Archaeological reconnaissance

by Irma Havlicek
Powerhouse Museum Online Producer

Paul Donnelly surveying
Paul Donnelly walking a grid, looking for traces of ancient remains © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Prior to the commencement of excavation it is important that the team gains some understanding of the ancient site layout and use.

In order to do this, the site grid is being used to record all visible signs of ancient activity.

To get the most out of this post, you may want to read the posts about the grids, and also how the information gained is being digitally recorded onto tablets.

Ivana Vetta and Jane McMahon surveying a grid
Ivana Vetta (left) and Jane McMahon recording their grid findings into tablets. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

The team has been systematically walking the grids, usually in teams of two or three, looking at the ground to see if they can find evidence of human activity from the time of the settlement of Zagora, about 900 to 700 BCE.

They have been recording evidence of architectural remains and the presence of ancient pottery and other finds across the site including metal slag which represents the remains of industrial activity.

People doing archaeological survey
People doing archaeological reconnaissance. It can look as though people aren’t doing much but actually they are working very hard – standing, walking, bending, consulting, with few breaks. At the end of a work day, you are really tired – and you still have the steep walk up hill to get back to the van. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
A diagnostic handle sherd
A handle sherd © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Most of the pottery found at Zagora is a terracotta colour. But there are also lighter coloured pieces which were probably imported, with the pale pinkish cream pottery possibly imported from Corinth.

Getting your eye in

Some of the sherds laying clearly on the ground surface were fairly easy to see right from the beginning. But many were alongside leaves and stones of very similar colour.

At the beginning, I frequently confused sherds and what the archaeologists call ‘tricky rock’ – stones that look very similar to sherds. But I pretty quickly got better at discerning the difference.

But when you ‘get your eye in’ and start to recognise what you are looking for, you seem to become sensitive to seeing artefacts wherever they are – they almost call out to you. A feeling of real excitement builds with every piece that you see. Especially when there are people around who can add meaning to some of the sherds noted. (And then there are others of our team at Andros Museum who know even more about them.)

Sherds among leaves
It can be very difficult to see sherds among the similarly coloured stones (which archaeologists call ‘tricky rock’) and leaves at Zagora. There are three sherds in this photo. Can you find them? (The answer is at the bottom of this page.) © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Each piece of ancient pottery is a treasury of ancient information. Here the treasure is archaeological, emotional, intellectual, historical, scientific and personal. You know that with each artefact fragment is a piece to the great jigsaw that is archaeology, and that is also our understanding of our past. You ask yourself: What was this object part of? Who used it? When and where? As part of what kind of activity – daily eating and drinking? Celebration? Ritual? Were they celebrating a birth or marriage, or mourning a death?

You hold a small rim, and wonder whose lips drank from it. Were they drinking from it in rooms we are yet to excavate, and from which excavation we may find out more about them?

Sometimes it is almost as though we can hear distant echoes of the sounds that would likely have taken place at Zagora – families dining together, laughter and talk, perhaps men at their metalwork and women at their weaving, children playing. Not so very different from us, in many ways.

By far the most common artefacts found at Zagora have been pottery sherds (fragments of pottery) laying on the ground, often having been pushed up as plants have grown up through the earth.

The reconnaissance teams are usually allocated by one of the project team leaders (Professor Margaret (Meg) Miller or Dr Lesley Beaumont) each morning, and change from day to day so we all get to work with different people.

Dr Lesley Beaumont conducts a pre-departure briefing
Dr Lesley Beaumont conducts a pre-departure briefing and assigns reconnaissance teams for the day outside the Kantouni Pensione where we are staying at Batsi. More commonly, team allocation takes place inside the dig hut at the Zagora site. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
On-site consultation 0068
Teams are usually assigned inside the dig hut on site at Zagora before we head out to the grids; this day, Dr Lesley Beaumont assigned the teams a little way away from the dig hut © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

It is an amazing feeling being in the presence of the artefacts that had been used at Zagora almost three thousand years ago.

Sherd scatter
Sherds could sometimes be found in a ‘scatter’ among the stones on the ground and between the thorny bushes © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

Part of my amazement of being able to handle these artefacts is caused by the fact that I have worked at the Powerhouse Museum for the last 20 years. In the museum world, when an artefact is in the collection of a museum, we are not allowed to touch it with our bare hands because the oils in our hands affects the material of the objects and can hasten the deterioration of objects. We handle museum objects with great care, wearing cotton or latex gloves, depending on the material of the object being handled.

To work on the site where people lived for hundreds of years, thousands of years ago, and to pick up with my bare hands pieces of objects they had used in their daily life had an enormous emotional impact on me.

All the more so because so often the archaeologists I was working with could tell me, from a small fragment of pottery, what kind of object it probably came from.

They could usually easily tell if it was a rim, a base, a handle or a general body fragment. They often had a good idea about what the object likely was. For example, if the fragment, even if small, was quite thick, it was likely from a large object like a pithos or a hydria. (More about these objects in our Artefacts found at Zagora page.)

Hydriae have three handles: two horizontally placed opposite each other, to carry the vessel when filled with water; there is also one handle placed vertically between the other two handles, which enables it to be carried more easily with one hand when empty or to use for pouring. If the join section of a hydria handle is present, an archaeologist can tell whether it is a horizontal or a vertical handle.


Slag is the material that is left over from the process of metal smelting. Finding slag is significant because it indicates that metal was smelted in the area. Finding pieces of slag even in low numbers indicates the type/s of metal that were manufactured at Zagora. Finding it in concentration may be an indication of an industrial area on the site which, if we find one, would provide further evidence about labour and commercial activity at Zagora.

Ivana Vetta, our slag expert
Ivana Vetta, our slag expert © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Some slag has been found at Zagora in the past three weeks. One of our archaeologists, Ivana Vetta, is specialising in a study of slag, and will be a key analyst of our slag finds at Zagora. Enormous excitement is generated when slag is found. (I was thrilled to have found some myself.)

Archaeologists are very serious about their work – but they also have a sense of fun about it. Whenever someone finds slag, there are whoops of excitement, and screams of ‘Slag! Slag! I’ve found some slag!’ And there was even the odd ‘Slag happy dance’ when slag was found. I just didn’t have my video camera on hand to record it. But you can probably imagine….

Slag found by Irma
A small piece of slag I found; I’ve placed my small finger in the shot to provide some scale for the slag. The slag is the small dark reddish-brown object sitting just to the right of my finger, on the top of the small tower of stones we have built on which to put the slag so we would not lose sight of it (as it needs to be photographed ‘in situ’); © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Excitement over slag found by Jane
People from several nearby grids went over to look at some slag which has been found by Jane McMahon (wearing the grey hat and pale singlet top, facing towards the camera) © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek


Obsidian is a glass-like rock, dark to black in colour, which was produced from cooled magma (lava). It was chipped around the edges to make sharp cutting tools for thousands of years. The ancients developed fine skills to know exactly where and how to chip obsidian to get strong and sharp edges.

Obsidian is used today by some surgeons as scalpel blades because the cutting edge is much sharper than that of high-quality steel surgical scalpels.

A few pieces of obsidian have been found at Zagora this season. (No, I haven’t found any. I think it takes a sharper eye than mine to find it. I haven’t yet ‘got my eye in’ for obsidian. But I keep looking and hoping….)

Sensitivity to materials

One thing I have learned is how sensitive archaeologist are – and need to be – to find and identify artefacts and sherds. They use several senses to help them in their task. Primarily, they use sight, looking to find artefacts and also looking to see size, colour, shape, texture, etc. But they also use touch – to feel the material of the item. Archaeologist training can include identification of sherds by touch alone. From this they can tell a great deal about, for example, the composition of the clay from which the object was fired. But they also feel for weight as well as texture.

Dr Paul Donnelly licking to check whether an object is a sherd or a stone
Dr Paul Donnelly licking to check whether an object is a sherd or a stone; if your tongue sticks, it is a pottery sherd. I’m not sure that my dedication to the cause has reached the sherd-licking stage…. Kristen Mann looks on, amused, in the background. The wind was pretty fierce this day, so Paul and Kristen are wearing goggles or sunglasses and keffiyeh (Arabic head scarves) to protect them from the wind. © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Jane McMahon, Taryn Gooley and Paul Donnelly doing a transect survey
Jane McMahon, Taryn Gooley and Paul Donnelly walking a grid © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek
Three sherds marked among leaves and stones
Three sherds marked among leaves and stones © PHM; photo by Irma Havlicek

More from the Dig Blog

3 thoughts on “Archaeological reconnaissance”

Leave a Comment