“Nowadays pools look blue because of the color of their liners,” says Harrison, an associate professor in the department of classics. “Well, waterproof plaster in Roman times was pink. It’s a dead giveaway.”
These pink pools of water are what started Harrison’s Greek odyssey. In search of cisterns that the early Greeks used as a water source, Harrison devised this project, sought out funding for it and spent this past summer working on it in Crete with his co-director, Jane Francis, an assistant professor of classics at Concordia University in Montreal.
“We’re collecting and analyzing Roman water storage units called cisterns to get a sense of the population size and amount of irrigation,” Harrison says. “Everybody needs water. If we can estimate the amount of water used we can estimate the number of people.”
These population numbers can help the project team figure out additional information about Crete’s history. “We’re trying to discover how many people there were and where they were living,” says Harrison. “We know that to support bigger populations, they needed more irrigation. We’re looking for evidence of irrigation to support crops.”
This summer they spent time just taking photos and identifying the locations of the cisterns. Next summer they hope to start an excavation and at some point bring students over from Concordia and Xavier to work at the sites. Harrison planned the project to last 15 summers—right up to his retirement.
One early coup for the project was receiving a dig site at Mochlos, a small island off the coast of Crete, which includes a cistern with the roof still intact. Harrison is grateful at the opportunity to study a complete cistern. “We know of only six cisterns in the Mediterranean with their roofs intact. There are so few of them we don’t know how they made their roofs.”
According to Harrison, cisterns are found in the slope of a hill. They’re built partially underground to act as a natural form of air conditioning in keeping the water cool, important if you want to avoid typhus. The cisterns also had roofs to avoid mosquitoes and the malaria they carried. Larger cisterns, or more of them, indicate a larger population—such as a city—was once located there.
Harrison first fell in love with archeology—and Crete—as a graduate student studying history and art at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.
“What I like about archeology is that you can look in the ground and take a bunch of distinct pieces and figure out the overall picture. When you recreate a home, a temple, it’s easier to imagine the people who lived there more than just from literature. I like the idea that we’re in a position to fill in a part of the human story. We know everything about emperors and gladiators. Now we’re looking at everyday people. We know very little about people in the community. We’re going to learn how they lived and what was important to them.”