University of Maryland

AROURA Project – archaeological reconnaissance in Greece

Molly Greenhouse, Teaching Assistant, ARCH 397, UMBC

The AROURA project (Archaeological Reconnaissance of Uninvestigated Remains of Agriculture) is an archaeological survey of the plain around the 13th century BCE fortress of Glas, Boiotia, in central mainland Greece. It aims to detail the Mycenaean hydraulic, drainage, and land-improvement works around the fortress, and to search for traces of the expected extensive agricultural system they served. AROURA is an official collaboration between the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and the 9th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities (IX EPCA) of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, based in Thebes, Dr. Michael Lane (UMBC) and Dr. Alexandra Charami (IX EPCA) co-directors.

The survey and surface collection phases of the project began in October of 2010, and have since been completed. The entire project area was divided into grid squares at the outset to allow investigators to conduct geophysical survey easily and systematically across large portions of the plain, using techniques like magnetometry to detect underground “anomalies” that might be traces of previous land use. In certain grid squares, both in the plain and at the nearby settlement site of Aghia Marina Pyrghos, finds were collected from the surface of the ground too. Our goal this season is to organize, catalog, and analyze the many finds, mainly pottery, collected during previous years.


All of the finds are stored at the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, so during the week, we travel there from our home in the village of Kokkino to work on the collection. Currently, we are working on the pottery from surface collection at Aghia Marina Pyrghos. After labeling each piece and ensuring that it is properly catalogued, we start to focus on more in-depth analysis of the pottery. In the lab, we carefully examine the artifacts and record basic information about the size and shape of the pieces, as well as other more detailed information. We have been closely examining the pottery for mineral inclusions in its fabric (the constituents of the clay from which it is made). Examining hundreds of individual pieces of pottery with a magnifying glass to spot inclusions can be tedious work. However, by collecting this kind of information, we hope to be able to draw conclusions about the periods represented by the pottery and other artifacts at the settlement and where the pottery originated, as well as to hypothesize about how it made its way to the settlement.




Working at the museum in Thebes has been wonderful so far, and it definitely has had its perks. For example, this week, after Prof. Vassileios L. Aravantinos, the former Superintendent of the IX EPCA, dropped in for a surprise visit, we were invited to tour some of the ongoing excavations of the Mycenaean palace beneath downtown Thebes. We are excited to see what results the rest of this season will produce and how the project will expand and develop in future seasons!

Apulum Mithraeum III Project in Alba Iulia 2014

The archaeological campaign of 2013 on the Cartier Cetate site, findspot Mithraeum III, from Alba Iulia, Alba District, is part of a multi-annual research project developed by the National Museum of Unification.

Alba Iulia worked together with the Princeton University (USA), Babeş-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca and the Institute of Archaeology and History of Art Cluj-Napoca. The main scope of this campaign, carried out in July – August 2013 and 2014, was to systematically uncover the building identified in a 2008 rescue excavation as the sanctuary of Mithras, using a complex, interdisciplinary approach.The investigations led to the identification of a complex stratigraphy, consisting of several layers belonging to different chronological phases, which were dated according to the archaeological evidence. Besides the structure of the sanctuary, which has a NW – SE orientation, the excavations also uncovered a large refuse pit that predates the building and a part of a rectangular timber structure, both belonging to the Roman period, as well as a part of a medieval house.

The recovered inventory consists of: altars, architectural elements, pottery, objects made of glass, iron, bronze, stone, coins and a large quantity of animal bones. Sets of palynological, archaeobotanical, archaeozoological, soil and radiocarbon samples were also collected.

Our team is two weeks into the second season of the Mithraeum III Project and so far, progress is being made. We have made important finds and are moving in the right direction to understand several layers of different occupation occurring on site. The hope of the site is to unearth the mithraeum structure in it’s entirety and to understand the human occupation surrounding. This year we have a geophysical science student collecting geophysical data of unexcavated areas near the excavation and we hope to understand what is happening around the Mithraeum.

We are staying in the University of Alba Iulia’s accommodation, about twenty minutes from our site, and our day begins around 7:30am and we work until 4:30pm with lunch and a few breaks in between from Monday to Saturday (Saturday is a half-day). Sunday is our free day in which we go to select locations in the Transylvanian region, such as the mines of Rosa Montana or the Roman capital of Sarmizegetusa as our team visited last year.

As the Student Education Coordinator, I have had the pleasure of working with the directors to plan a weekly lecture for the students and creating a manual for quick archaeological information. This has been a sensational project to be a part of and this season promises to answer many questions our team holds. Thank you to all members of the excavation team, universities, museums, and the city of Alba Iulia for your support!

Archaeology Stories and Discovery

Students Natalie and Shaun. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

In the 1995 film Pulp Fiction, the characters chase after a briefcase, the contents of which are never shown on screen. Instead, when the characters open the case to peer inside, the camera captures their awed faces from the case’s perspective, bathed in an otherworldly glow (a very similar effect to how we photographed our field school students on our last day in the field). The audience never discovers what is inside, but it is understood to be so important that it drives the plot and momentum of the story. Director Quentin Tarintino has said that anything could be in the case, whatever the viewer can imagine. For every audience member, it will be different. In story-telling, the use of the briefcase in the film is a device is called a MacGuffin, and it stands for an object that motivates the characters to move the plot along its trajectory. To use a more archaeologically-themed fiction, the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.

Students Sabrina and Aleks. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

I explain all of that in order to ask this: When we tell our stories in archaeology, especially to the public, how do we use the artifacts?

The artifacts are our discoveries, and that is what drives us as archaeologists. It is what sells our stories to the public. It’s hard to ignore that the sense of discovery provides the attraction and romance to archaeology, particularly in popular media (see Shanks and Tilley 1992). Even the publicity poster for the Day of Archaeology 2013 invites others to “discover the past.” As I sit in the Archaeology in Annapolis lab today, working on the site report for our field work, my main concern has been how to present our discoveries without reducing them to a plot device.

Students Norma, Katie, and Isobel. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

The past three years, Archaeology in Annapolis at the University of Maryland, College Park, has been excavating at the Wye House Plantation on the Eastern Shore. In 2010, fellow PhD student Benjamin Skolnik discovered the locations of two slave quarters that would have housed a portion of the hundreds of enslaved on the property before Emancipation and the buildings’ destruction in the early twentieth century. We discovered them again, in the form of their remains when we excavated that summer, defining the boundaries of the structures as best we could. We returned from our third field season earlier this month, and our jobs are currently in the lab, processing the discoveries.

I mean processing in a few different ways. As I sit here in the lab today, a volunteer student Lisa is washing and rebagging the artifacts from Wye House. She carefully scrubs the glass, ceramics, bones, and nails with a toothbrush and separates them into categories. Each bag of artifacts corresponds to a context from the field, its location in vertical and horizontal space. She’s learning to identify the type or style of ceramics—which helps us determine the date of each deposit—but only occasionally needs confirmation of her identification skills. Lisa is processing the artifacts and the information that is going to aid in our research. She’s discovering that right now.

Students Audrey, Ian, and Angie. Source: Benjamin Skolnik

While Lisa works, I’ve been sitting at one of the lab computers, digitizing a drawing of our most thought-provoking discovery this year. When we opened up our units this summer, and instructed our field school students in how to excavate them, we told them what we expected to find. Still, the unopened unit is a source of untapped potential; like the briefcase, anything could be under the dirt, whatever the archaeologist can imagine. For every excavator, it will be different. We chose to place two side-by-side 5 x 5 ft. units in front of where we suspected the doorway of one living quarter to be. We hoped to find continuing evidence of West African spiritual practices.

Outside the doorway to a slave quarter attached to the Greenhouse on the same property, there was what is known as a spirit bundle or cache. They consist of assemblages of found and re-purposed objects that are part of a tradition that can be traced back to religious practices in West Africa. Material culturalists have found themes in African art such as motion, containment, and flash manifesting in wheels, bottles, mirrors, and boundaries (see Thompson 1984). In caches, they often include white objects, blue glass bottles, iron nails or other forms of metal. These objects are the vessels of sympathetic magic, which understands certain materials to possess power over the spiritual and natural worlds. What we found went beyond what we imagined, and we’re still unsure of what we’ve discovered. We still need to process.

The exposed surface of the assemblage. Source: Archaeology in Annapolis

Several round, flat artifacts lay on a horizontal axis in the two units, just inside where the quarter would have been and underneath the raised floor. There were the bases of blue bottles, one crushed, but many still intact. There was a spoked iron wheel and flattened metal cans. One area contained white objects. When we saw these things together, knowing why we were digging under the doorway in the first place, we stopped. Two field school students, Norma and Katie, measured and mapped the assemblage and we sent photographs to experts. Dr. Robin Poynor at the University of Florida advised us over e-mail, and we tucked our discovery away until next year, when we’ll hopefully better know how to proceed. Combined with deposits of iron farming implements we uncovered last year, these objects may be a shrine or alter to Ogun, a deity of iron and the forge. One piece of a bottle is molded in a way that divides it into four quarters, possibly invoking a crossroads or cosmogram. Now I’m tracing the drawing on the computer so that we can clean the image, highlight particular aspects, and make sense of what we’ve found.

An in-progress digital illustration of the assemblage. Drawn by Norma and Kate, digitized by Beth Pruitt

When did we discover the cache? Was it when we first noticed a number of round objects lying flat? Am I discovering it while I digitize my students’ drawing? Until we learn more, I don’t know that we have discovered it yet. The powerful sense of discovery that thrives in archaeology runs the risk of turning the artifacts into MacGuffins, the driving reason in the plot of our story. Discoveries draw in public attention and media, but they don’t tell much about archaeology and the process of learning what the artifacts mean after we leave the field. Like any other trope, the MacGuffin is a device that can be used to great effect, and as a graduate student with an interest in public archaeology, I’m still uneasily struggling with how to do it.

The discovery is not the artifact. Discovering is not a moment of finding the artifact. Discovery is an ongoing process of conversations and interactions that take the artifact from an object to a symbol. We could have easily seen bottle bases, pieces of iron, white ceramics, and taken them as unrelated scatter. By seeing if they fit together, we’re chasing a story where these artifacts are representative of a resistive religion that proliferated in the African Diaspora during slavery and beyond. That is the discovery, not the objects.

We might have discovered the two slave quarters three years ago, but we have rediscovered them every year since, and we continue to do so.

Archaeology in Annapolis maintains a blog, where you can learn more about Wye House and our excavations. If you can help us with our discovery and understanding of this assemblage, please let us know!


Shanks, Michael, and Christopher Y Tilley
1992   Re-constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London; New York: Routledge.

Thompson, Robert Farris
1984   Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books.

Making Archaeologists

Matt Hagar, Beth Pruitt, and Lauren Hicks on the East Cove screen.

Matt Hagar, Beth Pruitt, and Lauren Hicks on the East Cove screen. Source: Kate Deeley

The weather report says that today is hot and humid. High 101° F.  Heat index near 110° F. The students of the 2012 Archaeology in Annapolis field school from the University of Maryland know that it will be a sweltering and tiring day as they walk through their morning haze to collect their equipment from storage. They also can’t wait to see what they will find today.

Two weeks ago, we were in Annapolis. In view of the Maryland state capitol building, we excavated in three backyards, exploring the connections of past tenants to the Naval Academy and to nineteenth century immigration to the United States. For the second half of the field school, we moved to the Wye House plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, home to a line of Edward Lloyds stretching back to the mid-seventeenth century. Here, the students chase the foundation walls of two slave quarters discovered last year.

South Long Green students.

South Long Green students. Source: Ben Skolnik

The site is separated into two parts. The South Long Green is located on the yard of the plantation, within sight of the Great House, and the home of the remains of a two-story brick slave quarter. The East Cove, where the students search for a building called the “Brick Row Quarter” on a historic map, is sheltered by a thicket of trees across the creek from the Long Green.

In running the field school, co-directors Kate Deeley, Ben Skolnik, and I recognize that we must perform a balancing act—prioritizing in turns the education of undergraduate students, our PhD dissertation research, and the communication of information to the public. It is a mixture of a classroom and training grounds. The instruction is as much somatic as it is intellectual, and the students have come a long way in their movements within the units, techniques with the trowel, and familiarity with the artifacts and their significance.

Richard Nyachiro with his measuring tape.

Richard Nyachiro with his measuring tape. Source: Ben Skolnik

The other element to add to the juggling show is motivation and good spirits, especially on a day like today.  The excitement grows as the brick rubble, glass, nails, and ceramic sherds coalesce into interpretations about where these buildings are situated on the landscape and in time. Despite this, the work is hard and the knowledge that Monday will be their last day to dig their units is beginning to settle in. Conversation is informal and playful—ranging from the childhood nostalgia of Pokémon to everyone’s top desert-island reading choices—and it helps the buckets of dirt go swiftly by.

Duncan Winterwyer with his root clippers.

Duncan Winterwyer with his root clippers. Source: Ben Skolnik

After lunch, the students are joined by Dr. Mark Leone and gather on the East Cove for the site seminars, which are held every Friday. The shade of dense trees is a relief.  One by one, the crew of each unit describes to the rest of the class the accomplishments and interpretations of that week. Using an extended folding ruler as a pointer, the crewmates take turns to indicate features, explain level changes, and point out soon-to-be-excavated artifacts.

It is a chance not only for the students to connect their unit to the others within the larger landscape, but also to proudly demonstrate their knowledge and achievements. They grow accustomed to fielding questions about the steps they took and the conclusions they continue to draw from their findings. After the students on the East Cove complete their tour, we move across the creek to the South Long Green.

Brittany Hutchinson with her shovel.

Brittany Hutchinson with her shovel. Source: Ben Skolnik

The students applaud their peers and create a rough circle in the shade of a tulip poplar tree. Though the environment is quite different, this is still a college class. There are weekly reading assignments, and each Friday afternoon the students discuss what they have read. The articles for today, focusing on race, class, gender, and identity in historical archaeology, are Barbara Little’s “She was… an Example to Her Sex” (1994), Maria Franklin’s “The Archaeological Dimensions of Soul Food: Interpreting Race, Culture, and Afro-Virginian Identity” (2001), and Theresa Singleton’s “Race, Class, and Identity among Free Blacks in the Antebellum South” (2001). The students direct the conversation, working through the topics of race, critical theory, politics, and the differences between an archaeology of gender and a feminist archaeology.

Like any other class, writing assignments provide a means for the students to individually articulate what they have learned. To balance this academic obligation with the project’s emphasis on  public outreach, the students contribute to the Archaeology in Annapolis blog. They demonstrate their comprehension of the work they complete in their units while also practicing their abilities to communicate this information to a general audience. Undergraduate Paige Diamond’s post, written today, highlights the discovery of the east wall of the two story quarter.

Julia Torres Vasquez and Molly Greenhouse create the American Plantation Gothic.

Julia Torres Vasquez and Molly Greenhouse create the American Plantation Gothic. Source: Ben Skolnik

Throughout the day, Ben pulls students aside to pose for “dirty archaeologist portraits.” He encourages them to take pride in their sweat-soaked, filthy appearance and take pictures with their field equipment. They take possession of this identity—archaeologists in the field. The portraits show the students as they are now at the end of the field school: trained archaeologists armed with the methods and knowledge that will allow them to contribute a unique perspective to this or any other field.

To see more archaeologist portraits from today, please visit our Flickr account. For more information about our excavations, please visit our blog.

Archaeology in Annapolis: Every Day is a Day of Archaeology

Student volunteers Ryan and Bill wash artifacts collected from Annapolis, Maryland. Source: Kate Deeley

Student volunteers Ryan and Bill wash artifacts collected from Annapolis, Maryland. Source: Kate Deeley

It is the last day of summer lab work for the Archaeology in Annapolis project. Out of the sun of the field and into the air conditioning, volunteer undergraduate students Bill and Ryan wash the artifacts gathered from this season’s efforts. Toothbrushes in hand, they dust off the delicate or brittle artifacts made of bone or iron and scrub the hardier finds with water. Free from dirt, the ceramics and glass pieces sometimes reveal maker’s marks and unseen decorations. These features will be eventually cataloged and aid in the analysis of the site as they can provide relative dates for the levels in which they were found. Under the guidance of graduate student Kate Deeley, the volunteers learn the basics of laboratory methods, while she and the other graduate students work on their own research—independent but each related to the Archaeology in Annapolis collective.

This Summer’s Work

Artifacts from the Pinkney House in Annapolis lay out to dry on screens. Source: Kate Deeley.

Artifacts from the Pinkney House in Annapolis lay out to dry on screens. Source: Kate Deeley.

Archaeology in Annapolis is a 30-year project, run out of the University of Maryland, College Park. Under the direction of Dr. Mark Leone, a staff of graduate students—Jocelyn Knauf, Amanda Tang, Kate Deeley, Benjamin Skolnik, and Beth Pruitt—manages annual field schools and lab work, which contribute to their individual dissertation research. In the summer, the field school spends three weeks in urban Annapolis, Maryland and three weeks at the Wye House plantation on the Eastern Shore. As Archaeology in Annapolis learns about the lives of past people, we strive to explore the stories of those whose names haven’t always made it into the history books, including enslaved African Americans and working class individuals.