Adela Sobotkova – Archaeologist and Satellite Remote Sensing Specialist

Why did you want to work on Zagora?

The way I got to Zagora involved more serendipity than desire. I assisted with the remote sensing methodology in the Australian Research Council (ARC) grant application that Meg and Lesley put in [Professor Meg Miller and Dr Lesley Beaumont, with Dr Stavros Paspalas, the Directors of the Zagora Archaeological Project]. I learnt about the project from Shawn Ross, my partner, who is an Ancient Historian at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with a specialty in Early Iron Age (EIA) Greece. He has worked at the ‘Palace of Nestor’ at Pylos in the 1990s and applied also to work at Lefkandi. He was so excited about the renewed work of University of Sydney at Zagora! There are so few EIA sites like Zagora, and every time Shawn has tried to work at one, something interfered. We came to Athens to the planning meeting for Zagora in 2010 only to find the ferries on strike. We planned that if Meg and Lesley got the grant (and all the permits on the Greek end), Shawn would be directing the remote sensing at Zagora. However, when the time came in autumn 2013, history repeated itself. Shawn could not get away from his new Deputy Head of School job at UNSW and I was delegated to do the satellite remote sensing instead. That autumn while in Europe, I was sandwiched between remotely doing my regular job (Federated Archaeological Information Management Systems (FAIMS) project management), organising a European Association of Archaeologists conference session, presenting papers and conducting pilot work in Bulgaria. The Zagora campaign was the last project on my list, one in a row of my many responsibilities that autumn. If I thought of it at all, it was with anxiety. I had two weeks for the entire remote sensing campaign and I had never even seen the island! The thought of squeezing in image rectification, analysis and verification of a completely new area in such a tight timeframe gave me mild panic attacks. I had started image processing and all other preparations while in Sydney and when I saw the density of recent remains (enclosures) throughout the study area and the lack of spectral differentiation, my heart sank. No unusual spectral reflectance jumped out of the image and it was clear that if we were to find anything, systematic and serious work was going to be required. When I asked Petra to be my assistant, I said something like “I don’t expect to find much there; there is nothing [obvious] in the image”. Petra agreed to come and that lifted my spirits. We have always been a hard-working team and I knew we would give the remote sensing around Zagora a proper try. Once I arrived at the site, I was fascinated. Not even the many pictures from presentations in Sydney could convey the scale of the site and the formidable landscape around it. Stone and the toughest barbed-wire-bushes everywhere! I quickly learnt that when Australians say the terrain is “rugged”, they really mean it. No exaggeration here. We were climbing from sea level to elevations of a thousand metres, being either boiling hot or pierced through by freezing wind. Add also scrambling through thorny vegetation and collecting bruising from climbing over the ubiquitous walls. I kept asking “why the heck did people ever settle this place?” Walking around Zagora was so memorable that we were looking forward to *boring* office work. The exhausting fieldwork, however, was rewarded by a new perspective of Zagora that we got every day, by spectacular views and by the little joys of swimming in the sea in Batsi and chatting over delicious dinner with other team members.

What archaeological study and/or work have you done?

I started working at archaeological projects in 2000 when I started Classical Archaeology studies as an undergrad. Since then I have been on a dozen excavations, surveys, study seasons (pottery analysis in museums, field sampling of all kinds, etc.) around the Mediterranean and Central/Eastern Europe. I had tried everything from plain digging and paper documentation to drafting, remote sensing (ground and satellite), zooarchaeological analysis, pottery analysis, cave sampling, pollen sampling, surveying, project design and organisation, and, finally, publication. When I got to gradschool I started my own project (Tundzha Regional Archaeological Project) in Bulgaria and based my dissertation on the results of that fieldwork.

How do you earn a living?

I am currently a Research Fellow at UNSW. I finished my PhD at the University of Michigan in 2012 (on a combination of research fellowship and teaching assistantships) and have been employed by UNSW to coordinate the FAIMS project, an initiative funded by the Australian Government. This project is developing digital applications for archaeologists and I serve as one of the two domain specialists here.

How many archaeological excavations have you worked on before (and as paid or volunteer)?

Uuh. Hmmm, probably about ten excavation projects. As an undergraduate I usually came to some agreement with the directors to share the costs. I paid for my travel and they covered my on-site expenses. I was lucky that most projects found my expertise worth a pay, plus in Europe it is more common for projects to pay archaeology students. As a graduate student, I was constantly applying for grants to pay for my fieldwork and the effort often paid off.

When did you develop your interest in archaeology?

I had always been fascinated by the ancient world and have been a Classicist since the age of ten when I read the “Dream of Troy” by Arnold C. Brackman. I begged my parents to get me a Greek dictionary and one of my aunts did find me one (a heroic deed in communist Czechoslovakia). When I went to high school this interest faded away somewhat, until a friend told me about the Open Day at Classical Archaeology in Brno, saying “the programme sounded like it was made for you”. I applied, got in and started, only to be a bit bored in the first year (the studies felt a bit irrelevant and single-sided after the rigours of high school). However, after my first season at Chersonesos in Crimea, a joint American-Italian-Ukrainian project, I was in.

What inspires you about archaeology?

The challenge. The fact that archaeology requires a broad skillset and forces me to constantly learn something new, be it languages, methods or people skills. Archaeology requires me to travel and spend considerable time in other countries, which brings with it the challenge of being exposed to different mindsets, work ethics and lifestyles. It may sound like a cliché, but it can be incredibly hard. For me in Bulgaria, doing things *slowly* and accepting a lot of uncertainty in administrative and managerial arrangements took years to adjust to. The teamwork. Archaeology is about the masochism of strenuous labour, sometimes poor living conditions and odd food (though not on the Zagora project where they were very good), inclement weather (and, if you run your own project, annoying politics)! It is very satisfying to find people who, like you, will laugh at the discomforts and enjoy the intellectual endeavour behind it all. Now, that I have been doing archaeology for over a decade, I find it most satisfying to have my own team, articulate my own research questions and find ways to test them.

How does working at Zagora compare with other digs you have been on?

It ranks up high among logistically extremely difficult, yet very well managed and catered projects. The team is very cohesive with amazing personalities, excellent company. The work itself is *very* strenuous, yet nobody has gotten seriously injured so far. That alone shows how well organised it is.

How does the experience of working at Zagora compare to how you imagined it would be?

The directors did an excellent job adequately explaining the rigour of the working conditions. I first did not believe the conditions could be so hard, but their assessment was spot-on, no exaggeration. The work itself was not the hardest thing there, the commuting added a dimension. The excavators get only a few hours of free time a day, which in particular for trench supervisors must have been exhausting. However, every serious project is like that – usually the permits or other circumstances of work impose a time limit and you need to make the most of it. I am a workaholic and prefer to get things done in good speed. After all, it’s only partially a vacation! As for the remote sensing, I had done similar work in Italy, so I knew exactly what I was getting us into.

Did you bring your own trowel to Zagora?

I did not because trowel work or other kinds of intrusive investigation were not included in the permit for the Zagora remote sensing work, so I made sure I was not tempted. I left my trowel resting in Bulgaria.

What would you say to others who may be considering volunteering to work on an archaeological excavation?

If you’re thinking of volunteering for the Zagora Archaeological Project, go listen to what the veterans have to say, spend a month before the project in the gym weightlifting and using a climbing machine. Learn to drive a stick shift on the right side of the road, read up some Greek, pack a sense of humour and get ready for some serious work! You are up for a challenge.

Any other comments?

Don’t forget to enjoy!
Adela Sobotkova doing remote sensing ground control, with Zagora in the background
Adela Sobotkova doing remote sensing ground control, with Zagora in the background. Photo by Petra Janouchova
Adela Sobotkova (at left) and Petra Janouchova in the Kantouni Cafe in Batsi
A great team: Adela Sobotkova (at left) and Petra Janouchova in the Kantouni Cafe in Batsi. Photo by Irma Havlicek; © PHM
Adela Sobotkova becoming acquainted with the prickly bushes of Zagora
Adela Sobotkova becoming acquainted with the prickly bushes of Zagora. Photo by Petra Janouchova
Petra Janouchova and Adela Sobotkova working in the Zagora office at Batsi
From left: Petra Janouchova and Adela Sobotkova working in the Zagora office at Batsi. Photo by Irma Havlicek; © PHM
Petra Janouchova and Adela Sobotkova swimming in the Aegean across the road from the Kantouni
After their last day's work Petra and Adela had to have one last swim across the road from the Kantouni. Photo by Irma Havlicek; © PHM
Adela Sobotkova doing fieldwork for the Zagora Archaeological Project
Adela Sobotkova doing fieldwork for the Zagora Archaeological Project. Photo by Petra Janouchova
Adela and Petra ready to depart for their next archaeological expedition in Bulgaria
After their swim, Adela and Petra were at the Kantouni, dressed and ready to depart for their next archaeological expedition in Bulgaria. Photo by Irma Havlicek; © PHM