Friday, March 9, 2012

Curved Blades, the Archives of the ASCSA and Surface Area Excavation

Time appears to be moving quickly this year as it is already well into March! That means the next lecture in the Institute’s Winter/Spring Program is this coming Wednesday, March 14th at 7:30 pm. Our speaker, Catherine Parnell, is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Archaeology at University College Dublin. The title of her lecture is, “Barbarian Cleavers or Greek Swords? Portrayals and Perceptions of Curved Swords in Ancient Greece.”

Parnell’s lecture is concerned with curved blades in the ancient Greek world. In modern studies these are commonly known as kopis or machaira. The curved sword was frequently portrayed as an effective instrument of war, and the curved knife as a popular household tool. Despite the frequent representations of this morphological shape, however, these blades have not been the subject of much in-depth analysis and the archaeological evidence has not been linked with the literary or iconographic evidence. This lack of in-depth examination has resulted in mistaken ideas, such as, for example, the idea that these curved swords were Persian in origin. Using the available iconographical and literary evidence she will provide our audience with a cutting edge analysis of this neglected aspect of ancient Greece. Please join us and sharpen your knowledge of cleavers and curved swords!

Lecture of the Association of Friends of the Historical Archive of the Hellenic Archaeological Service
The next lecture sponsored by Association of Friends of the Historical Archive of the Hellenic Archaeological Service is on Monday, March 12th at 6:30 pm at the Historical Archive building on Psaromilingou 22 on the edge of Kerameikos and Psyrri. Dr. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, the Doreen Canaday Spitzer Archivist at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, will give a lecture in Greek entitled, «Η Αμερικάνικη Σχολή Κλασικών Σπουδών στην περίοδο 1945-1953. Η αρχή μιας νέας εποχής». She will explore what hidden and unexpected treasures can reside in archaeological archives.

Book of the Blog
For those of us who normally excavate in central and southern Greece or in Cyprus we are accustomed to doing this at sites with a limited range of sediment characteristics. As this generally happens in the warmer months of the year these sediments typically are desiccated and hard. Further, the excavation strategies and methodologies used are relatively uniform, following a grid system of trenches with baulks left for stratigraphic references. The baulks are removed only when one seeks to reveal complete architectural components. The generally different climatic and sediment conditions in northern Greece, combined with the different architectural traditions of earlier cultures that utilize more wood, mean that archaeologists often use different approaches for data recovery.

Unless an archaeologist works in different parts of the world excavating the remains of cultures at different stages of sociopolitical development she tends to forget that a “one size fits all” approach to fieldwork doesn’t work. One must always be ready and able to adopt, adapt and improvise in order to deal successfully with the challenges that a site or a region may present. The conditions under which one has to work also influence what can be done and how.

The time constraints and budgetary demands of the “directed archaeological research” of cultural resource management (CRM) in dealing with large development projects in the moist, sandy loams and glacial alluvia of northern Europe are many. The nature of the archaeological remains from a series of cultures that built various types of wooden structures, dug ditches, made berms and excavated wells across a given landscape have propelled CRM work toward certain research designs and recovery methodologies. These revolve around what is called “surface-area” or “large area” excavation where broad expanses of the upper soil horizon or “plough zone” are mechanically stripped off using bulldozers or grade-alls to reveal the upper boundaries of decayed architectural and archaeological features. At the European Archaeological Association Congress held in Zadar in 2007 there was a session focusing on issues and outcomes related to this approach. G. Blancquaert, F. Malrain, H. Stäuble, and J. Vanmoerkerke have edited the nine papers that were given in, Understanding the Past: A Matter of Surface Area (BAR International Series 2194, Oxford, 2011).

Much of the interest in the surface area excavation strategy is the result of large scale development and infrastructure projects such as gas pipelines, limited access highway right of ways, high speed railroad right of ways, coal mining, harbor expansion and large scale building projects. To conduct archaeological research on such a scale with tight time and financial parameters have led to experimental approaches to the mechanization of the plough zone stripping, the mechanization of the sieving of the archaeological sediments for artifactual and ecofactual materials and digital recording and measurement techniques.

What has been discovered by using these innovations in surface area excavations in a number of regions of France, Flanders in Belgium, Moravia in the Czech Republic and Saxony in Germany in the context of preventative archaeology is truly amazing! Although CRM interventions typically have a sharp and limited geographical focus, they are, nevertheless, like transects that dissect the landscape revealing often unexpected finds in non-intuitive locations.

Jan Vanmoerkerke’s historical overview of the development of this strategy over the past century is most informative as it demonstrates that the location and preservation of a country’s cultural patrimony that are threatened by various kinds of developments is not a recent phenomenon. Many of the other contributions provide insights into the origins, the underlying philosophy and goals as well as manner of organization of cultural heritage management in their particular country. Greece needs to reflect seriously at this moment on its cultural heritage management policies in light of the ongoing and ever deepening economic crisis. The austerity measures that the Greek state is adopting under duress are aimed at reducing the size and cost of the government. The Hellenic Archaeological Service is a prime example of what this means in real terms.

While this volume is not for every Greek archaeologist out there, it nonetheless provides a number of stimulating ideas on how one might conduct fieldwork differently with positive results. It indicates clearly that the cultural heritage management practices of other European countries can inform the decision making in Greece on ways to better protect and preserve its rich cultural patrimony.

David Rupp

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