Digging for, Truth Maybe? Discovering the Stakeholders of Archeological Research

Hello everyone,
I am Xavier Kolodnicki, a Religious Studies student and Peter Lougheed scholar, and I am currently undertaking my Stretch Experience at an archeological project in Narthaki, a small village in the region of Thessaly in northern Greece, volunteering for the Kastro Kallithea Archeological Project, an archeological field school and excavation run through the University of Alberta Classics Program and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Larissa, under Dr. Margriet Haagsma and Dr. Sofia Karapanou. As I am participating as a volunteer archeological researcher at the Archeological Program for my PLLC Stretch Experience, I aim to connect the experiences of field research participants as it relates to communication and collaboration leadership studies.

To dispel popular misconceptions about archeology, as well as to provide a bit of background to those interested, I will start with a little bit about the archeological project, and the site itself. The Kastro Kallithea Archeological Project is a joint Canadian-Greek excavation of a walled citadel-city, situated on a hill in the region of Thessaly, in the north of mainland Greece. Though the ancient name of the city isn’t known for certain, inconclusively suspected to be named “Peuma”, the site has provisionally named “Kastro Kallithea”, literally “Castle Goodview”, after the almost-deserted village of Kallithea that sits at the base of the city’s hill. Roughly 13 years of archeological survey, excavation and research by the Canadian-Greek project has yielded scholars enough information to create a rough timeline of the city’s occupation, map the layout of the city, classify the architecture of the city’s public buildings, who the inhabitants likely were, and what eventually befell them. The city was founded in the so-called Hellenistic era, the period of globalization which occurred after Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King (Not to be confused with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) who conquered what is commonly said to be “most of the known world”, extending his Kingdom into an Empire that stretched from Greece, to Egypt, over what was then known as Persia, right up over to the north of modern-day India. This conquest resulted in a mass cultural and economic exchange between former Persia and Greece, which allowed trade to prosper, bringing vast amounts of wealth to Greece, bolstered by the vast amounts of war-loot by Greek and Macedonian soldiers returning from various military campaigns. Some of this wealth seemingly found its way to the ancient inhabitants of the region surrounding Kastro Kallithea, allowing them to invest in a secured military and economic center, allowing them to found their city. This period of stability and growth, also invited numerous conflicts, one of which wiped away the city of Kastro Kalithea very shortly after its creation.


The city wall themselves


Though Kastro Kallithea’s destruction might have been indeed tragic for its inhabitants, for archeological researchers, the fact that the city was inhabited and destroyed after a short amount of time is a great boon. If a site is inhabited for a short period of time, and remains undisturbed from environmental, intentional and unintentional damage, then the archeological information researchers might create from it can be seen as belonging to that specific site as it existed during its specific time period—a once-destroyed site is akin to little snapshot of history, detailing how the site existed in its final moments. The real catch in all of this is specifically in my usage of the term “create”, when referring to archeological information—archeological information, along with historical information, is not “uncovered” by researchers inasmuch as it is “created”. Each and every interpretation of an archeological site can be likened to an essay—one develops and supports a thesis or a narrative based off of their evidence, and then argues for it to convince others of their interpretation. The evidence that goes into an interpretation of an archeological site, compared to the average undergraduate student’s essay, takes into account more than just literature, but takes into account the physical evidence recovered from archeological site, potentially including any present architecture, geography, and where/in what state/in what positions artefacts, floral, animal and human remain were found, and interpreting what the artefacts, floral, animal and human remains consist, as well as the resultant consequences—what can be said about all of these things taken together as an assemblage? Do we see this at other archeological sites as well? Can we relate this to any extant historical information?


Performing archeological research is not nearly as simple, dangerous, or straightforward as Indiana Jones makes it seem. Needless to say, very, very few archeologist have to fight Nazis and evil occult forces, but very few credible archeologists go about looking for golden treasures or artefacts as museum art pieces. Though many famous archeologists of the past did archeology in such a fashion, where they would search for big name lost cities in search of legendary treasures, modern archeologist rather seek to look at the assemblage of architecture, artefacts, and remains as a whole to ask and answer the questions of who, when, what, why and how the site, and its inhabitants, existed. Though it is famous for its remarkable preservation, and untimely, tragic destruction during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the early 20th century excavations that have taken place at Pompeii are actually of very little use to scholars because Pompeii’s assemblage was not looked at as a whole; the early excavators did little to record where they had actually dug, and what they had actually uncovered, paying little attention to everything that was then not deemed significant (read: pretty) enough to attract visitors to their museum exhibitions.


We set up a little museum exhibition ourselves to allow the population of Narthaki, who have been hosting us for 13 years, to see what we are doing with what they consider to be their cultural and national heritage. Though I tried to select a representitive sample of what was unearthed at the site, I admit to selecting some of the metal artefacts for display on the basis that I thought they looked cool. Photo credits belong to the Kastro Kallithea Facebook Page 

In order to effectively interpret all of the potential evidences to modern archeological standards, and in order to provide nuanced answers, modern archeological excavations have necessarily become multidisciplinary functions to accommodate a variety of artistic and scientific trades. To name a few of these trades, archeological researchers might specialize in specific forms of pottery, in forensic bone analysis or in ancient architecture, assigned to their positions based on their knowledge or experience of their fields. By including specialists from many different fields, archeological projects can enjoy a diversity of opinions, allowing for a greater range of possible solutions for varying questions and problems. For myself, as a volunteer, I specialized in the analysis and classification of metal artefacts recovered from the site. I wouldn’t be striking the earth with a pickaxe and shovel, or scraping away a dirt using a trowel, but I instead be looking at the metal artefacts that have already been found by the project’s excavators, and would try to classify them in a database so that future researchers, namely the project leaders, could later use them as evidence to construct the overall purpose of the archeological assemblage. I was essentially supposed to write a secondary source for the artefacts, based on the primary source of the artefacts themselves. I’m definitely not an expert in metal artefacts myself—the researcher who was, however, Dr. Steven Hijmans, would be arriving a few weeks after me. Until he arrived, I would be on my own to interpret and classify the metal artefacts as best as I could, all by myself.

Though each different archeological dig has a different system and a different process for dealing with artefacts, to accurately account the information of where, how and in what condition an artefact was found, projects usually place their artefacts in convenient plastic Ziploc bags, individually labelled with the information relevant to their contents. For the metal artefacts recovered at Kastro Kallithea, this included an interpretation as to what the excavator thought their artefact was. For some artefacts, such as big-headed iron nails and bronze arrowheads, their identity and usage is more obvious, for other artefacts, being in the ground for 2500 years has taken its toll. Corrosion, rust, deformation or just breakage from being too fragile can obscure the purpose of an artefact, leaving its identification in the hands of the excavator. In the Kastro Kallithea Archeological Project, the typical excavator is a Canadian undergraduate student, working on the site as a field school course, for school credits and basic archeological experience. Though these students do typically lack expertise to properly identify artefacts, it is usually their unjaded enthusiasm for archeological experiences which obfuscates their classification efforts. Therefore, when presented with a completely unidentifiable chunk of iron, a the naïve student-excavator will sooner identify it as something exciting, like a sword or a piece of armour, than something more plausible, like a structural element or a nail. Having already participated in a couple of archeological field schools as a student in the past, the veneer and excitement of handling artefacts had already worn off me, and some of these more fanciful interpretations were easy for me to correct as I compiled the database. Despite the fact that I did correct mistakes that I considered obvious, there was still a great many artefacts I found myself unable to classify or understand, until I myself had the opportunity to be corrected by the expert, Dr. Hijmans.


A selection of things which students desperately wanted to find. The material in this picture is from the Archeological Museum of Almyros– because so much of the material from the project hasn’t been published yet, I can’t show off any of the artefacts or material I actually worked on.

I had a wonderful opportunity to work closely with Dr. Hijmans, wherein I learned a lot pertaining to the Hellenistic Greek’s usages of metal, but where I learned even more pertaining to the ever-ongoing process of archeological interpretation itself. Even as I had snootily prided myself on pointing out the obviously incorrect and over-ambitious interpretations of the metal artefacts by the mere student excavators, I myself even had my own interpretations overturned by Dr. Hijman. He was never cruel to me about my misinterpretations, but when I was corrected by him, it served to create more archeological knowledge for me to learn. For example, I interpreted a number of slim, iron sticks with weights ends to be nails of some sort, but, because of his authority in the field, as well as the information he corroborated from another archeological site, he convinced me that they were a form of iron arrowhead, an identity which he admitted that he himself questioned, reasoning that their overall weight and shape makes them more suitable as iron javelin tips.
Though Dr. Hijmans agreed with me that none of the 13 or 14 “sword fragments” recovered by the project likely even belonged to a blade of any kind, being part of the process of creating this knowledge, in my own interpretation of the artefacts, in my re-interpretation of the excavators’ interpretations, and in the re-interpretations of my interpretations by Dr. Hijmans and so forth, provided me with an integral experience of how collaboration works within a team setting, and caused me to reflect on how the creation of knowledge works.

Each research of an archeological project by necessity must collaborate to produce an overall thesis for the excavation, each sharing with each other their own specialized evidences to form the bigger picture, what is the implication of the bigger picture? Certainly, other archeological projects and students might take our overall thesis as evidence for their site or academic paper, but what about the world outside of academia? What other stakeholders are affected by what we as archeologists create as did and interpret? When our nicest artefacts inevitably turn up in display case in a local museum, what of our work will be present for the local Greeks to interpret? Will our academic scruples really matter to them? Even looking within academia, the grand archeologist of the past, riffed off of in media like Indiana Jones, uses archeological technique that would be rightfully classified as looting or grave robbing today. Undoubtable, in turn, future archeologists will properly look back at me with terrific displeasure for all of the malpractice I will have inadvertently done whilst creating my own archeological data. To lean Foucauldian about this, each time anyone interprets an artefact, sees one in a museum, reads about one in a paper, or digs one up from the earth, they are properly doing archeology from their perspective, and resigning an identity, significance and function to said artefact, regardless of who they are, or on what authority if any they interpret it.

These identifications that the archeologist of the past, I in the present, or the Greek in the future might place on these always be a product of the knowledges and perspectives that they hold properly to their time, and dependent on the significances that they attribute to them. We will never know the true whos, whats, wheres, whys and hows of these artefacts, because we ourselves belong to the present, and not to the time of the artefact’s usage in antiquity. The best we can really say that we do is to answer these questions from our basis in the present, based off of our points of view, using our modern archeological research techniques, and attempting to describe them with our modern, foreign language. To the contemporary “western world”, the ancient people who dwelled in what we now call Greece are made out to be the progenitor of many of our fondest institutions of science, philosophy, poetry and democracy: all concepts and institutions native to our modern selves and languages, which therefore cannot even truly be said to have existed even in name during the time they have been said to have existed.


A shepherd and his grandson– couple of local stakeholders in Kastro Kallithea’s archeological research

If we cannot truly know the uses of the things we uncover from practicing archeology, then what good is it? The value of archeological work resides in the eye of its beholders, or rather, its stakeholders. Actually, it would be better to say that the value of archeological work is placed and created by its beholders, in turn, transforming them into archeology’s stakeholders. Many modern Greeks attribute the identity of their modern state to a collective ancient identity, or hold their puported past to be their contribution to a globalized history,  what can be gleaned from Greek past might be seen to add legitimacy to an argument concerning the nature of the world or politics. What then, is the link that unites people of differing backgrounds, from different disciplines, to a field research project in a foreign country, and what motivates them to all contribute to the final archeological assemblage of knowledge? As continue to work on the material at the Kastro Kallithea Archeological Project, I aim investigate and highlight the Project’s personnel and participants’ thoughts towards their own stakes to in the research, to each other, and to the modern Greek population this via a series of video interviews, half of which have already been completed by the time that I am writing this, for the purpose of compiling their answer into a video-documentary for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College. I am searching for what the researchers themselves behold of archeology, and how they construct their collective values which unite them as a team. Though I am yet still unsure of my own stakes in archeological research, as to why I do what I do here—I suspect that it has less to do with finding the meaning of the artefacts of the past than it does for finding meaning in myself in the present.

Xavier at desk

Me at my workstation, featuring bags upon bags of metal artefacts.

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