Happens Every Time

What a whirlwind! I’m writing this post after finally making it home to Baltimore from a tiny detour in Rome and, before that, blazing all around the island-nation of Cyprus, where visits and trips included places like the Cyprus American Archaeological Institute (CAARI), and the ancient sites of Kourion and Paphos. These were all after a crazy week and a half of helping my undergraduate mentor, Pamela Gaber, wrap up her final season (of excavation) at Idalion. To my readers, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! I’ve been so engrossed in everything around me this season that I barely had a moment to think about what to write, much less had the time to actually write. That being said, now that I’ve finished my field report for my trench at Aeclanum, I can at least manage to tell you all about my last couple of weeks with the Apolline Project at Aeclanum.

It seems to be tradition during every archaeological field season that the most interesting developments in the trench occur within the last two weeks. It happens every damned time! My team and trench were no exception to this rule.

The first week of the final block (that is our second to last week) was spent blasting through layer after layer in the southwest extension of our trench. Bendinando (the new moniker our directors, Ben and Ferdinando) had given us a mandate to get to the level of the collapsed wall as quickly and efficiently as possible. After all, the extension we were digging in was made so that we could explore below the wall collapse. Thus far, we’d spent all our time working through plow-zone and agricultural accumulation well above the collapse. A remark had been made about how, had we not reached the collapse soon, our season would amount to the archaeological equivalent of coitus interruptus. Perhaps a little dramatic, but we did want to actually learn something new from our work this season.

The layer of yellow silty fill above the collapse itself turned out to be thick, in some places over 30cm. The finds that were coming out of this context were particularly interesting too. We recovered a lot of little glass tesserae, which, make up the more colorful and attractive elements of mosaics. Some examples of these beautiful compositions can be found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and they contrast against the more common black and white mosaics like those you’d see at Ostia, the port town just outside of Rome. We also found a lot of glass slag, a byproduct of making glass. Together, these elements might suggest that glass was being made in the area. Finding such an area would add to our knowledge about industry and economics at Aeclanum and in the region. Unfortunately, we were finding this evidence above the collapse, so we can’t claim that was what was occurring in the building before it collapsed. Nevertheless, the findings would seem to suggest that the were certainly occurring somewhere on site.


A small consolation for not having reached the collapse came with all the great artifacts that we were recovering. Here’s Ginny with a great rim and shoulder she found.

By Wednesday, we had reached the scattered rubble material from the collapsed wall itself. Our predictions about the condition of the wall in the trench extension were accurate. We were digging in an area where the collapse was not as well preserved. The pieces of the collapsed wall were jumbled and scattered; therefore, were under significantly less pressure to preserve the elements of the collapse and we actually had less difficulty digging through it, which was nice given that by the time we finally reached it, we had less than a week and a half left of the season.

On Thursday, we hosted another public archaeology event, opening our weekly Trivia night to the community. I may or may not have had some experience from my college days putting together a decent party or two with my fraternity brothers, and one of the ways we new the night was a success was by how many laughs we had over the stories from the night before and how slow everyone was moving the next day. Let’s say that I don’t think I’ve laughed so much and seen a team of field students move so slow. We owe a huge thanks to Michelangelo, the Genzale family, and everyone at Filiberto’s for making it a success. After a nail-biting quadruple overtime tie-breaker between my trench and a team from Mirabella, the locals won a round of drinks on us! Some of you might be asking, “What does a trivia night at a bar have to do with public archaeology?” Well, one of the objectives of the Apolline Project’s public archaeology initiative is help bridge the gap between the visiting students and staff of the excavation and the local community. Doing regular, casual activities like Trivia help to make our presence more welcome while also engaging our students and staff with the local culture and social scene. I definitely want to do it again next season!

Smiles all around as some of the questions drew a chuckle and the homemade Sangria kept flowing!
Enzo translated questions into Italian for us.
Towards the end, deliberation over answers got intense!

The next week, we got back into the trench to finally explore beneath the collapse. What we found was surprisingly not the floor of the structure…at least not right away. Instead we found four separate contexts piled up beneath the fallen wall. Each context suffered from a dearth of artifacts, although one of the contexts contained evidence of a smaller roof collapse that had occurred. There were also some larger patches of fresco lying face down in the soil, the result of slowly deteriorating indoor decorations. Together, these pieces of evidence point to the structure having been abandoned before the collapse ever occurred.

After removing the accumulation of abandonment material, we finally reached something that kind of  looked like a floor. I am only a little disappointed to report that what was left of the floor, at least in the tiny area we were excavating, was the mortar preparation layer, one broken brick floor tile, and a large travertine stone used as a threshold. It’s good that we reached this level, although its revelation only left us itching to reveal and learn more about the actual occupation of the structure. We needed to reduce the amount of space we were digging in to a meter wide area because time was running out before the end of the season.

The other area that received a lot of attention from the Saggio 8 team was the east corner of the trench. By digging in that area, we had already determined that the space to the east of the wall was outside of the structure. We wanted to continue excavating so that we could learn more about the construction of the wall and the space outside of it. We had left off earlier in the season having gotten through the jumbled elements of the collapse that fell on the opposite side of the wall. What lay below was a darker color silty clay with a mix of components and artifacts that were much more beaten and weathered than some of the materials we recovered from above. The layer was thick and covered an anomalous concentration of compact sterile yellow sand. This kind of layer was like something you’d expect to have been deposited to level out the ground or serve as preparation for a pavement. There was an unusual circular cut in the corner of the context, filled by a matrix  that was essentially the same as the material from above the yellow sand. This arrangement got us thinking, and then it became clear that the foundation for the wall was also…lacking.

After some consideration of the stratigraphic sequence, it became clear that there was robbing activity perpetrated likely by people from late antiquity. They must have come to remove elements of the pavement outside of the wall, as well as the masonry and mortar from the foundation of the wall itself. This kind of activity was common for the period, as procurement of new building materials was hampered by the state of the economy and the shift in settlement and use dynamics for urban spaces. In plainer English: the economy of the Mediterranean, starting as early as the 3rd century AD was strained by the weakness of imperial administration and incursions by foreign invaders. Lifestyles in cities and towns also began to change: large structures with refined decorative and architectural elements like fresh baked bricks and newly quarried marble facing became antiquated; these same materials, however, became important components in the staples of contemporary architecture. Fragmented bricks could be broken up and used in a mix with other crumbled materials to make a pavement style called cocciopesto; the burning of marble could be used to make lime, an important ingredient in concrete. Evidence for these activities is pretty ubiquitous across Aeclanum, as the settlement saw consistent occupation through Late Antiquity in to the Middle Ages.

With the excavation of those two areas, we can actually put together a pretty good picture of what happened with our collapsed wall. We know that the wall in the east corner of the trench was built using ashlar masonry (large, rectilinear-cut stones), and then rebuilt later using bricks and tiles, giving it the more familiar  brick built construction of later periods. The building was abandoned and, sometime probably in late antiquity, people came and removed elements of paving, flooring, and the foundations of the wall. Material accumulated in the interior of the structure and a piece of the roof collapsed. Finally, the wall itself collapsed, creating the primary feature of our trench. The area was then successively filled in to the level of the area, and was subjected to agricultural activity probably beginning in the Middle Ages to present.

It’s exciting when we can reconstruct a sequence of events from archaeological contexts, although we are still left with questions in Saggio 8: what was the full layout of the collapsed structure?; was it a domestic space, or perhaps was it dedicated to industrial activity?; how did this structure adjoin with the rest of the settlement plan? All of these will need to wait until next year and after some more survey work of the surrounding area is done. The project will also have to contend with the logistics of safety and the overall layout of the archaeological park; digging a massive trench over a meter deep right next to one of the walking paths will certainly be problematic and can’t just be left open for months during the off-season. Therefore, in the last few days of our time at Aeclanum, we had to cover up our work with terracloth and our trench was backfilled.

The spoil heap where we dump our sifted soil is the first source of material for backfilling.

There’s certainly something poetic about  backfilling at the end of each season; a trench is dug with lots of hard physical labor, quite literally the sweat and blood of excavators goes into revealing the secrets of the past underneath the soil. Archaeology is a destructive process; each layer we remove must be carefully recorded because it can only be dug once. Once we’ve finished digging each season, we often have to cover it all back up. The permanent mark we leave in the ground is permanently hidden, only to be revealed again if another team comes to pick up where we left off. Of course, our work results in countless hours of study and research to be published later; however, the physicality of our labor can be so easily erased, just like the layers we excavated. The end of the season is also accompanied by finalizing paperwork and writing a trench report. I spent my free time in Cyprus for the the next two weeks hammering out all of the details of our work into one synthesis that will go as the official record of our work.

Redbull, paperwork, and field notes: a summary of the last few days of any season.

All in all, I really enjoyed my trench. I enjoyed the challenges our stratigraphy presented and the discoveries we made, both artifacts and events. I’m thankful for the groups of students I had helping get through to the end and I hope they learned a lot and continue with archaeology in the future. I hope that next season we get to return to Saggio 8, going bigger, digging more, and answering the questions we’ve left for the future.

In my next post, Ill talk about my quick intermission in Rome, followed by an eye-opening two weeks in Cyprus before coming home. After that, I’ll stitch together a photo journal of the entire season to make up for the lack of visual aides I’ve provided this summer.

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