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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 22 November, 2014

The road to Petras: Why I gave up my job and became an archaeologist

In my mid twenties, I began to yearn for a change. A recurring voice at the back of my head kept whispering about the possibility of another path.

Frank Lynam

EIGHT YEARS AGO I set out on a journey that would come to change the course of my life. Now, I know that this is a preposterously melodramatic statement with which to begin an article but for the most part I believe it to be true.

In my mid twenties, I began to yearn for a change. I had worked in the ICT industry since leaving school and was doing fairly well, generally surfing the wave of optimism that surged through Ireland during the Celtic Tiger. I was happy and enjoyed my work but a recurring voice at the back of my head kept whispering about the possibility of another path. When that whisper became a roar, I finally took notice and signed up to study Italian and Ancient History and Archaeology at Trinity in Dublin at the ripe old age of 26.

Within weeks of my first semester I knew that I had made the right decision. I was lapping it up but, by god, was it tough as well. Beforehand, I tended to view the student life with more than a hint of antipathy. University was society’s final playground for the child in all of us and beyond it lay the real world of careers and life. Looking back now, I know this not to be the case; at least it need not be so. Higher level education is a challenge and those that pursue it in a real and contributory fashion should be supported but let us perhaps leave that particular thought for now and I will return to the matter at hand.

Going into the field

Midway through my first year I heard word of an Irish archaeological excavation being conducted on the island of Crete. The site, Priniatikos Pyrgos, may as well have been in Timbuktu for all I knew, but instinctively I understood that I needed to sign up. If I was going to really understand archaeology, I needed to get out there beyond all the books and the theory and the lectures, out into the field where we first encounter those faint traces of the past.

In 2007 I arrived on Crete and encountered a world that was totally alien to that which I had been so accustomed only 12 months before; my evolving transformation had taken a further step away from the old life. Under the solid guidance of many fine archaeologists, who I have the great pleasure of calling friends to this day, I began the process of learning to dig.

Cretan archaeology is now just over a century old. There are many fine archaeologists who have moved among its rank in that time but none transcends the discipline quite so visibly as Arthur Evans, the man credited with the discovery of the Minoans.

A discovery that exceeded expectations 

On the 23 March 1900, Evans, son of a wealthy paper mill owner from Hertfordshire, England, began an archaeological excavation on the hill known as Knossos, located a couple of miles south of Candia, capitol of the Ottoman-controlled island of Crete. He had spent the previous weeks and months tracking down and purchasing old trinkets, which the villagers of the island had dug up from their fields, in many cases taking on a superstitious quality because of their exoticism. For a man like Evans, who had a keen eye for ancient antiquities, these domestic curios spoke of greater discoveries waiting to be made beneath the red soils of the island.

Very quickly, it was clear to Evans that his vast team of workmen had uncovered something that went far beyond his expectations. His plan had been to find the remains of a Mycenaean occupation of Crete, the Mycenaeans being the proto-Greeks that we meet in Homer. They spoke an archaic form of the language and they inhabited an often tumultuous and violent world.

Evans did indeed find evidence for these early Greeks at Knossos but he also came upon something very different, a material culture that did not fit the model of the Mycenaeans that was being pieced together at the sites on the Greek mainland. He named the people associated with this new and exciting material as Minoan, after the legendary king of Crete, the villain of the piece in the myth of Perseus, the Minotaur and Ariadne. Evans believed profoundly in the reality of the Greek myths. For the remainder of his life, he would use these stories and his own particular psychological baggage to construct a vision of Minoan civilisation that the field of Cretan prehistoric and early historic archaeology has been intricately tied to ever since.

Petras is an extraordinary site

As I write this I am on the verge of completing a second season at Petras, a Minoan palace site in East Crete. I work on the cemetery hill known as Kephala that towers over the settlement hill to the west and would have served as a constant visual reminder to its inhabitants of the presence of their forebears in an area that had been occupied almost continuously throughout the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC.

There is a wonderful rhythm to your day when you work at an archaeological site such as Petras. You rise at 6am and are on site by 7am. You leave the site at 3pm with the rest of the day left to your leisure and to the interpretation of what you had been digging in the previous hours.

Petras is an extraordinary site in the Cretan archaeological world as it is the only substantially intact cemetery that dates to the Minoan period. It is composed of what are known as house tombs as they mirror the residences that populated contemporary nearby settlements such as Gournia and Palaikastro.

Petras has yielded no more than four primary burials. Human remains instead tend to be found in contexts that archaeologists refer to as secondary burials, meaning that the bodies were left to first become defleshed before the bones were gathered and deposited in the rooms of the house tombs. These rooms can often be very small and it is likely that the majority were accessed through the flat roofs of the buildings.

Archaeology and new digital possibilities 

We find pottery surrounding the human remains in the tombs and we use their changing ceramic styles to assign dates to the material that we find alongside them. We encounter other materials too, many of which are undoubtedly of high status: seals, metal jewellery and stone vessels. These finds make it almost certain that the Petras cemetery site was used predominantly by elite groups, probably based around family units that would have come from the nearby settlement. Anyone who has ever visited Glasnevin cemetery will recognise a similar sentiment in the family owned plots and mausoleums that are still in use today.

One week remains of the project before I return home to Dublin and begin the final year of my PhD. I investigate the ways in which archaeology can exploit the new possibilities offered by the emerging digital fields of Big Data and data analytics. As it happens I now use many of the skills that I had developed as an engineer but as my new career constantly reminds me, it is the fool who seeks to deny their own past.

Frank Lynam is an archaeologist with a particular interest in data analytics and data visualisation. He is currently part of the Digital Arts and Humanities PhD programme at Trinity College Dublin.

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