Cozied up at a country house near Granville, Ohio, my family ushered in the new year watching Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future II. This movie was a blast from the past. Released in 1989, I was a 15 year old skateboard punk when the film came out, and I distinctly recall conversations with friends about the (im)possibilities of the “hoverboard” – a wheel-less skateboard that floats on air (one of my friends claimed to have ridden one). In the second movie in the series, Doc Brown and Marty McFly travel 30 years into the strange future of 2015 with flying cars, hoverboards, automatic shoelaces, video conferencing, drones, accurate weather forecasts, and biometric scanners. This visit to 2015 causes a disruption of the space time continuum when the antagonist Biff Tannen borrows the time machine, visits his youthful self in 1955, and creates a new dystopian past and present (which alters the future 2015, of course), which resolves itself ultimately in the year 1885. No doubt Back to the Future II will be a hit this year: there are already a number of stories and videos like this one from the Washington Post, which compare the 2015 depicted in the film with the 2015 of our day.
Some of the stories of Corinthian Archaeology in 2014 remind me a bit of the strange world that the 1985 Marty McFly encounters when he travels 30 years into the future. There’s a kind of improbable, unexpected, or futuristic ring to them from the perspective of classical archaeology practiced a generation ago. How many archaeologists working in the Corinthia in, say, 1984, imagined that the following news stories would comprise the major archaeological events of 2014? If our time traveling archaeologist of 1984 had visited the year 2014 and stolen some tools and returned to the past, imagine the mayhem this would have created for the space time continuum.
Since it’s that time of year to compile lists of the greatest archaeological finds of 2014 (see, for example, this one from ASOR and this one from Archaeology magazine), it seemed fitting for Corinthian Matters to publish a ranking of the top ten unexpected stories of 2014. None of the stories below focus on new archaeological discoveries of 2014, which will not appear in journals anyway for at least several years, and none focus on new scholarship that made a splash last year, although your friends at Corinthian Matters are busily updating the Zotero library as we speak and will unleash a slew of new articles and books in the next couple of weeks. The stories below, rather, relate to the archaeological practice of Mediterranean archaeology, and are ranked not by their overall intellectual ramifications or importance per se – although many of them have already had an impact on archaeological knowledge – but according to their shock value – the “Great Scott!” of Doc Brown – from the vantage point of the past. Focusing on archaeological practice, I have had to exclude some pretty awesome stories like daredevil Red Bull pilot Peter Beneyei flying through the Corinth Canal twirling and whirling and plunging and looping. All the same, the ranking in its own way provides some view of the shifting landscape of archaeological practice today, especially as technology has crept into archaeological craft. Now I respect that you might arrange this list in a different order, or might substitute one story for another but here’s the AUTHORITATIVE list of Corinthian archaeology stories (where “Corinthian archaeology” is archaeology that has something to do wi5h the Corinthia).
10. Zigzag Art Discovered in the Panayia Field in Corinth
This story was certainly unexpected. It was one of the most widely circulated but least significant stories of the year which has to be included because it hit so many archaeological channels. The short piece from Live Science highlighted “Zigzag Art” on Geometric vessels from a sarcophagus of Corinth dating to the early 8th century BC. Zigzags are great, but are not overly impressive on Geometric vases (zigzags carved by early humans on 500,000 year old shells, on the other hand, are pretty cool). The author missed the major story – outlined in this recent report in Hesperia – about the early technological achievements of the Corinthian population. Still, the Panayia field excavations got some fine media attention. That the archaeological work reported in the Hesperia article and news piece was carried out a decade ago shows how long it can take for archaeological knowledge to reach the public and why it’s hard to put together a top ten list of discoveries of Corinthian archaeology in 2014. We may not know for many more years the full significance of what archaeologists documented last year.
9. The World’s Largest Solar Boat Arrives in Corinth
This one also I didn’t see coming, but like the zigzags, got a lot of press. In July, the world’s largest solar-powered boat, “Tûranor PlanetSolar,” visited the port of New Corinth for several days and then sailed through the Canal. Operated by researchers from the Swiss School of Archaeology and the Greek Ministry of Culture, the catamaran was on an archaeological enterprise to the Argolid to conduct an underwater survey in search of a putative prehistoric settlement near Franchthi Cave. The boat was equipped with geophysical survey equipment that would map the seabed. The scale of the solar ship, as well as the technology employed for underwater survey, make this story worthy of report even though the archaeological work fell well outside the realm of the Corinthia. I never did hear what they discovered. See also coverage at this site.
8. Good Luck for the Eutychia Mosaic at Corinth
In August, the ASCSA announced plans to restore the Eutychia mosaic through a generous donation. The organization provided this update in October. The restoration of a mosaic is not improbable per se from the vantage point of 1984 (conservation work was taking place at the great monochrome mosaic at Isthmia in the 1980s), but was nonetheless unexpected, and deserves to make the list given its significance for Corinthian archaeology and the publicity of the process (see no. 2 below). The Eutychia mosaic was originally uncovered in excavations of the South Stoa in the 1930s and has in recent decades been enclosed in a dark room off limits to visitors in the southeastern corner of the forum in Corinth. It’s that mosaic you can never really make out when you peer through the fence surrounding it. Since Broneer’s excavation, the mosaic has been interpreted as part of the office of agonothetes: the mosaic show a victorious athlete with a goddess holding a shield inscribed with eutychia, or “Good Luck.” It’s great that Betsey Robinson’s recent article in Hesperia publicized the need for restoration work, and also cool that that the work was recorded with video and publically released in tandem with the conservation.
7. Western Argolid Regional Archaeological Project Begins
As a landscape archaeologist, it’s inevitable that at least one survey project would make this list. Several friends and collaborators from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project and the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey teamed up to launch a new distributional survey in the western Argolid with an acronym – WARP – that competes with any survey project of Greece and Cyprus. I had the good fortune of visiting this beautiful survey territory, the Inachos Valley, in the opening days of the project. Now, this isn’t the Corinthia per se, but the team contained so many Corinthian archaeologists that it seemed right to include the project in the rankings. Plus the project came on strong in the blogsophere with committed bloggers like Bill Caraher and Dimitri Nakassis pumping out interesting social media on a daily basis. The idea of a survey is not that unexpected of course from 1984, when some of the major surveys of Greece were fully in motion. Nonetheless, WARP gives us an example of an efficiently run hyper-intensive survey. As their abstract for a conference paper describes their work, the project surveyed some 5.5 sq km using very intensive distributional survey methods in a single season – greater coverage, that is, than the 4 sq km covered by the Eastern Korinthia Survey over three seasons (although EKAS was beleaguered by permit problems). If WARP is this efficient over the next two seasons, the project may end up one of the most efficient, intensive surveys projects carried out in Greek lands.
6. American School Launches New Maps and Spatial Data
It’s hard to know whether our classical archaeologist of 1984 would have imagined how important the GIS revolution would be for archaeologists of the future. The concept and technology for geographic information systems was established by the mid-1980s but commercial GIS software did not become widely available until the 1990s. Today archaeologists cannot live without it. In September, the ASCSA announced the dedication of a page populated with free GIS data, which continues to grow into a one-stop shop for free downloadable files related to Greece and the Peloponnese: digital elevation models, roads and cities, topographic contours, and ready made maps. I got to tour a beta version of this page in late August and had planned to blog the news release but the arrival of a little baby boy in early September changed that. This news certainly deserves a place on the list since it makes a major contribution to many different engagements on Corinthian archaeology. I will soon update the maps section of this site to point to this site.
5. The Lechaion Harbour Project Launches
One of the most exciting stories of the year was the launching of the Lechaion Harbour Project (LHP), a Danish-Greek enterprise designed (according to the project’s Facebook page) “to digitally survey, excavate, study, and publish the submerged archaeological remains of Corinth’s main harbor town Lechaion.” Some of the news outlets wrongly reported that Lechaion’s harbor had been discovered (it had never fully been lost). The real story was the use of such sophisticated equipment to map the underwater remains at Lechaion and – this is important – a systematic archaeological study of the harborworks. The project released a series of updates and mini-reports via its Facebook page about the process of an underwater digital survey through the use of dredges and a “3D parametric sub-bottom profiler” (sounds futuristic?). See this brief report from Archaeology magazine, this longer one from The Greek Reporter, and the original press release.
4. Michigan State University Wins NEH grant for Archaeological Resource Cataloging System
This story didn’t circulate as widely as I expected it would, but when the news release comes from was the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities, you know it’s big. Dr. Jon Frey of Michigan State University was awarded a Digital Humanities Implementation grant on the order of $324,586 to develop and expand a tool called Archaeological Resource Cataloging System (ARCS) for digitizing the excavation notebooks at Isthmia, Nemea, Tauric Chersonesos, and Polis (Cyprus). ARCS is an open-source application for preserving and interacting with excavation notebooks and other field documents. This is a boon not only to Corinthian archaeology but also for smaller archaeological projects that are trying to record and preserve data on limited budgets. It’s also unexpected from our vantage year 1984. For a review of grant awarded, see this post, and Dr. Frey’s comments here.
3. The American School Launches its Virtual Field Trip App to Corinth
After a fifty year hiatus in publishing edition after revised edition of the official guidebook to Corinth and its museum, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens announced the imminent publication (now in production) of a seventh edition of Ancient Corinth: A Guide to the Site and Museum, plus – and here’s the kicker – a now available digital tour of Ancient Corinth via the Field Trip app available for iPhones and Androids. As I wrote in my review of the product, the Field Trip app enhances and greatly changes the user’s experience of Corinth. Visitors to the site who make use of the app can jump in and out of tour from anywhere on site (freeing them from the linear tour of the old guidebooks) and – really cool – anyone anywhere in the world can “tour” Corinth. This kind of public and digital archaeology product deserves a high rank not only for being unexpected a generation ago but also for making a major contribution to the study of ancient Corinth.
Now, ranking two most unexpected stories of 2014 was a tossup. It could have gone either way, but this is, I think, the right order, if you accept that the last one qualifies.
2. Corinthian Archaeologists Record Excavations of Frankish Quarter with Google Glass
This one knocked my socks off. In April the ASCSA announced that it was conducting its excavations of the Frankish quarter in Corinth using Google Glass. The excavations of the Frankish quarter marked their own interesting story, but were not surprising in their own right (excavations of the Frankish quarter began at Corinth in the late 80s). Yet the futuristic wearable technology in recording contexts (image left) takes the ASCSA Back to the Future (image right). Not sure that Google Glass will be the wave of the future, but this clearly marked one of the year’s most unexpected stories that expands upon a range of new directions in digital recording systems. As the ASCSA’s final news release describes the experience, “For our purposes, the students used Glass to create an interesting series of FPV (first person view) videos summarizing their excavations at regular intervals. This not only challenged them to present their excavations in a different medium but also forced them to question different audiences and how video might supplement the existing excavation record.” And my favorite quote: “Some [students] also found talking to their glasses disconcerting.”
Some of these FPV videos are available on Google Plus:
- Video of recording the excavation of a grave (4 min ) in excavating a grave:
- Video of the cataloguing of glass beakers of Frankish date
- Videos from the Conservation Lab here (in Greek) and here (in English)
- Videos of the conservation work on the Eutychia mosaic
This story certainly would have been number one unexpected story of the year had it not been for an even more bizarre story that narrowly edged it out.
1. Corinthian Archaeologists Excavate Atari Burial Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico (and launch Punk Archaeology)
I really have few words for the winner. It was truly and completely unexpected. Even if our hypothetical archaeologist in 1984 had predicted all of the above, she/he could never have predicted that a group of archaeologists who had spent so much of their careers working in Greece would have been part of an excavation of a landfill in New Mexico to dig up the dump of the worst video game of all time, the 1983 Atari flop, E.T. New Mexico is a long way from the Corinthia, but three members of the archaeological team – Andrew Reinhard, Richard Rothaus, and Bill Caraher – were trained in Corinthian archaeology through ASCSA projects, published on Corinthian materials (in the case of Rothaus and Caraher), and (in the case of Reinhard) oversaw ASCSA publications. Some may disqualify this piece from Corinthian archaeology, but using the logic of association (see no. number 7 above), I think it deserves its place in the ranking. The story appeared in the major news outlets like Archaeology Magazine and CNN, and exploded in the blogosphere, so that even the ASCSA promoted (and has continued to promote) the story on its website. Two fun articles on this Atari dig include this one in Harper’s Magazine about the new punk archaeologists, and this one in The Atlantic by the punk archaeologists. This is not mainstream classical archaeology by any means, but rather “punk archaeology” – whatever that phrase means. Like the other stories outlined above, the run of the punk archaeologists in a New Mexico landfill offers another telling example of the unpredictable practice of archaeology today.
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See this awesome roundup from Corinthian Matters, complete with references to Back to the Future II…