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Grad student gains hands-on archaeological experience

Published July 30, 2012

NDSU history doctoral student Aaron Barth feels a personal connection with ancient soldiers on the island of Cyprus. He has good reason.

From mid-May to mid-June, Barth worked with the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project on the Vigla site near the island’s southeastern coast. “Emotionally, every excavation induces the feeling as though you’re flying through space and time. It’s important to let the site and artifacts ‘talk’ back to you,” Barth said. “The work was part of an extensive dig that has been going on for years. My task was to pick up where previous investigations had left off.”

Situated on a plateau overlooking the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the dig site is located about 10 kilometers east of Larnaca, a city of about 70,000 people and the second largest city on Cyprus.

Barth was one of about 20 students from several institutions who gather to take part in such projects. In addition to Barth, the archaeological field crew drew participants from the University of North Dakota, Messiah College in Pennsylvania, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, The Ohio State University and Oxford University.

“My dig unit was in an area where ground penetrating radar had strongly suggested the presence of a wall from the Hellenistic world of 2,300 years ago. The site would have likely overseen ancient villages, because it was on a strategically-located high spot,” Barth explained.

Originally settled in about the 10th millennium B.C., Cyprus has a rich and varied historical record. Through the centuries, Mycenaean Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Ottomans, Turks and Cypriots occupied or inhabited the island. Alexander the Great seized the island in 333 B.C., and one of the fathers of Stoicism, Zeno, was from the ancient city of Kitium, which now is present-day Larnaca.

As Barth dug into the Cyprus soil, he sensed a bond with the island’s past. The hole he dug eventually reached 1.8 meters deep, revealing the side of a rough, rock wall. One memorable day, as Barth used his hammer and chisel, the knuckles of his right hand scraped against the jagged stone.

“I looked down at this third century B.C. Hellenistic wall and there was a little of my blood on it. I thought, ‘Wow, this wall hasn’t seen anybody for a long while, and now my blood is on it.’ I didn’t mean to do it, but that moment was kind of cool,” said Barth, who grew up in Bismarck, N.D. and earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and master’s degree from UND.

As he toiled, Barth discovered military artifacts like sling bullets – lead pellets shaped like miniature footballs that long-ago soldiers propelled at an enemy using a sling.

“Lead was poured into molds and, in most cases, there is raised lettering on these pellets. They’d have names on them for a variety of reasons we can speculate about,” Barth said. “To a large degree, this is the only mark these individuals left on the planet. Making sure that goes into the archaeological and historic record is a big deal to me.

“When I picked up one of these things, I had to sit down and reflect,” Barth said. “There were times when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”

That type of reaction is exactly what his NDSU faculty adviser likes to see.

“Aaron came to our doctoral program in history with great professional skills in cultural resource management, which combines both history and archaeology. He's one of those talented people who can talk the academic talk one day on campus and then walk the applied-science walk in the field the next,” said Tom Isern, NDSU Distinguished University Professor of History.

Barth said he’d like to teach at a university some day. But he knows whatever path his career takes, Barth wants to keep digging for clues about the past.

“Cyprus was a great professional life experience. It was a challenge every day,” Barth said. “In a lot of ways, it was a reaffirmation that this is the type of thing I want to do. I know at my core that, to use a double negative, I can’t not do this.”

Barth occasionally blogged about his experience in Cyprus, including this entry:


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Last Updated: Thursday, August 08, 2013 8:33:23 AM