A Multi-Period Sanctuary Site in Greece



One area of the Ismenion Hill, showing just a sample of our walls

The Day of Archaeology dawned in Thebes on a hectic day on site. Members of the Thebes Excavation Synergasia Project are gearing up to enter the last week of on-site work, and we’ve found ourselves spread all over our lovely hill, winding down a number of trenches and strategically planning for how we’re going to wash all of our pottery. Today, like any other, was split between excavation and processing of finds in our work/storage room. Some of the team spends the afternoon with buckets of the aforementioned dirty pottery, others work through the day’s notes and small finds, and I’ve been responsible for the water flotation on all of our season’s soil samples.

For those who haven’t seen this process in action, it essentially involves placing a large sieve and some netting into the top of a large container of water, and dumping a bucket of soil on top. As you work through the sample with your hands, the soil (now mud) dissolves into the water, sinking to the bottom of the container, and many of the organic remains float to the water’s surface; these can range from small sticks and roots, to charcoal, seeds, or various bones (just to name a few). All of these materials hold important clues that help us examine things like diet and subsistence—aspects of life for which we might not otherwise find evidence. I joke that this is the best way to spend an afternoon after a hot day in the field, because you get both the benefits of a hose with cold water and excellent hand exfoliation. Both of these things are true, but what I really enjoy is seeing all of the materials that come out in the flotation and its residue—especially from areas I’ve dug myself. Though I always take a quick peek through as I’m floating the samples, I ultimately lay them out to dry, package them up, and save them for the experts to pore over with trained hands and microscopes.

In Thebes, the team is working on the Ismenion Hill—once the site of the sanctuary to Ismenion Apollo, for whom the foundations of a temple are still extant. The site itself is over 15,000 m2 in area, and we have several smaller areas in which we’re currently at work. Piecing together materials from the city as a whole, as well as our own site, is tricky for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is the fact that modern city lies squarely over the extent of the ancient site. Regardless of whether you’re working on Mycenaean or Byzantine materials, this poses a challenge, as it prevents excavation of large swathes of land. It also reflects the second complicating factor in our interpretations, which is the rich history and continuity of occupation in Thebes. Although it’s not a site that often springs to the minds of tourists visiting the surrounding regions, Thebes is an important location over a vast chronological spectrum. For our own team, this means that we’re not only trying to uncover what remains of the foundations of the archaic Temple, but we’re also sorting through a maze of Byzantine residential walls, trash pits, and early Christian graves.


The view I have peeking out of one of our trash pits–or bothroi–where I spent some time drawing a portion of a wall

To help make sense of it all, the team employs a number of strategies. These range from geophysical exploration of the hill (micro topography, magnetic and electromagnetic surveys, resistivity, and ground penetrating radar), to faunal and skeletal analysis, paleobotanical analysis, ceramic analysis, residue analysis, and cataloging everything digitally.  This season we already have over 2000 photographs and other thousands of digital files for our database.  We’re also using photogrammetry to create 3D imagery for all the features on site. For my own work, the project in Thebes is an example of important trends in archaeology that I will be working through myself. It is a case study in a nuanced, interdisciplinary, and multi-faceted exploration of a site that has long been known for only a small handful of moments—or legendary figures—(think Oedipus, Herakles, Dionysus, and Epaminondas) in an otherwise exciting and important history. It represents the opportunity for community outreach–with events like a Kid’s Day on local scale, and the addition of  greater publicity and interaction with site on a global scale–and the interpretation of a complex, multi-period site that treats all of those periods with equal interest and emphasis.


Some of our Kids’ Day participants, deciding whether they’ve found a piece of pottery or a rock


The Thebes Excavation Synergasia Project is run under the directorship of Alexandra Charami, Kevin Daly, Pari Kalamara, and Stephanie Larson, with the support and cooperation of Bucknell University, the 9th Ephoreia of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Thebes, the 21st Ephoreia of Byzantine Antiquity in Chalkis, and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Further information can be found here or on the group’s facebook page.