What I learned during my month at McMaster’s sandiest classroom
Working in the blazing Greek sun, handling 200,000-year-old artifacts, dodging poisonous centipedes – all in a day’s work for those working on the Stélida Naxos Archaeological Project.
Fourth-year Multimedia and Anthropology student Jason Lau spent a month this summer on the Greek island of Naxos. He writes about his experience living in a “dig house,” being awakened by local roosters and hauling 15L bags of soil samples.
I began working with Anthropology’s Dr. Tristan Carter as a Research Assistant in Fall 2015. With a background in photography and media production, I was originally taken on to assist with those parts of his Stélida Naxos Archaeological Project (SNAP).
To my complete surprise, Dr. Carter asked me to come to the Greek island of Naxos this summer to not only continue visually documenting the project, but to also assist with the actual excavation itself.
Having just completed an archaeology course a couple months before, it was completely amazing to have found myself as a general trench assistant, performing tasks like digging, sieving and washing artifacts. What was more amazing was that I worked and became great friends with diverse team members from not only McMaster (there were 11 of us), but also institutions in France, Greece, Serbia, the UK and USA.
The work being done on Naxos is incredibly exciting. The site is an early prehistoric one spanning 9,000 to at least 250,000 years old, which means we’re dealing with the activity of early Homo sapiens, Neanderthals andeven earlier humans, likely Homo heidelbergensis.
Since last summer, a team has been excavating a stone age quarry where early humans came to get chert, a type of raw material that was made into a variety of tools. This particular site is especially significant because it is challenging a lot of ideas we have about the migration routes taken by early humans out of Africa and into Europe.
The team lived communally at our “dig house” in Vivlos, a village with friendly locals, wonderful food, and a pretty great view (it was also a quick drive away from the beach). We were with other team members all the time, basically every minute of the day. I slept in a room with eight guys, and we woke up at around 5 a.m. every morning to get ready (with the help of some nearby roosters), before leaving for the site around 6 a.m.
Every morning after we got to Stélida, we had to climb up the hillside carrying all of our equipment, water for the day and our lunch (which we had around 10:30 a.m. because we started so early).
At the end of the day we had to carry not only our equipment back down, but also countless bags of lithics (artifacts) and heavy bags of soil samples to be analyzed by a palaeobotanist.
There were many challenges with working on an archaeological excavation in the middle of a Greek summer. The sun and high temperatures were the most obvious ones. By 7 or 8 a.m., the sun would rise over the hill we worked on and would shine on us the entire time until we ended work around 2 p.m. (it would have been deadly to stay later).
The winds on the hill were sometimes very strong as well making for challenging work conditions: sand in our eyes, bags and paperwork blowing away, and the inability to set up our surveying unit or the much-needed tarps for shade.
Going into the excavation trenches became increasingly difficult as the weeks went by because we kept digging deeper and deeper. At the beginning of the season you might have been able to just step into one, but eventually we had to jump until it got too dangerous to do so — in several cases we had to start bringing in ladders.
There was also the occasional poisonous orange centipede or snake (especially as we were opening the trenches for the season), which was a little scary. A couple of us had some close encounters with them.
And, let’s just say going to the “loo” on the hill was an interesting experience (bushes became your new best friends…).
This site produced so many artifacts that on an average day we were bringing down probably 20 or 30 bags of them, not including the back-breaking bags of soil samples. There was definitely a lot of heavy lifting every day, but I think that made us all stronger and tougher by the end of the season — so much that backfilling the trenches at the end of the season actually took less time than expected and surprised Dr. Carter!
One personal difficulty I experienced was that I hadn’t been home in a long time, so I was a bit homesick. I actually went on exchange for the Winter 2016 term, so I had left Canada mid-January, and studied at Leeds University (UK) until the start of the excavation season at SNAP. I’m sure a lot of the team members also felt homesick — it’s always difficult to be so far away from family and friends. It was also difficult to keep in touch because there wasn’t always wifi (or strong wifi anyway), so in a way, it really was like being off the grid for a month.
This upcoming year, I’m continuing to work with Dr. Carter as a Research Assistant and also beginning an independent study (supervised by Dr. Carter) on the intersections between Public Archaeology and topics of media, visuality and representation. Why is it so important for archaeologists to engage with the public? How can we use media and technology to do this?