November 12, 2012

Bucknell professors leading the first-ever U.S.-Greece excavation in Thebes discuss their discoveries during the historic archaeological dig.

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By April Line

LEWISBURG. Pa. — The first open lecture on the Thebes Excavation at Ismenion hill drew an excited crowd. The project is the first-ever joint Greek-American archeological dig at the site. The night began with Stephanie Larson, associate professor of classics, thanking student volunteers and highlighting some of their important finds from the past two seasons, which included beads, coins, and a sequence of letters on a clay rooftile that could have easily been missed. For each of the last two summers, Larson and fellow Associate Professor of Classics Kevin Daly have led groups of students to Thebes, Greece — cooperating with the Greek government and Ephorates of Antiquities to run this excavation.

Thebes is an unsung haven of significance in the field of antiquities. While it has long been suspected that Thebes' civic and religious contributions have yet to be fully understood, the dig at the Ismenion hill, in cooperation with the 9th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities and the 23rd Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities, will go a long way to defining the historical and cultural contributions of this major ancient Greek city-state. The team has already made a number of finds that signify Thebes' importance in the classical world. One of the first projects the Bucknell team tackled was generating a consistent, electronic topographical map of Thebes.

Daly said, "[We needed to] set it firmly in three dimensions. While a GIS (Geographical Information Systems) analysis of Theban archeology had already begun in the early 2000s, a particular challenge has been getting firm fixed points on a truly local grid." The new maps were generated using an iPad application, electromagnetic imaging, and measurements to sea-level.

Another reason that the dig at Ismenion is so significant is that great portions of it have never been excavated. The finds the Bucknell team has made so far, which have mostly been made in areas that have some record of previous excavation, serve to further contextualize what is already known about the region, and to trace burial practices back as far as the second millennium B.C.E.

In a foundation trench to the eastern side of the last of three temples that stood on the Ismenion hill, a red clay askos was found. An askos is a type of pot (the term askos denotes the vessel's shape, similar to a teapot), and this artifact is an example of fineware that is painted with scenes involving sphinxes.

"Sphinxes were heavily involved in the mythology concerning Thebes, particularly in the mythic story of Oedipus, king of Thebes, who, according to legend, killed the Sphinx that plagued the city," according to Larson. "So it is exciting to have a depiction of sphinxes found within the civic shrine of Thebes and from the same time period as Sophocles was writing in Athens." Larson said the find helps to re-contextualize Thebes as an important Classical city in the Boeotian region of the Mediterranean.

One area this project also involves is a parking lot which rests just to the northwest of the Ismenion. A bothros (a Greek term literally translated as "trash pit") was discovered there. The team took many whole and partial clay pots from the garbage pit, and have been able to separate organic samples, as well as to date the pots and discern some of their uses.

"We're going to get a nice typology of cooking pots, which are tied to the fineware pots, which are tied to a very tight sequence of coins," Daly said. "Cooking pots are, at times, a better marker of time."

Stavros Niarchos Foundation grant
The joint project was made possible through a three-year, $350,000 grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, one of the world's leading international philanthropic organizations. Additional funding includes contributions from The Gladys Delmas Foundation, the Loeb Library Foundation and Bucknell University.

For the 2013 dig, the team plans to continue exploring a tomb discovered near the end of the 2012 session, as well as to explore three additional areas, including a 10-by-10 foot site atop the temple that has not previously been excavated. Larson and Daly currently are seeking contributions to continue the project well beyond 2013.

Contact: Division of Communications

View images from the dig.