Home > Survey Archaeology > A Rambling about Survey from a Regional Perspective

A Rambling about Survey from a Regional Perspective

A very recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Research (S. A. Kowalewski, “Regional Settlement Pattern Studies,” JAR 16 (2008), 225-285) offers another in a recent spate of critiques of intensive survey in the Eastern Mediterranean (and in Greece, in particular).  Kowalewski’s general treatment of regional settlement archaeology is an interesting read and brings together examples around the world demonstrating how settlement archaeology is indeed a global paradigm for understanding human behavior in space. 

He singles out Mediterranean archaeology for particular criticism, however, pointing out that most Mediterranean projects do not cover sufficient territory to address questions at a regional scale.  Drawing on definitions of regions developed in the discipline of geography, Kowalewski suggests that the smallest possible unit of study capable of providing useful conclusions regarding regional settlement is 150-250 sq. km (p. 257).  As in his earlier publications (most notably Kowalewski and S. K. Fish eds., The Archaeology of Regions: The Case for Full Coverage Survey. Clinton Corners, NY 2008 (originally Washington, D.C. 1990)) he recommends full coverage survey rather than employing any kind of regional sampling model.  Thus Kowalewski singled out projects like the Sydney Cyprus Survey Project for particular criticism:

“The Sydney Cyprus project spent five field seasons walking fields at hand-holding spacing, in 50 m transects 500 m apart, for 6.5 km sq., only 10% of the target region, which was small anyway.  The well-executed color maps still look like the world as seen through prison bars.  The data are not adequate for settlement pattern analysis; the surveys are actually something else, perhaps what Bintliff revealing terms “surface artifact survey.” (p. 250)

Blanton offered a similar critique of Mediterranean Survey in his now famous “Mediterranean Myopia” article (R.E. Blanton, Antiquity 75 (2001), 627-629).  Both Blanton and Kowalewski’s arguments, however, fail to account for the contributions of Mediterranean survey toward the history of settlement in the region (many of which were summarized in the M. Galaty, “European Regional Studies: A Coming of Age?” JAR 13 (2005) 291-363).  Indeed, the contributions of any one project might appear meager, the aggregate accomplishments of Mediterranean survey are impressive by any standard.

More importantly, the criticism of Blanton and Kowalewski are fundamentally incompatible with the kinds of surveys possible in places like Greece today.  Most survey projects find themselves restricted by limitations imposed by host countries (both in terms of time and area covered), the rapidly expanding and widespread rate of development, and the expense of doing fieldwork in Europe.  At the same time, the intensity of Mediterranean survey exceeds that of the kinds of regional surveys proposed by Kowalewski in part because regional studies in the Mediterranean (and in Greece in particular) operates in a discourse dominated by longstanding, large-scale excavation.  This creates a very particular set of expectations for survey projects by demanding very high degrees of chronological, spatial, and functional precision (i.e. like one finds in an excavation); see for example D. Haggis’s review of M. Cosmopoulos, The Rural History of Ancient Greek States: The Oropos Survey Project in the American Journal of Archaeology (AJA 107 (2003), 305-307) for an interesting example of the influence of excavation on survey in Greece.  These demands for precision fueled a particularly active discussion over the nature, notion, and definition of the site in the Mediterranean world.  The slippery definition of site in a Mediterranean context and the continuing challenge in assigning a clear functional component to most agglomerations of pottery in the landscape has pushed regional survey projects to engage in somewhat different paradigms than those offered by “regional settlement archaeology”.  Thus scatters of ceramic material in the Greek landscape are more likely to represent concentrations of particular kinds of resources at a particular place and provide insights into the complex network of economic, social, and even political processes that made such concentrations of material possible. 

Paradigms that understand regions as networks of interaction (see for example Horden and Purcell’s treatment of the Mediterranean) rather than geographically bound places in the landscape tend to privilege robust assemblages of material (namely pottery) derived from the increasingly narrow windows available for the study of the Mediterranean landscapes.  Mediterranean survey’s deft adjustment to a peculiar set of practical and discursive conditions has pushed increasingly for cooperation and comparability between projects that employ similar degrees of methodological sophistication (see for example, the S. Alcock and J. Cherry, Side-by-side survey : comparative regional studies in the Mediterranean World).  Survey projects in the Mediterranean emerge as methodologically-defined windows into the material culture of place and appreciated the wide variation of scales at which interaction occurs in the landscape.  While recent challenges to the notion of the site has eroded the kind of clear functional assessment of the landscape at a chronological scale suitable for traditional historical analysis, it has privileged approaches that recognize the variation within survey assemblages as an important indicator of the vitality of larger networks of regional interaction.  Thus the kinds of regions identified by Kowaleswki (and others), which are external to the methods employed by archaeological survey, have given way to networks of interaction across space that are fundamentally tied to the archaeological methodology.  In a larger perspective it seems possible that survey archaeology in the Mediterranean represents a significant example of bridging the kind of mid-range theory that has become a kind of holy grail for processual and post-processual archaeologists alike.

Categories: Survey Archaeology
  1. Khristophoros
    May 21, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    The “holy grail for processual and post-processual archaeologists alike” — wow, I’m getting goosebumps …

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