University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Processing Pottery in Kenchreai – Gavin Blasdel


By: Anne Tiballi

September 19, 2016

Summer. To me, it means two things: Greece and archaeology. For the past four years I have spent all or most of my summers in the country doing archaeological work. It all started in 2013 when my advisor Joseph L. Rife at Vanderbilt University, where I was an M.A. student in Classical Studies, invited me to serve as a Teaching Assistant for a summer archaeology course at Kenchreai. Before that season, I had no archaeological experience of any kind; after that season I couldn’t get enough. Later that summer, I spent six weeks at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens touring dozens and dozens of archaeological sites all over Greece. I was hooked. Now, as a Ph.D. student in Ancient History at Penn, material culture is just as important as textual evidence in my approach to the study of the ancient world.

View from the author's desk at the Isthmia Museum, overlooking the lapidarium and Temple of Poseidon. Photo by Gavin Blasdel.
View from the author’s desk at the Isthmia Museum, overlooking the lapidarium and Temple of Poseidon. Photo by Gavin Blasdel.

Every year since that first summer I have returned to work as a senior staff member at Kenchreai. The site is one of the two ancient ports of Corinth that straddle the Isthmus: Kenchreai on the Saronic Gulf to the south and Lechaion on the Corinthian Gulf to the north. Both ports (as they exist today) are Roman-era constructions, dating to the period after Julius Caesar’s refounding of Corinth as a Roman colony in 46 BCE. Kenchreai is perhaps best known for being the place where Lucius transforms from a donkey back into human form in Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass (2nd century CE) and where the apostle Paul shaved his head because of a vow (Acts 18:18). Christian pilgrims following the footsteps of Paul today still make a brief stop at the site on their way to or from ancient Corinth.

Using a Munsell chart to examine one of the several hundred small-handled stoppers discovered at Threpsiades. Photo by Jayse Weaver.
Using a Munsell chart to examine one of the several hundred small-handled stoppers discovered at Threpsiades. Photo by Jayse Weaver.

Our excavation runs a field school through the Center for Hellenic Studies, which means almost all of our junior staff members are undergraduates. The number of students each season ranges from about a dozen to nearly 40, depending on the number of applications. Most of these students have never participated in an archaeological dig before, and all come in with preconceived notions of what archaeology is. One of our biggest tasks is reconciling them with the reality that they will not, in fact, be digging up crystal skulls and thwarting Nazi plans for world domination Indiana Jones-style–although our project does focus on a Roman cemetery full of regular human skulls, and the Germans did have a significant presence at Kenchreai during World War II, as the network of concrete military fortifications resting atop our site attests. As our students discover, the true archaeological experience is less glamorous, but no less rewarding or meaningful.

The author speaking to our students at Corinth with my puppy assistant. Photo by Jayse Weaver.
The author speaking to our students at Corinth with my puppy assistant. Photo by Jayse Weaver.

For the past couple of years the project has centered on an early Byzantine (6th/7th century CE) building complex near the waterfront, called “Threpsiades” after the property owner. Originally excavated in 1976 by the Greek Archaeological Service, the site was never published. Last year we produced a preliminary report of the finds, which mostly consisted of a massive pottery assemblage of over 52,000 (!) sherds. To continue the work, this summer we developed a rotation of several different stations for our students. There was a cleaning station, which focused on restoring the original 1976 excavation levels at the site–a tall order, since the site served as a garbage dump for the past 40 years or so. We never knew what we were going to find–sneakers, unopened Coke bottles, cow bones, even an 8-track tape! Drawing was another station that sought to capture the architectural features of the complex as they were more fully revealed, especially the walls. A third station was 3D modeling of objects, either larger features in situ, such as column bases, or of smaller finds, like lamps.

Students washing pottery at the Isthmia Museum. Photo by Gavin Blasdel.
Students washing pottery at the Isthmia Museum. Photo by Gavin Blasdel.

I was in charge of the final station, pottery processing. All of this work took place at the Isthmia Museum, where we store our finds. After doing some preliminary work on the ceramics from Threpsiades in 2014 and 2015, this year we moved forward with inventorying any diagnostic objects, that is, any pieces that can provide us with usable data. Inventorying an object is a long process. First, all the pottery has to be washed. This stage can get quite monotonous (especially with 52,000 sherds to wash!), but is also very educational. By handling the pottery so closely, our students familiarized themselves with the material in our assemblage. They not only learned to identify the different parts of vessels but also to distinguished between the various types of amphora, fine-ware, cook-ware, and lamps. After determining which objects to inventory, each individual item received a unique number, which was written on the sherd itself and on its own bag and tag. Students performed all of these tasks in rotation. After being entered into our database, the inventoried objects were then drawn and photographed by senior staff members. Coordinating all the different tasks and individuals involved was a huge challenge, but thankfully it all went smoothly! We couldn’t have accomplished as much as we did without such engaged and attentive students–I am excited to see what next summer in Greece holds!


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