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Site - Off-site Archaeology

Site - Off-site Archaeology


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In most cases, while excavating structures, buildings, roads, etc. an archaeologist has little doubt about the concept of an archaeological site in itself. Within survey archaeology, on the other hand, most sites are generally defined by a relatively higher density of archaeological material than its surroundings. Therefore, the discipline has always been enlivened by a debate on site-definition. Some consensus can be found in the fact that a site implies a spatially defined clustering of archaeological materials, deposited by human activity. However, site-boundaries are arbitrarily created by archaeologists, on the basis of either judgmental motivations or on changing quantities in sherd density figures. These boundaries do not necessarily relate in any way to the cultural activity which caused the deposition of material in the first place.

This realization has caused the invention of the concept of off-site or non-site archaeology. In the Mediterranean it is quite common to encounter a vast blanket of archaeological materials spread out over the landscape, sometimes clustered in clear assemblages representing sedentary occupation (i.e. settlements, farms, etc.) or other distinctive (e.g. ritual, funerary) activities. Besides these clusters there remains an ubiquitous, insubstantial presence of multi-period finds throughout the landscape, for which the concept of an archaeological site offers no explanation. Intensive off-site survey archaeology aims to record quantitative (and often qualitative) data from the entire landscape, not only to provide a clearer, less arbitrary distinction between site and off-site archaeology. It also examines trends within the off-site material itself. One attractive explanation for off-site material, which can sometimes be identified in this way is the practice of manuring; using domestic waste (including potsherds) together with manure (animal excrement) to fertilize agricultural land. However, these patterns can be very hard to discern within the off-site material and furthermore, experiments have demonstrated that the process of manuring cannot be explanatory for all off-site densities.

Bibliography and further reading

Cherry, J., 1983, ‘Frogs around the pond: perspectives in current archaeological survey projects’, in: Keller, D. & D. Rupp (eds.), Archaeological Survey in the Mediterranean Area (BAR International Series 155), Oxford, pp. 375-416.

Cherry, J. 2003, ‘Archaeology beyond the site: regional survey and its future’, in: Leventhal, R. & J. Papadopoulos (eds.), Theory and Practice in Mediterranean Archaeology: Old World and New World Perspectives, Los Angeles, pp. 137-60.

Foley, R., 1981, ‘Off-site archaeology: an alternative approach for the short-sited’, in: Hodder, I., Isaac, G. & N. Hammond (eds.), Patterns of the Past: Studies in Honour of David Clarke, Cambridge, pp. 157-183.

Gallant, T., 1986, ‘Background noise and site definition: a contribution to site methodology’, in: JFieldA 13, pp. 403-418.

Given, M., 2003b, ‘Mapping and Manuring: Can we compare sherd density figures?’, in: Alcock, S. & J. Cherry, Side by Side Survey: Comparative Regional Studies in the Mediterranean World, Oxford, pp. 13-21.

Terrenato, N., 2000, ‘The visibility of sites and the interpretation of survey results: towards an analysis of incomplete distributions’, in: Francovich, R., Patterson, H. & G. Barker (eds.), The Archaeology of Mediterranean Landscapes 5: Extracting Meaning from Ploughsoil Assemblages, Oxford, pp. 60-71.

Van Leusen, M., 2002, Pattern to Process, methodological investigations into the formation and interpretation of large-scale patterns in archaeological landscapes, PhD-thesis, Groningen.

Research topics: Survey Methodology
Publications on www.surveyarchaeology.eu(external link) website: A fragmented history. A methodological and artefactual approach to the study of ancient settlement in the territories of Satricum and Antium