Friday, August 8, 2014

Excavations at Ancient Eleon 2014

Ancient Eleon excavations
On July 14, 2014 we concluded the third full season of excavation at the site of Ancient Eleon in eastern Boeotia. This project is a synergasia between the Canadian Institute in Greece and the 9th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities at Thebes. My colleagues and I are very grateful for the research funding we receive from an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council of Canada (#435-2012-0185), the Loeb Classical Library and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory. We also appreciate the dedicated efforts of the students who volunteer for our project. Not only do they provide the physical energy that uncovers a great deal of earth and moves many a stone to reveal the archaeological record, they bring a lively spirit of inquiry, humor, and an unrivaled appreciation for our work. We feel that this is the best kind of collaboration, in which we are all learning through active research.

Our team in 2014 was the largest we ever fielded and likely the largest will have for some time to come. At peak capacity we numbered just over 50 people, including site supervisors, returning volunteers, first-time students, and specialists in geography, human and animal bones, ceramics, conservation, and illustration. Although we were a very large group we had dinners all together at one of the many tavernas in Dilesi. We would also create a caravan of sorts as we commuted out to the site each morning with our two vans and 6 rental cars.

Team photo in Dilesi, June 2014
The season started off very well right at the beginning of June. All the students arrived on time with no major travel difficulties. They all settled in well with their new roommates (three to a room most often). We were dispersed in Dilesi between the Mamoni house, where we’ve been based since 2007 and which we call our second-home, and apartments nearby, some of which had incredible views (photo below).

View to Euboea
Our work also went very smoothly: The site of ancient Eleon in Arma held up very well over the winter. There was no visible erosion or baulk collapse, and all of the walls were well-maintained over the winter by our work to cover and partially backfill trenches. Tall grasses and spikey thistles were cleared away by all members of the project over the first two days. Old trenches were cleaned and new ones were laid out according to our site grid. We work in 5 by 5 meter units and by the end of the summer we had opened nearly 20 new units. During the season we store a lot of material under our site’s beautiful Holm oak.

Eleon’s Holm oak and equipment storage
Once we were fully set up, we were able to concentrate fully on the job at hand. The weather during the excavation season also was very cooperative – light rain during the first week and two days of heavy, hot winds, but other than that there was no major weather that impacted the work.

Our project, in summary, addresses two major periods in Greek archaeology. First, a prehistoric phase spanning the Mycenaean period (Late Bronze Age), ca. 1700-1050 BC, and a historical phase from the late Archaic to early Classical periods, ca. 600-400 BC. The prehistoric material is associated with a several large houses with impressive furnishings inside and tiled roofs. The ceramics from these houses date primarily to the Late Helladic III C phases and help document important economic changes at the site, with particular reference to Eleon’s relationship to the larger center of Thebes, which suffers a major destruction level right at the beginning of the LH IIIC period. The historical era material, from the Archaic and Classical periods, relates to the material we have uncovered in association with the large polygonal wall that dominates the eastern side of our site. We have uncovered the new remains of the wall that include a ramped entryway into the site. Beneath the ramp’s multiple surfaces we have recovered large amounts of miniature vessels (skyphoi and kotyliskoi), along with other distinguishable types of Boeotian ceramics. Associated with these fineware vessels are numerous terracotta figurines, many of them female (seated and standing), sometimes painted, that suggest a cult was located here or nearby. The episodic activity indicates that the active Mycenaean center was abandoned around 1050 BC and then not reoccupied in any substantial way until about 550 BC when we start to see the miniatures and figurines appear. What happens in the intervening 500 years is a mystery, but the lack of any significant Early Iron Age material suggests to us that, at least in the areas of the site where we have explored, the site had lain abandoned for quite some time.

Our work this summer was very beneficial in clarifying some major questions about the site. But like any research project, the more you learn, the more new questions arise. We are particularly intrigued by the context of the major construction project that is the polygonal wall. We were very happy to have Professors Ben Marsh and Janet Jones of Bucknell University working with us on looking for quarry sources of the polygonal wall blocks and to try to understand how the wall was constructed.

Curved polygonal wall on the left leading to the ramp area. July 2014
While our daily efforts in the field consume the major part of our research day, work does not stop once we leave the site. All of our pottery is washed on the day it was excavated, offering the students a chance to better understand what they have collected. The ceramics dry overnight and are collected on the next day and the processing of these sherds begins. The ceramics are sorted by fabric types and by whether they are decorated or undecorated, and whether they are a recognizable part of a vessel, such as a rim, handle, or spout. These ‘diagnostic’ sherds (decorated or made of specific vessel parts) are especially valuable for the subsequent statistical and chronological analysis. These ‘diagnostic’ sherds and a representative sample of the non-diagnostics are photographed with an exterior and interior view. This process allows us to make a record of the tens of thousands of sherds we uncover throughout the season, which is crucial for accurate assessment of the strata we are digging.

The commitment to process and analyze all finds within a few days of its excavation provides important data that is fed back into the project. We use the information we get from the washers, sorters, illustrators and ceramic analysts to adjust our research goals and methods. We are proud that we never have a backlog of pottery from year to year. Overseeing this entire system is our registrar Stephie Nikoloudis, who uses the database, index cards, and a watchful eye to manage dozens and dozens of new finds each day. These range from assemblages of pottery, soil samples, and collections of animal bone (which will all undergo their own process) to individual finds of stone, metal, and terracotta.

Giuliana Bianco and Stephie Nikoloudis
Like our ceramics, our architecture is also fully documented during each season. When the excavators uncover a wall or interesting feature, a short plan is made and our indefatigable draftsperson, Giuliana Bianco, schedules it in. Absolute elevations are taken with the total station and relative points are made with an old fashioned dumpy level. Giuliana’s drawings are done in pen, with the occasional use of white out for the rare correction, and then they are scanned and converted into digital format on Adobe Illustrator. In 2014 she made dozens of separate drawings which will likely all be fully digitized, print-ready by Christmas. A truly impressive feat.

Session on conservation with Vicky Karas 2014
Our excavation provides valuable experience for young scholars of Greek archaeology. A great core of returning volunteers and graduate students work as site supervisors gaining valuable skills in reading Greek soil and stratigraphy, identifying pottery, and also managing student volunteers who work in their trenches. Many of the students participate as part of an experiential learning opportunity at the University of Victoria and they earn 3 units of 400-level credit. This year we had 14 students in the course and many of their blog entries can be found on our blogsite here: http://ebapexcavation The students and all members of the project attend information meetings throughout the season. These sessions often take place before or after sherd-washing in the garden of the Mamoni house. It’s a very beautiful setting for students to learn about faunal analysis, conservation, drawing, paleobotany and collections management on an excavation. The photo above shows the rapt attention of many of our students, as our chief conservator Vicky Karas discusses treatment methods, and is a fitting way to end our blog entry for 2014.

Brendan Burke
University of Victoria

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