pretty jealous of their work despite the dearth of shade, the hard work, and what I know will be a growing sense of urgency as the season progresses. The collegiality of working together on the site and thinking through problems of process and interpretation as they arise in the landscape was, to me, a unique experience. Whether we got our conclusions “right” while working on the fly or not (or at the speed of archaeology) always seemed less important to me than the chance to think in the landscape at the edge of the trench or in the survey unit. 

The visit to the site got me thinking about excavating first time since PKAP 2.0 concluded. Walking around the village of Polis, it’s impossible not to notice various open lots and to recognize that they would offer windows into the heart of the ancient city of Marion-Arsinoe. Of course, these lots are likely owned by people, serve various functions in the modern community, and are not simply waiting for archaeologists to fill them with ruins. My musings are not, of course, serious, in the sense that I have no intention of excavating, but a few hours with Brandon Olson and Tom Landvatter and their team made me at least entertain the fantasy!

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Making Digital Archaeology

I read with considerable interest Ethan Watrall’s very recent article in Advances in Archaeological Practice, “Building Scholars and Communities of Practice in Digital Heritage and Archaeology.” The article is very useful outline of how Michigan State has worked to train and develop the next generation of digital archaeologists through a series of three initiatives. (The article can be read productively against two recent article co-authored by Paul Reilly: one with Jeremy Huggett and Gary Lock, “Whither Digital Archaeological Knowledge? The Challenge of Unstable Futures” in the Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology and one with Costas Papadopoulos, “The digital humanist: Contested status within contesting futures” in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities.

Watrall’s article is unabashedly top down and offers an interesting template for developing the next generation of digital archaeologists, social scientists, and humanists. The programs developed at Michigan State and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities cultivate the ability to plan, organize, and develop digital projects in real time. They emphasize skill building, collaboration, project management, and shared, public outcomes. These are indeed the building blocks for developing archaeologists comfortable with digital approaches and tools and present a model that is consistent with the kind of “high impact” practices that are increasingly common across the U.S. Participants work in groups, develop key skills through rapid development project, present regular updates, and deliver a product that whenever possible is public, open, and relevant. This is good stuff in terms of providing a framework for practical engagement with not only digital practice, but, one could argue, any collaborative project in the social sciences and humanities. I suspect this thoughtful, contemporary design also contributed to the generous funding that these initiative have received from the NEH and Michigan State.

One things that I was particularly intrigued by was the idea that the approaches developed in these programs cultivated communities of practice. Watrall offered a furtive glimpse into how these communities of practice functioned. For example, in the NEH funded Institute on Digital Archaeology
Method and Practice participants found a home on Twitter (with the hashtag #msudia) to communicate eschewing applications like Slack designed to support collaborative research in primarily a corporate environment. Another hint at the way in which communities of practice began to develop was the tendency for groups to change over time with members shifting from one collaborative environment to another. Obviously, the long term results of programs like those developed by Watrall at MSU and whether they develop sustained communities of practice will be difficult to evaluate. At the same time, the particularly dynamic character of the digital world magnifies the need for resilient and sustained communities dedicated to navigating the challenges of new technologies, new social and institution structures, and new ethical parameters grounded in practice.

It’s also intriguing that these communities of practice will have to carry on the work of producing a digital archaeology long after the institutional work and institutional communities provided (funding and staffing and access to technology) by the NEH and large universities like Michigan State disperse. As Reilly, Huggett, and Lock have suggested, the future of digital archaeology may well rely on this kind of institutional support to ensure that communities of practice thrive. At the same time, there are, as Watrall himself recognizes, other models for a healthy digital archaeology in the future. This doesn’t undermine or diminish the success of Watrall’s Michigan State initiatives, but makes it clear that existing communities of practice will continue to shape the future of the field.  

Some Fragments on Early Byzantine Islands

One of my tasks this summer is to think more seriously about islands, and being on Cyprus and reading some of the recent scholarly work on islands in Byzantium seems to have stimulated this some. Go figure.

(To be clear, I have to write an abstract for a conference on islands by May 30th. In other words, this isn’t just a casual musing.)

So far I have a few observations.

First, Cyprus is a large island. This means that variation across the sites on the island will obscure some of the island’s ability to articulate a distinctly insular identity. In other words, if sites at opposite ends of the island or if a inland site and a coastal site show too much variation, it is reasonable to ask whether they’re on the same island at all. Of course, there are administrative ways that unify Cyprus with the autocephalous status of the Cypriot church being near the top of that list. At the same time, there’s always a certain tension between the idea of Cyprus as a single island rather than as a series of connected cultural, economic, and perhaps even political islets is reasonable.

Second, islands in the Early Byzantine period inevitably require us to attempt to synthesize the patchy and complicated history of settlement change during these centuries. With several exceptions, areas in Cyprus that were urbanized in antiquity tend to remain so today making it difficult to unpack the process of urban change in the Early Byzantine period. Cyprus has enjoyed rather extensive research in its rural areas, but so far, this work has only offered fleeting glimpses of the process of rural change over the 6th to 9th centuries. For better or for worse, archaeologists will have to write settlement history at any scale through proxies and comparisons rather than on the basis of direct evidence. 

Third, the obscurity of rural change and the challenges of understanding urban change on Cyprus has much to do with our inconsistent understanding of the material culture of these centuries. In particular, our ceramic chronologies continue to require refining and the relationship between various classes of small finds – coins, lamps, pots, seals, et c. – has to continue to inform critically our understanding of architecture, settlement, and regional and island wide change.

Fourth, while the study of islands has always involved attention to the place of human society within the environment, recent attention to the environment in a Mediterranean context has brought a new sense of sophistication and historical context to changes in climate. For Cyprus, for example, historical variability in rainfall either on the island or in the larger region can have dramatic impacts on agricultural production and the place of the island within the regional economy. It’s not just agricultural productivity and shifts in climate, of course, but also understanding how various external influences refract through the distinctive environmental resources available to island communities.

All this points to the larger question that’s clogging my head as I think about Cyprus and insularity: how does thinking of Cyprus as an island produce new ways of understanding the Cypriot and Mediterranean past? What does insularity bring to the the interpretative table for Roman and Byzantine antiquity? 

Reading The Roman Revolution 19: Antonius in the East

It’s coincidental that just as Ronald Syme turned his attention to Antonius’ time in the East, I arrived in Cyprus for the first part of my summer study season. In Chapter 19 of Syme’s The Roman Revolution, he unpacks Antonius’s work in the East while Octavian consolidated his power in Italy and at Rome.

In the popular imagination, this is the story of Anthony and Cleopatra, which has sparked romantic fantasies in both antiquity and more recent periods. Syme is, predictably, somewhat more sober in his assessment. For Antonius, Cleopatra was a key eastern dynast whose loyalty formed part of his larger eastern settlement in the aftermath of the costly, but successful Parthian campaigns. While they did have a liaison that resulted in twins and Antonius’s rewarded their alliance with expanded territory in the East, Syme describes Antonius’s relationship with Cleopatra succinctly: “If Antonius be denied a complete monarchic policy of his own, it does not follow that he was merely a tool in the hands of Cleopatra, beguiled by her
beauty or dominated by her intellect. His position was awkward if he did not placate the Queen of Egypt he would have to depose her.” Far from the Orientalizing historical narratives, Syme recognized in the relationship between Antonius and Cleopatra pure practical power.

For Octavian, making Antonius appear the Asiatic despot under the sway of the Egyptian queen contributed to his argument for a just war. Antonius through his alliance with Cleopatra constituted a foreign enemy and, even after a decade of civil war, established Octavian’s hostility toward Antonius as morally right. For Syme: “The situation and the phraseology recur in the history of war and politics whenever there is a public opinion worth persuading or deceiving.”

For Syme, Antonius was ruthless, but he was loyal both to Cleopatra and to his supporters and agreements. Octavian was not. He refused to send the troops that he promised Antonius and sent a token force and some ships instead. Moreover, he continued to build a case for war.

As per usual, the final paragraph of the chapter restates the goals of the duplicitous Octavian:

Created belief turned the scale of history. The policy and ambitions of Antonius or of Cleopatra were not the true cause of the War of Actium; they were a pretext in the strife for power; the magnificent lie upon which was built the supremacy of Caesar’s heir and the resurgent nation of Italy. Yet, for all that, the contest soon assumed the august and solemn form of a war of ideas and a war between East and West. Antonius and Cleopatra seem merely pawns in the game of destiny. The weapon forged to destroy Antonius changed the shape of the whole world.


The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

Because I’m in the field these days and it’s a bit harder to find time for slow reading, I’m going to pause this project at the very cusp of war. It’ll resume later this summer, when I have a bit more time!

Legacy Data

I might be giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in January on legacy data. Because of that, I’m trying to be particularly reflective when working with legacy data here at Polis on Cyprus. Over the past ten years (yikes!), I’ve been working with notebooks from the Princeton Cyprus Expedition and working with some colleagues to understand the architecture, stratigraphy, and artifacts from the site.

The notebooks qualify as legacy “data” inasmuch as they document the excavations, and we couple this data with some freshly minted data based on our analysis of the finds and time at the site. We’ve been tempted to ask for permission to excavate a bit more, but never have. At its heart, our project seeks to produce meaningful analysis from what already exists.

This summer, for example, we’ve started to work on pulling together all the basic information prepared in the past for the analysis of the Hellenistic to Late Roman lamps at the site. Most of the original notes on the lamps are in notebooks written between 1997 and 2004. There are some photographs dating to those years and earlier as well as some taken in 2012 and 2013. This information is particularly significant because many of the lamps were stolen when the project’s storeroom was burglarized in 2013. The proxy data – notes, photos, database entries, and archaeological context – are all that remains.

IMG 3767Legacy data with dried apricots for scale 

The first day working on a project like this always causes me anxiety as the tasks of recoding data, linking photographs, and interpreting someone else’s notes makes me fear that new knowledge isn’t possible. At the same time, there is something vaguely liberating in being able to reflow this information in different ways without the burdensome material affordances of the objects themselves (although to be fair enough still exist to pass judgement).   

Cyborgs and Octavia Butler

This weekend I read Colleen Morgan’s newest piece on cyborgs archaeology in the European Journal of Archaeology. At just about the same time, I finished the first two novels of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series (Dawn and Adulthood Rites). 

There’s a kind of unintentional symmetry between these two pieces. Morgan’s article explores the relationship between archaeologists, their methods, their tools, and their knowledge of the past. The seamlessness of these relationships creates new spaces where the divisions between humans and non-humans, individuals and their avatars, and the past and the present cease to be meaningful.

Butler’s complex world likewise focuses on blurring the distinction between the human and non-human, the living and non-living, male and female, and many of the other dichotomies that defined how we saw the world in so much of the 20th century. It is hardly surprising that Butler’s works appeared within years of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.”  And Haraway recognizes the significance of Butler in her later work, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), but because I’m pretty clueless, I didn’t realize how powerful the overlap between these ideas would be. Butler’s worlds provides a rich backdrop for narratives and characters that flow between genders, sexualities, time, and space. These moves are not, however, made simple, but are complicated without being unnatural or transgressive. 

As my summer moves from reading and thinking to spending time with artifacts, architecture, and landscapes, Colleen and Octavia Butler offer me thoughtful and provocative way of thinking about how our work, tool, mind, and lives produce one another.