Diving for Sociocultural Stories

Amalia Saladrigas

A conversation with Justin Leidwanger.

We have little routines that make up our lives: going to the supermarket, mailing letters in the post office, visiting that one coffee shop… Thanks to modern-day technology, and barring any cataclysms that destroy our record-keeping systems, it’s hard to imagine how future archaeologists will ever have to struggle to piece together what our daily lives are like. Unfortunately, or fortunately for Dr. Justin Leidwanger, people in the past did not enjoy such a privilege. An Assistant Professor of Classics and member of the Stanford Archaeology Center, Dr. Leidwanger researches Roman socioeconomic life. He uses bits of ceramics to uncover what commercial and community relationships looked like in Burgaz, a site on the Datça peninsula in southwest Turkey that has been under investigation by Middle East Technical University in Ankara (Turkey) for more than two decades.

“If it’s from outside the peninsula, in some ways it doesn’t matter whether it’s from Athens or from across the Mediterranean,” he says, referring to goods imported by the population in Burgaz, such as oil or wine. “In some ways, how far your import comes from is immaterial if it’s beyond your own human reach.” What was the commerce that shaped everyday life in this Turkish peninsula like? How much of what its population consumed came from within the community?

Excavating along a wall at Burgaz’s harbor L2. (Photo: Burgaz Harbors Project)

The site at Burgaz, one of the projects Dr. Leidwanger has been working on as co-director since 2011, is probably the site of “Old Knidos.” The name might sound familiar because of a famous statue, the Aphrodite of Knidos, but the statue is from the 4th century BC or later, when Knidos became a major urban center at the western tip of the Datça peninsula. Before that, the major civic center was in Burgaz, a town about 35km away, nestled closer to the mainland and to the fertile interior of the peninsula.

Through comprehensive survey and excavation in the site’s port complex, the Burgaz Harbors Project—run by Dr. Leidwanger together with Dr. Elizabeth S. Greene of Brock University—tries to piece together what happened in Burgaz, which used to be the main civic and economic center of Datça, after “New Knidos,” the city known later on for its Aphrodite, emerged as a major urban center. How did the emergence of New Knidos transform the maritime landscape, the harbors, the relationship and the interactions between the people and Burgaz?

“What happens with human behavior when they’re no longer the civic center?” Dr. Leidwanger asks, raising his eyebrows. “If you’re really tied to a site, and it has symbolic importance, you might continue to work with that harbor, whereas as soon as the civic center moves towards the tip of the peninsula, the old site may simply become a functional space.”

As it turns out, rather than letting the town fade away, the people in Burgaz took the change in stride: they built bigger harbors and became much more industrial. The walls were simple, and the structure was not grandiose or monumental, which suggests that, while the harbor remains important, the population was using the space and the foundations that were already there and adapting to the environment and changing economic networks.

When I ask him what part of the project he currently enjoys the most, Dr. Leidwanger pulls up a map of the Datça peninsula on his computer, with little blue dots marking the location of ports and shades of gray and black differentiating what might have once been farmland.

“What you’re looking at, what I’ve been playing around with and modeling is a kind of environmental analysis,” he begins, pointing excitedly. “The farmland is actually all the grey. And we’re estimating that if farmers live on this land, if this is where all the grain, and the wine, and the oil are being produced, and we can understand terracing and how that changes the landscape… A lot of it is indirect, and a lot of it is related to ceramics. But if we think of this as potential farmland, we can look at how far people are from ports.”

The idea is that using evidence from ceramic analysis, the researchers can determine the location of some ceramic centers and producers, and they know that no one in the Datça peninsula was more than a few hours away from some port. That helps to paint the picture of what comes from 20km away or from 5km away or from 1km away, not only what comes from across the Mediterranean. Those are the micro-relationships that Dr. Leidwanger finds fascinating: the community relationships that drove the everyday lives of people in the Datça peninsula more than 2000 years ago.

The Marzamemi “Church Wreck”

The other main project that Dr. Leidwanger has been working on is the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project in southeast Sicily. The shipwreck site was being looted and the superintendent was interested in protecting it: he was interested not only in doing research on it, but also bringing attention to the site and making sure that it survived. There are other shipwrecks in the area that his team hopes to address eventually under the project’s umbrella, but so far the focus has been the famous 6th century AD Marzamemi “church wreck.”

“This one shipwreck became a very obvious place to start because even between when I first showed up in 2010 and returned in 2012, the coast guard had confiscated various objects that people had swiped from the site,” Dr. Leidwanger explains. When it sank, the ship’s cargo included some prefabricated and decorative elements that were probably intended as pieces for a church. In the fall of 2014, after the excavation team had left, somebody reported several pieces of decorated marble architecture that had been dragged halfway to the shore and then abandoned. “I don’t know how people dragged it there, these things are heavy,” jokes Dr. Leidwanger.

Carrying a small column after excavation on the Marzamemi shipwreck. (Photo: Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project)

The urgency was clearly there, but another central driving factor for the project was the development of a new museum in Marzamemi. The town’s new museum allowed the archaeologists and researchers to do a more superficial study of some areas, leave pieces of the wrecks underwater if they were not threatened, and bring those materials that were to the museum. It has provided the space not only to study the pieces, but also to use them in various educational approaches, working between the museum and the seabed. Part of the importance of community archaeology is immersing people in a past and a history that they may not have been aware of. “For me,” Dr. Leidwanger explains, “it’s a matter of bringing people face to face with their own past, and understanding the relevance of the past to the present.

loriana Agneto and Dr. Justin Leidwanger at the opening of an exhibit in Palermo, 2016. (Photo: Salvo Emma)

Collaboration with the town is crucial: the team spent a fair amount of time crafting projects that ensured the protection of the town’s maritime heritage while also engaging the community, respecting and incorporating their knowledge of the space. “It’s about understanding that we each bring something to the table,” he says, stressing the importance of finding a balance between the ideal scenario for archaeologists and what is sustainable for the town. “I can tell you more about this material than many people can but, at the same time, you can tell me more about its modern world and the viability of some ideas.”

Community Archaeology and Conservation

One of the reasons Dr. Leidwanger enjoys working on the site is because the Sicilians are among the best in the world when it comes to progressive heritage management. They are willing to explore interesting, experimental ideas when it comes to handling and preserving objects and sites, and the project’s main collaborators have a long-term view for the site that evidences this forward thinking. As Dr. Leidwanger explains, Italian high school kids spend a few weeks of the summer in the sea and at the museum, working with the local archaeologists and learning about their cultural heritage. The local diving shops have been fully supportive, even though the excavations are essentially deconstructing an attractive dive site. But they are interested in it being preserved, and in the benefits of potentially reconstructing the site. After careful study, some shipwrecks are opened for diving and, hopefully, replicas of those that were excavated could become part of a dive trail.

“Development and tourism are going to happen, so how can you sustain cultural heritage while also recognizing that this is just one component of a broader trend, that development needs to be addressed through sustainability?” Dr. Leidwanger chuckles. “I think archaeology is critically important, but so are our sustainable livelihoods. So is letting people keep the flavor of their town.” For Dr. Leidwanger, this balance is one of the tightropes current and future archaeologists should learn to manage and it’s part of the advice he has for future students interested in the field.

“Be flexible. Try sketching something even if you can’t draw worth a damn. Learn how to write and communicate. Learn a foreign language. Recognize that you work at the good graces of not just the authority, but the public as a whole. We are charged with and have the opportunity to work with material culture that belongs in many different parts of the world. Recognize that that comes with a great responsibility to incorporate actively what other people think about this material… well, I could go on and on.”

Photo credits: Justin Leidwanger