Lunch & Learn: History, Remote Sensing, and GIS: the Avkat Survey Project with John Haldon

avkat.jpgPrinceton Professor John Haldon, the director of the Euchaita/Avkat Project, an archaeological and historical survey based around the village of Avkat in north-central Anatolia, introduced the Avkat Archaeological Survey at the March 5 Lunch ‘n Learn. The effort is a collaborative archeological and historical research project that seeks to integrate a number of different approaches to studying the past, using recent technological advances to integrate medieval sources as well as disparate datasets into a cohesive framework of analysis. The project offers the opportunity to trace the history of a single region across a period of more than 1500 years. Haldon hopes to clarify the political role of the area throughout the period, and to show the effects of human activity in transforming the landscape, tracking shifting settlement and demographic patterns, and explaining transformations in land-use, agricultural and pastoral farming, and urban-rural relationships.
The 10-year project employs cutting edge survey, mapping, and digital modeling techniques to enrich our understanding of the society, economy, land use, demography, paleo-environmental history and resources of the late Roman, Byzantine, and Seljuk/Ottoman periods. From the 1980s, archaeological field survey methodologies have rapidly developed. We also now have remote sensing techniques ranging from ground-penetrating radar to airborne radar systems and satellite imagery. However, the integration of these techniques into a unified project design has rarely been achieved. All too often, notes Haldon, these methodologies are simply tacked onto existing project designs.

To be sure, there are technical difficulties in integrating datasets, but Haldon emphasizes that the development of GIS has now reached a point where such complex problems are more easily handled. At the same time, GIS has rarely been used to its full potential in archaeological research. This project seeks to integrate traditional archaeological survey work with other disciplines into a 100% digital project, developing the use of GIS to enhance our understanding of the past and incorporating large datasets both of traditional archaeological nature, as well as non-archaeological such as large volumes of text, climatic and palynological data, and vegetational and geological classifications derived from multispectral satellite imagery.
The ancient site of Euchaita (Avkat in the Ottoman documents, Beyözü since the 1930s), seems to have been occupied since prehistoric times but has experienced until this project relatively little archeological interest. The small, modern village (of just 58 houses, 20 of which are unoccupied) is dominated by two hills and a strategically placed bronze-age site that is taken to be the location of a Byzantine/Seljuk fortress. The fortress site is not used for grazing giving archaeologists a free hand to investigate.
johnhaldon.jpgDuring the Roman period, the village appears to have been a relatively unimportant rural center. A wall was constructed during the early 6th century and, from the seventh century, with the Arab Islamic conquest of the eastern Roman provinces and the retreat of the Roman — now Byzantine — frontier, Euchaita became a military base behind the frontier. Following its conquest at the time of the Seljuk occupation of eastern Asia Minor in the later 11th century, its importance declined and though most of the Ottoman period it was abandoned. However, the district retained economic viability and several villages in the region can trace archival documents right up to the later nineteenth century.
Among many issues, Haldon hoped to learn more about how armies wound their way across the countryside. Ancient texts frequently mention that a general led a force of a specific size through an area. How could a landscape that supported the existing sedentary population also support the movement of a large army? How was the land organized? What crops were grown? What were the sizes of the local population through time? And in what other ways did communities change over time? Ancient texts, letters, oral histories, and other traditional source materials provide some information about change but often leave fundamental questions unanswered.
The project is managed from Princeton University and the University of Birmingham/UK, with support from GIS and IT specialists at both institutions. The on-site team is comprised of undergraduates and post-graduates from Princeton, Trent University (Ontario) and the College of Charleston. Last summer, the team made substantial progress with a basic digital elevation mapping and ground-penetration radar survey of the fortress hill and nearby areas. Without being intrusive to the site, the radar clearly identifies structures, roads and pathways, as well as clues regarding the density of occupation.
Haldon’s goal is to tie these methods for the first time into a broader range of techniques and technologies to yield a more accurate sense of how the area developed in terms of land use and settlement patterns. Satellite radar helps to identify landscape features, ancient roadways, and water channels which researchers expect to place within broader contexts. Satellite imagery provides spectral analysis to a certain depth below the surface that can reveal how the landscapes have changed over time, even showing the different types of crops that have grown there and supporting speculation about population also reveal shifts in land use and population changes. All of these techniques combine to provide scientific corroboration of often soft historical evidence.
A key part of the effort now is to tie historical, geographic, and paleo-environmental relational data from disparate digital data systems through a GIS that can help research to extract data associated with its geographical contexts.
A podcast and the presentation are available.
John Haldon is a professor of Byzantine History and Hellenic Studies whose research has centered on the socioeconomic, institutional, political and cultural history of the early and middle Byzantine empire from the seventh to the eleventh centuries. He has focused on political systems and structures across the European and Islamic worlds from late ancient to early modern times and has explored how resources were produced, distributed and consumed, especially in warfare, during the late ancient and medieval periods. Professor Haldon is the author and co-author of more than two dozen books. His most recent books are Problems and perspectives in Byzantine social and economic history ( Blackwell, forthcoming 2008) and Byzantium in the iconoclast period with L. Brubaker (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2008).

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