Home > Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project > The Varieties of Archaeological Experience

The Varieties of Archaeological Experience

One of the recurring themes in this blog is an emphasis on the varieties of archaeological experience in a Mediterranean context (e.g.). Despite my insistence (primarily to myself) that different approaches to archaeological knowledge can exist concurrently and possess a kind of validity rooted in a particular cultural discourse, it is nevertheless difficult to put this kind of approach to archaeology into practice. It’s one thing to accept that different modern archaeological methods – say, intensive pedestrian survey, stratigraphic excavation, and remote sensing – can produce different results, but another thing to try to understand (and risk validating!) the cultural context for, say, metal detector looting.

This being said, by the end of our field season on Cyprus, we witnessed at least four different archaeological methods each with its own goals and contexts…

1) Stratigraphic Excavation.  This method of excavation has become the standard for academic excavations the world over.  Its basic premise lies in excavating according to depositional contexts typically evident by changes in soil type.  The goal is to associate the depositional process with the cultural material preserved in each stratigraphic layer.  This process melds the processes that create the archaeological environment with chronological and functional indicators of past human activities. This method for archaeological investigation is widely accepted that it can produce a kind arrogance in its practitioners that verges on colonial conceit. 

2) Non-Stratigraphic Excavation. The issue with stratigraphic excavation is that it can be very slow – especially with student excavators in complex environments. The complexity and slow pace of our excavation made it clear that we were not going to be able to answer some of our research questions. In particular, we were not going to be able to excavate deep enough to expose any of the Classical/Hellenistic phase to our settlement at Koutsopetria. At one point our collaborator within the Department of Antiquities suggested that we as “academic” archaeologist excavate too slowly and that we should make a deep, non-stratigraphic sounding to answer a specific research question. This evoked a rather strong negative reaction from many of the senior project staff and conjured up images of Schliemann’s Great Trench at Troy. On the other hand, the suggestion revealed an important distinction between the goals and methods of the state archaeological apparatus and an academic research project. The state, in its capacity as arbiter of official cultural values and “owner” of all archaeological material and sites had a particular right to approach excavation in a way that was inappropriate (at best) for a foreign archaeological mission whose right to excavate depended in part on their commitment to produce detailed documentation from the inherently destructive practice of archaeology.

3) Looting with Metal Detectors. This year, more than any other year in the past, the metal detector crowd was out in force across our entire research area. While we did not actually catch them in action, the divots left from their destructive shovel tests were evident across the entire site. Local informants and the Sovereign Base Area police told us that the metal detecting was organized and systematic at our site. The metal detecting team had a powerful metal detector that could find metal objects well below the plow zone. Apparently this more powerful type of metal detector is illegal (and it was illegal in any event to use it so close to a registered archaeological site), but the folks using it stationed look outs to keep them from being caught. At one point, a man who claimed to be a good kind of metal detector guy, talked with us about the bad kind of metal detector guys who were giving his hobby a bad name.

4) The Mist of the Past. We were also visited by a developer who grew up in the area. He was very keen to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the local archaeological landscape and talked in some detail about the various local discoveries. He made a point of explaining how local people could detect archaeological sites by observing the way that the morning fog moved across the ground. The coastal position of our site ensures a consistent morning fog making it well suited this kind of remote sensing technique.  Moreover, the expertise necessary to detect the slight changes in the way that fog moved across the landscape required a training rooted in the social organization of the local community.  According our informant, this archaeological method passed down through families and carried with it a kind of distinct (and potentially secret) knowledge of the history of the area.

The four kinds of archaeological methods that we encountered this year on Cyprus reveal different methods for appropriating and making meaningful the archaeological landscape.  The overlapping techniques present in the reading of a single landscape (and revealed over the course of a single 4 week field season) was a great antidote to the exclusive, modernist perspectives offered by stratigraphic archaeology.  This is not to say that we’ll unleash a cadre of metal detector wielding undergraduates across the site next summer, but rather to remind ourselves that our methods and the meaning that they project onto the research area represents only a small fraction of the archaeological “carrying capacity” of a particular place.

  1. Rangar Cline
    July 7, 2009 at 8:43 am

    It seems like your fourth category, “mists of the past,” could have some connection to the Dream Archaeology you have discussed in previous posts.

  2. July 7, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Absolutely… except the mists of the past is a conscious archaeological technique which may have some contact with reality (who know?). In contrast, dream archaeology is has feet both in the working of the unconscious mind (dreaming) and the conscious interpretative facilities (interpreting the dream).

  3. Kostis Kourelis
    July 7, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    This summer, I visited a cousin of mine, who lives in Lamia. He’s a civil engineer but very susceptible to populist theories. I haven’t seen him in about 10 years, so I was telling him about my archaeological fieldwork. At some point, he said, next time I am investigating a site, I should simply print out an aerial photograph and give it to him because he has a friend who can detect historical layers through ESP. So, he can do a “mental” excavation and tell me whether I’ll find anything below. Now, that is as “remote” as remote sensing gets. During this visit, I was translating what my cousin was saying to my brother-in-law, a very rational Swedish economist. I censored my own translation during this passage. I was simply to embarrassed (for my cousin) to translate this to my brother-in-law. There were many other things that I left untranslated, mostly various conspiracy theories with the Economists as tools of the Americans.

  4. CamArchGrad
    July 7, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    I think there always will be a tension between the need for detail and the need to answer research questions. Moreover, I’ve noticed in the Mediterranean, archaeologists from the region tend to be more cavalier about doing soundings. When in Italy we cleaned out several structures with a backhoe and dumped the medieval layers in a pile to get at the roman strata. Our English archaeologists were horrified.

  5. July 8, 2009 at 8:35 am

    A very rational colleague of mine has a former student (and PKAP volunteer) who claims to have color synesthesia (there is apparently no known cure or treatment) which allows her to see space in colors. She looked at some of our standard black and white air photos and made notes where things appeared in different colors. My colleague investigated some of these places over the last year or so and remains convinced of the potential of this very unorthodox form of remote sensing.
    The ESP story is brilliant. That’s another great example of how people map the landscape through their unconscious! Tanagras would be proud!

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