Sunday, June 30, 2013

The "Work Vacation"

The past four weeks have been very eventful. Each weekend has been wonderful and unique, the highlights are plenty, like visiting the museums, going to the opera, taking a ferry over to Euboea, climbing the Mycenae acropolis, or simply relaxing in the clearest, bluest sea water after a long walk under the blazing sun. There are not enough weekends to do everything. Although, seeing all these ancient remnants of magnificent cities at the sites and museums is not as stimulating as digging them up yourself. It is a fantastic thing to experience the satisfaction of finding something, slowly and carefully uncovering it, and finally being able to pull it out of the ground. The problem is the most fantastic artifacts are not so easily found as in a museum. And once found, does not usually come with the helpful plaque explaining what it is. So it is exciting to overhear the "purple ideas" as to what each significant find could be. Of course, not every object is a mystery, most, we are taught how to identify by type and timeframe. From what we have uncovered so far I am very impressed, Eleon was certainly no hamlet. I will have to remember to return 50 years from now, after many more seasons of study and excavation to see and learn, along with the tourists, the history we do not know yet.
This weekend is special for many EBAPers. Tomorrow is Canada Day but we will be celebrating today as tomorrow is a work day. What does it matter? Even if we did it tomorrow we still wouldn't be partying the same time as everyone else back home.

What to do when you find an artifact

Pottery: Pottery sherds are the most common find at ancient Eleon, and there is a lot of it. Pottery is a great way of dating a site, so it should be handled with as much care now as it would have all those years ago when it was being made. The first thing to do when pottery is present in a trench is to try to not break it with your pick. Whether you don't see it at all or you see it at the last moment when your pick is about to hit the ground, that sherd with one ancient break can turn into many more little pieces. Sometimes, if youre lucky, a sherd many be buried next to its other pieces, so it can be a good idea to search around the immediate area. After you remove it from the ground, put it in a bucket that has been tagged with the appropriate locus and lot number. After you leave the site, brush the sherds with water and a toothbrush to get the dirt off. They will later be sorted into fine, medium, and coarse wear. Terra cotta: Terra cotta finds need to be handled with more care than a pottery sherd. When you see one in the ground, brush around it and carefully remove. Then search the immediate area to see if any other pieces are present. Once it is out of the ground, cover it and keep out of sunlight and water because any remaining paint will be destroyed. Wrap it in Tyvek and place in a container. Do not put in a plastic bag because the heat will cause it to sweat. The wonderful ladies on the conservation team will then conserve the artifact from being destroyed after being removed from its micro environment. The dirt will be carefully scrapped off and any breaks will be mended with an adhesive. Roof tiles: Roof tiles are generally not kept, but the trench supervisor will make note of its appearance by either weighing or counting them according to locus. Some coarse wear can often be confused as roof tiles, so it is useful to double check if you are unsure. Bone: If a significant amount of bone is present in an area, it is put in the separate bag from pottery according to it's locus and lot number. It will then be washed in a similar fashion as pottery and then identified. Bone is a useful find because it gives insight into which animals were once present at the site.


We’re two thirds of the way through the dig now and only have two weeks left. After the first couple of weeks the weather turned and we have had hot, sunny weather since. This makes it incredibly hot at the dig site. Luckily the sun shades have been built and they protect us to some extent from the sun and its heat. Because of the high heat we have changed the starting time to 6:00 am instead of the previous 6:30.
Last week was my first time in the Northwest where there are many features in the trenches. There are also lots of pits though. These pits are created by previous settlers on the site as well as animal holes. It is quite easy to find the pits as the soil is often looser and darker than the surrounding soil. No one likes these pits as it means that we don’t know when all of the pottery in them dates to and part of the level could be contaminated pottery from a later period. This week I found one such pit and I was told to see how far down it went. I dug down as far as I could but the pit kept going and it wasn’t big enough for me to go into it to keep digging down. Hopefully it doesn’t go much further. In the rest of the trench it is common to come into lots of little pits caused by animal burrows which don’t go down very far, but it is still common to find later pottery than you expect in these holes. The biggest pit on site is in the neighbouring trench to the one I was digging in this week and takes up most of the trench. Luckily these pits are really only seen in the Northwest and the rest of the trenches are free of the disappointment of finding them.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Today marks three weeks of excavation at ancient Eleon in the village of Arma.  Our group has been working very hard, sometimes in extreme weather (rain or high heat). We are currently on short break this weekend for well-deserved rest. Some have gone to Nauplion to explore the archaeological remains of the Argolid (Mycenae, Tiryns, Epidauros), others to Skyros, Delphi or Athens. Some have remained at Dilesi to enjoy the peaceful surroundings and garden so well-cared for by our landlady of the last seven summers, Mrs. Mamoni. We are forever grateful for her hospitality, kindness and generosity.  
For Mrs. M.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Introduction to the World of Archaeology

Two weeks in, I feel quite at home here in Boeotia. I am really enjoying the satisfaction of a day's hard work as well as the rest we get in the small town of Dilesi. Working "down in the trenches" is not as horrible as it sounds, its great fun, as now we have excavated far enough below the topsoil that we are finding structures and artifacts that have meaning, which can be trusted to explain what was going on here all those years ago. After working a week in a trench I form an attachment to the progress and do not want to be removed but it is also interesting to be able to experience each part of the site. As I shovel and pick away I try to imagine Eleon as it once was, long ago. How long this ancient city has been sitting under the soil we now remove is mind boggling. Personally recovering remnants of a Mycenaean people is exciting, but 3000 years ago is hard to comprehend.
On Friday I was instructed to stay behind in Dilesi to do conservation. 
I was a little disappointed at first but it soon turned out to be a relaxing morning, learning how to clean the more sensitive terracotta figurines as well as mend the fractured pieces. 
I am keeping myself attentive to remember significant details like, the names of different styles of pottery and how to identify them, as well as the terms and methods used in mapping out the trenches. 
On Sunday us EBAPers have the day off to enjoy this country any way we decide. This last one was spent exploring ancient Eretria on the island of Euboea. The next just could be in Mycenae or Tiryns!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Greek Food For Thought

Food. The bane of our existence, yet a part of daily life that’s often overlooked.


How many of us EBAPers actually know where the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and olives in our almost-daily horiatiki salatas (Greek salads) were grown? Or what wheat was used to make the pasta in the pastitsio that seems to quickly be devoured once put in front of the group? We may appreciate the Greek cuisine that fills our stomachs and satiates our hungry, hard-working bodies… but how connected are we to all of the ingredients that make up the mouth-watering Greek dishes we so happily consume? All of the moussaka, souvlaki, yemista, saganaki, and gyros. Sure enough, the list goes on and on.


But of course dishes of this kind did not always exist. Before all of the casseroles, grilled meat skewers, baked stuffed vegetables, and pan-fried cheese, diets of the ancients were much less extravagant. Olives and wheat can be speculated to be a large part of ancient Greek diets, especially since they had been recorded on Linear B tablets. Such evidence has been found on tablets mentioning our site of ancient Eleon, expressing not only their connection with the palace at Thebes and economic importance in general, but also their eating habits.


But how is it that we can find out more about the diets of people who lived long before our grandparent’s time?  Sure, written evidence can plant the seed of our ancient diet and agricultural knowledge, but it’s the seeds themselves that can tell us stories about the handling and consumption of food. Through paleobotany, stories about plants and people spring to life.


First you must grab a soil sample from the archaeological site in question. Then when put in water the botanical remains separate from the dirt. Such remains will float to the surface. The magic of charred seeds can then be explored. Charred seeds are those that have been subject to hotter-than-humanely-livable temperatures with a scarce amount of oxygen. These fired up seeds preserve the state of the seed, preventing decay and damage, allowing paleobotany enthusiasts to see how food plants were being used in ancient times. Jake, who opened my eyes to such an art, used glume-based wheats as an example of grain not often used for bread. It is through examining grain properties that we can knowledgably speculate how wheat, barley, etc. was processed, stored, and consumed, and the scale at which this occurred.


And that my friends, is what Jake would call the “unsexy truth of the Mycenaean world.” Noting the lack of excitement for the ancient diet of mostly bread and porridge. Jake’s speedy 5 minute garden talk left my brain with a large spurt of paleobotany knowledge along with the craving to learn more about the ancient diet. Although studying charred seeds doesn't give us the full spectrum of eating habits from the past, it gives us a starting point to say the least.


Greek cuisine and our eating lifestyles in general have shifted significantly since the times of the Mycenaeans. Maybe the next time we eat a fresh Greek salad with local ingredients we can think about how fortunate we are to have come such a long way in our gastronomic endeavors. From growing food plants all the way to preparation, hard work is involved to feed the hungry stomachs of the world. Hunger-satisfying meals made with good, wholesome ingredients do more than give people energy to go about their days; they're integral to culture and bringing groups of people together, EBAPers included. Learning more about paleobotany during EBAP will not only open doors of knowledge about ancient diets, but can hopefully spark a connection with the people of today and the food that they eat.


The Old Buzzard’s Guide to finding old dead stuff.


Buzzard’s like archaeologists start with the big picture - the view from above. At Eleon this had been done in previous years by way of a geological survey and a surface survey, both of which indicated potentially juicy finds to be pecked over in the area. Of course one needn’t be as keen-eyed as a vulture to see the huge section of polygonal wall still firmly standing since the Classical period; in fact you’d have to be as blind as a bat to miss it. The huge stones are perfectly cut, resting above a horizontal level and lock together like puzzle pieces, which is likely why they have survived theft, tremors, and time. Geological surveys, though fine and well, are open to interpretation and therefore misinterpretation. Connecting the dots from the results can locate a fine wall just below the surface or simply an accidental alignment of natural stone; rather like seeing crabs, gods, and dippers in the night sky. Even the surface can be deceiving. Shards are thick on the ground well as in the first few centimetres down but they are a mix of time periods, styles, colors, and shapes. A plain unglazed fragment of red terracotta lying in the grass could be a Mycenaean, Archaic, or Classic pot; or last year’s refuse from a garden shop down the road. Beautiful green-glazed Byzantinian shards look suspiciously like they may have come from granny’s china cabinet. Only someone with a vulture’s keen eye and a good bit of experience in pecking over many old bits is likely to be able to separate the junk from the juicy bits.
Of course you can’t be a good archeologist (or Buzzard) unless you are willing to get under the skin (so to speak). Dirt’s skin like most skin is notoriously hard to peck/pick through. The sod does not want to reveal its under-layers easily so peeling off the epidermis can be blistering tough. Hit it too lightly and you will not pierce its skin – too hard and you will bounce off a rock or smash something you’ll be sorry for (Murphy’s Law applies to Buzzards too and miniature votives can be very delicate [Not guilty]!) It is important to pick inside the lines (same rule for coloring inside the lines). Without a framework to track who is pecking up what, one may as well bring in the pachyderms (or a backhoe) and rip it all up into a heap. Unlike buzzards who care only for purification and flavor, archaeologist must concern themselves with provenance and findspots. The grid setup is confusing at first (for a birdbrain) but if one looks as it from a bird’s eye view it makes sense. The grid starts at the horizontal and vertical center point (where the total station is set up) which splits the entire site into NW, NE, SW, and SE quadrants. The grid counts every 10 meters from the center to the north 1,2,3,… and also from center to the south 1,2,3,… From the center to the East every 10 meters of the grid is lettered A, B, C, …. as is the center to the West. Easy right? But wait – there’s more! Each 10 X 10 square is subdivided into four 5 X 5 meter squares which are lettered: a) top left, b) top right, c) bottom left, and d) bottom right. So HEB’s unit is NW B1b. This is the unit I’ve been picking around in for most of the last two weeks. HEB is the trench supervisor who is responsible for keeping track of points (elevations for features and some artefacts), deciding how deep to pick, (usually about 10 cm at for each pass), how hard to peck (and with what), taking pictures, making drawings, describing finds, and many other details including reminding some (eh-hemm) to, “dig a trench, not a hole” (which is tempting when one finds a delightful tidbit poking out and just asking to be liberated from the clinging dirt [I mean matrix]).
Sadly pecking around in the mud is even too messy even for lovers of dirt and old dead stuff, so last week’s showers put a damper on the dig. But Sunday’s sun must have dried things up so next week Gaia should give up more of her buried hoard. Of course, Sol’s wrath may be the death of us.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rain Day

Yesterday started out promising with a few clouds in the sky and the sun visible. The weather quickly turned however and it started raining. Since it also rained two days ago, the ground became wet and muddy very quickly. This meant that we were unable to work in the trenches so we went down to the town’s cafĂ© for our break. This was quite a long break since it rained for quite a while and Brendan and Bryan needed to decide what to do with everyone. A few of us started a game of Monopoly. After a while the rain let up so a few of us went back to the site to continue with some digging while the rest of the group went to the Apotheke to help the others who were already down there. Those who went to the Apotheke helped draw some of the pottery fragments that we have found, while up at the site we continued digging the two new trenches until it started raining again. We quickly packed all the tools up before they got soaked and went to the Apotheke as well. At the Apotheke we were given a lesson on how to draw the pottery fragments by Tina and how it is possible to figure out the diameter of a vessel simply from a small fragment of the rim. Since the rain wasn’t letting up this time, most of us returned to the house for lunch and the rest of the day off while a few stayed at the Apotheke to continue working. Hopefully the weather improves so we can continue our digging.