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A panoramic view of the Bay of Porto Rafti from the southwest (S. Murray)

Long ago, in the distant, hazy era known as pre-COVID times, a small team of Canadian and international researchers gathered to conduct a short pilot season of archaeological survey around the bay of Porto Rafti in eastern Attica. Despite the unpromising archaeological demeanor of the town, an aggressively overbuilt coastal resort, the work of the team back in June 2019 documented a surprisingly large amount of well-preserved and informative material. Four weeks of gridded collection on the Koroni and Pounta peninsulas and the islet of Raftis yielded many fascinating finds that you would never expect to encounter on the surface anywhere, let alone in a place where Athenians gather in the thousands to swim and drink iced coffees every summer weekend. The team reached several new conclusions about the history of human occupation in the bay based on finds from 2019 – a full report was published in the journal Mouseion this winter.

After that successful pilot season, the team was very excited to get back into the field in May/June 2020: much work remained to be done, including finishing the surveys of Raftis islet and Koroni peninsula, but also expanding the scope of the survey to investigate the broader hinterland surrounding the town, the many scattered undeveloped plots of land inside the town, and of course the remains lurking on the other islets in the bay: Raftopoula, Koroni, and Praso.

Of course, 2020 did not pan out as the BEARS team had hoped, but that’s life for you! Finally, after a winter spent in eager anticipation of returning to the field we were back in Porto Rafti to continue the research of the project on May 31, 2021. There was a thick, palpable sense of euphoria coursing through the atmosphere as the boat set out from the port for everyone’s first day of archaeological fieldwork in almost two years!

Happy survey team members processing finds after completing a unit on Praso during the first week of BEARS 2021 (S. Murray)

Since the pandemic continued to impact travel for many project members, the 2021 team was very small, only 6–10 people on any given day, and the season’s goals were modest: to finish the survey of the outer slopes of the Koroni peninsula that we started in 2019, and to survey Praso islet. These priorities were chosen for a variety of reasons. First, both areas are uninhabited, and for safety purposes it seemed best to avoid contact with the community as much as possible. Second, both seemed like relatively bite-sized archaeological tasks that could be completed in the time available, even with our little mini-team. Third, we wanted to strategically limit our collection of artifacts in 2021, since we still have a huge backlog of analysis to deal with after the artifact-bonanza of 2019. We did not think that either of this year’s survey targets would yield too much material. The Koroni slopes are full of well-preserved features that needed documenting, but we expected the lion’s share of artifacts we might encounter there to duplicate the many Hellenistic sherds collected in our grids from 2019, so that they could be simply noted and left in the field. As for Praso, extant literature mentions only Late Roman/Byzantine material in one corner of the islet, so we did not anticipate that gridded collection there would produce a sizable collection of finds. Finally, the sites were well-suited to the personnel present – folks with research interests in the Archaic/Classical to Roman periods that seemed the most likely dates of material we’d encounter on Koroni and Praso.

A glimpse into the life of a survey archaeologist braving the wilds of the outer slopes of Koroni peninsula (D. Buckingham)

Well, so much for our carefully laid plans! One of the fun things about the archaeological record is that it’s often full of surprises, and Praso islet certainly had some surprises in store for the BEARS team. Praso has not attracted much attention from archaeologists and scholars in the past. Except for two sentences in Cornelius Vermuele’s Hesperia article on the Raftis statue from 1962, it seems to be nearly totally absent from published research. The islet has had other names through the years – a local friend tells me they called it Gaidouronisi (donkey island) when he was a kid, and it appears as Karavonisi in some old maps, e.g., the Karten von Attika – so it could be that we’re missing something. But I sort of doubt it. Somehow little Praso, despite being very near to shore and quite easy to get to (even I swam there, and I am terrible swimmer!), has mostly been overshadowed by its bigger, flashier neighbor, Raftis.

Praso, a saucy seagull, and Raftis in Porto Rafti bay on a beautiful June morning (D. Buckingham)

In any case, we were certainly not prepared for the immense density of surface artifacts we encountered on Praso. The 20x20 meter grid squares in the southern part of the islet each contained upwards of 10,000 individual surface artifacts: we tried to count them all in a few ‘total collection’ squares, but it often seemed as if the ground would produce more sherds and tiles as soon as you were sure you had vaccumed the unit clean. We could collect for hours, with 6 people, and still the finds just kept coming!

Tile piles for miles in a survey unit on Praso (D. Buckingham)

Nor were we expecting to find such an expansive diachronic range of finds. Most of the sites the team has studied in the bay of Porto Rafti have tended to show a distinct pattern of intense use during only 1 or 2 periods, but the finds on Praso included material from Final Neolithic to Ottoman, with almost everything in between. As with the other sites in Porto Rafti bay, the finds from the surface are very well preserved and include many unusual artifacts in addition to very, very abundant amounts of pottery, tile and lithics: loomweights, figurines, lamps, glass, iron, bronze, and lead, and many groundstone tools including a piece of a big basalt tripod mortar, something very special the likes of which none of us had ever previously seen on a surface survey in Greece.

The team is only beginning to grapple with interpreting the vast quantities of material collected on Praso. The first question on everyone’s mind concerns why this little islet, of all the places around the big beautiful bay, would have been so attractive for humans through the ages. One thing we can already say from our preliminary analysis is that one of the appealing aspects of the location must have been related to the practice of various pyrotechnological industries. An exciting category of evidence we documented on Praso is industrial waste resulting from fiery production processes, both ceramic and metallurgical.

We can’t say too much about the metallurgical material without further analysis, but our pottery and tile specialists have already come to a few preliminary conclusions about the tile and pottery wasters. It looks like a prominent regional type of LH IIIC fabric called White Ware – found up and down the Euboean gulf corridor at sites like Lefkandi and Kynos – was produced on Praso: amongst my absolute favorite finds of the project thus far are dozens of wonderfully warped and melty, almost bright green, wasters in White Ware fabric, their surfaces badly vitrified from overfiring in the kiln. We even found what we think is probably a piece of the kiln itself. There are wasters from the Classical/Hellenistic and Late Roman periods, too, but these historical artifacts are bubbly, black, vitrified, and otherwise highly gnarly tile wasters, another thing nobody on the team, including our much-traveled tile specialist, had ever seen in the archaeological record prior to 2021. In fact, I suspect maybe this is the first time a tile factory has been discovered in an archaeological survey in Greece.

Waste, glorious waste! (S. Murray)

There are many questions about life on ancient Praso that are yet to be illuminated by further study and research, but it’s already certain that the fires of industry burned brightly on this unassuming little island in Porto Rafti bay during many periods of antiquity.

All in all, it was a wonderful season of work! After the pandemic, the team was just happy to be together in Greece…even if we hadn’t found anything much at all, the treasure of the experience, of seeing old friends and coming together to work towards a shared goal, outside, in three dimensions, was delectable enough to satisfy everyone completely. But as usual, the archaeology of Porto Rafti completely exceeded all our expectations. Who knows what 2022 has in store for us…! For now, we certainly have a lot of fuel for the 2021 season report.

The BEARS 2021 team, along with mascots Nick R. (back left) and Clio E.-R. (front) full of giddy joie-de-vivre after a month of wonderful work at the season’s final get together (D. Buckingham)

BEARS end-of-season theme art (S. Murray and J. Frankl)

Sarah Murray
Assistant Professor, University of Toronto; Co-Director, BEARS Project