We are excited to announce the 2023 field season will run for six weeks, May 21 to July 1, 2023. This season will be the first of a new five-year program of excavation and study (2023-2027).
We invite applications for undergraduate students to participate as volunteers or through enrollment in the University of Victoria course GRS 495 Practicum in Archaeology (3.0 Units). Qualified non-UVic students can get UVic transfer credit to their home institution. The course will include training sessions in field techniques, topical lectures, and optional field trips.
All participants, whether enrolled in GRS 495 or not, will be required to pay a program fee of 3500 CAD/ 3000 USD / 2500 EUR to cover room and board for six weeks. The excavation team lives in modest, shared apartments in the nearby town of Dilesi, which offers swimming in the Euboean Gulf, internet access, and public transportation to Athens, approximately 1 hour away.
Please read the 2023 Volunteer Information document for full description of our program and submit the application and reference form by January 15, 2023. We encourage you to send any questions as you prepare your application by email. Canadian students should write to Trevor Van Damme <firstname.lastname@example.org>, and those from the US and other countries to Bryan Burns <email@example.com>.
Upon arriving at ancient Eleon, I was amazed by the site’s polygonal wall, which boasts a complex architectural design and stands partially intact defiantly upon the east side of Eleon’s acropolis, despite the passage of 25 centuries since its construction and countless robberies. Immediately, I pictured Eleon as an impenetrable walled fortress. Yet I soon learned that the wall may not have served a defensive purpose at all. This left me eager to learn why this intricate architectural structure was constructed. As it turns out, there is no straightforward explanation available to us. However, this wall was likely intended to make a statement, but whether it was meant to represent a community’s religious fervor, an individual’s wealth and power, or something else entirely, is unclear.
Eleon’s polygonal wall, which was completed by 500 BCE, was built using the Lesbian polygonal masonry style–named for its many uses on the Aegean Island of Lesbos (Fig. 1). This style of masonry is complex as it requires building a curved foundation and then cutting stones to match the curvature. At Eleon, the southern portion of the polygonal wall is constructed within a few centimeters of a perfect circle, which makes it an impressive example of masonry. Additionally, the labour force required to complete this wall would have been significant since the wall initially contained approximately 1500 cubic metres of rock and weighed 4000 tons.
Despite the high level of skill and resources which were needed to construct this wall, it is actually relatively weak and it is not nearly long enough to provide meaningful protection to Eleon’s east side. Therefore, it is unlikely that the wall was intended to provide defensive support for the settlement. Furthermore, the complexity of the wall’s structure serves no purpose aside from appearing impressive. However, it is not entirely fair to label the wall as being solely ‘for show’ as it may have served a limited purpose by directing traffic into and out of an area within the acropolis, among other things. Thus, it is likely that Eleon’s wall was built primarily to serve a certain symbolic purpose, which might be attributed to several plausible explanations.
The first possible meaning of the polygonal wall relates to Eleon being a likely religious centre during the time of its construction. There has been a significant amount of archaeological evidence unearthed which may indicate cult-related activity within Eleon, especially in and around the entrance into the acropolis, near the polygonal wall. This evidence includes figurines and various kinds of votive materials, which date to a time period contemporary with the construction of the polygonal wall. Additionally, the sole two historical figures whom we know of from Eleon, a collector of oracles named Antichares and the seer Bakis were both religious figures, which is unlikely to be a coincidence and thus further adds to the evidence of Eleon as a religious centre.
It may seem odd to link the creation of a wall with religious activity, however there is precedent for similar walls having been constructed within religious centres, despite this style of masonry being relatively uncommon within this region and era. For instance, a Lesbian polygonal wall was constructed at Delphi (Fig. 2), a foremost religious centre in Greece, which both employs the same extravagant masonry style as Eleon’s polygonal wall and was built within the same 50-year period. However, while an elegant polygonal wall at Delphi is somewhat fitting considering its importance within Greece, Eleon was comparatively unimportant and thus its polygonal wall seems out of place.  Perhaps a rough equivalent would be finding a 50,000 seat stadium in a town of 5,000 people. While there is currently no explanation for why Eleon possesses a polygonal wall in excess of its relative importance, there are several other possible factors behind the construction of the wall which may provide some context.
Like many monuments, it is possible that Eleon’s polygonal wall was funded by one or several wealthy benefactors who may have wished to impose their prominence upon Eleon’s landscape. This would explain how this expensive construction project was funded, but, as of now, there appears to be no evidence which supports this possibility. Additionally, there were two large walls built during the Mycenaean era by inhabitants of Eleon, which are located nearly directly underneath the polygonal wall. This may indicate that Eleon’s 6th century BCE inhabitants were attempting to replicate the monumental constructions of their forebears. It should be noted that none of these possible explanations for the mystery of Eleon’s wall are mutually exclusive. Rather, it is may have been that the construction of the polygonal wall was only undertaken due to a confluence of factors.
It is fascinating that so many resources were put into a wall without a clear practical purpose, and which seems out of place within the context of Eleon. It’s unfortunate that the specific motivations for its construction are currently obscure. Nevertheless, new discoveries are always being made at Eleon thanks to the work of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project and thus there is hope that the mystery of Eleon’s polygonal wall will be solved in the future.
 Burke et al, 2014, p. 252. Burke et al, 2020, p. 470.
Aravantinos, Vassilis, Brendan Burke, Bryan Burns, Yannis Fapas, Susan Lupack, and Camilla MacKay. “The Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project 2007–2010: The Intensive Surface Survey—Eleon.” Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada 13, no. 2 (2016): 293–357.
Burke, Brendan, Bryan Burns, Alexandra Charami, Trevor van Damme, Nicholas Herrmann, and Bartłomiej Lis. “Fieldwork at Ancient Eleon in Boeotia, 2011–2018.” American Journal of Archaeology 124, no. 3 (2020): 441–76. https://doi.org/10.3764/aja.124.3.0441.
Burke, Brendan, Bryan Burns, and Alexandra Charami. “Archaic and Classical Eleon in Eastern Boeotia: Excavations from 2011 to 2015.” From Maple to Olive, 2017, 385–99.
Burke, Brendan, Bryan Burns, and Alexandra Charami. “The Polygonal Wall at Eleon with Reference to the Mycenaean Past.” Canadian Institute in Greece 8, no. 8 (2014): 249-265.
*DISCLAIMER: This post discusses the study and analysis of ancient human remains.*
The opportunity to work closely with bioarchaeologists was one of the primary reasons I applied for the EBAP field school. During my first two years as an undergraduate, I have settled in my belief that studying burials and human remains allows an archaeologist to connect with people from the past directly.
Although I did not anticipate working directly with human remains on this field school, because of my lack of experience, during the first week, I was given the opportunity to assist with the bioarchaeology specialists. This is how I found myself sitting at a crowded table in the apotheke (storage depot), peering over a box of bones carefully wrapped in acid free tissue paper. I was instructed to take a toothbrush and carefully remove the dust and soil from the bones over a tin tray. This was my first time touching ancient human remains, and for a time I didn’t think about it. I set to work brushing away dust, enamored and concerned at the delicacy of the bones. Many were small. Some were so poorly preserved after millennia of sitting in damp tombs that they were little more than dust.
Although they are dead, and have been for a very long time, this bone was once united with the soft tissue of an individual. It carried them through life. For every bone I held, I began to wonder who it belonged to and their story. What was their name? How did they die? How did they live? Experiencing human remains has come to mean more to me than a connection with the past: it has become a reflection of the stories shared by humans through time and space.
Many bones have markings upon them. Some from before death, perhaps because the individual was injured or suffered a condition which was visible in their bones such as arthritis. Some happened at or around the time of death, possibly being the cause of death. In this case, there is no healing or growth present around the injury. Many more happened after death, during the process of decomposition, rearrangement by their descendants, or sitting in the earth for thousands of years. All of these markings and breakages work together to tell the story of where a bone comes from and why it is a certain way.
At Eleon, bones are removed from site and taken to the apotheke to be carefully dried in a controlled environment, wrapped, and stored for future study. When the time comes, the bones are removed and cleaned using gentle equipment like a soft toothbrush and a small wooden stick to chip away hardened dirt (Fig. 1). Then they are repackaged and organized. They are measured, weighed, and analyzed closely. Any noteworthy physical features of a bone are recorded and interpreted. Then isotope analyses may be conducted, which can reveal dietary patterns, whether a person has migrated from another region, and how old the remains may be. This information helps reconstruct the history of a person and gives some context to how people lived in ancient Eleon.
I spoke to a bioarchaeology student on site who is studying diseases, injuries, and abnormalities of bones. She uses this data to research the malnutrition and illnesses that affected children at ancient Eleon. I asked why she believes this is an important topic, and she explained that understanding the way in which people lived and died in the past can contribute to our understanding of health now. The example she used was the malnourishment of impoverished children in many countries leading to deficiencies which can stunt growth or lead to chronic conditions. Evidence of this can be seen in some of the children at Eleon, who had evidence of deficiencies in their bones. I sat with this thought for a long time, imagining the many conditions that people face, and how some reveal themselves in the bones: arthritis, gout, breakages, infections, cancers, malnourishment, rickets, polio, and venereal syphilis, among others. If we can find evidence of these conditions in past populations and place these in the context of the diet and lifestyles led by the people of that time, we can better understand what leads to increases in these conditions today. We can then also advocate for prevention in our own societies.
The first step to observing the bones or running tests on them, however, is cleaning them and this is the task that I was presented with in week one. While sitting with a toothbrush in hand and wiping dust off of the ancient bones for several hours may seem tedious, it is work that I have come to understand as a first step in a long process of revealing someone’s story.
After my first experience at EBAP, I hope to spend many more hours working with these bones, and perhaps learning more about their burial contexts to gain a better understanding of the time period in which they lived and the way they were put to rest.
I began my time at the EBAP field school of ancient Eleon with a week in Athens drawing Mycenaean pottery. Here, learning the very precise process of archeological illustration, I also learned how to better see what it was that I was drawing. What struck me as meaningful was that it was the particular practice of seeing which had to come first. There is a branch of visual anthropology that explores illustration as (an ethnographic) methodology. The idea is that drawing allows us to see with a greater attentiveness because we are tasked with rendering realities’ details in a concretely visual way; drawing is implemented as a means of learning to see more precisely, holistically, and truthfully, as the way we are seeing is marked down in the production of some understanding. Reflecting on this methodology while daydreaming about how to draw the sherds of pottery that came up during our first week of fieldwork, I realized that maybe—through the archeological illustration I am getting to pursue here at EBAP (Fig. 1)—I am both learning how to see pottery so as to better draw it and drawing pottery in a process that enables me to better see and understand it. As a maker of ceramics, practicing the art of illustrating this material from Eleon has been an exciting opportunity!
Sherds, broken fragments of pottery vessels, are some of the most sensitive chronological material at Eleon. For all eras of past human activity on the acropolis of ancient Eleon, there is more pottery than any other material. Unearthed from long buried strata, these sherds are contextualized by their date, by their vessel forms, by their use, by their style, and also by their manufacture. Since pottery follows stylistic trends that change over time, Early Helladic Ayia Marina ware can be distinguished from a green-glazed piece of a Byzantine plate or a Late Helladic Mycenaean drinking kylix, and here at Eleon, each may help to date the contexts in which they are found. Thus, to enhance understandings of various chronologies, site usage, and artistic and technological change, pottery is often recorded in archaeological publications in the form of a catalogue entry and illustration.
When learning to catalogue sherds with Charlie in the apotheke (storage depot), I experienced the importance of producing precise illustrations. The slightest angles and smallest details matter for archeologists seeking comparanda to date or regionally place their piece. But how to go about visualizing sherds which emerge from the time periods represented at Eleon? For the beginner sherd artist like me, I present my version of a brief guide to pottery illustration (distilled from the lessons of Trevor and Charlie).
How to Draw a Potsherd: A Brief Guide:
Step 1: I quickly learned that how to see a potsherd informs how to draw a potsherd. To begin, the sherd in front of you should be oriented so as to indicate its relation to the whole form from which it came. This is called ‘stancing’ the sherd. The stance will allow you to understand how to draw the profile of one tiny piece of a pot, at the correct angle in which it would have existed in the original vessel. (For me, this was a kind of learning how to see in the practice of visual anthropologists who propose illustration as a method of attentively understanding all that an object or view offers our perception).
Step 1 continued: If a rim or base exists, place this edge as flat as it will go on a flat surface. The angle at which the edge meets most of the surface is the angle the piece likely stands, since pottery vessels are often begun or finished either on a flat wheel head or parallel to one. With the piece stanced, you can use a diameter sheet and a standing square to draw out a ‘T’ to the measurements of the diameter and height. Next, stance the piece in profile, angling it so that the rim edge runs horizontally with cm paper when viewed from directly above. The harder I squint, the better this goes. Trevor Tip: Pay attention to the orientation of wheel bands or coils visible in the clay body to help you stance, especially when you are without a rim or base piece.
Step 2: Concentrating very hard on your sherd stance, draw the outer section of the shape. From directly above, with one eye closed, your outline should match the stanced outline. Now you can take the thickness of the walls with a caliper and use these points to draw the inside of the sherd section!
Step 3: With half the shape drawn in section, you can trace this, flip it over to mirror the section, and draw the exterior view of the profile on the other side. You are now ready to draw and/or carefully trace any decoration on the piece! When drawing your Boeotian Kylix Ware, prepare for zigzags, concentric triangles, linear stripes, and more (Fig. 1)…
Step 4: Note down the basic colours of the paint or glaze. Draw the interior decoration on the section view and don’t forget bases and feet! Measure and include the handles of your BKW and/or indicate where they join, and draw in any rim decoration. Trevor Tip: You can indicate a painted circle on the vessel floor by drawing a little dome–to scale of course.
Step 5: Finally, include a scale under your illustration, above which you can record the sequential drawing number and the specific EBAP find number (Hurray for EBAP# tags). Write your illustrator initials under the scale, and voila–you have archaeologically illustrated a sherd!
Over the past year, from September to May, I worked on an independent research project supported by a Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Award (JCURA) that focused on ancient Eleon. Specifically, I looked at the (many) hearths in the Northwest Complex, a household that primarily dates to the post-palatial period (1200-1050 BCE). I did this having never seen the hearths in-person, relying solely on archival documentation (e.g., photos and excavation journals). It has been amazing to be able to see and touch them over the past couple weeks!
I was very excited to step onto site for the first time. Before I got to see the hearths, however, we had to de-tarp the site. These huge tarps keep Eleon preserved while the EBAP team is away. Once uncovered, we started cleaning the trenches, which meant clearing eroded soil and creating a nice edge of scarp again. Cleaning around the hearths in the Northwest Complex was a delicate project (Fig. 1). We used soft brushes to remove only the loosest soil from the tops and sides to prevent further erosion from the crumbly hearths.
I was very happy to see how they were constructed in real life. I knew that most of the hearths in the Northwest Complex were built on a bed of sherds, which were then covered with a layer of clay. But now, I can see exactly what kind of sherds: big roof tiles, smaller pieces of broken cookware, even a very large jug handle lodged in the Room 6 hearth. In the photos, each hearth looks raised, but they would have been mostly level with the floor while in use. Over time inhabitants would re-pave, clean, or just pack over the hearth. In Room 5, probably the “kitchen,” hearths were frequently moved and packed in with new floor levels. The hearths are also often near column bases, which would have held up the roof and/or created a space to ventilate smoke. These installations influenced the architecture and layout of a household, and also structured daily life as places of warmth, lighting, cooking and crafting.
Working from home on the hearths, I sometimes struggled to get a sense of the people who lived in the Northwest Complex. The site was a series of pictures and maps and words, not a place. But here, I can walk through the doorway to the Northwest Complex, and walk in the same footsteps that people in the Bronze Age did. While cleaning the hearths in the Boeotian sun, we talked about how hot it would have been, to be cooking food over the fires in the small Room 5. I thought about that while writing in the past year, but to actually feel how hot it gets in summer… that gave me a new understanding of what it would have felt like to live here, thousands and thousands of years ago. I wanted to study hearths in the first place because I felt they could connect me to ancient people’s daily lives. That goal definitely feels realized now.
On May 30th, we officially returned for the 2022 campaign at ancient Eleon. This season promises to be an exciting one–our first with undergraduate students from the University of Victoria, since 2019!
Our season began with unlocking the site (Fig. 1), removing the tarps that have protected the excavated architecture, and cleaning the site in preparation for a new, more accurate, digital model.
The focus of our work this season, however, will not be on the acropolis of ancient Eleon, but rather to the west of it. Here we aim to document the existence and extent of the lower town of ancient Eleon, first noted by Colonel William Leake in his travel diary from 1806(!), in order to better assess diachronic changes in the use of space over time. We also hope to refine the sequence of occupation and perhaps even fill in some of the current gaps in the history of settlement, as revealed by our limited excavations on the eastern edge of the acropolis. A cleaning and geophysical permit will allow us to document and protect the remains of an impressive fortification wall around the lower town for future generations.
In the apotheke, conservation of finds from our final campaign of excavations in 2018 will, at last, be completed and specialists continue their work towards final publication. In tandem with the work in the lower town, we are also revisiting the survey material collected from 2007-2009 for publication with the results of the present campaign of work in the lower town.
Check back at this blog soon for debriefs from the students enrolled in GRS 495: Practicum in Archaeology: Ancient Eleon and learn about our work in real time.
Last spring, taking GRS 482A gave me an opportunity to study Boeotian black-figure ware up close as I researched the history of a kantharos excavated at ancient Eleon. This particular kantharos was decorated with rosettes and sphinxes and could be attributed to a known artist, the Horse-Bird Painter. The sphinx kantharos (figure 1) was found in the SE trenches of Ancient Eleon, largely in a medieval rubbish pit. The preserved decoration features two antithetic sphinxes, each with its head turned back to look over its own body. As I spent time learning about this kantharos and the artist who made it, I found myself drawn into questioning how styles develop over time and how the styles of different regions interact with and influence each other. By the end of the semester I was surprised both by how much I had learned from studying a single artifact and by how much I still wanted to learn about it.
One thing that made this piece really interesting to study was that it can be attributed to a known artist, an itinerant craftsperson who migrated from Athens to Boeotia known as The Horse-Bird Painter. Because of this, I was able to look at other ceramics painted by the Horse-Bird Painter and compare styles, motifs, and ceramic shapes within the large body of work of one of Boeotia᾽s earliest black-figure painters.
The Horse-Bird Painter frequently decorated their vases with sphinxes, sirens, horses, lions, and swans. Lions, sphinxes, and sirens can be seen on the Horse Bird-Painter’s tripod kothon (figure 2). The sphinx kantharos found at Eleon matches well with the Horse-Bird Painter᾽s later style which showed greater consistency and accuracy than the earlier works of their Athens period. Animals were a popular motif on Boeotian black-figure ware, including mythological ones. Sphinxes were second only to sirens in depictions of mythological creatures and they appear on several works by the Horse-Bird Painter. The monochrome painted fragments suggest that the handles and possibly bottom of the kantharos would have been entirely black, as was generally the case for kantharoi.
Black-figure ware is made through the process of “painting” an unfired vase with a clay slurry which blackens during firing when exposed to a reducing atmosphere, giving it its name. The outlines and details are created through incisions which expose the underlying clay, and despite the name, black-figure ware could be done with or without additional added colours. The kantharos from Eleon, for example, shows use of an added reddish purple pigment on the faces and body of the sphinxes, as well as in bands applied over top of the otherwise monochrome black interior.
Multiple black-figure painters came from Attica to Boeotia, like the Horse-Bird Painter, and probably from other places as well. Black-figure ware was popular in Boeotia during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and while there are examples as late as the 2nd century BCE, it was no longer the dominant style and Boeotian ceramics had switched to other styles like the palmette cups found at Tanagra, which although drawing on the black-figure technological tradition, no longer exhibit the use of incision or added colour.
Boeotian black-figure ware had strong inter-regional ties to Attic and Corinthian black-figure ware, East Greek and Euboean black-figure ware were also less prominent influences. Based on Boeotia’s position as a crossroads within Greece, it is not surprising that these influences factored strongly into the Boeotian black-figure repertoire. Corinthian influences upon Boeotian black-figure—like the rows of dots found on some of the Horse-Bird Painter᾽s work—were stronger when the style was first introduced, but later in the 6th century, Attic influences become more dominant and we even know of Athenian artists such as the potter Teisias, who set up workshops in Boeotia.
The combination of these stylistic overlaps and the prolific looting and illegal excavations carried out in Boeotia throughout the 19th century can make Boeotian black-figure ware quite difficult to identify and finds are often misattributed to Attic production in order to maximize their value on the art market. Furthermore, because of the presence of itinerant Athenian artists working in Boeotia, there is Attic style black figure which is in fact produced in Boeotia, including a workshop that has been linked to the site of Akraifia.
The effect of Attic and Corinthian styles on Boeotian black-figure is often characterized as a dependency rather than an influence. This understates the adaptations made to Attic and Corinthian styles by Boeotian artists to better suit local tastes, often involving the blending of influences from multiple different regions. Some adaptations can be seen in the extensive use of kantharoi, often decorated with popular Boeotian themes like animals or komos (drunken revelry) scenes, in a manner specific to Boeotian tastes. The change in the types of ceramics the Horse-Bird Painter painted after emigrating to Boeotia is also indicative of this. Their Boeotian works consist mainly of alabastra and aryballoi, which, as early Boeotian black-figure ware was influenced more by Corinthian than Attic ware, shows they were producing works specifically for Boeotian audiences. The result of these adaptations is an eclectic repertoire of black-figure ware which at times closely resembles Attic or Corinthian ware, and at others only borrows or adapts motifs from these regions, making it difficult to define a cohesive Boeotian corpus in the way that Attic, Corinthian, Euboean, or East Greek work can be defined.
This black-figure kantharos from Eleon is a fortunate addition to the known works of the Horse-Bird Painter, particularly since despite the large number of attributed works and the popularity of kantharoi in Boeotia, the Horse-Bird Painter was not currently known to have painted this shape. It is difficult to say what the kantharos’ exact purpose was at the site. Its find spot in a medieval rubbish pit suggests that it was disturbed hundreds of years after its initial deposition. The fact that this pit was cut into the ramped entrance to the site which has produced abundant redeposited votive offerings, however, may indicate that it was originally dedicated at a shrine or temple on the acropolis of Eleon.
One of the things that draws me to archaeology is the idea that so many questions have yet to be answered, and so many more have yet to even be asked. The more I looked into this object and its artist, the more new questions and interests arose, and I look forward to exploring them more in future classes!
In this past semester at UVic, GRS 482A gave me the unique opportunity to study archaeological material from the site of ancient Eleon. For my research, I studied a carved head made of bone, found in the destruction layer of a structure in the southwest quadrant of the site (Figure 1). The bone head appears to be an import, with facial features consistent with Late Bronze Age sculpture of the eastern Mediterranean. It therefore raises several questions, not only about its use at Eleon, but also about Eleon’s participation in eastern Mediterranean exchange networks. Where did it come from? Who was using it, and what were they using it for? This blog post will summarize my research and focus particularly on the purpose and origin of the bone head, using clues from the excavation context and Near Eastern comparanda.
The bone head was found among the floor deposit of a partially-excavated structure. The purpose of the building is unclear, but objects found within it serve as helpful clues. The bone head was recovered from a deposit that also included a full range of domestic pottery, a copper fibula, and fragments of bovine figurines. These bovine figurines are well attested throughout the Mycenaean Aegean in sanctuaries and funeral contexts: the presence of these fragments, along with the domestic pottery assemblage, may indicate that the head was used for domestic cult activity.
The bone head’s flat backside shows that it was likely fixed to another object. Plaque/composite figurines, a style of figurine with a flat backside that is meant to lay flat or be attached to another surface, are found throughout the eastern Mediterranean and are often associated with ritual contexts. If the bone head was indeed meant to lay flat or be inlaid in another surface, its use as an object of ritual significance would make sense. The findspot does not feature an altar, or any other typical identifiers of a ritual space, but perhaps further excavation will shed more light on this question of the structure’s ritual importance.
In order to find out where the Eleon head came from, and how it might relate to wider systems of exchange between the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, I searched through various excavation reports for sites in both Anatolia and the Levant. The most appropriate comparanda come from cities and settlements located on the Levantine coast.
The site of Megiddo, located in modern day Israel and well-known for the large hoards of Late Bronze Age worked ivories found in its Late Bronze Age levels, holds several interesting parallels to the bone head from Eleon. An ivory cosmetic container, carved from an Elephant tusk and featuring a figurine head at one end, is especially compelling (Figure 2). Not only are the facial features similar, but the head also features inlaid glass beads used for the eyes. Other objects from Megiddo similarly share this feature of inlaid glass, a theme which I was hard pressed to find elsewhere. Although there is no reason to believe that the Eleon head was used as a cosmetic container, this shared characteristic of glass eyes on worked bone/ivory makes the Levant a strong candidate for a region of provenance.
The site of Ugarit, located on the Syrian coast, furnishes additional parallels. Bone and ivory carvings are found throughout the site, including some examples similar to the Eleon head (Figure 3). It is notable that Ugarit has also produced a vast array of Mycenaean ceramics and figurines. With well-documented trade in Aegean ceramic wares (and perhaps their contents) flowing into the region throughout this period, it’s not hard to imagine how our bone head may have found its way to Greece as part of a return cargo.
In the future, further analysis could be helpful in determining a more precise provenance. Analyzing the isotopic data of the bone collagen would provide us with information regarding the ecological environment of the animal from which the bone was taken. The same isotopic analysis could also be done on the glass eyes. When compared with the isotopic data of glass assemblages from around the Mediterranean, we may be able to narrow in on specific centers of glass production, perhaps in Mesopotamia or Egypt. A greater understanding of the bone’s background, as well as the production of the glass, would be a helpful next step in further understanding the bone head’s story.
The mystery of the Eleon bone head remains just that: a mystery. While its provenance is still somewhat unclear, it does appear to have origins outside of the Aegean – at the very least, this can tell us about the role that trade and imports played in the lives of individuals living at Eleon. Some of the evidence points towards its use as an object of ritual significance, but more excavation and analysis will be needed to prove it. This mysterious nature of the bone head made my research challenging, but the opportunity to study such a unique object in the world of Aegean archaeology made it worthwhile. I gained new experience working with materials from an active excavation, and it taught me how inspiring and rewarding placing an artefact within its historical context can be. I am leaving the bone head with more questions than answers, but I hope that further analysis and excavation can provide us with more clues as to the production of the bone head and its use at Eleon. Hopefully I can have a part in the next steps of this research, and perhaps I will even get to meet the bone head in person one day!
This past semester in GRS 482A, I had the opportunity to research a rim fragment from a marble bowl found within the Blue Stone Structure at ancient Eleon (Figure 1). The fact that the vessel was made from a non-local stone, that only a fragment survived, and that this fragment was found within a funerary structure, although not within a grave, all posed important questions regarding the provenance, lifespan and dating of the artifact. By examining evidence for marble imports into Boeotia and the island of Keos, or the lack thereof, and analyzing the findspot of the bowl fragment from Eleon, I concluded that the marble bowl from which the fragment came was not a recent import, but rather of much older Cycladic origins. Contrary to my initial expectations, the imported vessel had been broken and discarded long before it was unintentionally deposited as fill to cover the graves of the Blue Stone Structure (BSS). In this blog post, I will sketch out a plausible biography of this artifact from its Cycladic origins to its endpoint at Eleon and add some reflections on working with material culture.
The use of marble in the Cyclades is well-attested by the 3rd millennium BCE, during the Early Bronze Age, when the famous Cycladic figurines, but also various types of marble bowls and vessels were produced (Figure 2). Cycladic material culture was widely traded throughout the Aegean during the Early Bronze Age, including to inland Boeotia where Cycladic or Cycladic-influenced items such as metal daggers, ceramic ‘frying pans’ and marble artifacts have been excavated. Early Cycladic marble bowls have been found at Lithares, Eutresis, Thebes, and elsewhere in Boeotia, however, all these attestations pre-date the Blue Stone Structure in Eleon by several hundred years. In fact, from the Early Helladic III period onwards, there is a scarcity of Cycladic marbles in Boeotia that suggests a decline in marble imports beginning around the Middle Bronze Age.
I looked to the island of Keos to examine whether the Eleon marble fragment might be a rare example of a Middle or Late Bronze Age marble bowl, closer to when the Blue Stone Structure was active (approximately 1700–1600 BCE), or was imported in the Early Bronze Age and maintained as an heirloom for hundreds of years. As the first major island one encounters when sailing from Boeotia towards the Cyclades via the Euboean Gulf, Keos is well-situated for trade between the Cyclades, Minoan Crete and the Greek Mainland. Throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Age, Keos grew in wealth and prosperity due to its role in these trade networks as demonstrated by the settlement of Ayia Irini. Despite a significant amount of excavation at the site, Cycladic marbles were rare at Ayia Irini also after the Early Bronze Age and produced no good parallels for the fragment from Eleon.
If the Cycladic marble vessel at Eleon originated in the Early Bronze Age, it is possible that it was kept as a rare antique or prestigious object. Such a phenomenon may be observed at Ayia Irini where some marble figurines from the Early Bronze Age appeared in later destruction levels indicating an extended lifespan for such objects. This possibility for the provenance and usage of the marble vessel, however, does not explain how it ended up in the BSS, for it was not intentionally placed in a tomb and only a small fragment was recovered.
The marble rim fragment was found within the BSS (Figure 3), sandwiched between the layers of earth and mudbrick overlying the capstones for the graves, but below the cobblestone layer that sealed off the funerary structure. Assorted mendable drinking vessels were found amidst the same layers of earth and mudbrick indicating a ritual drinking custom performed by the community over the tombs. As far as we know, Cycladic bowls were not involved in drinking rituals but rather, since pigment is often found inside, they seem to have been used to store or grind pigments which would decorate the human body. While the bowl could have been repurposed by the local inhabitants, its rim would not have made a very convenient drinking vessel and its shallow bowl counld not hold much liquid.
Given the small fragment that survives, it seems more likely that the marble bowl was accidentally introduced as fill when the layers of brick and earth containing the drinking vessels were laid over the graves. The earth may have been taken from an area designated for abandoned household objects, as evidenced by a spindle whorl and a loom weight fragment found near the marble fragment – two objects which also have no obvious relation to drinking. In reconstructing the life of the marble fragment, one can imagine that, after some time, the bowl broke and was discarded outside where, later, a fragment was inadvertently gathered up as part of the earthen fill or perhaps even incorporated into a large mud brick that was then used to cover the graves of the BSS.
Over the course of this project, I found just how exciting it can be to reconstruct the life of an artifact and critically think about its production and usage. For the first time as an undergraduate student, I was able to work directly with excavation material and develop skills in interpreting excavation reports and journals for a project. What started as simply trying to determine the exact findspot and the context of the fragment quickly evolved into attempting to piece together how and when the fragment got there, which was followed by broader questions regarding the prevalence of marble after the Early Bronze Age, the nature of interregional exchange between Boeotia and the Cyclades, and the potential significance of the artifact to the ancient inhabitants of Eleon. But, perhaps the best part of working with material from Eleon was that I truly had to ask my own questions to conduct research rather than re-examining already published artifacts. By independently studying the material record from Eleon and relating it to the broader archaeological record in Bronze Age Greece, I know that I gained a lot of knowledge myself and, hopefully, I also contributed a little to the study of Eleon while doing so.
This year, GRS 482A gave me the opportunity to poke around (virtually) in Medieval garbage from the site of Ancient Eleon. I worked on a late 15th or early 16th century CE refuse pit, which is informally known as “Graham Pit” after the University of Victoria alumnus who had the opportunity to dig it as a member of the Eleon excavation team. While I was able to find helpful comparanda for similar pits at Thebes, I wanted to understand why this pit was dug – beyond just analysing the finds inside. What was the intention behind its construction and abandonment? Digging a refuse pit in a certain location is a deliberate choice that the inhabitants of the Eleon acropolis made. Understanding why that choice was made can help us imagine what daily life at Medieval Eleon looked like and lend agency to peoples in the past.
Graham Pit (Figure 1) is located on the eastern edge of the Eleon acropolis in the Archaic and Classical period ramped entrance. Other Medieval remains in the vicinity, including some poorly preserved wall fragments, may suggest a small household existed nearby. The pit is roughly circular clay-lined, and tapers slightly towards the bottom. Unlike other Medieval pits excavated at Eleon, which appear to have collapsed in antiquity, the lining of the Graham Pit is well-preserved.
Refuse pits are relatively common at Greek archeological sites. They are typically described as pits containing assorted trash (e.g., animal bones, shells, pottery, rocks) dug in sterile earth. When investigating Graham Pit, I first looked at similar refuse pits from Thebes and compared the ‘garbage’ inside. This analysis showed that the pit from Eleon was part of a wider Boeotian practice and chronologically similar in date. By taking a closer look at the construction of the pits, however, I realised that at least some of these pits may have been designed for a rather specific type of waste.
Excavations showed that the pit was intentionally filled at the end of its use-life. Finds from inside the pit include mendable pottery, an incised copper alloy bracelet, and rare earlier pottery fragments, most from the Classical and Hellenistic periods. At the very top of the pit, a large green-glazed Medieval sherd was found, helpfully providing a terminus post quem for the closing of the pit. More sherds belonging to mendable or almost-mendable vessels continued to be found into the middle layers, usually smashed on the rocks below. These sherds belonged to a cooking pot, the same green-glazed bowl, and an undecorated amphora (Figure 2).
Late Ottoman refuse pits from the Pelopidou Street excavations at Thebes are similar to Graham Pit. They were filled in a relatively short period of time, generally with kitchen waste, animal bones and construction debris. The number of pits at Thebes indicate a dense population, consistent with census data that shows the early Ottoman period was a prosperous time for Thebes, whereas Eleon, a small agricultural village, has preserved only a few pits clustered in the northwest trenches and the ramped entrance. The finds from the Theban pits are also wealthier than Graham Pit, but there are also many similarities. Most of the ceramics from pits at Thebes are undecorated, unglazed narrow-necked jugs and cooking pots, much like the unglazed cooking pot and amphora in Graham Pit. Additionally, domestic items made of wood, basketry, leather or other perishable materials were likely present in Graham pits but have not survived.
While these finds can tell us about a population, its relative size, and wealth, I wanted to zoom out and think about the everyday purpose of refuse pits. If Graham Pit was only for general waste, the easiest way to get rid of garbage is to simply remove it. Why would the residents of both Thebes and the Eleon acropolis choose to spend time and energy digging holes, effectively in their front yards, to dump their garbage rather than simply remove it elsewhere? The location of the pits may indicate a need for quick, convenient disposal of waste… maybe waste of the human kind. Convenient bathroom facilities were just as important in the past as they are today!
This led me to investigate Graham Pit’s possible use as a cesspit for the Medieval residents of Eleon. The clay-lining of the pit lent itself to this hypothesis, as well as the fact that it is shallower than other Medieval pits from Eleon and Thebes. Waterproofing cesspits with clay had practical benefits, such as keeping the waste from seeping into the soil. Cesspits (Figure 3) were typically emptied of waste and reused, as it was impractical to dig a new cesspit each time you filled one. Lining a cesspit with clay would have helped clarify the boundaries of the pit and assisted in efficient removal of the waste. Clay-lining further indicates that on some level, the pit was designed by its creators – not just a hole dug and filled and forgotten.
Cesspits may not just have been solely for human waste disposal. Human excrement and organic waste is fantastic fertilizer, something well-utilized by farmers in both the past and present day. In Medieval Haarlem and Bruges, extant documentation even reveals that farmers paid townspeople for the privilege of emptying their cesspits for the fertilizer inside! In a small agricultural village, such fertilizer may have literally been worth its weight in gold! We might imagine a world then where the contents of Graham Pit were emptied, composted and then applied to the surrounding fields or gardens between small households.
Because Graham Pit’s fill is relatively homogenous and the pottery is mostly mendable, it was likely filled in a single episode when its creators decided to end its life. It may have gotten too smelly, or too old, and the location of the ‘bathroom’ was changed. We can think of the fill as a structured deposition, since we can trace a series of clear steps that led to its closing. First, a layer rich in rocks from small to large size, perhaps originally including organic materials. Next, other household garbage was added including large ceramic fragments that broke on the rocks below. Finally, the pit was covered with a roughly circular cap of field stones. The cap of stones may then have served as a visible reminder of the pit and prevented another pit from being dug in the same location. Similar markers above the other Medieval pits at Eleon, show that this was part of a wider strategy on the part of the inhabitants to mark out the subterranean landscape of the village.
Medieval pits in general warrant further study, not just of their contents, but of their locations, designs and purposes. In other words, rather than focusing on the meaning of the contents, we instead focus on why the pit was created, how it was used, and the broader effects of this practice. Working on Graham Pit was an incredible opportunity to work on material culture that has not yet been formally published. In my first year at University of Victoria, I was able to visit Eleon through the Semester in Greece program, and it was exciting to be able to return by studying material culture from the site. One of the reasons I love archeology and history is the ability to imagine and illustrate daily life in the past. Investigating the waste management practices at Medieval Eleon allowed me to do that firsthand.
Hall, A. R., and H. Kenward. 2015. “Sewers, cesspits and middens: A survey of the evidence for 2000 years of waste disposal in York, UK,” in Sanitation, Latrines and Intestinal Parasites in Past Populations, ed. P. D. Mitchell, Burlington, pp. 99-119.