by Lorna McVey
When I first visited Eleon on May 16th 2014, on the Uvic ‘May trip’ (GRS 395 Classical Studies Abroad), where students are given the opportunity to spend four amazing weeks visiting many different ancient sites and museums, it looked from a distances like any other small cairn in Greece. It was a beautiful little hill covered in tall grass, big purple thistles the kind you would find in highlands of Scotland and two old trees that provided the only shade at the site. At the top of the hill there were four large square trenches and the exposed ancient ramped entrance to the site running down to the edge of the polygonal wall and these were mostly covered by tarps and over grown with grass from the past year.
We are now in our third week of excavations at Eleon and the grass covering the site has been removed with a combination of hoeing and weed whacking. The transformation of the hill into a working archaeological site has been astonishing. In three short weeks the site no longer looks over grown, but is clean and trim and trenches and surrounding areas are clear and there is a path leading up to the site and all the viciously sneaky thistles have been removed. I would never thought to have referred to a thistle as sneaky before this trip, but no matter how hard you try to remove all the thistles while avoiding their thorns there is always one that gets through your gloves and you have to spend the next ten minutes looking for it. Rather than four trenches there are now nine new ones, giving us a total of thirteen trenches that are slowly revealing more and more about the people who once occupied the site of ancient Eleon.
Days at Eleon start with watching the sunrise every morning over the island of Euboea causing the sky and sea to turn beautiful rays of pink and gold as a new day of excavation begins. I do not think I will ever have enough photos of the sunrise here in Dilesi. Then it is a half hour ride to the dig site and if you are lucky enough to be in the right car you get to go the back way to the site which is a lovely dirt road through fields of wheat, orchards of olives and past the military air base whose fighter jets fly formations over us while we dig. At the site we collect our tools, shovels, hand picks, buckets, trowels and brushes. We then divide up into our trench teams which are rotated every week to give us the opportunity to work with many different people who are on the project and to get the chance to work in different trenches. This way we are able to gain experience with many different types of surfaces, finds and perfect our skills at how to properly excavate and preserve them. I had the great pleasure this week of being able to watch a piece of metal be excavated from our trench by our trench leader very carefully and slowly with small metal tools that remind you of what you might see at the dentist, some wooden scrapping tools and a fine brush. Most of the day though is spent working hard to remove the hard packed soil with large and small picks keeping a careful eye out for things like pottery, bone or terracotta which are the most common to find. The dirt we shovel into buckets that are wheelbarrowed up ‘wheel barrow mountain’ that is a giant mound of earth removed from previous years of the excavation. Every day we find many different pieces of pottery and roof tile both from Mycenaean times to the late medieval period. They are then taken back with us, washed and cataloged. At one pm our digging ends due to the heat of midday and we go for an amazingly delicious lunch at the house of a woman named Stavroula, who cooks the most wonderful lunches. The afternoons are filled with washing, sorting the finds of that day and learning how to identify and preserve them. The evenings are watching the sun set as we eat dinner at the sea side tavernas.
It has been a long time since I have thought archaeologists were all handsome men in leather jackets and hats who battled against the evil plots of the Nazis and the old Soviet Russian state to control the world using ancient magical relics. It has been a real pleasure to be given the privilege to work a long side professional archaeologists and to see how a real site is excavated and to be a part of that. Although sometimes when you are picking through dirt that just will not move I cannot say that I would not turn down a secret entrance that is only revealed at high noon by the staff of Ra. It would certainly make digging much easier.