The First Excavation Season at Zagora, 1967

John Wade was a student volunteer on the inaugural excavation season at Zagora. He reflects on his experiences.

Courtesy of archaeology and the supporters of the then newly formed Association for Classical Archaeology, I took my first trip overseas in 1967, to excavate at Zagora on Andros. Professor Alexander Cambitoglou (known to his associates as AC), who taught at the University of Sydney from 1961 till 1989 and died at the age of 97 last November, led the team. The excavations at Zagora were fundamental to AC later establishing the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens.

Our team comprised Sydney archaeologist Judy Birmingham (field director) and Dr Jim Coulton (architect) from ANU. Alexander’s secretary Betty Cameron, archaeology department photographer Dick Harding and conservator Fred Dungey, 4th year students, Ian McPhee and me, postgrad Robyn Tracey and volunteers Philippa Rudder and Mary Burness rounded out the team.

Judy Birmingham on site in 1967. Still image from Zagora archival film.

Back then, no archaeology students at the University of Sydney, neither graduates nor undergraduates, had ever done fieldwork as part of their degree, and certainly not overseas. This was Professor Alexander Cambitoglou’s idea, and he managed to convince the University that it was essential. Closer understanding inevitably flowed from the fieldwork contacts of staff and students.

Today it seems unremarkable, but overseas travel then was not common; Boeing’s 747 was still two years off its first test flight. We had no computers, no digital cameras, no mobile phones and no internet. Letters to Australia took a week or two weeks to get a reply.

1967 was our first season of excavation in the ancient Mediterranean, on the 8th-century BC settlement now known as Zagora on the island of Andros. I had no idea what to expect. Alexander had gone ahead to organise our pale blue VW Kombi (this was the 1960s), our pensione in Athens on Voukourestiou St (how did I remember that?) and other practical matters for which I, regrettably, gave him little credit at the time. He settled us in to our rooms and then took us out to a Greek salad and seafood lunch in a stoa. I don’t recall how we could all have fitted into the Kombi, but in the afternoon he drove us to Sounion to dine while we watched the sunset over the Temple of Poseidon.

The site of Zagora. John Wade took this photo when he returned to the site in 2017.

What an introduction to his beloved Greece. We put aside our worries about the military regime and the Middle East conflicts. AC always made sure we ate well and was very forgiving, even if I didn’t always behave as well as I might have. Later I found out that on one underfunded British prehistoric excavation, they ate boiled rice flavoured with tomato sauce – at every meal for weeks.

Digging was hard work. In summer, the ferocious north wind called the meltemi belted us nearly all day, every day. Relief from the gritty dust blasting across the windy headland meant turning your head towards the white-capped Aegean Sea, and the nearby islands.

Four trenches under excavation at Zagora in 1967. Philippa Rudder supervising the trench in the foreground; John Wade with Christos Moraikis (JW’s favourite workman from Zaganiari, he was very clever and a brilliant dancer!); Ian McPhee being visited by a shirtless AC in the third, and Mary Burness supervising the fourth trench.

Perhaps the closest was inhospitable Gyaros, with its desolate and run-down brick prison holding leftist political prisoners of the military junta, which had seized power just a couple of months earlier, on Easter Sunday, 21 April 1967. Nothing like a coup to make you feel right at home. We knew that Gyaros was no Greek island resort; friends later told me that near the Epigraphical Museum in Athens you could sometimes hear the screams of prisoners being interrogated, and once, when wandering around Athens with a distinguished British poet, we were followed by his regular escort of secret police.

The quiet suburban streets of Sydney where I grew up didn’t have insurrections or coups, so the Colonel’s coup in Greece was a shock. Armed soldiers and tanks in the streets of Athens were scary. I was abysmally ignorant of anything that had happened in Greece for the last 2000 years, and didn’t realise that 30 years before, Greeks had suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, followed by a brutal civil war. The pain and the fractures were still bare and raw.

AC of course helped fill in these lacunae. His family came from Thessaloniki, once a city with a large, prosperous and respected Jewish community. From 1942, the Nazis systematically and methodically rounded up 50,000 people who were deported to their deaths in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. A few thousand were saved, and AC told me how he had borrowed the family boat to guide some Jewish friends to safety, all the while fearing being caught and, inevitably, tortured by the Gestapo.

AC exemplified something we found out for ourselves soon enough – Greek hospitality. In Greek, the word xenos means both stranger and guest, and Greeks take their responsibility as good hosts very seriously. We were always looked after, and soon learned to observe the rituals which were expected. I loved the company of our workers and their families on Andros, although the night I went up to the village of Zaganiari by myself for dinner could have ended in disaster. The Northern Hemisphere night sky is not brilliant like our stars are, and I stumbled home in the pitch black to the dig hut on Zagora, plunging down rocky paths with strange animal noises all around me.

Greece was an experience like no other, and I am very grateful to AC, my colleagues, my Greek hosts and the supporters of the Association for Classical Archaeology for giving me this incredible experience, which I cherish more than 50 years on. I’ve been back to Greece twice recently, first in 2017 with my wife Jenny, who had never visited Greece before and feared she would hate it. As we flew in over Crete and the islands near Attica, her mood changed from dread to excitement, as she saw the sea and whitewashed villages sparkling in the evening light. The magic that is Greece had got to her. Thank you AC, you opened my eyes as well as my mind. I am so glad I made the effort to catch up with you again late last year.

Today’s archaeologists would think I’m out of touch. Not all children can fulfil their dreams and become dinosaur hunters or archaeologists. But if you start archaeology, you can use the skills you learn, particularly how to analyse words and objects together, to enrich your life and career in whatever field you choose.

John Wade graduated with a BA Hons and MA Hons in archaeology from Sydney, excavating at both Zagora and Torone, and later completing an MBA. He has worked in museums, an auction house and a publisher, then ran a hotel and a farm with his wife Jenny. They now live on a small property in Bathurst, Alloway Bank, originally granted to Captain John Piper who built the original house in 1829. The current house was built in 1872 for John’s great great grandparents, William Henry Suttor MLA and his wife Charlotte.

You can view highlights of the Zagora excavations during the early years. Watch John Wade show off one of his discoveries and see the infamous dig kombi in action!


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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