The Journey of a Pottery Sherd By Graham Braun

The journey of a pottery sherd from the ground into its final place, whether as a single sherd or reunited with the rest of its vessel is a long and emotional one, so it would only be fair to let the sherd write the story:

“Hello, my name is Minyas, and I am a sherd of Minyan ware from the site of Ancient Eleon! I have been asked to tell the story of my discovery to give people a good sense of how pottery is processed and examined systematically at EBAP. My journey began when I was discovered by an excavator, who are usually a bit newer to archaeology, possibly an undergraduate student studying Classics or Anthropology. Luckily, Eleon’s directors and staff train their students well, so they know how to safely extract artefacts like me out of the ground. I was found when an excavator swung their pick into the ground, far into the earth they aimed to excavate, and then took a sizeable chunk off the surface. This way the chunk, like the one I was embedded in, could be safely broken up and any artefacts inside were preserved and not broken. Other sherds I have known have been extracted after they’ve been seen by diggers and carefully brushed. After brushing, they can be excavated within their context and picked around, being lifted out of the earth and preserved as well. Following my discovery, I was put into the correct bag by the trench supervisor, which was nice because it was with the other sherds from my context, whom I have been around for roughly 3500 years. I am happy that I was able to be taken out of the ground without any modern damage! The next step was for me to be brought to the sherd yard.”

“Once I made my way into the sherd yard, I was under the eye of the yard supervisor. They told the excavators, who had rested after an early morning and good day of work on site, to start washing sherds. I was then dunked in a basin of water and brushed to get all the dirt off of me. Since I am made of a durable clay, I welcomed the bath, but I am sure others, like bone or metal wouldn’t react well to the harsh bristles. After I was scrubbed, I was set down with the rest of my locus and lot for drying, with diggers making sure our tags were close by so we’d stay together all the way to the apothiki and it was always known where in Eleon we came from. After a whole day of drying in the sun, I was ready to go back into a bag, since moisture or condensation would have broken my fabric down. Once bagged back up with the other sherds, I was taken to be sorted. Sorting is done to make the pottery expert’s job a little quicker, as the sherds are separated into pieces that could easily make joins, like painted pieces and diagnostic features like rims, bases, or handles. Sorters sort the sherds into painted and unpainted fine pottery, as well as coarse ware, divided into sherds used for cooking and those for storage. After being counted, the sherds are weighed to give the apothiki a good idea of how many are in each bag. Being a piece of Minyan ware, I was put into the unpainted category, however since I am a fragment of a rim, I was separated because it would be easy to join me with the rest of my pot. So I was put with the rest of the unpainted features, although I still got to stay with the rest of my context as a whole. Then it was off to the apothiki to see if I could be of value to the pottery experts!

The apothiki is close to the final stage of my discovery and analysis. Once there, my bag is poured and spread out into our categories. As Minyan ware is quite important to Eleon, myself and the rest of my fellow Minyan sherds are also grouped together. This allows the archaeologists specializing in pottery to see if there are any surprising or interesting sherds in the group, as well as to see if they can match sherds and try to recreate the vessel they were originally with. In my case, I got the privilege to be selected as one of these sherds because it seemed like I matched with a group of sherds from another bag. To make sure my context wasn’t lost, I was numbered so when looked at, I could be associated back to my original bag. After enough sherds from my original vessel were collected, I was handed to a conservator, who gave be an acid bath to get any cemented dirt off. After drying, they used special glue to reunite me with my original pot and the sherds that made it up! I was finally with my family, and not only did I look amazing because of the care that went into each phase of my excavation and preservation, but I also told the archaeologists who found me lots of information, like the age of the trench I was found in, as Minyan ware was used in a specific period known as the Late Helladic I Period. I also told them which contexts were associated, as parts of my pot were found in different sets of locus and lot. I was very glad to see the rest of my pot and help give information about the time and age in which I was made to the modern world!

Archaeological carpentry?? by Chris Byron

 

Chris Byron

I am a carpenter. I am not an archaeologist. I knew nothing about archaeology when I arrived, but somehow my skills were useful on this dig in a few different situations. First off, the sunshades, which are metal pipes held together by elbow joints, nuts, and bolts with a tarp in the middle to provide shade, are very good at falling apart by dropping out of the elbow joints so I constantly had to fix them. However a brilliant plan was hatched (ed. note, a plan hatched by Chris) to stop them from falling apart. I took the sunshades apart and then drilled holes (for the bolts to go through) in them so that the elbow joints could properly hold the pipes stopping them from just falling out of the elbow joints.

sunshades and Arma

Now this was brilliant until the wind showed up. The wind decided that the sunshade would look better closer to the cars so the sunshade was taken by the wind and flew about 50 feet before crashing to earth and getting completely destroyed (ed note – only once). I’m talking pieces of metal at 90 degrees when the should be straight (ed note – okay, it was dramatic). Had I left the sunshades as they were it probably would have just fallen apart in the wind but hey, they worked well before that.

E18_0035

Now the (second) big problem was this wooden closet made of particle board. For those of you who don’t know, particle board is the worst quality of wood you can buy so the fact this has survived 4 seasons is a miracle. But this door and the wind wasn’t going to make life easy for me. It had ripped of its hinges no less than 5 times over this trip. I have fixed this door so many times that we had to take it to a wood shop and get new holes put in it cause the board was ripping. I’m talking I had to chisel a new hole in the door cause only one hinge ripped out. This door is Frankenstein at this point. But the point is I fixed and mildly improved certain things on this dig that I was only able to do because of my training as a carpenter. All in all being a carpenter on a dig was awesome because I was able to use my experience in a way that helped people on this dig while still learning how to archaeology.

Archaeology and You! by Nicholas Jordan

In the hustle and bustle of setting into a new location and temporary occupation, it is easy to forget the simple things. Where archaeology is a lot of meticulous cataloguing and careful excavation, there is more personal element that can have a critical impact not only on your own performance, but the performance of the section that you are involved with. Whether you are an analyst, a trench supervisor, a drone pilot, or simply setting to work with a trusty shovel in one of the many trenches, the following posts talks about the personal side of archaeology and the effect it can have.

When in your home environment, habits have been built over a long period of time that keep you happy and healthy without having to think much about it: drinking just enough water, getting just enough sleep, taking just enough time to yourself; all basics in self-maintenance that can contribute quite a bit to your mental state and physical ability. A transition to an environment that is quite a bit different from your home environment can bring a host of new challenges that require careful consideration to be the best archaeologist you can be. It comes down to you to make those check-ins, however, and that is a skill that is cultivated only when you’re exposed to these new conditions and can sometimes be overlooked to disastrous result.

De-hydration, over-exertion, sickness, injury, all of these are carried risks that can come and impede work and seriously ruin what otherwise would have been a wonderful – if intense – experience. There are multiple key components to this, and self-awareness is only the first step. Second is being honest with yourself and your limitations when you start feeling physical discomfort because of your new conditions. Sometimes it is difficult to know what real dehydration feels like if you come from a temperate part of the world. Sometimes overexerting is within your physical ability, but now paired with this new heat, this has the potential to create a situation that could put your health at risk. Be honest with yourself and do regular check-ins with your mind and body to make sure you’re giving them the care they need to function for the trials ahead.

There is no shame in taking a break when the sun is beating down particularly heavy, or if you’ve been exerting yourself during a particularly busy trench. Some may have the tendency to push through their exhaustion and physical discomfort because they do not want to let their trench-mates down or feel like they’re not pulling their weight. This is a natural feeling that is understandable and common, but a detrimental belief, not only to an excavator’s personal health, but to the overall efficiency of a project. If you become unwell because of that overexertion, the labour that you might have been able to continue doing is lost altogether for very little gain. Feel confident to take a quick break. underneath a tree or go take a swig from your water bottle while you catch your breath after a particularly intense portion of the digging – your health is important not only to maintain efficiency within the project, but to stay happy and be able to enjoy this unique and profound experience properly.

While maintaining a healthy physical disposition is critical part of being able to operate at full steam, maintaining a healthy mental state can contribute in just as important if not more subtle ways. Personal space isn’t something we think about too much in our non-excavation lives, where we’re able to decide the terms of our own bubbles in most cases. The nature of the work precludes being able to set those conditions ourselves and that can sometimes cause a personal tension that is bourne of not being able to satisfy those mental needs that come along with having a health balance in our day-to-day. When you’re feeling like you need time away from others – take it. Don’t feel embarrassed if you need to put your headphones in and lose yourself in your favourite band’s new album or pick up the next chapter of your favourite audiobook and escape for a little while. Go and explore the area on your own or take personal days on weekends during the excavations to keep your mental health as good as possible so you not only have the physical fortitude to perform, but the mental fortitude as well. It is not a weakness to crave the things that you left behind when you came here, and having little tastes of home, taking the time to talk with loved ones, all these things help keep you happy and engaged with the tasks and rigours of archaeology. Buy yourself that bag of chips that is close to your favourite flavour, spend a little extra on your favourite type of coffee, go and snap some pictures places around your temporary home and send them to all the people rooting for you; respect your need for mental rest and allow yourself the time to decompress from the challenging work of the site. Although alone time is important to have on a regular basis, don’t forget to learn on the people who are there with you. Strong bonds are built in shared experiences, and the people around you understand the physical, emotional and mental requirements of this occupation. If you are feeling the pressure, lean on your friends – don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There is an onslaught of new things to learn and see when setting out into the world of archaeology. The transition from textbook to trench can be a jarring one, but if you check in with yourself regularly, respect your needs – physical and mental – you will avoid some of the most common pitfalls and set the foundation for an experience you’ll never forget.

Thank you to the leadership and personnel of EBAP 2018 for making this a summer that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The support and guidance I’ve received from friends and colleagues has been overwhelming, even when I tumbled into the pitfalls that I illustrated above. Thank you for your care and support. Thank you for the electrolyte  tablets and jam. Goodbye, EBAP 2018.

Collecting All the Things – Recovery Methods at Ancient Eleon

Isabelle Rutherford
Archeology is a destructive process, once a site is dug it is impossible to return everything to its original position. As such all material must be recovered and recorded to gather the most accurate information about the sites past in hopes of understanding it. The first hindrance to this is preservation. An artifact or feature’s material effects it’s preservation and thus whether or not it is found and recorded. For example, because of fluctuation in weather, wet and dry seasons, organic materials like wood do not preserve well other than in exceptional circumstances (of which Eleon is not one). Stone, pottery and some other inorganic materials tend to fare better in terms of preservation but are still susceptible to similar degree of visibility bias and surface weathering. While these situations are out of an archeologists control, choices they make while excavating can affect what they recover. Their choice of recovery methods, ie how material is collected will have a large effect on what information they get out of a site. Some things are more likely to be found depending on the methods used. Big, shiny, “important” artifacts are generally recovered but as the aim is to recover the most physical information possible, all material, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, should be saved from the spoil pile.

Hand Collecting: Hand collecting entails recognizing a find in the soil and picking it out while excavating. Mid-large sized pottery sherds, large bone/shell fragments, some worked stone fragments, and significantly sized full artifacts are often recovered in this way. In addition, artifacts that stand out from the soil and are not covered in dirt, ie material that is shiny, coloured, or an obvious shape are also recovered easily with this method. In a number of Eleon’s trenches it is not uncommon to have bags of sherds at the end of a day’s work that have been collected this way. However, when hand collecting, smaller fragments and finds are often missed. People are generally biased to look for the big “important” finds without knowing it and because of the need to be efficient, do not have time to carefully sift through all the soil they move. With short seasons it is not realistic to carefully screen every bit of soil excavated. Regularly this isn’t a big deal as what is needed to date and learn more about the site is generally noticed and picked up. Tiny, nondiagnostic pottery sherds are not as useful to study as nearly complete vessels. However, when things like glass or human remains are found or if other rare occurrences such as tombs arise there is a need to be extra careful to avoid missing small but valuable materials. Additionally, botanical information is not acquired by hand collection as it is difficult to separate them from the soil by use of hands alone.

At Eleon, dry/wet sieving is primarily used in special circumstances (like tomb excavation, glass/metal finds etc) to increase the amount of material recovered. Flotation is used in the recovery of botanical remains that can be analyzed to discover more about the site’s flora in antiquity.

Dry Sieving: Dry sieving is an archeological technique where soil is placed on a wire mesh screen in a frame. The frame is shook to allow dirt to separate from artifacts and fall through the mesh into a wheelbarrow. The remaining soil is then looked through and bagged accordingly. This process makes clumps of dirt that should be broken up to look for sherds inside more obvious and the removal of dirt makes finds stand out better than if they were on/in the ground. However, it is not only dirt that falls into the wheelbarrow. The mesh can let small but important finds like lithic flakes and bone fragments through and does not collect most botanical remains as they too slip through the mesh. As with most cases, there is also a possible degree of human error. You may know the process backwards and forwards but if you do not know what glass found on site looks like you may mistake it for a rock if it is covered in dirt.

Wet Sieving: Wet sieving adds water to the process and can be used in concert with dry sieving to further clean material and collect smaller pieces that may have fallen through. It fully removes dirt and makes artifacts/finds more apparent. In wet sieving a stream of water from a hose is passed over soil sitting on a wire mesh to clean it. When dealing with human remains a second, tighter mesh is often added on top of the wire mesh frame. The remaining material is then carefully examined and any pottery, bone etc is removed and bagged. When finds are small enough to pass through the mesh in dry sieving, or remain covered in dirt, they are often caught during wet sieving, especially if the second mesh is used. As with hand collecting and dry sieving some things are still too small and slip through the mesh or our attention. Also, like the above two methods above, botanical remains are not recovered in this way.


Flotation is an archaeological technique used on site to recover botanical remains from soil samples. Trench supervisors chose to send soil samples from areas where there may be a wealth of botanical information to be accessed. Once collected the samples are sent down to the “flotation station” where the drum and water spigot are located. The drum has a spout that connects to a hose just below a grate where fabric mesh is placed to hold the soil sample. There is a lip at the top of the drum where water can spill off, hitting another piece of mesh just below it. The soil sample is placed on the mesh screen inside the drum and water is pumped in, gently dissolving the dirt and agitating the material left behind. Because of their low density, plant remains (the light fraction) float to the surface and spill onto the outside mesh screen while heavier objects (rocks ( microliths), tiny pottery sherds, bone fragments etc) are left on the inner mesh (the heavy fraction). Once the heavy fraction is clean the drum is drained and both mesh screens with the fractions on them re removed. The fractions are then left to dry in the hot sun with their associated tags. At the end of the day the light fraction is folded up and placed inside the heavy fraction’s mesh. The mesh is then gathered up like a gift basket and hung from twine in a tree. In the next day or so, once fully dried, the bundles are removed and sent home to be analysed/packaged by team members there.

These are some of the methods used at Ancient Eleon (and at other sites) to give archeologist the best possible chance of recovering archeological material. I have been lucky to have learned how to use all of these methods at my time at Eleon so far. Thank you to the directors and senior staff for this learning opportunity.

Summer is here

We celebrated the summer solstice with two birthdays this week, as week four comes to a close. First we had a watermelon ouzo hour:

Followed by dinner for 30+ plus people, as we do they night. There was cake too!

On site, work is progressing very well. We have successfully removed some very large stones and continue to make progress understanding ancient Eleon.

The occupants of this beautifully located site in central Greece made some remarkable constructions with their technology. It causes us to wonder everyday. Here’s a photo of our team listening to an excavator explain their discoveries this week:

For us, the work is very exhausting. Lifting countless buckets (zembilia) of earth, pushing creaky wheelbarrows, and lifting huge rocks is tough and we have an excellent team.

While doing the heavy lifting we are also carefully documenting everything EVERYTHING that we do and that gets removed systematically. We also photograph everything, by hand and by air:

Back in Dilesi, we have a great ‘home’ team of conservators and registrars who make sure what we do is properly recorded, treated, and stored properly. We would literally be lost without them.

Week four

We just finished our midseason break, after three weeks digging. As usual, no one can believe the project is half over. It’s been great, but time truly flies.

Above is a photo of a few of us working on the first day of the break. Last week, we saw the weather reports which were ominous, for rain, so we hurried to the site on Friday and completed a lot of what needed to be done and covered special areas with our water proof tarps. The rain came and is still an issue. We will see tomorrow, Monday morning, how things stand. It’s a problem because we are only allowed six weeks per year for digging, regardless of weather delays.

Our work is going very well. We have four trench supervisors currently and another preparing to take her own trench. Each trench has about 3-5 student workers, digging and moving earth.

We continue to give trench tours so that everyone knows what’s going on.

Thankfully with the rain the weather is cooler -that’s one upside. If it’s really raining we will also take time for museum visits as well, which are important and useful.

We may even open a new area tomorrow, the square Giuliana is walking on in the photo above. Week four looks to be exciting and full of potential.

Graduation party

Every year, many of the students who volunteer to be on our project during June and July knowingly choose to miss their graduation ceremonies at their home institutions. We very much appreciate their dedication to the project and know that sometimes parents and family members are sad that they miss this important event.

To make up for it each year we host a small garden party for all team members to celebrate the graduates. This year we had seven people graduating with BA, BS, MA, and PhD degrees from Wellesley College (2), University of Victoria (2), Michigan State, Villanova, and UCLA.

We are vey proud of their accomplishments and their dedication to our project. Below are just a few photos from the party.