Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’


July 2, 2009 Leave a comment

From the guidebook, it looked like the hostel wasn’t too far frm the station, though, as usual, the Turks continue to be allergic to posting street signs. After an hour, I was still wandering the streets of Cannakale, going from the guidebook to the landmarks around me. If that’s the Hotel Arthur, I’m way past where I should have turned, I thought. Three different people saw me struggling with the guidebook as I walked aimlessly up and down the street. At first I thought this was part of the usual Turkish hospitality. But no one seemed to have heard of the street I was looking for, and everyone told me to go in a different direction. FInally, I realized this was a game they play in Cannakale called “Let’s mess with the new guy.” Ha ha, Cannakale. Eventually, someone had in fact heard of both the street I was looking for and hte hostel I was staying at, and led me around a corner past a gorgeous Ottoman clocktower to a simple but clean hostel, the Yellow Rose Pension. The reception air was decorated almost entirely in British, Australian and New Zealand colors. Tributes to the Gallipolli campaing were everywhere. “Guess they get a lot of Aussies here,” I figured. I knew about Gallipoli, but it wasn’t a site that had any importance for me, and I was even something of a World War 1 buff.

The room my landlord led me to was small and simple, but had its own bathroom. This is by my standards, extremely luxurious. I know a lot of people will shudder at the idea of a room with nothing more than a desk and a small nighstand, but so long as I have enough room to exercise and access to an electrical outlet, I’m ecstatic. Simplicity, as close as I can get to it while lugging around a laptop, anyway, is exactly waht I’m looking for. The more austere the better. No television. No frig. No bathroom. Just a light and a mattress. Even paying for my own room is starting to seem like an almost unreasonable extravagance. But I like being able to leave my luggage unattended, and my electronics charging, so it’s the one luxury for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe at somepoint I’ll hazard the dorm living, but quite frankly I’m sure that once I do that I’ll say good-bye to the laptop and iPod.

Breakfast came at 7:30 the next morning, in the usual Turkish style: a hard-boiled egg, tea, sliced cucumber and tomato, and half a loaf of white bread. I wolf down everything, when I should be hoarding the bread for later instead of carb loading first thing. Seeing the names of two Australian women already signed up for the Troy tour, I decide on a lark to join as well. at 60 Turkish lira, its a bit much (about 30 Euro), but I’ve heard its hard to know what you’re seeing there without a guide, and the price includes transport to and from the site and the entrance fee. I know what you’re thinking: Vagabond is just signing up for a trip ’cause a couple of girls have. No, my uncharitable reader! Well…ok, yes, but its not quite as lacivious as you might think. The reality is I haven’t met a lot of other backpackers since setting out on my own, and I’ve been looking for a way to meet some fellow travellers. You never know who might be going your way.

I meet, oddly enough, a guy in business development for an Australian gold mining company who tells me about a number of divestitures they’re in the process of making. In my old life, this would have immediately set my antennae buzzing and I would have been peppering the poor bastard with questions in the vain hope of being able to extract a story from him. Now, I’m happy to ask a few polite questions and leave him in peace. There’s nothing quite like not having to worry about a job for a while.

Our guide at Troy speaks a version of English that’s barely comprehensible. I lament the liras I spend on the guided tour, since we only get a scant two hours with Gurka, the guide, and twenty minutes of that is spent at the gift shop. He is at least able to point out which walls belong to Troy 6, 7, 8 and 9, points us toward Schliemann’s test trench, and shows me the exact site where Priam’s treasure was found. He also shows me the main gate for Troy 7, the gate a horse would have had to come through. Folks, I hate to burst any mythological bubbles, but the only horse that’s making it through that gate is two guys dressed as the front and rear. If the Trojans got taken in by that ruse, they deserve to have their city destroyed.

Two Achaeans dressed as a horse: “Let us in!”
Trojans: “What? Aren’t you just two guys dressed as a horse?”
Achaeans: “Uh…no! Just a dolphin, ma’am.”
Trojans: “Well that’s alright then.”
Laocoon: “Assholes! It’s two guys dressed as a horse! Look, you can see the one guy’s belly button.”
Trojans: “Boo! You’re a party pooper, Laocoon! To the sea serpent pit with you!”
Laocoon: “Asshoooooole-”
Achaeans: “Yay! We mean…Moo! Wait no…neigh!”

Jokes about idiot Trojans aside, there is something eerie about walking the plains of Troy, and tracing the circumference of its walls. Never in my life did I think I would ever be able to match a place to the image I conjured in my mind when I first read the Iliad at 13. It’s a little difficult to recreate the Bronze Age settlement in your mind, overlaid as it is with Classical, Hellenistic and Roman cities. Gurka points out the seashells buried in the dirt beneath, indicated the point at which the level of the sea would have reached during one the earliest phases of settlement, what they call Troy II, about 2500 BC. The water’s edge would have lapped right up against the outer walls. According to Gurka and most of the tourist literature in Cannakale and Troy, the site was a natural stopping point for sailors going up the Dardanelles to the Black Sea. Bronze Age sailing technology did not have the capability to tack into the wind, and the winds at Troy usually come from the north, forcing any would be sailor up the Dardanlles to put in at Troy until a more favorable wind arose. Of course, the Trojans would be only too happy to allow your boat to moor in their harbor, feed, and shelter you until such time arrived. That’ll be 10,000 lira, please, payable in advance.

Try as I might, I just can’t picture huge armies doing battle here. The place is so SMALL. Troy 2 is only about 900m2. And although Troy 7 is larger, it’s not THAT much larger. Two, maybe three thousand invaders if they circled the walls completely. Hardly the image one gets from the movie.

Of course, fate and chance being what it is, I do in fact chat up the two Australian girls on the tour from the Yellow Rose Pension, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re heading my way. Just like that, we quickly form a quartet with another Aussie, Alex, travelling north, agreeing to catch the ferry up the Dardanelles to Istanbul together.

Later that day, on the girls’ advice, I take the Gallipolli tour as well. More on that story later.



June 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Another quick one today, and unfortunately don’t have time for the poetics. I blitzed Bergama (Pergamum) yesterday and today. Of note: was approached by a rug merchant who noticed that I look Italian. He lives half the year in Italy. Invites me in for tea (chai, in Turkish, guess that’s where that word comes from) which he in fact does not have. Tries to convince me to buy a rug. Tells me stories of when he used to be a looter. Now sticks to selling knock-offs. I approve, but don’t buy a knock-off.

Stayed at the Gobi Pension for 20 lira a night, about 14 dollars, and it came with breakfast and an internet connection. Stay there, Gobi and his son Mustafa are very helpful. Spartan room with no TV (what would I watch) and no bathroom (down the hall, just fine on the heat and water pressure). Can’t beat the price. Next day I jog through town, startling locals who have no idea what this “jogging” or perhaps “yogging” is, but see that I’m just…running, for some predetermined distance.

I run under the acropolis of Pergamum. I can’t tell you how absolutely cool that is. The next day I stomp around the ruins of the Temple of Zeuss (Iklaina kids, you should remember this one…Hellenistic style? famous friezes?) Little disappointing, since the friezes were carted off to Berlin, but the ex-looter tells me this is for the best since guys like him would have, well, looted them.

I tackle both the Asclepion and the Acropolis, almost by myself, almost no other tourists around. It’s eerie…I go early in the morning or just before close, and it’s just me, alone, walking silently through these famous ruins, these ampitheaters…some of the most stunning sites on the planet, and it’s all MINE, for a few minutes. I just want to post one quick picture of the ampitheater from the Acropolis to give you an idea of how jaw-droppingly weird this site is:



Pretty wild, huh? You have the entire planet as your backdrop.

The big excitement was when a bus caught fire while I was waiting at the station, and we all ran out with the extendable fire hoses to put it out. I wonder what the odds are? Does this happen every weekend?

Nothing more to report. Been spending most of my time on buses or in stations the last two days. I’ll have a post tomorrow after I get done with Troy. Yeah, I’m going to Troy, baby. I plan to finally make use of the line “back off man, I’m an archaeologist.” Hopefully they won’t look too closely at my credentials.

The Elgin Marbles: aka, Raiders of the Parthenon

June 21, 2009 2 comments

You ever see that Eddie Izzard bit about the UK surreptitiously hiding a few countries behind its back after the end of World War Two?
“What’s that you’ve got there?”
“Oh it’s just…India and a number of other countries.”
“Give it back.”
“Fine…wait, we need the Falkland Islands…for strategic sheep purposes.”

That’s a bit like what’s going on with the Elgin Marbles.
Travelling with archaeologists, you tend to hear about everyone’s personal villain. Some people hate Arthur Evans for reconstructing Knossos, some hate Schlieman…but EVERYONE hates Lord Elgin. Elgin had the bright idea to strip-mine the Parthenon for its friezes and have them shipped back to England as part of his personal effort to, ahem, ‘preserve’ antiquity. Once bankrupt, he sold them to the British government, and today they sit in a museum in London, of all places, that has absolutely no right to them.
Oh wait, that’s right, Elgin got permission from the Ottoman Empire, which was occupying Greece at the time. That’s a bit like saying I’ve got the right to my collection of French art I got by bribing the Nazi security guard.
C’mon, Britain. We’ve got a great new museum in Athens in which to house them. Time to give them back.

Parting Ways

June 21, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s a quarter to eight in the morning in Iraklion, and I’ve just returned the rental car. The rest of my group has departed for Santorini already, and I’ll be following along tomorrow, albeit with only a brief stopover before leaving for Naxos.

It’s Sunday, and everything in Iraklion is closed, the only open doors being the car rental place, and the Agia Titos, the Church of St. Titus. I’m sitting outside in its courtyard, listening to the liturgical chants from inside. All is peaceful and calm here, a welcome few moments in what has been a whirlwind trip so far.

The Church of Agios Titos

The Church of Agios Titos

Yesterday we saw Knossos and the archaeological museum, which for a bunch of Classics majors was a bit like getting drunk on the Juice of Pure Awesome. I’d like to be a bit more articulate than that, but, really, words fail. For Aegean archaeologists, this place is our Louvre, our Vatican, our Fenway Park, our Gettysburg Memorial. After years of seeing these objects in textbooks, the bunch of us tottled around with stupid grins on our faces, randomly bursting into uncontrollable giggles, and whispering things like “Gosh!” and “Holy Crap, there she is!” in hushed whispers.

The Snake Goddess

The Snake Goddess


Bull Rhyton

Bull Rhyton

A big chunk of the museum is closed for renovations, so they’ve crammed most of the major pieces into a tiny horse-shoe shaped hall, the result of which is that every few steps you’re confronted with YET ANOTHER incredible artifact you’ve been seeing in textbooks your entire life.

That afternoon we ate lunch off the ground in what looked like a little municipal building off of the Plateia Venizelou (possibly this was the Venetian Loggia, what had been a gentelmen’s club and is now the town hall).

Eating like gypsies off the ground outside city hall

Eating like gypsies off the ground outside city hall

With the departure of my companions, I am now, truly, flying without a net. I have no plans, no tickets, no bookings beyond the next week. This will either be phenomenally interesting or insanely boring, or, perhaps most likely, will alternate between the two.

Luke, friend of dogs, nurse to cats; Lena, smasher of all things, Rebacca, Laurie (stop trying to make Jerf happen, it’s not happening)…to everyone that invited me to tag along on this leg of the journey to Crete, thank you and adio. To those of my older cohort reading this, do yourself a favor: hang out with the youngsters. They will make you young in turn.

To the youngsters: don’t stress the small things so much. Things are often not as difficult or insurmountable as they first seem. If you want to go into the church, go into the church, wait until the priest yells at you to leave for not wearing a skirt. Travel without a return ticket sometime. Make no reservations.

The beach at Agia Pelagia

The beach at Agia Pelagia

Robert Herrick invited the virgins to “make much of time”. ALthough I think Herrick was probably just trying to get in some nice English girl’s pants, I  echo the sentiment. Don’t put off that overland trip to Vladivostok just because you have no money. The money will come, and its easier to make up for time spent travelling when you’re 20 than when you’re 30. Do not be too responsible. Take chances. Do something stupid once in a while. Make mistakes. Forgive yourself for them, learn from them, make new mistakes.

Find love and intimacy where you can, even if it’s only for a few weeks, even if its not forever. Love and sex and all that stuff are the best human commodities we have. Take what you find with both hands, give back as much, appreciate it while you have it, don’t mourn for it when it passes, as it inevitably will.

And if you find yourself alone at the end of the night, and the party’s breaking up, and you still haven’t found anyone to take you home, listen to Broken Social Scene’s “You Forgot it in People.” You’ll immediately feel better, I promise.

Finally, be patient with those of us arrogant enough to try to give advice. We can’t help it.


That was taken out of context

June 12, 2009 2 comments
Archaeologists seem to have their own vocabulary. Frequently, this vocabulary is identical to mainstream phraseology, but has a completely different meaning. This leads to a lot of tool-related jokes (“throwing in the trowel”) and unintentional innuendo (“Is that too deep or do you want me to keep going?”). Fortunately, this means when archaeologists date each other, which they will invariably do on site (one marriage has already come about as a result of this project), they have a pre-existing language for stupid in-jokes.


The pre-dawn light as seen from the back of a pickup truck on the way to the site. Try as I might, the camera doesn't do it justice.

The pre-dawn light as seen from the back of a pickup truck on the way to the site. Try as I might, the camera doesn't do it justice.

Unfortunately, sometimes those archaeology double entendres can end up making you very sad.

We’d been digging for several hours in our trench. Good ole N16a9theta12. We’d dug about 10 centimeters, enough to dig past the topsoil to the point where you see a change in the color and texture of the soil. Top soil is useless to archaeologists. Any artifact found there is going to be thrown out. Seriously, you could find a gold medallion inscribed in Linear B with the message “Hi honey, it’s Nestor, just thought I’d send you a postcard from the Siege of Troy. Wish you were here. PS, we’re the Sea Peoples” and it would get thrown out. Anything that high up is out of context. There’s no way to determine what other artifacts or features its associated with. Association and context are two very important concepts to the archos. Your average piece of pottery isn’t going to reveal a whole lot. But a couple of pieces of pottery found together with some animal bones and lots of charcoal, and, voila, you realize you’re digging up someone’s kitchen. The problem is that the top layer of soil is incredibly mixed. Anything from a farmers plow to burrowing field mice can cause cultural material originally deposited at a lower level to rise to the surface. Plant roots are often a big culprit of this mixing of material culture. It’s a process called “Bioturbation,” which would also be a great name for a thrash metal band composed completely of archaeologists.

My trench


We’d gone far past the top soil, of course, and although we’d found tons of pottery that day, we had dutifully tossed it into the consolation pile (a small pile created as we look at a pretty piece of 2500-year-old pottery, mutter “magnificent” and then throw away). Now we were down into the real stuff, that culturally rich layer of soil containing tons of fineware, kalyxes, all sorts of great stuff. It was a fantastic reward for a challenging day’s work. The temperature was about 33 centigrade (go ahead and do the conversion into Farenheit, there’s calculators on the internets), and although the workmen had managed to build jerry-rigged tents to shade some of the trenches, they had gotten around to ours yet. So we’d been struggling to remove a dense clay in the hot sun using pick-axes that had been so far blunted they ceased to be picks and became hammers. Seriously. We weren’t so much picking away at soil as bashing it in the hopes that little chunks might be sent sailing. I was still ornery from a persistent sore throat and we were all feeling pissy in the heat. But the pottery finds we were digging up were making it all worth it, for we knew our labor was incrementally making mankinder more knowledgeable about its own past. This was important work we were doing. Difficult, dangerous work that usually resulted in bulging lumbar discs and melanoma, but important work, necessary, vital work that had to be done by whatever brave souls were willing to do it, and that necessity made any sacrifice worthwhile.

Chris, the most interesting man in the world, taking an elevation. We take a lot of these.

Chris, the most interesting man in the world, taking an elevation. We take a lot of these.

Meredith, the uber-trench supervisor, was doing her usual rounds with her clipboards, keeping a level eye on every trench and jotting down her notes. As she peaked into our trench she studied our soil.

“Huh,” she said, as if she’d just noticed the way Greeks tend to pronounce ‘u’ as ‘f’. “You see those dark streaks on the top of the soil layer you’re working on?”

“Yeah,” said Rebecca, the supervisor for our trench.

“Those are plow marks.”

The laser thingy Chris uses to take his elevations. It has a name, but i just call it the laser thingy

The laser thingy Chris uses to take his elevations. It has a name, but i just call it the laser thingy

Imagine, if you will, getting to the end of your work day, reaching for the ‘Save’ button on your Powerpoint or Excel or whatever document, only to have your desktop crash and your boss say “oh yeah, we disabled the autosave function”.
I stared at Rebecca dumbfounded when she told me to empty the pottery bag in the trash bin. “But we removed the top soil,” I protest. “These pieces are fine.”

She shook her head and pointed to the plow marks in the soil. “They were taken out of context.”

It’s part of the job, it’s part of the job, it’s part of the job…

That night I washed my work clothes in the bathroom sink. Here’s a bit of an experiment for you: take the stickiest, darkest, red clay you can find. Buy 23 tons of it. Put it in an oven (a very large oven). Set to a measly 150 degrees. Jump in. Roll around in the clay for about twelve consecutive days. Exit oven. Go to bathroom. Put clothes in sink. Attempt to wash. How long does it take to get your clothes clean? Take you time, we’ll wait.