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Once again, we excavated at the site of ancient Eleon in the village of Arma, in central Greece, from May 28 until July 8, 2017. This project is co-sponsored by the Canadian Institute in Greece and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boeotia. Our partner is Dr. Alexandra Charami. For six weeks, approximately 30 students and professionals from Canada, the US, Italy, and Greece worked through heavy rains (first three weeks) and extreme heat (last three weeks). The team was an equal mix of first-timers to the project and experienced old-hats. As we have since 2007, we lived in the sea-side community of Dilesi and made the 20 minute commute each morning to the agricultural town of Arma surrounded by rolling fields of grain, olives and vineyards.
Fig. 1 The view from ancient Eleon toward Euboea.
Ancient Eleon sits on the elevated plateau to the west of the town of Arma, toward the major city of Thebes. The key to its success in antiquity was probably its location: good water sources nearby and it was on a strategic route that connected Thebes with Chalkis and the Euboean Gulf to the east, and Athens to the south.
We had good success this year, continuing work focused on a complicated burial structure. The remains of several individuals who died in the early Mycenaean period (ca. 1700 BC) were uncovered. Excavating bodies is sensitive work – the remains are extremely important and often very fragile. The work is done by experts who know every part of the human skeleton. They also have great patience and strong knees! Because the work is so slow and difficult it gives us pause to consider how working on an archaeological project is (and is not) like the ‘real world’.
Fig. 2 EBAP team members Kai Michaluk, Novella Nicchitta, Hamish Frayne.
A good attitude goes a long way! All team members live together as guests of our Greek hosts, who are famously hospitable, but we are always reminded during the season that we are not really ‘at home’: Our schedules are locked-in; we share accommodations and meals; we commute together. Finding time alone, away from the project is difficult, even on our one day off each week. So in this sense, excavation work is different from taking a summer course, internships, or most summer jobs: Over the course of six weeks, there is no escape!
There are, however, aspects of an excavation that are very much like the ‘real world’ and it can prepare students for a variety of professions. Our work requires organization, communication, and collaboration.
Fig. 3 EBAP team members at work.
In terms of organization, as project directors our experience leading teams of fieldworkers in Boeotia, since 2007, has helped greatly. We can predict with some accuracy how students will feel challenged after working extremely hard in the intense heat. We take many precautions, stressing proper rest, copious amounts of water, and healthy and abundant food. We have learned that, like Napoleon’s army, an excavation team travels (digs?) on its stomach. We have participated in and observed projects where food is either terrible or in very short supply. Even if this saves projects money, to us this make little sense because the pay-off from happy, healthy, and strong workers is obvious – their excellent work! This explains why meals occupy a large place in our budget and in our planning.
Fig. 4 Nightly dinner by the seaside.
A good excavation also depends highly on effective communication. With a large team it is vital that people know what they are doing or expected to do throughout the day. Even though we are a large group everyone plays an important role. One of the daily tasks for the directors is to make a plan for the next day, to maximize the effectiveness of our resources (people, time, equipment). We also realize that people want to get experience in a wide range of tasks, and that some jobs can be more interesting than others, and so we make an effort to share experiences. Each day we have a set number of seats in the cars available and so, like the ancient Pnyx, we make sure every seat is full before the day’s work begins. This allows us to keep track of our team as well. Some remain in Dilesi helping with data entry and the processing of finds. Others go to the apothiki in Arma and work with conservation, drawing, and ceramic study. The majority of the team comes to site and are further divided into work groups led by trench supervisors. Often there is just not enough people for all the jobs we have at hand.
Fig. 5 Afternoon sherd washing.
Our project is classified as a synergasia which is best translated as ‘collaboration’, between the Canadian Institute in Greece and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boeotia. Our project depends on the contributions of our Greek partners Drs. Alexandra Charami and Kiki Kalliga and their colleagues, for official permits and documents to collegial discussions about archaeological materials found elsewhere in Boeotia. The official synergasia, however, only begins to explain how our work is collaborative: First, the two co-directors (Burke and Burns) teach in Canada and the US, so our teams our primarily from the University of Victoria and Wellesley College. Often the project is a unique experience for students to work closely with other people who are seemingly similar in some (but not all!) ways and yet they are from different countries. We also rely on collaboration with our Greek friends in Arma, Schimatari, and Dilesi. When we need a specific piece of equipment or a custom-cut piece of lumber, for example, we know whom to ask and our partners are always willing to help. The owners of a local hardware store (Marinos http://marinostools.gr/) even took the entire team out of dinner one evening this year to express their appreciation, not just of our business, but because of friendship and our shared interest in trying to better understand the history of this great country.
For us, collaboration, along with communication and organization, make our excavation what it is. We hope our students learn the importance of these aspects and can apply them to all parts of their lives whether they continue in archaeology or move on to some other professional field.
Fig. 6 The 2017 Team
Pottery is one of the large, over-arching categories that the finds from Ancient Eleon are placed within. The various subsections of the site have yielded sherds that span from the Bronze Age to the Medieval Period. While these various chronologies possess differing levels of value to our study, every piece of pottery that is retrieved from the dark yellowish brown, strong brown, or even just plain brown soil at the site is processed in a standardized and uniform method. We begin by separating the pottery into several loci and lots within the confines of a trench. This helps the ceramic analysts to accurately observe unique patterns or irregularities in the recovered material. But before any of this can happen, there are many steps that us students help with. Every evening, at precisely 5 pm, we assemble out at the back of our house to do one of two tasks. Either we wash the pottery sherds that were brought back from the trenches that day or we sort the pottery that has dried from the previous day. Sorting the pottery simply requires one to be able to distinguish fine ware, medium coarse ware, and coarse ware (cooking pots and storage vessels) from within a chosen lot. Within these categories it is important to separate the unpainted from the painted; the diagnostic features are kept separately as well. Diagnostic features are identified as rims, handles, bases, and ‘other’ (this is where a spout would go). After this stage, the sherds are re-bagged and taken to the apotheke where they undergo a ‘second sort’ – usually done by either Bartek or Trevor. This requires additional categorization within the painted features and body sherds into classes such as patterned, linear, and monochrome. These categories aid our pottery analysts to quickly and effectively fill out a ‘pot notes’ sheet as they make important comments on what is included in the assemblage. This is the same stage in which we look for joins to establish mendable vessels. While it is evidently common for joins to be found within one lot it is important that the lots are systematically inspected to ensure that adjacent or related lots can be compared to discover more joins. The highest honour that a pottery sherd can aspire to is to become a part of a collection of sherds that are granted a ‘P-Number’. This is how we identify and distinguish vessels, at Ancient Eleon. At this point, database entry and EBAP tag number labeling (achieved by the use of countless bottles of clear nail polish) is required before we send off the various sherds to our conservators for mending. Finally, if a sherd cannot be included in a P-Number, it is re-bagged as a part of a distinct assemblage. These are taken and photographed in order to allow for analysis of the overall lot in relation to nearby locals.
While most students participating in an archaeological field school are aware of the valuable presence of pottery, it was one facet of the experience that struck a particular interest in me and, while some may argue that the mundane task of putting small strips of nail polish on each sherd is tedious, each step in the system is vital to a proper interpretation of the material. Pottery can provide us with an interminable amount of information about a site. Not only will it help to develop a relative chronology for various areas of a site but also it can provide us with detailed hints as to the lives of the inhabitants during the various periods of occupation. So next time you come across a sherd of pottery, no matter how small, take a moment to appreciate the incredible age of the material and the significance it may hold.
An archaeological excavation is a systematic, scientific process replete with precise measurements and data points, notes, matrices, and maps. Given the systematic, step-by-step nature of an excavation one can easily lose perspective of what they are digging through. However, it is important to remember that we are not simply picking through clay and articulating stones. At ancient Eleon, this clay represents the floor of a room on which people lived, cooked, and ate more than 3000 years ago. Those stones may be part of the Blue Stone Structure – a very important structure to us as archaeologists now and no doubt even more so to the people who utilized it in the early Mycenaean period. The pot sherds that seem to appear in every shovel load were the drinking cups and cooking pots of people remarkably similar to those who excavate them millennia later. These pots were crafted with human hands the same as ours, just as these walls were built, and hearths were formed. Our job is to excavate these features in order to gain a greater understanding of this site and how these people lived, but we cannot in good conscious do so in a vacuum. These remains did not spring autochthonous from the earth. They are left as the shadow of house-guests and mourners who lived, died, and were buried here. We are well served to keep this in mind as we excavate, and to treat these remains with the interest and immense respect they deserve.
As my first excavation, EBAP has afforded me the experience of opening a Mycenaean tomb, holding the bones of these people, and the grave goods with which they were buried. This along with the experience of excavating in a late Mycenaean household has created a connection with this site and the people who inhabited it which I will feel for the rest of my life. A connection which I hope I will be lucky enough to have the opportunity of exploring further as I move forward in my education – and hopefully career – in Greek archaeology.
Thank you to the amazing group of students, other excavators, supervisors, staff members, and directors for making EBAP 2017 the experience that it was. Ευχαριστώ παρα πολύ Stavroula for the great lunches. And a special thank you to co-director Brendan Burke for being such a great instructor and friend over the past six months that I’ve been in Greece with the UVic semester in Greece program, EBAP, and the period in between.
Many things in life are best served on the rocks, these techniques are no different. For the beginner, rock removal can look like a daunting task but with the help of a few tips and tricks it can become an achievable and even enjoyable task. Now before we get into the actual techniques there are a few very important points that a rock remover shall not forget. First off you must remember not all rocks are created equal. No one technique will be suitable for every rock but luckily I am here to fill your tool box so you can tackle anywhere from the smallest to the largest of rock removal jobs.
Technique #1: The Greco-Roman Rock Wrestle (GRRR)
One of the oldest rock moving techniques in the book, in fact it is quite likely that this was the technique used in antiquity to place that rock you are now removing. The glory in this techniques is the simplicity; man versus rock, no tools necessary. To perform the greco-roman rock wrestle you must first locate a target, preferably a medium sized stone. I recommend a bare handed approach for a better grip, and maybe a quick stretch to warm up. Find yourself two suitable gripping points and give that rock a good jolt towards yourself to pop it loose from the soil surrounding it. Once your stone of choice has been popped loose drop your hips down and bend those knees, find yourself to comfortable lifting points and muscle that rock out of there. Now this technique may sound rather simple and it is so do not over think it.
Technique #2: The Pick and Pop
If you find yourself a stone that just wont pop with the greco-roman rock wrestle? Worry not, grab yourself a big pick and go show that rock who’s boss. Find yourself a nice gap around the rock you want removed and jam that pick in there. Once you have solid traction on your rock pry with the pick and watch the magic happen. Now this is a much more aggressive technique than the GRRR but it works none the less. Once the rock has been popped out, use the same lifting style described above and just like that the rock is gone.
Technique #3: The Tarp Team
Some rocks are just a bit much to tackle on your own, but thats okay there is a technique for that. Just holler over to the trench next door and get a quick tarp team to assemble. Rule of thumb is a tarp team consists of four members, and generally I like to have the rock loose and ready to roll on the tarp before assembling the squad. The pick and pop will generally get any rock ready for a tarp removal. Once the rock is loose, fold a tarp carefully into a small rectangle and roll that rock on top. Once the rock is centred in the tarp get ready to grab a corner of the tarp and hoist that sucker out of the trench. Communication is key to this technique and ensuring it can be performed safely. General etiquette calls for a round of high fives after moving that sized of rock.
If you ever come across a rock that doesn’t seem physically possible to move with man power alone there is one last specialized technique for that. Use with caution as the power of Technique #4 can be easily abused when it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Technique #4: Man, Machine, Half and Half
This technique is almost cheating but as everyone knows, “If you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying” so I’ll give it a pass. First step is to find a local with a backhoe, once that is complete generally you just stand near the rock with a pick in your hand and look busy while the hoe operator does the work. Sometimes a slight rearrangement of the rock is required but for the most part this one takes care of itself. Use with caution as the ease of this technique can be addicting.
When walking up to site in the mornings I tend to forget that the Ancient Eleon site is in the middle of a rural, farming, town of Arma. It honestly reminds me of the Okanogan back in British Columbia sometimes. Throughout the day you can hear the bells from the herders and from the sites raised vantage point can see the group of sheep or goats, heading up the road. On one of the early mornings, at the end of the 4th week of the excavation, there was a surprise that greeted the whole crew; a little kid goat, only five days old, we later found out, was sleeping along one of the stone walls of the Blue Stone Structure. For me it was such a delight, she was still rickety on her legs, and was having a hard time trying to get off the stones that I scooped her up and Bryan named her Clementine (seen above). As she couldn’t stay with us for the day Brendan decided to guide me down to where we thought her home might be, one of the farmers just below the site. As we made our way down the slope it was my first chance to see the polygonal wall and it is massive, I felt like I was getting a tour of the full site, while getting to carry this little creature, I couldn’t have been happier. With some help from the other farmers Clementine was eventually returned to her herd and needless to say work that day started a little later than usual from all of the excitement. Although live animals, especially the babies, are much cuter to stumble across the site of Ancient Eleon does contain many animals below the surface of the ground as well.
When we come across bones in the trenches, more often than not, they are animal bones rather than human. The majority of animal bones that are found and have been able to identify are from pigs, sheep, or goats. There are other animals as well and a variety of different bones that are found from long bones, the epiphyses, antlers, and teeth. This season there was a maxilla of a pig with the tusks still in tact and the left side of a horse mandible. Every day at site is a new adventure because I never know what types of surprises are going to be found, above or below the ground.
We’re starting our fifth week of the archaeological field study in Boeotia now, and I’ve since been designated the “scarp-master” of the trenches by none other than Sam Bartlett herself; a title I don’t take lightly. You might be asking yourself now what on earth a “scarp” might be. When a trench is dug within an archaeological context, the walls within the trench, which show the stratigraphic layers of sediment, are known as the scarp. There are a multitude of reasons why the upkeep of a clean scarp is absolutely necessary, with the retention of a pleasing aesthetic being first and foremost. Photographic records are constantly being taken during the excavation process in order to properly recall what a trench looked like at any particular moment. The upkeep of a clean scarp in turn provides the viewer with an accurate, and easily viewable representation of the trench in question, so to properly recall the context.
As you might expect, the tools you use to scarp play an important role in the quality of the finished product. A large pick for example, is far too cumbersome and inaccurate in removing the correct amount of soil, while the standard trowel is often too delicate to remove enough soil. In my recent experience, I’ve found that the hand pick gives some of the best results to receive a nice 90° face in the first step of your scarping efforts, as it removes a substantial amount of soil while still retaining a fair amount accuracy; the surface it leaves is often uneven though. Be sure in your endeavours to use only the pointed end of the hand pick unless otherwise specified, as the broad end has the rife potential of damaging any artifacts within the soil. Along with the hand pick are two other tools which have been deemed by the excavation team as the scarpinator (fig. 1), and the laser beam (fig. 2) to further refine the scarp.
As their respective names may suggest, both tools yield an incredibly flat surface due to their broad, sharp ends which work excellent for scraping soil away for the finishing touches. The nature of their handles ensures that an excess of force cannot be applied so to damage any artifacts, providing the user with an ease of mind.
The process of how to execute a clean, flush scarp appears relatively simple on paper, but once faced with the task, the practice has the potential to be more difficult than it needs to be. Many an amateur archaeologist’s first instinct is to start working on the face of the wall head on, but this perspective often makes achieving a 90° wall face very difficult to accomplish. My advice is to tackle it from above, working on it looking downward, as this gives the most precise perspective to retain accuracy (Fig. 3). If the trench becomes too deep and working on it from above is no longer an option, I advise to regularly step out and look down at the wall face to get a sense of accuracy.
These tricks of the trade have lead me to execute some very nice trench walls, and I hope they may aid you in any your excavation endeavours. Happy scarping!