The Corinthia and Survey Archaeology

My talk on the Fourth Trip, in the Corinthia, was on survey archaeology, particularly the work of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS).  No one in this group of Regular Members has any experience doing survey.  This is particularly striking because many of the folks at the school right now, from Jack Davis and Guy Sanders to Tim Gregory and myself, have spent time doing survey and have some investment in the method.  In any event, I introduced, in a very general, way the survey of the Corinthian landscape. 

I focused my brief presentation on four things.  None of them are new, but this is the gist:

1) Survey and Colonialism.  I began with the idea that survey had as long and august a history in Mediterranean archaeology as excavation, and, moreover, it had roots in the same colonialist impulse as the first large scale excavations.  In fact, I suggest that in some ways survey is more colonialist in that mapping the landscape and producing inventories of archaeological “resources” represents one of the most basic tasks that colonizers undertook in their efforts to domesticate “the other” by translating terra incognita into scientific (i.e. basically Western) notation and assigning it significance and meaning (in a recent email discussion with Dave Pettegrew, he offered the phase “appropriating knowledge” to which I objected (ironically)).  I suggested that the difficulties EKAS experienced in getting permits might be tied (in a very big picture kind of way) to the colonial legacy of Survey, particularly, the difficulties in “controlling the activities” of large scale regional surveys which sent teams out in the countryside in a way that was difficult (or manpower intensive) for local officials to supervise.  One can almost see the survey archaeologists as guerilla archaeologists out beyond the settlement and village both appropriating the countryside for scientific archaeology and (in some ways) using this intimate local knowledge for their own advantage.  This can be contrasted to large scale, contemporary excavations, which take place (in some instances) in the village surrounded by fences, under the watchful eye of the community.  It is theatrical and a spectacle and therefore somehow constrained by the spectators gaze.


2) Surveying the Suburbs.  Permit restriction, expense, and the incredible logistical demands all have influenced the decline in large scale, regional survey in the Greece.  In its place, more localized and focused survey has emerged (it is much easier to monitor a small scale survey centered on a known site).  Focused, smaller scale survey have had a long tradition in Greece with surveys in the suburbs of known sites being a component of the Nemea Valley Archaeological Project, the Cambridge Boeotia Project, and the Ohio Boeotia Expedition (and it appears to be the focus of a new project called the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).  While almost all survey has sought to study the hinterland (i.e. not the center), the real variation has occurred only in how far the “hinter” the land really is.  Because permit limitation prevented it from being a genuine regional survey, EKAS reflected the tradition of suburban survey by focusing primarily on the eastern suburbs of a known urban center.  Two issues are associated with the “suburban” focus of this survey: (a) How do we define and understand the limits to our survey area and the concentration of pottery within it.  This is the old “what is a site problem” that most survey archaeologist know only too well. (b) How do we cope with incredibly high artifact densities in an efficient and responsible way.  Traditional sampling strategies (site based collections, the collection of all “diagnostic sherds” et c.) break down when confronted with the continuous high density carpet of unit after unit with densities of over 2000 artifacts/hectare.

3) Thresholds of Intensity.  The problem encountered working in an environment with astronomical artifact densities is where does one set the threshold of intensity.  The threshold of intensity refers, in the case of EKAS, to not only our desire to collect or document artifacts on the surface in a very intensive way, but also consequently document their environmental context.  EKAS, for example, was “bogged down” by a combination of high artifact densities and a very thorough set of forms that sought to document almost every conceivable variable an archaeologist might encounter in a field (visibility, vegetation type, surface clast type, surface clast size, soil type, et c.).  In theory this was an excellent idea, but in practice it prevented us from surveying a particularly large section of the Korinthian landscape.  Moreover, when analyzing the data we discovered that some of the variables that we recorded did not correlate with archaeological features in any demonstrable way.  This, then, marked the threshold of intensity — the exact place where data collection inhibited the overall goals of the survey, which in the case of EKAS was to produce a meaningful sample of the suburbs of Korinth.  In our defense, we didn’t realize that we had reached the thresholds of intensity until we actually analyzed the data. 

4) A Survey Discourse. The overall impulse behind increasing intensity of data collection in survey is to produce a landscape that will hold up to scientific scrutiny.  A “scientific landscape” would approach a kind of objective reality that can then be held up against excavation (the seemingly more scientific older brother of survey) in a positive light.  The overarching assumption is: “if we can somehow control for all the variables then survey data will have irrefutable meaning and have secured its place in the archaeological discourse.”  The hope that survey archaeology can produce the same kind of meaning and support the same kinds of arguments as excavation, however, is problematic from the start.  First and foremost, survey data, with few exceptions, must rely upon excavated contexts for all ceramic chronologies.  Secondly, survey archaeology only ever produces a sample of the known material on the survey (and the level of intensity dictates how large a sample this is). 

Consequently survey is not a highly precise instrument and it is rarely suitable to answer the same kinds of questions that excavation can answer.  In particular, it is much better suited to inquiries framed by the Braudelian longue durée whereas excavations are better suited to shedding light on the historical eventement.  This shouldn’t be particularly surprising as intensive survey in Greece was developed primarily by prehistorians who were interested in long term processes (Landscape Archaeology as Long Term History as it were). For those of us interested in the historical period, however, this means that we have to be willing to construct arguments that function of multiple scales that may or may not (as is the case with Braudel) intersect in a precise way.  This involves the development of a Survey Discourse for
the historical period, a project that is currently underway, but far from being complete.


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