First season of the Olynthos Project

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.