Discovering Italy's Ancient Roman Coast
Poggio del Molino is one of the most significant active archaeological sites in Italy. For eight centuries, from 900 BC, this maritime settlement was one of the most important centres for iron smelting in the Mediterranean. In 2009, Earthwatch volunteers will have the opportunity to join archaeologists excavating a Roman villa at the site, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Dr. Carolina Megale, the project's science director, describes a typical day in Poggio del Molino. As every day, we wake up at 7.30am in the morning and we have breakfast together. As usual, somebody reads a newspaper, somebody talks about the Roman villa where we're digging and somebody... is still sleeping in front of his cappuccino!
After breakfast we take the laptops, cameras, some instruments for drawing, and our lunch (pasta salad that we prepared last night) and start our minibus journey to the research site. The journey doesn't last too long; we go along the main road for a couple of kilometres, then we cross a pretty, young vineyard and in just five minutes we are on the site. The sunrise is captivating in this wonderful piece of Tuscan countryside; the sky is clear and the sun starts to warm, a golden light filtering through the trees. As soon as we get out of the bus we can hear the rumble of the sea.
When we arrive on the site, a lovely surprise is waiting for us. On the roof of the hut we use to store tools, there's a big, colourful bird making strange cries. Settimio, the farmer working in the vineyard, tells us the bird is called Ghiandaia, and it's said to be very clever because it is able to imitate the cries of almost 99 different species of birds. We try to take photos but Ghiandaia, disturbed by our noise, flies away before we can grab our cameras. Anyway, we decide to make it the mascot for our group. After this little surprise, which we hope will be a good luck sign, we start work.
In our group, this week, there are 15 people: Veronica, Francesco, Lea, Renzo and Antonio from Italy, Karolina from Lithuania, and Charlie from Cambridge in the UK. We are also joined by five volunteers from the local Archaeological Association (Associazione Archeologica Piombinese) and the science staff, of course. The archaeological staff on site today are Francesco (the archaeology project site supervisor), Ivana (the graphic documentation supervisor), Cristina (the pottery lab supervisor) and myself, Carolina (the project's science director).
The work plan today aims to create two different groups of people to involve them in different activities: the first one will continue the excavations in the villa, in the Belvedere area, with Francesco and Ivana; the second one will help Cristina to clean and catalogue the finds (particularly pottery fragments) that we have found during the excavations.
In the Belvedere area (so called because it was a sort of terrace, overlooking the sea, from where you enjoy a wonderful view of the Mediterranean and the Tyrrhenian coast), Francesco and Ivana's group has to complete the graphic and written documentation of a huge earth layer, which was brought to light last week, and then they have to dig it. The layer is composed of earth and many small fragments of brick and white mortar, perhaps from a ruined wall of the villa. After a careful but rapid cleaning of the layer's surface, they must photograph it. It's important to do this very quickly, because if the sun is too high in the sky, shadows from the trees will distort the photo.
Everybody lends a hand assembling all the necessary things that must be included in an "archaeological" photo: a spear measure, a wooden arrow to indicate the North, and a little blackboard inscribed with the name of the place (Poggio del Molino), the current year, the name of the area (saggio G: Belvedere) and the layer number that we are working on. Francesco climbs a stepladder which Renzo tries to hold firm, while Karolina and Charlie arrange the board and the other things on the layer's surface. After a few clicks, Francesco shouts "Done!", but it's not yet the moment to dig. In fact, before removing it, a drawing must be made of the layer.
Only once this is done can the layer be removed. Karolina has remembered to bring some plastic bags where we put all the finds, and Francesco verifies that each bag has its own label with the name of the site, the current year, the area and the number of the layer where the finds came from. This is very important to avoid making mistakes with the provenance of materials and as a consequence, the loss of information essential to the reconstruction of our villa's history.
Everyone grabs a tool and Francesco forms two work teams, each consisting of three people: a person using the pickaxe to move earth, a person collecting the soil with a shovel and putting it in the buckets or wheelbarrow, and a third person who empties the wheelbarrow on top of the mound of earth next to the hut. Everyone should do everything in rotation. It's a hard job, but the volunteers and archaeologists enjoy the work. A gentle wind and the view of the calm sea help, but most of all, everyone's eager to see what new things the layer is covering. After an hour and a half, the team have almost completely removed the layer, exposing a part of a pavement made of mortar and small pieces of pottery (which archaeologists call cocciopesto), and perhaps the bottom of a little pool. They start to clean with trowels and brushes when suddenly, Charlie jumps up and shouts "A coin!". Everybody runs around Charlie to see what has happened. Yes, it's a bronze coin!
Francesco cleans it with a little brush and then shows us that on one side is the profile of a man, with some letters around him, revealing his name; he is the Roman Emperor Costanzo II, Constantine's son, who ruled in Rome from 337 to 361 A.D. The volunteers are very excited about this small (but significant) discovery, which confirms that around the middle of the IVth century A.D. our villa was still in use.
Meanwhile, the pottery team has to catalogue the finds. Cristina gives each volunteer bowls to fill with running water, a brush and a bag containing the finds. Now the volunteers can start to wash the finds. The work is enjoyable, and the volunteers enjoy the feeling of being able to touch the ancient finds. When the soil is removed from the finds, the brilliant colour of the pottery becomes visible; it is possible to observe the lines of the potter's wheel and the fingerprint of the potter who has produced the pot.
But today the volunteers' attention is focused on a particular earthenware tile. The cleaning of the fragment, in fact, has revealed the paw print of a dog or fox. During the time that the tile was put out to dry, Cristina explains, little farmyard animals (and also foxes) have left the trace of their passage on the clay. The study of these traces could be interesting to integrate into the picture of our knowledge of the animals that lived in the area of the Villa of Poggio del Molino.
Today was a good day - positive and stimulating for our volunteers. Archaeology studies ancient societies through the analysis of the material traces (artefacts, buildings, organic residues) that the people who lived in these societies have left behind. Today we have found two important traces as part of our reconstruction of the natural environment to which the Villa was connected.
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