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Boeotia Project. Vol. 2, The City of Thespiai. Survey at a Complex Urban Site

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Boeotia Project. Vol. 2, The City of Thespiai. Survey at a Complex Urban Site

Edited by John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2017. Pp. xviii + 414. $90. ISBN 978-1-902937-81-6 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Archaeology has a problem with follow-through. We dig, survey, and record far more than we publish. It is always more interesting, more exciting, more grant-worthy, and frankly more fun, to collect new data in the field than it is to write up what we already have. Archaeology promises more than it delivers, and this is the little lie we hide from ourselves as we head into yet another field season. The volume of unpublished data languishing in storerooms, offices, slowly moldering bankers’ boxes, and aging directors’ heads is something of an indictment of the field.

So, the publication of the second volume of the Boeotia Project’s survey results reflects a number of these concerns about unpublished data but at the same time offers a welcome counterpoint: the long gestation period has enabled the authors to reflect on methodologies and analytical strategies more than many similar publications have done. The Boeotia Project ran from 1978 to 1997 and surveyed the complex urban site of Thespiai in central Greece in 1985 and 1986 (179 ha in total were surveyed, including extramural areas). The first volume, published in 2007 as Testing the Hinterland: The Work of the Boeotia Survey (1989–1991) in the Southern Approaches to the City of Thespiai (J. Bintliff, P. Howard, and A. Snodgrass, eds., Cambridge), covered the southern hinterland of Thespiai, and this book covers the city proper. The volume is organized around the survey methodology (19–198); the history of the site from the Archaic to the Ottoman period, as gleaned from epigraphic and literary sources (199–266); and artifact analyses focused mainly on pottery by period, from the Neolithic to Early Modern (267–374). Short sections on numismatics (375–386) and concluding thoughts (387–390) close out the volume. Six appendices are included on a CD.

Many of the contributors (esp. Bintliff, Snodgrass, and Slapšak) have been publishing on this project for decades, and most of the others are well-respected ceramicists, epigraphers, and landscape archaeologists. In many respects, the volume is the result of a multigenerational project, not only in that it took many years to complete but also in that Bintliff’s and Snodgrass’s students—themselves now well-established academics—write alongside their former supervisors. This results in a uniformity of approach, but it also means that there is little in the way of deviation from long-established positions. It is still the case that manuring is presented as a settled issue (100–1; as was the case for the first Boeotia Project volume, as noted by D. Pettegrew in his review of the book, AJA 2010, 114.1), and the discussion takes little notice of scholarship after 2000 on the topic.

The city of Thespiai was a minor player in wider historical narratives, but probably typical in terms of long-term development for middling towns in Greece: a slow nucleation from the Early Iron Age until the Middle Hellenistic period, then urban decline and increasingly dispersed settlement in the countryside (287–316, 389–90). In the Roman and Late Antique periods, the local elite did well at the expense of the broader countryside and its inhabitants (317–49, 389–90). Contraction continues after late antiquity, as Thespiai shrinks from a small town to a hamlet and again to a series of small villages, with churches perhaps distorting this picture of the inhabited landscape (351–74, 389–90).

As with the other Boeotia Project publications, the great strength is less in the synthetic discussions and more in the methodological and analytical sections. There is a reason that the methodology takes up about 46% of the discursive sections of the volume, and the best part of the volume, in my mind, is the careful consideration of methodology, its impacts on data recovery, and the cascade effect these have on analysis and presentation. In many respects, this is a project focused on analyzing legacy datasets, even though it is presented as a final report. The collection and recording methodology of the survey was devised in the mid 1980s, but the analysis and reporting is conducted through a contemporary lens. The result is a refreshingly open discussion on the challenges presented by problematic legacy datasets, and the limitations of imperfect data.

For example, the ceramic collection strategies focused on so-called feature sherds (rims, bases, handles, and anything bearing decoration). Samples of body sherds were also collected, but material considered undiagnostic or redundant was discarded during processing. The result is an overrepresentation of particular types of ceramic material; there is no control sample against which to check the collected material (39–41), no way to discern the proportion of undecorated or plain wares, and no way to undertake a statistically significant fabric analysis of nonfeature sherds. The collected assemblage was a methodological leap given the standards of the 1980s, but that does not stop it from appearing dated now. What is impressive is that all of these points are made in the volume itself (287).

There is also a valuable discussion of the reasoning behind the methodology (23–33) and the assumptions lying behind the resulting interpretation (35–64), including the (to me) counterintuitive conclusion that increased intensity does not lead to more finely grained chronological information (43–44). This speaks directly to ongoing debates about sample size and intensity in survey archaeology, though I would have liked to see more on the ancillary benefits of higher-intensity surveys (such as increased proportions of nondiagnostics, plain/coarse wares, tiles, and nonceramic artifacts by period). The conclusion that body sherds provide no significant extra information for major historical periods, provided the overall sample is sufficiently large, is significant (39), but it is also telling that students were instructed to collect different artifact types with varied methods; for example, coarse wares were collected regardless of shape or feature, in order to boost the proportions of forms (39–40).

This relates also to discussions of artifact visibility and how to account for differential ground cover in sampled transects (51–64). If certain artifact types are deemed to be “absent,” and one attempts to correct for this by increasing the intensity, what does that do to overall density counts, or subsequent interpretations based on proportions of artifact types? Bintliff has long been a proponent of modifying density maps to account for visibility issues (cf. J. Bintliff, P. Howard, and A. Snodgrass, “The Hidden Landscapes of Prehistoric Greece,” JMA 12.2, 1999, 139–68), but as always the underlying values that exist behind the “corrections” are absent. It is almost certainly true that in lower-visibility units more diagnostic than undiagnostic pottery is counted, and it is also possible that this has an impact on both the functional character and chronological range of collected ceramics (as per W. Caraher, D. Nakassis, and D. Pettegrew, “Siteless Survey and Intensive Data Collection in an Artifact-Rich Environment: Case Studies from the Eastern Corinthia, Greece,” JMA 19.1, 2006, 7–43), but those assumptions need to be unpacked, and the methodology for “correcting” visibility needs to be explicit. Differential collection is not uncomplicated when artifact density is the main vehicle of analysis.

To my mind, a particularly notable chapter is the architectural survey (141–98, appx. 4). This overview of standing architecture and spolia is compiled from three different episodes of architectural survey conducted over 23 years. What is particularly important is the diachronic nature of much of this material—the reuse of older elements in later periods—which also no doubt had an impact on associated artifacts. Any student of mortar knows to pay attention to inclusions, and the Late Roman fortification that reused so many architectural members likely also included ceramic material in its mortars or rubble cores. More significant, however, is the ephemeral nature of the catalogue. Stones appear and disappear or move sometimes significant distances over the course of the project. It is a stark reminder that this is an inhabited landscape, and though its current inhabitants are absent from the archaeological analysis, they are impacting it nevertheless.

It is not difficult to see what this volume would have looked like in the 1980s. It almost certainly would have contained the same chapter list; this type of episodic and period-specific reporting began with the systematic surveys of the 1970s and 1980s and is now the standard mode of publication for diachronic surveys. But the contents of these chapters would have been fundamentally different if this had been published alongside the other major systematic surveys done in Greece in that decade. There is an obvious benefit that this took so long to pull together in a final form. We are all essentially held captive by our own methodologies, and it is clear that temporal distance has given the authors the space to be appropriately critical of their younger selves. That self-awareness is not always extended to the work as a whole, however. The inclusion of some of the data on a CD is a Janus-like metaphor regarding the slow gestation of this volume. In the 1990s, the inclusion of a CD would have been hailed as a great accomplishment in methodological transparency and data sharing, in 2019 it just seems dated; I had to hunt down an external CD drive in my department in order to access it.

Archaeologists are constantly being pulled in contradictory directions, and this volume encapsulates some of these tensions—and not always by design. In many countries, but especially in the United Kingdom and North America, there is constant pressure to publish, and publish quickly. Many institutional reports that we are obliged to write focus on what we are going to do next, not what we have already done. This no doubt exacerbates archaeology’s “follow-through” problem, and the Boeotia Project was not exempt from such charges over the years. Despite the voluminous articles and chapters in edited volumes, it is the final report that draws a line under this aspect of the project, 31 years after initial fieldwork was completed.

Yet, there is also a clear need to reflect on old data, to think through what we have uncovered and what it means—in both local and wider archaeological contexts but also in a reflective manner through time. We cannot do both; we cannot report quickly on our work and reflect deeply on what that work means as our own careers (and disciplines) mature. There is little incentive to keep revisiting the same dataset over and over, to keep turning over the soil and see what else will catch our eyes. Archaeology, as a discipline, is fundamentally concerned with time, and yet we do not build enough of it into our reporting processes, nor do we typically reward those who stick with the same dataset and mull it over and over and over. While this volume shows us the value in living with a single dataset for a long time, it is hard to imagine any scholar who is not an established professor near the end of their career being given the latitude to publish and reflect in this manner. This volume is a welcome addition to scholarship on Greek landscape archaeology, survey methodology, and legacy data—a clear example of why it is never too late to reopen those bankers’ boxes and publish—but it is hard to see it being a model that others will be able to follow.

Dan Stewart
School of Archaeology and Ancient History
University of Leicester

Book Review of Boeotia Project. Vol. 2, The City of Thespiai, edited by John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass
Reviewed by Dan Stewart
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Stewart

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