This was the summer that I finally pushed myself to get out of the classroom and into the field to uncover the remnants of the past and do real archaeology. Since I was a little boy I have always been fascinated by all things Roman. I would read any article in my father’s National Geographic magazines about ancient Rome, watched Gladiator countless times, and even whittled my own Roman gladius out of a stick so I could pretend to be part of a great legion. It was only natural then, that I selected, in my humble opinion the coolest Roman site available within Italy. The excavation which I had the pleasure of being a part of was hosted by McMaster University and focused on the ancient settlement of Vagnari, which was located in the countryside of the modern city of Gravina in Puglia.
The settlement of Vagnari like with most archaeological sites was home to multiple phases of civilization and was occupied from the pre-Roman periods as early as the 4th century BC well into the 2nd century AD where it was known to be an Imperial estate. The settlement was split into two major sites. Excavations hosted by Sheffield University worked to excavate the structures of the settlement to understand its significance as an Imperial property as well as its productive activities (agriculture, wine production etc.). The other which I was a part of, excavated the settlements expansive cemetery to research the inhabitants as to their funerary practices, status, burial goods, and health and dietary conditions.
Being a just off the plane archaeologist who had only ever seen the very clean and professional looking trenches, beautiful stratigraphy, and luxurious grave goods as depicted in archaeological text books and television shows meant that I was in for quite the surprise when I started. Although the site overlooked a beautiful scene of the valley below, it was your everyday farmer’s field full of weeds on the surface (which I may add, were very spikey and painful to pull out). We cleared the area inside the trenches (129 the main trench and 139 a side trench) with quite little effort. Naively I thought to myself that this was when the excavator vehicles would roll up and promptly get us to the layers of soil containing the tombs. I was right about part of this assumption, as there were excavators, it is just that they were human powered and comprised of us students and volunteers. While this meant roughly a week and a half of tough labour in the dust and the dirt and temperatures which reached upwards of 40 degrees Celsius I loved every second of it. No, this wasn’t because I’m a masochist who loved to put himself through misery but because I knew I was working my way towards the history which had always beckoned me. The digging required us to work in alarmingly close proximity to one another with sharpened pickaxes in a line which advanced from north to south as another group cleaned up the dirt with shovels which was then carted out to our gargantuan rubbish pile. Being a larger guy I was quickly volun-told to be a picker which I was actually quite happy about as I secretly enjoyed it immensely.
After several passes (clearing a complete layer of dirt) from the North wall to the South wall (also called baulks) we started to notice a change in the stratigraphy of the soil which was studded with white calcification and little pieces of tile. Being a very green archaeologist, I thought that every single thing that may have been touched by ancient man was significant. For example while digging I found a single piece of tile which when inspected closely had lines on it which were moulded by the fingers of the Roman who produced it. I brought it to my supervisor like a proud father. My supervisor first scolded me (rightfully so) for moving it and then fired it behind her back without looking over the baulk. I was quickly told that lone tile fragments were often pulled up by the plows from the burials and were useless as they were no longer in situ (their original location/stratigraphy). Needless to say this taught me a lesson that not everything found can be preserved. None the less it pained me every time I had to bring tile fragments to the rubbish pile.
Some of the most exciting moments in the first few weeks were when features started be uncovered throughout trench 129 (Trench 139 was dug primarily by Italian students lead by one of our supervisors who were doing a heritage program as part of their curriculum). Although features are not always indicative of a burial many of them looked to be the right shape and size to be one. When a feature was found we were asked to pick around them very carefully, sweep away all dirt and use our trowels on specifically delicate areas in order get a better view of the characteristics of the features. We uncovered 12 features and 4 of which had a definitive cappuccino style (burials with a row of diagonal tiles which encased the body and sometimes capped with a vertical tile on each end)! I couldn’t believe that after only two weeks all that stood between me and ancient man was some dirt and a bit of tile. It was truly awe inspiring. Below is a picture of Doctor Prowse giving us instructions on how we were to excavate the many features and cappuccina tombs within view.
The last three weeks have been a whirlwind of excitement and hard work. Although we had come fairly far in our efforts, there was still a lot of work to be done as almost none of the features had been excavated. Although we were encouraged to work efficiently it was also vital that we worked with as much care as possible, as rushing could mean damaging features, artifacts and human remains, or worse missing them entirely. Each feature had to be thoroughly documented which entailed a variety of different tasks. Us students and volunteers had to trowel the dirt away from the tiles to expose the feature as completely as possible, do scale drawings of the feature (by using reference points and a physical axis), remove, weigh, and measure the tiles, measure the depth and dimension of any artifacts found, and photograph the artifacts and skeletal remains etc. Although this was very overwhelming at first; with a lot of help from the site supervisors it became second nature and in fact I believe I might be able to fill out a small finds form (a form documenting the location dimensions and appearance of artifacts) in my sleep now.
When we started to excavate I had the pleasure of being the first one to be put on a feature which was given a not so appropriate name by us students, which I will shorten to “the cluster” for professional purposes. It seemed at first to be a very non-interesting little pile of stones. As it turned out this pile of stones would have multiple perplexing surprises to reveal. When we began working, we quickly discovered that this feature extended into the east baulk which required me to pickaxe and trowel for almost two full days. After clearing the dirt away we discovered that the burial extended about a meter and a half past the original pile of rocks and was unique in that it had a tube like structure called an Imbuto tube built from curved tiles (imbrex tiles) in its Western most ends. The interesting part about this tube was that it had a lead artifact within it, which looked to be some form of strainer. It was hypothesized that this tube could have been used to pour libations into the grave and the strainer was incorporated to possibly keep out the dregs from the wine. Below is a picture of the imbuto tube after the stones around it were removed.
Now, as I said previously there was a lot of features that needed to be excavated and thus volunteers and students were split up into about four groups which were co-ordinated and led by Doctor Prowse and the site supervisors. These groups were made randomly and people from every group would get rotated to a new feature every couple of days to ensure that people got a fuller experience. However to my dismay it meant I was switched from my beloved feature and was not able to excavate the imbuto tube which went down several feet. I was put on feature 342 which in many ways was just as exciting as my other feature. It was a cappucina atop a pit burial which was lined with stones and tiles on the side which were interlocked with little to no spaces in between. While I was working on this feature I was introduced to my first ancient Roman skeleton! It was truly a surreal feeling unearthing a human being who would have lived in the ancient period and who unlike any artifact had their own family, experiences, and emotions. It was for this reason that I was very careful and respectful as I worked on the legs and articulated the feet, while the rest of the students worked on the upper body.
I was moved to several different features shortly after feature 342 and I began to notice a trend had started to develop. It seemed as if every time I moved new artifacts were found in my previous location, which several of my friends never failed to poke fun at. For example feature 342 yielded a Roman coin right by the feet where I had been working the day before. Similarly as soon as I had been moved from another feature which I had helped sketch and clean it yielded bronze belt buckle, and in fact many of the students had begun to find significant artifacts all around the trench except me ,yet somehow just being around these finds still left me exhilarated. However when I got back to trench 333 or as I have introduced it “The Cluster” I made my very best case to be allowed to see it to the end, and they obliged (likely because they felt bad for the cursed one). As it turned I was very lucky to be on “The Cluster” for the last week and a half as it was the feature that kept on giving. It started out looking like it could be a pit burial with many layers of rocks. It was also thought to be a cremation burial for some time as past Imbuto tubes usually correlated with cremations. We were surprised to find out it out it was neither because as we dug down we found four layers of rocks followed by a cappucinna tomb. In removing the tiles and troweling down to find not one but several artifacts and a very large robust skeleton was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. The skeleton was covered by tiles which had collapsed over time, in turn crushing the skull but simultaneously preserving the artifacts and the rest of the body very well. My prize find was a bronze wine vessel which looked to be decorated little Medusa heads on the handles. The other artifacts included two clay pots, a coin, and a tiny glass vessel. Below is a picture of the bronze vessel that we found.
Below is a picture of "the cluster" before the burial tiles were removed.
Overall the excavation at Vagnari was a truly amazing experience with an even better team. I recommend this site for anyone that is interested in firsthand experience with skeletal remains, artifacts, and learning the many nuances of the archaeological process. Doctor Prowse of McMaster University, Liana Brent of Yale University and Marissa Ledger of Cambridge University were extremely knowledgeable in the field of bio-archaeology and are some of the most patient and good natured people I have ever known. I am so thankful that I was able to be a part of this incredible excavation and the many friends I made throughout its duration. Below is the beautiful view of the valley below Vagnari which we got to look at everyday.