High on a hill overlooking the Mirabello Bay and what the poet Homer called the “wine dark sea,” work resumed last month uncovering an ancient city that had been lost for millennia.
Archaeologists and students from North Carolina and across the U.S., as well as local Crete workers, were using shovels, picks, trowels and sieves in a quest to understand the mysteries of Azoria, a city destroyed by fire about 2,500 years ago.
So far, no graveyards have been found, and depictions of language on pottery at the site are indecipherable. So clues must be gathered from the remnants of buildings, personal items, implements and food.
The project is the life’s work of Donald Haggis, an archaeology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who is the project director. UNC is one of only three American universities with a license to dig in Greece, underscoring its long-held national reputation for top-drawer archaeological scholarship.
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Getting to the dig from the seaside village of Kavousi requires a drive on a rugged, unpaved mountain road 1,187 feet above sea level with breathtaking views of the Aegean Sea and Sitia Mountains, not to mention a 2,000-year-old olive tree. The last few hundred yards are managed on foot.
It’s summer, which is the digging season at Azoria. UNC, which holds the permit from the Greek government, can only dig six weeks per year. Haggis and his crew have been digging off and on since 2002, so considerable work has been done.
Greek officials monitor the dig. All antiquities found must stay in Greece.
On the hilltop, there are a couple of dozen students, archaeologists and Greek workers busy at different building foundations looking for artifacts from a long-lost civilization. It is midmorning, and the weather is temperate; but before long, the midday sun will bake the workers.
“It’s fun whacking away,” quipped Chelsea Bright, a rising senior at Duke University who plans to become an archaeologist. “It’s like you’re a lumberjack.”
A day earlier, heavy winds had shut down work at the dig. You can’t sift through the dirt in a dust storm.
The hilltop is a series of excavated houses and communal civic buildings that have been unearthed. Foundations, lower walls and sometimes benches have been discovered. Haggis serves as a foreman, directing the crew of dozens of students and Greek workers – most of them local Crete farmers – in their digging.
Haggis, 54, is a Greek-American who lives in Carrboro, speaks fluent Greek and still has family ties in Crete. He has taught at UNC since 1993 and, like most archaeologists, he spends his summers doing field work – in his case, digging every year in Crete. His wife, Sheila Dillon, is an archaeologist and art historian at Duke University who is working in Athens this summer.
Crete is a magnet for archaeologists. The island off the Greek mainland is where European civilization started with the Minoan culture from 2700 B.C. to 1450 B.C. The Minoan civilization was thought by many to be just a legend until ruins were discovered in the 1890s.
In 1900, the American archaeologist Harriet Boyd Hawes discovered the site of Azoria as part of her exploration of the area. But she only conducted a trench test, because she was looking for older Minoan ruins. The site remained unexplored for the next century.
Haggis was conducting a survey of the region of eastern Crete as a graduate student in 1988 when he became intrigued by the idea that Azoria might be worth a closer look.
Haggis and his partner in the project, Margaret Mook of Iowa State University, were convinced from pottery they found that the site was much older than initially thought. They believed Azoria would be a worthwhile site to study the political economy of a Greek city as it transitioned from the Early Iron Age or Greek Dark Age (1200-700 B.C.) to the Early Archaic (700-600 B.C.).
“This just thrilled us,” Haggis said when they found the old pots. “Always in the back of my mind I was to dig there.”
Azoria was a small city, with an estimated population of 2,000 to 5,000 people, that started after the great Minoan civilization.
There had been settlements on the mountaintop of Azoria for centuries. But it did not become a full-blown city until around 630 B.C. It was destroyed by a catastrophic fire, probably as a result of being sacked, about 480 B.C. Eventually it became lost in time – offering a time capsule of what a Cretan city looked like during what archaeologists call the Archaic Period.
Because no one has been able to decipher the language of Cretans of this period, much of their history is a blank slate that can only be interpreted from what is dug up from the ground.
So far, the dig has uncovered a town with a rich public life. Among the discoveries was a building that was likely the location of communal meals called “syssitia.” The building includes dining rooms and kitchens, and storerooms that had remnants of grapes, olives and grains.
The dig also uncovered what is called the Monumental Civic Building, a large hall with a stepped bench built into the walls and an adjoining two-room shrine including small divinity dolls. It also has an olive press facility.
It is the first time, said Haggis, that two large civic buildings of the period have been unearthed. They suggest that the men ate together – a sort of early fraternal organization perhaps with some military significance. “Imagine it as a kind of fraternal military elite,” Haggis said.
The site is not open to tourists because the trenches could be disturbed by people walking around. Eventually, Haggis said, officials hope visitors will be allowed.
Whatever is found at the site is taken to the nearby coastal town of Pacheia Ammos, where the Institute for Aegean Prehistory Study Center for East Crete is located in a modern building on a hilltop with a panoramic view of sea and mountains.
It is here that the painstaking and expensive work of turning found shards back into their original form as pots is done, as well as where research is conducted. In one laboratory, Margaret Scarry, a paleoethnobotanist from UNC, studies seeds and other plant life for clues about how the Cretans lived.
The center is shared by a number of archaeological projects besides Azoria, so this also is where the projects are stored until they can find places in museums. It is a high-security facility that is wired into police not only in Crete, but also to Athens and to Interpol.
The center itself has a North Carolina flavor. Helping run it year-round is Eleanor Huffman, the assistant to the director, Haggis. Huffman is a Winston-Salem native and UNC Greensboro graduate who married a Greek and decided to stay in the area. During the winter months, she lives at the center to keep watch over everything.
‘Joy of discovery’
Each year, undergraduate and graduate students – most of them future archaeologists – do field work at Azoria under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Greek Ministry of Culture. The funding comes from more than a half dozen grants that include the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.
This summer, 42 students are working on the project, including 15 from UNC and four from Duke University. There are also about 17 Greek workers. The students tend to be women, but the Greek workers are mainly men.
The students are drawn to archaeology for different reasons. For Emma Buckingham, a UNC graduate student from Houston, the reasons include a mother who was an art museum docent, a love of all things Greek and Roman, and “the joy of discovery.” For Tim Shea, a Duke graduate student from New Orleans, it’s a matter of putting the Greek and Latin he learned at a Jesuit high school to good use. An inspiring high school teacher influenced Julie Juhasz, a UNC graduate student from Advance.
Despite the postcard setting, the students are doing physically demanding, dusty work under the broiling sun.
Catharine Judson, of Raleigh, a doctoral candidate at UNC and a veteran of archaeological digs, said the students are picked up at their hotel in Kavousi at 6:40 a.m. and are at work at 7 a.m. They finish by midafternoon, when the sun becomes unbearable. But the more senior students such as Judson, known as trench masters, work late into the afternoon to meticulously record the day’s findings. Most students, Judson said, find it both intellectually and physically challenging until they get into the routine.
But some take to the hard work.
“I feel like archaeology attracts a very specific kind of academic with a destructive side,” said Juhasz. “I love the history and the experience, and there is something satisfying about swinging a huge pick.”
Work in phases
UNC has had a reputation as one of the nation’s better archaeology programs since it hired its first archaeology professor, Princeton-educated James Penrose Harland, in 1922. Some of the nation’s best known archaeologists – such as Jodi Magness, a specialist on Palestine – are on the faculty.
The archaeologists are spread out in various departments, including classics, art history, religious studies and anthropology. UNC has formed an archaeological consortium with Duke University, which sponsors the field school and offers the summer credits. On Duke’s Web page, it boasts that UNC and Duke “together employ one of the largest concentrations of archaeologists in the United States.”
The Azoria Project has proceeded in phases, with digging from 2002-06 and a hiatus from 2007-2012, when conservation work was done. The digging resumed last year and is scheduled to continue through 2017, followed by additional years of study.
Meanwhile, for those working at the site, there is a romance of uncovering the past, as Juhasz found out when she discovered a pot.
“It’s like a connection with someone who died 3,000 years ago,” Juhasz said.