After Excavation Ends, the Real Work Begins – Kurtis Tanaka

October 19, 2016

For a grad student in archaeology, summers usually mean being on the move, to sites, cities, and schools. Certainly this was true of mine—a simplified itinerary would look something like this: Athens, Rome, Athens, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Komotini, Istanbul, and Athens again. A peripatetic summer such as this reflects the many necessities and duties (or perhaps I should lump them together and call them opportunities, depending on one’s outlook) inherent in being an archaeologist working in the Mediterranean, for, as I am sure the readers of this blog will know by now, the work done in the field during excavation is only a small part of the process. Indeed, despite the early mornings and scorching summer days, you might call it the easy part. The larger part of the undertaking is less glamorous (if sweat and dirt are your thing) but no less rewarding.

Despite such a busy summer of travel, I want to focus here on my continuing work at the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (MTAP), now in its fourth season, where the real archaeological “meat” of my summer was spent. After three years of excavation and two of (simultaneous) field survey (previously written about for this blog), the project has entered its first study season. As I said above, the actual excavation and survey is only a small part of the whole project. After the material has been dug, sections drawn, and notebooks meticulously recorded, comes the long slog of trying to actually make sense of it all. For the archaeological survey, the first step was a lot of database work. Records that were entered incorrectly, had missing data, or that were just missing, all have to be found, fixed, and reconciled with the geographic information system (GIS) before we can even begin to proceed with the analytical work. And, of course, this also involves a hundred other small problems to be overcome: software compatibility between PC and Mac, Dropbox storage space, riffling through paper forms, reading handwriting, and so on. As I said, not so glamorous.

Survey leader Tom Tartaron in the field (Photo by Kurtis Tanaka).
Survey leader Tom Tartaron in the field. Photo by Kurtis Tanaka.

However, once all these small details get sorted out, you can start to see the bigger picture. A clean database, gives us better results in the GIS, which allows us to pull material for closer study and analysis. This, in turn, allows us to go back to the database and refine the data there so it can be put back into the GIS and so on, and every iteration of this heuristic gets us a clearer picture of the history of the Molyvoti peninsula and its hinterland. Better data also shows us where resurveying may be helpful, or may show anomalies that we can go back and ground truth in the field, as indeed we did. Taken together, this season’s work in the field and in the database proved a fruitful first step in preparing the final reports for the MTAP project and sharing our findings with the archaeological community at large, which, of course, is really what archaeology is all about.

Byzantinist George Makris resurveying fields. Photo by Kurtis Tanaka.
Byzantinist George Makris resurveying fields. Photo by Kurtis Tanaka.