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Technology helps UMD professor unearth Greek ruins

Ron Marchese has spent almost 10 years studying an ancient Greek city buried 3 feet underground. Technology has allowed the University of Minnesota Duluth professor to identify possible temples and the remains of a once-thriving community without...

Ron Marchese has spent almost 10 years studying an ancient Greek city buried 3 feet underground. Technology has allowed the University of Minnesota Duluth professor to identify possible temples and the remains of a once-thriving community without digging.

"We're hoping to cover 40 percent of the site, and when we're done it will be the most thoroughly investigated site using geophysical technology in Greece," he said.

The site, called Plataiai, is about 200 acres. Marchese, a professor of ancient history and archeology, works with a museum official from the Thebes (Greece) Archaeological Museum and professors from the University of Sheffield in England and the University of Vienna in Austria. They use an instrument that sends an electric current into the ground, and involves walking across meters of plotted land to provide numeric readings that are converted into visual images, looking a bit like an X-ray, Marchese said.

The process is better for the land and environment, he said, and doesn't offend farmers, who "don't feel too happy about us walking around family plots that have been there for generations."

The site, with buildings and artifacts from several ages, is in central Greece in Boeotia, northwest of Athens. Major discoveries include a marketplace; three possible temples, including a temple for the god Dionysius; a fortification wall; a gate into the city; and streets lined with columns.

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"It's probably the largest concentration of religious sanctuaries found in Greece in a number of years," Marchese said. "What we discovered last year, we were like children -- stopping every 75 minutes to see what we had."

The area is known for the 479 B.C. Battle of Plataiai between combined Greek forces and Persia, where it's believed 150,000 fought. But it's more than the name of a famous battle, Marchese said.

"The community suffered tremendous destruction," he said. "Caught on frontiers between rival Greek city-states, the population was forced into exile a number of times. The place is of great, almost mythic, importance."

In the 1700s, the existing community moved 1½ miles up a mountain to be more secure, and buildings were moved with it. Over time, the land, continuously plowed, buried the other structures. Marchese returns to the site twice a year to work on the project, and always walks the land to see what artifacts have been newly unearthed by farmers.

The group received money from the McKnight Foundation, the Chancellor's Research Program and the graduate school of the University of Minnesota.

Erin Hughes, a UMD senior, traveled to Greece in October to help with the project. She took readings by walking the instrument down a measured line and pressing it into the ground.

"We found a number of very important structures and it is hoped that these results will generate more support for further research," she said.

The method used is viable in archeological research, Hughes said, and can lead to more support for land conservation.

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"With our current results, we can look at the layout of the city and find out some major information about Greek city planning and house types," she said.

The chance for students to work on the project has been invaluable, said Janelle Wilson, chairwoman of the anthropology and sociology department at UMD.

"Students have played a major role in research there, and it's been a great opportunity to get out in the field in a very literal way," she said.

Marchese will return to Greece in October, when the group hopes to wrap up the project and clarify the structures that appear to be temples. He's fairly sure of the status of the temple of Dionysius. A boundary stone was found near it, an indication of a sacred area, and the structure is similar to a temple of Hercules, recently found in Thebes.

In their discoveries, "we've found the heart of the late Hellenistic and Roman imperial city," he said. "It was bigger than we ever imagined."

JANA HOLLINGSWORTH covers higher education. She can be reached at (218) 279-5501 or by e-mail at jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com .

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