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The Big Dig: Cressotti And His Crew Use Modern Technology To Answer Ancient Questions

July 8, 2011 by Special To The ...

The Big Dig: Cressotti And His Crew Use Modern Technology To Answer Ancient Questions

4 AM.
The rooster in the back yard of the hotel is not even crowing yet.
Ten groggy, tired, rumpled archaeologists tumble downstairs into a darkness that cannot even be described as “pre-dawn,” but rather as “really late night.” Our charming hotelier, Effie, makes the morning bearable by setting us a simple breakfast. There’s always bread, toast and one or two other things, but the most important to all of us is the coffee- thick and Greek- or tea- Lipton’s I think. Effie is already awake because her husband, Kostas, gets up even earlier than we do to start his fishing day. Were there no coffee, there might be riots. Archaeologists are a moody bunch.
Not that getting up is all that terribly onerous. True, we grouse and grumble about being up before the roosters, but the truth is that we live, for a few weeks, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Our hotel fronts directly onto a small bay of appealing blue water which shimmers in the sun but seldom kicks up more than the lap-lap-lap of tiny waves. Across the bay twinkle the lights of two other small towns.
It’s a bit of a drive to the site, Gla, where we work. We arrive about an hour before sunrise to take advantage of the early morning chill. Later in the day the sun will rise higher and higher, slowly carving away at the shadows until the best respite that one can hope for is a light breeze.
The site of Gla is situated in a vast basin known as the Kopais. More than 3000 years ago it was a lake, almost entirely submerged. The people residing in Greece at the time, the Mycenaeans, executed one of the most brilliant and challenging works of civil engineering in ancient times when they constructed massive dams and canals and succeeded in draining large portions of the lake, turning it into one of the most fertile agricultural centers of the era. After the Mycenaean civilization declined, their structures deteriorated and the basin returned filled with water again. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a team of engineers were able, after one failed attempt, to drain it again.
Some of those dams are still partly visible, if you know what you are looking for. You can climb to the top of the citadel and look out around the farms.
But that does not concern us, not this year. We are concerned with the citadel itself. Compared to its contemporaries, it is anomalous in almost every way. Its size; why is it nearly 10 times the size of any other citadel of the age? Its design; why does it seem to lack any of the structures that are considered standard? Its use; why was it used for such a relatively short time, and by whom? And perhaps most of all, its buildings; for such a huge space, only a very few buildings have been discovered. What happened to all the rest? We’ve found many that have never been recorded before, but not nearly as many as the size would seem to suggest.
A combination of science, experience and insight allow us to seek for these answers. Archaeologists no longer are limited to poking through the dirt with hope and a fine-tooth comb to make discoveries. A whole array of sensitive tools and sensors are at our disposal.
With the Electronic Distance Meter (EDM), which is, for all intents and purposes, a 21st century surveyor’s theodolite, it is terrifically easy to make maps of everything we find on the surface. A magnetometer is to a metal detector what, say, an x-ray machine is to a camera- broadly speaking they do the same things, but on radically different scales. The magnetometer detects minute deviations in the earth’s magnetic field, which allows the archaeologist to “see” in the soil things like roadways or hearths or walls or, of course, metal. There are more, of course, the ground penetrating radar, the electrical resistivity, and others.
The days are spent, mostly, in exploring, mapping and clearing space for the more delicate instruments. It takes a surprising knack to find the edges of ancient, half-buried walls (the trick is in lining up the faces of cut stones). While using the EDM, communication is crucial so that you don’t accidentally makes absurd, zig-zag maps. The magnetometer is about as cranky and persnickety as a grumpy old man and must be routinely coaxed into cooperation. And while not tripping over loose stones may not actually count as a skill, there is nothing more important than it after spending several hours baking in the sun and exhausting oneself.
Then, when the time finally comes to go back to the hotel, all sweaty ten of us crowd into two tiny, tiny cars with all our equipment for a cramped drive. Fortunately, when we all lurch out of the cars, the sea is right there, cool and inviting.

Francis Cressotti was born and raised in Cheshire. He attended Dickinson College, where he studied archaeology under Dr. Maggidis and graduated with a degree in that field in 2010. This is his third summer in Greece, where he can often be found climbing mountains. Join him next time to learn more about the survey of Gla.

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