5 Fierce Women from Antiquity You Should Know

Five Fierce Women in Antiquity

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I’d like to talk about five powerful, clever and resilient female leaders in antiquity: Apama, Cleopatra II, Fulvia, Regilla and Zenobia.

When looking at women in the ancient world, it’s important to recognise they had significant hurdles to exercising power in public spaces. It was generally oriented from the perspective, as Sarah Pomeroy writes, that “the private preceded the public: when public roles existed, they developed from family relationships.” So strategic marriages, powerful parents and acting as regent for future rulers offered elite women many opportunities to exercise more authority than any other women in society at many points throughout history. By acknowledging that their pathways to power lay through their bonds to family relationships is not to say they lacked agency or diminish their accomplishments, but simply to contextualise the perspective through which power flowed. The five fierce females I’ve picked took power for themselves by hook or crook and were forces to be reckoned with, facing the triumphs and tragedies they were dealt.

1. Apama, the first Queen of the Seleucid Empire (4th century BCE)

Though there is not much written about Apama, I include her first on my list because she came into power from a politically disadvantageous position and ended up having three cities named after her and was key to the founding of the Seleucid dynasty of Asia Minor!

Apama was born into a high-ranking family in the Sogdian region of the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th century BCE. Apama’s father, Spitamenes, was a powerful military leader who successfully led armed resistance against Alexander the Great. Spitamenes was murdered in Bactria by local clans wishing to sue for peace with the Macedonian army. It is unknown what transpired following this – with the elite women of Spitamenes’ family or other Sogdian elites – but four years later, Apama was married to Alexander’s top-tier Companion, Seleucus, at the Great Wedding of Susa. This was a mass marriage between Iranian noblewomen and the higher status Macedonian military, orchestrated by Alexander. 

It is impossible to know what the women thought of this, since their voices are entirely absent from the record, and they were effectively high-status captives being married to an enemy army to cement their new political reality. Perhaps the elite women of Sogdiana were kept in relative protection like the captive women of Persian King Darius’ household (Diod. 17.37.5-38, Curt. 3.12.15-26). Given the brutal circumstances of her father’s death, it’s unlikely this was a comfortable period of her life, however, she would climb to the highest position possible in the new empire that Alexander was carving into Asia Minor.

Apama was the only wife we know of from these unions who was not abandoned after Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. It is very likely that she was a formidable person. Surviving and navigating the wars between the Macedonians in the Achaemenid territories, the wars of the Successors (Alexander’s Companions) and carving out an empire with her husband across the largest and most ethnically diverse of all the territories was surely no easy feat. Seleucus took control of the conquered eastern empire and managed to hold it through the twists and turns of alliances, marriages and wars in the 20 years that followed Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. 

Her familial and cultural connections were likely assets to Seleucus holding this territory in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death. Apama spoke the languages and understood all the court customs. Over nearly 30 years Apama and Seleucus raised three children, who were part of dynastic marriages themselves, and continued the dynasty they founded. Apama disappeared from the record around the time Seleucus took another wife, Stratonice, a princess of the Antigonid dynasty of Macedonia. Romantics suggest that it was only after Apama’s death that Seleucus remarried again, and only for political gain. This is suggested since Seleucus allowed his son and heir to marry Stratonice when it became evident that they had a romance of their own.

2. Cleopatra II, Queen of Egypt (2nd century BCE)

It is always tricky talking about the Ptolemies. They all shared similar names and were constantly fighting and making alliances with one another. Also, check out the episode ‘Dysfunctional Families‘ on Two Friends Talk History in series 1, if you’re curious to hear more. Of the Cleopatra’s in this dynasty, I think the famous though lesser-known Cleopatra II was a powerful queen who was dealt a difficult hand but gave as good as she got. 

Cleopatra II was born (pre-145 BCE) into a period of war and instability, with two brothers who were frequently at odds with one another. This triad was a pretty dysfunctional, which I talked about in my podcast on their A+ level sibling rivalries.  Early in the reign of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic kingdom was involved in a series of ongoing wars with the Seleucid Empire, which at this point numbered six (170-168 BCE).

Cleopatra II was married first to her brother, the Ptolemy VI Philometor (mother-loving) in 175 BCE. They ruled well together and had several children, though they were essentially always at war with  their younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon (fatty). After the death of PhilometorPhyscon to wrestle the throne from her which led to a civil war. While she had the stewardship of the kingdom, Cleopatra had been popular with the people, but their warring left her in a dangerous position. To protect her children from her first marriage she agreed to a political union and peace. They were married after 145 BCE and it was pretty rocky, with Game of Thrones levels of twists and turns.  

Typically, writers characterise the breakdown of their marriage as some type of jealousy between mother and daughter. I would strongly disagree. After the birth of their son, and Ptolemy VIII’s legitimate heir, he began a relationship with his teenage daughter-in-law, Cleopatra III. Things spiralled into another civil war once Ptolemy also married his wife’s daughter in secret. Cleopatra II raised and army and tried to have her husband killed; Ptolemy VIII fled with his new bride and the children of his sister-wife. Like something out of a True Crime podcast, to punish his sister-wife he had his nephew and next in line for the throne murdered and sent to his estranged wife on her birthday. Obviously, Cleopatra II wasn’t going to take this lying down, and continued to rule from Egypt alone while her exiled husband and daughter ruled from Cyprus from 132 – 124 BCE. This tore the country apart and weakened the empire. Eventually, the three monarchs were forced into a reconciliation, and they reigned together until his death. All. Three. Together. 

Cleopatra II had a pretty nightmarish existence by modern standards, but what is fascinating is that through her leadership and strength she gained enough support from the Egyptian people to have them side with her time and again against her brother and managed to rule alone for over a decade. It was very unusual for a queen to manoeuvre a king out of power and hold on to it.

3. Fulvia, The First Lady of Republican Populists (1st century BCE)

This Roman matriarch was a total boss. Criticised for her ambition, publicity and cleverness, Fulvia loyally supported – some suggest manipulated – the statecraft of the Roman Republic. The sign of an interesting woman, Fulvia was maligned by Roman historians and writers as “having nothing womanly about her except her body” (Vell.Pat. 2.74.2). Fulvia was a wealthy and well-connected noblewoman and though constrained by the norms of her day, she was active in politics, commanded the loyalties of street gangs and armies in the Late Republic. Through her three marriages to several of the most powerful and popular Roman political leaders of the first century BCE, Fulvia even went to war against the future Augustus – her son in law! Fulvia is definitely one of my all-time favourites.

Fulvia’s rise to fame was established through her first two marriages to Publius Clodius Pulcher and Gaius Scribonius Curio. Both marriages were cut short by their violent deaths, Clodius by political murder and Curio through military action in Africa. It was her marriage to Clodius that cemented her in the A-list of elite Roman women; Clodius was a massively influential populist leader of the Populares faction (leader of the Plebians). He mobilised gangs and incited violence to suit his causes, seriously aggravating the conservative elite (Optimates) faction, which led to his murder. Fulvia, politically savvy from the start, used her position as the mourning wife of a famous man to show how devoted she was and how his name lived on through her. Every future connection she made drew on the persona she cultivated in the wake of Clodius’ death – that of the dutiful and noble wife. By the time of her third marriage, to Marcus Antonius, she was stratospherically powerful. According to Cassius Dio, Fulvia controlled the politics of Rome through her financial and personal influence on senators and the public. 

In the wake of Caesar’s death and Octavian’s ascension into Roman politics, he and Marcus Antoinus and Lepidus formed a second Triumvirate. This alliance was cemented through his marriage to Fulvia’s daughter (Marcus Antonius’ stepdaughter), Claudia. This went south relatively soon after which relations between Octavian and Antonius soured by 41 BCE. Fulvia spoke to senators on behalf of her husband and then raised an army to defend her family’s interests while Marcus was abroad. She worked with Marcus’ brother Lucius to raise eight legions against Octavian to protect her husband’s interests where she felt he was being side-lined. This brought Fulvia and Octavian to war in 41 BCE, called the Perusine War. 

Fulvia and Lucius Antonious’ army occupied Rome briefly, though eventually they were forced to take refuge in Perusia. Marcus appeared to be unaware of the conflict, accused in poetry, of all places, of being too busy with affairs in Cappadocia (with Glaphyra) to resolve his wife’s jealousy. The poem is racy but worth having a look (Martial 11.20). Things did not go Fulvia’s way and she had to flee to Greece, where, apparently, Marcus rebuked and abandoned her. Fulvia died soon after in exile in Greece, and the newly reconciled Octavian and Marcus blamed the whole thing on Fulvia. Her legacy lived on in the children she bore in each marriage, and in infamy, as she became the counterpoint to what a “good Roman wife” should be. Appian blames her weakness and jealousy as the cause of the war (B.Civ 5.3.19). From antiquity onwards, Fulvia has drawn the short straw when compared to Octavia (Octavian’s sister and Marcus’ next wife), however I think there is a lot to learn from Fulvia’s reach and impact on the politics of the time. Even though she was not technically allowed to participate, she left her mark and remains one of the few powerful women of the past we know a great deal about.

4. Regilla, Patroness in Greece 2nd century CE 

Appia Annia Regilla was born in 125 CE into a wealthy family with significant influence as relatives of the Roman Empress Faustina the Elder, wife of Antoninus Pius. Regilla was 14 years old when she was married to the richest man in Greece, Herodes Atticus, who was 40 years her senior. This was a fairly typical age differential among the elite, whereas the lower classes typically married much closer in age. Herodes served under Hadrian as a prefect of the Province of Asia, then tutored Antoninus Pius’ adoptive sons, the future Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. 

When the couple resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of Greek elites and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). This priestess position allowed Regilla the unique honour of being the only woman present at the Olympic Games in 153 CE. From her own funds Regilla dedicated a monumental fountain (nymphaeum) in Olympia with a bull statue in her own name and decorated the fountain with statues of the Antonines and her own family. Herodes commissioned an aqueduct to channel water into this fountain. 

Regilla commissioned many architectural works that highlighted her family (she had four children with Herodes) and their links to the ruling imperial family in Rome. It was not commonly the case that women would dedicate benefactions in their own names; more frequently these dedications would be in the names of their family or alongside a male relative. Regilla seemed to have her own interests in doing things for herself, acutely acting by her own agency to leave her mark. It’s fortunate she did. In 160 CE, while heavily pregnant, she was murdered by her husband or a member of his household. Her family brought suit against Herodes, as there was no doubt it was not an accident. Marcus Aurelius stepped in and prevented his former teacher’s prosecution and that was the end of it. The following year Herodes dedicated the spectacular Odeon of Athens in memory of his wife, in 161 CE, which still stands today at the foot of the Acropolis. Herodes spent the rest of his life building monuments, giving expensive gifts to religious organisations and inscribing surfaces with professions of his never-ending grief for the loss of his wife. To see photos of the buildings and decorations Herodes and Regilla sponsored, you can check out my post here on Herodes Atticus!

5. Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra 

Zenobia was the next in a line of scary eastern queens that shook the Romans in their sandals. Zenobia led a revolt against the Romans from Palmyra which spread into Egypt and Asia Minor and led to war.

Zenobia was married to the Palmyrene chieftain Septimius Odenathus, a client king of the Romans, who was subsequently murdered in 267 CE. Odenathus had kept the eastern Roman provinces together against the threat of the Sassanians, once he died, Zenobia continued this policy and remained loyal to Rome. This change in relationship status allowed her to be the sole ruler while acting as regent for her young son. Once in control of her own court and interests, Zenobia seems to have been a patroness of the arts and literature, creating a court of intellectuals and beacon of culture. Fluent in several languages, Zenobia learned Greek and was given a History of Alexandria by Callinicus. It is not hard to imagine that she was visualising herself as a new Cleopatra VII, since the Romans were certainly projecting that on to her at the time.

When the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus died in 270 CE, Zenobia took the opportunity to revolt against the Empire. Emperor Aurelian fought the armies of Zenobia at Antioch and Emesa, then put down her supporters’ rebellions in Egypt. 

Aurelian defeated the queen and took her hostage back to Rome. Achieving one symbolic victory over a foreign eastern queen that was denied the Romans when, instead of capturing Cleopatra VII she took her own life in Alexandria, Aurelian paraded the captured queen in a triumph in 274 CE. If we are to believe the Historia Augusta, a problematic source document but cited none the less, the text also suggests that the queen was retired to an estate on the Tibur. Aurelian is said to have praised her intelligence, military acumen and beauty, praising her as a worthy adversary.

What About Other Women?

The daily lives of women in the Roman world are often characterised as within the home. For women of elite social status, that was in a large part accurate, though not the entire story. From wealthy households, low-income families or the enslaved, women in the Roman Empire were skilled in a broad array of professions which might surprise you. 

As now, not everyone could be a homeowner or afford staff, fine objects or even decorations of any kind. Those who could afford a home (domus) would use it as part of how they communicated their status to the outside world. A well-off family might display portraits of ancestors (women and men) in the central hall of their domus, in the atrium. How a matriarch ran an elite home involved many staff and servants, and she might have had to do so alone for many years while her husband was away on campaigns, or in advantageous political posts. The matriarch would have been in charge of assets, correspondences, keeping clients connected to their patron and so on. The nuance of ‘a wife’s work’ in this context really extended into areas like accountant, personal administrator, event planner and social networker.  The house staff might include cooks, laundresses, gardeners, pastry chefs, spinners and weavers, hairdressers, butchers, cleaners, waiting staff, artists and artisans – if they were having mosaics installed said atrium or maybe a fresco painted on the wall- and the list could go on. Many of these jobs could be performed by women, and this is only a small fraction of the types of employment if you were a freeperson. Enslaved women might do many of these jobs as well. 

In antiquity as ever, having educated or skilled daughters was a means to greater financial stability for the family and into their own adulthood or marriage later on. If a woman came from a family in the trades, it stands to reason she would participate in some way within that trade, and thus her knowledge and expertise would increase her desirability as a partner. Pliny the Elder mentions female painters in The Natural History, who were paid and perceived favourably to their male counterparts. He lists several women whose fathers trained them in the arts: Timarete, daughter of Micon was renowned for her panel painting; Irene daughter of Cratinus (a painter), painted mythical characters and daily life scenes; Aristarete, daughter of Nearchus, painted the god Aesculapius. He notes Iaia of Cyzicus remained single but was a prolific painter of women’s portraits, whose talent and expedition were unmatched; Pliny says she was even paid more than well-known male painters whose works filled galleries (HN 35.40.83-87).  

With these professional pathways for women in the ancient world in mind, I have created a series of colouring sheets with an activity related to the characters from Vita Romana! If you’d like to explore the different roles of women in the Roman period. 

You can download it here!

Sources

Milnor, K. (2011). ‘Women in Roman Society’. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World. The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, 2011-02-01, Vol.1. Oxford University Press.

Pomeroy, S. (2009). The Murder of Regilla : A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rowlandson, J. (1998). Women and society in Greek and Roman Egypt : A sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehorne, J. (1994). Cleopatras /, London; New York: Routledge.

31. Viewing Erotic Images from Antiquity

In this NSFW blogpost, I discuss sex in ancient history.

This week, I am launching series 2 of Two Friends Talk History with its new format! My guest is Dr Briana King, a good friend and frequent travel companion with whom I discuss sex in the ancient world. Our conversation took many tantalising turns, one of which was the way that erotic objects were presented in the ancient world. You can find the episode here:

Sex in the Ancient World Two Friends Talk History

This week's episode is Sex in the Ancient World where Zofia is joined by Dr Briana King to discuss how we can understand sexuality in antiquity, how people in the ancient world used erotic art in their daily lives, Spartan wedding rituals and more! Join us as we explore this tantalising and sometimes titillating topic together!Find us on InstagramSupport us through Patreon Buy our merch on RedbubbleExplore more resources and topics about the ancient world on ArchaeoArtistMusic by the wonderfully talented Chris Sharples

Effectively, any surface could be decorated with erotic art and the meanings behind it were not limited to arousal. The idea of hanging a phallic wind chime outside your front door, decorating store-fronts with priapic imagery or giving a child the gift of a protective phallus necklace might seem strange now, but the phallocentric worlds experienced in the past were comfortable with nudity to a greater degree and had imbued it with many layers of meaning. Several types of domestic and dedicatory objects that represent the manifest desire for good luck and abundance in the ancient world, have the power to make modern audiences squirm.

The prevalence of erotic imagery in the ancient world was common among the Greeks and Romans, though explored differently. Greek art depicting sexual activity and erotic scenes did feature selectively on painted pottery, with evidence suggesting they were only around for a relatively short period of time. Hermae were large sculptural rectangular plinths with a large phallus on the front, topped with a bust of a god or man, and considered protective. To destroy one was a sacrilege and a real existential threat to the city-state. As Thucydides recounted, just prior to the departure of the Athenian navy to Sicily in 415 BCE, many heads of the hermae were vandalised, and since they were viewed as divine protection from evil (like the evil eye) and placed liberally throughout cities at crossroads, this was viewed as an attack on the wellbeing of the city. Alcibiades was accused by his political rivals and had to flee the city for his life (Thuc.6.27). Cities throughout the Greek world used these phallic symbols of protection which were eventually adopted by the Romans.

Illustration of Aphrodite garlanding a herm of Dionysus based on a terracotta figure from Asia Minor, c.100 BCE. Source: Z. Guertin.

Perhaps even more liberally, stimulating visual symbols populated Roman public spaces, private homes and every type of material culture. Roman good luck symbols include delightful examples of erotic imagery. A whole collection of objects in the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) room in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples purposefully exhibits many of the erotic materials found within Pompeii and Herculaneum together in what was once a forbidden collection, only accessible by the wealthy and connected of the 18th century. The room was opened to the public as a permanent exhibition space in 2000. The collection inside has some truly outstanding examples of frescoes, metal work and sculpture grouped into thematic sections.

Images from the Suburban bath complex apodyterium (changing room). Source: Wikimedia commons.

A large array of painted sexual acts were found in a brothel and bath complex in Pompeii and are now displayed in this exhibition space. The contexts of these images make understanding their viewership important. One can assume that erotic decoration in a brothel could serve as advertisements of services the sexworkers offered, material to get clients in the mood and so on. Whereas, the erotic paintings in the Suburban bath complex were used as decorations for clothing cubbies. Each place to store belongings had a different sex-act which ranged from partnerships of homosexual and heterosexual pairings to multiple partners and positions. It should be noted that the frescoes had been painted over at some point before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, but it is unlikely that they had been covered for that long. The erotic bath complex art would have been for a broader viewership than the similar themed and sized frescoes in the brothel. Both men and women from all social classes used the public baths, though probably at different times of the day in most cases. Visitors to the baths could purchase gratification from sexworkers there as well, but it cannot be assumed that this was the primary purpose of those images. Humour, aid-memoires and many other culturally relevant possibilities could account for decorating a public bath changing room with graphic sexual images (Vout 2013, pp.13-14).

Images from the Lupanar (brothel). Source: Z.Guertin.

Out of doors, urban dwellers used erotic objects to decorate and protect their homes and businesses. A display in the Secret Cabinet of erotic tintinnabula. A tintinnabulum was a wind chime or group of bells, in this case, shaped like an ithyphallic (erect) figure or fascinum meant to represent the divine phallus. The magic phallic image embodies protective powers and curative magic, often worn as a necklace charm, or other portable object. The these wind chimes could take some pretty outrageous forms, more than a simple ithyphallic or priapic (an over-size engorged phallus) theme. I include a photo I took in the museum below, and my super family-friendly illustration.

While visiting this room, I have enjoyed the opportunity to sketch these objects on several occasions, partially because there are so many examples but also to listen to the chat going by while I would draw. My favourite visitors to the room were women in their 70s. They probably had the best jokes and canning themselves with laughter.

The complex and nuanced religious landscape of the ancient world included local, borrowed and transformed gods which influenced daily life and social behaviours (including erotic tastes!). The universally popular goddess, Aphrodite/Venus, was prolific all throughout the Graeco-Roman world with sanctuaries and cult sites in essentially every city. We are familiar with her and the associated attributes of her powers, and included with ‘civilised’ types of eroticism. Whereas, a popular but minor deity, Priapus, was another more rustic erotic god with a uniquely large phallus. In the cannon of Graeco-Roman art, ithyphallic images were associated with uncivilised erotic displays and wildness. Priapus (the son of Hermes, like Pan) was responsible for agricultural fertility, gardens and male genitalia and were some of the only examples of deities who were represented being sexually aroused.

The objects discussed fit into daily life of the ancients. Essentially, anyone with the financial means, could procure these objects and display them or wear them as they chose. There was nothing taboo about art that depicted nudity and eroticism. For modern viewers of these fleshy, vibrantly coloured frescoes and decorative bronzes, they may seem lusty or crude, whereas viewing statuary – even if it depicts violent erotic imagery – is seen as tasteful. This follows our inheritance of Enlightenment thinking that the statues from the ancient world were striped of their original colours, if any remained, to present a white polished version that never really existed. One needs to consider the nudity of statuary within this context of viewership. They too were fleshy, wearing popular fashions and bright colours. Though understood to be sacred representations, they were still incredibly beautiful and could be erotic as well. The famous story of the rape of the Aphrodite statue, the Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles, illustrates the incredible arousal these objects could create, when a visitor to the statue was so overtaken he pleasured himself then ended his own life for the shame of his actions (Plin. NH. 36.21-22; Pseudo-Lucian Amores 9-17).

Knidian Aphrodite, Museo nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Inv. 8619. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Images depicting deities could blur the line of object and divine. Did frescoes of sex acts communicate bigger ideas or associations to audiences in the ancient world? Probably. Viewing art is never a passive experience, particularly when it can actively invite erotic responses from viewers!

The illustrations I have created for this episode will be available on my Redbubble shop, and behind the scenes extras including an extended podcast interview and downloadable goodies will be available on Patreon. Thank you for checking out my blog and do have a listen to the podcast episode, Sex in the ancient world! You may never think of the Spartans the same way again!

Tis the Saturnalia season!

Tis the season when we celebrate community and the change of the year! How did the Romans celebrate the end of the year?

The Roman celebration of Saturnalia was held for several days in mid-December to celebrate the passing of seasons, with its roots in the worship of the agricultural god Saturn. Saturn was syncretised with the Greek Kronos as the Romans came to control Greece, becoming increasingly invested in their gods. Saturn is often depicted as an older bearded man holding a scythe, an acknowledgement of his agrarian roots. The temple of Saturn in Rome stood prominently in the forum and is evidenced to this day by eight impressive columns and a partial podium.

From the late Republican period (the last 1oo years or so BCE) the midwinter celebration officially grew from three days to five in the Principate (December 17th to December 23rd). These were just official trends as it’s generally believed that unofficially it was a week, a bit like now depending on your employment. For the Romans work, studies and legal actions came to a halt and people were ready to party!

In Lucian’s Saturnalia, he speaks with the voice of Saturn in dialogue with a priest, observing how the revelries in his name should take place among the Romans: gaming, dancing, song and drinking were all part of the celebration of Saturnalia; it also involved things familiar to us today like decorating homes with greenery and wearing bright and colourful clothing (synthesis), like ugly sweater parties! Lucian’s Saturn is a very reasonable god who lays out three “laws” for gifting, celebrating and banqueting, emphasising fairness in all measures and not being compelled to act or gift beyond your means.

The King of Saturnalia

A king of Saturnalia acted as the ‘Lord of Misrule’ (like Carnivale) in these celebrations. Elected as the mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps, this agent of acceptable chaos in the household would walk the line between being a cheeky chap and straight up humorously (presumably) insulting guests and members of the household. Bear in mind that Roman households could be somewhat larger than ours – the nuclear family at the centre could include grandparents, cousins, adopted family members, children from other marriages, guests and the enslaved household labourers. Many of the societal norms were relaxed and played with in the household, where during this period the enslaved could eat at the head of the table with those who owned them taking a lower status position. Women too could mingle with men (in some circumstances) a little more freely and could hang together and gamble.

The fun frivolity of Saturnalia drinking parties!
Gifts for Saturnalia

Gift-giving was an important part of Saturnalia. Gifts of high value were not necessarily what one would expect, generally the humour of lower cost gifts was appreciated- like trolling a friend with a joke gift. Catullus wrote of receiving epically bad poetry for a gift and it is fun to imagine the kind of hilarious insults he possibly wrote for friends for their gifts, like getting ‘read’ by Oscar Wild but smuttier. Saturnalia gifts could include: sausages, dried fruit, wine, piglets, wax candles (cerei), dolls, toys, books, statues, tools, exotic pets and more!

The live piglet is especially appealing !
The last day of Saturnalia

As all good things must come to an end, so too did the annual revels of the Romans. On the last day of Saturnalia one would give sigillaria – terracotta or wax figurines, shaped in the likeness of familiar deities, mythical figures or easily caricatured types (grotesques). The day itself was called ‘Sigillaria‘; the gift type and gift-giving influenced the day’s name. Much like Boxing Day which one theory suggests may have started (according to the OED) as the first weekday after Christmas when postmen, delivery workers and servants of various types would receive a Christmas box, in which was some type of gift or tip. Possibly due in part to the ways gods were part of the everyday lives of Romans, and worshipped in the home in small devotional figures – the Lares – as guardians of the home, it is not surprising that a popular gift would include their likenesses in inexpensive small gifts, conferring further good luck and protection. For the wealthy, these gifts could be made from costly materials like gold or silver. Given their popularity, someone who crafted and sold this merchandise was called a sigillarius. Vendors were quite busy at this time of year, setting up stalls like the Christmas markets we are familiar with today.

The Lares could be quite varied: a Lar holding a cornucopia from Axatiana, Dionysus and Isis Panthea (all goddess).

The Romans had many festivals throughout the year, and a few days after the wild revels of Saturnalia, they celebrated the sober and solemn Compitalia, another festival in which metaphoric beginnings and endings are associated with the end of the year. Named after compita (crossroads), the recently revelrous enslaved peoples would offer sacrifices on behalf of the households within the neighbourhoods they lived to the Lares of the crossroads. Perhaps it is fitting to have a week of revels which brought families and friends together be followed up with a more sober festival which celebrated the bonds of community. Saying goodbye to the year is always fraught with bittersweet reflections with this year being notable in that regard, as surely in many world-changing years before the communities celebrating these rites would join together to celebrate and pray for better times ahead.

Compitalia fresco from exterior wall of a building in Pompeii, 1st c. CE

Stay safe and thank you for reading!

Io, Saturnalia!

Xox Archaeoartist (Zofia) and Mr Archaeoartist (Chris).

Illustrating Ancient History: Bringing the Past to the Present Exhibition Survey

Do you have 2 minutes for a survey about archaeology & illustrations? We would love to hear from YOU!

As part of the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology exhibition “Illustrating Ancient History”, we have a research questionnaire about the relationship between the public and their archaeological remains! This is relevant to visiting any site from any cultural or historical period.

We would be grateful for your participation & sharing this!

ArchaeoArtist's Classical Cartoons

To keep my sanity and to take some art breaks during this time, I am making colouring sheets that are free to print, share and enjoy. I will be uploading printable PDFs here, and posting images to my social media pages. Since we are all staying in doors for the good of the realm/humanity, we might as well fill some of that time having some fun and learning about ancient art and archaeology!

Classical Cartoons Vol.1

Classical Cartoons Vol.2

Classical Cartoons Magical Kingdom Vol.3!

Everyone who has grown up on Disney will feel strongly about these characters and how they imagine they can or should be re-imagined. This is a bit of fun and I selected the mash-ups that made the most sense to me.

If you are an educator, practitioner or just curious about these or any of my other work, please feel free to get in touch!

Stay safe at home together!

Thank you for checking out my page!

30. DELOS: THE GREAT PORT CITY OF THE ANCIENT WORLD

Looking out to sea from the courtyard in front of the temple of Isis, Delos.

For anyone who has had to go to Mykonos on their way to Delos, I’m sorry. Mykonos in the modern period has been blessed with Instagrammable vistas, from its white-painted walls with brightly coloured doors, to the overpriced meals, it is every social media influencer’s dream. However, when one is traveling to the nearby island of Delos, a brief stay in the tourist labyrinth awaits.

Thankfully my time in Mykonos, while conducting field work, was brief. To ensure we would be able to catch a ferry crossing to Delos, we planned a day and a half in this little seaside area. With ferry tickets and a frappe in hand, my colleague and travel buddy Ms King and I, set off to the sacred island of Delos!

Disembarking the ferry, the view from the port.

Legendary birthplace of the ancient world’s deadliest twins, Apollo and Artemis, the island was a sacred site well into antiquity. A historically important trade hub for merchants crossing the Aegean, Delos was a crucial point for the exchange of ideas, art, goods and slaves. The island of Delos itself drew many cults from across the ancient world. Of particular interest to me were the several temples to Serapis and Isis located fairly high up the hill. These newcomers to Delos were part of the expanding religious landscape of the island in the Hellenistic period.

Facing the sanctuary of Isis

Delos’ sanctity was ensured during the Peloponnesian wars when under oracular guidance the island was required to divest itself of the dead. That is quite uncommon. As is the case now, communities are very connected to their dead. Disturbing graves and reburying the remains on another island seems extreme. Under the guidance of the Delphic Oracle, and just like Disneyland, all of your prayers could be answered; but you couldn’t die or give birth on Delos any longer.

Various leagues were created and centered here to deal with military and political threats, the Delian league during the Persian Wars, and the Nesiotic League during the wars of the Successors of Alexander the Great. It is at this point, during the 3rd century BCE that the island was in the hands of the Ptolemaic Empire and the influence of the Alexandrian kingdom, and its gods was most pronounced on the island.

With more temples to Egyptian gods in one city anywhere outside of Egypt, save Rome, Delos is an interesting location to try to understand the ways in which religious integration occurs and the role in which the urban landscape is a factor.

Cult statue of Isis, in-situ

In 167/166 BCE Delos’ political fortunes changed with the growing influence and meddling in the Aegean of Rome, the island was handed over to the Athenians, who expelled the Delians. As a Roman free port, Delos benefited from the Italian aggression towards competitor cities, until an enemy of Rome sought to disrupt the Republic’s income by sacking the little holy island full of people making money from slaves. The Mithradatic Wars had two waves of destruction in Delos, coming to a head in 69 BCE.

No longer the safest outpost for ensuring Rome’s transportation of slaves and non-human trade goods, Rome made the southern Italian city of Puteoli the new port-de-jour. With that decline and depopulation Delos turned into a relic.

The temples of Isis and Serapis in Delos are built across several phases and interestingly took different forms while they thrived. One associating itself with a more ‘authentically’ Egyptian-style, and another with a more Hellenic-Alexandrian form, they co-existed though not always in perfect harmony.

It was a perfect day to explore this incredible UNESCO World Heritage site, and as I continue with my research, it is always an enriching experience to go to these spectacular sites with my research questions in mind. After a decade passing since my last time here, much remained the same, but due to increased interest in the cults of the Egyptian gods and their relationships with Hellenic and Italic deities, the deities I study tend to get highlighted! The archaeology museum was equally worth the trip to see, with excellent mosaics and gorgeous statues.

Thank you for checking out my blog!

Straight up hanging out at the Temple of Isis

29. Heavenly bodies: Aphrodite in Cyprus

This spring, my friend and fellow St. Andrews colleague, Dr Briana King, and I traveled to Greece for fieldwork in our studies. With intersecting interests, Briana and I were able to plan a truly spectacular trip and gain new insights into our own research questions as well as each other’s work. Through careful budgeting and receiving funding through several pathways, we were fortunate to achieve quite a lot in two weeks. We began our fieldwork in Cyprus, to investigate the earliest sanctuary site of Aphrodite!

Mosaic from the House of Aion, Neopaphos

With a long history reaching back into the Neolithic period, Cyprus has seen waves of cultural and political change throughout its recorded history. Annexed in 295/4 BCE by the Ptolemy I Soter (the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty), it remained within their dynastic control for 250 years. Though Cyprus still retained semi-autonomous government with the Boule (council), Demos (popular assembly) and the Gerousia (council of ancient Boomers). This continued until it was annexed by Rome in 58 BCE during the dynastic struggles between Cleopatra VII and her siblings, and settled into Roman hands following the civil war with Octavian and Antony. Cyprus would fall into the hands of several other powers over the next two thousand years (the Arab caliphate, the French and Venetians and the Ottomans), until today where it currently remains divided by Greece and the occupied portion under Turkey.

Cyprus’ place-names have popped into my studies for years came from this island. Unsurprisingly, due to the proximity to Egypt (a straight line to Alexandria) and the political fortunes of Cyprus, there was several connection-points with the Egyptian gods which I hope to explore further in my research.

The goddess of many names: the sanctuary of Aphrodite

Starting in Cyprus was very important to Briana’s research: Paleopafos is the OG Aphrodite cult site where she was worshiped in the form of a black stone (below left). The Sanctuary of Aphrodite, barely visible on the archaeological site, requires some imagination to envisage what it could have been like. Set atop a higher elevation, the site would have commanded an impressive presence on the landscape and awarded visitors with a stunning view out to the sea.

A rose by any other name…

While Hesiod called Aphrodite ‘Cyprus-born’ around the 8th c. BCE, the goddess was not called that in Cypus until the 4th c. BCE. The significance of place-names for her identity can be seen in inscriptions where is called ‘the Golgian or Paphian’ from her sanctuaries at Golgoi and Pafos. A city’s prestige could be significantly enhanced by a notable sanctuary or cult site. You can see below some interesting details about the places or priorities associated with the goddess of Cyprus.

“Kyprogenes- Cyprus born goddess; Potnia Kyprou – the mistress of Cyprus
Akraia – the goddess of promontories; Pontia, Einalia – the marine goddess
Ourania – the heavenly goddess; Pandemos- goddess of all
Egcheios – the goddes with the spear;
Kourotrophos – the goddess patron of infants “

Dedications to Aphrodite include many interesting bird-faced, Picasso-esq clay and limestone figurines.

Figurines found across the island, and spread to other Mediterranean cities, show ongoing development in the iconography of the Great Goddess of Cyprus. Theories range about their uses, whether they are images of early forms of Aphrodite, her priestesses, companions for the dead or talismans for fertility or the afterlife.

She certainly glowed up though.

As Aphrodite’s form changes over time, you get gorgeous examples like the Aphrodite from Soloi (right) which has that sexy contrapposto!

For scholars and history nerds, these places are important and aren’t normally on a tourists’ itinerary. Cyprus is known for its beaches, boardwalks and boating which we briefly explored. Though this isn’t my topic of expertise, it was really cool to experience it with someone who has a passion for Aphrodite scholarship, like mine for Isis!

Downtown Nicosia

With Google taking on a merry-go-round of routes through the hills and ostrich farms, we eventually arrived at Nicosia to visit the archaeological museum. It had a substantial collection of beautiful things

With the archaeological site of Salamis inconveniently closed, we checked out a few other interesting locations in Cyprus! A brief walk along the promenade along the sunny boardwalk in Limassol.

Limassol

What surprised me about Paphos is that it was like a tiny hot British town plunked in the middle of the Mediterranean. Walking around, the signs were in English and I didn’t hear an ounce of Greek being spoken. The archaeological site was worth a wander, but if I was looking for Greek culture and a trip away from the UK, it was eerily like being back in Britain.

Neopaphos & the Tombs of the Kings

Some unexpected surprises along the way included the rental car with no working headlights and the incredible discovery of a late-night delivery of the best souvlaki and Greek salad of my life. With a lot of terrain covered over a weekend, there is still a lot left to explore there and worthy of a solid return trip.

27. Adieu 2019, Bienvenue 2020

The close of a new decade is an inevitably reflective time. The last time the decade turned, I was in my twenties finishing my undergraduate degrees in Vancouver. It feels like a memoir’s worth of writing could barely sum up the last ten years, so I will stick to just one year. 2019 was possibly the most had some of the biggest highs and lows I have gone through in my academic and personal life. Perhaps it is fitting then that at the end of this decade, it was time to go through another life-changing gauntlet of challenges and opportunities.

Travel and Fieldwork

It was a big year for fieldwork. Luckily, that is my reason-d’être for travel. I discovered a few years ago that travelling with a question in your mind makes the whole experience richer and satisfying when you can answer those questions. When I started researching Isis and the Egyptian cults, it became quite consuming and fortunately for me, dispersed throughout most of the Roman Empire. This has been a blessing in most cases, and this year, with one of my dearest friends, we were able to combine forces and research topics to do fieldwork together across much of Greece.

Germany! Mainz and Frankfurt

The Temple of Isis foundations, Mainz.

In January, I popped over to Germany for a weekend to go check out the temple of Isis in Mainz. This site was excavated during the building of a shopping mall, which sits on top of it. A shared temple with Magna Mater, this city had some really great archaeological museums and things to explore. I used to travel alone a lot more, and scooting off for a few days on my own was a lot of fun.

Padua

My recent post about Padua highlighted some of the things that made it a delicious visit to one of my favourite countries, but for me, one really lovely part of the trip was getting to spend time around the kitchen table with the family of a dear friend. I miss that part of family life a lot as an ex-pat. I love spending time with the families of friends, feeling the warmth of their love and bonds of family, even doing normal things like grocery shopping and having a cup of tea.

Greece and Cyprus

Travelling together for a few weeks was a blast and we covered a lot of ground. Laying down groundwork for a future co-publication, hopefully, we learned a lot about each other’s research and where it intersects! Greece is a country that formed mythical impressions in our minds from studying these places over so many years, and getting the opportunity to drive to many sites here together was a dream come true.

With some careful planning and Jedi-level budgeting, Briana and I crushed it: Nicosia, Paphos, Palaepafos, Limassol, Mykonos, Delos, Thessalonike, Philippi, Amphipolis, Vergina, Dion, Volos, Nemea, Mycenae, Corinth, Athens, Epidaurus, Pella, Marathon, Nafplio, Sounion and Eleusis!

With so many beautiful locations, and fascinating material culture, I will definitely be posting some cool snaps and historical tidbits about these places in 2020.

Italy: Roadtripping and the Aeclanum Excavation

Some highlights from adventures in Italy, 2019

For the first time since I started going to Italy to try and learn new skills (excavating or public archaeology), I had the good fortune of jointly renting a car with several friends for the duration of our time there. Liberating and exhilarating would be the best summary of that experience. We were able to finally see some of the surrounding areas of Passo di Mirabella, which are incredibly beautiful. I am so grateful for the time I was able to spend with these ladies trying incredible foods, splashing around in creeks, going to ruins and museums and feeling a bit like a kid again!

Launching a graphic novella in Italy!

Vita Romana: at the baths of a Aeclanum was launched this summer in Passo di Mirabella. It was a labour of love that I am super proud of. Completing a project like this was exciting, and working with Ambra Ghiringhelli and Josef Souček- two creative and talented scholars- was so rewarding! With Vita Romana we learned a lot of things about a collaborative creative process, and it would be really cool to work on other stories about Roman daily life!

Professional? Me?

For the first year in my life, making art was a significant component of my earnings. I still make silly fun things ( #ImSorryChris ) for myself, but between small commissions, selling posters, paintings in Mariachi, and my public archaeology work this was my most successful year as an artist!

Our west coast wedding

One fateful day in the summer of 2017 I proposed to my husband, over a beer in front of the Pantheon in Rome. After a week on holiday of trying to find the perfect moment and location, everything went wrong. Comically wrong. After a cringe-worthy number of failed attempts, the end result was after a week of nearly asking Chris to marry me, I just went for it with a spontaneous and slightly rambling proposal.

Two years later we had our big day in Vancouver, surrounded by friends and family in a gorgeous location, we tied the knot. As a testament to how ridiculous I am and how accommodating my husband is, I insisted on sneaking in all sorts of archaeology and classics-themed elements into the wedding.

We were touched and grateful to have family members and friends from all over the world who joined us for the wedding. My new family, from the UK, got to explore the province I love so much.

With hot and sunny weather August weather, the guests were subjected to volcanic heat during the ceremony! It was a truly happy day, and absolutely impossible without the support of my mom, sisters (Alex and Anaise), father and my tribe of women warriors, mothers and friends. It felt like all these hearts and minds got me to where I am today, pursuing the things that I am most passionate about, married to a wonderful, brilliant man who enriches my life while I chase my dreams.

Following the wedding, there was no rest for the wicked with escape rooms to solve, babies to cuddle and some wee excursions to spend some time with my family. In a exciting opportunity to come to the Sunshine Coast by a private sea plane! We were over the moon to be invited to this beautiful area and hang with my super lovely aunts and uncles. Spending time with friends and loved ones this summer was so restorative and the best part of the whole time in Canada.

Upon our triumphant return to the United Kingdom, we had the ultimate penthouse wedding reception with our incredible community of friends, coleagues and family. It was marvellous.

Manchester & Liverpool

Drawing this year to a close, we decided that connecting with some of our friends who made their way up to celebrate at our reception would be the best way to spend some free time (lol, free time) this winter. We had a magic weekend in Manchester with some beloved friends and colleagues I met in 2013 during our Masters! Manchester is unarguably one of the coolest cities in the UK. It’s got the architectural edge and multi-culturalism that reminds me of Vancouver. With a quick afternoon trip to Liverpool to do some research, we got to cross that city off the list as well. It is always such a pleasure spending time with our pals in Manchester.

Belgium

As a little treat for ourselves, Chris and I wanted to spend a week in Belgium. Having visited about two years ago to the day, we were stoked to stay with our lovely friends and colleagues in Leuven. The talented Dr Close (Hellenistic History Instagram) and her lovely partner Stijn.

New Year, Who Dis?

It’s hard to believe all of these things happened within the last 12 months alongside school, work, project work at Aeclanum and so on. Like a last grasp at the hectic-life that used to signal to me that I was working hard enough, if I was too busy to blink, surely it meant I was working as hard as possible. Working hard, but perhaps, not working smart. This year was a kind of awakening. For many years I believed I had some sort of super-human ability to multi-task and problem-solve, whatever else was going on in my life, I could get it done. Whatever ‘it’ was. I would just sleep less, or socialize less, or work during other work…the mind boggles how all this made sense. What I discovered, rather late, was that this balancing act wasn’t balanced at all. It was a very typical high-achiever’s cocktail for burnout. Even projects and activities that gave me great pleasure, if they were not my thesis, then it had to go. Coinciding with moving house, this fall was all about starting anew and positively.

This year I am trying something new and sustainable: in life, in art and school, I will pare everything down to a focused and balanced year ahead.

26. Setting the table in Padua

In fair Padua, where we lay our scene…My Shakespeare may be a bit dusty, but that is definitely maybe how that goes, right? There were certainly enough ‘Juliette windows’ to make you think you might be stepping into a Shakespearean play!

Until recently, Padua was an elusive northern Italian city in the Veneto on my list of places to visit, but I’d never quite made it up there. With very limited experience in northern Italy, I planned to surprise my husband for his birthday with a weekend in Padua. We packed our bags and hopped a flight with a friend and colleague, Dr Lucia Michielin, to stay a few days in her hometown and experience the city, the mountains, and her family’s gastronomic traditions.

Padua is radiant, serving you sunshine with arcaded walkways and boutique shops for days. The history of Padua is etched into the very walls of the shopping areas! Markers of older commercial activities, as pointed out by our knowledgeable local hostess, created in a few different shapes to suit several types of common products to make sure no one was getting ripped off.

Measurements for breads and presumably meats, carved into the old stone walls.

Piazza delle Erbe was a bustling residential area in pre-Roman era, then with intensification of urbanization, this area took the form of the piazza it is now by the 10th century CE. Within Piazza delle Erbe, the market is elegant and layered from the outside, and on the inside there are all sorts of traditional food items sold. The butcher and cheese mongers were mouth-watering.

Roman & Early Renaissance Padua

The archaeology museum of Padua had some Roman finds that I hadn’t come across before: a stargate- I mean, “well”! Obviously, we took silly pictures inside it.

Remains of an amphitheater are found in the city center near the Scrovegni Chapel and the Eremitani Museum of archaeology and art. Well worth a visit, though there was nothing pertinent to my research there, the banter is always fun when walking around an archaeology museum with a colleague.

Coming to Padua, we were most excited about visiting the Scrovegni Chapel with the famous fresco paintings by Giotto. Having studied this chapel in art school, I was really keen to see it in real life. Painted by Giotto and his workshop over the course of nearly two years, the chapel was consecrated in 1305.

The pictures don’t do it justice; the blues are electric and packed with detail. The vibrancy and realism for this period innovative, well in advance of when we would typically expect this type of work in the Renaissance. Giotto preceded them by 200 years!

From a heritage management perspective, the way they regulated tourism and its impact was clever. Taking small groups in at a time, allowing the temperature to acclimatize through a series of waiting rooms, visitors can explore but also preserve a fragile painted environment. It was a real privilege to see this chapel, and their conservation programme will keep it vibrant for years to come.

Some quick sketches from the trusty Moleskin

A drive to the mountains

One of the spectacular views from the mountain trail.

Calazo di Cadore

After a day in town wandering and feasting, our hosts took us on a drive to their familial mountain home. The drive up was full of twists and turns, and the crisp air with gorgeous views was lit!

Scooting around Lago di Centro Cadore along the narrow walls of the dam I clutched at my pearls, it was beautiful and harrowing. I was grateful to not be the driver on this occasion! Whilst sauntering around the quiet and picturesque town center, we passed by the home of the famous painter Titian. Famous for the use of electric blues in paintings, extending the colour to subjects beyond the decoration of the Virgin Mary’s robes, one got the sense of how much this stunning blue was part and parcel of experiencing this area. The sky, the mountains and lakes were all so vibrant.

The house of Titian and an enviable balcony.
Our horny visitor 🙂

Within this packed daytrip, we saw gorgeous mountains, walked around a park and had a gorgeous rustic little sammich with tasty local meats! I could spend a season tucked away in one of these historic cabin homes enjoying the view. As a girl from British Columbia, the mountains are always calling me, and these mountains did not disappoint.

Padua Foodies

Wandering around the market area, I instantly regretted that I only brought carry-on luggage.

Within a 72-hour period, we sampled a significant array of incredible culinary delights. It seemed impolite to take photos at the dinner table, but I can assure you, each meal was like a delightful sampling of many dishes.

In my attempt to broaden my horizons in the kitchen and decrease general consumerism, I’ve taken to buying foodstuffs as culinary souvenirs.  I am excitedly trying my hand at these dishes, and slowly learning about the ethos of Italian cooking. While I will NEVER give up my afternoon cappuccino no matter how many taboos that crosses, I am willing to abide by SOME culinary rules when the results are delicious.  

The market had clothing, household goods and lots of gorgeous fruits and vegetables!

Our generous hosts took me to local farmer’s market, butchers and grocers showing me which ingredients to use to try and replicate the dishes they cooked. It was the most magnificent bounty I have ever seen; the blessings of Fortuna were upon us. The greens, artichokes, creme caramel, fresh cheeses and meats were probably the best souvenirs I have ever brought home.

Coming from Canada, I was mind-blown that we could bring back so many incredible fresh staples on a quick flight. Fresh ricotta in checked luggage? Yes please.

Once we were back in Edinburgh, I wanted to try my hand at a wee dish that our lovely hosts made one evening. Parma ham wrapped radicchio and local soft cheese.

The flavours of the fresh produce were fantastic, and being a heathen, I even played with other types of meat to wrap the radicchio and cheese.

The results were delicious.

Many of our trips take us to locations where we have friends and colleagues, which offers such a rich and interesting way of experiencing a place. Spending a weekend with the Michielin family made me fall in love with Padua and get a little more culinary confidence!

21.Excavating in Kefalonia: searching for Bronze Age heroes

kefalonia dig site (226)The last 12 months have been eventful, with a lot of life changing things on the horizon to be excited about. In a few short days, I will be heading off for a third (more lengthy) season in the Roman town of Aeclanum, (near modern Mirabella Eclano, Italy). The last year was incredibly formative for me, as I was privileged enough to work on developing materials with the site directors of Aeclanum from the University of Edinburgh and the Apolline Project for public outreach for the Open Day, as well as ongoing learning materials for children to engage with archaeology in schools.The opportunities to share this work are blooming into new areas for me professionally with a lot of creative directions to pursue.

me and the pottery base
Pronnoi excavation site, 2008. Photo by Cait Pilon.

My first dig

Ten years ago, before I knew what I wanted to with my life, I applied for the opportunity to work on a three-month salvage excavation in Poros, Kefalonia. This excavation was organised in collaboration with Simon Fraser University and the Ephorate in Kefalonia. One family in Poros, the Metaxas family, made an incredible impact on my time there. They were strong advocates for this dig, working with the local government to see that the archaeological site was excavated before it was robbed or destroyed once it became apparent that there were tombs located there.

IMG_3559
The view across the valley from the necropolis.

It was a project born out of a local passion with an aim to start documenting and publishing the rich history of the area, which had been under occasional excavation for decades with very little making it into the public record. By the time of our arrival, there was evidence of looting, so speed was of the essence and the local archaeologists worked with a ragtag bunch of undergrads to excavate and document the human remains and small finds.

 

The scientific processes are the same for a salvage dig as a normal one, but the elements that are the focus of the excavation tend to be revealed and in peril, so acting quickly and documenting as much as possible is the priority. Our team worked on the excavation during the day and in the evenings would have classroom time and readings, even the odd Greek lessons. Even on the rainy days where the schedule entailed 8 hours of pottery washing, it was still brilliant to be part of.

Int_4398 (51)The antiquity of the necropolis was evidenced through artefacts which represented multi-period usage on the site for burials, an ancient garbage dump (large amounts of broken pottery and animal bones), and fluted columns and  architectural blocks from some unidentified building structure.

Excavation in Pronnoikefalonia dig site (212)

The excavation work was productive for getting the half-exposed burials out in time before the winter rains began to set in, though occasionally, flash rainstorms would flood the side of the mountain with us on it. 20180603_125948The pithoi were interesting tomb-types that were repurposed from containers for bulk storage of grains or other items to a burial container. Once the ceramic vessel was broken up, a body was interred in a flexed or crouched position, and grave goods were added. The vessel was placed around them with fill, but could be accessed again, if another body was to be added to the burial at a later date.

Grave Goods

Digital camera pictures 024The status of the publication of the finds from the dig is unknown to me, so to avoid getting in trouble, I have made a few artistic renderings of some of the standout artefacts:

Gorgon head, amber.20180602_131419

  • Corinthian, silver coin.20180602_190644
  • Lyre player, pottery sherd.20180602_190636

From atop the hill we excavated the necropolis, you could see across the valley with stunning views inland and out to the sea. Putting myself in someone’s sandals from 2,500 years ago and looking out across the same seas they did was a moving experience. Having studied Humanities texts and Art History prepared me in a large way for I was able to see how much more I need to understand before the study of Archaeology or Ancient History. Linking this site in my mind to the Homeric kings and events from the Iliad and Odyssey was only natural, since it was on our reading list, but the chronology of the material culture certainly aided the visualizing of the Bronze Age culture.

Searching for Bronze Age HeroesIMG_1535The antiquity and long habitation of the region was visible in another area, Tzanata, 3 km east of Poros in the Eleios-Pronnoi municipal region, which had a preserved tholos tomb, or ‘beehive tomb’.IMG_1747 This type of tomb has a dome-shaped chamber (like a beehive cut in half), an entrance passage (dromos) and a doorway (stomion) covered with 1-3 lintel blocks. These monumental structures would be buried underground, though accessible, as there could be multiple burials over long periods of time.

The nearby environs of Poros were home to a Bronze Age tholos tomb, which has been dated to around 1400 BCE. This tomb, excavated by Lazaros Kolonas in 1991, contained several sequential burials that could suggest a common lineage.

IMG_1750

While significantly smaller than the most famous tholos tombs of Mycenae, it certainly showed comparable architectural features and represented elite participation in the monumental funerary building of the Bronze Age Mediterranean. Finds in the archaeological museum of Argostoli (temporarily closed) reveal golden grave goods from the Mycenaean cultural influence. Included in these finds were carved gemstones a seal that has been interpreted as ‘royal’ were discovered in the tomb.IMG_1756The proximity to Pylos, among other Bronze Age kingdoms of the area, provide parallels chronologically for local elites of Pronnoi having a similar kind of rule over the area by virtue of using similar funerary cultural practices. However, little is known of this site as the excavation reports remain (I believe) unpublished. If further work has been done on this site, it would open up a lot of interesting questions about the position of Kefalonia within Bronze Age trade and indeed, later into the Classical period.

Kefalonia Dig (240)Suffice it to say, my time spent in Poros, Kefalonia, was fundamental in shaping the direction of my studies and career plans. While I have not been back since 2008, the richness in history, the warmth of the community and beauty of the island is still deeply felt. I am making plans to return and investigate the current findings of the area and reunite with the incredible people who made it such a memorable experience for me.

 

À la prochaine!