Saturday, September 19, 2009


We got into Poros, the town where we’re going to be living for the next three months, on September 11th. So I have been here for a week, I am just too busy to update. Or lazy, whatever. I have definitely become accustomed to the continental lifestyle. Nice.

So! This is Kefalonia. We’re in Poros, in the south-east corner. Our excavation site is at the ancient Pronnoi acropolis, which is just west of the town. Kefalonia used to be divided into four city states, and Pronnoi was the southernmost. I shall talk more about our excavation, and the island history, etc., in other posts, because it is darn interesting.

This is the view from the balcony in the two room suite I’m sharing with another archaeology student. Yee-ah. Idyllic. Just a little.

The excavation site is a cemetery on the north-west slope of the acropolis and is a 15 minute drive up this gorge from Poros. Poros itself is very small, but very very friendly. It feels like most of the people in the town recognize our program director, Geoffrey, or one of the townspeople helping organize the excavation (Hettie and Makis). Makis used to be the mayor of the province of Pronnoi on Athens, and Hettie is his wife. They are both so, so kind and accommodating. They’ve organized so much of the trip for us and our stay, and Hettie is always turning up with a special treat or day trip for us. All the islanders involved in our stay – from the bus driver to the reps from the Greek archaeological services – knows somebody whose son has a boat for us to use or has a brother who can get us bike rentals or owns a bar we should go hang out at, etc. etc. Greek hospitality can be a bit overwhelming.

Our apartment complex!

We’ve had two days at the site so far...kind of. Day one was cleaning up the detritus from the past summer and spring. The site excavations began last September with a previous group of SFU students, so no topsoil digging. Yet. Somehow I earned the right to sit on my butt and sort through pebbles for bone fragments with our resident osteology person-about-town, Julie, instead of shifting rocks and using pick-axes to delineate the trench walls again. Not bad for a first day! I will never, ever turn down the opportunity to look for human remains, especially when the alternative is hard labour, haha. A few of the graves have been robbed or disturbed or accidently plowed through with farming equipment over the years, so we worked through a portion of the site where someone’s bone fragments had been scattered. Not much to find – mostly shards of long bones or skulls – but we did find two distal hand phalanges, which are the very tips of your finger. I didn’t say much to anyone, but I was pretty thrilled to find a complete carpal phalange on my first day. I am a great big dorky newbie and all day I was thinking back on the site.

The next day I was really geared to go and start moving some walls and capstones where Geoffrey believed skeletal remains were hidden, but we got rained out. We were taking line measurements (or watching people take line measurements) at about 8:30 in the morning and a thunderstorm poured over the valley on top of us. Le sigh. We’re not back up there for two days, four days after the last day on the site, and I am vaguely worried that some of the bone we exposed has been washed away.
But we’ll see. In the meantime the group has had three organized trips out of town, so it’s not as though I am without things to do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Athens - there is a city by the sea

How do I explain this to you? I am sitting on a balcony in downtown Athens right at the base of the Acropolis. The Parthenon is lit up brighter than the streetlights, a hundred times bigger than the moon right on my horizon. It is night, and it is drizzling rain, and there is a loud concert going on at the Herodus Atticus Odeon mere blocks away. More than two thousand years ago people performed at the same theatre, and a woman my age may have sat in her courtyard, chin in hand, hearing the laughter and the flourishes of the theatre the same as I am.

Athens is...Athens. It’s big. It’s noisy, crowded, dirty, overwhelming. Scattered all over the city are preserved archaeological sites, from the centre complexes of the Acropolis, the Agora, and the old Agora to tiny preserved pipes and bits of paved roads, two metres below current street level, just blocked off with railing with no explanation as to their meaning. It was fascinating to see the museums and sites in the city but it’s much too much for me to be comfortable with regularly.

As mentioned above, the hotel I stayed at with the 18 other program students and our program director was right at the south-eastern base of the Acropolis. It was literally a block’s walk to the southern slopes and sites, like the Odeon and the Theatre of Dionysus.

The Acropolis itself is much more than the Parthenon. I will be saying over and over again that Greek archaeology, especially the classical stuff that makes up so much of the Classics departments in isn’t really my thing. I am interested in it, and I really enjoyed seeing the sites, but I don’t have a great deal of background knowledge on it beyond reading a few of the Greek theatre classics. Most of which are decidedly pre-Classical, anyway. I remember having an argument with someone circa grade six about who were cooler, the Romans or the Greeks (the latter of which we were studying at the time). For some reason I took the side of the Romans. Being out here the lines between Greek, Roman and Byzantine all blur together, especially with the works of complete Hellophiles like Hadrian.

I liked the Erechtheum on the Acropolis, and the view from the Pnyx hill offsite. The Parthenon itself was ridiculously overcrowded and blocked by reconstruction efforts. The new Acropolis Museum just off hill, however, was fabulous. It only opened in June and was one of the few places in the touristy parts of Athens where I heard more Greek than English or German or Italian.

I also really liked the Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora. It’s apparently the most complete example of a Greek temple for its time period, and it’s stunning to see in person. On one side the drums of the columns (the cylinders piled on one another to make up the columns) are perfectly in line; on the other side they are so shifted from earthquakes that they have almost toppled.

Yeah, like I could go to a city, even an ancient one, without ending up in a 19th century cemetery. I only got about 20 minutes in the First Cemetery because it was sunset and I was paranoid of getting locked in. There were lots of cats roaming around the necropolis, more than I saw in other parts of Athens. Necropolis nekos! They are all so small and scrawny it’s hard to tell which are kittens and which aren’t. I did have one orange tabby follow me around the whole time, doing the exposed-belly pet-me-and-give-me-food pose. Many of the mausoleums were open, with steps leading down to the shrines – perhaps the cats hung out down there? It was very calm, and quiet, and peaceful, and absolutely enormous.

This was the only time I got freaked out in the cemetery. Can you see why?

Yup. Creepy statue man is watching you. Almost all the statues faced into the main central avenue, but this guy didn’t, so I was not expecting to see his face poking through the trees. Thanks for the adrenaline rush, creepy statue man.

The museums in Athens were incredible but, again, overwhelming. Besides the Acropolis Museum, there was an archaeological museum at the Agora (where most of my statue pictures are from) and the National Museum, which I adored and wish I had had more time at.

Indication that something is possibly wrong with me: I’m in Athens, at the National Museum, which is full of all manner of Greek archaeological goodies, and where do I hang out? The Egyptian wing. Yeeeah. The Egyptologist wanna-be in me couldn’t pass this section of the museum up. Once again, the classical Greek stuff isn’t really my thing. Unless it involves spindle whorls. My ‘thing’, if I can be argued to have a ‘thing’ within archaeology at all, is definitely osteology and textiles. This should come as no surprise to anyone ever.

They had a nice little sampling of Egyptian harp related stuff. The above is part of a wooden harp found preserved (cannot remember the date), and the next two are, in order, a monkey playing a harp and a very special carving of two people and a harp that speaks for itself. I took a picture of it just for you, Becca.

This is my favourite picture I got out of the two days in Athens – it’s a fresco in the Byzantine church on the Agora grounds. I blew out the contrast and the saturation on it and quite like the result.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Amsterdam - once upon a time there was a little girl

September 7th was Amsterdam! I only had a few hours here en route to Athens and I set out specifically for the Anne Frank Museum. There’s a meme going around where you name the top 15 most influential/memorable books in your life, and were I do actually do it, The Diary of Anne Frank would be at the top for me. I really love published journals and diaries, but hers was the first I read – I think we did it in grade five at school. I remember reading the first bit, and then flipping to the back to read about what Anne was up to today. The fact that out of her whole family, out of all the people who hid in the Secret Annex, only her father really affected me as a naive little ten year old. I was still at a stage of life where everyone grew up and lived happily ever after, and if anyone died, it was the old people, your grandparents or even your parents, because they were old and had had full lives. Little girls a few years older than me didn’t die, didn’t go to die in death camps mere weeks before being saved.

Needless to say, the museum was fascinating and heartrending for me. The last film clip you see before you leave is Otto Frank saying how little he knew of Anne, how different she seemed from the girl he read of in her journals. And there we stood, just tourists, and the only thing we know of Anne were her journals and teenage scrawling and innermost thoughts, the best they can be expressed with pen and paper.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Þingvellir, Lögberg, Gullfoss, Keflavik - who throws the light on the mountain if not I?

It feels to me that so much about Iceland is epic. Always on a grand scale, at one end of the spectrum or the other. Reykjavik isn’t just a city, it’s the northernmost capital in the world; it parties well beyond sunrise, when there is a sunrise and it isn’t just daylight all night long anyway. It’s not just a well educated population, but the most literate country in the world with the highest per capita printing of books and newspapers. I’ve heard shop workers switch easily between Icelandic to English to German all in one transaction; this level of lingual dexterity isn’t limited to academics or diplomats, but the general population. All this in a country of less than a million. And it goes the other way, too, does it not? It was the first country to suffer a complete banking crash in this our most recent economic verklemptitude (yes, I made up a word there).

That is just the demographics (which are fascinating) and the people (who are lovely and kind, and endlessly fascinating themselves. For example, the woman that just passed me in the airport terminal that had somehow rigged up a Razor-style scooter to a luggage cart and is now navigating through the 6am crowds at a disturbing speed). As for the land itself –not just glaciers and mountains and deadened lava flow plains, but a glacier complex that covers the majority of the country. Volcanic cones and flattened tables of mountains jutting up in the middle of nowhere, unconnected to one another, looking as angular and foreboding as the mountains in Tolkien’s pen and ink maps of Middle Earth. Instead of forests, moss caps the black lava rock everywhere.

Þingvellir National Park, named for the allÞingvellir, the Parliament of Iceland that traces its origins to a meeting that took place at Lögberg (the Law Rock) in 930 AD where a bunch of Vikings decided to get their act together. There was no way for them to know, but the location of Lögberg is in the valley between the rift between the North American and European continental plates. The valley is constantly, imperceptibly widening, with new cracks and fissures like that of Lögberg forming and disappearing. allÞingvellir, where all things and two continents and all the people connect but are divided at, the lodestone and scattering point at once. This is not the first contradictory statement I have found myself making about Iceland. Looking at the scenery in Þingvellir and on the way to Geysir and Gullfoss, the best adjectives would be ‘alien’ and ‘blackened moonscape’, yet a dead volcano and an ancient lava flow are much more natural, much more ‘Terran’, if you will, than the hotel rooms and packaged foods that have been my norm for the past week.

While we were at Lögberg, two large and incredibly noisy ravens were circling the site. Undoubtedly they were Huginn and Muninn, Odin’s raven familiars, coming to check on the Law Rock. Just to see how things were going. (Psst to Vancouverites or future Vancouver visitors: the Maritime Museum on Kitsilano Beach has a dock you can go onto for free, and they have a replica Viking ship named the Munin moored there.)

Hint: read the placard, then take pictures. The lovely still pool seems less lovely when you learn about the women drowned in it as punishment or sacrifices, take your pick. The archaeologist aspect of me wants to know what they’ve pulled up from the water that led to these conclusions.

Geysir! The first place somebody saw one of these go off and then talked about it enough that it was retained in the history books. We did not see the original Geysir go off, but there were plenty of others doing their eruption thing in the general vicinity. I’ve heard stories about bison getting too close to the geysers in Yellowstone during the winter and falling in; makes me wonder how many wooly Icelandic sheep have become boiled mutton in these.

Because, you see, wooly Icelandic sheep and fuzzy Icelandic horses are freaking everywhere along the highway between Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. Almost every field we passed was full of either sheep or horses. Interesting fact: no horses come into Iceland, and once an Icelandic horse leaves, it cannot come back. Talk about healthy, closed off breeding pool. Like some of the people in Reykjavik, Icelandic horses are just that much prettier than every other horse ever. A lot of them have double mane, ie) manes on both sides of their necks, which results in impressive 80s rockstar hairstyles when the Icelandic wind starts blowing. No pictures of them because I got freaked out by stories of what mean, bitey things they can be. Also not pictured: the Viking motorcycle gang with horsehair pennants riding around Þingvellir. A+++ Epic Awesome.

Gullfoss – literally Golden Falls. I would like to think these photos speak for themselves. Again with the epic, Iceland, you just keep it coming, don’t ya?
After this trek around the Golden Circle we ended up in the town of Keflavik for the night. My mom had a flight a day earlier than mine and Keflavik is right by the airport, about 40 minutes west of Reykjavik. Except when we got to the town, we couldn’t get to our hotel because all the streets were blocked off for what seemed to be a festival of lights. There were Christmas lights and candles set up in people’s windows, and you could hear the bandstand from the highway. So we parked our rental and wandered down to see what was going on. I think every person, baby, dog, grumpy teenager and blond elfin baby from Keflavik was out there, and a good chunk of Reykjavik as well. The streets were so packed I couldn’t even move my arms to take out my camera, except to take a picture of the White Tree of Gondor they had rigged up. It was like those travels stories you hear about where the backpacker stumbles across some festival and has an amazing time and it’s the best part of their trip and it was totally unplanned but amazing. Except that when you travel you never stumble across that sort of thing, you usually just come upon drunken German tourists or dirty toilets or whatever. But we managed to find the mythical secret festival of lights and fireworks and whatnot. Nicely done, Keflavik.

Aaaand Icelanders once again proved that when it comes to celebrations, the break of dawn is an arbitrary point in time that does not require settling down of any sort. The next morning, Sunday, my mom and I went to the Blue Lagoon just outside Keflavik before she left for Canada again. And there was a checkstop on the highway. At 10am on a Sunday morning. The best part was the number of cars actually pulled over and the number of people who either tried the ‘hair of the dog’ cure for the after effects of the fireworks party, or had simply drunk so much and late that they could not pass the breathalyser. At 10am on a Sunday morning.

The Blue really, really strange. What happened was they built a geothermal power plant out on a lava field, and carved out a basin to dump the used thermal water into. Except it turned out a lovely milky blue colour and the salts and silica stuck to the bottom and basically formed something like a nice enamelled pool. So they built a spa and it’s apparently the most popular tourist spot in Iceland. Think about that. The most popular tourist venue in Iceland is completely unnatural, but rather a manmade dumping ground for power plant waste.

It was, all in all, a very nice bathing experience. Just surreal. It’s like someone designed a set for a James Bond movie taking place in a slightly post-apocalyptical Nordic spa. The water is an impossible milk blue and the lava rocks that crowd in on it are pitch black in comparison, out of which rises the squat spa facilities. Lots of obscenely beautiful people handing fat tourists towels and hairy pale bellies bobbing up out of the steam. And over all this, the power plant looms. Very strange place indeed.

So that’s the end of Iceland for me – it’s on to Athens through Amsterdam. I have to switch the wonderful (in my view) weather in Iceland for whatever ungodly heat is torturing the Greek mainland right now. After all my lovely pictures, after praising the country and the people and being in awe of its contradictions and epic scale, I have to say my favourite thing about Iceland is that it is always sweater weather.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Reykjavik - the grave, the city, and the wilderness

So...I really like Iceland. I only developed the burning desire to come here after taking a course on Viking archaeology and getting a little overexcited about Nordic stuff in general.

I am going to preface this whole series of posts by saying that Ativan is both my friend and my enemy. The good thing is that I finally figured out a dosage that keeps me from having a nuclear meltdown while on an airplane. The bad thing is that, since I am approximately the height and weight of Frankenstein’s monster, that dosage is some 8mg over a span of 10 hours. That is a whole lot of Ativan. A woman I used to work with claimed that after getting stoned on pain killers after some minor surgery, she woke up the next day to find two containers of ice cream in her microwave and every single one of the chairs in her house turned upside down. That’s kind of what I felt like when I opened my carry-on bag in Reykjavik to find three fashion magazines and about $20 worth of chocolate. All of which I apparently purchased on layover in Boston, the entirety of which I have no recollection of. At all. I freaking hate fashion magazines, so it was a little disorientating.

September 3rd and 4th were spent in Reykjavik, which I freaking loved. Ahhhh historical buildings and Viking museums and more creepy old graveyards. Incredibly fresh air and interesting food and shops and cobblestone streets and pretty people. Oh, and Icelandic wool. Possible indicator that I am an obsessive knitter: I know the Icelandic word for wool, but not the word for sheep or lamb.

Some things about Iceland and Reykjavik in general:

- People here are...really pretty. Everyone in downtown Reykjavik seemed so stylish and Nordic and blond. I stood out as a tourist less because of the camera around my neck and moreso because I was the only girl my age wearing jeans and a hoodie.

- Icelandic people are really nice and slightly flirty and many of them speak English. When I say slightly flirty, I mean that my mom totally got hit on by a lot of older Icelandic gentlemen. She is half Swedish, half Anglo-Scottish, and she blended into the crowd in Reykjavik perfectly. She kept having people come up to her speaking Icelandic, whereas everyone spoke English with me immediately because it was clear I was a tourist.

- There are barely any North American tourists out here. When people found out we were Canadian, they would ask if we were from Gimli, Manitoba and had Icelandic heritage. Gimli has the largest population of Icelanders outside of Iceland, and apparently no one visits from Canada unless they’re looking up their Viking genealogy.

Obviously I am a stupid tourist with no understanding of pre-economic crisis Iceland, but from walking and driving around Reykjavik I wouldn’t have guessed that ten months ago the country was having serious economic and government reorganization issues. The biggest difference was that instead of 50 Kronor to a Canadian dollar, it’s 100 Kr to a dollar right now, and I won’t be able to change my Icelandic money to Euros once I leave the country. Despite hearing about exorbitant prices in guide books and such, we found that hotels and stuff here isn’t much more expensive than the average Canadian city. In fact, our hotel in Halifax cost us more than our hotel in downtown Reykjavik.

We also rented a car to get around. In Canada you can get an international driver’s license for around twenty dollars with a valid in-country license, and I think you can rent a car in Iceland as long as you’re over 19 or 20 (as opposed to 21 in Canada). Driving was, again, comparable to most Canadian cities. The paved highways outside the city were on par with the undivided highways I’ve driven in the Rockies, except with a random gravel road or two.

Summation: I don’t know why more people aren’t visiting Iceland right now. The economic crisis hasn’t had a big effect on tourists, the exchange rate is good, it’s not as expensive as it’s made out to be, and you’d be helping out the economy. Come to Iceland! [/end tourist brochure]

The Culture House, where there is an exhibit of medieval sage manuscripts, some from the 13th century. It was a little overwhelming for my little archivist/archaeologist heart.

The Pearl (Perlan) is actually built over Reykjavik’s hot water storage tanks. It’s very James Bondy, and it’s free to go up to the viewing deck and take pictures of the city, and has the Saga Museum on the first floor.

Moar old graveyards. If I thought the Old Burying Ground in Halifax was cool, then the old cemetery in Reykjavik (called Hólavallagarður) was uber-cool. It was opened about the same time the graveyard in Halifax stopped being used, and the differences (and similarities) between the two were really interesting. There were more trees in the graveyard than I saw anywhere else in Iceland. The running joke seems to be that if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up. Apparently pre-Viking times there were woodlands here, but they’ve been clear cut for a few hundred years now. The number and variety of trees planted on graves in the old cemetery means that it’s actually been set aside as a nature conservation area. The graveyard is much less ramshackle than my pictures show it to be; I’ve never seen such a variety of gravestone styles and shapes. Many had circular bas reliefs on the stones, which I’d also never seen before.

In the background you can see Hallgrímskirkja (big church), but it is covered in green scaffolding right now and is not very photogenic.

Reykjavik has a notoriously vibrant nightlife. I’d kind of brushed off the stuff I’d heard about it, especially since I also heard that alcohol is super expensive here, but omg. Icelanders know how to party. Friday night was just an average night in Reykjavik and I think the only reason people eventually went home was because parking stops being free in the good lots around seven in the morning. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer when it’s light all night. Obviously I have been living on top of Burnaby Mountain for too long because I was shocked/impressed by the number of people still milling around on the streets and bars at 5:30 on Saturday morning.

More pictures of Reykjavik and Hólavallagarður.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

ten lines leading to the seashore - did i really drown?

My mom and I fly to Reykjavik through Boston this evening, so we had about five hours to spend in downtown Halifax this morning before we headed to the airport. Which I am at now. Waiting. The last time I flew to the States was pre-2001. May I just say that I have never met scarier people than the people who put me through American security? And this is coming from a girl who has walked through the downtown Eastside of Vancouver, the textbook definition of a scary place. [/whiny crabbing from the person who doesn't fly regularly]

Downtown Halifax continued to be charming and historical and pretty this morning. I'm starting to think I'd like to come out east for grad school, just so I can hang out in a city with this many historical buildings. *_* There were yea many indie book and music stores that I was jonesing to go into but I don't have room in my luggage or bank account, haha. I know that just seeing the nice tourist part of a city doesn't tell you a lot about it, and I have friends from Halifax that have somewhat educated me on the social and economic issues out here. But I liked what I saw and I really wish I had had more time in the city.

First up: The Old Burying Ground. I could have spent all day in here and would have been thrilled. When my family lived in northern Manitoba and BC, my mom was hired by the towns we lived in to survey and record the names in some of the small graveyards in the area, since she had an archaeology background. I remember coming with her on these excursions when I was around 4 - 6 years old and I can pretty much define those trips as the beginnings of my own interests in mortuary archaeology, and archaeology in general.

It had the full range of death's heads to hourglasses to Victorian urns and drapery and weeping willows. You could do a thesis on tombstone decoration seriation from the cemetery alone - in fact, there were two students sitting in front of graves with laptops and cameras that were doing just that, I believe. My favourite style is the overturned torch, which was unfortunately lacking, but there was one Masonic stone (undated) with very childlike drawings of the sunstone, moon and all-seeing eye, which I'd never seen on a Masonic gravestone before. There's a Masonic cemetery close to my university that I've wandered around, but the symbolism on those stones are uniformly the stonecutter's symbol.

Overall the grounds have a very Old World feel to them, all straightbacked slate stones and low tombs. I freaking loved it. As we were leaving, we read this:

My mom is also a genealogist and knows one of my great-great [insert more 'great's here] grandfathers and his sons worked as quarrymen in Massachusetts Bay during the mid to late 1700s, so it's entirely possible that they cut some of the stone for the Old Burying Ground. That's pretty freaking cool in my books.

Across the street from the grounds is St. Mary's Basilica and a historical building that I wish I lived in, both for its exterior and its location. Le sigh. There are a bunch more cemetery and building pictures in my Flickr set.

Aaaaand we're off to Reykjavik!