Prof. Tom Landvatter (center) explains the stratigraphy of the excavation unit, with Yeȿim Yilmaz ’20, Maia Shideler ’20, trench supervisor Melanie Godsey (PhD student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), and Duncan Feiges ’20.

Prof. Tom Landvatter (center) explains the stratigraphy of the excavation unit, with Yeȿim Yilmaz ’20, Maia Shideler ’20, trench supervisor Melanie Godsey (PhD student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), and Duncan Feiges ’20.

Arts & Humanities

In the Soil of Cyprus, Clues to an Empire

Reed students dig for artifacts that could shed light on the world of Alexander the Great.

By Randall S. Barton | March 9, 2020

It’s one thing to dust off the classics, quite another to get your fingers in the dirt.

Last summer, Prof. Thomas Landvatter [classics 2015–] led six students on an archaeological dig at the Vigla Archaeological Project in Cyprus, supported in part by the Walter Englert Classics Student Opportunity Fund and the Rumpakis-Dussin Fund.

The Reed team sought clues to the far-flung turmoil sparked by the death in 323 BCE of Alexander the Great, whose sudden demise plunged the ancient Mediterranean into political chaos, splitting his sprawling empire into rival factions as individual city-states scrambled to establish alliances and fend off invaders.

The general vicinity around the village of Pyla was first identified as a place of interest in 2003, following the discovery of pottery from the early Hellenistic period. In the course of test excavations to see what lay underground, archaeologists discovered Vigla—a short-lived military fort from around the end of the fourth century BCE, the time of Alexander the Great and his successors.

The site, a plateau somewhat larger than Reed’s Great Lawn, is surrounded by evidence of fortification walls, and its soil abounds in pottery, bronze arrowheads, iron spear points, and sling bullets. Its straightforward stratigraphy and limited occupation provide ideal conditions for learning the basics of archaeological methodology. Excavations at Vigla are codirected by Prof. Landvatter and Prof. Brandon Olson, a faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“Our interest is the period immediately following the death of Alexander the Great, when Cyprus’s political situation shifted from a collection of semi-independent city-kingdoms to province of a Hellenistic empire,” Landvatter said. “This early part of the Hellenistic period (323–30 BCE) is poorly understood archaeologically, especially the mechanisms by which the eastern Mediterranean came under the control of various Hellenistic monarchs. We are interested in whether the occupants of the fort were foreign mercenaries, connected primarily with wider Mediterranean trade networks, or soldiers in the employ of co-opted local elites.”

Because towns and cities tended to be occupied well into the Roman period, archaeological data from this early Hellenistic period has often been obliterated.

“This site gives us an opportunity to look at a very critical period of transition in really nice detail in a way we haven’t really been able to elsewhere,” Landvatter said.

“We are extremely fortunate at Reed to have access to such an amazing site, and I could not pass up the opportunity to work there,” said Duncan Feiges ’20, a classics major with a history and archaeology concentration. “It was a chance to see the other side of the work that we have been looking at in the classroom.”

Rising early in the morning, students headed out to the site at about 6:30 a.m. and began cleaning up around 2:30 p.m. to avoid the intense heat of the day.

The Reed team dug three trenches, with excavations proceeding in reverse order of deposition—in other words, the most recent thing laid down is the first taken out. All the excavation was done by hand. Students loosened topsoil with pickaxes and trowels, pulled the soil into buckets with hoes, and then ferried and sifted the soil. The top layer, from when the site was farmland, contained primarily plow lines—ripples left by the plow.

“The topsoil is all modern,” Landvatter explained. “It’s not of concern to us, though everything is recorded. You slow down when you get to more delicate layers, representative of actual ancient deposition.”

As they proceeded downward, the team took note of changes in soil color, textures, and inclusions that could point to distinct past events. Was the number of rocks in the soil changing? Were more bits of pottery suddenly being uncovered? Objects were scooped into a dustpan with brushes, photographed, and their elevation points recorded with a GPS unit.

“The work was definitely exhausting,” Duncan said. “Crouching and kneeling on stones or dirt for several hours a day really does a number on your legs. Aside from the occasional use of larger hand tools to rapidly remove layers of sediment, most of the work was actually rather delicate and precise. As such, it was not always backbreaking in the traditional sense, but often left us sore from sitting in the same position for hours. We certainly went to bed tired.”

“I have never slept as well as I did the first weeks of the dig,” said Maia Shideler ’20. “Reed doesn’t often give you an opportunity to work with your hands. The satisfaction and sense of purpose that digging conveyed was astounding.”

In the largest trench (5 by 5 meters), the crew found bullet casings near the surface, probably owing to the military conflict that raged across the island in 1974. One side of the trench faced the ocean, where the plateau was worn down by the ocean breeze. Roughly 50 centimeters down, students found loom weights (ceramic triangles with holes in them) and other materials from the Hellenistic era. While evidence of weaving industries may seem unusual for a fort, it is possible that soldiers would have needed to produce their own cloth.

In the middle trench, pottery first appeared as irregular sherds; the number of artifacts and quality of preservation increased as time went on. Sling bullets—dense lead shots propelled from slings—were uncovered along with plates, coins, and large, well-preserved pieces of pottery. “We excavated a small echinus bowl, which was intact and in situ on the floor,” Duncan recalled. “I was glad for the chance to stand on an ancient site and handle materials that had been untouched by human hands since they were left over 2,000 years ago.”

They also found little coins that had been abandoned centuries ago. “It was pocket change, like someone dropped a penny and just walked off,” Landvatter explained. “They’re low-value bronze coins, but once they’re cleaned up, you can date them relatively well. You know that everything at the level you find the coin had to have been abandoned after that date.”

Antiquities become the property of the Cypriot government and are taken to a storage facility associated with the local archaeological museum. Pottery is cleaned, categorized, and dated. Metal objects like coins and arrowheads are photographed, cataloged, and sent to a museum in Nicosia for conservation and processing.

“My favorite activity was certainly washing our finds,” Maia said. “I was lucky enough to process one of our major artifacts, a perfectly intact bowl. The feeling of holding a piece of history, newly coaxed up from the ground and shedding the last of millennia-old dirt, was nearly indescribable.”

The students’ enthusiasm never flagged. “They were all up and ready to go at 6:30 in the morning, and there was very little standing around,” Landvatter said. “They would ask, ‘Is there anything else I can do?’ and then just do it. They were totally into it. I’d ask them, ‘Are you still liking this?’ and they would reply, ‘Oh my god, this is the most fun I’ve had in years.’”

In addition to working the dig, students toured the country, visiting sites dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period.

“Wandering between rows of baked white houses as we searched the skyline for landmark minarets, and the many happy hours spent diving in the Mediterranean’s clear shallows, are memories that will always make me smile,” Maia said.

The Reed team also included Beth Platte, an instructional technologist at Reed, who has a PhD in Greek and Roman history and field experience in Italy, Turkey, and Egypt. She documented the dig with photographs, including those in this story. Check out her blog on the Vigla dig.

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