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Day 1

By 1:30, we’re comparing marks. Most of us were completely noobs this morning. Six hours of excavating later, we’ve learned the meaning of the word ‘backfill’. We’ve all learned the value of a sharp trowel. Everyone of us is bleeding from somewhere, and I’m realizing it was a mistake to leave my first aid kit at home.
The bus dropped us off at 7:30 after a rushed breakfast. Because our vehicle is a gigantic Mercedes bus, it can’t handle the final kilometer of difficult dirt road that leads up to the site, so we march the last kilometer on foot, kicking up dry red dust as we pass hundreds of olive trees that are just now beginning to bloom woith small, embryonic fruit so green and squishy and unremarkable we can’t believe the things will actually some day become garnishes for martinis. Pylos is part of the Kalamata region, which has given its name to the famous Kalamata olive (picture to come). These will be harvested in late November as crowds of farmers walk through their groves, beating the trees, using a method that probably hasn’t changed much in several thousand years. We have depictions of the olive harvest going back at least that far.

The famous olive trees of Kalamata

The olive trees are safe for today. Our prey is pottery and a rock wall. Only the mice and centipedes that inhabit our plot of land have reason to fear our trowels. Our site is only a few kilometers south of the famous Palace of Nestor (which was not actually Nestor’s palace but, well, these names seem to stick). Despite the proximit, our site, Iklaina, was likely a completely separate habitation from the Palace. The Palace likely served as the central government for this chiefdom, while Iklaina acted as a sort of capital city for the region to the south, subservient to the Palace government but still maintaining a degree of autonomy, something akin to the federal system in the United States.

Michael Cosmoplous, the project head, takes us to the top of a mound near the excavation. From here, I can see for miles, down to the water, far in the west, to the Palace itself, to the north, to the mountain range to the south that protected this small settlement. I can understand why people chose to settle here. The area is particularly fertile, for Greece, and provides considerable visual warning of any invading force. An army would be spotted several days out, as would any attacking navy.

The view to the west. No one is sneaking up on you with this view.

The view to the west. No one is sneaking up on you with this view.

We spend the day playing in a sandbox. A very large, ancient sandbox that is actually mostly composed of clay, and hasn’t seen the light of day for thousands of years. A sandbox with the potential to change our understanding of Greek, and by extension, human history. A sandbox populated by dozens of volunteers, professors, and workmen. But still, a glorified sandbox, and our primary activity consists of moving large amounts of earth from the ground into a large pile that grows considerably as the day wanes.

My little section of the sandbox is composed of clay. I break off a chunk from the baulk that we’ve carved and savor the sticky feeling, as I imagine Euphronius must have before potting his masterpieces. “I love the feeling of this stuff,” I say romantically, to no one in particular. What I fail to realize, but soon learn well enough, is that digging in clay is FUCKING BRUTAL. Even hauling the pickaxe I make slow progress and blister my hands to pieces. By the end I’m cursing every clay pot in existence with every swing of the pickaxe.

Adults, many with postgraduate degrees, playing in a sandbox

Adults, many with postgraduate degrees, playing in a sandbox

Debbie, Michael’s wife and unofficial den mother for our tribe, stands on the baulk and looks down at me with concern as I maniacally hack away at my sworn enemy, the clay. “I guess you’re the destruction guy,” she says.

I shrug. “I have anger issues with the clay”
When we finish I’m tired enough to fall asleep on my feet. But there’s a trip to a nearby beach to man up for, and our usualy six course dinner overlooking the Bay of Navarino, and class to stay awake for, and ouzo to drink in the evening. And I realize the participation fees were worth every penny,

 

 

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