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Jim Peck: Discoveries in Greece

Jim Peck is an instructor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences and director of Photography and Videography in Communications and Brand Strategy. He traveled to Isthmia, Greece with MSU archaeologist Jon Frey, from the College of Arts and Letters, to cover a story about a project Frey is working on.

March 29, 2017

I’m standing on top of a mountain in Greece, watching as a drone zooms through the sky taking pictures, gathering important information for MSU archaeologist Jon Frey. He’s standing next to me, telling me about the history of this place. It’s quite a history.

“This is the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia,” he says. “It’s called Isthmia because it sits on the isthmus of Greece. And it’s dedicated to Poseidon because it makes a certain amount of sense. This is where the water comes in closest to the east and west to the land, it almost pinches off the land.”

Certainly a good place for the God of the Sea. Also a good place for one of the main athletic venues of Ancient Greece. Jon tells me that while everyone knows about and talks about the Olympics, they were far from the only game in town, so to speak.

“There was Olympia but also Delphi, Nemea and, right here, Isthmia,” he says. “Theoretically Isthmia was as important as Olympia. And it wasn’t just sports, it was about mind and body excellence. This site would have been HUGE and had places for athletes and visitors to stay, to buy things, places to eat. It was a very big deal.”

Another big deal, here, was a wall that stood between northern and southern Greece. “After the Roman period it becomes the place where they stationed the army that was charged with protecting the wall that they built across the whole entire isthmus,” he tells me. “People were feeling unsafe in the late Roman/Byzantine period. They started walling off their cities. This wall cut off Southern Greece, made it a fortress.”

The ruins of history have been pulled from the ground here for decades. Jon Frey has been studying this area for most of his career. It was the first place he’d ever been in Greece; he was here for a study abroad trip. It was his first taste of archaeology, there was no going back.

He says, “I was going be a lawyer or something, then I came here and I said, ‘This is it! This is exactly what I want to do!’”

He’s here to survey and map out this place using the kind of tools that might seem more suited to a computer game than archaeology. He’s using the drone, 3-D imaging, GPS — the new tools of the digital archaeologist.

“You can build a model of anything using photographs and this really great new software that makes our lives so much easier,” Frey tells me as the drone lifts off, again, into the bright blue Grecian skies. “To make it meaningful, you have to give it proper scale, a proper sense of distance, a proper of the relationship of everything to itself and other things. In order to do that, we have to give it proper GPS coordinates.”

He’s surveyed the site and placed bright orange markers based on GPS coordinates at the corners and edges of the site. From the air, the drone captures crystal clear images from high above — you can easily see the markers, used as reference points. Once that’s all downloaded, the footage is combined with his measurements, and used to create a precise map of the site.

“You actually end up with a model that has a place in the world where it actually exists,” he explains. “And so you can use these coordinates and those of any other thing you find interesting on that model as real world coordinates that could be plugged into a GPS where somebody could follow it to go see it or study it.”

He’ll be using the information he’s gathering to create a 3-D, digital model that he and other researchers and archaeologists can use to study Isthmia. There is growing sentiment in the world of archaeology that they have dug enough. It’s expensive, time consuming and, well, it rips up the land.

“It’s one of the most well-known expressions in archaeology, that archaeology is destruction,” he says. “That you cannot dig the same hole twice. So you had better try as hard as you can to keep careful records as you can. So you keep a field book, you take photographs, you do measurements, you catalogue all the things you found, you say specifically where you found it. The idea is that you’re trying to create a virtual archaeology, so somebody 10, 20, 50 years down the road can get back inside your head and can think about what you were thinking, can almost see the dig through your eyes.”

Along with this new notion of what archaeology can be comes a complementary sentiment that research should be open-sourced and shared, not locked down and private. Jon Frey says he believes in the idea of openly sharing research and is committed to making the work he does available to others in the hope it will be useful and lead to other discoveries.

“You say, ‘Look! Here is all of this information! Do with it what you want,’” he says. “Study the site, study the history and study the ancient world. Find things you find interesting. You never know what will be valuable to someone else. There will be lots of unexpected uses for this data.”

Standing here, under the hot sun, watching the drone, looking out across the contours of the land, dotted with bits of ancient ruins and pillars, Frey says he feels fortunate to be right here, right now. “I think a lot of things are coming together at this amazing moment, where digital archaeology is encouraging us to be much more open. Encouraging us to be more willing to share everything, at every stage of the process. I think the future’s much more openly digital.”

He says with that kind of openness, the potential for discovery is greater than ever.