All in a Day’s (or Week’s) Work

I owe everyone a small apology for being relatively silent this past week. It has been filled with challenges paired with rewards and motivations; not the least of which has been limited internet access and over 90°F heat throughout the workday. I felt like Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty hiking through the Himalayas making oxygen choices: I had to make some data choices with my Google Fi plan, and watching Game of Thrones was non-negotiable. (Spoiler Alert: One doesn’t simply leave a cult of assassins. What kind of operation is Jaqen H’ghar running?!)

On Monday, we moved to our new accommodation in Mirabella Eclano, a town in the mountains of Avellino, Italy, Northeast of our original site near Somma-Vesuvius. We are staying in the town’s primary school and the teachers and staff have graciously welcomed us into their space. Apolline Project participants will be alternating between here and the accommodations in Pollena Trocchia between program blocks (at the end of every 2 weeks).

The town of Mirabella Eclano is a little unusual compared to my experiences in suburban and rural Italy. The town is commercially and economically upbeat and the townspeople are bright and welcoming. They are very excited to host us at their beautiful and massive archaeological site (Aeclanum, for which the town derives its name). The last time this site was excavated was in the 1980’s, and while the visible remains of the site are not insignificant and worthy of local pride, I imagine the town’s citizens are happy to build expand their local heritage. I also have to mention that they are probably very excited to see a large group of young adults from around the world flooding their town; often, young people leave these towns for the larger urban centers of Italy because of the millenial-friendly amenities (and money) they have to offer. Whatever the cause, our presence has stirred up a buzz.

Continuing with cheap apiary metaphors, we’ve been quite the busy bees on site. The archaeological site has a long history extending back to the neighbors of the Romans, the Samnites in the 3rd century BC according to ancient sources. In 80 BC, the settlement was partially destroyed by Roman dictator Sulla (an interesting character if you have the opportunity to read his biography by Plutarch). Later, it was colonized by the Romans and the site is also associated with a colony re-established by Roman emperor Hadrian (first half of the 2nd century AD).

The site (and the modern town) straddles the ever important Via Appia, a main artery for commerce, transportation, and communication between various settlements in central and southern Italy and Rome itself. This prominent position as a waypoint along that path presumably allowed the town to capitalize on trade and shelter for a lengthy Appian trip, as well as act as an interface between the rural hinterland and urban living. The site has been excavated intermittently from as far back as the mid-1800’s through the 1980’s, although none of these excavations have revealed the full extent of the settlement. This specific point has our project director, Ferdinando, practically salivating (and he can’t be blamed, this site is any archaeologist ‘s dream opportunity).

Our Project Director, Ferdinando de Simone excited to lead us on a tour of Aeclanum.

Ferdinando leading students on a site tour, sharing his hesitations about the interpretation of a structure as a bathhouse to the north of the site.

The scenic view from the promontory of the site.

Given the dearth of publications about the site, the project has opted to commence excavation in 3 trenches that will serve multiple purposes: ascertaining the extent of previous archaeological activities on site; challenge some previously established (and tenuous) interpretations of visible remains; and finally, uncover facilities that undoubtedly existed at Aeclanum in antiquity but haven’t been uncovered to date.

With those objectives in mind, fellow Trench Supervisor Justin and I have been assigned to investigate an area next to an Imperial-period Nymphaeum, or an ornate publicly-visible fountain (think the Trevi Fountain in Rome as a modern example). We’ve been tasked with establishing the relationship between this facility and the rest of the settlement, as nymphaea aren’t normally independent structures. Ferdinando supposes that, being nymphaea are often public facilities, it may neighbor the Forum.

Mine and Justin's trench before we sunk our trowels in.

During past excavation activities, a statue of Marcus Aurelius was found, and the stratigraphic profile left in the bulks (walls) of the trench indicates not only modern but also ancient and medieval back-filling had occurred in the space. What does this mean for us? Not a whole lot right now, other than we must dig through a lot of soil before we hit Roman archaeological layers.

So what did we accomplish over the past week? I can guarantee that mine and Justin's worker drones were kept occupied(on it with the bee metaphors, seriously). The first two days were spent doing two very important things: cleaning off the stratigraphic section preserved in two different sections of the trench’s bulk; and clearing the topsoil and “cleaning layer” or the loose soil and debris deposited since the last excavation mixed with roots from overgrowth. These steps are important for understanding what to expect as we begin to excavate, and for establishing a beginning layer for stratigraphic excavation (that is, digging down layer by layer in the reverse order in which the soil and the artifacts it contains have been deposited).

Our team working to clean the bulk profile and clear the topsoil.

The finished product of our first two day's efforts.

We found some very exciting finds in the topsoil and the underlying clay deposit, but unfortunately, those finds don’t have much by way of historical or stratigraphic value, as they were presumably deposited with a backfill soil that does not chronologically correspond to their period of origin and use.

One of our "special finds" (what we call unique or rare artifacts we find doing excavation): a game piece used for a Roman version of checkers.

A bronze earring found in the context immediately below the topsoil.

Below these initial layers, we found a challenging stratigraphic scenario: two separate contexts side by side, separated by a bright white almost concrete strip down the middle. After much confusion, by Friday morning we concluded that one of these was a medieval “pounded floor” and the other was loose soil with fragments of building material. Next week, we’ll continue excavating the latter, working from the known to better understand the unknown.

We concluded the week with trench tours, where our other two supervisors, Marcus and Allan have been excavating separate areas that we believe to have been the location of spaces for a bath complex on a hillside.

Our Field Director, Santa Sannino thanking all of the participants and supervisors for a productive week.

I’ll be passing my weekend with a quick weekend hop through Rome before returning to Aeclanum Monday morning. More to come!

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