LEWISBURG, Pa. — Two Bucknell University professors have been selected to lead the first joint Greek-American archaeological dig in the ancient city of Thebes, Greece — the first such excavation of the historic Ismenion Hill area in nearly a century.
Bucknell classics professors Stephanie Larson and Kevin Daly, together with Vassilis Aravantinos, ephor of prehistoric and classical antiquities for the Greek region of Boiotia and director of the Thebes Archaeological Museum, received approval from the Central Archaeological Council of the Greek Ministry of Culture on March 29 to launch a comprehensive geophysical survey and excavation at the Ismenion Hill and surrounding areas.
"This is a great moment that could usher in a new era of exploration and understanding into the archaeology and cultural history of this important ancient Greek city-state," Larson said. "And it is only through Dr. Aravantinos' stewardship, the cooperation of the Greek government and sponsorship from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation that we are able to do this."
Stavros Niarchos Foundation grant The joint project, or "synergasia," has received major funding 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. Larson and Daly currently are seeking contributions to continue the project well beyond 2013.
"The importance of the Ismenion hill as a site for exploration cannot be overestimated," Daly added. "Ancient sources from a wide range of chronological periods attest to the Ismenion's continued use as one of the main sanctuaries of ancient Thebes. Without question, the site is of monumental architectural, literary and cultic interest for periods from the second millennium BCE onward."
Geophysical survey and excavation Work will begin June 14 with a series of non-invasive geophysical tests on and beside the hill named after Apollo Ismenios, the manifestation of the Olympian Apollo who was worshipped in Thebes. Larson, who studies ancient Boiotian history, and Daly, a field archaeologist and Greek epigraphist, will oversee all work in the field alongside Aravantinos. Six Bucknell students also will work on the site this summer, as will other scholars from the United States and abroad.
Bucknell Assistant Professor of Geology Rob Jacob, who will join the team for this first phase of the dig, will use various techniques to map and probe anthropogenic features under the soil. The team will begin the excavation after this initial mapping and remote sensing.
Historical Significance A major Greek city-state halfway between Athens and Delphi, Thebes was for much of the ancient period the largest city in Boiotia, an extensive region of central Greece. Although Thebes figures prominently in almost every period of ancient Greek history, it is not nearly as well-known to the modern world as Athens and Sparta, Larson noted.
The mythological birthplace of Hercules and Oedipus, home to a large Bronze Age palace, and the seat of major political and military force until its destruction by Alexander the Great, Thebes was a dominant power for centuries. While smaller for much of the Roman period, Thebes again grew to major prominence in later eras.
Herodotus and Pindar, two of ancient Greece's most famous writers, specifically praise the sanctuary of Ismenian Apollo at Thebes for its monuments and importance. The Ismenion Hill and its immediate vicinity are of particular interest because large portions remain wholly unexplored.
Rare opportunity While many archaeological sites in Greece prove difficult to excavate because they are covered with modern buildings, the area atop and beside this ancient sanctuary has remained largely undeveloped, Daly noted.
Despite the significance of the sanctuary of Ismenian Apollo, there have been only two relatively limited excavations within the boundaries of the Ismenion hill, Daly said. The Greek archaeologist A. Keramopoullos excavated on the sanctuary hill from 1910-17; in 1967 N. Pharaklas completed a few additional trenches; neither made a full exploration. These excavations exposed only the western section of the ancient temple to Apollo on the hill.
"Thebes is already well known to every scholar of the ancient world," Daly said. "Furthermore, Dr. Aravantinos has recently overseen the building of a spectacular new museum at Thebes and a marvelous new catalog of its holdings. This new dig presents a further opportunity toward expanding our knowledge of the city and restoring Thebes to its proper place on the cultural map."
Exploring the sanctuary and its processional approach from the city may reveal a repository of significant dedications from the height of the sanctuary's activity (the 7th-4th centuries B.C.E) when it served as a central Greek rival to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, Larson said.
"We will decide on the basis of the combined geophysical measurements exactly where to excavate," Larson said. "We know from both literary sources and physical remains that when you go from the Ismenion hill toward the city gate and town, you pass by numerous shrines. There was, for example, a shrine to Hercules, which has recently been identified by Dr. Aravantinos, and other monuments as well. But we don't know exactly what we will find, and we are not looking for one particular thing per se.
"Archaeology is in part about the process and the questions and answers that arise during that process," Larson added. "What we know for sure is that this is a place with extraordinarily significance. To some degree we are going to let the archaeology dictate where we dig and how we proceed. While we do have some specific questions, we also want the soil to tell us its history."
Bucknell student researchers Bucknell seniors Paul Brazinski, Michael Furman and Emily Bitely and juniors Tynan Graniez, Clare Brogan and Jeff Wellenbach, have been selected to work on the site this summer. Bitely, an anthropology major, has extensive experience with GIS mapping. Brazinski and Furman, both classics majors, plan to study archaeology and classics in graduate schools at the University of Cambridge in England and St. Andrews University in Scotland, respectively. Brogan is studying in Greece this semester. Wellenbach and Graniez are classics majors.
"This is a very hands-on experience for these excellent students," Larson said. "They will be doing real work and get to see all of what is involved in a new excavation."
Brazinski, who traveled to Athens to work at the Athenian Agora site with Daly last summer, said he is looking forward to the opportunity to working in an area that has been largely unexplored.
"It is very exciting to be part of this and to be one of the first Americans allowed to work in Thebes," Brazinski said.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is one of the world's leading international philanthropic organizations, making grants in the areas of arts and culture, education, health and medicine, and social welfare. While prominent in its support of Greek-related initiatives, the Foundation's activities are worldwide in scope. To date, the Foundation has provided total grant commitments of 895 million Euros or $1.2 billion through more than 1,900 grants to nonprofit organizations in 90 nations.
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