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The Kalydon Archaeological Project

Andet forskningsprojekt | 19/01/2018

Figure 1: Aerial photograph of the acropolis of Kalydon. The 2013-2016 area of excavation is visible in the middle of the sloping terrain.

The Kalydon Archaeological Project aims to investigate the history of the ancient Greek city of Kalydon in Aitolia in western Greece through archaeological fieldwork. Danish archaeological work in the city began back in the 1920s, and since 2011 the Carlsberg Foundation has supported the continuation of the joint Danish-Greek explorations of the city, which is carried out in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Culture under the auspices of the Danish Institute at Athens.

By PhD Søren Handberg, Co-director of the Kalydon Archaeological Project and Associate Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology

Since 2013, the project has carried out a series of new archaeological excavations on the city’s acropolis where work has focus on the archaeological excavation of a private house dating to the 2nd century BC. As part of the archaeological fieldwork, the project has developed a new and innovative methodology for documenting and presenting archaeological finds.

“By studying ancient Kalydon, we get a historical perspective on how an ancient city adapted to changing political, social and economic circumstances in its surrounding world, which is as relevant in our contemporary society as it was in antiquity”. 

The Archaeological Exploration of Kalydon

The ancient city of Kalydon features prominently in early Greek mythology from the 8th century BC onwards. Homer, for instance, mentions the city several times in his Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, which is the earliest European literature handed down to us.

Several ancient historiographers and geographers refer to Aitolia as a region inhabited by smaller ethnic tribal communities, which differs from the independent city-states of much of the rest of ancient Greece, which were characterised by urban structures, self-government and territorial land-holdings. Kalydon was located right at the geographical intersection of these two forms of social organisation.

The project has both short-term and long-term goals. The archaeological work conducted since 2013 has focused on discovering traces of the early period of the city’s history, to produce a complete topographic map of the ancient city and to investigate the urban structure of the city’s acropolis. A long-term goal of the project is to investigate how the city’s position between two systems of social organisation affected its social, political and cultural history.

“The project is very fortunate to be working with highly skilled Greek architectural engineers who are working at the forefront of the integration of new digital tools in archaeological research, which has a great potential for cultural heritage management across the world”. 

An Ancient Private House on the Lower Acropolis

Geophysical work carried out in the years 2001-2005 on the so-called Lower Acropolis plateau, under the direction of Dr Søren Dietz, showed that several ancient monuments are located on the slightly sloping plateau behind a fortification wall that encircles the entire acropolis. In 2013, the project commenced new archaeological work on the plateau with the aim of investigating one of the prominent monuments.  

The excavations that were carried out in the years 2013-2016 revealed a private house of 165 square meters dating to the 2nd century BC. The walls of the house had already collapsed in antiquity, but the excavations showed that the house was well-preserved, and many of the objects used in the house had been preserved in their original context of use.


Figure 2: Aerial overview of the excavated private house photographed from a remote-controlled drone. The rectangular house comprises four rooms in the eastern part and a larger courtyard in the western end. A hearth was found in one of the rooms and remains of the collapsed northern wall of the house are still visible in the courtyard.

A fine example of the good preservation of the archaeological context was found in the courtyard where a large round granary and two ovens were identified. During excavations in the courtyard, a transport amphora that most likely contained wine, was found on top of the collapsed remains of the oven, and it is clear that the vessel was leaning against the oven when the wall of the courtyard suddenly collapsed. The date of the various objects found in the house tells us that the sudden destruction of the house happened around the middle of the 2nd century BC.

Figure 3: The transport amphora, which possibly contained wine that was found at one of the ovens in the courtyard.

A New Documentation Methodology for Archaeological Excavations

Since 2013, the project has also been concerned with developing and testing different site-recording techniques, using various image-based 3D modelling methods. One aim of the project has been to develop a more efficient and less time-consuming method of documenting archaeological excavations, both in terms of recording in the field and the subsequent desktop work.

Experimentation with different methods during the four years of fieldwork has led to the creation of an interactive tool, which combines the precise spatial location of residual archaeological finds, such as coins, iron nails and other objects with a comprehensive and precise virtual 3D model of the excavated architectural structures. The new methodology provides not only an analytical tool which will aid the interpretation of the finds, but it also presents a completely new way of presenting archaeological finds. 

“The long tradition of Danish archaeological work in Kalydon represents a long-term investment in the study of the cradle of our common European cultural heritage, and the Carlsberg Foundation is to be commended for supporting this crucial primary research within archaeological studies”.  

Figure 4: Greyscale version of the virtual 3D model of the eastern part of the house. The exact spatial location of hundreds of iron nails that were found during the excavations are plotted in the model and visualised with small icons.

The process involves several steps: The first part takes place at the excavation site. Using a 3D Laser Scanner (Faro Focus, Faro X-330) the architectural structures are surveyed, and during excavation the exact spatial location of all significant finds are surveyed with a total station (Leica TS06plus).

The second step involves the creation of a virtual model of the excavation site. From the point cloud data created by the laser scanning, a precise virtual 3D mesh (consisting of several million triangulations) of the archaeological site is produced.

The third step involves plotting the spatial location (the x, y, z coordinate data obtained from the total station) of the excavated finds on the virtual 3D model. The excavation of the private house produced several thousand finds, and by developing a programming script the project has been able to automate the process of importing the data into the virtual model. 

“More than one hundred Danish archaeologist and students have participated in the recent years’ work in Kalydon, which benefits the further development of the discipline”.

The methodology that the project has developed provides a new tool for managing large amounts of archaeological data that will make the process of interpretation easier and much faster. The method provides, for instance, a fast and easily accessible way to separate finds from floor levels and finds from levels below floors. 

It also provides a complete and interactive visual overview of the spatial distribution of specific types of finds. Whereas archaeological finds have traditionally only been presented in 2D space, the new method allows finds to be presented in an interactive 3D format and therefore offers an innovative way of presenting archaeological finds to the scientific community.

Impact and Future Perspectives

By setting a new standard for documenting and presenting archaeological finds, the new method potentially has an impact on how future archaeological fieldwork is conducted. The interactive visualisation of large amount of data can also, for instance, be used as a tool for re-contextualising and thereby re-analysing previous archaeological excavations. The project is now working on enhancing the method’s applicability and user-interface.

Søren Handberg about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation

The support from the Carlsberg Foundation allows us to continue, and build upon, previous fieldwork carried out in the ancient city as well as research on the region’s historical development, and for this I am very grateful to the Carlsberg Foundation. 

The support has also been a decisive factor in directing my research, since the archaeological fieldwork, which we have been able to carry out through the support, facilitates new research approaches to the cultural history of the region, which both raises new questions and provides new answers to old questions. 

Our work is closely related to the work of many international colleagues, and in the future, we plan to establish a larger international collaborative research project with the overall aim of identifying the historical and cultural mechanisms that guided the formation of divergent forms of social organisations. 

One of the many interesting questions that our research can help in providing an answer to is the fundamental question of why the collective tribal societies persisted in the region at a time when democracy was developing in neighbouring regions.


Selected Scientific Bibliography

Vikatou, O. & S. Handberg, in press. Excavations on the Lower Acropolis plateau in Kalydon. 2ο Διεθνές Αρχαιολογικό και Ιστορικό Συνέδριο Αιτωλοακαρνανίας (The Second International Archaeological and Historical Conference of Aitoloakarnania). Mesolongi 2013.

Vikatou, O. & S. Handberg 2017. The Lower Acropolis of Kalydon in Aitolia. Preliminary report on the excavations carried out in 2013-15, Proceedings of the Danish Institute at Athens volume VIII, 191-206.

Vikatou, O., R. Frederiksen & S. Handberg 2014. The Danish-Greek Excavations at Kalydon, Aitolia: The Theatre. Preliminary report from the 2011 and 2012 campaigns. Proceedings of the Danish Institute at Athens volume VII, 221-234.