Out of Context – The Roman Peasant Project

July 21, 2014

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I applied to be a part of the Roman Peasant Project this summer. The project, directed by Penn professors Kim Bowes and Cam Grey, seeks to investigate and understand the lifestyles of Roman peasants in rural Tuscany. (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/romanpeasants/) Although I have no experience in archeology, at the initial meeting Professor Grey said that they were looking for people who could be upbeat and singing after seven hours of digging under the hot Mediterranean sun. “I can do that!” I thought, and so I applied.

The fact that this was the sixth and final year of the project made me nervous. I knew many of the people working on the dig would already have a rapport. In addition, this being the last year meant that it was the last opportunity to discover new information about peasant life. Upon my arrival in Cinigiano, the town where the project was based, however, all my fears vanished. Everyone, both new to the project as well as veterans, was welcoming, and it was clear that this would be an environment where questions and learning were encouraged.

I won’t lie; the first day of digging was hard. Temperatures can reach the 90s in Tuscany, and I was not expecting digging to be so physically demanding. After seven hours, I was asking myself if I had made the right decision by coming on the dig. The second day turned things around for me, though. As everyone got to know each other, conversation and laughter flowed in the trench, and the physical elements of digging became easier. In addition, the work became more exciting as we started to dig up pottery and bones, and hypotheses were formed about the ways in which these peasants were living. As the dig continued, it only got better. By the end of the first week we were singing more often than not, and we easily shared the work, rotating between shoveling and picking. It was exciting working on different areas of the dig site. During the first week we uncovered what we believed to be a Roman cistern. By the end of the dig it was determined that while it had been used as a cistern in Roman times, it had likely been refurbished as the foundation of a medieval structure.

One of the big questions of the dig, and the one that I found the most fascinating, was how to define a peasant. Traditionally, a peasant is defined as a poor person situated in a rural area who owns or rents land mainly for subsistence farming. However, as we dug, we began to question whether the people whose homes we were unearthing truly fell into that definition. It was true they were farming, and they certainly lived in a rural area. However, much of the evidence suggested that they might have been much more a part of the outside world, including the outside economy, than was traditionally believed. For example, there was pottery found which was a replica of a type of pottery imported from Africa. Why, one might ask, would they have cared or even known about this imported pottery?

I wish I could say that I left a month of digging with all the answers about Roman peasant life. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I left with many more questions than answers. However, I learned a great deal from the Roman Peasant Project about archeology, research, ancient Rome, and how to be a helpful, engaged part of a team.

Digging on site!
Digging on site!