Minoan civilization

Archaeology in the Mediterranean: do not drown if you can

On July 11th this year I was in Eastern Crete. In the morning Elisa and I went to Agios Nikolaos to visit Vera Klontza-Jaklova and her team  doing preparation work on the finds from Priniatikos Pyrgos. As always, it was instructing to see material from other research projects and discussing about ceramic finds with the actual thing in your hand is just so much better. Then we headed towards Priniatikos Pyrgos the site, that sits nicely between two sandy beaches just a few kilometers east from Agios Nikolaos. Swimming in the Aegean is one of the many privileges we have as “adoptive citizens” of Crete. After lunch we slowly moved to Mochlos, a Minoan settlement that is partly built on a very small isle, 100 meters away from the coast. There’s a small boat that will bring you on the isle ‒ and pick you up when, after visiting the archaeological site, you ring the bell of the chapel built on the shore. The best part is sitting at one of the bars on the main shore, drinking a φραπέ and looking to those busy Minoans across the minuscule stretch of water.


The modern village of Mochlos seen from the Minoan site on the islet


The title of this post has nothing to do with the waters of the Mediterranean, nor underwater archaeology for that matter, but rather with the reflections I have been making in the days before going to Agios Nikolaos, Priniatikos Pyrgos and Mochlos. On Sunday I had the privilege of being interviewed by Let’s Dig Again about my experience as an Italian archaeologist abroad. During the live broadcast, Cioschi suggested that some of what I said about being careful not to drown in Mediterranean archaeology could be good material for this very post. And here I am, one week later, still with the same motto: do not drown.

It’s not just the sheer size of the storage buildings filled with hundreds of thousands of finds even for single archaeological sites (millions and millions if taken all together), the unmanageable amount of published and unpublished literature even when restricted to small geographical regions and specific chronological periods, the ever increasing difficulties and costs of fieldwork for Mediterranean archaeology. That would be enough to have an headache and give up for good. Rather, I am increasingly worried about the heavy burden of tradition, both “old” and “new”, so to speak. The excavation site of the Byzantine Quarter in Gortyna is only meters away from the 1904-excavated temple of Apollo Pythios, for which we have detailed diaries of Federico Halbherr, the founding father of Italian archaeology in the Mediterranean ‒ and that’s roughly 110 years of studies that seem to stand against you, with the epigraphy and monumental archaeology en vogue until the mid-20th century and then the gradual explosion of modern positivist Mediterranean archaeology with all our stratigraphy and chronotypology and political-historical framework and Roman empire and that. I only study a subset of this, a slice from a bigger cake really: ceramic finds.


Microphotograph of a ceramic body ‒ a red-slipped dish I still don’t know much about, labeled GQB CER 636.1


Writing about the “cooks”

My name is Sandra and I am an archaeologist currently dedicated to my Phd Thesis. Today, July 26th, I’m writing. My office is in Barcelona, very close to the beach. In hot and humid days such as today, you can even smell the salty see in every corridor of the building. My aim for today is to write a big chunk of the chapter I’m working on these days, which is the spatial analysis of a site called “Artisans’ Quarters” in Mochlos, Crete (Bronze Age). And trying to scape the temptation to jump into the sea!

By “spatial analysis” I mean something pretty simple: in a given settlement, I identify where people performed specific activities and then I see if people did mingle a lot or, on the contrary, their everyday lifes developed in segregated spaces. I am specially interested in the cooks, those people who had to cook everyday to ensure the survival of the group. So I’ve basically spent the last years trying to find kitchens, hearths, cooking pots, querns, faunal remains… to have a glimpse of their lifes. But, for my Phd thesis, I work with published materials, which means that my quest is basically in the libraries and work is done in front of a computer.

This year is being specially hard because I must finish my thesis and cannot dedicate time to the fun part of the work: “the field”. Normally, every summer I participate in different excavation projects in Crete, where the office dissapears and you get “to touch soil”. Now I miss it. I miss my friends, I miss the landscape, I miss the work, and I miss Greece. Hopefully, next summer I will be able to resume my duties there, until then… writing, writing, writing.

My archaeological day

My archaeological day

Archaeology is Adventure – Even When You End up in the Office

People like to think about the life of archaeologists as a very adventurous endeavour. They are right, except that in my experience is has mainly to do with extreme logistics, rather than dark dungeons and holy relics.

Two weeks ago, I had started thinking about what to write in my Day of Archaeology post. I was already in Gortyna, Crete, to study ceramic finds for my PhD. I spent my days in a sunny and dusty storage building, classifying and drawing late Roman and early Byzantine potsherds. Something very normal. No adventure involved, but still I was in Crete, one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Every day looked the same, with the exception of Sunday (afternoon). Occasional excitement for a few cooking pots, a painted jug. “Fun” counting and weighing sherds one by one, trying to develop new ways to assess depositional history. Not so different from what they told us last year from Knossos, just one hour of driving from Gortyna.

4th to 5th century cooking pots – The Day of Archaeology I had imagined before THE call

Then, on Tuesday 19th June 2012, ten days ago, I got a phone call. THE phone call. The phone call that turns my life upside down. And my 29th June 2012, Day of Archaeology, became totally different from what I had imagined.

I was being hired as museum assistant at the Ministry of Culture in Italy. A permanent position. Il posto fisso, as we say in Italy. If you think of Italian bureaucracy as a slow and inefficient monster, you have to adjust your views, drastically. I was asked to be in Rome in a few days to sign the contract. I had to leave Crete in less than 24 hours. Pack half of my stuff, and leave the other half there, together with my car and tons of potsherds waiting to be studied. Poor Alessandro, who was with me in Gortyna, moved to Athens instead of spending two weeks alone in the Mesara. I am lucky, and I have some good friends in Rome. I spent 5 days in Rome waiting to sign the contract. I went to two international conferences, visited the Soprintendenza office where ArcheoFOSS took place only two weeks ago, attended the Baptism of a friends’ baby and met many friends. That’s the adventurous everyday life of an archaeologist in Rome.

On Monday 25th June, I signed the contract it the magnificent Ministry headquarters palace. And I took a train from Rome to Genoa on the same day. On Tuesday, I did my first working day, at the office of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Liguria, waiting to move to my destination: the archaeological site of Albintimilium, close to France. The place where Nino Lamboglia started his pioneering study of (Late) Roman pottery more than 60 years ago.

Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Liguria, Palazzo Reale, Genova

And so comes my Day of Archaeology. At the office, making phone calls to organise my stay in the Riviera di Ponente, speaking with new colleagues, taking instructions on the tasks I will be doing next week, joining the trade union and above all trying to get an idea of what is happening to my life on the day of my 29th birthday.

In my 10 years doing archaeology, I’ve seen that you never know what is going to happen and you have to be always prepared to change strategy to follow your path. It is true, archaeology is adventure, and you cannot turn it off.

So many sherds, so little time

The Cretan sun is shining, the olive trees are rustling in the breeze and the cicadas are chirruping incessantly. We, however, are sitting in the Stratigraphic Museum at Knossos looking at sherds. The Museum houses archaeological material excavated in the area by archaeologists working for the British School at Athens over the course of a century: from Sir Arthur Evans’s famous excavations at the Palace to material collected over the last few years. With its extensive comparative collection it makes it the perfect place to study pottery.

The Stratigraphic Museum at Knossos

The sherds we are looking at today were collected by the Knossos Urban Landscape Project in 2005-2008. The valley in which the Palace sits was divided into 20m grid squares and a collection taken from each one. This is how survey projects rather than excavations usually work: material is collected from the surface across a wide area. Rather than digging ourselves we rely on agricultural activities such as ploughing to bring material to the surface. Our job now is to make sense of what we have collected. After separating out the pottery and washing it we lay the sherds out on tables for a first look and divide them into periods spanning the settlement history of the valley (Prehistoric, Hellenic, Roman, Post-Roman).

Sherds laid out for sorting by Angeliki Karagianni (background)

The interesting sherds (relatively speaking – those with decoration or which are diagnostic of a particular type of vessel) are then scanned and given a unique number in a database.

Katy Soar scanning sherds

The specialists examine these sherds and enter more information about them. We are trying to establish what sort of vessels the sherds came from and whether they can be closely dated. We can then plot this information on the map of the survey area to add to the existing picture of how people occupied this valley for the last 5000 years and more: where were the central places, where did they bury their dead, did the settlement grow or shrink over time? I am looking at the Middle Minoan pottery; Antonis Kotsonas is in charge of the Iron Age sherds.

Andrew Shapland (foreground) and Antonis Kotsonas studying the survey material

Overseeing the project, and trying to keep track of over 400,000 sherds is one of the project directors, Prof. Todd Whitelaw.

Todd Whitelaw and his crystal ball

Today has been a normal day: sorting, scanning and studying sherds. The Stratigraphic Museum is part of the British School at Athens’s permanent base at Knossos, which also includes accommodation and a library. I’ll be off there shortly to work on my book and check my work emails. I’m on leave from the British Museum, where I’m Greek Bronze Age curator, and so this complements my day job perfectly. I’ve just finalised the programme for a Knossos Study Day at the Museum and will send that off for distribution today: ten archaeologists who have worked at Knossos will be describing their work; some of them are working on other projects here at the moment. No doubt the Cretan sunshine and food will seem far away on an inevitably rainy day in November but at least I won’t be surrounded by cicadas and scrappy survey sherds.