Friday, August 2, 2019

Four Down Two to Go: Life in the Trenches

It is a quiet Sunday morning at the end of July in Siteia in eastern Crete. Where else would the intrepid field archaeologist be at this time of the year? After four weeks of digging and with two more ahead of us I would have liked to have slept in, but our cat, Luna, and our son’s pug, Bella, are now accustomed to rising six days a week much, much earlier to have their breakfasts. Just two more weeks and a more normal lifestyle awaits all of us.

This is the eighth year of the Greek systematic excavations at the Pre- and Protopalatial Minoan house tomb cemetery at Petras Kephala on a hill overlooking Siteia. They are directed by Dr. Metaxia Tsipopoulou (Director Emerita, Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sport) who also excavated the Minoan settlement and palace at the Petras hill nearby. As I have summarized in my previous blogs over the years as Director and guest blogger, the cemetery’s history is long and complex. It was used for the interment of the elite members of the Petras community for around 1,000 years, that is, from Early Minoan IB (ca. 2800 BC) to the end of Middle Minoan IIB (ca 1800 BC).  Due to the nature of the underlying limestone bedrock where the cemetery is located, half of it is built directly on the relatively flat bedrock. The adjacent part, however, is in a sloping hollow where successive phases of house tombs were constructed one on top of the other to a depth of over 2 m!  Thus, in this area it is like digging a stratified settlement site with multiple floors. The running count at the moment is that there were at least 34 funerary structures at one time or another where the skeletal material was deposited, normally in secondary context.  For this reason the digging is complicated and slow. In the ca 4 x 4 m area that I have focused on now for three field seasons there are the remnants of ten different walls!

As the skeletal material is particularly plentiful in these house tombs the uncovering and the complete documentation of it is a slow, meticulous process carried out by an experienced team of osteoarchologists from the University of Thessaloniki. The archaeological field crew is international in scope as always, coming from the US, Ireland, Australia and Spain, besides Greece. This year I am the sole Canadian, alas. The visit by Professor Angus Smith (President, CIG Board of Directors) and two of his graduate students, Kelsea Dawn and Sydney Bryk, from Brock University provided more Canadian [Brock!] Content, if briefly. Angus presented me with a certificate from the Board of Directors that indicated that my name had been added to the “Honour Roll” plaque at the Institute for my years of service in furthering its mission. I was very touched by the recognition!

While the finds so far have not matched last year’s spectacular series of discoveries, they are nevertheless of great importance. More evidence has been uncovered that demonstrates Petras’ role in the exchange networks from Crete to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The number of house tombs is unsurpassed in any other contemporaneous cemetery on the island. Many of the deposits of skeletal remains have ceramic vessels as offerings that permit secure dating of the contexts. And, finally, the excavation of the ceremonial complex that was built directly on top of the ruins of the house tombs in the Post-Palatial period continues to reveal how extensive and varied it was.

This year, as last, the weather was a significant member of our crew. In addition, to the usual heatwaves and then strong winds, an unexpected  torrential rainstorm (with much lightning and thunder) struck one morning just before we were about to start our commute to the site at 6:45 am. For over 90 minutes the skies pelted the Siteia region with significant amounts of precipitation. For that day we stayed in and worked on our trench notebooks, of course. The next morning when we reached the excavations we found many of the house tombs that we were excavating had filled with water, ranging from 10 – 70 cm in depth.  Until a pump could be found an impromptu bucket brigade formed to bail out the “lakes”.  For a week or more afterwards our Munsell readings were of “damp” sediments and not the normal bone “dry”.

As in past years I have posted [“Grubbyminoan”] on Instagram a series of images with scenes from the excavations and its diggers at work and at rest, under the hashtag: #petras_excavations_2019. Please check them out!

The final two weeks of an excavation are usually the most challenging with many tasks to complete before it is “closing time” for the summer. A heatwave now would not help. That all awaits us. In the meantime, the sandy beach at Chiona at Palaikastro and a fishy lunch call. The future of the past will happen in due time.

David Rupp
Director Emeritus, CIG

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