Surveying the Summer Away: Volunteering on Kythera with APKAS

Nile de Jonge, PhD Candidate at UC San Diego, discovered a love not only of archaeology, but for the island of Kythera, when she took part in the Australian Paliochora Kythera Archaeological Survey project.

In July of 2017 I volunteered with the Australian Paliochora Kythera Archaeological Survey (APKAS), and this experience was unlike anything I have ever undertaken before! In fact, it was so amazing that I headed back over to Greece in July of 2018, and again in 2019, to take part in the same archaeological project surveying on Kythera, a small Greek island situated between the Peloponnese and Crete. Coming from a background of Ancient History and Classical Languages, I was a little nervous on my first trip there in July 2017, as I’d never even taken an archaeology class before, let alone participated in an onsite archaeological survey!  

My first time getting to Kythera was an odyssey in itself: two long plane trips from Brisbane to Athens, an early morning bus through the Peloponnese to Neapoli, an afternoon ferry to Diakofti (the main port of Kythera), and then another drive to our base in the small town of Karavas in the northern part of the island. I soon met our small but amazing team, comprised of archaeologists, GIS experts, other volunteer students from Australia, America, and the UK, and led by Dr Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory and Professor Tim Gregory, and before long had settled in to this incredible place.

APKAS 2017 survey team out in the field on our last survey day. Photo Lita Tzortzopoulou-Gregory.

This turned out to be a truly amazing experience as my first time undertaking an archaeological field survey. Our days had a fairly stable routine, up and working by around 7am, back to our village for lunch around 1pm, then a few hours spent swimming and relaxing at the beach before a few hours of data work in the evening, which mostly consisted of recording our finds and photographs for the day, until our dinner time around 9pm.

During the 2017 and 2018 field seasons, we surveyed about fifteen different areas in the northern part of the island, and found and recorded hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of pottery, amongst other finds. At each site we mapped out survey units, sometimes having to clear the sites of shrubbery, but often first having to brave the incredibly tough thorny vegetation that grows everywhere to even reach the site, as well as the numerous spiders lurking amongst the plants! We would then fill in survey unit forms describing the site, as well as using a tracking app to record our routes and coordinates. We did this so that we could map out these units on a larger map of Kythera through a computer program, but also so we could find our way back to these sites again, as some of them were located in the middle of nowhere and often were quite a trek to get to.

In the 2018 field season we also visited some previously surveyed sites to wrap up some loose ends, as this was the last field survey season for APKAS, and also did some exploring of forgotten ancient roads and abandoned semi-modern settlements. One memorable week was ‘mountain week’, where we climbed multiple mountains, and more than once, as the sites we were trying to record were conveniently located at the top of these mountains. Some of them didn’t have paths going to the top either, so we became very fit that week!

This photo was taken from the top of Koutsokephalos, the highest mountain we climbed. Photo: Nile de Jonge.

An important part of our work on the project was data entry to record all of our daily finds. Our pottery expert, Professor Tim Gregory, identified and dated the finds, and we would then record the photographs and input the information about them into an Access database so as to collate all the material with the survey finds of previous years. In doing this, any information such as the finds at each site, or the most prevalent pottery over the survey units, can easily be called up from the database for the publishing stage of the project.

2019 was a shorter season for me, and a study season for the project. This season consisted of revisiting a couple of sites to wrap up some loose ends, and a lot of work collating and organising the finds database and information collected over the 20 year history of this project. All up, these three seasons of this survey taught me many new skills: ceramic chronology and typography, mapping out survey units and how to record their features, and how to use Geographic Information System (GIS), and Access databases. One of the most important things though, was that I also made great lasting friendships and contacts, both inside and outside of Australia.

Just as incredible as our experiences working on the project were our experiences in our free time. Sundays were usually our day off for the week, and it was here that we truly were able to experience the small Greek island life! We travelled all over the island, visiting churches, monasteries, caves, and beaches, we visited the castle at Chora (the capital), the ruins of the medieval site, Paliochora, and through all this we learned about the island’s long and fascinating history. We attended parties with the locals, learning traditional Greek and Kytherian dances from them, experienced the island’s ‘nightlife’ scene, sampled the traditional local food and drink, and witnessed the amazing blood moon eclipse of 2018 over a picnic dinner on the beach with the locals where everyone brought food and drink to share.

My experience with APKAS was beyond anything I could have imagined, and although unfortunately I couldn’t return to Kythera this year due to COVID-19, I can’t wait to set foot again on this incredible little island, to feel the warmth of the hot sun, to hear the deafening cacophony of cicadas, and to see the idyllic beaches and the harsh but beautiful landscape of this wonderful island.

Nile de Jonge recently completed a Master of Philosophy in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Queensland in 2019. Her MPhil thesis examined maritime sacrifice and religion, especially during the Persian Wars, in Herodotus’ Histories. She is about to start her PhD at UC San Diego, albeit online from Australia for the time being. In her studies at UCSD she is interested in researching saviour deities worshipped at potentially deadly promontories in Ancient Greece, the religious practices associated with these deities, as well as the cultic development of these areas over time.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693