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.

Typical day?

There really is no such thing as a typical day here at ancient Eleon. We are very well aware of the day of the week and the week number: we dig for six weeks so every day is Very Important. Today was week two, Wednesday. Things are going well.

Personally, I had to go to Athens to renew my passport. This took about three hours. Bryan was on site working and directing so things were in good hands. Neither of us likes to be away from site for long.

Slowly we are making progress. In the Northwest there were interesting finds related to craft production in the very latest Mycenaean levels. In the Southeast there were unexpected discoveries related to finds inside the BSS. And inside, gradual uncovery happened over a large block: we’ll see tomorrow.

And, most excitingly, we got a new microscope today for the lab. Our conservators will make great use of this new equipment. Vicky Karas is shown below assembling it.

Fruits and nuts

Our relatively late dinners (8 pm, v early by Greek standards) and early start time (in cars by 6 am) don’t allow for extensive breakfasts before work for most of us. So, by 9 am, we are happy to see our Arma partners bring us our daily bread (and cheese, lunch meat, fruit and nuts).

We have mayonnaise and mustard on hand too. We break around 9:15, sitting on a dirty tarp on the ground. Everyone is hot, tired, and dirty and no one cares. The food tastes great.

Sometimes announcements are made, sometimes just dumb life stories are shared. On some days, we are all so hot, so tired, that no one speaks, and that’s okay too.

After about 25 minutes, its back to work! We take a second shorter but similar break around 11 too.