Vlochos Archaeological Project

Greek-Swedish archaeological fieldwork in the Kardítsa region, Thessaly

Second season, a short résumé

The second field season of VLAP is over since over a week, but the many administrative issues related to the project makes it still very much alive to us involved in it! Reports to complete, material to process, applications to write.

…but what a season it was. Perfect weather every day except one, giving us in total 14 days of fieldwork with blue skies and temperatures below +37°C.

Not only the weather conditions were favourable. The municipality of Palamas had made us an incredible favour by mowing all the thistles and thorny weeds that normally cover the site. From a prickly hell to a geophysicist’s paradise.

Drone view highlighting the difference between mowed and non-mowed sections of the archaeological site.

Thanks to this, we were able to conduct a magnetometric survey of nearly 90% of the ancient lower settlement; an area corresponding to more than 17 football fields, of which nearly all was completed in just 10 days. Derek Pitman, supervising the magnetometry unit, was extremely pleased to see his heroic one-man efforts of last year dwarfed by the rapid pace of his students.

Hayden and the magnetometer working his way through the fields south of Strongilovouni.

To improve his image, he then took off to do more aerial photography with the project drone. Provided with extra batteries, he managed to take more than 14000 photographs of the hill and the surrounding fields, including some of rather confused looking stray dogs.

Derek trying not to steer his drone into the sheer mountainside.

This year’s students were all exceptionally hard-working, especially considering the long days and the hot weather. Without them, we could never have completed our mission, and we’re certain that they will have a bright future within archaeology.

Johan Klange introducing the archaeology of the hilltop to this year’s newcomers.

Stunning view of Patoma, taken by amateur mountaineer and professional archaeologist Johan Klange from the steep south slopes of Strongilovouni.

Atop the very steep hill of Strongilovouni, work with the recording and documentation of the extensive remains of fortifications and other structures were continued by Johan Klange and his unit. At the very last day in the field, we had completed the digital recording of nearly 100% of the known architectural remains (including 6 km of walls), including the scanty fragments of buildings in the lower settlement. Very satisfactory results, especially considering the hardships of our team members who had to scale the slopes every day to reach the remains on the summit.

Tractor-master Angelos Davadzikos returns to site.

Just as last year, Rich Potter and his Ground Penetrating Radar unit were joined by the master of tractors Angelos Davadzikos. Also benefitting from the mowed terrain, they zig-zaged more swiftly over the ancient remains, often covering in one day more than what was possible during the whole past season.

The GPR unit is ready to go!

Waiting for the sheep to finish grazing.

Field directors Fotini Tsiouka and Robin Rönnlund sometimes felt a bit superfluous, which is a good sign that everything is working just fine. Between the responsibilities of administrating work, they conducted a pedestrian survey of the fields surrounding the archaeological site, trying to identify the maximum extent of the ancient settlement, as well as the chronology of some of the visible pottery found on the ground.

The total material – after being studied and processed – will provide us with a complete overview of the accessible archaeological remains at Vlochos, and this without excavating. We do not rule out that excavation will ever take place again at Strongilovouni, but we think that the work of VLAP shows the great potential in non-invasive methods for large-size sites such at Vlochos.

The full team, including directors, field directors, research members and students plus special guests gathered for lunch with the mayor of Palamas, mr Sakellariou.

As stated above, the municipality of Palamas provided us with much assistance, but also with great hospitality. We all hope that VLAP will lead to future archaeological work in the area of the municipality, to give further light to the truly amazing archaeology of the region.

Thank you,

/The VLAP team

One week left

It is already late August! Parts of the Swedish team have already embarked upon the journey to Karditsa – Rich and Johan are traversing Europe, approaching Ulm as I type – but most of us will join the Greek colleagues in a week’s time.

A pioneer team will spend some days staking out the large 20×20 m grid we use for the geophysical survey at the area of Pátoma, just below the hill. By doing this, we speed up our work-pace immensely, and hopefully, we will be able to cover the whole of the ancient settlement before the end of September.

The work at Pátoma this year, however, would not have been possible without the assistance of the municipality of Palamás (in which our site is located). Normally, the foot of the hill of Strongilovouni is covered in thistles and other nasty plants, but through the hard work of the municipality, it is now smooth and clear.

We look forward to work in this improved environment, and hope to share some of our progress and experiences this year as well.

See you @Vlochos!

Summer preparations

Half of the year has already passed, and VLAP 2017 is approaching fast. We’d just like to provide you with a little update on what’s going on within the project, and what to expect in the near future.

The institute director Dr Wallensten presents VLAP to the general and scholarly public in the amphitheatre of the Acropolis Museum

In late March, Robin, Derek and Fotini travelled to Athens to participate in the annual meeting of the Swedish Institute. This was held in the spectacular Acropolis Museum, with a lovely reception at the nearby Institute.

Roughly at the same time, the Department of Historical Studies in Gothenburg acquired a magnetometer of their own, doubling the magnetometric capacity of VLAP.

Johan and Rich trying out the new magnetometer at the Gothenburg campus

Paying a visit to lovely Bournemouth, Derek introduced Robin to this year’s students – an enthusiastic bunch, all eager to come to Thessaly. Some of them have never been to Greece before, and no one had been to the mainland. We’re certain that they are going to love it!

At Vlochós, preparations are also proceeding. With the help from mrs Karaïskou, the deputy mayor of Palamás, our tractor god Angelos Davadzikos is trying to rid the flat space at Pátoma (the site of the ancient settlement) from all the nasty thistles. With all of them gone, the place is going to be a geophysical paradise! Robin has just ordered 300 red plastic pegs to be used to mark out our great grid (more on this in upcoming posts), and Johan and Rich will spend a few days in August banging them into the ground. Last year we used canes, but the local goats apparently found them tasty – we hope they’ll find the plastic less appetising!

New year

After the somewhat stressful period around Christmas, things have now calmed down, and we have been able to start planning for the upcoming fieldwork at Vlochós. We managed to get our basic funding for 2017 right in the middle of the media circus of December, so we are now looking forward to the second season of VLAP.

Our main goal for the 2017 season will be the completion of the geophysical and architectural surveys at the site of Strongilovoúni. We will hopefully be able to survey the area of Pátoma at a greater pace, as we will have access to two magnetometers instead of just one.

We were happy to learn that Angelos Ntavadzikos, our tractor master, will join us for the geophysical prospection this year as well. His precision and ingenuity is highly regarded by the team.

Our next point on the agenda, however, is to attend the annual meeting of the Swedish Institute at Athens in late March. The preliminary results of VLAP will be presented in the lecture hall of the Acropolis Museum together with the other projects involving Swedish archaeologists. We are very much looking forward to it. If only the weather in Greece could get a little better!

Media coverage

The world of international media is somewhat different to that of international archaeology.

This we experienced today as our little press release on this year’s fieldwork hit the news. We’re very glad for all the attention, but somewhat overwhelmed. Infortunately it seems like some potentially misleading information sneaked into some of the reports.

Just to be clear, we would like to clarify some points, and in case some journalists are passing by, we’d be very happy if you could pick this up:

The archaeological remains at Vlochós has been known for at least 200 years.
It is only the status of a city that can be confirmed by the new project. There has been several different theories about what the remains represent, all based on more or less unsystematic observations. The preliminary results of VLAP shows that the remains at Vlochós do indeed belong to a sizeable urban settlement. We would like to stress that the archaeological remains at site were well-known to the local archaeological service, and that our collaboration is focussed on discovering the unknown aspects of the site.

VLAP is a Greek-Swedish collaborative project.
Contrary to what is stated by some, VLAP is a collaboration between the Ephorate of Antiquities of Karditsa (Greece) and the Swedish Institute at Athens. Archaeologists from the said Ephorate (Greece), the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) and the University of Bournemouth (UK) are working side by side, with equal responsibilities at site.

All surface finds are kept at the Archaeological Museum of Karditsa
VLAP will not collect pottery or other finds. It is only in the few cases when very special finds (such as stray coins) are observed on the ground that objects are collected by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Karditsa and brought to the Archaeological Museum of Karditsa. No finds have left or will ever leave Greece.

We are sorry if some of the press headlines are a bit exaggerated, and we hope this little blog post will bring some more clarity in the matter.

December 14 edit:
Greek speakers, please watch this news item from Greek television station ERT for a statement from co-director Maria Vaïopoulou of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Karditsa:

Video from ERT.

Video from ERT.

A study of method part 1: Aerial photogrammetry

One of the core methods of VLAP is photogrammetry or structure from motion (SFM). Through photogrammetry, it is possible create high resolution 3D models from photographs taken with regular digital cameras. It is just a question of taking as many pictures as possible…

…and that is exactly what we did with our drone.

Showing off his drone skills, Derek flew the tiny drone up the hillside about 20-30 metres above the large terraced road that winds from the bottom of the hill towards the top. At the same time, the drone took about 1500 vertical images of the ground below, giving us an archive of pictures of rocks and shrubs.

These pictures were then loaded into the photogrammetry software – in this case Capturing Reality. This software then searched all the pictures for common features, creating a kind of three-dimensional mosaic of photographs.

The alignment of photographs in the software.

The alignment of photographs in the photogrammetry software.

The method works splendidly, and we now have a rough 3D model of the terraced road. This can be inserted into a GIS program, allowing us to draw high precision plans of large-scale features.

The software can also compile a true orthomosaic, giving us some kind of an aerial photograph consisting of several hundreds of detail photographs. With this method, we get more detail than from a conventional aerial photograph and that with less distortion.

The finished orthomosaic of the north road

The finished orthomosaic of the north road. Click for higher detail.

It is also possible to extract topographical data from the 3D model, as in the example below. Here, we have a slope model, which is a way of displaying the steepness of various topographical locations. Lighter areas indicate steeper places while darker areas are more flat. As you can see, the terraced road appears as a darker inverted ‘Σ’ on the slope. With this model, we can see the actual width of the road, and not just the outer sides of it.

Slope model of the northern road.

Slope model of the northern road.

The only problem with this kind of photogrammetry is that the files tend to get very large, sometimes above 30 gb. Only the most powerful of computers are able to open such files. Still, the method allows the VLAP team to get very accurate measurements of the antiquities at Vlochós with very little time spent in the field. 10 hectares is easily done in half an hour. The processing, however, takes many hours which will be done in Gothenburg during the long Swedish winter nights.

Resumé of the first season


The NRTK-GPS against the Thessalian plains.

The first season of VLAP is over. Half of the team has finished their three day drive back through Europe, the other half has either continued with other fieldwork or has by long returned home by airplane.

The first week of fieldwork was a bit chaotic. This was mainly brought on by the heavy rains that struck Greece on Wednesday 7th and onwards. The rain over Karditsa was very heavy, with a thunderstorm taking out electricity in many parts of town. As we returned to site on the very damp morning of Thursday 8th, we found that a large piece of the hill-slope had been flushed away by the strong torrent of rain water coming down the hill.

The team inspects the destruction brought on by the rain.

The team inspects the destruction brought on by the rain.

Aerial view of the destruction.

Aerial view of the destruction.

The risk of thunder, rain and further collapse made that we cancelled work on top of Strongilovoúni for a few days, instead concentrating on the archaeological remains in the lower parts of the settlement. The otherwise rock-hard surface of the ground had now turned into mud (the poor maids at the hotel!), but the team struggled on. The geophysical survey went on, Rich leading the ground-penetrating radar team with the tractor-god Angelos Davadzikos behind the wheel.

Drone view of Rich, Ellen, Matilda and Angelos doing geophysics.

Drone view of Rich, Ellen, Matilda and Angelos doing geophysics.

The weather on Friday 9th was far better, if not very humid, and we could finally begin with proper work on the hilltop fortifications. Our original hypothesis that the fortifications on Strongilovoúni are entirely late Archaic to Hellenistic (ca. 500-200 BCE) had to be discarded as we found clear indications of extensive Late Roman-Early Byzantine repairs. We were therefore glad that we could be joined by byzantinologist Tenia Anastasiadou who confirmed our observations.

Johan measuring the Classical-Hellenistic fortifications of Strongilovoúni.

Johan measuring the Classical-Hellenistic fortifications of Strongilovoúni.

Even if we had to continue working over the weekend, we had time to come to Palamás to participate in the annual Titaneia festival. After some problems in finding the main square – half the team almost participated in a wedding by mistake! – we enjoyed a number of exhibition dances of the Karagounides (the local Greek ethnic group) and some Pontic invited guests. Right on stage was a large painting of the local landscape, with the towering dome of Strongilovoúni at the centre. This, of course, pleased us quite a bit. Afterwards, we enjoyed a nice dinner with the mayor mr Sakellariou and the village president mrs. Dozi at a local restaurant amid the celebrations. The mutton chops that we had were, I assure you, fantastic.

The Titaneia festival at Palamás.

The Titaneia festival at Palamás.

The second and last week was far more productive, as the weather allowed us to work continuously for five days. Extensive magnetometry was conducted by Derek, who managed to cover large sections of the lower settlement at the location of Pátoma. His preliminary results show that there are indeed remains of an urban environment at Pátoma, with streets and houses as well as a lower fortification wall. Most exciting to Derek, being a metallurgist, were of course the pieces of iron slag that he observed among the weeds and thistles.

Croci among the rubble.

Croci among the rubble.

The rain and the following sun made that the seemingly barren mountain slopes started to blossom. For a Swede, it is amazing to see wild croci flowers among the rubble of the mountain sides as we are accustomed to see them in flower beds only.


Helène Whittaker and Arto Penttinen.

On Wednesday 14th, we had a visit by the director of the Swedish Institute at Athens, Arto Penttinen. After a meeting at the ephorate offices with the directors Maria Vaïopoulou and Helène Whittaker as well as the field directors Fotini Tsiouka and Robin Rönnlund and byzantinologist Tenia Anastasiadou, he was shown around the site. VLAP is the first Swedish archaeological enterprise in Thessaly, and we were very happy to have him for some hours at Strongilovoúni.

A very happy but exhausted field team at the conclusion of the first season.

A very happy but exhausted field team at the conclusion of the first season.

Friday 16th was the last day on site, and the Swedish part of the team left Karditsa the following day. We brought approximately 80 gigabytes of photographs, measurements and other data to be processed in the upcoming months. We hope to be able to present results to you as soon as they get presentable.

The members of VLAP would like to thank the inhabitants of Vlochós, Palamás and Kardítsa for their great hospitality and kindness. We feel that we have stumbled on a hidden gem of archaeology in Greece, and long to continue fieldwork in August-September next year.

Special thanks to the mayor of Palamás, mr Sakellariou, for his hospitality and invitation to the Titaneia, to the president of the village kinótita of Vlochós mrs. Dozi for her kindness and enthusiasm, and to Angelos Davadzikos for his tractor skills and general awesomeness.

First day on site

Yesterday in Karditsa, the VLAP team finally assembled in full. Some of the team members had driven all the way from Gothenburg, through Europe, to the plains of Thessaly (as seen on twitter), while the rest had gone via Athens on a slightly shorter trip.

Most of the VLAP team with mrs Dozi.

Most of the VLAP team with mrs Dozi.

Today, we had our first field day, and – as is tradition – everything was a bit chaotic. However, we had some nice visits from the president of the village association of Vlochós, mrs Evangelia Dozi as well as by the mayor of the municipality of Palamás, mr Giorgos Sakellariou and his deputy mayor, mr Iason Tsironis. They were all very excited about the project and promised to help in any way they could – we all feel very happy about their warm welcome!

Rich, mr Giorgos Sakellariou, Fotini, Iason Tsironis and Johan

Rich, Giorgos Sakellariou, Fotini, Iason Tsironis and Johan

We look forward to continue our work in the upcoming weeks if the weather will allow it: tomorrow’s forecast is a bit gloomy. There is much to be done, many things to measure and record. Just to give you a glimpse of the sheer size of the site, here’s a video of the site taken from 450 m. above the ground:

We’re not first on site, but almost


The hill of Strongilovoúni seen from west, note the extensive remains of fortifications on the summit and slopes. © EAK-SIA-YPPOA.

The hill of Strongilovoúni seen from west, note the extensive remains of fortifications on the summit and slopes. © EAK-SIA-YPPOA.

The remains at Strongilovoúni have never been systematically explored, but that doesn’t mean that they are wholly unknown to the scholarly community.

Well, they are almost unknown. We only know of four foreign scholars to have visited the summit of the hill before us, of which only two published their observations. The local populations of the village of Vlochós and its neighbours did of course know of the site. Its Turkish name, Kuşaklı Dağ, means “the belted mountain”, and the alternative Greek name Zonária, “the big belts”, both give a good illustration of the winding great fortifications on the hill-sides. Strongilovoúni, in turn, simply means “round mountain”.

J. L. Ussing (1820-1905).

The first to mention Strongilovouni was the English traveller William Leake who passed by in 1805, but it was the 24 year old Danish philologist Johan Louis Ussing who on June 12 1845 became the first known scholar to visit the site and its remains.

Ussing published his experiences in Thessaly in his Travels in the south (Rejsebilleder fra Syden, 1847), containing many accounts of his observations and adventures. Travelling through still Ottoman Thessaly in the 1840s was surely not easy, especially if you’re 24 and on your first visit abroad. After describing the remains at Vlochós, Ussing continues:

The approaching darkness stopped me from following the wall in its totality: I had to get off the mountain. Here I took the wrong turn, which almost costed me dearly. As I had no wish to return to the top of the hill, I thought that I could take a shortcut by descending the slope from the spot where I was. I had however misunderstood my position: I was now on the other side of the hill, and when I reached its foot, I had to run for a long while through thistles before I reached the road from which I had begun my climb. I was alone; since my servant had been tired, I had left him at the foot of the hill during my explorations of the citadel. As I had been away a long while, he had gone searching for me. It was already dark, and I could not see Vlochós any longer, but I knew its general direction. I went this way and called at every apparition that I glimpsed through the darkness, but they evaded me all – luckily, I didn’t meet any dogs! – until a herder asserted me that I was on the right track. When I reached the village, I was met by my servant and kavas who were in great anxiety because they had lost me. They hadn’t found shelter yet, because all the villagers were out in the fields, as it was harvest time. Now, when it had been dark for over an hour, did they return and I was accomodated in a courtyard just outside a house. The eggs were soon fried, and when this sturdy dinner was over, I slept well after the many difficulties of the day, ignoring the the heavy thunder rain which the simple wooden roof of the yard barely withstood.

Ottoman kavaslar (honorary guards) in Jerusalem, late 19th century.

Ussing’s book contains other entertaining episodes, such as when he tries tzatziki for the first time (“buttermilk with garlic, yuck!”) or unknowingly commits a break-in into the house of an old spinster (“I had to feign a lot of Turkish serenity and air of supremacy to calm her”), but it is his account of Strongilovouni that is the most interesting. It shows that the site has remained more or less untouched since at least the mid-1800s, quite a rare situation for any archaeological site anywhere in the world.

We expect less difficulties in working at Strongilovoúni than described above, but many of the challenges met by Ussing still remain. It is easy to take the wrong turn on this massive hill (as Robin and Johan did during a visit last year), there are loads of thistles, and dogs… …yes, let’s hope we won’t meet any dogs.

Three weeks left

Half of the VLAP team will depart from Gothenburg by car on the 1st of September for an adventurous road-trip through most of Europe. For all of us to fly down via Athens would be impossible as we need to bring some of the university’s heavy and bulky equipment.

We are very exited about this project, which is not just a new prógramma, but the first Swedish archaeological project in Thessaly, and probably the first foreign such in the regional unit of Kardítsa.

Sweden is rainy and cold at the moment, it feels like autumn is close at hand. The heat of the Western Thessalian plains, however, might be severe, and we hope for “something in the middle”.

In the upcoming weeks, we’ll test most of our equipment such as the MALÅ georadar borrowed from the generous department of Historical Studies at the University of Gothenburg. We aim at having a clear picture of the ground beneath the big lawn in front of the Faculty of Humanities when we are finished…

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