The Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting took place last weekend in San Francisco. I was tied up with two colloquia on abandoned villages, sponsored by the Medieval and Post-Medieval Archaeology interest group. I even gave a paper during one of the sessions that gave me the chance to show off a bunch of photos of abandoned villages and “megalithic” architecture from my fieldwork in 2014. I don’t know that I said anything groundbreaking, but people seemed pretty excited about the settlements I was recording.
The cool thing about these papers was that there were a few common themes running through them all, even though we were talking about very different “abandoned” settlements – from the Byzantine “palaiomaniatika” in Mani (where I work) to the 20th-century town of Wheelock, North Dakota. None of these points really has to do with ArcGIS, but they all have spatial implications…
1. When a building is abandoned, people don’t just leave it alone to decay and fall apart; if there is anything useful left in that building, someone is going to come and take it away. In modern terms, we’d say the buildings were “looted” – in archaeology, we’d say the materials were “curated.” Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Several speakers, including Bill Caraher and David Pettegrew (working at a site called Lakka Skoutara) gave examples of modern houses abandoned in the last 50 years whose roofs and contents have been “curated” by people living nearby. For someone like me, who studies buildings abandoned 500 years ago, it’s important to keep in mind that all I’m looking at is a tiny fraction of the material culture that used to be someone’s house.
2. When people live in small towns or villages far away from the political and economic capitals, how is law and order maintained? One way – as Anna Sitz illustrated in a case study from Northern Syria – is through surveillance: close quarters means I can see your backyard, you can see mine, and no one has any secrets!
In Chicago … [there are] a few streets and avenues that cut diagonally through the otherwise rectangular plan. These avenues seem to mark the site of country roads that existed before the city, as it is now, was laid out. [Charles Horton Cooley, 1930]
3. Modern roads are often built right on top of older paths and trails that date back centuries before the car. When this happens, it is tempting to think that those older paths must have been really important, since they persisted and were memorialized in cement. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago – one of the diagonal streets heading northwest out of the city center – used to be a cow path, which farmers once used to bring their livestock to the Chicago stockyards. Dimitri Nakassis (et al.) and the WARP team pointed out that just because a road is paved today doesn’t mean it was an important pathway in the past – the decision to pave a road (or not) may have to do with more recent choices or even official policies that make some villages more important than others.
The next conference I’ll be attending is the Society for American Archaeology meeting in Orlando in April, where I’ll be presenting on the road network in the Mani peninsula – definitely a GIS-based topic, if ever there was one.