The 2019 BEARS team on the Pounta peninsula with Raphtis island in the background.
This June a team of a dozen Canadian and international researchers and students descended on the bay of Porto Raphti in Eastern Attica in order to begin the first season of a new Canadian Institute field survey project focused on clarifying the role of the bay in its regional context throughout antiquity. We are happy to report on a very successful first season – although our team was relatively small in number, the hard work and dedication of the crew produced a great amount of information, and already after only four weeks in the field we have the beginnings of answers to our major research questions.
A view south towards of the mouth of the bay of Porto Raphti from the Perati massif to its north, showing the locations of the islands Koroni, Raphtis, and Raphtopoula and the Koroni headland.
The modern town of Porto Raphti sits astride a large bay that is divided into northern and southern sections by the small peninsula of Pounta and largely protected from nasty weather and currents by two islets that guard its mouth – the larger island of Raphtis and its tiny neighbor Raphtopoula. The northern half of the bay provides an excellent natural anchorage and is currently the site of its main harbor – a visitor to the town will see many picturesque yachts and fishing boats bobbing near the port here. The southern half of the bay is graced with many long stretches of reasonably pleasant if objectively mediocre gravely beach, popular among Athenians on summer weekends.
The northern section of the bay as seen from atop Raphtis island, showing the locations of Pounta, Raphtopoula, and the Perati cemetery.
Perhaps because of the excellent qualities of its port, the bay was the site of activity during many prehistoric and historical periods. Visitors to the region had long noted the presence of lithics and pottery datable to the Early Bronze Age (EBA) on the Pounta peninsula, a major Late Helladic IIIC (Mycenaean) cemetery known as Perati was excavated above the Erotospilia torrent bed north of the bay, and additional surface scatters of EBA and Mycenaean pottery had been noted on the Raphtis and Raphtopoula islets. In historical times the area was the site of two Classical Attic demes (Steiria and Prasiai), a Hellenistic fort occupied by Ptolemy II’s Egyptian mercenaries is attested at the site of Koroni in the southern part of the bay (parts of the site were excavated by American archaeologists in the 1960s), and there is quite a lot of poorly understood Roman material around the area, including the mysterious Augustan-era marble statue that sits atop of the Raphtis island (based on local lore holding that the statue once wielded a pair of golden scissors, it is known as the Raphtis (tailor) from which the modern area gets its name).
BEARS team members relax on the boat ride back from work.
The goals of Bays of Eastern Attica Regional Survey (BEARS) center on clarifying the nature of these known periods of habitation, and expanding our knowledge of the connections and interactions between the bay and adjacent areas, including the region of Brauron to the north. To this end, we spent most of the 2019 campaign conducting gridded collection on three known sites (the Pounta peninsula, the Raphtis island, and the site of Koroni). At Pounta, we hoped that a controlled and intensive collection of lithic material from the surface would indicate whether cores of obsidian were being processed at the site – we expected that this bay would be a logical location for the intake of Melian obsidian to eastern Attica (an area with a huge amount of activity and lots of obsidian from this period). On Raphtis, we hoped to clarify a point of contention among scholars of Mycenaean Greece – whether the settlement associated with the burials at the Perati cemetery might have been located on this rocky islet. At Koroni, we wanted to address another controversial point – whether the supposedly single-period 3rd-century Ptolemaic camp here really had a longer history, with Archaic or Classical periods of use that might be associated with the deme of Prasiai. In addition to our gridded collections on these sites, we mapped features on Koroni, Pounta, and Raphtis, conducted some extensive investigations (somewhat humorously known as “creative walking” exercises by the students) of the hinterlands and valleys that connect Porto Raphti to neighboring regions, and conducted drone photography in order to generate high quality orthophotos of the sites we documented.
A BEARS team member entering data into a project iPad while mapping features with the dGPS on the Koroni peninsula.
Although I may be highly biased as the director of the project, from my point of view our finds were quite spectacular, both in terms of quality and in terms of their value for answering our research questions. Usually surface sherds are heavily worn, and diagnostic sherds like rims, handles, and bases are few and far between, while lithics generally comprise a vast minority of the material collected. But the finds that we were generating from our grid squares were more like what you would expect from an excavation. On Raphtis we not only found that the island was covered with an extremely dense scatter of LH IIIC and Roman pottery, but that much of this pottery was incredibly well-preserved – our teams on Raphtis collected thousands of sherds of painted Mycenaean material, which is extremely rare to encounter on the surface. We also recorded an abundance of small finds, including weights, figurines, glass, and several Roman lamps. Likewise, at Koroni many of the amphora fragments and tiles looked like they were just made yesterday. At Pounta the quantity of obsidian was quite shocking for a survey archaeologist – we collected over 7,500 lithics from only a few dozen 20x20 meter grid squares.
An array of figurines and other small finds alongside many crates of pottery from the first season of BEARS in our lab at the Brauron Museum.
Needless to say, all of this material was immensely helpful in moving us towards answering our research questions. It appears that obsidian cores were indeed being processed on Pounta, but there may have been some other kind of processing happening there as well – the only finished tools identified by our lithics analyst were tools for perforation, and we documented some unusual ground-out circular features along the peninsula, perhaps used for crushing or pounding some kind of material. The density and extent of surface finds from Raphtis suggests to us that some major activity was happening on the islet in the LH IIIC period. Whether or not it was in fact the settlement associated with the burials at Perati is something we will continue to investigate in future seasons. Finally, on Koroni our work yielded the first definitive evidence of Archaic and Classical activity from the site, in addition to a bit of LH IIIC pottery.
We only use the most sophisticated tote bags for tile weighing on the BEARS project.
All in all, the team had an excellent first season of survey. The only problem is that our students may get a false impression of what survey finds are like! If that is the worst crisis that endured during the course of the project, however, I will be very satisfied as a director.
Assistant Professor, University of Toronto; Co-Director, BEARS Project