Reflections on the 2016 Summer Season

Please skip down to the last section for those mainly interested in events and photos from the summer!


Most archaeologists I know experience bipolar professional lives. For 9 months of the year, we teach in classrooms, attend administrative meetings, and do all the things expected of university professors – from consoling downtrodden freshmen during office hours to regaling trustees at sumptuous dinners. As packed as these 9 months are, they are when we catch our breath and recharge for the breathless 3 summer months when we wake up at 4:30am and return to base looking like we just rolled down the side of a mountain (if we’re lucky).

University vs. Dig Life

The difficulty is not the dichotomy between these two lifestyles – we obviously love what we do – but the sometimes rough transition that happens twice a year. Still, there are unique opportunities here. After almost two decades of fieldwork, I especially appreciate students who observe certain peculiarities as we settle in and ask insightful questions at the onset of each transition, which I no longer discern. Here are some of the best ones from this month.

2016 Brandeis MA Students in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies


This is quite simple – any job you can get. I’ve had regular team members who do everything from middle school teaching to shovel bumming during the year. As jarringly different as the two “seasons” of the year might be, I feel fortunate to interact with many of the same people throughout the year and intersperse my summer research into my year round activities. Yet I don’t subscribe to the notion that a university post should be the ultimate goal for every archaeologist, though it (still) suits the profession quite well for various reasons. We need archaeologists teaching in primary school and leading small local museums. Working in a university is not for everyone despite intense pressures and normalized expectations that it should be.


No, not that type of love contrary to the (usually) incorrect assumption by some that dig life=wanton debauchery. As I just explained to a student who observed how close our returning team members are, the summer months are like dog years. The experience is the closest most of us will get to something resembling military life. You spend almost every waking moment with your teammates. You laugh, rejoice, and cry together at each discovery and setback. You quickly discover the obvious warts but also the distinct charm of each teammate as if he or she were a family member. There’s very little room for shame when privacy is costly and sharing is a necessity for survival. One of the surprisingly common questions I’ve overheard that would not be considered normal back home is, “May I borrow your toothbrush? I can’t seem to find mine.” You learn much more about the habits and foibles of teammates than you often wish, but you wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m still the best of friends with teammates I haven’t seen in over a decade besides the requisite holiday cards and the occasional video chat.


I will stick to Mediterranean archaeology since it’s what I know best. Choosing the best program is a distinctly personal exercise. I’ve sent students with at least a secondary interest in archaeology to PhD programs in Classics, Ancient History, Anthropology, Archaeology, History, Near Eastern Studies, Maritime Studies, etc. Each program’s archaeological strengths are specific based on current faculty members and the legacy of past ones, who have invariably left an indelible mark on the program. Here at Brandeis, despite Cyrus H. Gordon‘s four decade absence, you can still find traces of his legacy that inform and support my research to this day. While I discourage students from choosing a program based on a specific faculty member, I encourage them to understand the historical ethos of each university. It’s the best indicator of how a student might fit in a program long term despite evolving research interests and faculty departures.

So for me, I chose Penn over Harvard (Emily Vermeule was a huge influence – if she could reach the upper echelon of Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, why couldn’t an Asian guy?) largely due to Penn’s history of incubating scientific pursuits in archaeology (e.g. the programs that became the Cornell Dendrochronology Lab, BU Center for Remote Sensing, Texas A&M Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and, much more humbly, my own Brandeis ARCHEM Lab). I also liked the fact that I could easily move between graduate groups and courses. I benefited immensely from interacting with classicists, anthropologists, art historians, scientists, ancient Near East scholars, etc.

Ultimately, classical studies has been the place for me despite my sometimes less than obvious fit at first glance. Ever since I first discovered my sister’s copy of the Iliad in middle school and read it cover to cover in one sitting, I was hooked. Four years of high school Latin followed by a stint juggling Biophysics with Classics as an undergrad led me to Penn. I believe working in Greece is about the entire experience, which for me is most enjoyable through the lens of classical studies. I will conclude by looping around to a day this summer that brings this perspective into focus.


amnisos-hill-northThe low hill at the ancient site of Amnisos looking north towards Dia and Thera beyond

After a workday in mid-June, one of the conservators at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum wanted to take us to a suitable clearing where locals recreationally fly drones. We had just discovered that one of our new teammates, Ian Roy, was a drone aficionado. A bit to our surprise (but not really since it’s Greece) the clearing ended up being near an archaeological site – Amnisos. We had the best drone instruction one could ever desire from Ian, and it ended in spectacular fashion with Ian’s racer drone  when his signal cut out (Ian’s video here).

Drone Lessons from Ian Roy

Classicists will remember Amnisos as the place Odysseus landed on Crete. So we were basically flying drones around a legendary locale in Homeric literature as one would do at a park back at home (and crash land in the case of Ian’s racer drone). You can read all about the locale and its significance in Professor Gregory Nagy’s posting at CHS.  I was fortunate enough to provide an archaeologist’s interloping perspective and discuss Amnisos briefly myself. And here we were “accidentally” frolicking in the shadow of Homer.

Amnisos Hill looking west

There is in fact much more history here than one can initially imagine. As I tell my students, archaeologists need to see 4th dimensionally. We know that the Minoans prized double harbors, and this was likely the situation at Amnisos until sedimentation from the rivers flanking the low hill slowly altered the geomorphology of the area. In the photo above, you can see where the Karteros River empties out near the airport runway today, which is exactly where J.D.S. Pendlebury would lead bathing excursions from Knossos and march into the sea wearing his yellow linen embroidered with double axes; Vronwy Hankey reminisced about this indelible image in 1997. In the distance, one can also make out Mount Juktas and Mount Ida with its Idaean Cave.

Harbor Works at Amnisos

Below that photo looking west, on the western slopes of the low hill, Dr. Athanasia Kanta is conducting incredibly important research into the port history of the site, which was considered overblown in the accounts of classical authors until this impressive discovery (monumental architecture befitting the harbor of Knossos seems to have been hidden below a later Temple of Zeus).

On the eastern slopes, we, of course, have the famous Villa of the Lilies excavated by Dr. Spyridon Marinatos. While qualitatively impressive, the villa gave some scholars doubts about Amnisos’ reputed role as the harbor of Knossos, greatest of the Minoan urban centers.

Trekking up the Low Hill

Those of us who are classically inclined on the Mouliana Project team got a kick out of one related everyday event. While we worked at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, we stayed in a house several miles inland from Amnisos. If you were to follow the low hill on its east side from the Villa of the Lilies just past the national highway, you immediately come upon a blue sign, which we saw at the conclusion of each workday, pointing cars off the road to our house and directing them to the Cave of Eileithuia, also discussed at length by Professor Nagy. Just another day on the job for those of us fortunate enough to work in Greece.

View Towards Eileithuia Cave

In lieu of mazas memagmenas meliti, we offer Loukoumades drenched in Cretan honey


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