Deciding where to dig: Nathaniel Durant on field survey at Halmyris

While a mention of the word “archaeology” typically conjures up images of Indiana Jones running through a myriad of traps to obtain a sacred idol, Howard Carter’s famous discovery of the intact tomb of Tutankhamun or, in more recent memory, a full scale comprehensive excavation of a site, there are many important steps before actually putting a trowel in the ground. While the memory and extant remains of some sites (i.e. Pompeii) have left little doubt to their location, how does one decide where to excavate without this information? How does one choose to excavate one site versus another and what even defines a “site?”

There is no single answer to these questions, but all of these issues broadly fall under the auspices of non-invasive archaeology. This sub discipline includes techniques aimed at locating archaeological features (or even just areas of interest) that can then be confirmed through more destructive forms of archaeology such as excavation. These methods can even be employed within a known area. For example, turning to the site of Halmyris, one can see the large fort dominates the landscape of the region and is where almost all of the archaeological excavations have taken place. But what of the civilian settlement of naval veterans that is mentioned in the series of altars discovered at the site? Where is the necropolis of which only reused graves in the walls of the fort have been discovered? And what about the city into which Epictet and Astion entered and eventually met their deaths? And finally, while the presence of a significant settlement outside of Halmyris is rarely called into question, where does one start with this information?

The short answer is non-invasive archaeology. For the last few years, I have been conducting surveys around the fort in order to determine the best locations for further excavation aided by previous data from geophysical techniques such as gradiometry and ground penetrating radar. The presence of cropmarks, indications in the soil or vegetation of sub surface remains, in Google Earth has been only moderately helpful in determining the location of structures or features around Halmyris, but recently, through my own PhD research, I obtained a whole new database of information. It has already been shown in other regions of Romania that, during the communist period, significant agricultural and industrial projects such as deep plowing have generally resulted in the severe obliteration of archaeological remains, whether as surface or subsurface features potentially revealed by cropmarks. However, a series of recently declassified aerial reconnaissance surveys taken by the RAF, USAF and Luftwaffe during WWII (now stored in Washington D.C. and Edinburgh) predate much of this later development and thus act as a valuable resource for locating and identifying now invisible sites.  Luckily, the coverage of Halmyris in these sorties is extensive and may offer new clues about the placement of buildings and features surrounding the fort.

As Halmyris is one of the few systematically excavated frontier forts in the region of Scythia Minor, the importance of this site to my own research cannot be overstressed. My work involves using predictive modeling to best identify the spatial characteristics of Roman military instillations in the province and, from these factors, anticipate where the location of sites might be that are mentioned in historical sources but are unattested on the ground. While Halmyris did meet its downfall once or twice (or several) times, the fact that this fort remained occupied from the 2nd until the 7th century offers unparalleled information for the region and for my own work. As I am set to return to Halmyris for my 7th consecutive year, I am, as I always am, struck with how lucky I am to be part of this team and part of the reason why Halmyris will continued to be discovered.