CU-Boulder students hit the ground for clues to ancient cultures in the Greek Peloponnese
Meticulously scanning every bit of earth in their periphery, the student archaeology team combed the craggy Greek farmland for bits of pottery, tile and stone tools.
“Is this a rock?” a novice surveyor would ask, holding up an ambiguous object.
“I can’t tell,” came the answer from a peer.
The two called across the field to their supervisor: “Is this a rock? Or is it actually something?”
A huddle formed around the object.
“No, this is nothing,” concluded the supervisor, dropping the object to the ground.
So continued the find-and-examine procedure for the first few weeks of the mission, until the field game “Is this a rock?” became an inside joke for the team.
“My team specifically had a hard time figuring out if something was a lithic artifact,” says Elizabeth Cummings, a University of Colorado Boulder senior in classics and anthropology. “At the beginning it was a confidence thing, but we got better.”
Indeed, the five survey teams lugged increasingly heavier backpacks full of artifacts until the final count was an impressive 57,795 objects, collected over an area almost twice the size of the CU-Boulder campus.
Greece still holds secrets
The 2014 Archaeology Field School and Global Seminar, a seven-week surveying expedition to southern Greece, is sponsored by the CU-Boulder Department of Classics through Study Abroad Programs. The department has a 10-year history of organizing summer archaeology field schools, previously for excavations in Rome. This year was the first trip to Greece.Led by Assistant Professor Sarah James, the Greek field school operates under a multi-institutional initiative called the Western Argolid Regional Project, or WARP. The project’s aim is to explore and document pre-historic and historic human activity in a 30-sqare-kilometer area of the northeast Peloponnese peninsula, near the historic city of Argos.
“When I came to CU, I had a lot of projects in the northeast Peloponnese in the works already, so WARP seemed like a good opportunity,” says James, whose doctoral research centered on the Hellenistic pottery of Corinth, a major ancient city north of Argos.
One may think that the relatively small country of Greece had given up most of its archaeological secrets by now, given its historic value and allure. Not so, says James.
“Greece has been so intensively inhabited for millennia that there is always a continuous carpet of artifacts wherever you go.”
The northeast Peloponnese valley system has never been fully explored because of historians’ concentration on the rich archaeological site of Mycenae to the east, she explains. Mycenae was a wealthy citadel where ancient palaces and gold-filled tombs were excavated in the 19th century.
“Argos was sort of the question mark that remained in this region,” James says.The importance of surveying the Argolid region is to complete some of its undefined historical record. During the seventh century B.C., Argos and the infamous Sparta were rival cities that dueled for control of the valley—a heavily used transportation corridor.
“We are trying to test the historical records by finding the archaeological signature of Argive control or Spartan control, which we would be able to test through pottery,” James explains. “You can date pottery and tell where it is from by what it is made of. It’s great to connect politics to pots.”
While archaeological finds in the area have been limited, they are significant enough to indicate more historical treasures wait below the surface.
For instance, the southern survey area contains seven Mycenaean chamber tombs from the late Bronze Age. Their existence suggests a permanent settlement in the area that has never been discovered, James says.
Such remains have been long since concealed by overgrown wilderness, small villages and farms in the mountainous countryside.
New frontier on old ground
Artifacts reemerge from the soil as farmers cultivate the land, but finding clues in the diverse landscape is as challenging as it is rewarding, Cummings says.
“We trekked through wheat as tall as my shoulders, beautiful olive groves with soft mud or large boulders covering the ground, over and around artfully constructed terrace walls, up mountainsides, down riverbeds, and, for a few qualified students, a tiny bit of rock climbing,” Cummings says. “Collecting artifacts in those landscapes made each find that much more worth it.”While the field-walking teams did encounter tidy, plowed fields full of visible objects, they also had to navigate jagged limestone cliffs and scratchy Maquis thickets while enduring the summer heat.
“We told them that by the end of this experience they would be Amazons, and they were,” James says.
Some unexpected experiences included daily run-ins with spinous flowers and spiders.
“We had a joke about getting the first spider-web-to-the-face-with-your-mouth-open over with in the morning, because it happened without fail,” Cummings says. “And with the webs came the spiders! Some were smaller than a fingernail, some larger than a hand.”
But arachnids were a small hindrance to the rewards of their work.
“I found it extremely gratifying to discover pieces of the past in every hiding place,” Cummings says. “The more we find, the more we can learn.”
Taken from their carefully documented hiding places, the artifacts are analyzed back at the team’sapotheke—a Greek term archaeologists use for the place they store and study artifacts.
At the apotheke, James and colleague Scott Gallimore of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, “read” each ceramic fragment—known as a sherd—of pottery. Reading entails identifying the original shape, date and function of the piece. Valuable artifacts, such as coins, are taken to the Argos museum for safekeeping.
All finds are described in a database, washed and photographed. The best pieces, which give the most information about the history and use of the survey area, are catalogued for publication. They are used to test the researchers’ interpretations, James explains.
“When you find something, it’s wonderful, but it’s only wonderful until you do the recording and interpretation,” she says. “Then it becomes evidence and starts to mean something within its historical context.”
In summer 2015, 14 students will return to WARP to survey the Mycenaean cemetery area. Perhaps they will discover the location of the lost settlement among the olive trees.
“It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning, knowing that you are going to make some discovery,” James says. “Even if it’s just a sherd of pottery, it’s a connection to the past.”
Meagan Taylor is a CU-Boulder alumna and freelance writer in Boulder, Colorado.