Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.12


Lucia Nixon and Simon Price, The Sphakia Survey (Greece). Oxford: Educational Technology Resources Centre, 1995. 50 Mins. (video). $60.00.


Reviewed by John Bennet, University of Wisconsin-Madison, djbennet@facstaff.wisc.edu.

Presenting archaeological fieldwork techniques and methodologies is not one of the easiest aspects of teaching a course in classical archaeology or in Greek or Roman civilization. It can be difficult -- even with the most extensive (and humorous) collection of slides of people working in the field -- to convey the praxis of fieldwork and the theory behind that praxis. What better solution than to bring fieldwork "live" into the classroom? That is what this video tape does -- with obvious limitations -- and it is well designed to fit into such a format. The whole tape runs for (almost exactly) 50 minutes, deliberately timed to fill a 50-minute "hour." It is also divided into two sections -- "Methods" (27 minutes) and "Results" (23 minutes) -- further enhancing its potential for classroom use. There is another important way in which this tape is valuable. It presents not the "conventional" archaeology of excavation -- regarded by many as the methodology behind any archaeological inquiry -- but that of surface survey, a technique widely used in Greece (and elsewhere in the Mediterranean). Survey is not a first-stage in archaeological investigation (simply a means of discovering sites), but a technique in itself designed to provide information about changing settlement patterns over relatively large areas over long periods of time from earliest human habitation to the recent historical past. This video tape effectively brings out the regional and diachronic perspectives essential to survey-based research and also highlights the interdependence of broadly scientific (geomorphological, paleobotanical), historical (documentary), and archaeological approaches.

The Sfakia project, carried out under the auspices of the Canadian School of Archaeology in Athens, with the permission of the Greek Ministry of Culture, under the supervision of the Eforeia of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities of West Crete in Hania, conducted fieldwork in the area from 1987 to 1994. The project co-directors are Lucia Nixon and Jennifer Moody, assisted by project historian Simon Price and botanist/historical ecologist Oliver Rackham. These, together with student participants and the people of Sfakia, are the dramatis personae of this tape.

A book review usually organizes itself by chapter. Reviewing a video is less easily structured in a parallel fashion, because constructing a video presentation involves different decisions than presenting a topic in class or in written format. This tape uses three basic formats that I shall term "voice-over" (images, either live action or static, with a narration overlaid), "interview" (presentation of a topic by an individual on camera, usually on location), and "live action" (shots of actual activities going on, usually with its own soundtrack). In what follows I indicate in parentheses the specific format used for each segment, and use changes in format to articulate these segments.

The video opens with an introduction to the goals of the survey (voice-over) by L. Nixon, explaining that the project was conducted -- like all foreign archaeological projects in Greece -- under the auspices of a foreign archaeological school (in this case, the Canadian), with the permission of the Greek government, and the assistance of the local Eforeia of Antiquities in Hania. She outlines the survey's goals (to study the landscape and environment of this remote part of southwest Crete, and to reconstruct the sequence of human activity from the time people first arrived there ca. 3000 BC to the end of the Turkish period, ca. AD 1900), and the major chronological subdivisions used by the project: prehistoric (ca. 3000 to 1000 BC), Greco-Roman (ca. 1000 BC to AD 700), and Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish (AD 700 to 1900). She shows us the location of Sfakia (a 470-km2 area of Crete), and enumerates the eight ecological zones into which the project has divided the area from coastal plain through foothills, mid- and upper-slopes, mountain plains, gorges and cliffs, to the mountain desert and the summer pastures of the Madares at ca. 1700-1900 m. elevation. J. Moody takes over (interview) to tell us about vegetation and its three principal components: maquis (the "dark green," in Moody's words, comprising shrubs and trees), garrigue ("gray-green," woody, aromatic plants), and steppe (grasses, tubers, and bulbs). Moody stresses that an understanding of how the modern natural environment functions forms an essential basis for reconstructing past environments. Recording environmental data is then dramatized (live action) in the field at the beginning of a walking transect where vegetation cover and geology are being recorded. The point emphasized in this segment is that reconstruction of the ancient environment is a major part of a modern survey project. From here we move into another sequence (interview) with L. Nixon, who outlines the reasons why pottery sherds are found in particular locations in the modern environment. She identifies two types of processes: natural (e.g. erosion, by wind, water, and animals) versus human-induced (e.g. plowing, bulldozing, or well-construction). Curiously, Nixon makes no mention of the cultural processes that cause artifacts to be present in the landscape in the first place, an omission that might puzzle many students. This segment of the tape closes with team member Julie Clark telling us (interview) about the difficulty of identifying pottery sherds on the surface.

The next segment of the tape outlines the field methodology used by the Sfakia survey in the field. First, there is an explanation (voice-over) of the nature of survey as opposed to excavation: excavation gives you a great deal of information about a small area, survey a great deal of rather diffuse information about a large area. But one can rarely walk over every square meter of a large area, so a selection ("sample," in technical parlance) must be made of areas to cover intensively. The Sfakia survey sampled their area by the environmental zone enumerated earlier. After the theory, the practice: we see how intensive coverage was managed in the Frankokastello plain in the eastern lowlands of the survey area (live action). The landscape is covered in 500-m. long straight-line transects oriented on compass bearings, with 3-4 walkers covering an area ca. 50 m. wide. A detailed count and collection of pottery is made by each walker every 50 m. on line. J. Moody, S. Price, and team member Tracy Pilant then discuss (interview) the range of finds, including black-glazed pottery, and standing Roman structures by the coast, and the relationship of archaeological finds to water sources in the vicinity. Moody then demonstrates how the walked transect is recorded on the team's 1:5,000 field maps (interview).

One of the problems with archaeological surface survey is that changes in vegetation or in cultivation (or other human landscape modifications) can affect the visibility of archaeological materials to fieldwalkers. In order to minimize such problems, many surveys systematically revisit sites to ensure that valuable information does not go unrecorded and new threats to cultural materials can be assessed. Moody and Nixon discuss (interview) one example of such revisitation, where one of their transects "clipped" a large prehistoric site. When the area was revisited two years later, bulldozing had revealed extensive pottery in fifteen discrete locations. Moody shows some of the characteristic wares of the Early, Middle and Late Bronze age from this site and explains the fact that the site was missed as a result of extensive alluviation -- 20 cm. deep at the coast; significantly deeper inland -- of the Frankokastello coastal plain between Late Roman and early Venetian times. Prehistoric material is therefore only likely to be visible where relatively deep digging has brought up buried deposits.

In the next segment, Nixon highlights another feature of survey, the use of typical vegetation types as indicators of past settlement (interview). In particular, she notes that carob trees often mark stone from ancient buildings, using the example of a Late Roman (5th-7th c. AD) site marked by these trees. Once again, some of the characteristic pottery (Phocaean Red Slip) is illustrated. A small amount of prehistoric pottery was visible on the surface, but was more abundant in a nearby stream-cutting, in which the prehistoric material was stratified under Roman. O. Rackham, the project's historical ecologist, next elaborates (interview) on the relationship between modern terraces and Roman buildings, again on the Frankokastello plain. He suggests that the terracing is medieval, built after the Late Roman landscape was deserted, although in places Roman walls were reused. Finally, Price points out (interview) the value of documentary sources -- notably Venetian -- for understanding the landscape and the distribution of finds within it.

The final segment in "Methods" presents the next stage -- important in all archaeological fieldwork -- analysis and interpretation of the material found by the survey and their patterning across the landscape. Nixon explains the basic structure of the data (voice-over): a site catalogue of the 250 sites examined by the project, stored in a computer database, plus the finds themselves -- the property of the Greek government, stored in the Hania museum -- from each site. These data form the basis for final analysis. Because of its abundance, pottery is crucial to interpretation, both in dating sites and exploring their function(s). Nixon then describes -- with examples -- the basic distinction in pottery fabric between coarse and fine pottery (interview). Fine wares are more readily datable, she notes, because they change form and decoration relatively quickly, whereas coarse wares tend to remain in use for longer periods. A distinctive feature of coarse wares, sometimes ignored by archaeologists, is the composition of the fabric itself, which can be significant chronologically, certain fabrics belonging to certain periods. Moody (interview) picks up on this theme, suggesting that 90% of survey pottery would be useless if coarse ware were ignored. She explains the basics of fabric analysis, using such features as hardness, texture, color, and types of temper. When tied to stratified excavated material, fabric types can both indicate (broad) chronological phases and provenience. We then move to a sequence (live action) in which a local Sfakiote potter demonstrates the basic sequence of pottery production, making imitations of Venetian sgraffito wares. The project also found his expertise useful in assessing the distribution of clays and tempers in the region and their different characteristics. Although interesting as illustrating the basic process, the relevance of this sequence to ancient techniques of pottery production could have been more clearly stated.

S. Price closes the first half with a brief discussion of the origins of the idea of taping the project's fieldwork and a few scenes from the first "amateurish" attempts in 1988 and 1989. (The present tape is a product of the professional camera work of Charles Beesley.)

"Results," the second segment, opens with some repetition of the basic information about the project and its location already given at the beginning of the tape. Nixon then presents (voice-over) the organizing principles of the project's view of Sfakiote historical geography: "up" (mountains and foothills; high desert), "middle" (slopes and mountain plains), and "down" (on or near the coast). These are treated as fundamental structures for settlement and human activity in three separate examples drawn from the survey region to highlight how they are used in different ways by different people at different times.

In the first example (interview) S. Price draws on a Venetian document of AD 1435 regarding a dispute over grazing rights that documents the interests of a family at a number of different locations from the coastal settlement of Hora Sfakion up to the upland region of Kaloi Lakkoi. The dispute, which had threatened to result in loss of life, was ultimately resolve in a marriage.

The second example is more fully worked out and illustrates the use of high upland pastures -- the Madares -- contrasting with the middle location of the Anopolis plain and the coastal settlement at ancient Phoinix (modern Loutro). We begin (live action) with the team on a 1992 expedition to the Madares that lie at 1800 m. altitude and are only accessible on foot and between June and October because of snow cover. The Madares are pockets of grazing land in and above the surrounding mountain desert. O. Rackham explains (interview) the botanical interest of the harsh freeze-thaw environment in this desert, in which there is less than 1% plant cover and that comprises rare species, specially adapted in some cases to resist animal browsing. Surprisingly, there is a prehistoric site, probably of Middle Bronze Age date, in the Madares, as Nixon and Moody inform us (interview). In addition to pottery, finds include obsidian -- imported into the area from the island of Melos some distance north of Crete -- and possible remains of structures. Greco-Roman material is also known in the area, and Moody and Nixon speculate on the reason for remains of human activity in this marginal area: a route between the north coast and the south coast, or perhaps an area in which specialized activities associated with pastoralism took place?

This speculation ushers in a long (nearly 4 mins.) sequence documenting cheese making in the characteristic stone huts (mitata) of the Madares (live action). Nixon (interview) stresses the economic importance of such production, documented by textual sources as early as the 17th century, and invites us to imagine its possible economic importance in earlier periods too. We then see the whole process from milking to manufacture (live action). It is a male world: the work is done by men and older boys. The products -- along with others from Sfakia, such as lamb -- now end up in the market in Hania, the major town on the north coast. Again, we are perhaps supposed to think of earlier settlements at Hania acting as markets for Sfakiote products.

Moving from the "up" of the Madares, we descend (south) to the Anopolis plain, whose topography is outlined (voice over). The earliest habitation here goes back to the end of the Neolithic/beginning of the Bronze Age, the site of Troullos, containing pottery and stone tools of local chert and obsidian perched on the south edge of the plain with spectacular views to the south coast below. The largest settlement in the region is the Greek city-state of Anopolis, occupied in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, that sits on the ridge marking the southern edge of the plain. Surprisingly, this is on the only segment of the tape that goes into any detail about changing settlement patterns. Anopolis seems to have diminished in size in the Roman period and the plain itself was dotted with small sites, many of them (in the Roman and Late Roman periods) marked by remains of beehives. We "visit" two of these Late Roman sites -- one small, the other larger, but both with preserved structural remains -- in a short sequence (voice over). By the Venetian period, the plain is ringed by separate dwellings whose economy is based on cultivation of the Mediterranean triad (olive, vine, and grain) on the plain and shepherding on the plain and up in the Madares in the spring and summer. Remnants of this "traditional" economy are still to be seen in the local September cheese festival (complete with live music) and in the household craft of weaving. However, the modern world is impinging and many travel daily from Anopolis to work in the tourist industry in Hora Sfakion to the south.

Finally, in this extended example, we reach the "down," the coast and the harbor of Loutro, the only winter harbor on the south coast of Crete (voice over). Its ancient habitation -- Phoinix -- is predominantly Roman, complementary to the predominantly Greek city-state above. Ancient harbors lay on the east and west sides of a large promontory. The western harbor was left high and dry by the mid-4th c. earthquake that raised much of western Crete by several meters, illustrated in video shots of wave notches. The site continued to be important, with a harbor on the east side of the promontory, as indicated by a 6th-7th c. church and its prominence in Venetian records. In the subsequent Turkish period a fort was constructed in the middle of the promontory. A final segment (voice over) summarizes with a diagram the changing patterns of exploitation of "up, middle, and down" from prehistory to the recent past.

The third example (voice over) focuses on the Samaria gorge, a prominent natural feature (and national park) that runs from high in the White mountains to the coast at Agia Roumeli. From the village of Samaria, located at 400 m. altitude in the middle of the gorge, the surrounding slopes were exploited for timber in the Venetian period and the uplands for pasture. Watermills, illustrated on Venetian maps and still visible in ruins today, may have been used to cut the timber exported to Venice alone. There is an extensive Greco-Roman city, Tarrha, at the coast, on the east side of the Samaria river mouth, protected by sea walls now visible well above the waterline. The older village of Agia Roumeli lay just inside the gorge, invisible to passing sea traffic, but in the very recent past the modern village of the same name has now grown up right on the coast largely as a result of the tourists visiting the gorge. Once again, the significance of tourism as a major force affecting modern settlement and population distribution is stressed.

disembarking from a boat after their trip down the Samaria gorge are likened to "sheep without bells" as the tape fades into shots of sheep returning in the evening (voice over). Nixon expresses the hope that the work of the Sfakia survey has demonstrated the valuable resources and historical significance of the region in the past and that the lessons of the past will be useful for future planning. This slightly sentimental note leads us into the credits which roll over a landscape and a soundtrack of haunting Cretan music.

Having described the contents of the tape in some detail, I hope the reader will have formed an opinion about how useful it might be in a class. In general, I would find it very useful, but I would want to present it with discussion. In particular, I find environmental factors rather over-emphasized and would have preferred more discussion of cultural processes that determine where people live and why. One important factor, particularly for an island, is the relationship of internal economic and political systems to external, something certainly of relevance in the Roman, Venetian, and Turkish periods. It is understandable that the project does not wish to put too many of its conclusions into such a format before a full scholarly publication, but slightly more emphasis on the more nuanced understanding of human settlement aspired to by survey as a research strategy would have helped. To present such conclusions, however, would have required more presentation of static plans and diagrams, which in turn would have meant fewer views of the Sfakiote landscape and people in action in that landscape. The latter is certainly one of its attractions.

Finally, you won't find the tape at your local video store ... but, if you want to order it, it is available either directly from the Educational Technology Resources Centre, 37 Wellington Square, Oxford OX1 2JF (Tel: +44-1865-270530; Fax: +44-1865-270527), or from David Brown Book Co., PO Box 511, Oakville CT 06779 (Tel: 860/945-9329; Fax: 860/945-9468).