Friday, September 13, 2019

Finishing Cycle #1: The 2019 season of the Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project

Figure 1: The week six 2019 SNAP team, including 10 Canadian students from McMaster and Toronto universities (SNAP 2019).

Over six weeks in early summer 2019, the Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project [SNAP] conducted its fifth and final season of its current research cycle, the work co-directed by Dr. Tristan Carter (Associate Professor, McMaster University), and Dr. Demetris Athanasoulis (Director, Cycladic Ephorate of Antiquities). The season was dedicated primarily to studying the thousands of artefacts generated by our previous work at this early prehistoric stone tool manufacturing site and chert source, with only a limited amount of on-site fieldwork. With the emphasis now firmly shifted from field, to apotheke­-based study, this was the smallest team since we completed our survey in 2014, never more than 25 personnel at any one time, including a core of long-term project members, a not-inconsiderable group of undergraduates (including a few returnees), and a number of visiting specialists. As before, SNAP prides itself on enabling space for students and junior scholars to help their field training, and to get a basic overview on the Aegean Palaeolithic and its material culture. This season we had a number of undergraduates from Canada (McMaster), Greece (Athens and Ioannina), plus doctoral students from Canada (Toronto), France (Bordeaux), Serbia (Belgrade), and the US (Boston, Missouri), with other team members coming variously from Cyprus and the UK (Figure 1).

This year our on-site fieldwork was relatively modest in scale, our primary aims being to complete four sondages initiated in previous seasons, together with the taking of supplementary phytolith samples, and to retrieve dosimeters relating to our absolute dating programme. We thus began with four small excavation teams working on the hill’s upper reaches, in trenches 3, 26, 40 and 42, i.e. two on the eastern flanks, and two on the west (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Plan of Stelida’s upper slopes, including active trenches in 2019 (Yorgan Pitt).

We are somewhat proud of Trench 3, a sondage initiated in 2015 – and excavated by McMaster/Toronto alum Shannon Crewson every year – that has eight clearly defined lithostratigraphic units spanning a depth of some 4.5m (!), its OSL dates pushing back its archaeology to the Middle Pleistocene, and still not quite finished by the end of 2019 (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Shannon Crewson excavating the >4m deep trench DG-A/003 (SNAP 2019).

The other deep sondage that was active in 2019 lay on the north-east flanks of the hill, trench 26 being excavated through a thick deposit of wind-blown (aeolian) sand that was probably part-deposited on Stelida’s flanks during the Late Glacial Maximum. This trench was initiated in 2016, and once again, while seemingly close to completion, had yet to reach natural by the close of our 2019 campaign. Alas our work was significantly hampered in Trench 26 due to the damage it had suffered over the close-season; despite our diligent temporary back-filling of the sondages with wooden pallets, sandbags and tarpaulin coverings, the heavy rains of winter/spring led to some major collapse, the sandy-nature of the deposit making the sections particularly susceptible to slumping (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Trench SH/026 in disrepair at the start of the 2019 season (Nat Jackson).

Happily we managed to achieve our aims and complete the excavation of Trench 40 within the first two weeks. This sondage had produced not insignificant quantities of diagnostic Middle Palaeolithic material last year, its stratigraphic sequence largely replicating that of Trench 21, a few metres upslope. The last half metre was unbelievably tough going due to the dominance of compact red clay-based deposits.

Trench 42, just beside and upslope of Rock Shelter A on the eastern side of the hill, had similarly been initiated the previous season because of the very high quality early Upper Palaeolithic blade industries and Middle Palaeolithic discoidal core and Levallois tradition products. In this instance we arbitrarily stopped the excavation after >2m, as the stratigraphic sequence was believe to largely repeat that viewed in neighbouring Trenches 24 and 27, while the higher-than-usual water table made further progress without a water pump nigh impossible.

Figure 5: Trench DG-A/001 almost completely backfilled (Ermioni Vereketi).

Once fully completed, it has always been our aim – following the desires of both landowners and the Ministry of Culture – that the trenches be completely backfilled, so as to minimise our impact on the landscape. Happily we were able to finally backfill our 3.5m Trench 1 this year (Figure 5), along with trenches 21, 24, 40, and 42, with only Trenches 3, 25, and 26 temporarily filled as these have dosimeters to be collected next year.

With trenches 40 and 42 finished, this allowed us to excavate a few quick 1×1m trenches along the spine of the hill to (a) look for potentially in situ deposits on the highest/flattest parts of the site, and (b) test theories as to the up-slope origins of certain deposits revealed on the hill’s flanks. Central to both the above research questions is the issue of erosion. As detailed in the 2018 blog, we have long been aware that Stelida comprises a highly dynamic landscape, with various erosional processes leading to a huge amount of downslope redeposition of artefacts over the past >200,000 years. While MSc student Yorgan Pitt has been employing a 5cm resolution digital elevation model in concert with GIS approaches and statistics to model site formation processes, it made sense to ground truth some of these claims via excavation. For the most part these trenches were very unproductive, often hitting bedrock after a few centimetres, any original soil and knapping debris having long moved downslope through a combination of wind, rain and gravity. This work did however produce one very exciting and somewhat unexpected discovery on one of the flatter, natural terraces, with the recovery of not only Middle and Upper Palaeolithic material, but also an array of much later finds – including pottery – that seem to relate to Bronze Age ritual activity (Figure 6). We ultimately took the decision to stop excavating these deposits after a few days as we felt ill-prepared to maximise the intellectual potential of such patently important material. With clear evidence for burning (phytolith and carbon samples were collected, while 100% of the soil was wet-sieved), plus our first recovery of animal bones, there is obviously a great opportunity here for functional studies via starch and lipid analyses, something we were simply not equipped to deal with this season. This new area takes our research in an exciting new direction. With non-local pebbles forming part of these deposits, there are clear parallels to the Early Bronze Age rituals atop Dhaskalio on neighbouring Keros, while other aspects of the activities documented here are reminiscent of practices detailed at Mikre Vigla, a kilometer to the south of Stelida.

Figure 6: Kristine Mallinson celebrates the establishment of one of our more productive hill-spine trenches (Marie N. Pareja).

Much of our work this season occurred in the apotheke in Chora; indeed there were many days when more of the team was working here, than on-site. Here we continue our analyses of the lithics, with various studies running in parallel. Our major work on our 3.5m deep sondage DG-A/001 was completed last season, with our first significant paper melding absolute dates, material culture and stratigraphy has been accepted to a high profile open-access journal, and should be published this autumn, while a second paper discussing the lithics from this trench in more detail is also being prepared. This summer Carter and Dragosavac focused on our main Middle Palaeolithic assemblages, with over 500 artefacts illustrated, and two entire deep trench sequences completed. In tandem, Dr Dora Moutsiou – working with McMaster integrated science student Natasha Singh – completed the integration of her raw materials’ studies (see 2018 blog) with the previous work on chronology, technology and typology of the survey diagnostics (9000+ artefacts), ready for our publication of the 2013-14 seasons’ work.

Alongside the excavation and lithics’ analyses, Dr Charlotte Diffey (Reading University) continued her analyses of the archaeobotanical remains, while Ninon Taffin (just accepted into a fully-funded PhD programme at Bordeaux Michel Montaigne to work on Stelida), collected further samples for Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating. Dr Georgia Tsartsidou (Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology) returned to take more phytolith samples, focusing on the Bronze Age deposits, while Zack Batist (PhD candidate, Toronto), and Ciara Zogheib (integrated science student, McMaster) continued to develop our database and the analyses of both survey and excavation assemblages. We also benefitted enormously from a series of visitors to the project who brought with them a range of specialist skills and enthusiasm that they kindly shared with us. This included the geo-archaeologist Prof. Scott Pike (Willamette University, US), Dr Christina Papoulia, a recent graduate in the Palaeolithic of the Aegean (Rethymnon University, Greece), Dr Alex Knodell (Carleton College, US) who has just initiated the exciting Small Cycladic Island Project [SCIP], and our own Assistant Director of CIG, Dr Jonathan Tomlinson.

While the 2015-19 seasons of excavation and study at Stelida have now drawn to a close, our hugely significant Middle Pleistocene discoveries in trenches 1 and 3, together with the exciting discovery of Bronze Age ritual activity, should provide the  impetus, and new funding opportunities, to propel us into our second five-year cycle of fieldwork and research. Watch this space!

Tristan Carter
McMaster University; co-director, SNAP

No comments:

Post a Comment