At the beginning of last week, we finally concluded digging to the bottom of our rubble context to find a “preparation layer.” While digging in a hole that was getting deeper than I am tall is my idea of a good time, both Ferdinando and the hard-packed surface of concrete stopped us from going any further. Thus, our team moved to the opposite side of the trench to explore the soil of the neighboring compacted surface and barrier. We didn’t find very much and judging from the profile to the side of the surface, we were going to find a lot more of the same. That’s about the time we knew it was time to move to greener pastures.
Ferdinando chose for us to start excavating a new trench near the private bath and domus structure closer to the uncovered portion of the ancient urban center. Our new objective is to explore the unexposed (and hopefully unexcavated) area that joins a small bath facility likely attached to a domus or Roman house. What we can already gather about the people who lived there is that, because they had a personal bath attached to their home, it was a household of significant socioeconomic means (baths aren’t cheap to build, decorate, and operate).
Beyond digging, I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit the Greco-Roman site of Paestum. I had seen pictures of friends and former digmates who had made it there, but until a few days ago, I’d never made it there myself. Of course, both my phone and camera died not long after arrival, but luckily I ran into a friendly visitor with a Nikon DSLR similar to mine and he allowed me to borrow his battery for a few pictures (I’ll get more uploaded on Instagram @thodust as I gather them all together). I also found a bar to quickly charge my phone and snap a selfie or three; neverheless: It. Was. Fantastic.
The archaeological remains that greet you immediately upon exiting the train station are imposing and well preserved. I had learned from my mistakes in Pompeii and came a little better prepared both intellectually and emotionally to absorb my surroundings. I bought a guidebook from the site museum and took the time to stop and read at each major landmark in the settlement. Here’s what I learned:
Paestum was a Greek colony founded in Magna Graecia (modern day southern Italy and Sicily) by Achaeans in the end of the 7th century BC. The inhabitants began building the massive and iconic porticoed temples to the Greek gods in the latter half of the following century, including Hera, Zeus, and Athena.
Their society also flourished, evidenced by the richly equipped and colorfully adorned graves found in the vicinity.
By 273BC, following a series of unsuccessful conflicts with the Romans, the city became a Roman colony. New construction emerged, adapting the site to fit a Roman social and spacial organizational model, including a massive Forum area and a Curia or civic assembly house where senatorial aristocrats met and made laws.
The history of the area, however, doesn’t begin with the Greco-Roman narrative in the classical period. In fact, a group known as the Gaudo culture inhabited southwestern Italy, including the area which would eventually become Paestum as early as the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic period tens of thousands of years earlier. The Americans reading might compare them to the proto-Native Americans who lived in North and South Americans as humans first settled onto those continents.
After leaving Paestum, I took the advice of a former professor, Melanie Hall, who taught museum studies at Boston University. She advised a careful and reflective lens during any museum or similar cultural heritage experience. Once your done, take a breather because the whole thing can be overwhelming and emotionally draining. And finally, have some chocolate. So naturally, I got chocolate gelato while leaving the park and did some thinking about what I’d seen and learned, and what it meant to me.
Paestum’s significance can be summarized by the theme of transitions; changes over time, yielding something new, yet familiar. Even the prehistoric material culture, the daggers and pottery, didn’t look all that different from the shapes and forms in the late-antique items I recover from the ground when I excavate in Aeclanum. Definitely not made by the same people living in the same societies, but still, there’s something kindred about what they did and how they did it.
This got me thinking about where I am and what I’ve been doing. I’m experiencing some transitions. First, I closed a trench that I’d spent more than a month and a half excavating. Two of the students I taught in that trench have been promoted and given control of their own. I’ve moved to a new trench. On a larger scale, my time at the Apolline Project is coming to an end, and soon I’ll be joining another project in Provence, France. Even bigger than that, I’m currently sitting in a space between two major moments in my career: getting my Master’s and starting my PhD. I recently left a lot behind in Boston and moved (and have yet to settle in) to a new city with an old friend and fraternity brother.
Life is constantly throwing transitions at us, challenging us to adapt to something new while maintaining the something familiar in ourselves. It’s a huge part of our existence, and the reason we’re successful as a species is because we’re kind of good at it. Just like the Gaudo, the Greeks, and eventually the Romans at Paestum, that part of Italy and the people there made vibrant lives for themselves, despite changing social, political and cultural currents. I suppose it’s my turn to embrace my personal “transitions.”