Thursday, September 04, 2008

Surveying surveys

The most recent Project Gallery in Antiquity contains a set of three reports of new Paleolithic surface assemblages from Greece (Mortensen 2008), Iran (Jamialahmadi et al. 2008) and India (Chauan and Patnaik 2008). Mortensen presents a small lithic assemblage form the locality of Loutró, on the southern coast of Crete, which he attributes to the Lower or early Middle Paleolithic on typological grounds (note: all pictures are from the reports which I discuss sequentially in this post).

While he recognizes that a representative sample of artifacts from Loutró will only be collected through a systematic survey of the locality and the gully around it, Mortensen claims that this “might suggest that the first humans reached the island across the sea from Libya. That an early contact between northern Africa and southern Europe existed already during the Palaeolithic periods is a hypothesis now supported by most scholars.” I actually don’t think this is a widely held view, but – if these artifacts can be considered creadible – they do suggest that islands such as Crete might have been settled comparatively early on. Only time will tell.

Jamialahmadi et al. (2008) present some very preliminary results of a survey they conducted in northeast Iran to assess the abundance of its Paleolithic record. In this case, they identified 15 artifact-bearing localities near the Kashafrud and Jamrud rivers, at least two of which (Ghaleh-Gak and Polgazi) have yielded artifacts that, on typological grounds, appear Lower or Middle Paleolithic in age.

They conclude that this survey “revealed the great potential of north-eastern Iran in general and of the river Kashafrud in particular for Palaeolithic studies. Sporadic Palaeolithic finds in this region and neighbouring areas (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) support the hypothesis that the region delimited today by the geographical boundaries of Iran has been used repeatedly in the Pleistocene period as a migratory pathway linking East with West.” Again, I’m not necessarily convinced that sporadic finds are necessarily indicative of a repeatedly used interregional human corridor, but the data are certainly suggestive of early human presence in those areas as well.

Chauan and Patnaik (2008) also report on preliminary findings of a survey in the Narmada Basin, in India. In this case, the intent of the survey is to obtain contextual information for the taxonomically and chronologically ambiguous. In contrast to the other two reports discussed here, this project “includes systematic surveys, documentation and collection of various types of specimens for geological, palynological and lithic analyses.” In other words, it should yield a representative sample of what is to be found along the Middle Narmada, and in fact “A long-term objective is to map localities using GIS for reference purpose and predictive modelling. It is clear that habitation probably occurred along the peripheral zones, closer to the Vindhyan Hills rather than in the vicinity of the main channel of the Narmada River.” Predictive modeling is basically highlighting which contextual factors (e.g., sediments, distance to river, slope, etc.) are most often associated with archaeological sites, to then target similar deposits in order to maximize the likelihood of finding sites – if this proves fruitful, some general patterns of human behavior can also begin to be outlined for the timespans under consideration here, once again the Lower and early Middle Paleolithic.

The Narmada survey also explicitly focuses on the collection of other types of archaeological evidence, including notably animal bones and dating samples.

From my perspective, this is an interesting set of reports because it illustrates well different manners in which archaeological sites all belonging to the same general periods can be encountered, a topic which we’re about to discuss in my Archaeological Methods class this term. The Loukó finds apparently represent a chance encounter, while the other two projects are bona fide surveys. Only the Narmada project appears to be systematic, however, meaning that it is organized according to regularly spaced/defined spatial units, some of which are then selected for thorough inspection to form a statistically representative sample of the region as a whole. In contrast the Iranian project appears to be a combination of a systematic and survey and chance encounters: you have an area that has reported archaeological potential, which limits your survey area, but within it, sites are encountered as one goes. My point here is not to critique the various strategies used in the identification of these three reports, but rather to emphasize how very different approaches have the potential to increase our knowledge of the archaeological record, albeit in very distinct ways.


Chauhan, P. R., and R. Patnaik. 2008. The Narmada Basin Palaeoanthropology Project in central India. Antiquity 82(317):

Jamialahmadi, M., H. Vahdati Nasab, and H. Fazeli Nashli. 2008. Kashafrud revisited: discovery of new Palaeolithic sites in north-eastern Iran. Antiquity 82(317):

Mortensen, P. 2008. Lower to Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from Loutró on the south coast of Crete. Antiquity 82(317):


Alex Steenhuyse said...

Hey! Glad you're back! How was Italy?

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Alex - glad to be back! Italy was very, very good... I hope to post a bit on what we did in the coming weeks! How're things on your end?

Alex said...

Salut Julien, nothing real new here. I spent my summer basically preparing the next summer, frustrating people and paperwork. I'd love to hear about italy, did you hit some transitional stuff? Looks like you went pretty deep anyway!
A bientot