Volunteers shine at University archaeology dig

11 July 2018
Archaeologists don't see much Indiana Jones-style action, but at a long-running University dig in Cyprus, archaeology professionals and volunteers share the adventure.
Paphos digging

The Paphos Theatre rises above trench 11B (foreground) which revealed part of the medieval structure and evidence of Roman landscaping.

Archaeology has fascinated Danny Blackman (BA ’73) since she was 12 and first heard of the work of German archaeologist Heinrich Schleimann, who famously excavated Troy in the 19th century. Blackman went on to take a few archaeology subjects while majoring in English and history at the University of Sydney.

“Going to the Mediterranean to do a dig was far beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. “It wasn’t something I thought I would ever do.”

This was in the 1960s, when there was little interest in fieldwork in Australia and archaeological study relied on visual material such as slides. After graduation, Blackman put her interest to one side to pursue a more ‘sensible’ public sector career in librarianship, research and policy, and industrial relations.

Almost 40 years later, a friend looking for an offbeat holiday asked Blackman to join her as a volunteer at the University’s Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project. Blackman didn’t take much convincing.

The University has been excavating the site of the ancient Hellenistic-Roman theatre at Paphos, the ancient capital of Cyprus, since 1995. Initiated by Professor of Classical Archaeology Richard Green AM, the self-funded project relies on students, professional archaeologists and volunteers like Blackman, who spend three to six weeks at the site during its annual excavation season.

Dr Craig Barker (BA ’96 PhD ’05) participated in the first dig at Paphos as an archaeology student and has been part of the project ever since. In 2007 he became its director, a role he dovetails with his job as Manager of Education and Public Programs at Sydney University Museums.

Dr Craig Barker, Professor Diana Wood Conroy and Yiannis Sakellis.

Left to right: Dr Craig Barker, artist in residence Emeritus Professor Diana Wood Conroy (BA ‘66), and Paphos local and cultural events coordinator Yiannis Sakellis.

The site was largely covered in soil when the project began. Years of strategic digging has uncovered paved Roman roads, an ancient nymphaeum (water fountain) and Paphos’ famous semi-circular theatre.

“If you stand in front of it now, it looks like a theatre,” says Barker of the 2000-year-old ruins. “You can see the orchestra where the chorus would have performed, and the seats. We’ve also revealed the foundations of the old stage building, where the actors performed.”

Barker says the 250 or so volunteers who have participated in the Paphos project across its 23-year history have been instrumental in uncovering this architecture. “They’ve found everything from small ceramic sherds, as they’re called, to larger marble sculptural pieces.”

Not everyone spends their days shovelling dirt with a spade; volunteers are encouraged to work within their physical limits, doing everything from digging and pot washing to sorting and recording finds. Nonetheless, it’s hard slog. “People aren’t coming just to brush away some dirt and find a gold coin,” says Barker.

It’s enough to keep Blackman going back for more. “In my first season, I helped excavate the tunnel under the orchestra floor,” she says. “There’s fewer than a dozen tunnels in the hundreds of ancient theatres. From that point, I was hooked!” Now seven seasons in, Blackman is the project’s archivist, registering finds and coordinating their processing by field photographers and illustrators.

Student and volunteer team members.

Student and volunteer team members sort through and begin processing ceramic finds from the Hellenistic to Medieval eras.

“Seeing artefacts as they’re discovered is a far cry from the slide shows of undergraduate days,” she says. “Most of us are older and many, like me, saw no possibility of working in archaeology after graduation. We’re not necessarily looking for a second career, but we learn how to appreciate the skills of those working at Paphos.”

The backgrounds of the Paphos volunteers are varied, and not all have dabbled in archaeology before. Some, like Blackman, have an ongoing role, while others go from one dig to another.

“It’s a fantastic way to see the country,” Blackman says. “From Agatha Christie’s writings on archaeology, you’d think archaeological digs were a long way from anywhere. One of the charms of this dig is you’re actually working within a provincial city.”

Blackman counts coffee shops, bars and restaurants among her regular haunts whenever she visits Ktima Paphos, and she loves the local markets. She’s formed friendships she wouldn’t have made as a tourist and visited many other historical sites in Cyprus.

Danny Blackman

Danny Blackman in a rarely found orchestra floor tunnel.

The Paphos project has made great strides in understanding the ancient Nea Paphos Theatre. Barker and colleagues have used discovered remains to map the ancient theatre with photogrammetric technology and develop a virtual reality app depicting the theatre during its heyday, around 150 AD.

“The discovery of Roman roads has opened the way for the project to better understand Roman urbanisation. Aside from revealing more about the Roman Empire, ongoing excavations would likely offer some lessons to modern urban planners,” says Barker.

“The theatre was part of a complex urban structure. There’s likely to be a Roman bathhouse nearby, and certainly Roman city gates.”

With the ongoing support of volunteers – who pay their own travel and accommodation costs – and donations, there is scope for the project to continue for years to come.

Blackman certainly hopes so: “As long as they don’t mind having me there, I’ll keep putting my hand up to go.”

You can give the past a future

The Cyprus dig invites you to get your hands dirty by volunteering for next year’s season in September–October 2019. For details, email Craig Barker at If you’d rather dig deep the other way, your financial support would also be very welcome - give here


Written by Jocelyn Prasad
Photos provided by Craig Barker


Read more alumni stories