Home > Late Antiquity, Survey Archaeology, Thisvi-Kastorion Archaeological Project > New Views on Old Data: Reinterpreting Intensive Survey Results After 30 Years

New Views on Old Data: Reinterpreting Intensive Survey Results After 30 Years

For those of you who will miss the 2010 Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting next week, here’s a draft of our paper.  Regular readers of my blog will recognize this as the continued development of my analysis of the data from the Ohio Boeotia Expedition.

New Views on Old Data: Reinterpreting Intensive Survey Results After 30 Years

William R. Caraher, University of North Dakota
Timothy E. Gregory, Ohio State University

It seems natural to include a paper on survey archaeology on a panel entitled “First Out”.  After all, the surface assemblage is, by necessity, the first out for any excavation.  At the same time, the study of surface assemblages has fit into the definition of “First out” intended by the organizers of this panel by contributing significantly to our understanding of post-Classical periods in Greece over the past four decades.  In fact, the ground breaking work of many of the participants on this panel has made clear that the rigorous documentation and analysis of surface finds has expanded our notion of what constitutes an archaeological site to well beyond the built-up centers of ancient poleis and across every century from the end of antiquity to the modern era.  Intensive surveys in Boeotia, Laconia, Messenia, and the Corinthia are rewriting both the ancient and post-Classical landscapes of these well-studied regions. 

If we can continue to play with the idea of “first out”, it is also clear that this phrase could apply to the first generation of intensive, pedestrian “siteless” surveys in another way.  Like the first phase of excavation at major sites across the Mediterranean, the first efforts at intensive survey often relied upon assumptions and methods that were unrefined or unsophisticated in comparison with more recent work.  While the methodological concerns associated with revisiting early “second wave” survey data prose problems, these data nevertheless preserve evidence for the ephemeral surface record in Greece.  Both ever-expanding development of the Greek countryside and the irregular patterns of surface visibility, agricultural practices, and erosion patterns obscure and threaten the surface record. 

This paper will use the data collected from the Ohio Boeotia Expedition between 1979 and 1982 from the (modern village and) Boeotian polis of Thisvi.  The results of this survey were published in a series of short articles between 1980 and 1992.  While these articles provided for a broad discussion of method and a basic report on the project’s findings, they did not publish finds or quantitative data extensively. Our goal with this paper is to take the first step in re-introducing data from the OBE into the broader conversation about settlement and survey data in both in Boeotia and across Greece more broadly.  To do this, we would like first to discuss briefly the process of curating the survey data produced by the OBE and then go on to analyze this data in the context of some recently published survey work from Greece.

The first step in preparing the OBE data for analysis was the keying of records preserved in a series of notebooks and binder pages into a relational database.  At the same time as we keyed data from notebooks and binder pages, we also sought to remap the location of the transects using GIS software.  It should be noted that in the mid-1980s the artifact counts and location of transects were entered into the Surface II software program and this produced a contour map of the artifact densities across the Thivi basin.  This, in itself was a significant attempt to examine the survey evidence across the landscape, and to make use of a siteless survey approach in the context of Mediterranean archaeology at a relatively early time.  While versions of these maps were published, the data behind these maps appears to be lost. In part this was the result of the necessity of using mainframe computers and punchcard data-entry techniques, coupled with the difficulty of maintaining this information in the context of funding for humanities projects at that time.  We have hopes that some of these data may yet be recovered but, unfortunately, at present the disappearance of this spatial data has made it difficult o place the western-most transects on the ground.  The written description of the locations of the western transects relies upon points of reference that are not visible on the Greek Army Mapping Service 1:5000 maps and have been destroyed on the ground as a result of the construction of a massive pipemaking factory.  There is hope that we can find the location of these transects from older aerial photographs of the area.

The final step in the production of this data is recording comprehensive metadata for all the information that we entered.  Once the keying of the data and metadata is complete we plan to make all this available to the public via the internet.  This step is especially important for small projects because the distribution of digital data expands the curation process from the purview of the creator of the data to the community of users who want to make use of the data.  By disseminating the data to end users, with the proper metadata, we make it possible for others to use our material and make it far more likely they will be kept compatible with changes in technology.


There have been significant changes in our understanding of the post-Classical countryside since the Ohio Boeotia Expedition published their results in the 1980s.  The work of both excavations and survey in Boeotia and elsewhere in Greece alone has produced a foundation for the reinterpretation of our survey data.  Recent work by Archie Dunn and a team from the University of Birmingham has begun to document the post-Classical finds at Thisvi itself and Jonita Vroom’s study of the post-Classical ceramics from the Cambridge-Bradford Boeotia Project has shed important light on the relationship between post-ancient ceramics and settlement patterns across Boeotia.  Our work on the older material from Thisvi needs to be put into the context of these newer initiatives.

The OBE team produced the current dataset through a number of different methods.  The diversity of methods reflected the early stage in the development of field procedures and an avowedly experimental approach to documenting the landscape.  The area closest to the city walls, Area A, was surveyed using a series of 11, randomly placed, 30 m radius circular survey areas from which samples were taken.  The team surveyed the plain itself using a series of long transects (Areas, C, D, and E) from which they typically took 1 sq meter samples, at regular intervals, for density and diagnostic artifacts.  Finally, the teams also collected samples for areas of particularly high density which they designated sites.  They surveyed these areas using  flexible methods best suited for documenting the extent, chronology, and function of the material on the ground.  In addition to these survey areas, the OBE team also conducted intensive survey on two nearby islands in the Gulf of Corinth, Kouveli and Makronisos, which we have not included in the aggregated totals produced in the analysis below.  In toto the survey of the mainland counted over 8700 artifacts and documented over 1700 batches of unique artifacts from the four areas investigated. 

The artifact density data from the OBE shows that the number of artifacts declined across the central part of the Thisvi basin.  This pattern, noted in the original publication of the survey, may be at least in part a product of the geomorphological patterns.  In antiquity, an ancient barrage, described by Pausanias, controlled the flow of water and sediment into the basin.  The periodic introduction of water-born sediments into the basin, whether controlled by this barrage or not, may have obscured sites of past
activity or discouraged habitation at various times.  The density of artifacts, however, clearly increases once again on the gently sloping, stony ground the along the south side of the basin. 

Against the backdrop of overall artifact density we can show the distribution of post-Classical material across the survey area.  In general, the survey area is dominated by artifacts from the Classical to Hellenistic and Roman periods which accounted for over 2/3rd of the datable ceramics.  In contrast, the far more localized concentrations of both Late Roman and Byzantine to Medieval pottery represented only about 10% of the overall assemblage of datable material collected from survey.  Modern material and a thin and rather diffused scatter of pre-Classical artifacts accounted for the other 20% or so of material from the survey.

For the post-Classical period, area A encompassed the highest density areas immediately south of the plateau upon which the ancient city and the modern village stand.  The post-ancient material from this area was more focused than material from earlier periods with most of post-classical artifacts deriving from three units: A2, A5, and A8.  The transects  immediately to the south of the urban center of Thisvi, Area D and C, show that post-Classical material declined at a much steeper rate than Classical-Hellensitic material with distance from the presumed center of post-Classical habitation.  The most significant variation between Area D and C was the rich assemblage of Late Roman material collected from the habor at Vathy which fell within Area C.  The harbor area at Vathy has been completely destroyed by an industrial harbor serving that factory, but a rock-cut road ran between the harbor and the Thisvi plain and that there were significant stone-built harbor facilities along the water’s edge, all of them apparently dating to the post-classical period.  Area E to the east of the ancient city tells a similar story to areas C and D except for a significant post-Classical site situated along the southern edge of the basin and designated E1.

Since the most significant quantity of post-ancient pottery from the Thisvi basin can be dated to Late Antiquity, it is perhaps most useful in this short paper to explore how we can reinterpret this distribution of Late Antique material in the countryside in light of the significant new analyses of material from this period in Boeotia and across Greece and with the help of a more easily manipulated dataset.  It is significant, on first glance, that the distribution of material around Thisvi is similar to that recently published around the city of Thespiai to the east.  The team from the Cambridge-Bradford Boeotia Project argued that the overall population of the city of Thespiai declined during Late Antiquity and, as a result, the residents of the city progressively abandoned the immediate hinterland of the city to intensive cultivation.  In particular, this meant that the residents of Thespiai stopped the practice of regular manuring the fields near the city which, Bintliff and others argued, deposited ceramic material in a tell-tale halo around the urban core.  In place of manuring, Late Roman farmers adopted less intensive agricultural practices and, at the same time, large tracts of land previously dedicated to feeding a urban population became part extra-urban agglomerations ranging from agricultural villas to self-sufficient hamlets. 

The decline in artifact density visible for the Late Roman period in the Thisvi basin would fit well with this hypothesis as Late Roman (and more generally post-Classical) densities declining away from the city itself not simply as evidence for contracted habitation, but as the relationship between contracting populations and changing land-use patterns.

The work of the CBBP also revealed large extramural concentration of Late Roman material like those at the southeastern corner of the of the survey area, E1.  This site coincides particularly well with kinds of site interpreted by the Cambridge Boeotia Survey as villas.  The assemblage from the site contained storage vessels consistent with some kind of agricultural installation as well as beehive sherds so common at Late Roman agricultural sites around Thespiai.  Moreover, the site was outside the densest areas of ceramics around Thisvi even at its Classical-Hellenistic peek, and this too paralleled the findings of the work at Thespiai. 

The second major concentration of Late Roman at the harbor at Vathy represents a more complex phenomenon.  The material at this site was more diverse than a simple agricultural installation and included some of the few example of Late Roman fineware from the survey area, in addition to a significant complement of transport vessels which would be expected at a coastal site (except probably not in the Bintliff scenario).  Vathy resembles more closely the assemblages present on the islands of Kouveli and Makronisos than the material present inland in the Thisvi basin or even neighboring Thespiai, which lacked significant quantities of Late Roman finewares: fewer than 10 sherds of imported finewares were identified on CBBP sites and this amounted to far less than 3% of the total assemblage of potentially Late Roman material.  In contrast, at the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey in the immediate hinterland of the important Late Roman city of Corinth, fineware made up almost 10% of the total assemblage of Late Roman artifacts, despite a collection strategy that would tend to under represent the proportion of fine ware to coarse ware.

Our ability to compare the material at Thisvi in quantitative and spatial ways to the results of more recent survey projects makes a return to this material particularly profitable.  When first documented and published in the mid-1980s, the presence of Late Roman and post-Classical material in the countryside of Thisvi was worthy of remark in its own right. Now as “the busy countryside” of Late Antique Greece comes into sharper focus, the functional and non-cosmopolitan character of Late Roman pottery from the Thisvi basin gives pause.  There is no question that southeastern Boeotian countryside continued to see investment in post-antique period with Late Antique fortifications extant at Thisvi, Thespiai, Khostia and on Mavrovouni.  On the other hand, the lack of imported fine ware in the basin itself during the Late Antique period suggests a particular kind of investment in the countryside.  The countryside around both Thisvi and Thespiai during Late Antiquity would appear to have received a less substantial investment in the kind of prestige habitation that is often associated with the concomitant decline in the urban core of the ancient world elsewhere.  In contrast, the concentration of imported finewares, as well as the transport vessels, at the harbor site of Vathy along with the islands of Kouveli and Makronisos, indicates that finewares were entering the area, but apparently did not find their way into the local rural assemblages.  Perhaps the sites in the gulf of Domvrena were transshipment points for goods destined to more economically prosperous elites around the city of Thebes in the Boeotian interior.

The title of today’s panel was “First Out” and we hope that our paper today extended the potential meaning of that phrase to include the post-Classical material from the first generation intensive pedestrian survey.  Our paper today represents a point of departure for further study of both the material produced by the OBE across the Thisvi basin and the growing body of “second wave” survey material from Greece.  While much second wave survey material has seen initial publication and has contributed to the present body of knowledge regarding the post-Classical landscape, we have shown the potential in returning to this material.  For the Late Roman period, in particular, we think that returning to this material will
allow us to move beyond the juxtaposition of rural prosperity to abandonment (a version of the old continuity or change question) and tease out indications of regional difference present in across the Late Roman landscape of Greece.  The potential present in returning to the first sherds collected from the Greek landscape in an intensive and systematic way demands that we make the results of these early intensive surveys available in flexible digital formats.  A return to these survey projects will not only contribute to the curation of survey data and, in the processes, confirm the continued value of “first out”.

  1. Maddy
    January 7, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks for publishing the paper, Bill. Even though I’m only 25 mile from Anaheim, I can’t make it to the conference (work and all). Have fun!

  2. April 16, 2010 at 6:12 am

    Thanks again for posting this, Bill. Finding it useful.

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