Worth the Wait – Michael Freeman

October 19, 2016

Apollonia Pontica was a 7th century Greek colony dedicated to Apollo. The well-placed port town, located on the Black Sea coast of modern-day Bulgaria, would stand through Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman times until it was ultimately rechristened “Sozopol” during the Christian era, meaning “The City of Salvation” in Greek.

The Milesians who laid the foundations of Sozopol did well to distance themselves from their motherland. Today, the city sits hundreds of miles from Athens, hours away from Istanbul, and on the complete opposite side of the country from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Still, the cool sea breezes and gorgeous beaches make Sozopol an attractive site for Eastern European tourists and archaeologists alike.

The Black Sea laps at the Old Beach at Sozopol.
The Black Sea laps at the Old Beach at Sozopol.

Our daily schedule for the weeks of the dig at Apollonia Pontica: we would arrive at the site just after sunrise for a lecture on practical field skills. Then, we would work through the morning in our squares. By the early afternoon, we were basking by that same sea the Greek colonists had sailed almost 3,000 years ago, that same sea the old myths say Jason and Medea traversed when the world was still new.

Still, it wasn’t quite a vacation. I had been told by my supervisors at the Apollonia Pontica site that the excitement of digging up our first-ever artifacts would be overwhelming, but that the novelty would wear off quickly. By the final week of our season in Bulgaria with the Balkan Heritage Foundation, and about 700 sherds of undecorated pottery later, I saw their point.

Many of us had been working in the same 5 m x 5 m square of dirt for almost an entire month. It was estimated that we’d moved over 100 tons of dirt, and we had little to show for our efforts aside from a handful of special finds—mostly small pieces of metal, a couple of pieces of painted pottery, and a few shards of ancient glass. Our coastal, island site was certainly scenic, but this was little comfort to those of us who had dug from surface to bedrock without finding anything worth publishing.

The site. Photo by Michael Freeman.
View of the Black Sea from the site. Photo by Michael Freeman.

We had four days left at the dig, the sun was the hottest it had been all season, and most of our square was busy sorting through non-diagnostic fragments of pottery. The tedium of that morning felt unbearable, and it seemed that our break couldn’t come fast enough.
That was when we spotted it: an unusual surface, like a large, smooth, rounded rock. We continued to brush carefully around it, and as our curiosity grew we called our supervisor over for a look.

“Well, team,” she said, “it looks like you’ve found the top of an intact human skull. Good job!  Section off a rectangular perimeter all around here,” she told us, gesturing, “and we might just find a full burial.”

The Skull. Photo by Michael Freeman.
The Skull. Photo by Michael Freeman.

This is what we had been waiting for! Every student at the site had been hoping to find something comparable to an ancient interment, and we’d finally found one in our own square! Time was very limited at this point, so this grave became our focus for the remainder of the dig. By the end of that first day, we had made noticeable progress on the grave.

The Skeleton
The skeleton begins to emerge. Photo by Michael Freeman.

For those last few days of the season in Sozopol, our square had the attention of the entire team. Students would stop at our square whenever they happened to pass by, hoping to catch a look into the grave. The senior site supervisor, who usually spent the whole day filling out charts and paperwork, now paid us a visit every few minutes to check on our progress. The site’s osteologist, generally only ever found working in the lab, was now a bona fide member of our square.

As a result of all of this attention, we got a surge of information about our find. The osteologist told us that the entombed person was a woman who died in her fifties and who likely walked with a limp due to an injury to her right knee. The supervisors, noting that the body was unadorned and the grave was without goods, reasoned that the burial belonged to the Christian era. And it was proudly announced that after years of looking, we’d finally uncovered evidence of a graveyard, which corroborated the location of a nearby Roman basilica.

Thanks to some well-placed elbow grease, we were able to expose the full skeleton before the end of the final day of the season. It was photographed, drawn, and prepared for removal.

The full skeleton. Photo by Michael Freeman.
The full skeleton. Photo by Michael Freeman.

Many students are never blessed with such an exciting archaeological encounter, and certainly not their first summer in the field. Our square’s team had dug through several tons of soil before being fortunate enough to make our find, but we all agreed that it was worth the wait.

Our team. Photo by Michael Freeman.
Our team. Photo by Michael Freeman.