Research in Real Life: Hearths in the Northwest Complex

By Mira Harvey

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!

Figure 1: Cleaning hearths in Room 5 of the Northwest Complex after lifting the tarps that have protected the site since 2019 (Courtesy of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project).

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.