Friday, November 4, 2011

A Radical Approach to Byzantine “Things” and Archaeological Survey

The first event of the fall for the Athens Association of Friends of CIG will take place at the Institute on Wednesday, November 9th at 7:30 pm. Professor Glenn Peers (Department of Art History, University of Texas at Austin) will present a radical approach to the exhibition of Byzantine “art”. Taking the opportunity of mounting a new display of Byzantine objects in the Menil Collection (Houston, TX) he is organizing the exhibit in order that the so-called “art” will be demystified and contextualized so that viewers will see these “things” as the active agents they were in the construction of the everyday world by Christians in the Mediterranean area during the Byzantine period. He sees the attitudes of the members of this society towards their material culture as contingent, relational and animist. Prof. Peers will surely challenge your preconceived aesthetic and cultural notions on this subject. So come, and take a walk on the wild side!

Book of the Blog
The recovery of the material culture remains and associated data from past cultures is thought by many archaeologists as the sole realm of excavation. In doing so the archaeological record is destroyed systematically at the same time it is investigated. There is another, mostly non-destructive data recovery technique, namely, archaeological survey. As this other approach is not as common in the Mediterranean region as compared to excavation and it is not normally taught in the undergraduate and graduate curricula of classical archaeology it retains a certain mystery. In addition, there is reluctance by some to accept the validity of its results.

This situation is certainly unfortunate and unnecessary given the rising cost of excavations and the relentless destruction of the archaeological record by various agents of development. Archaeological survey plays – and can play – an important role in our investigation of the past. Many questions remain, however, such as how does one go about conducting an effective survey? And how can one evaluate the plausibility of survey results?

Ted Banning (Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto) has come to our rescue. In his compact, but dense contribution to the Manuals in Archaeological Method, Theory and Technique series, Archaeological Survey (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 2002) he systematically reveals all, and more. He sees his audience as professional archaeologists and students of archaeology with a familiarity with archaeological theory and method. For those with a thinner background in archaeology he suggests how they might still benefit from the book. To assist in this Banning starts with a historical overview and explains survey’s unique contribution to archaeological research.

The book is organized to reflect “that good archaeological survey design must both anticipate the detectability of archaeological materials and facilitate the survey’s objectives” (p. vi). Thus, “the main chapters…follow on the influences on detectability and on three classes of survey that reflect…the main goals that surveyors attempt to achieve” which are “ prospection, estimation and detection of spatial pattern” (p. vi). His many survey experiences, his broad knowledge of the literature as well as his experiments with his students provide an unique insight into the breadth and depth of this data acquisition technique. Banning takes the reader, step by step, through the intellectual exercise that a productive survey is based on. Among them are, the potential goals of a survey, the factors that affect archaeological detection, estimating discovery possibilities, the post-depositional factors that affect spatial pattern, the boundaries of a research zone, types and shapes of collection units, scale effects, how to survey sites and landscapes, surveying for spatial structure and the use of geophysical remote sensing.

While Banning’s observations and recommendations may seem “too theoretical, too counter-intuitive or too much of a departure from years of practical experience” (p. vii) he argues that intuition and experience can benefit significantly from his insights. The illustrative materials are adequate to make his central points, but many require patience to understand the mathematics and statistics behind them. The practical advice and technical information are succinct. The book’s bibliography is extensive up to when it was published.

For those of you who have never participated in an archaeological survey yet must digest the results of surveys, this is the place to start your steep learning curve. For those of you who are contemplating conducting a survey, this book will provide you with a crash course on how to proceed and why. There are other books and case studies in the Institute’s Library that will enlighten you further on archaeological survey, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.

David Rupp

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