Boeotia is known as the home of Large Site or Urban Survey in Greece. The work of the Cambridge-Bradford Boeotia Project in the 1970s and 1980s created some of the most significant methodological innovations in intensive survey in Greece by conducting not only some of the first "siteless" artifact level survey but also using intensive survey to document the urban areas of several important Boeotian urban sites.
The recently published preliminary report of the Plataiai Research Project clearly works in this tradition (A. Konecny, R. T. Marchese, M. Boyd, V. Aravantinos, "Plataiai in Boiotia: A Preliminary Report on Geophysical and Field Surveys Conducted in 2002-2005," Hesperia 77 (2008), 43-71). The site of Plataiai with its prominent acropolis and well-known circuit wall encompassed an area of over 80 ha in southern Boeotia.
Their publication is particularly remarkable for its effective use of geophysical survey combining magnetometry and resistivity to produce a vivid map of the polis of Plataiai. The intensive survey component of the project inspires a bit less confidence as its methods were less fully explained and the data it produced seemed to difficult to reconcile with the field procedures that they described. They seem to have combined "the zigzag method" of walking across the site with random 1 m squares sampled to determine density and chronology of the various concentrations of artifacts. As they say:
"Sherd density was determined by a modified subjective approach since an absolute numeric counting of sherds per area was not possible. Density was determined by surveyors walking in a zigzag pattern across the sampled area. Concentrations of ceramic data and physical features were noted and discussed at the end of each transect.
Random 1 m squares were also selected in which to determine the density of sherds and other artifacts such as brick fragments, roof tiles, worked stone, and metal. Artifact concentrations were assigned to rough numerical categories ranging from 0 to 6, with 0 indicating a lack of artifactual material, 1 with 2–3 artifacts per m2, and 6 indicating more than 100 fragments of material per m2. (p. 44)"
It appears that this technique allowed them to make some quantitative assessments of the distribution of artifacts across the site, but it is perhaps not as comprehensive or intensive as most contemporary large site/urban surveys. Nevertheless, this project managed to make some interesting arguments including that the site of Plataiai contracted during Late Roman times and continued to be occupied throughout the Medieval period. The decrease in size of the nucleated settlement during Late Antiquity seems to be consistent with urban sites across Greece and may well represent a the adoption of a more dispersed settlement pattern that corresponds with increase in activity in the countryside.
This project marks one more example of the major increase in Large Site/Urban Survey in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Greece in particular. I have discussed some of this before on this blog (Some Thoughts on Future of Survey Archaeology in Greece (and the Eastern Mediterranean). In particular, I noted the recent publication of the Sikyon Survey Project (check out their impressive web page) another urban survey project (for discussion see: Recent Work on Survey Northeast Peloponnesus). Recent publications and ongoing field work seems to suggest that we are entering an era of small-scale intensive survey in Greece, succumbing in Richard Blanton's words to "Mediterranean Myopia" (Blanton, "Mediterranean Myopia," Antiquity 75 (2001), 627-629).
In an oft-sited 1993 article by Stephen Dyson ("From New to New Age Archaeology: Archaeological Theory and Classical Archaeology-A 1990s Perspective," AJA 97 (1993), 195-206) he predicted the demise of large scale excavations in the Mediterranean:
"The center of the fieldwork tradition, based on the "big dig," is dying, the victim of the economic rise of Europe and the Mediterranean and the decline of the United States as an economic, political, social, and educational power. A few of the dinosaurs survive, sustained by national archaeological politics, private patronage, and archaeological nostalgia. This era of the Classical archaeological Cretaceous, however, is drawing to an end. We will probably see few, if any, new Sardis, Cosa, or Athenian Agora projects in the mega-dig tradition. (p.204)"
One wonders if the recent rise in small-scale intensive survey projects reflects the death of large scale regional survey for some of the same reasons. Small scale intensive surveys can not only avoid the political, economic, and logistical problems associated with large regional projects (which are in many ways every bit as challenging as the "mega-digs"), but also avoid the interpretative difficulties that continue to bedevil the results of large scale regional projects. As Robin Osborne noted in his survey of recent work in Greek Archaeology ("Greek Archaeology: A Survey of Recent Work," AJA 108 (2004), 87-102) for many large-scale regional survey projects the quantity of data collected has so far exceeded our ability to produce significant interpretations from it.
In contrast, smaller scale large-site, like the work at Plataiai, Sikyon, and our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria in Cyprus have produced data sets that allow for a more comprehensive control over both archaeological and interpretative variables. At the same time, the limited size of these projects coincides with more focused research questions and typically depend more heavily on earlier work to provide context for their results. This requires a priori that the material from small-scale intensive surveys contribute to pre-existing debates and share common ground that it shares with other intensive surveys and excavations.
While large scale regional surveys will continue to produce valuable data and interpretation (as will "mega-digs"), in some ways their significance will continue to be judged against the both the time and resources invested and the optimism of the early days of survey archaeology.