Discovering Italy's Ancient Roman Coast
I had always wanted to have a go at being an archaeologist but never thought I would get the chance. But in May 2009 I had the pleasure of joining the Earthwatch team on the new project Discovering Italy's Ancient Roman Coast. You couldn't choose a better location to work on an archaeological dig, based in Populonia, along the Tuscan coast, with stunning views overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.
It was my first visit to Italy and the food, people and places all far exceeded my expectations. I arrived slightly earlier than the team so went for the obvious tourist choice and visited Pisa before being picked up by the project staff.
This 13-day project began with an introduction to archaeological methods and safety on the site. The staff included project scientists Carolina Megale, Francesco Ghizzani Marcia and Ivana Cerato. Daniele Ansaldi, field archaeologist, was there to look after a team of students. And what a great team they made; we were all so inspired by their passion and commitment to their work.
We were to spend the project excavating the villa of Poggio del Molino. Parts of this site were first excavated by the University of Florence in the early 1980s when many important artefacts were found including pottery, frescoed walls and mosaics.
Project scientist Giandomenico De Tommaso was involved in this and showed us round the site on the first day, explaining what they had discovered before and the areas we were to work in. The Earthwatch teams were working in new parts of the villa that had not been previously uncovered.
Populonia was once known to be an important centre for iron smelting and trade across the Mediterranean. There is no written history about the villa so the aim of the project is to try to fill in the gaps and find out what it was used for to reconstruct the historical and economic setting. This was all part of the excitement as you didn't know what you were going to find. By working on the villa, hopefully in the future the area will be given protection to restore the cultural heritage and safeguard it from treasure hunters and looters.
Excavation involved cleaning an area using a trowel to reveal the surface, checking if we were at a new layer, excavating using a pick axe, brushing to clean each time we reached a new layer, identifying the layer (using an instrument called a total station), and taking photos.
Once we had picked for a while we had to use the trowel to test if we had reached the next layer by checking the colour, consistency and composition of the soil. I wondered how it would be possible to identify a new layer, but everything became clear once we got started. In Italy archaeological digs are treated as building sites so it is a must to wear steel-toed boots. Francesco was always there to remind us to use our backs properly and to check if we were using the tools correctly.
There were eight volunteers in the team and we were spilt into two groups and given a particular area to work in. I was in the team working on an area believed to be a corridor, and the other team were working in what was thought to be a guest room with a tomb next to it. We spent the two weeks happily chatting and singing along as we worked through the layers, taking turns to do the different tasks.
Most of our team's time was spent trying to reach the collapsed roof which we had in our corridor. This was thought to have collapsed during an earthquake. After a few sessions of pick-axing, shovelling and trowelling, we would double check with Francesco if we had reached the next level and then start all over again. By the end of it we were all confident in identifying a different level in the soil.
We competed against the other group to see what we could find. One member would shout "Look, here's something" and yet again Francesco would shake his head and say it was just a bit of roof tile. The other team constantly found fragments of Roman pottery, glass and numerous pieces of fresco - sections of patterned plaster from the walls. Then we started finding some small pieces of pottery, fresco and even some Roman nails.
My first most exciting find was a piece of steel, which may not sound very interesting, but at the time we were so impressed with the find. It's all about putting the information together and coming up with an interpretation of what the villa was like. There were suggestions that there may have been a workshop, so the piece of steel could have come from that. The nails were most likely to be from the roof. As a zoologist, one of the most exciting finds I made was a roof tile with deer prints on it. It's amazing to think that was from an animal that wandered around the area in the Roman period.
Our accommodation was apartments in a small village called Populonia Station, and in the evening we would all meet up in the largest apartment to help prepare dinner and enjoy the local wine provided by Settimio, whose vineyard backed onto the villa site. We also visited a couple of local restaurants including a pizzeria where I had the best pizza ever, and a fish restaurant in Livorno. This was during a book launch for Carolina Megale.
Overall I found the whole experience so exciting and would jump at the chance to get back out there for some more digging. I met a great team of people who have all been in touch since we got back. We all keep wondering what subsequent groups have found, asking questions such as these from volunteer Frank Leverrett: "Did they ever reach ‘our' floor in the room/corridor? Was it a plinth/step/something else? Did Danielli's group find an Etruscan tomb at the bottom of the pit next to the pile of rocks? The questions are myriad."
Definitely an experience of a lifetime for me.
Report by Vicky Potts of Earthwatch, who joined Discovering Italy's Ancient Roman Coast in May 2009.