Professor of Archaeology Yannis Hamilakis leaves his office at the University behind every summer to work in Greece, at Koutroulou Magoula, an archaeological site rich with ancient histories. There, he engages with local communities while uncovering physical remains of the past. For the past three summers, he has invited teams of undergraduates to join him and other archaeologists in excavating the Middle Neolithic settlement. This year, Hamilakis and his team uncovered kilns, a large building and trenches, among other remnants of ancient societies, all of which the team has used to understand more about early cultures.
New discoveries at Koutroulou Magoula
The Koutroulou Magoula Archaeology and Archaeological Ethnography Project is an ongoing collaboration between Brown University, the University of London and the Greek Archaeological Service. “The main aim of this project is to understand the social life of Neolithic people but also to understand the uses of that site in later periods,” Hamilakis said.
The site was a village during the Neolithic period, which lasted from 10,000 B.C.E. to 4,000 B.C.E. Later, in the Bronze age, around 1500 B.C.E., and also in Medieval times, it was used for burials. The 6-meter-high mound that now resides at Koutroulou Magoula is a result of the gradual rebuilding of houses in the same spot. The team has only excavated a small section of the roughly10-acre site.
This year, the identification of kilns on site was impressive, given that “archaeologists had assumed that pottery at this time, around 6000 B.C.E., was fired in open fires,” Hamilakis said. “It was a surprise to have found closed kilns for the firing of pottery.”
The team also excavated a large, monumental building with surviving walls surpassing more than one meter in height. The size and elaborate construction of the building was very impressive for the Middle Neolithic period, as archaeologists were previously unaware of such large buildings in Greece at the time.
A third discovery was large ditches around the settlement. “We assumed they were used for the management of water both to prevent flooding of the settlement and to collect water to be used for pottery-making and other activities. At the same time it was a symbolic way of defining the community,” Hamilakis said.
Hamilakis was originally drawn to Koutroulou Magoula because he wanted to dig at an early site with a less hierarchical model of social organization. Koutroulou Magoula fit that criteria, as it represents a community relying on collaboration. “We do have evidence of community collaboration; for example, the large ditches are significant works to carry out,” Hamilakis said. The ditches, up to six meters wide, would have required a large number of people and a lot of coordination to construct over a long period of time.
Pottery technology was also extremely elaborate in the settlement. Prior to the pottery wheel, people used a time-consuming, detailed technique called coiling. It’s evident that the community that resided at Koutroulou Magoula invested significant time and knowledge in producing pottery as well as constructing houses and clay figurines, Hamilakis explained.
Found on the site since 2001, the clay figurines are another artifact which can be used to make inferences about the population of Koutroulou Magoula. The figurines are small statuettes, sometimes taking form as human beings and other times representing hybrids between birds and humans. There were about 450 found on site so far, and there exist several hypotheses about their purpose. In addition to perhaps representing symbols of communication or being toys, Hamilakis thinks “the most interesting (hypothesis) is that they were experiments with what it means to have a human body and relate to other beings or animals.”
Undergraduate student involvement
Since 2016, Hamilakis has brought undergraduate students to Greece, to facilitate their training in excavation, participation in on site seminars and design of independent projects for four weeks in the summer.
Each undergraduate student was able to fall into their own niche on the site. Amsel Saleem ’21.5, who is concentrating in international and public affairs, was fascinated by the various archaeological experts invited for the seminars. “There were experts for every little find,” she said. Finds included pottery shards, animal bones, house models, figurines and ground stones. “It was so interesting to hear them talk about the minute things that we were finding in the trenches and have someone tell us what we found and why (it was) significant.”
Saleem’s independent project was framed toward the ethnography of the region. Her final product was a “fictional interpretation of what happened at the dig. … I wanted to combine ethnography into it. I put the experience of all of us: students, teachers and locals participating into a fictional construct,” Saleem said.
Eleanor Eng ’21, who is concentrating in computer science, worked on a photogrammetry independent project, which entailed “making 3D models of areas and objects by photographing them and running the photos through a program to stitch them together.”
Eng mapped the big trench on the site as well as regions with scattered pottery and several kilns. The images she created are “very useful in preserving the proportionality and relative positions of features in the site. So much about the state of the site can change in a year, so if the excavation continues in following seasons, things might look different,” Eng said.
Collaborating with the local community
Along with the archaeological work, Hamilakis feels very strongly about having close ties with the local community. Each year, the team engages in community archaeology, where locals visit and participate in the excavation process. At the end of the season, they also produce a theatrical performance about a theme related to the site. “We do that to communicate some of the results we found during the season, and to create a place of cultural exchange and interaction among archaeologists, students and local communities,” Hamilakis said.
In addition to the site being a location of culture, interaction and knowledge, “it’s really important that the community feels a sense of responsibility towards, and ownership of, the site,” Eng said.
“This experience emphasized to me that technology can play a role in the past as well as the future,” Eng said. She encourages others to get involved in fields and opportunities they have little exposure to. One of the most valuable outcomes of her experience was “getting to do things with people of so much expertise in an area that you might not be exposed to otherwise.”
Similarly, Saleem added, “what I learned is that you are immersed into the nitty-gritty of it, how hard it is, how physically draining and how mentally draining it is. You’re thrown into a separate environment that you’re not used to and a different culture, and you learn so much.”
Hamilakis emphasizes that “archaeology can be fun. Excavation is not just about the past. Archaeology involves both past societies and contemporary societies. It’s a site where different communities and people are brought together and is also a place for artists and others to gain inspiration and experiment.”