Traveling Classroom Foundation
Thursday June 8th 2023

Archaeology Basics

Having visited many ancient sites over the years, we feel it might be helpful to tell you a bit more about archaeology. Most of you have seen archaeologists in movies, which depict the exciting Indiana Jones and Lara Croft methods of finding lost treasures. As you might expect, those film stars could not be farther from the truth about archaeologists.

You probably know more about archaeological methods than you think.

We decide to talk to experts about how to conduct an archaeological expedition. The first thing we do is call someone we know – Sabine, an archaeologist who lives and works in Crete. She explores ancient sites where people once lived in the eastern part of the island, and sometimes she works with archaeologists doing other investigations. As it happens, Sabine has an 11-year-old daughter named Lisa, who also likes archaeology.

Amnissos beach near the survey team headquarters

We arrange to meet Sabine at the headquarters of an archaeological survey team in Amnissos, the port of ancient Knossos. Upon arrival, we find the archaeologists and their graduate students are housed in a nice hotel complex near the beach (very popular with the students). We connect with Sabine and she explains that the first task in archaeology is to conduct a survey of an area where you might expect to find evidence of an ancient settlement. This team of archaeologists, headed by a noted professor from an American university, is conducting such a survey in an area near the Minoan palace at Galatas, which dates to the Neopalatial (new palace) period – around 3700 years ago.

Since we know a palace would have managed a rather large region, drawing resources, food supplies, products and human talent from towns and villages around it, we have a starting point for our survey.  Then we look for nearby sites that meet certain requirements:

  1. visible evidence of an ancient settlement (such as cut stone blocks, pottery sherds on the ground, etc.);
  2. availability of things needed for a settlement (water supply, farmland or other resources, access to the palace, and so forth); and
  3. possibly even local reports about found artifacts, and other data that might indicate a promising area to search.

A few kilometers from the Minoan palace is a farming village that meets several of these criteria. This is one of several survey targets, and the place we are visiting today.

Survey Area

Survey Area: Hilltop Village on Ancient Minoan Site

Next, several important items are needed before going into the field. The most essential are a good topographic map showing all the landscape elevations of the area, and (if you can get it) a high resolution satellite photo of the area. Using these and a GPS (Global Positioning System, navigating with the help of satellites), you can record location data very precisely.

Of course, you must also develop a good survey plan. You have to put a grid on a map, so that you can carefully explore each section of the grid and mark everything you find on the map. The next step is to decide what to look for when you go into the field, and where you are going to search.

We meet with the professor at the staging area, where materials found during the survey are set aside for cleaning, drying, classifying and storing. Sabine and a team of university students discuss where, how and what to search for in the field. The professor designates a particular grid on the area map, and instructs us to search for Minoan “fine ware” (thin pottery sherds that are pieces of cups, small jars, goblets, and the like). He also wants the team to map the location of any ancient buildings we might find. Can you think of why the location of pottery sherds are related to buildings? We can talk about that later.

After a drive over winding country roads to the area of our survey, we park in the shade of a large plane tree near a small Byzantine church. From here, we can see most of the survey area from the valley floor to the farming village atop a terraced hill. We walk down to the valley, where Sabine divides us into smaller teams to begin the survey. Each of us has a map and a clear plastic bag for our potsherds. The location of anything important (such as a concentration of pottery) is to be marked on the map. Sabine carries a GPS unit to help her make precise notations on the map.

Investigating Cut Zone

Sabine goes over area topological map with team members

Starting on the lowest level of the hill, we begin to search the ground for potsherds. We focus on erosion zones (where water runoff can expose buried pottery) and areas recently scraped or plowed by farming equipment (which can bring potsherds to the surface). These are likely places to find bits of ancient history.

Searching Cut Zone

Searching for pottery sherds in the cut zone

Duane and I team up with Lisa, whose previous archaeological outings with her mother had trained her to distinguish ancient pottery from other bits and pieces one might find embedded in the ground.

Lisa Searching the Cut

Lisa searches the cut zone for artifacts

She immediately begins to locate sherds we had overlooked, and soon we are recognizing promising bits of pottery.


Cheryl finds sherds in erosion zone

However, every time we make what seems to be a really good find, one of the experts on the team explains, “the piece with green glaze is typical Venetian pottery (that is about 600 years old),” or “it’s not 3500 years old but rather recent (only 200 or 300 years) from the Ottoman era; you can tell by the markings.” Clearly, knowing what you are looking at is a key element of survey archaeology, and that requires some homework.

We are told to save these pieces anyway, because some students are interested in those periods of history.

One of the team members, Brian, is particularly interested in stone tools, so he spends a good deal of time searching through places where rocks have spilled or been dumped down the hillside.

Brian Searching a Rock Pile

Brian searches a rock pile for stone tools

His efforts pay off. During this survey, Brian identifies over a dozen items that he called “querns.” These are stones that people used – with another stone – to mill grains into flour. How do you distinguish between a rock and a stone tool? Brian shows us that stone tools are shaped for a particular purpose or worn by human use in certain identifiable ways. Of course, it takes a bit to practice to recognize the tools in a pile of rocks.


Brian with a “quern” grinding stone he discovered

Climbing the terraces in the hot midday sun, we come upon a Minoan period building – or rather a foundation wall – which Sabine points out.

This looked like a row of large boulders from a distance. On closer examination, however, the stones show marks of having been worked by human hands so that they could be fitted together to build a wall.

Stone Foundation of Minoan Building

Stone foundation wall of a ancient Minoan building

After further investigation, corner blocks and another wall are located. Sabine uses her GPS unit to mark the location and orientation of the building on the map, while Scott (the lead record-keeper) makes very precise notes.

Some of the survey team continue along the hill, while Lisa, Duane and I move into the olive grove on the valley floor. Searching for potsherds here is a matter of picking through dried ground cover and tilled soil.


Lisa examines sherds in an olive grove

This area is not as productive as the hillside, where winter rain exposes a new crop of sherds and artifacts each year. After a while, Lisa decided to take a break and feed one of the goats we find in the olive grove.

Feeding the Goat

During a break, Lisa feeds a goat in field

Following the professor’s instructions, one survey team follows the terraces around the hillside, where they to map several other ancient buildings. We follow the terraces back down the valley and then climb the opposite hill to the plane tree and church – our base camp.

Return from the Survey

Tired survey team members return from the field

When the rest of the survey team returns from their work, we sit down in the shade of the plane tree for lunch and accounting. Kevin collects the plastic bags with potsherds and inserts data cards that record the date, survey coordinates explored, and the team member who collected the pieces – then he seals the bags. After lunch, some of the team members set off to perform another leg of the survey, along a stream bed in a separate valley, and we agree to meet them later at the staging area in Amnissos.

When we arrive at the staging area, after a break to change into lighter clothing, the work of examining and cataloging cleaned bits of pottery is already underway. In one area, on a large tabletop, sherds are being sorted according to thickness (fine versus heavy pottery), clay color, density, hardness and age.

Sorting Pottery Sherds

Professor and team members examine sherds and make notations

Team members discuss the location and physical aspects of each piece, while the professor asks questions, comments, and makes careful notations in his log book. From this book, he can later identify where each piece was found and – together with data recorded on all the other pieces collected – begin to discern distribution patterns. You know how to do this. The easiest method is to use line plots and graph your data – something you learned to do in the 4th grade.

Other people are marking special pieces of pottery with numbers and codes that define its type, location, etc. A woman who is one of the materials experts examined some disputed pieces on another table. She focuses not only on the shape and finish of the sherds, but also on the clay used to make the pottery. Sometimes she used pliers to crush the edge of a piece and then examine the clay bits to categorize the nature of the material and – most important – to identify the period and region that such clay was used.


Students study clay type to determine pottery age

At another work post, two people study sherds for conformation. Amazingly, it is possible to identify even small bits of pottery by form, because in ancient times (as today) potters made their pottery in very specific shapes (otherwise you wouldn’t have matched sets of tableware). Therefore, the curvature and cross section of a goblet rim is different from that of a cup, and after seeing enough of them you come to know the differences.

Cross Sections

Studying pottery cross sections and making drawings

One person at the “cross section” table is drawing the cross sections of pottery pieces, after carefully measuring the curvature of each piece using a scale developed for that purpose. Once you determine the curvature of a piece – even if it is quite small – you can then calculate the circumference of the entire vessel. You learn the algebraic formula for that in the 5th or 6th grade, but you probably didn’t imagine its use in archaeology.

The other person at the table has a thick reference book showing cross sections from many ancient pottery types, providing wall thickness, curvature, radius of handles and other features that are compared with the sherds collected in the field by survey teams. In this way, every bit of material collected in the field is painstakingly sorted, identified and cataloged for future analysis.

We haven’t discovered a lost underground temple or any pieces of golden treasure – and Indiana Jones was nowhere to be seen. What we did was collect, sort and classify evidence of several ancient civilizations.

This is used to create a database that gives other archaeologists an idea how the survey area was settled over the centuries and possibly help determine where future studies and excavations might be done. The final product of the survey will be chronological maps, which show how the settlement was altered by environmental changes, population pressure, the effects of different people arriving and leaving, and conquest.

“Unimpressive sherds in the countryside enable us to write history,” says the professor. This is the basis for all archaeological work.

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