First Out: A First Draft of An Intro for New Views on Old Data
To provide some context, this is a first draft of my introduction to a paper that Tim Gregory and I will present at this winter’s Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting. The paper deals with survey data produced by the Ohio Boeotia Project in the Thisvi Basin in Boeotia. You can read more on our work to re-habilitate and re-analyze this data here. The paper will be in a session called “First Out: Late Levels at Early Sites“.
For our paper, I plan to tweak the meaning of first out a bit. To begin, the surface assemblage, no matter what the chronological range of the pottery present, is always first out. The systematic documentation of surface assemblages provides a means to apprehend the over all site formation process in which the surface of the ground will invariably the most recent events in the history of the site. First out, in terms of survey, data represents the boundary between the work of the archaeologist and the layer formed by “archaeological processes”.
For the survey data gathered over the course of the Ohio Boeotia Project from the Thisvi Basin, first out has another meaning as well. The OBE was among the earliest “siteless” style intensive surveys typically associated with the Second Wave of intensive survey in Greece. These projects sought to document systematically the distribution of ceramics across the landscape rather than simply focusing on individual sites. The focus on the distribution of artifacts both “on site” and “off site” produced more robust and complex datasets that pushed the limits of quantitative and GIS technology of the day. The tools that we have now, on desktop computers, provide us with new ways of analyzing the data from these early siteless projects. More importantly, however, these projects capture a layer of an ephemeral landscape. Survey archaeologists have come to realize that the landscape documented by intensive pedestrian survey represents a distinct moment in the history of the surface of the ground. Changes in erosion patters, surface visibility, and cultivation practices significantly influence recovery rates which, in turn, affect the chronological character of the assemblage produced. In a bigger picture sense, the continued development of the Greek countryside (particularly in areas with easy access to the coast like the Thisvi basin) further endangers surface assemblages. Since the overall distribution of material across an area rarely warrants the status of “site”, there are few protections in place to prevent the destruction of surface scatters which preserve evidence for both subsurface activity as well as more “low intensity” uses of the ancient and modern countryside.
It’s important to recognize that our efforts to re-analyze the survey data from the Thisvi basin is a key step in preserving the results of an effort to document the disappearing landscape. These efforts run counter to the highly-critical stream in the methodological discourse associated with intensive survey which tends to see the results of earlier field work to be methodological unsophisticated, problematic, and potentially misleading. Each new survey purports to make significant contributions both to the survey method and the more general body of archaeological knowledge. The drive to innovate has had produced ever more robust datasets, but has also led to a relative neglect of earlier work. This in turn, has made the task of curating “early” siteless survey data less appealing: despite its potential for capturing disappearing or ephemeral landscapes, it is seen as being too methodologically problematic to reward the efforts of re-analysis.
Finally, we can address first out in the way meant by the organizers of this panel. Perhaps no area has seen greater advances through the work of siteless survey than later periods. The growth of intensive survey coincided, roughly, with John Hayes’ landmark works on the chronology of Late Roman ceramics. At the same time, survey archaeology has become an important tool for documenting less visible periods at traditional sites including the Byzantine, Medieval, and Ottoman periods in Greece. Shifts in settlement pattern and the continued privileging of the antiquity in both the historical and archaeological discourse of Greece has made the work of survey archaeology in documenting post-antique levels particularly valuable.
That’s my first draft of an introduction. Stay tuned for more on this project over this week as I get to writing up the analysis of the survey data…