One of the greatest perks of being an archaeologist is that you get to travel — a lot. This summer my adventures took me to rural Lakonia, where I stayed just under a month in the sleepy village of Xirokampi, about ten minutes down the road from Sparta. I was lucky enough to have been part of the team working at Agios Vasileios (dir. Mrs Adamantia Vasilogamvrou), a Late Helladic ‘palace’ of the Aegean Bronze Age. Since the project began in 2008, the excavation has turned up some real game changing finds, and is possibly the most important site being dug in Greece at the moment…but that’s a story for another day.
The excavation house which we shared with students from the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece was unassumingly seated right at the foot of the Taygetos mountains, the highest range in the Peloponnese. Out the door, down the road, over the Hellenistic Bridge,* and within a few minutes you could be right in the heart of the mountains. Up there, a dense network of dirt tracks and goat paths filtered between tiny hamlets and abandoned churches. The village of Xirokampi used to be up here in the mountains when the Ottomans occupied the plain, but following the liberation the people migrated down and even dug up and moved their cemeteries into the new town. The ‘old Xirokampi’ Komousta now comprises a handful of summer houses with exclusive views of the underlying valley. Winding just alongside, a leafy path down from the village leads to a secluded wooded waterfall — perfect for a (very icy) midday dip.
* The Dutch students inform me this was a particularly good place for catching wild Pokemon.
But the real challenge of the Taygetos range is the ‘Prophet Elias’. 2404m above sea level (7887 ft in old money), this peak stands above all others in central Greece. The distinctly pyramidal shape of the peak is easily identifiable, and allows visitors to Lakonia to orientate themselves familiarly around the summit from anywhere in the plain after only a few days in the region. Local folk tales suggest that the peak may have been the product of human endeavour, à la Giza. While this is undoubtedly a mere story, the summit has always been visible throughout Lakonia and perhaps the view of the mountain has had some effect on human history. After all, the mountain is clearly visible from Agios Vasileios and the Vapheio Tholos Tomb — is this important in any way? Another local folk story which pertains to the mountain is that it will surely rain in the afternoon if clouds gather around the peak in the morning. One very wet Thursday afternoon later, and I am willing to swear by this rule!
The summit’s name ‘Prophet Elias’ is taken from the small church built right on the summit and dedicated in honour of Elias, or Elijah. Incidentally, there are local myths which also associate this place with the god Apollo, and the Taygetos are just one of a handful of mountain ranges in the Mediterranean which express dual patronage to both Apollo and Elijah. Every year on 20th July — the name day of Elias — a local festival takes place during which the people from Xirokampi and the neighbouring villages, and from further afield ascend the mountain and camp over night at the church. Campfires are lit, prayers are said, and thermal vests are worn. A cultural experience which both encapsulates and typifies the sturdy Lakonian way of life. An experience which Sofia Voutsaki (Prof. of Greek Archaeology, University of Groningen, and director of the North Cemetery excavations, Agios Vasileios) insisted was as essential an education to our time in Lakonia as was the excavation itself. And one which she made sure we got to experience.
So at 7:30pm one Monday evening, we all crushed inside the back of Sofia’s car and were driven up to the mountain base camp. You appreciate that we had been working all day and wake-up time at Xirokampi is 6am, so it was already practically bedtime by the time we left for the mountain. We enjoyed the majestic colours of the sky as the sun fell beneath Kythera, and then we were treated to the hospitality of our hosts — freshly brewed mountain tea and homemade wine. Lights out at 11pm…and then back on again at 2am, ready to start the climb! Anyone who has worked under the Mediterranean sun knows the importance of working while it’s cool, but this wake–up call was a shock to the system for even this early bird. More tea, boots on, and then we were off.
Guided by the light of the full moon, we didn’t need torches. We just marched at a steady pace set by our guide, the soporific taste of the mountain tea still at the back of the throat pushing us on trance–like on our pilgrimage. There’s something serenely atemporal about hiking in almost pitch–black. There’s very little sense of place, up until the moment that the sun rises — and what a sunrise! Reaching the summit just before 6am, we were perfectly placed to observe the first colours of the morning painted across the landscape. The pyramidal shape of the summit cast a perfectly triangular shadow out onto the sea, a spectre which slowly receded towards us. In one sweeping view, we could see all three fingers of the Peloponnese and almost reach out and touch the tiny peaks below us as they danced pink and orange in the first light of the day. We had clear sight of Kythera, but unfortunately clouds on the sea prevented us from seeing all the way out to the west side of Crete. After just an hour up on top we started to head back down, but others were just setting up tents and sleeping bags, in it for the long haul until the Elias celebrations had taken place.
Descending the mountain was an entirely different ball game. En route we stopped many times to look up, look down, and wonder how it was that we had made it up in the first place. Perhaps there is something to be said for scaling such steep gradients in total darkness, unaware of the sheer drops to the side…The fuel for the trip comprised eight bags (between five) of ‘Bake Rolls’: mini, circular, toasted bread snacks covered in salt, oregano, tomato — a ‘healthier’ alternative to the fried potato crisp. I am amazed the idea hasn’t caught on in England yet, so perhaps that’s a suitable ‘Plan B’ in case the PhD doesn’t work out!
Travel is all about meeting new people and going new places. The memory of standing at the Prophet Elias (my face about to fall off from the icy wind) and watching the sun rise in the company of new friends I’d known for only two weeks is something that will surely stay with me for years to come. Time stood still, but we were also part of a Lakonian tradition that reaches back years. Who ever said Archaeology is just mud and dirt?