Friday, August 19, 2011

Excavations at Ancient Eleon 2011

Our excavation at ancient Eleon, in the village of Arma, in eastern Boeotia has just concluded its first season of digging and, by all accounts, it was a great success. Daily operations were led by myself and two North American colleagues, Dr Bryan Burns of Wellesley College and Dr Susan Lupack of University College, London, co-directors of the Eastern Boeotia Archaeological Project (EBAP). We are sincerely grateful to our Greek colleagues based at the Thebes Museum, Dr Vasilios Aravantinos, and Dr Yannis Fappas, who collaborated with us and facilitated this research. We are also very grateful for the administrative help and support from the Canadian Institute office in Athens, by Dr Jonathan Tomlinson and Dr David Rupp.
As we returned to Athens on June 29, we could still see lingering clouds of tear gas over parts of the downtown core, residual traces of the political and economic turmoil Greece is experiencing. It was a shocking return after what was for us a rather idyllic summer in the plains of eastern Boeotia, covering an important corridor between Thebes and the Euboean Gulf. This fertile area of Greece, with vineyards, olive groves, and fields of ripening wheat, has a multi-coloured landscape of brown, green and gold.

With a very focused and dedicated crew of about 12 (made up of undergraduates, graduate students, and staff from Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia), we started a new phase of research for EBAP by conducting trial excavations. Beginning in 2007 we had conducted a survey around Arma village and the areas of Tanagra and Eleona, so we did have some idea of what to expect. Our survey, however, also provided us with research questions: for example, why was there so much Mycenaean and earlier Bronze Age pottery on the surface of the acropolis site at Arma village, when the most prominent architectural feature – a massive wall of polygonal masonry – was obviously of Classical date? Following other scholars we identify this site with the ancient site of Eleon, which appears in Linear B tablets from Thebes and in the Catalogue of Ships in Book II of the Iliad. The important dates and the role of Eleon in eastern Boeotia will be further investigated in the coming years. For this blog, however, I’d like to highlight what was accomplished over four short weeks of dedicated work in June at the site.
Breaking ground with the first trenches ever excavated at a site is a thrilling privilege, but conquering terra nova does present many challenges. After tackling the legal and administrative hurdles of acquiring the land for excavation from the local landowners (no easy task!), we then had to establish a workable grid over the site. We established a ten by ten grid which can be built on in the coming years. Then we began the process of clearing the very tall green grasses and thistles that blanketed the site over the wet cool winter and spring. The very first day we met a strong minded and swift-of-foot goat-herdess, 77 years young, who initially feared we’d be clearing the area of all edible greens, starving her animals! She soon saw that our aims (and resources) were not so grandiose, and by the end of the first week we all looked forward to our daily meeting with her and her 40 sheep and goats. Other, less regular visitors to the site included our closest neighbour, Giorgios the bee-keeper and his father and wife, and we often saw some old friends from our survey, Mr. Akrivakis and his son Kostas.
In the first week, using primarily gloves and one scythe we successfully cleared about 30 square meters of tall grass allowing us to begin laying out our trenches. Equipped with a Leica TPS400 Total Station we mapped out two 5 by 5 m trenches, one on the highest part of the citadel, and the other 20 meters to the south. These may not seem very large but we wanted our first season to focus on getting a stratigraphic sequence which requires depth of coverage rather than opening a broad area.

By the second week we had worked out a fairly efficient system of sharing duties - students and project directors alike (!) took turns picking, shovelling, and wheel barrowing. Careful record keeping and observation were of course a priority, as was photography and drawing various features. The material we found was primarily Mycenaean, and included decorated pottery, figurines, antlers and horns, and tools for cloth production. We organized the recording of our excavation around a locus and lot system, which maintains that a ‘locus’ is any stratigraphic deposit (trash lens, pit, wall, floor, etc.), while a ‘lot’ is a relatively arbitrary number which is used to map the actual excavation of any locus.
Most days would begin with our arrival in the field before 7 am and work would continue until about 2, with a snack break on site. We’d return home for lunch, a short rest period and then we’d begin washing and studying material until nearly sunset. Our material was washed, sorted, and studied back at our work space in Dilesi. Our living and work arrangements there are overseen by Mrs Ino Mamoni and her family at their beautiful home by the sea, and we gratefully acknowledge their hospitality and innumerable kindnesses. Dinners were a shared and pleasant experience, at a taverna on the Euboean gulf, facing the famous sites of Eretria and Lefkandi. Most of the crew was in bed by 10 pm each night. Some effort was made for card playing and after-dinner drinks in the first week, but I think we all soon realized that our time was better spent resting up for the next day’s discoveries. As a multi-partnered project, the first year of excavation at ancient Eleon was a great experience and we very much look forward to many more years of fruitful collaboration. We are proud to be the next generation of Canadian researchers in this part of Greece and hope that Boeotia continues to be an area of particular research interest for students and scholars from Canada.

Brendan Burke
University of Victoria

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