Reflections of a first time ceramics team member: Life in the apothiki, by Alice Chapman

Pottery team members sort the day's batch

Pottery team members sort the day’s batch

Alice Chapman, a graduate student and a member of the pottery team in 2016, shares some of her impressions of the season.

For those digging hard clay layers in the hot sun, the apothiki ie the workroom may seem like a paradise – and that’s because it is, especially for a first-time ceramics team member. As someone who has spent the majority of her life lovingly staring at Greek pottery through the nose-smudged glass of museum display cases, the opportunity to actually handle and sort those objects is a dream come true, if not exactly what I expected.

Perhaps the first lesson, and one that is perhaps hard-learned for the more exacting souls among us, is that not all ceramic finds come from lost and valuable fragments of the François Vase. Although I, of course, remain hopeful. “Don’t take 5 minutes washing each sherd,” was heard many times during my first week at the apothiki. Although my friends back home refer to my job as “washing the Greeks’ dishes,” washing pottery gives you a sneak peek into the finds that you will be working with in the future (if only all archaeologists were that lucky).

After the pottery is washed, for an appropriately short period of time it goes on the drying racks where over-eager ceramics team members stop on their way home to glance at assemblages, argue about joins, and remark on the treasures which will hold our attention the next day. But it is not washing or drying pottery that occupies the majority of our time at the apothiki; it is sorting, a job that I realized was woefully harder than identifying scenes of Dionysus or remarking on the composition of Hellenistic sculptures. As I’ve learned from my team leaders, sorting is both an art and a science: the ability both to understand the subtle complexities of fabric, shape and features while simultaneously being able to see the vessel as a whole. As I have learned, almost every sherd indicates a shape and almost every shape can tell a story – well, at least sometimes. Although sorting through hundreds of fragments of roof tile may seem monotonous, it is the single sherd of lamp, red figure or black gloss that keeps you motivated to pick up another bag and see if you get lucky again.

So, for this first-time ceramics team member, the apothiki, despite the occasional mosquito bite, wasp sting or sink hole, is a paradise. Still hoping to find that fragment by Kleitias (painter of the François Vase), though!