For outsiders, a common view of Classical archaeology is that scholars only study complete and beautiful artefacts and vessels such as the ones that are found in museums. Yet, the miniscule and not necessarily ‘pretty’ artefacts are also essential to understanding past lives. This year at the site of Kastro Kallithea, the team focused on processing of artefacts and ecofacts rather than actual excavation; this meant that the smallest details and clues were processed, recorded and analyzed. An example of this detailed work is the process of soil flotation and sorting which proved that we didn’t need to excavate to get our hands dirty.
Soil samples are taken during excavation from floor levels and areas such as hearths and pithoi (storage containers) for examination through soil flotation. This allows the recovery of organics and small artefacts such as ceramics and plaster and ecofacts such as bone, shells, seeds and charcoal.
In the soil flotation process we separate the smallest of artefacts and ecofacts in order to obtain better insight into the kinds of organic matter that were associated with the life and lifestyle of the inhabitants of the ancient city of Kastro Kallithea. In this process we used a handmade flotation machine. It consisted of two major basins, in the largest we placed a water source (a hose) and a mesh screen (this we referred to as a reservoir as depicted above).
Our soil sample was initially placed in the reservoir and mixed in with water. The light organic material, such as carbonized seeds and roots became separated and drifted to the surface as a result of the difference in mass and was caught in the mesh screen of the second container. (Depicted below).
Both flot and residu are left to dry after which they are sorted into the categories ‘faunal remains’, ‘plant remains’, ‘charcoal’, ‘ceramics’ and ‘stone’ using a magnifying glass, bamboo sticks and tweezers.
These clues can help us infer aspects of ancient life. For instance, seeds and bones may be indicative of what people were eating both through species and isotopic analysis. At Kastro Kallithea carbonized seeds recovered from pithoi are sent to a lab in Holland for species analysis, which may help us gain insight into people’s diet and food production. Charcoal can also be recovered in this process and large samples can reveal aspects of the natural environment and perhaps the function of a room. These are just a few examples of what can be learned from recovered items.