GQB 2015, day 4: the people must have something good to read

The people must have something good to read on a Sunday

With only ten days of fieldwork, weekends are a social convention that is left for another time, and the alarm is only marginally generous at 8 o’clock.

As anticipated two days ago, my main task here is to finalise the study of ceramic contexts towards publication. Today I made a few steps in a good direction, with a convincing draft for a “layout” of each context, where various types of information are shown as an introductory summary:

  • a small stratigraphic diagram
  • an excavation plan with the position of the context under examination
  • a photograph of the context during excavation
  • a photograph of all ceramic finds from the context in a single view
  • three plots with the statistical distribution of:
    • sherd weight, that is not very useful without a reference value, but I still need to iterate on this
    • rim percentage as estimated vessel equivalent (eve)
    • chronology-weighted-by-eve, that is particularly useful for looking at residuality and depositional histories

I’d like to add another infobox with a summary view of all objects that I identified as part of the systemic context (cutting short on the topic, for now), not as they were found but as they could have been while in use.

Then an extended discussion follows, in a more “traditional” fashion, where the stratigraphic data and the contextual relationships are taken into account. My aim in this part is to bridge the information and the “hard data” from the stratigraphic analysis with a broader view on the life of the household, for example looking at various rooms and our interpretation of their function/use.

After the discussion, a catalogue of all finds follows, with drawings/pictures that I will try to keep within the text or very close to their descriptive entries, avoiding separate “plates”, that would betray the principle of primacy of context that I’m following.

There was some discussion about whether to include residual finds or not in this catalogue, with Enrico Zanini finally winning the argument thanks to a subtle distinction between residues and residuality. Only the latter should be discussed, leaving an extended description of residual finds to a separate section.

I’m quite satisfied with this draft, at least on a conceptual level, but it definitely needs more work on a visual level.

GQB 2015, day 3: a little relax

You’re expected to get some relax on weekends. This Saturday 11th July I woke up to the news of a huge explosion at the Italian embassy in Cairo, hit by a carbomb. Four foreign journalists were arrested almost immediately by the police, that’s how Egypt works at the moment, I am afraid.

Crete is not that far from Egypt, it never was, at least since the Minoan/Keftiu connections. We have countless examples of trade and cultural contacts between the two regions in the Roman and Byzantine period, and even after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 639-642 AD. Crete played a strategic role during WW2 as a link between various areas of the Mediterranean while the Allied forces were busy reorganising their counterattack strategy ‒ there were several Cretan fighters who went to Egypt for training with the British army, and then came back to their own island to continue the fight for liberation against the Nazi invaders. Today the Mediterranean is split in half, with thousands of people dying every year while they try to cross to our side.

It’s with such thoughts in mind that Saturday began, a relaxed day with only 3-4 hours at work in the morning and 2-3 hours in the afternoon. At noon on Saturday, our traditional habit is to go to the nearby town of Moires/Μοίρες where the weekly street market offers fresh fruit and vegetables from the Mesara countryside at ridiculous prices, together with crappy made in China products, kanelada sellers. We have been repeating this visit to the market for years. You may think that such a big market is there only in the summer, to take advantage of the many foreign tourists who stay in Southern Crete, but … you’d be wrong. I’ve been here in November a few years ago, and the market looks just the same, only a little less crowded. The Saturday market in Moires is not a postcard-like happening, rather the opposite, and it’s as good as a practical lesson in microeconomy as any other such street market. Lunch is a gyros and a cold beer.

In the afternoon, our colleagues from the University of Padua are gone for a weekend trip in Eastern Crete and there’s time for some work on our main task (described in some detail yesterday). We’re out to the village of Sivas for dinner, but not before another exhausting take at the pump engine and its unpredictable behaviour.

The featured image is by Elisa Triolo. I met her right here 10 years ago.

GQB 2015, day 2: publication, publication, publication

10th July and our work here is underway. This year we’re working in three main directions: publication, publication, publication. At the current stage of the GQB research project there is little else we need to do, really.

The first publication we’re concerned with is a book about the water supply system of Gortys, that should go to press very soon and ideally provide a foundation for the understanding of how the city interacted with the chora (the rural hinterland, for the non-classicist) in Roman and Byzantine times. The work on this publication is one of final polishing, some ground-checking and especially production of illustrations – how good is a long monograph without illustrations that help readers in understanding the problems under examination, the hypothesis that is explored? Too often archaeological illustration ends up with highly descriptive and objective depictions of objects (either landscapes or single objects), like a repetition of what is written as text. As I write this post, I remember a short piece on this same topic from a few years ago.

The second publication is my direct concern and is filled with ceramic assemblages from the Early Byzantine contexts of Gortys. While the general outline of my PhD thesis is stable as it was defined years ago, it’s the details that always seem to escape being fixed on a digital page: what is the acceptable amount of detail about a single potsherd? How do we balance differences in archaeological value between ceramic finds from interesting versus uninteresting contexts? Much of the theoretical work I’ve been exploring is devoted to the definition of a “layered” approach to the study of ceramic finds, from the highly detailed analysis of potsherds as items inside stratified deposits (weight, proportions with respect to soil volume, sherd size, residuality etc.) to a more “anthro”-sized view of households as social consumption units. Again, it’s rather easy to fill a few hundred pages with academic nonsense on this topic (nonetheless, backed by extensive literature of both structuralist and post-structuralist tone), but I am looking for a clear, straightforward, “infographical” way to express those concepts, first of all to myself. So far I’ve been working with statistical plots for numerical variables at the stratigraphic layer. As I develop standardised views to be used in all data-driven chapters, I need to go back and look at the actual material, check if that clear-cut distinction between residual finds and in-phase finds is actually there to be seen. This publication is going to take some more time, but we’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.

The third publication, as of today, is the only one that is already available: GQBWiki. I presented it at CAA a few months ago with Alessandro Carabia, describing the steps we followed prior to opening it to the public under a CC-BY-SA license. If there is one thing I need to repeat from the presentation, it’s the 0-delay from creating content to making it globally available. On day 2, I took an opportunity to experiment at this with creating new content and linking a Zotero note about a traditional publication to a wiki page. The idea is that GQBWiki is the digital archive that acts as the foundation of the final GQB publication, but also works on its own as a continuously updated resource about the Early Byzantine city, or Early Byzantine Crete, or … as wide as old and new contributors will want.


From our rural location, political news from Athens sound as remote as a chronicle from Byzantine times, but at least there seems to be some hope. In the meantime, a law was approved giving Greek citizenship to migrants’ children: there is nothing like that in Italy.

We still have problems with the pump engine for water, but at least now we can shower. What a luxury!

GQB 2015: day 1, logistics

Day 1 is Logistics: go back to the airport and fetch the remaining team members, obtain Internet connection, fix the ritual problems with water supply, broken light bulbs.

Actually, the water problems seem pretty serious at the moment, not because there is no water (lest our readers think the Greek crisis has already reached into the realm of basic public infrastructure and natural resources) but quite simply one of the pump engines is broken, together with several pipes. This is a “good” chance to explain a bit more about the SAIA/ΙΑΣΑ house in Agioi Deka. First of all, until 1998 or 1999 Italian archaeologists were hosted in another building, the old episkopeio in the center of the village, and at some point in a school. The former director of SAIA Antonino Di Vita made a big invesment when he decided to build an entirely new headquarter, a few hundred meters above the village, with large room for both people and … archaeological finds. The SAIA house is made of two buildings, one of which is mainly devoted to storage of finds and a conservation laboratory. The two buildings are separate, so when water supply is broken on one side, we can queue outside bathrooms on the other side. How convenient. In fact, the accomodation in Agioi Deka is incredibly good compared to most other excavations I’ve been (tents, school classrooms, you name it), but it’s disappointing to see a new building that is already rotting away due to lack of maintenance and, perhaps, a mismatch between a grandiose project and a rather clumsy execution. There are many reasons for this, among them we could certainly count the continuous cuts to the SAIA – I can’t even recall how many petitions to “save” it I signed – and the future looks rather grim from here. After all, how can Italy afford to maintain a handful of such houses around Greece, plus a big headquarter and library in Athens, at a time when new taxes pop out every other month, and old privileges for foreign archaeological schools are erased by inflexible changes in the Greek administration?

From an archaeologist’s perspective, a building that is undergoing continued repair is a double-edged sword: these activities leave traces will be barely visible even in the near future (several layers of plaster and white paint on ceilings damaged by spilling water, plastic and metal pipes of different size and age and quality, …), but are we looking at vital inhabitants who took care of their roof, or scrappy squatters who did the minimum required to avoid moving somewhere else? Are the problems in furniture and services of the house in Agioi Deka caused by the big crisis of 2033 that we all know from written sources?

GQB 2015: day 0

This year, thanks to the combined availability of my employer (the Soprintendenza Archeologia della Liguria), the Italian School of Archaeology at Athens and the University of Siena I was able to take part again in the short field season at the Byzantine Quarter in Gortys (GQB). I promised my colleagues a daily report. Fasten your seatbelts.

Day 0 is, as usual, the day of traveling and spending more than your regular share of time at an airport gate waiting for the next flight. First we hit MXP, that looks more and more like a ghost town with its empty retail shops, alternated with impossibly expensive clothing on sale. I’ll leave further speculation on the grim image of the EXPO 2015 airport for another moment. This year, as ever, coming to Greece means confronting the big Greek crisis, the collective fears of Europe-the-former-EEC. We brought slightly more cash than in the past years, but that is not really necessary, as our monetary footprint became smaller and smaller with substantial lack of funding from the various Italian institutions already in the past years. It is not ironic to think that other research projects focused on Gortys secured more funding, and GQB is among the few ones that are explicitly looking into the big late antique crisis, the end of the ancient city – as if dealing with global failure was an undesirable endeavor even from a scholar’s perspective. But it could simply be our fault, unable to keep the pace of grant applications.

But there’s more, as we land in ATH just in time for the sunset. The air is fresh, the temperature mild and it’s nothing like Italy. It’s 10 years since I came to Crete for the first time as an undergrad and with the country shaken by years and years of social and economic crisis, I cannot help wondering if what we do makes any sense for this place, for the Greek people. Sure, there are colleagues who share the same research interests. There are plans to put a small part of what we found on display in a museum, like one page in a long book. A decent list of academic publications, with other in preparation. One plot of land where, in some years, the public will have a chance to walk among the excavated remains of 7th century houses and workshops. I know from experience that the sum total of direct and indirect economic impact of all that is small, too small to make a difference – and that it’s too little too late to leave a trace in public culture. The latter is especially problematic in Greece, where classical antiquities and byzantine antiquities are treated separately, and we are working “in between” (not that this is unique to Greece: just think about the absurd hiatus between the preservation of prehistoric landscapes and natural resources in many countries).

The flight to HER is so short you can barely notice the small lights from Melos and Thera in the dark, before landing. In Italy, in France, in Germany, most people are not given a chance to see the difference between the former Greek governments and the current Greek government, the Greek elite class and the Greek working class (including the unemployed), between finance and economy. Apathy or neutrality don’t seem like an acceptable option, not for an archaeologist. Even late at night, planning work for tomorrow and unpacking the small luggage I had, I can’t stop thinking about what happened on Sunday, the ΟΧΙ that still echoes in ripples around the globe.

Eleutherna: first week of excavation on the Acropolis

On the 23rd August Elisa and myself came back to Crete for another week of archeological excavation, this time in Eleutherna with the University of Crete.

Eleutherna: Sector II - Acropolis

Dr Christina Tsigonaki came to visit our excavation in Gortyna last month and she was very kind to invite us in Eleutherna. The excavations here are one of the best in Greece, also for the very good quality of publications. The work of Christine Vogt and Anastasia Yangaki on the ceramic finds from Eleutherna is a point of reference for my research, even if mine is based in Gortyna and the ceramic evidence is quite different, also judging from what I have seen in these first days.

Eleutherna: Pyrgi - the tower

The excavation team is directed by Dr Tsigonaki and the people, all students from the University of Crete, are very nice ‒ it’s a pleasure to work with them and to learn some more Greek from their mouth. We start working at 7:00 am until 2:30 pm and finds washing takes place at the local school (now unfortunately empty) from 5:30 pm until 9:30 pm. The documentation system is based on SYSLAT, the one developed on the French site of Lattara/Lattes, and it’s not so different from others I have used before. Everybody is doing their own bit of everything (washing, keeping records, writing short descriptions of sherds, etc), there’s not much specialisation but it’s an effective way of teaching the basics of how to run an archaeological excavation.

The Acropolis of Eleutherna is also an ideal archaeological context for looking at the development of “hilltop” settlements from Antiquity into the Byzantine era: this is in a few words Elisa’s research topic.

A look at pollen data in the Old World

Since the 19th century, the study of archaeobotanical remains has been very important for combining “strictly archaeological” knowledge with environmental data. Pollen data enable assessing the introduction of certain domesticated species of plants, or the presence of other species that grow typically where humans dwell. Not all pollen data come from archaeological fieldwork, but the relationship among the two sets is strong enough to take an interested look at pollen data worldwide, their availability and most importantly their openness, for which we follow the Open Knowledge Definition.

The starting point for finding pollen data is the NOAA website.

The Global Pollen Database hosted by the NOAA is a good starting point, but apparently its coverage is quite limited outside the US. Furthermore, data from 2005 onwards aren’t available via FTP in simple documented formats, but are instead downloadable as Access databases from another external website. Defining MS Access databases as a Bad Choice™ for data exchange is perhaps an euphemism.

Unfortunately, a large number of databases covering single continents or smaller regions is growing, and the approaches to data dissemination show marked differences.


For both North and South America, you can get data from more than one thousand sites directly via FTP. There are no explicit terms of use. Usually, data retrieved from federal agencies are public domain data.

The README document only states NOTE: PLEASE CITE ORIGINAL REFERENCES WHEN USING THIS DATA!!!!!. Fair enough, the requirement for attribution is certainly compatible with the Open Knowledge Definition.


From the GPD website we can easily reach the European Pollen Database, that is found at another website tough (and things can be even more confusing, provided that the NOAA website has some dead links).

You can download EPD data in PostgreSQL dump format (one file for each table, with a separate SQL script create_epd_db.sql). Data in the EPD can be restricted or unrestricted. That’s fine, let’s see how many unrestricted datasets there are. Following the database documentation, the P_ENTITY table contains the use status of each dataset:

steko@gibreel:~/epd-postgres-distribution-20100531$ cat p_entity.dump \
 | awk -F "t" {' print $5 '} | sort | uniq -c 
 154 R 
 1092 U

which is pretty good because almost 88% of them are unrestricted (NB I write most of my programs in Python but I love one liners that involve awksort and uniq). We could easily create an “unrestricted” subset and make it available for easy download to all those who don’t want to mess up with restricted data.

But what do “unrestricted” mean for EPD data? Let’s take a more careful look (emphasis mine):

  1. Data will be classified as restricted or unrestricted. All data will be available in the EPD, although restricted data can be used only as provided below.
  2. Unrestricted data are available for all uses, and are included in the EPD on various electronic sites.
  3. Restricted data may be used only by permission of the data originator. Appropriate and ethical use of restricted data is the responsibility of the data user.
  4. Restrictions on data will expire three years after they are submitted to the EPD. Just prior to the time of expiration, the data originator will be contacted by the EPD database manager with a reminder of the pending change. The originator may extend restricted status for further periods of three years by so informing the EPD each time a three-year period expires.

Sounds quite good, doesn’t it? “for all uses” is reassuring and the short time limit is a good trade off. The horror comes a few paragraphs below with the following scary details:

  1. The data are available only to non-profit-making organizations and for research.

Profit-making organizations may use the data, even for legitimate uses, only with the written consent of the EPD Board, who will determine or negotiate the payment of any fee required.

Here the false assumption that only academia is entitled to perform research is taken for granted. And there are even more rules about the “normal ethics”: basically if you use EPD data in a publication the original data author should be listed among the authors of the work. I always thought citation and attribution were invented just for that exact purpose, but it looks like they have distinctly different approach to attribution. The EPD is even deciding what are “legitimate” uses of pollen data (I can hardly think of any possible unlegitimate use).


You write “Africa” but you read “Europe” again, because most research projects are from French and English universities. For this reason, the situation is almost the same. What is even worst is that in developing countries there are far less people or organizations that can afford buying those data, notwithstanding the fact that in regions under rapid development the study and preservation of environmental resources are of major importance.

Data are downloadable for individual sites using a search engine, in Tilia format (not ASCII unfortunately). The problems come out with the license:

The wording is almost exactly the same as for the EPD seen above:

Normal ethics pertaining to co-authorship of publications applies. The contributor should be invited to be a co-author if a user makes significant use of a single contributor’s site, or if a single contributor’s data comprise a substantial portion of a larger data set analysed, or if a contributor makes a significant contribution to the analysis of the data or to the interpretation of the results. The data will be available only to non-profit-making organisations and for research. Profit-making organisations may use the data for legitimate purposes, only with the written consent of the majority of the members of the Advisory board, who will determine or negotiate the payment of any fee required. Such payment will be credited to the APD.


As for dendrochronological data, there is a serious misunderstanding by universities and research centers of their role in society as places of research, innovation that is available for everyone. In other words, academia is a closed system producing data (at very high costs for society) that are only available inside its walls, but it’s all done with public money.

The only positive bit of the story, if any, is that these datasets are nevertheless available on the web, and their terms of use are clearly stated, no matter how restrictive. It would be just impossible to write a similar article about archaeological pottery, or zooarchaeological finds.

Appendix: Using pollen data

Pollen data are usually presented in forms of synthetic charts where both stratigraphic data and quantitative pollen data are easily readable. Each “column” of the chart stands for a species or genus. You can create this kind of visualization with free software tools.

The stratigraph package for R can be used for

plotting and analyzing paleontological and geological data distributed through through time in stratigraphic cores or sections. Includes some miscellaneous functions for handling other kinds of palaeontological and paleoecological data.

See the chart for an example of how they look like.

An example plot using the R stratigraph package
An example plot using the R stratigraph package

Developing a vocal language. Standing three miles apart.

Tonight I was walking along a country road near my house, almost in the
dark. Despite the highway that runs at less than 500 meters from there,
there was an unusual moment of silence (probably everyone else in Italy
was staring at the TV), and I suddenly realized that with that silence
it would be possible for me to hear someone crying out loud from the
Torre del Mangia — literally three miles away from there. Or viceversa,
if you like.

It’s not that different from how the muezzin is spreading his voice
and prayers. In a pre-industrial society, there is generally speaking
much more silence than now. As a consequence, you can hear voices and
sounds from far distances.

Now translate this concept in … 40,000 BP and imagine how you would
use your voice to communicate with someone else. The usual theory about
the development of human language deals with social practices like
sitting around the fire, etc. that happen while being in the same place.
That is fine, but to me it doesn’t explain everything: the same people
had to communicate also during the day, and if they were developing a
language that would fit their needs, we may suppose they used it during
hunting and catching as well. My idea is that in this way the language
that comes out is restricted by the use they made of it: if it was for
communicating from three miles away, it had to be made of distinct and
recognizable sounds. Thus, in a sense, a simpler language than what can
be used when sitting around the fire.

Following this line of reasoning, only with new habits and the
abandonment of nomadic life a more complex language would have been
developed. And, of course, this might as well imply that shepherds would
have continued to use such a language, or at least such

I’m perfectly aware that what I have written hasn’t a single link to
reality (and I don’t know anything about language), but it was certainly
more interesting than watching soccer and I had a nice walk in the dark.

Water basins are traces of extracting clay

Here around Siena there are lots of small water basins, measuring 10
meters in diameter on average. They tend to be near country houses, not
far from secondary roads.

They are used for water storage, but it’s not their original end.
Instead, they are what was left by small activities for the extraction
of clay – Siena is renowned for its “crete”.

The country house where I live is in a place once called “la Fornace”,
so it’s very likely that the basins around it were the last places where
clay was extracted before the kiln ceased to work.

Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

Ci ho messo circa 5 giorni, ma alla fine sono riuscito a produrre un grafico accettabile del numero di relitti navali nel Mediterraneo tra V e VII secolo d.C.



Produrre un breve programma in linguaggio R è stato più difficile del previsto, considerato che è molto più simile al C (di cui non so nulla) che non a Python (l’unico vero linguaggio che posso dire di conoscere per sommi capi).

Comunque alla fine me la sono cavata e la mitica media ponderata individuale è stata domata… Da qui a farne materia di un esame universitario, è tutta un’altra storia…

Il codice per le medie ponderate individuali si trova qui.