My first week at Helike was honestly very different than I had originally expected it to be. While I had expected that I would have the chance to learn to dig in another country using a different methodology, I instead found myself in the lab nearly every day with my greatest lessons being in the infuriating stagnancy and impotency of Greek bureaucracy. In spite all that though, the week was as nice as it could’ve been under the circumstances. It gave me a chance to acclimate to a new place with new people and a different way of doing things than I had been exposed to in the past.
The story of my first week really began the day before I left for Israel. I received an email from the director of the excavation saying that due to a government inspector not showing up on the mandated date it would be impossible to dig next week. This was immediately disappointing and kind of confusing, but I figured that I’d make the best of it. At the time, I was way more focused on how I was going to get to the dig then I was on anything else. When I got there though, I learned that the problem wasn’t a new one. They hadn’t been able to dig in the first week either. I soon learned that the inspector had been expected 3 a week before the dig but still hadn’t come. In spite of this though, I did my best to maintain a positive attitude and an open mind. I figured that the problem would only be temporary and that I would eventually have a chance to dig. To make this all less vexing, in all honesty, since I started, I really have been increasingly satisfied. I’ve had a chance to look at old trenches and some of the lab work has been surprisingly interesting.
On Monday I spent time in the lab. The lab is a really nice space that’s very enjoyable to work in. However, the work was far less enjoyable than the space. My first assigned task was to sort pottery from a Geometric Period (mostly 8th century) trench. We were supposed to divide up the pottery into two groups, painted and unpainted. The intended purpose of this is to make it easier for the conservator to put together complete vessels. This wasn’t really the most engaging activity, but on the rare occasion that I came across a nicely painted piece of Geometric Pottery, it was rather exciting and definitely interesting.
On Tuesday I had a chance to sort through early Helladic (3000-2000) pithoi. The goal of the sorting was to put together any pieces that clearly belonged to the same pithos. This was along the same lines as the work I had done the previous day, but was pretty interesting on account of the fact that I had never had a chance to work with any material from the third millennium. It was also fun to try to see which pieces fit together like part of a big puzzle.
I started Wednesday continuing through the boxes of pithos fragments. This was eventually broken off by Dora calling everybody back into the office so that she could tell us the story of the site and the excavations at the site. It was a very compelling story and it was really interesting to get a better context for the site. In addition, we played a game where we looked at a mystery object and had to guess what it was. This seems like simple game, but it’s really a valuable lesson in archaeology. Everybody looks at objects differently and there are so many ways of interpreting something and its iconography. The mystery object was obviously a coin, but it was harder to interpret what was on it(even with the help of a microscope) due to the degradation of metal.
On Thursday I finally had the chance to head out to one of Helike’s sites. This particular one belonged to the Hellenistic period. According to Dora, the head of the Helike Project, this site was a Hellenistic dye works. Since the site hadn’t been dug at in two years, it was essential to clean it up before any work was done. Going around clipping weeds and cleaning walls gave me a good idea of the layout of the site and gave me a chance to see the impressive dye vats which are lined in perfect plaster. I also had the chance to clean up a finely pebbled floor which was fun to clean because it just got more and more impressive the more I swept and scraped away dirt. All in all, it was good to finally have an idea of the site and I enjoyed getting to see what had been done in the years of excavation at there.
Friday was another office day for me. I both sorted pottery and looked at pithoi. At the end of the day, we finished out the week by playing the mystery object game with 4 objects. It was very interesting to hear everybody’s guesses and ideas and I look forward to doing more of it next week.
Well, it’s been a couple of months since any of this, but I felt fairly empty leaving Helike and the rest of my Summer unupdated. At the moment I’m just about finished with my second month of college at Oberlin, and I figured I might as well procrastinate on my paper by writing down what I remember of the rest of my Summer while I still remember anything besides vague details.
After my first week at Helike, I spent two more weeks at the site. In general I was up to the same sort of activity with my time split between cleaning the site, washing pottery, and sorting pottery. But, in addition to this I was able to go on a couple of day trips in the area led by the director of the excavation. One of these trips took us up to the Acropolis of Helike which is unexcavated due to government bureaucracy despite the obviousness of the archaeological value of the site demonstrated by large amounts of pottery and architecture visible even to the layperson from the surface. From this mountaintop vantage point, we also had a chance to look out over the entire Helike plain. This gave me a much greater idea of the topography and also allowed me to better understand where all of the different sites which had been part of Ancient Helike had been. The other trip that we took was to an oracular cave of Herakles in the general vicinity of Helike. This site was also super interesting. After the decline of paganism, it was converted into a church and later acting as a place for Greeks to hide from the Ottoman Turks. Although the cave had at one point contained beautiful early christian wall paintings, these are now barely visible due to extended exposure to smoke and fire as a result of the hiding Greeks. In addition to this, I got to do a very limited amount of digging in order to expose a layer of riverbed in the stratigraphy. This was mostly busywork.
During my weekends at Helike I had the opportunity to travel. During my first weekend I went to Athens with some of the other college aged students on the program and rented an airbnb. During this trip I had a chance to spend time at several sites and museums throughout the city. My second weekend of travelling from Helike was a bit more mobile and I was lucky enough to travel with some of the friends who I had made in my first two weeks. During this weekend we went to Argos(which is seriously underrated), Nafplio, Epidavros, and Mycenae. One notable thing was seeing Oedipus Rex performed partially in Ancient Greek in the theater of Epidavros. Mycenae was also amazing and I honestly fangirled quite a bit at grave circle A, the Tholos tombs, the walls of Mycenae, and the Lion’s Gate. I also was lucky enough to have people with me who were willing to ignore the ‘Do Not Pass’ sign in front of the shaft cistern of Mycenae and were willing to go down into the cistern in total darkness aided only by a phone flashlight. I’m really glad I had the chance to travel a bit on my own on weekends. It was a liberating experience to have to figure out travel arrangements and board arrangements for myself and it made me feel a sense of independence.
After my three weeks at Helike I met up with my parents and sister in Athens. From there, we headed out to Milos. This was the first stop in our three Island vacation. After Milos, we went to Santorini, and after Santorini, Naxos. While it was nice to see some of these Islands, I wish that I had spent more time travelling around the Peloponnese. I also hope to never go back to Santorini. While the site of Akrotiri was amazing to see, I hate crowds, and I especially wasn’t a fan of the sort of tourists in Santorini. All in all though, my trip was an amazing way to end the Summer before I started college.
Looking back on my summer as a whole a little bit down the line, I realize how great it really was. I’m enjoying all of my classes and college life in general. But, I miss the pace and adventure of being abroad. There honestly hasn’t been a day so far where I don’t think back to my summer and wish that I was back there again, digging and travelling under the beating sun. Well…there is always next summer.