Earthwatch archaeologists on the west coast of Italy have completed their second year uncovering remains of a maritime villa, cited as the most important active archaeological site in Italy.Their work has uncovered clues about the industry, economy and social context of Italy as far back as the 1st century. This historical site is in trouble as several parts have already succumbed to the sea as the cliff collapses. Yet with the enthusiasm and hard work of Earthwatch volunteers, Dr Andrea Camilli and his team have unearthed mosaics, inscriptions and evidence of a blacksmith's workshop in a race against time to document and preserve this invaluable cultural heritage before it is lost forever.
A Roman inscription found in the wall of the praefurnium (the furnace room of the Roman baths).
The villa, Poggio del Molino, is situated in Populonia, an ancient Etruscan town, nowadays a picturesque village surrounded by ruins indicating its ancient Roman history. To fill gaps in the knowledge of the history of Populonia, Poggio del Molino is being carefully excavated by Dr Camilli and his team of archaeologists and geologists. The team is led by Dr Carolina Megale in the field. Its primary research goals are to understand the characteristics and functions of various sections of the villa between the 1st and 5th centuries. Earthwatch volunteers in 2009 and 2010 have played a key role in the discoveries so far. Volunteers are taught methods of excavation such as using a pickaxe, trowel, brush and shovel to remove material; learn about stratigraphy (studying rocks and soil layer by layer); practise graphical and written documentation techniques; and learn basic geology. A result of this work, and one of the most significant outcomes of 2010, was the demarcation of the villa's perimeter wall, previously unmapped.
The perimeter wall
As a portion of the northern perimeter has been lost to the sea, the excavation has focussed on uncovering other corners of the perimeter. Two blocks with numeric inscriptions in Roman numerals were found in 2009, and first indications were that they were some kind of measurement for the villa's perimeter. Evidence from uncovering the second southern corner in 2010 proved the hypothesis correct and the total area of the villa is now known to be 3,140 square metres. The two blocks have been preserved through careful relocation and they can now be seen at the Archaeological Museum of Piombo, alongside many of the other findings made by Earthwatch volunteers.
In 2010 evidence of an iron-smelting workshop was uncovered by Earthwatch volunteers beneath the collapsed perimeter wall, including remnants of a small furnace, represented by a semi-circular structure of reddened stone, and a pit filled with brick and slag connected with forging iron. It is thought that other charcoal, haematite and clay remnants were already present when some of the villa's foundations were built, meaning the villa stage of the settlement occurred after it was used to smelt iron. In addition, many remnants of Late Bronze Age items were uncovered beneath the iron remains, whilst Roman ceramics were totally absent. This indicates that beneath the villa is a Late Bronze Age village with evidence of activities connected to local resources, such as lead and copper processing, fishing, trade and shellfish harvesting. A thousand years later, the villa we see today was built directly on top. Discovering the function of this Bronze Age village needs more investigation, and is a future objective for the archaeologists.
Earthwatch scientist Dr Carolina Megale at the Museum of Piombino.
In 2010 in part of the site known as the ‘hospitalia' (guest house), excavation on a mosaic floor continued after its discovery by the University of Florence the previous year. Volunteers carefully cleaned each tile with brushes, wooden sticks and wet sponges, enabling the team to identify the design of the mosaic, composed of greyish-black tiles on a white tile background. The general pattern is of octagons and squares filled with different decorative motifs, including the design of Solomon's knot. High-definition photographs were taken of the mosaic for cataloguing, and these were compared with photographs taken in the 1980s. The surface of the mosaic was in good shape and, seems to have suffered no further damage in the last 25 years. Unfortunately, however, a large part of the mosaic had already disappeared in the 1980s due to souvenir-seekers stealing pieces of the floor, and digging a deep hole in the western side of the room. Due to this loss, the original appearance of the central part of the mosaic is uncertain, and preservation of the rest of the feature becomes even more important to prevent any more damage.
The owner of Poggio del Molino
While excavating the corridor around a central courtyard, an entire layer of earth was discovered, full of remnants of roof tiles. Among them was a special tile bearing part of a stamp, and fortuitously, the tile bearing the other part of the stamp had already been recovered by the team in 2008. Putting the two parts together, it was possible to complete the stamp and decipher a name - most likely the person who owned the workshop that made it. It was common practice for owners of large villas to produce bricks and tiles at their own property, meaning the team are hopefully now on their way to identifying the owner of Poggio del Molino!
Many other functions of the villa's many rooms have been identified so far by the archaeologists with the help of Earthwatch volunteers. These include a heated room (calidarium) which was perhaps a spa facility which worked by a system of pillars underneath the floor to allow the distribution of hot air; a furnace room (praefurnium) which enabled distribution of heat through the property via a hypocaust system; and a room possibly used for salting fish and producing fish sauce using a system of basins. An inscription was found on a stone that had been reused to build the praefurnium and is perhaps the most important find in wider Populonia to date. Deciphering the inscription is now a high priority.
Volunteers at work on the site.
There are still many questions remaining about the history of Poggio del Molino. To further understand various stages of the villa's history, the specific function of each room and the area of the property must be further identified, to see how life in the villa reflected the economic and social characteristics of the Roman era. It is by doing this that the cultural heritage of this part of the world can be preserved.
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Report by Sophie Thompson.