Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project study season

BY DAN DIFFENDALE, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Mt. Mainalon
Mt. Mainalon above the village of Kardara.

I spent the first three weeks of June in Greece, working with the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project. Although the project last conducted fieldwork at the Sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios on Mt. Lykaion in western Arcadia in 2010, we have been busy every summer since then studying the excavated materials. In excavation years, we rent private houses in a village close to the site; during study seasons, we stay in an off-season ski resort in eastern Arcadia, in order to be close to Tripoli, where the artifacts are housed. From Kardara it’s a thirty-minute van ride to our apotheke, or storeroom, where we study the materials almost every day (but never on Sunday). The study seasons witness a wide range of scholars and specialists coming and going as their schedules permit; among others, we have experts in animal bones, roof tiles, coins, and numerous varieties of ancient pottery, including Neolithic, Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman. Of course, this study could not proceed without the heroic efforts of our registrar, who is responsible for the organization of the apotheke and all procedural matters relating to the artifacts, along with her team of assistants, who do whatever assisting needs to be done.

At work in the apotheke.

This season I have been assisting one of the project’s directors in the study of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age pottery, as well as preparing a final report on the stratigraphy of one of the project’s trenches on the peak of Mt. Lykaion. One of my goals this season has been looking for matches or “joins” between the tens of thousands of broken pieces of pottery from the trench. Although it is inherently satisfying to find such joins, a successful outcome is by no means guaranteed; it’s like playing a puzzle without a box-top picture to compare to, and with most, if not all, of the pieces missing. Despite the frequent frustration, it’s an important activity; knowing if there are pieces of the same pot scattered in different parts of the trench helps us to understand the formation processes of the site. If ancient people deposited a whole pot on the mountaintop, but we find broken pieces of it in different areas of our excavation, we deduce that it must have been broken and had its pieces scattered by one or more subsequent events. These events might be later human activity, animal disturbance, natural phenomena like earthquakes or frost heaves, or some combination of these. Given that the altar where we excavated has evidence for human activity spanning some three thousand years or more, from the Neolithic to the Hellenistic period, or from before 3000 BCE down to the 1st century BCE, followed by the two thousand years from then to now, it’s not surprising that things got so mixed around!

Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project website:

Mt. Lykaion preliminary reports:

Camping and Kanka Cola: Life at Labraunda

BY CHRISTINA DIFABIO, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

The BULP 2014 Team and the Monumental Fountain House, photo courtesy of Liam Dean-Johnson.
The BULP 2014 Team and the Monumental Fountain House, photo courtesy of Liam Dean-Johnson.

My fieldwork experience was crucial for my decision to apply to graduate school. During my junior year at Brown University, I had the opportunity to become involved in a new archaeological project directed by Prof. Felipe Rojas, who is at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown. Since 2013, I have been part of the Brown University Labraunda Project (BULP). BULP is concerned with the rural sanctuary of Labraunda in ancient Caria, now modern southwestern Turkey, and is part of the greater Labraunda Archaeological Project directed by Dr. Olivier Henry.

In antiquity, Labraunda was a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Labraundos, and people from cities to the north and south came to worship the local deity at an annual festival. The sanctuary is known for its monumentalization by local satraps under the Persian Empire in the mid-4th century BCE: Mausolos (most famous for his Mausoleum, a wonder of the ancient world, located in Halikarnassos, now modern Bodrum) and his brother Idrieus. The current objective of the project is to study a monumental fountain house that lies just outside of the sanctuary. Before our studies, the fountain was largely overlooked because it does not conform to traditional classical architecture, even though its importance is clear due to its position between the two entrance gates to the sanctuary. Our studies suggest that the fountain was built in the mid-4th century BCE and used in some capacity through the Christian period. It is the largest fountain house at Labraunda, and it would have provided rest and refreshment for visitors after a long journey.

I enjoy the intellectually stimulating (and physically tiring) research, but even more so I love learning and living in the Labraunda community. Multiple groups work at Labraunda at a time. In addition to our Brown team, I interact with Turkish, French, and Swedish scholars on site. During the week, we camp about a five-minute walk from site, so we do not have the same accommodations we would have if we were staying in a hotel in the closest town (i.e., we have limited electricity and two working toilets). When I tell this to people, they often describe it as “roughing it,” but with such great company and views of the mountains and stars, I can’t complain at all. I have also enjoyed working with local Turks in the trenches. Language is often a barrier, and I am on my way to learning Turkish. However, we often find things to chat about, mostly the weather (Bugün hava çok sıcak — Today the weather is very hot!), and we have fun as we work together. Some of the younger workers have affectionately dubbed our team members kankalar, similar to “bros” in English, and we have named our daily soda breaks “Kanka Cola.”

When I first heard about this project, I never could have imagined where it would lead me. Now as a first-year student in IPCAA, I plan to specialize in Western Anatolia and continue fieldwork in Turkey. The excavations of the monumental fountain house are almost complete, but I look forward to seeing where BULP’s future studies at Labraunda will go.

Looking for non-elites at Gabii

BY J. TROY SAMUELS, Ph.D. student, University of Michigan Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

Me, at right, looking for non-elites (and numerous other things) at Gabii with Dr. Marilyn Evans (ICCS). Photo courtesy of the Gabii Project Facebook page.

As a student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology moving from the coursework phase of my time at U-M toward the dissertation-writing phase, I had the opportunity this summer for preliminary research in my dissertation topic: non-elites in Republican central Italy. Archaeology has long been a discipline associated with the material of elite lifestyle. It has often been far easier to attract interest with a fancy temple or golden ornament than with the potentially mundane trappings of non-elite life. Because of this, non-elites in the ancient world have, in general, received considerably less attention than their elite compatriots. While this imbalance has been changing over the past half century, there is still (thankfully for me) much work to be done.

My current research focuses on a major lacuna for studies of this important group: the early and middle Republican period (roughly speaking, the early 4th century through the early 1st century BCE) in central Italy. Non-elites are not the only poorly understood topic for this period; this has always been a bit of an archaeological terra incognita (the typical example for this lack of information being mid-Republican Rome itself, where Augustan and later imperial building projects have largely obscured the city’s “teenage” years). However, new research has begun to expand our understanding of life during this formative phase of the Roman state. The University of Michigan excavations at Gabii have been leading the way in these discoveries, uncovering Republican habitation on a scale hitherto unseen (for more, see my earlier blog post/associated links). However, as much of this activity is elite in appearance, the non-elites at Gabii remain enigmatic.

This past summer, while excavating at Gabii, I have made a conscious effort to promote the study of the city’s non-elite population. This has taken both a research-based and a pedagogical form. It is important to question what exactly we mean by elite: is it a value judgment based on the quality of material or craftsmanship? Is it based on our assumptions about life in Republican Italy? While I do not have (nor do I believe there is) an easy answer to this question, it has been productive reformulating this in as many ways as possible. It has also, I hope, been productive in challenging the students working at Gabii, making them question the material they are excavating. In doing so, they can begin to consider the less visible, possibly non-elite, individuals involved in the production, consumption, and distribution of the artifacts we discovered. This summer has proved highly productive, and I hope that my continuing research will help problematize and further bring to the forefront these sometimes invisible yet crucially important participants in Roman life.

First season of the Olynthos Project

BY KATE LARSON, PhD candidate, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology (IPCAA)

The sun rises over the houses of Olynthos as excavated in the 1920s, now conserved and open to visitors.

In the past few decades, archaeologists have become more interested in the way people of ancient Greece actually lived. The evidence from written sources suggests that men and women were separated into different areas of the house, and they seldom discuss household tasks like cooking, weaving, and religious worship, which archaeology can illuminate. IPCAA professor Lisa Nevett has dedicated her career to understanding Greek houses, but until now she has had to rely on excavation data that focused primarily on architecture and intact artifacts. Nevett began to wonder how much more we might be able to learn about Greek houses if we used 21st-century archaeological techniques to pay attention to fragmentary material, non-fineware pottery, and microscopic chemical and organic materials preserved in soil. She, along with her co-directors Zosia Archibald of the University of Liverpool and Bettina Tsigarida of the 16th Ephoreia of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities in Greece, have been granted a five-year permit under the auspices of the British School at Athens to re-excavate one such site.

Located in the Chalcidice peninsula of northeastern Greece, Olynthos — no, that’s not a typo, although on a clear day you can see the famous Mount Olympus from the site of Olynthos — has been considered the “Pompeii of Classical Greece.” Historical accounts tell us that Phillip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great) destroyed the city in 348 BCE and exiled all its occupants, who left behind their houses and belongings. The site was initially excavated by David Robinson of Johns Hopkins University between 1928 and 1938.  Robinson found more than 100 houses, covering about 10 percent of the area of the site; each house contained a wealth of objects from daily life, including pottery, loom weights, figurines, and coins. While Robinson and his team carefully recorded which finds came from which rooms of the houses, the publications and archive don’t contain information about which finds the excavators deemed not important enough to record or save (such as fragmentary objects, non-fineware pottery, and bone) or any stratigraphic information about soil deposits and sequences. By contrast, the new Olynthos Project plans to excavate two houses over the course of five seasons using techniques not available to Robinson, such as geophysical survey, water floatation, micromorphology and microdebris analysis, geochemistry, and surface survey.

Olynthos Project 2014 members excavate a small 2 x 2 meter trial trench.

The project began in February 2014, when a small team conducted magnetometry and resistivity (types of remote sensing that help identify structures and features under the soil prior to excavation)  in order to find promising areas for excavation. From July to August 2014, a multinational group composed of undergraduate and graduate students, professional archaeologists, and specialists in various archaeological disciplines came together to test these results and identify areas for subsequent work. Olynthos still has much to teach us about life in ancient Greek houses.

Android Tablets at Gabii

BY J. TROY SAMUELS, PhD student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Buon giorno from Rome! This summer, the Gabii Project, a University of Michigan archaeological excavation and field school, undertook our sixth full season of fieldwork focused on the ancient Latin city of Gabii. Directed by University of Michigan professor Nicola Terrenato, this large-scale open-area excavation aims to both increase our understanding of this city, a neighbor and rival to Rome in the first millennium BCE, and educate students in archaeological method, theory, Roman history, and myriad other topics. To that end, this season we welcomed forty-two volunteers from a variety of undergraduate and graduate colleges and universities to Rome, who, along with various staff members, spent the last five weeks significantly expanding our understanding of the city of Gabii, its people, and its history.

Gabii 2014 team
Gabii Project 2014 team.

Alongside the normal challenges and opportunities offered by such a large-scale undertaking, the 2014 edition of the project featured a massive shift in recording strategies. Instead of the paper forms used in previous seasons, this year we decided to go paperless in the field. All data was recorded exclusively on four Panasonic Toughpads and seven Android tablets. Despite early trepidations, perhaps best exemplified by the Seven Deadly Sin–themed names assigned to the seven Android tablets, this new system has proved highly successful. Paperless recording not only cut down on off-site data entry but also encouraged a degree of student autonomy in information gathering and recording. The individual nature of tablet data entry encouraged students to attempt to record and understand the archaeology on their own terms before seeking the help of their supervisors. By the end of the second week, it was commonplace to see five students on their own tablets, independently entering data pertaining to the stratigraphic unit they had excavated by themselves. The presence of excellent students helped this transition go smoothly, and paperless recording will certainly be a feature at Gabii for years to come.

Matt Naglak (University of Michigan, IPCAA) creates a photo model while Dr. Marilyn Evans (ICCS) instructs Rachel Goldstein (Yale University) in her work on “Wrath,” the Android tablet.

In terms of archaeological discovery, this season was also highly successful. The large size of the project allows for two distinct areas of excavation, Area F, focused on expanding our understanding of the monumental complex revealed last season, and Area D, focused on an occupation area from the early, formative phases of the city. While vastly different in terms of surviving architecture and excavation method, both areas continue to provide important information that will shape our understanding of the cities and people of first-millennium BCE central Italy. We are excited both about the many things we uncovered and the future seasons that will help us continue to better understand the multifaceted, fascinating material history of this important site.

For more information please visit our websites, Facebook page, or read our wonderful student blogs.

“This Quintessence of Dust”: Micro-Debris Analysis at Olynthos

BY ELINA SALMINEN, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Enthusiasm #2 Photo taken my Matt, from whom I sha
Processing of the residue from wet-sieving on site.

This summer, the University of Michigan will be starting a new archaeological project at Olynthos in northern Greece in collaboration with the 16th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, the British School at Athens, and the University of Liverpool. The goal of the project is to excavate two 4th-century BCE houses and improve our understanding of ancient domestic spaces as well as northern Greek cities. In preparation for the summer, I traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to learn about micro-debris analysis, a technique we will be using at our excavation. It was a busy two days with Lynn Rainville, a micro-debris expert based at Sweetbriar College. We discussed the potential of the technique and devised a plan for how to apply it in the field.

In short, micro-debris consists of the small inclusions that are present in the dirt we excavate but are rarely noticed by the excavator. These inclusions can range from beads to small bones (especially from animals like rodents or fish) to very small fragments of pottery. Even though these finds seem mundane, they are worth studying for several reasons, especially in a domestic context. Imagine sweeping a compact dirt floor. What will be removed, and what will stay put? Research has shown that small fragments are more likely to remain where they fall, and can therefore give us a more accurate picture about the use of spaces when they were inhabited instead of after abandonment (which is when most of the bigger “finds” are deposited — archaeologists are often quite literally excavating through trash pits!). The technique can also allow us to see activities that might not otherwise be visible because they left little evidence, and to accurately compare the density of finds in different areas due to the careful counting and measuring involved.

The method itself can be quite tedious! After an excavator collects a soil sample for analysis of an area that seems interesting, the dirt is literally washed in a barrel to get rid of small grains of sand — in archaeological lingo this is known as flotation or wet-sieving.

View of the flotation barrel.

In the process, botanical remains like burnt seeds will float to the surface and will be collected for analysis by specialists. The rest of the sample will be carefully picked through and searched for archaeological materials. The finds will then be sorted by type, counted, and weighed.

Sorting bones from a sample.

It is only after all this that analysis can begin.

Despite the slow and often boring sorting that is involved, it will hopefully be worthwhile in the end. We have come a long way from removing dirt by the cartful to expose monumental buildings with little regard to their contents and the people who used them. Using micro-debris analysis alongside multiple other methods, the project at Olynthos aims to study how different spaces were used in ancient houses, and even how these uses changed depending on the time of day or the season. Even though it might not look like much at first glance, micro-debris can help us get at the hustle and bustle of ancient houses behind the stone wall foundations that are visible to the visitor now.

Burning Questions about Greek Sacrifice

BY DAN DIFFENDALE, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan


Archaeologists study the (often-broken) material remains of human behavior in hopes of answering questions about human life in the past. We cannot directly access the past; we are constrained to form hypotheses and narratives on the basis of materials that exist in the present and are observable through excavation or surface survey. One category of hypothesis creation and testing is that of experimental archaeology (sometimes included among “actualistic” approaches). Archaeologists attempt to replicate past human behaviors in order to observe the resulting material signature, which can be compared with the archaeological record.

As a member of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project in Greece, I helped to excavate an ancient Greek mountaintop altar. This “ash altar” was built up over centuries by the accumulation of many thousands of animal bones burned by Greek worshipers in honor of the god Zeus. Although specialist studies of the bones and of the altar sediments have told us a great deal about the sacrificial practice at Mt. Lykaion in antiquity, many questions remain open.

Since 2012 I have collaborated with Jacob Morton of the University of Pennsylvania to create an experimental ash altar in Athens, Greece, built up out of the remains of dozens of sheep thighbones and tails, burned according to current hypotheses about Greek sacrifice. In mid-May we will carefully excavate the accumulation of one and a half years of experimental burning, in order to compare the material record of these processes with the observed archaeological record at Mt. Lykaion. In addition to this goal, the “Burning Questions” project, as we call it, includes observation of the sensory experience of the burnt offering part of Greek sacrificial ritual as well as the behavior of burning tails, which the Greeks observed as omens.