The impact of a global pandemic on island life, archaeological fieldwork and international travel
Dr Emlyn Dodd, AAIA Fellow in Greece, was conducting fieldwork when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He shares his experience with us.
When you begin a new fieldwork project as an archaeologist, you expect to encounter some obstacles – things that require you to adjust plans but stay (relatively) on track. This year has been somewhat different. Not once did I expect to be abandoning half-complete island surveys, rushing back to the mainland on deserted Greek ferries, and re-booking emergency flights from Athens to Sydney.
While I am sure the stories that follow are not a unique experience, to me they drove home the impact of a pandemic like COVID-19 in countless ways, on a variety of people and in diverse contexts.
As the 2019-2020 AAIA Greece Fellow, I had rather ambitious plans for an exciting new research project. My work generally concentrates on Graeco-Roman agricultural practices and technologies; mostly oil and wine production. This new project would contribute to our knowledge of production on Cycladic islands from the Classical era through to Late Antiquity. We already know these islands produced oil and wine for a few reasons: we have large quantities of locally produced ceramic Aegean transport jars (amphorae) scattered across the Mediterranean and Black Sea; many kiln sites, like those on Paros; and historic and numismatic representation, including many local coins with vine iconography – but exactly where and how were they making these commodities?
In October-December 2019, and again in February-March 2020, I began extensive research in the libraries of Athens as well as systematic field survey on a number of Cycladic islands. The data from pre-existing research, as well as exciting new finds in Cycladic museum collections and rural fields, started to piece together this puzzle. Numerous previously unknown wine/oil press counterweights and beds were identified, often in association with monumental Hellenistic stone towers in the countryside.
While such artefacts are known from other Aegean islands, like Rhodes and Crete, many of the islands included in my survey had no such features previously recorded. Narratives immediately began to form in my head, with these exciting finds reaffirming hypotheses.
These trips also provided opportunities to visit other important sites across the Cyclades, like the spectacular Arkesini acropolis on Amorgos – perched upon a near-vertical promontory and used for millennia from antiquity to the medieval era.
It was in the last few weeks of my March surveys on Amorgos, Ios and Tinos, however, that things began to change. Conversations with locals quickly turned from jokes about being the only non-local on the island, to fearful overtures about the rapid onslaught of COVID-19 and the survival of their businesses, livelihoods and the vanishing summer tourism season. By the time I reached Tinos in mid-March, all museums and archaeological sites were closed.
Despite all this rapid change and uncertainty, the beautiful hospitality of the Greeks never wavered – the host of my apartment on Tinos happily offered an extra night’s accommodation should ferries be cancelled, and his aunt, who was just next door, filled me with recommendations on local places to eat as government regulation tightened and things closed down around us.
With increasing murmurs of cancelled travel routes between Athens and the islands, I decided it was best to head back to the capital and decide next moves.
Regulations had tightened again by the time I reached a desolate Athens, making research almost impossible and travel difficult. Airlines cancelled scheduled flights with frightening speed and announcements from the Australian consulate signalled all citizens should return home, if possible.
It began to be clear that no archaeology was taking place in Greece for some time and I had to make the difficult decision of returning to Australia with no known date to resume research, or to weather the storm in Athens.
The global situation accelerated. Greek regulations, as in other countries, began to restrict daily.
One sunny spring Athenian morning on the 18th of March I was planning to stay for another week – by 5pm I had begrudgingly booked a one-way flight to Sydney for the next day.
I collected my things and said an emotional goodbye to my regular research home for many months at the AAIA hostel, hoping to return to that sunny deck looking up at the Parthenon as soon as borders reopened.
I had never seen such a desolate Eleftherios Venizelos airport in Athens – the immigration line was a breeze, a rare ‘COVID perk’. But it was the flight home that was most surreal.
After flying to Abu Dhabi, I boarded the connecting flight on time, due to arrive in Sydney at 7:30pm – an hour and a half before the impending government-imposed lockout of non-residents at 9pm.
Strangely, an hour later and we still had not left Abu Dhabi. We were waiting on passengers transiting through the airport, held up by immigration due to COVID-19. The captain said he would report more information soon. Around me, non-Australian passengers started to speak up.
Another half hour passed and we did not move. Passengers were starting to cry, complaints were made to flight attendants – pleas to pass the message on to the captain that they would be locked out of Australia and away from their loved ones. The captain announced again that we were waiting. He said that if we left without this group, they would not be allowed into the UAE due to lockouts nor Australia tomorrow.
Tears grew stronger. Tension was high in the cabin. A German lady across the aisle was consoled by a complete stranger in the seat behind; she was desperately trying to make it back to her Australian partner.
Moments later the captain announced the group had been released from immigration and the airline instructed him to wait 20 minutes and, should they not arrive, to leave without them.
Two minutes before his deadline, the group started to board the plane. It took another 15 minutes to get them all seated. He now had 13.5 hours to taxi, take off, fly to Sydney, and get people through the immigration gates before they were refused entry.
Ironically, the flight itself was one of the most peaceful I had been on with an eerie silence filling the cabin.
After landing, I made my way through a most strange Sydney airport, with what seemed like minimal prevention against a disease rapidly restricting the world and crippling economies.
After collecting my bag, I turned around and saw that same German lady from across the aisle. This time with a smile on her face. It was 8:45pm – she had made it into Australia with 15 minutes to spare.
Emlyn Dodd has recently published his debut book, entitled Roman and Late Antique Wine Production in the Eastern Mediterranean, and is currently Greece Fellow at the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow at Macquarie University, and newly appointed 2020 Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Ancient Cultural Heritage and Environment, Macquarie University. He was previously the 2015-16 Gale Scholar at the British School at Rome. He is an active collaborator and consultant with the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Research Project, based out of Gazipasa (Turkey), and has coordinated fieldwork projects in collaboration with Macquarie University and the AAIA in Greece (Delos, the Athenian Agora and Acropolis) and Italy (Pompeii, Oplontis, Carsulae, and in Sicily). His research interests extend to cover agriculture, technology and trade in antiquity along with the mechanisms by which this occurred. He hopes to return to Greece as soon as is safe, to continue research on the Cyclades and in Athens.