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The Big Dig: Cressotti And His Fellow Archeologists Pass The Time With Humor And "Moving Tapes"

July 16, 2011 by Special To The ...

The Big Dig: Cressotti And His Fellow Archeologists Pass The Time With Humor And "Moving Tapes"

By midday, the citadel is like a furnace. The clouds ,which occasionally hover around the edges of the basin, always burn away by the time they come overhead. The pale limestone of the bedrock and the walls is hot to the touch, and the breeze blows only seldom. In every open area there is a kind of tall wild grain, the stalks of which are a slightly reflective golden tone. Both grain and stones act as reflectors until all shade is eradicated and there is no respite to be found. After spending six hours trudging around the walls or moving tapes, people will pause and sigh happily at even the lightest breeze.
Moving tapes is a little known and less talked about part of the survey side of archaeology that may require some explanation. First and foremost, it must be understood that survey work should always be done with some sort of methodology in mind. Rambling willy-nilly over the hills is tremendous fun and can give you an excellent sense of the landscape, but there is more to archaeological survey than good boots and a sense of adventure. Proper survey work must be done with the closest approximation of precision that the landscape will allow. So, for instance, instead of wandering about at random, the technique for proper field walking is to space out all of the surveyors at regular intervals, perhaps five meters or so, and to all walk perfectly parallel paths in a common direction. Each person is responsible for checking the ground between them and their neighbors for things like walls or pottery. Clearly this is more sophisticated than random wandering, but it can hardly be said to be entirely rigorous; it will be an approximation of precision.
Magnetometry is similar in the linearity that it requires. Someone with a steady stride and good balance is obliged to walk the machine in a zig-zag pattern across a field. The tighter the zig-zag, the better the resolution of the data will be. Think of it like a digital photograph- more zig-zags is more megapixels. There is an upper limit, of course, but it is broadly true. People, however, do not walk in such perfect lines at such regular intervals. In order to keep them in the right line, we stretch long measuring tapes across the field, two parallels delineating opposite sides of the area to be surveyed and two that run perpendicularly between them at the interval which is being walked. For instance, for us it is a half meter interval. The person walking the lines will walk up one side of a line and down the other, then that line will be moved half a meter down and the person will walk again. Honestly, describing it makes it seem more complex than it is.
This is, obviously, one of the more tedious aspects of archaeology. Like anything else, you have to start somewhere, and often times there are parts of even the most enjoyable jobs that try the patience. We pass these dull hours by occasionally reviling the heat, often trading casual witticisms and curses, having some random discussions and, from time to time, mocking each other unmercifully. Archaeologists are, among themselves, something like a sitcom, having conversations that vault from cutting remark to pithy comment with appropriate pauses for laughter. Doubtless an outside observer would be horrified, but passing the time becomes more important than trifles like politeness. Curiously, it is very rare for people to cross the line into true insult; the sticks and stones we hurl bounce off an impenetrable wall of realizing that we are all living in close proximity and will be doing so for some time.
Not only have we been working on the citadel, but we were invited to do an emergency survey for the Greek government at a nearby site. Someone tried to bulldoze a hillside in order to expand an olive grove and inadvertently destroyed three tombs. The driver of the bulldozer did the appropriate thing and contacted the authorities. We were called in as a favor, to do a quick scan with the GPR (ground penetrating radar) and see if there are any other graves there. It was a long day, but a worthwhile one. Things like this happen sometimes.
This illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of Greece- the uncanny omnipresence of antiquity. You can hardly sink a foundation without finding something ancient. Thousands of years of habitation have worn kinds of social grooves into the landscape- many of the towns today are on top of or very near to the settlements of a thousand of years ago. Antiquity is common here in a way that doesn’t even have an analogue in America. In town, out of town; on hilltops, in rivers; punctuating the landscape in ways that are natural yet astonishing to one who is used to “old” meaning three or four hundred years ago.
I head to the next site, Mycenae, next week. Stick around to learn about the site that started it all, back in 1874 when Heinrich Schliemann saw truth in legend and galvanized the world with the thrill of archaeology.

Francis Cressotti was born and raised in Cheshire. He attended Dickinson College, where he studied archaeology under Dr. Maggidis and graduated with a degree in that field in 2010. This is his third summer in Greece, where he can often be found climbing mountains. Join him next time to learn more about the survey of Mycenae.

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