I Can Dig It – 3 Weeks for my 3rd Season at the Athenian Agora

At the end of my final week at the Athenian Agora Excavations 2017 in Greece, it’s only just occurred to me the irony of the fact that, in my third season participating as a volunteer on the excavation, I have spent exactly three weeks digging there out of the usual full eight weeks.

The reason for my short tenure is simple: after finishing my first year of graduate school, I felt that it was not only important that I participate in an excavation that the University of Michigan sponsored, but also that I get to work on an excavation where we were digging things that were relevant to my research interests – domestic space and ceramic analysis. Of course, I can study ceramic analysis just about anywhere, and have not missed the opportunity to use the Agora as a place to refine my skills (what little there are). But I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as the summer continues and as I make my way to Olynthos on July 1st.

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View of the Acropolis on the morning of my last day at the Agora, 6:45 a.m.

While my participation at the Agora was cut short because of my desire to split my time between excavations this year, I have felt that this season has been my most rewarding season yet and only hope to be able to continue returning in the future – and hopefully move up the ranks to assistant supervisor at some point. Here are some (non-specific) highlights.

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Trenches Beta Theta East (foreground) and West (background)

Setting up the total station. One of the biggest transferable lessons I learned this season was something that I had already learned in the past, but had somewhat forgotten during my brief hiatus from the excavation in 2016. However, once I was assigned to help set up the total station one day during my first rotation (in trench Beta Zeta), I quickly recalled how everything worked. I have only had a chance to shoot points with the Leica rod on occasions when we would open and close baskets (or new contexts within the trench), but other uses for the total station included taking points on cool finds that were to-be-catalogued, taking points for cross-sections (which would be used to later draw cross-sections), and other things. Although the Agora is organizationally different from Olynthos (i.e. the Agora is an open-area excavation as opposed to using the 5 by 5 meter squares of the “Wheeler method“), I hope that knowing how to work the total station will be useful on other projects I work on in the future.

Ceramic washing, sorting, and analysis. As someone who is very interested in the analysis of ceramics (as I have probably mentioned in previous posts), this was a very enjoyable part of my three weeks at the Agora. I only was able to do ‘pottery washing’ for a few days out of the three weeks, but I made sure to ask questions about what was happening, what I was looking at, and sometimes even technical aspects of the reading process (which the supervisors/assistant supervisors ultimately do). For example, I asked about how one supervisor chose to save certain pieces out of an entire context of objects. The short answer was that she chose things that could give her a date of some sort, like certain types of decoration, and diagnostic pieces that could be linked to vessels that might be indicative of the date of the context. In addition, she chose to keep things that were generally interesting and things that could serve as a sample of a larger group of ceramics, like tile or marble.

Of course, the same conventions as the Agora might not be followed in other excavations like Olynthos, where the seasons are shorter and the pressure is on to learn as much as we can about the site in a much briefer time frame. Moreover, at Olynthos, there is a ‘ceramics processing team’ that goes through all of the pottery that comes out during excavation, so the diggers might not even be exposed to it except when they pull it out of the ground and when we meet to discuss what has been going on in the different areas (survey, ceramics, excavation) throughout the day. Things like being able to recognize the different glazes (black, red, byzantine) and fabrics (tile vs pottery) of ceramics as well as the appropriate dates for glazes and decorative patterns might be a transferable skill, but I don’t claim to be anywhere near an expert (yet).

And, of course, digging! (Pictured: me sweeping aka 75% of my last week; Not pictured: me actually digging) The first two weeks were great because I actually got back into the swing of things pretty easily – perfecting my scarp, moving loads of dirt, finding some cool stuff (but more often being adjacent to people who were finding cool stuff elsewhere). I can’t disclose what /sorts/ of cool stuff I found myself, but I can say that it was definitely a rewarding experience. Plus, if I actually am going to be on the ceramics team at Olynthos, I can at least say that I got to dig for part of the summer. I definitely have the sore limbs and extremities to prove it…

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Even though the work was tough, I started to feel just how out of shape I really was after bending over and squatting far more than usual, the heat was brutal (but we actually got to go home early because of 100+ degree heat on my last two days!), and the dirt was literally everywhere, I can honestly say that there’s probably no place I’ve ever felt more at home than at the Athenian Agora. I’m definitely going to miss it and all of the people – the old and (some of) the new – but now it’s time for the next archaeological adventure.

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Trench Omicron Omicron (OO), where I spent week 3
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Trench Beta Zeta (BZ), where I spent weeks 1 and 2

When in Doubt, Throw Some Pots

I’m hoping lots of people will be intrigued enough by the title of this post to read it… But alas, if you know anything about how pottery is made, you will know that I was not, in fact, throwing pots in the literal sense (although that may have been fun, too).

In January, I heard from a little birdie (aka one of my cohort-mates) that she was signed up for a six-week pottery throwing class and instantly became intrigued. I had always been interested in the iconography of pottery – especially those styles and themes typical of Archaic and Classical Greece – but it was not until this term that I started to think more about the forms, functions, and general make-up of pottery. She thought it would be a really good opportunity to go and learn how pottery was made, and I agreed. So I signed up. And I loved it.

For $190-ish for a six week, two-hour a week class, we learned so much and I wish that I had had the time to go in for some extra practice (since the course fee included an extra 12 hours of studio time outside of class). All of my pots came out looking pretty similar to one another – small, sort of round bowls – until I learned how to make larger vessels like plates and large bowls. I never quite got the hang of pulling (where you stretch the clay upwards to make taller shapes, which would in turn become more bulbous shapes, like jugs and honeypots), but I was content with what I had learned in such a short amount of time.

In addition to learning the basics, I felt that it was such a wonderful escape every week to go and put all of my energy into learning these pottery throwing techniques. It wasn’t anything like the work I had to do in the office – no reading, writing, or even really thinking required. You just grabbed your hunk of clay, sat down, and let the wheel and your hands work their magic (to the best of your ability). Even when your work totally sucked and didn’t turn out the way you wanted, it was still so much fun, and I hope to be able to do it again in the future.

As it relates to ancient ceramics, I feel as though I’ve learned so much about that inadvertently. Our pottery throwing instructor, Nancy, was not super familiar with ancient pottery – though she was super excited to hear about our experiences in the field and as PhD students venturing into an archaeological experiment with her class. I think that this class has given me a real understanding of the amount of effort, time, and technical knowledge required for throwing pottery on the wheel. Especially as I struggled with the (relatively simple?) technique of pulling and stretching my clay into a taller shape, I could only imagine the huge lebetes gamikoi of Greece and Italy, which must have required an immense amount of skill to produce.

It has given me such an appreciation for ancient ceramics, and makes me want to hone my pottery throwing skills a little more so that I can replicate something from the ancient world (I’d love to make a pyxis – with a lid!) in the future. The friend I took the class with made a Carthaginian lamp that turned out so nicely, especially after it had been fired.

I highly recommend taking a pottery throwing class if you ever get the chance and are even remotely interested in ancient ceramics – it can be so eye opening (and a really nice break from Real Work)! Has anyone done anything similar before? What were your thoughts? I’d love to know about other people’s experiences!