Reflections on Archaeology with Dr Sarah Murray

View of the coast around the Gramvousa peninsula in Crete.

Dr Sarah Murray is an archaeologist with a focus on the material culture and development of institutions of early Greece, particularly from the end of the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age (1300-700 BCE) with the collapse of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations

and its aftermath. She has over a decade of fieldwork experience and has worked on sites across the Mediterranean. Currently, she is co-director of the Bays of East Attica Regional Survey and Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto.

On October 28, she will be hosting an online lecture The Archaeology of State Failure: Life on a Greek Refuge Islet in Troubled Times of the Ancient Past. For more information, see the link at the bottom of the page.

Dr Sarah Murray on Raftis Islet, excited about a survey find.

Can you tell us about what drew you to archaeology and what you most enjoy about it?

I was originally drawn to archaeology for the normal reasons that draw a lot of students to the field: fascination with the deep past of other humans, paired with some slack-jawed amazement at how much better people used to be at all kinds of things than we soft, coddled modern people are, despite our ‘technological’ advances!

I also had great teachers. I was having a terrible time at university the first few years, and it just happened to be that my Classics and archaeology teachers were the ones that encouraged me and told me that I had potential. And it’s generally true that the people I’ve met through archaeology are amazing – one of the best things about my job is that I get to spend time around so many wonderful and interesting colleagues who make work a real pleasure.

Archaeological research is perfect for me because it combines physical labor with the intellectually difficult task of trying to make sense of really complex evidence. I think that as humans we are designed to spend a lot of time being physically active, and I find that my general level of happiness increases as I spend time working or exercising outside. But at the same time, if you’re the kind of person who does well in school, modern society tends to encourage you to prioritize intellectual work that involves a lot of thinking and writing about things. That kind of work is really engaging sometimes. I guess I’d say that I love archaeology as a career because it is one of the few academic professions that involves a good mix of both hard work outside and interesting work inside.

I also find that thinking a lot about the past helps me keep important things in perspective in two ways. First, you are constantly confronted with unambiguous evidence that, even though your culture or society does things that seem normal and obvious, there are all kinds of other options for ways of organizing society, and some of which are probably better. I think this helps a person be more thoughtful about the way they want to live their own life and identify things to reject. I have found this capacity for self-critical thought really transformative.

Second, when you spend a lot of time thinking about the whole scope of human experience, it seems harder to take the things that are happening to you or in your lifetime all that seriously. Things might be bad now, but they have been bad before. For the most part, our lives are much easier than what most people have had to deal with through history. I suppose I find it personally useful to reflect on life in the grand scheme of human experience. It makes me more mellow and happier.

Finally, I really love spending time in the Mediterranean! I wake up almost every day and can’t believe how lucky I am to have a career that involves being immersed in such spectacular landscapes on a regular basis. And now that I am training students, I find it extremely gratifying to bring young people here and watch them have transformative experiences through archaeological research in Greece, too.

You have an upcoming online lecture, The Archaeology of State Failure: Life on a Greek Refuge Islet in Troubled Time of the Ancient Past, which focuses on the period following the collapse of many complex states in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. Most research in this area centres on determining the causes of this collapse, a mystery that has captured the imagination. As a result, we often don’t consider the lives of the people who survived the aftermath, some of whom flourished. Your current research focuses on one such community in eastern Attica. Could you tell us more about it?

Of course! I was a little bit obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction and movies when I was a kid, and that has certainly bled into my research focus on the period at the end of the Bronze Age when it seems that people were dealing with something that might have been a bit of an aftermath – a time when institutions that people had been used to disappeared and structures of authority and social organization were changing. I tend to gravitate to the question of what people decided to do in the face of a changing world? How did they react?

The archaeological evidence makes clear that there were many different responses – some probably left Greece entirely, migrating to Italy or the Eastern Mediterranean; other people seem to have tried to hang on to the old Mycenaean institutions, continuing to use and rebuild space in the semi-ruined palaces; other communities that might have been subsidiary to palatial sites don’t change much at all, but seem to grow and flourish once the palaces cease to exist.

The response that I’m exploring now shows that others chose yet another option: some people living in the Aegean after the palatial collapse decided to give up life on the mainland and move to a small, rugged islet with no water in the mouth of Porto Rafti bay in Attica! During the pilot season of The Bays of East Attica Regional Survey (BEARS) last summer our team documented a very substantial surface scatter on the small islet of Raftis. Although we might be tempted to call a site in such a seemingly marginal location a ‘refuge’ settlement, the finds suggest that whoever was living on Raftis was not some desperate group of survivors. This was a thriving community with access to imports from all around the Aegean and Mediterranean – the most exciting find from this season was a fragment of a Canaanite Jar, a special sort of transport vessel manufactured along the Syro-Palestinian coast and usually only known from palatial settlements in the Aegean – some of the most exquisitely made large storage jars (pithoi) I’ve seen in nearly 20 years of archaeological fieldwork, lots of fancy painted pottery, and an extremely unusual, diverse repertoire of cooking vessels. We also found some extraordinary objects for a surface survey, like a hematite balance weight, perhaps belonging to a trader or merchant, slag from metalworking, many figurines, and even a zoomorphic rhyton head. A lot of this material is more reminiscent of a palatial assemblage than anything we’d expect to find on a tiny island in the postpalatial period.

The site is quite enigmatic – to my knowledge there is nothing similar known in the Aegean for this period in terms of siting, extent and nature of remains, and short-lived use. Who are these people, from where did they come, and why did they choose to live on Raftis? There are some clues from a cemetery right across from the island called Perati that is almost certainly associated with the Raftis community. Cemetery finds suggest that we might be dealing with a group of traders or craftspeople that used to work for the palatial institutions and who were trying to develop some sort of independent merchant community once those institutions ceased to operate. But that’s just a hypothesis that I have come up with based on inferences from the mortuary record. Some have suggested that the Raftiots were pirates and stayed hidden on the landward side of the islet from whence they would sally forth and attack ships seeking safe harbor in the bay – but perhaps that is a bit too romantic of a vision for staid old folks like me! I think the enigma can only be solved by a proper exploration of Raftis, which I hope we can accomplish with our project in the coming years.

L-R. A batch of traditionally-made ceramic vessels ready for the kiln at a workshop in the Cretan village of Margarites. Goat's eye-view of Porto Rafti bay from the mountains to its southwest. Raftis is the large steep islet at the upper right. (Photos courtesy of Dr Sarah Murray)

The article, The Dipylon Mistress: Social and Economic Complexity, the Gendering of Craft Production, and Early Greek Ceramic Material Culture, which was published earlier this year by yourself and two of your students, explores the production of ceramics in the early Iron Age. You posit that women led a far greater role in the creation and painting of pottery during this time than generally thought, an argument that hasn’t really been examined before. What initially led you to this theory? Why is it important?

Since I was an undergraduate (which was practically in the Bronze Age at this point!) I had it in my mind that there was something going on with pottery in the Early Iron Age that didn’t quite fit with the story that we got in textbooks. The ceramic style that appears in the Geometric period is dramatically different than what we see both before and after, and it is straightforwardly related to textiles, something that scholars like Elizabeth Barber and my undergraduate mentor Jeremy Rutter had long recognized. Although there was a lot of excellent descriptive scholarship on Early Iron Age pottery, it always bothered me that there wasn’t much of an explanation for why the style of pottery took on this textile-driven style at this particular moment in time.

Then a few years ago while reading about textile production for another research project, I veered into the anthropological literature on craft ethnographies, and the work looking at ceramic production in pre- or non-industrial contexts, a lot of which has to do with gender and production. Based on that material, I started to get the idea that a change in the identity of ceramicists in Early Iron Age Greece might help discern the dynamics we see in the ceramics over the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Ages, including the embrace of textiles as stylistic inspiration. Of course, to turn that bare lightbulb of an idea into a proper academic paper takes a lot of work. Fortunately, I had two amazing RAs who helped me dig into the scholarship and make the case for our position. I think it’s a nice logical argument, and to me it is one of these re-framings that actually makes a lot of puzzle pieces fall into place, which has a certain elegance.

Is it important? If I’m being honest, I don’t know why or how any scholarly article can claim to be really important these days! There is a lot of other stuff to worry about. I suppose it might not matter too much if we really know who did or did not design pottery in ancient Greece. But writing the article certainly led me to appreciate how blinkered we can get as scholars when we are working within a traditional disciplinary paradigm. What was revelatory was to see how making such a simple and sort of obvious intellectual move – seriously considering that women were responsible for creating a new style in art –had this transformative effect of clarity when I looked back at the evidence. And to realize how strong our disciplinary biases and assumptions must be to have kept that move from being made for so long. I suppose I hope that others see the paper as inspiration to shake off the some of the fusty, mouldering old-fashioned assumptions we bring to Classical material, because hewing to those assumptions leads us to get a lot of things wrong.

So much of what we know or understand about ancient Greece in the mainstream seems set in stone and it’s often difficult to reconsider history outside of the ‘default’. In what ways can we be more critical of our understanding of history and challenge our assumptions?

That’s a tough question! I don’t think there is a single recipe for doing that; or anyway, it would take a more sophisticated mind than I have to articulate such a thing. It is always challenging to think our way out of these intellectual corridors that we’ve been trained to wander down again and again, and to find new ways of framing questions about the past that correct the myopias that cohere in those old corridors. I generally have to chew on a problem for years and years and experience a lot of writing doldrums before something finally budges, and then the pieces of a totally novel argument start to fall into place. It’s always so glorious when that happens and this great new vista of an idea opens up on the horizon and solves a lot of problems all at once! But these are rare moments that you only arrive at through years of fruitless trench digging. They’re worth it, but sometimes it’s tough to see a good route out of the muck.

One thing that I’ve found helpful is to read more widely in anthropological archaeology. Classics is a bit of a funny discipline. Until recently, most interpretation of ancient Greek material culture has been driven by the texts, which give us a very elite perspective, and that kind of discourse will lead us to frame things in a certain way. Similarly, we have tended to view artifacts from the Greco-Roman world as fine art objects, rather than crafts, and that has an impact on the way we construct ideas around them. There’s something to be said for removing these artifices of the discipline and interpreting Greek material culture in conversation with what we know about other human societies, rather than seeing the Greeks as special and unique somehow.

It also seems clear that Classics has been a pretty homogenous discipline in the past, in terms of its practitioners, and that creates a stagnation of ideas – the more different kinds of people from different backgrounds we bring into the conversation, the better and more interesting I think that conversation will become going forward!

This year’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis has led to the postponement of numerous projects, including yours, and fieldwork. How are archaeologists working around that?

There have been a range of ‘coping mechanisms’ – and plenty of frustration and disappointment, as you can imagine! Much has depended on the exact nature of individual projects and the various pandemic-related restrictions – for the most part, folks and projects based in the United States simply have not been able to do anything, as they are not allowed to enter the EU. There has been a lot of admirable effort among US archaeologists to put energies into other things, like organizing reading groups and webinars that confront issues of racism and colonialism in archaeology.

Some projects have been able to proceed with reduced fieldwork. This summer I visited the completely amazing and revolutionary underwater survey at Fournoi, a small archipelago in the eastern Aegean, and they were hard at work mapping shipwrecks: since most of their team is Greek, they were able to assemble the personnel they needed to make progress. Another colleague, who is based in Canada, was able to do a small project documenting a temple in the deep Mani region of the Peloponnese – he was a team of one, so certainly had no problem keeping social distance during the work!

The BEARS project was a bit in the middle of the road – since Canadian residents were able to travel to the EU, I spent a month staying in Porto Rafti and working on our finds along with two other team members. We didn’t do any fieldwork, since a big part of our mission is training students, and they were not allowed to travel due to University regulations. But it was good to have a bit of time to process finds, since we found a lot more material than we expected on Raftis last summer.

One thing that we’re all thankful for is that the Greek Ministry which provides fieldwork permits to international projects has extended these for an additional year. Most projects are on limited-term permits, usually 3–5 years, so it’s a big relief to know that we haven’t really “lost” a year of fieldwork. I really hope work next summer will be possible – I feel very lucky that I was able to spend a lot of time in Greece this year and to get some work done, but it was quite sad and lonely to be here without so many dear friends and colleagues. In that way maybe the pandemic has been bad in the same way for archaeologists as it has for everyone – a time of feeling isolated and deprived of normal human interaction, but trying to be thankful that we’ve got our health and that the future is still out there to be looked forward to from within our temporary zoom-entrapped existences.

L-R. View of the dramatic topography of Raftis islet from the adjacent peninsula of Koroni; Melanie Godsey, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Classical/Hellenistic pottery expert, hard at work as one of 3 2020 season team members in the Brauron Museum in August 2020; the churches of Agios Theodoros and Agios Georgios on a remote plateau above the Thyrides clidds in the deep Mani region of the Peloponnese; and Dr Sarah Murray discusses architecture on Raftis islet with a colleague in June 2019. (Photos courtesy of Dr Sarah Murray).

You can read more about the lecture and register here

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