Travels in the Aegean: IMS-FORTH

The second phase of my research in Greece is well underway (click here for Phase 1). I’m writing from a desk in Rethymno, Crete, at the Institute for Mediterranean Studies – Foundation of Research and Technology, Hellas, and more specifically, the Laboratory of Geophysical – Satellite Remote Sensing and Archaeo-environment. Last year, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks here at IMS-FORTH. With the help of all the lab members, I georeferenced and analyzed GeoEye-1 satellite imagery, learned the intricacies (and overcame the difficulties) of ordering aerial photographs from the Hellenic Military Geographical Service (a.k.a. the people who keep all the historical maps and photographs of Greece), and helped conduct some geophysical analysis at the Thebes excavation, one of the projects associated with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

This year, I have two weeks to devote to this work. It’s mostly stuff I could do anywhere, but working at IMS-FORTH affords the opportunity to learn from the best in the field of geophysics and remote-sensing. It’s frankly astounding to find out how many things I don’t know, and how many things I don’t know that I don’t know. The first challenge was digitizing the historic aerial photographs from last year, which involves creating digital files of all the field walls, terraces, and roads from 1945 on. My colleagues at the lab immediately jumped in to help, teaching me about various ArcGIS tools (including “Filter” and the Classification Toolbar) and a pretty awesome piece of software by AlgoLab: the Raster to Vector Conversion Toolkit (free 10-day trial!). Unfortunately for me, these kinds of automated processes work best on multi-spectral images (like Landsat, Quickbird, or GeoEye) and less so with black-and-white images like photographs. Looks like it’s back to the old-fashioned method of digitizing-by-hand…

Military photograph from 1960, near Pyrgos Dirou, Greece

Military photograph from 1960, near Pyrgos Dirou, Greece

You may be wondering, what exactly is the point of all this? Well, many archaeologists are interested in understanding how people interact with their landscape, and how that relationship changes over time and in different political and social contexts. My research is based on the pioneering studies done in this field elsewhere in the world. I will be using the Mani peninsula as a case study to show how imperial conquest does or does not change where people live and how they manage their lands (for more about the Mani, see here).

The first step is to develop a digital file of all these features. Field walls and terrace systems are constantly rebuilt and maintained, and when abandoned, they slowly disintegrate. After the 1940s, the population of Mani plummeted, so today most of the agricultural fields lay in disrepair. It is growing ever more difficult to use modern aerial photographs and satellite imagery to identify the field walls and terraces – but thankfully, they are much clearer in historical imagery from the 1940s through 1960s. Hence my work here at IMS-FORTH.

What field walls look like from the ground

Field walls near Pyrgos Dirou, Greece

The next step is to figure out when they were first constructed – a challenging task that requires a great deal of educated guesswork. Often, the best we can do is dating-by-association (e.g., if a road connects two settlements, you can say that the road probably was built around the same time as the settlements). Once that monumental task is completed, it will be possible to analyze how the walls, roads, and terraces changed over time.

Paved road (Greek, "kalderimi") near Pyrgos Dirou

Paved road (Greek, “kalderimi”) near Pyrgos Dirou

A second project I have going on here at IMS-FORTH is to work with an Ottoman historian to  translate a  tax register from A.D. 1514 (check this out, too). As far as we know, this document is the earliest official record of settlements in the Mani. In addition to listing the village names, it includes estimates of agricultural production and the names of all of the men (i.e., “heads of household”), bachelors, and widows in each village. Once we’re done translating from the Medieval Turkish into Greek/English – a task that very, very few people can do – I will map all the settlements and population estimates to see how they  compare to more recent records (including a Venetian record from 1700 and a French one from 1830).

... and this is what Medieval Turkish looks like!

Medieval Turkish script

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