The Gabii Project

Three students from Carleton are participating in the Gabii Project, an excavation of a town 18 km East of Rome. Originally a town of the Latial culture from about the 10th century BCE, it eventually came under Roman control and then fell into decline starting in the 1st century CE.

Morgan - The Value of Patience

If I have learned one thing on this trip it is the value of patience for the art of archeology. Regardless of what part of the archeological process one is involved in, it seems that a slow, methodical approach is best, as is a willingness to check and double check all finds and decisions.

For example, out in the field, the process on cleaning, sketching, photographing, excavating, sieving and documenting each take their toil on one's mind, slowly eroding ones patience just as they themselves scrap away the earth. Finicky tabletini, the threat of heat stroke and dehydration compound this plodding methodology to the excruciating. Worst of all, if one begins to slowly succumbs to exhaustion or irritation it merely helps to compound their mistakes leading to the need of corrections and time wasted. Thus is one of the greatest paradoxes of the archeology revealed. It is only by going slowly that one can complete their work quickly and efficiently.

The finds lab, as well, serves as a good example of the slow pace. Whether it's cleaning, sorting, labeling, or sketching pottery, bone, tile, plaster and more everything is better, easier, and rather paradoxically quicker, if done slowly. Just as out in the field a calm and patient demeanour seems to serve one well, minimizing errors while maximizing the chances at a lucky discovery.

When I first stepped off the bus and crossed the ridge which overlooks Gabii I hadn't the faintest idea of what I was doing or what was in store for me. Now I know well the basics of the various minor labours which archeology entails just as I feel I now understand, at least more, the nature of the endless puzzle which is human history. As I look into the future I can only hope that my patience will continue to serve me and my colleagues as we continue the often gruelling process of excavation and documentation, Just as it served the various teachers who have to deal with me every day, after all I still have much to learn.

Morgan - Collaboration & Archeology

Another important aspect of the work at Gabii is the collaboration one witnesses every single day whether they are working out in the field excavating, photographing and measuring with Topo Team, or in one of the many labs.

As one might expect with a dig site the size of Gabii, many of the faces one can see are experts in their own unique field of study. This is key to the teamwork which is essential to the work there. Many times have I found myself studiously washing pottery only to find something strange which is, in turn, quickly carried away to one of the many supervisors who happen to be experts on that very thing. This collective hive of knowledge helps to expodite the excavations at Gabii greatly as there always seems to be an expert both able and willing to discuss a "special" find at length close at hand.

Similarly, teamwork is essential to work in the field, especially noticable during the expansion of the drainage channel in Area D which I witnessed first hand throughout the past week. Work that might have taken days for a lone worker or more disorganized group was completed quickly and efficiently by constantly switching teams using picks, shovels, buckets and wheelbarrows. That said, collaboration aids in the efficiency of regular excavation as well, allowing the dividing of various tedious tasks among multiple people. An easy example of this would be during documentation when a group of three and complete the sketching, paper work, and labeling of sorted bags in a fraction of the time it would takes a lone archeologist.

Perhaps it is in fact little surprise that collaboration is so useful in the study of the past. After all, the world is so massive and the past so lengthy that it would be impossible for a single person to learn it all. All I know for sure is that I am glad to have had the chance to work on a site as rich in history as Gabii and meet and make friends with some of the great people who work there.

Ryan - Gabii at a Glance

When I first heard about the archaeological field school at Gabii, the images and scenarios that came to mind were pretty typical; dirt, pickaxes, and pottery. I’ve never been on an archaeological dig before so these all seemed like fairly logical assumptions. As far as the fundamentals go I was pretty spot on.

                The field, or the trench as some call it, is the manual labour portion of the archaeological process. In my experience the procedure of excavation begins with cleaning a layer to distinguish a stratigraphic unit or SU (usually with a trowel and brush). An SU is basically anything that can be classified as a specific action that has taken place in the past. For example walls constructed, cuts in the bedrock, layers deposited within a posthole, or, as we are all too familiar with in area F, 30 year old backfill. SUs are usually excavated with trowel again, or with pickaxe and shovel depending on what the specific feature is. All in all, whether you spend the day picking through layers of collapse, moving layers of backfill, or slowly excavating a more delicate layer with a trowel, field work is vigorous and exhausting (especially in 38 degree weather). However, at the end of the day when looking back over all that was accomplished, that newly exposed drainage feature, or that ever growing spoil heap, the hard work seems more than worth it.

                The physical labour portion of working in the field was what I expected when I first enrolled at Gabii, and believe me; I have not been disappointed in that respect. However, there are aspects of the field school that I had not expected. By that I mean data entry and interpretation. Part of the archaeological process is obviously recording excavation methods and documenting what has been found. At Gabii however, there is a clash of civilizations when it comes to this task. As one group is hard at work unearthing ancient features another is busy using touch screen tablets to input all of the information into the Ark, the online database at Gabii. What I find most exciting about data entry is that we (the students) actually get to input our own interpretation regarding the archaeological significance of the SU; this was not something I expected to find here. The experience of writing our own archaeological interpretations of what has been found is an invaluable asset to enhance our immersion in the archaeological field. 

                All in all my time spent at Gabii can be described as a wealth of learning opportunities. Both the physical work in the field and the recording side to the archaeological profession has provided me with the chances to try out a new field. Despite the exhaustion at the end of the day I look forward to seeing what the coming weeks will bring; both personal growth, academic advancement, and of course what will be uncovered. 

Ryan - A look back at Gabii


     This year’s field school has come to a close, and looking back at the season there are many things to say. First and foremost, GPR 15 was a huge success! Area C has uncovered some really valuable information and is patiently waiting for further excavation next year, and area D is closed after making some significant discoveries about Iron Age Gabii. Finally, Area F where I was working is also closed after large amounts of digging in three areas (rooms 20, 21, 22) and work being done to a lesser extent in two locations (room 8, and the Eastern limit bulk). In F many interesting features were found such as our elaborate drainage system and numerous cassetta were filled with all sorts if interesting finds, some so cool they didn’t quite fit (sorry finds friends).

     As hard as the work was at Gabii we never failed to enjoy every second of it. We would be picking through layers of collapse, be shoulder deep in a cut in bedrock, or giving a layer a quick brush and still smiling and laughing. Sometimes we’d discuss how Sabian finds so many coins and settle on the fact that he’s a 2000 year old vampire. We’d laugh at Jason’s nightmares of Gabii’s dinosaur mounted demise, or theorize that the Mounties rode with Sextus Tarquinius after finding a piece of pottery with “eyy” scratched on it. The people I got to meet both at Gabii in general and area F specifically were great and I couldn’t have asked for a better crew to have spent the last 5 weeks with.

     Between the laughs I managed to learn a great deal about archaeology. I learned excavation techniques, SU identification, data entry, and interpretation. But that’s all fieldwork I commented on in my last post. Outside of the field were three labs we all rotated through that work on providing a deeper understanding to what comes out of the field. In the finds lab we were taught how to identify different types of pottery and date the specific style to a certain period of time. We also learned how to take a small piece of diagnostic pottery (rims, bases, or handles) and use it to sketch the entirety of the ceramic it once was. In doing this we can determine what a room/area was used for and sometimes pinpoint a fairly specific time frame for that SU. Then, in the environmental labs we learned about different environmental factors in relation to Gabii. In Zooarchaeology we learned how to identify the bones of different animals and in Archeobotany we floated dirt to find charred remains of seeds that ancient people would have used for planting.

     All in all the previous five weeks have been one of the greatest experiences I can imagine. Through the Gabii Project I spent a month in Rome surrounded by beautiful architecture and entirely engulfed in history. I have gained priceless knowledge about a fascinating profession, and have been privileged enough to spend that time with a group of people I will not soon forget. 

Martha - Teamwork: a byword for Gabii

Two busy weeks have passed now at Gabii and we are seeing noticeable results across the entire site. The trench tours this past Friday really helped to illustrate how our hard work is paying off. In Area F there were more exciting architectural revelations – who knew you could get so excited about a drainage feature! Area D impressed with postholes a-plenty, and Area C, my area, is finally almost done with our giant SU (stratigraphic unit) 2385 and we found Gabii’s first piece of “erottery” (erotic pottery). Impressive results after only two weeks, it will be exciting to see what is revealed at the end of the season if this is what we have now!


Now to reflect on the minutiae of my personal experience of the past two weeks, besides a brief bout of illness that kept me off-site for a few days this past week, I have had the opportunity to experience each area of the project. From sorting pottery in the Finds Lab with Laura and her lovely assistants, learning all about floatation in Archaeobotany with Laura and Katherine, finding some human baby bones in Zooarchaeology with Francesca, and moving a whole lot of dirt out in the field with Troy and our awesome team of assistants and interns, each experience has taught me a lot. In the Finds Lab I learned I have a bit of a knack for identifying pottery and a sharp eye for spotting bits of bone (make sure you do not drop bones or plaster in the wash basins!), in Archaeobotany I learned how to do floatation and my first SU sample was full of seeds and charcoal, resulting in a very satisfying first go of things – thanks Area D! Zooarchaeology was fascinating and when we had the opportunity to sort through bones from this year we discovered human baby bones, and based on the measurements these two (or possibly three) babies were either still born or died in the first month of life, a sad discovery but an interesting one amongst the plethora of sheep, pig, and cow bones. Finally, being out in the field has been an experience and an education in, well, dirt. Area C is lagging behind in the SU count compared to Areas D and F, but what we do have is some really interesting dirt, and to be clear, I am not being facetious. We have been excavating large expanses which were backfilled in 2011 and have not been touched since and in doing so we are revealing the floor (or floor prep) of a large room in the Southern portion of our trench, an activity which has involved moving a lot of dirt and I mean A LOT. We have all quickly become proficient pick-axers, shovelling stars, and we have all been able to skip the gym thanks to our many trips to the spoil heap with dirt-laden wheelbarrows.


While I thought I would be able to easily pick a favourite post, each area has provided me with an exciting rotation and the people who work in each area have made my time at Gabii thus far a truly memorable experience. Finds is so satisfying, especially when we were able to partially reconstruct a large clay pot, and the whole crew gets so excited about their work that you can’t help but get excited too. Archaeobotany takes patience but can also be an absolute treat because floatation definitely helps you beat the heat, and Katherine’s delight at finding an intact bean is a joy to behold. Zooarchaeology with Francesca was a great experience; she puts all those TV osteologists to shame. I finally understand how people can look at a bone and just know what it is, and it is perhaps even more impressive now that I have had a chance to try it myself (it is not as easy as it looks). Never to be forgotten is the field crew, we have moved mountains (of dirt) together, we have scraped, brushed, picked, and shovelled to the point where we all have a nice set of blisters/callouses that we sport with pride. This group encourages each other, keeps each other safe and hydrated, and this group talks, grazie Arianna for the impromptu Italian lessons! We always keeping each other laughing and smiling throughout the hot gruelling days in the field and if the heat gets to be too much Troy is there with the save (also known as potato chips, salt is important!) and when you think you have had enough a guest excavator pops in and gives the group a burst of energy (thanks Ivano, Laura, Anna, and Marcello).


The past two weeks have been an experience, and perhaps what I have learned more than anything is the importance and power of teamwork. Archaeology takes a special kind of person, you have to be smart, motivated, but most importantly you have to be a team player. The past two weeks have shown me that each person at Gabii is a just that. 

Martha - If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you

When I first heard about Gabii from project veteran and this year’s Director of Finds Laura Banducci, I was hooked. I knew right away that I wanted to be a part of this dynamic project. From past discoveries like the lead burrito man to the monumental architecture in Area F, I knew that whatever I ended up doing this summer I wanted to be at Gabii. So it was that I came to the Gabii Project with high expectations and though Area C where I was working did not have finds of either kind mentioned above, we still had some of the most complex and exciting stratigraphy that had been seen on site, some beautiful walls, and ceramic discoveries that were a first for the project – quite a resume if I do say so myself!

Area C has become like family, we mix and mingle working on a variety of projects, always supporting and encouraging each other, and we are led by an amazing group of supervisors. Troy has been a beacon on site, guiding our area through hot days of moving LOTS of dirt by teaching us the right way to toss a shovelful of soil, being our documentation guru, and even on occasion swinging up a pick axe to show us how its really done; today may have had some of the best pick axing I have had the pleasure of witnessing (S/O to Giulia too)! Arianna has been a constant source of energy and encouragement, not to mention our resident Italian tutor and her sense of humour has on more than one occasion kept us all from going insane as we worked through the hottest July that Italy has seen in over 150 years! Giulia, dearest Giulia, the supervisor I have spent the most time working with and often one-on-one, I can credit her with much that I have learned in the field, perhaps most importantly how to read and understand the stratigraphy. Under Giulia’s guiding hand I was able to learn that understanding a change in the dirt is a multi-sensory process; you can see a change in colour or composition, you can hear and feel a change in compaction. I went from week one, glibly smiling and nodding whenever a supervisor pointed out a change in the layers, to being able to independently identify and define multiple layers at once in our sloping courtyard.

I have also developed many new skills by working in the various labs on site. In zooarchaeology Francesca taught me how to identify a horse versus cow versus pig phalanges and I learned all about the bones of our favourite animal the sheep-goat, acquiring the ability to determine their age from their teeth along the way.

In finds I worked on my patience, washing cassette after cassette of pottery or in the case of SU2385, tile. I also learned how to draw, label, and identify pottery something which can be quite tricky! I was guided all the while by a great team of supervisors, Alison, Shannon and Christina definitely know their stuff and their enthusiasm for their work is contagious.

In archaeobotany I found a special niche, I learned that I actually have quite a good eye for spotting seeds, charcoal, small bones, and pretty rocks (for Katherine of course), which is also one of the only times I have ever been told my eyes were good for anything being a glasses/contact lens wearer since the age of ten. I learned the fine art of flotation from Katherine, who is responsible in large part for me falling in love with archaeobotany, her enthusiasm for these tiny but telling parts of the Gabii story was contagious. I was given a crash course in sorting heavy fraction from Diane, who has kept the days rolling with her Rolling Stones song choices. In fact, I enjoyed archaeobotany so much that I was able to take advantage of a few extra rotations to learn even more, earning some additional lessons from Laura Motta including being given the opportunity to check samples under the microscope in the lab, an experience I would not have access to at my school.

I have learned more than I thought possible at Gabii and I have everyone involved in the project to thank. This project has been a lesson in not just archaeology or Roman and Latin history, but one of teamwork, camaraderie, endurance, and the importance of a positive attitude. I may have had a slow start having been sick shortly after arrival in Italy, but I feel like I hit my stride and have perhaps even earned the right to call myself an archaeologist along with my peers. I am so proud of everything my teammates and I have accomplished, not just within Area C but also throughout the entire site and project. Gabii is a huge project, but it is one that still manages to feel small because of the friendships that develop on site, everyone knows everyone, and though we may tease each other or have the occasional trench war (kidding… sort of), we all work together to make this project what it is, a fantastic learning experience and one that I will never forget.