Animals of Ancient Eleon Dead and Alive by Robyn Sykes

Robyn and goat

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.

Robyn animal bones

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.


A Total Eclipse of the Scarp by Kai Michaluk

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.

scarp tool 3

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!

The Unbearable Lightness of Bones – by Novella Nicchitta

The excitement of finding a tomb always brings high expectations, with Grave Circle A being a dreamy reference. The reality of what you deal with most of the time, however, is very different. If you are lucky, you find a fairly well preserved skeleton and, if you are even more lucky, its funerary accompaniment goods.

No matter how pretty, valuable, or particular those may be, there is one part of the process of the tomb excavation that will leave you almost unsatisfied. Once the bones are exposed, in fact, they reveal themselves in all their fragility and crumbliness. The process of excavation requires, indeed, a great deal of patience, lightness, and attention. First you brush all around them, eliminating the loose soil in the attempt to elevate them from the rest of the dirt while maintaining their position and shape. Successively, a more detailed process begins with trying to define the bones. We use the smallest tools in order to contour and individuate their first characteristics: whether left or right tibia, whether a man in its prime or a younger individual. Even for an expert, the identification can be problematic for the particular characteristics and shapes have been smoothed or destroyed over time, leaving very few clues and space for guess.

Despite all the precaution you may take, those timeworn bones will blow to pieces like dust in the wind, crumbling in your hands and under your eyes, and there is not much you can do to avoid it. One moment they had shape and form in the soil, now they are only amorphous fragments closed in a box, whose value and purpose are mostly reserved to the expert eye of an osteologist. Some of them come in so many tiny little fragments that they are not even worth to be saved in a box, so they get discharged with the loose dirt and the soil they were resting in.

Every detail, from location to positions, matters in order to infer why the corpse was left there alongside all its social connotations, but sometimes its mysterious story cannot be revealed. Was this person belonging to a specific social group? Is there a relation with the other tombs around? What was the cause of death? Was this tomb disturbed? Answering these questions on site is not very easy and the whole process requires thought and further study. Everything can get even more complicated as the tiny little bones can float around due to infiltration or to human disturbance, turning themselves into a skeletal puzzle that is difficult to reassemble.

Overall, finding human bones is a remarkable moment, in which one of the primary goals is the willingness to preserve and respect the remains of an individual, no matter how long ago he or she lived and, whenever possible, try to answer some questions regarding a whole civilization.

A Day in the Life of the First-Aid Kit – by Hamish Frayne


IMG_3422At 5:56 am the door opens. Light streams into the room as a brown Columbia hat with a Wintersport T-shirt shuffles into the room and begins packing up the total-station batteries charging peacefully on the table to my left. Soon after, a man with an Adidas hat and a green T-shirt enters the room and grabs one of my straps, startling me. This is how a day as the first-aid kit generally begins.

I am carried outside to see a mob of people adorned with T-shirts, hats and cargo pants all patiently waiting to load into large metal transport vessels. After a few moments of waiting I am carelessly tossed into the rear of one such vessel. We depart and I suffer half-an-hour of bumps, twists, turns and lurches. Afterwards, I am carried up a steep hill with a gorgeous view of the surrounding farmland. Shockingly, my escorts hardly consider their surroundings but merely trudge up the hill with their heads down. I get placed casually in the shade up against a large tree, and there I wait patiently until needed.

My first patient calls around 7:30 am. A man with a large sun hat, a white (??) T-shirt and slightly too much sunscreen on his face unzips me and pulls out a pack of Almora. My next call comes at 9:12 am as a slightly sun-baked female with a blister on her left thumb rummages through me in search of polysporin and a band-aid. I try to recommend the anti-septic spray, since the polysporin expired in 2011, but my suggestions fall on deaf ears (expired polysporin is better than nothing I suppose).

At 9:45 am the humans congregate around the tree in a daily ritual, and I generally provide a few band-aids at this time. Near the end of the congregation a tall man in a blue shirt with bloodshot eyes opens my small pouch and removes eye drops. One of his contact lenses has collected some dust, and I supervise as his fellow human helps administer the drops into his irritated eye.

My next patient comes much later at 11:08 am. By now the humans are slightly heat-exhausted, as evidenced by the quality of the jokes I overhear, making careless injuries more likely. Someone accidentally struck the ring finger of their nearby colleague while pick-axing dirt, so I provide acetaminophen, soothing cream and bandage-wrap to a woman grimacing in pain; fortunately the injury seems nothing more than a bad bruise.

The humans have another congregation around 11:30 am, although everyone is considerably less exuberant by now and I generally remain untouched during this process. Only as the gathering ends do I provide some Almora packs to people who need a boost to get through the rest of the day.

As 1:00 pm arrives, the man in the green shirt and Adidas hat (which has now been replaced by a much larger garment described as the “Sun Protection Zone”) examines my contents to ensure I am still packed appropriately. We begin the descent down the hill followed by the usual jarring ride home. At last I am removed from the transport vessel and returned to my usual home in the Office, knowing that tomorrow the entire process will begin anew.

Better late than never

Our 2017 season is well underway. Today we began week five of our six week season. The team is made up of about 30 colleagues and students from Canada, the US, Greece, Italy, and Poland. In the early weeks we had quite a bit of rain but now the rain is gone and the heat has arrived: 35 (95 F) today! Everyone is working extremely hard and the work is going well. We are extremely grateful to our colleagues at the Thebes Museum and the Ephoreia of the Antiquities of Boeotia who help us so much in our work.

What follows will be student blogs which are part of our field school course through the University of Victoria. Students are asked to write in an interesting way some aspect of the excavation, to provide the reader with a sense of what it is like to be on an excavation in Greece.


Join Our Team 2017


Upcoming Season: May 28 – July 8, 2017

Project Overview
This project investigates an unexplored settlement in central Greece (Boeotia), dating primarily to the Mycenaean (ca. 1700-1150 BC) and Classical (6-4th c. BC) periods.  Ancient Eleon operated within the orbit of the major Greek city of Thebes throughout its history.

Volunteer Program: Student volunteers will participate in all aspects of fieldwork, learning stratigraphic excavation techniques, recording methods, and artifact analysis. The program offers experiential learning and is physically strenuous.

All student volunteers must be in good physical condition and able to participate in all aspects of the fieldwork.

Upon acceptance to the program, participants can enroll in GRS 495 Practicum in Archaeology (3.0 Units) for university credit from the University of Victoria. 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.  It is possible to participate as a volunteer in the excavation without enrolling in GRS 495 for credit.

All participants, whether enrolled in GRS 495 or not, will be required to pay a $3000 program fee which will go toward room and board for six weeks. UVic tuition for GRS 495 is separate, as is transatlantic airfare. 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.