Undergraduate Fieldwork bursaries 2015 - Tom Maltas at Knossos on Crete

At the Department of Archaeology we offer our undergraduate students fieldwork bursaries to help fund their participation in archaeological fieldwork or work experience within the heritage sector. These present fantastic opportunities for our students to develop their skills and to enhance their CV.

Successful applicants report back to the department about their experience. In the first of a series of reports, BSc Archaeology student Tom Maltas speaks about his fieldwork on Crete around the Bronze Age site of Knossos.

My seven weeks in Crete were spent as part of the bioarchaeological team working on the excavation of Knossos Gypsades. Gypsades hill, located very close to the palace of Knossos, is named after its prevalence of gypsum, a mineral used by the Minoans as a decorative building material.

The area was first excavated as part of extensive test pitting carried out by Hogarth, one of the early excavators of Knossos, in 1900. Whilst this revealed significant structural remains, the area was left untouched until it was surveyed as part of the Knossos Early Landscape Project from 2005 to 2008.

Following on from this, the universities of Sheffield, Oxford, and Cincinnati undertook a programme of magnetometry and resistivity surveys on the area in 2010. This pointed to the presence of more structural remains on the hill and led to the excavations of 2014 and 2015.

Tom Maltas using a floatation tank in Crete

Floatation samples drying in the sun

The excavation comprised three teams; those on site excavating (Cincinnati) and those in the British School’s Stratigraphical Museum processing bioarchaeological (Oxford) and geoarchaeological (Sheffield) samples. Within the bioarchaeology team our aim was to carry out intensive sampling in order to maximise the recovery of plant and faunal material. As such, the majority of my time on the project was spent under the shade of a pair of olive trees running a flotation tank.

The flotation samples were first emptied into buckets in order to record the volume of sediment and allow sub samples to be taken for storage and geoarchaeological and phytolith analysis. The initial samples were then emptied into a mesh within the flotation tank. This allowed the sediment to pass through whilst leaving the heavy residue accessible. Following this, water was pumped through the tank so that bioarchaeological remains that float, such as seeds, would run down a channel and into a separate bucket containing a finer mesh. Once all the heavy and light residues had been separated they were left to dry and the process was repeated.

the majority of my time on the project was spent under the shade of a pair of olive trees running a flotation tank

Over the course of the project 270 samples were processed in this way. With an average of 3 bags per sample, 810 bags, or approximately 12,000 litres, of sediment underwent flotation.

This resulted in the recovery of hundreds of charred pulse seeds and allowed me to learn to identify and distinguish between different species. Once dry, the residues were sorted in order to recover bioarchaeological material such as seeds, charcoal, and bone. In some instances artefacts such as beads and an obsidian arrow head were also found.

Ultimately I consider myself very lucky to have been able to carry out fascinating work on a site as important as Knossos and that I met such great people during my time there.

Charred plant remains in heavy residue