University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

An Excavation, An Education: My Summer at the Roman Peasant Project

September 3, 2014

This summer I was lucky enough to spend a month in the small town of Cinigiano, Tuscany excavating for the Roman Peasant Project. The project, led by its directors Kim Bowes, Cam Grey, Emanuele Vaccaro, and Mari Ghisleni, was in its sixth and final season. The goal of the project was to understand the lives and economies of the Roman peasant. The larger purpose was to comprehend the meaning of what it was to be poor in antiquity. This season we excavated a site called Tombarelle, which we believed to be a Roman village.

The pace of the project was fast and the work was hard, but it was definitely a rewarding experience. Over the course of the four weeks I worked in four different trenches. Each day brought with it a myriad of different tasks. We pickaxed, shoveled, and troweled non-stop, uncovering different contexts. I learned how to identify changes in soil and fill out context sheets. We found a large quantity of pottery sherds and animal bones. After the hours spent in the field we went back to our lab to wash and quantify our finds from the day, and to float our soil samples. As grueling and hot as some days were, I learned something new each day.

After a few days in the field I began to work closely with a recent Penn graduate, Julia Hurley, on the total station. A total station is an instrument used in surveying to measure distance and depth of points. For archaeological purposes this means that the location and size of different contexts and finds within trenches can be recorded and stored. Once collected they can be compiled in GIS software to create 3D images of our trenches. I was taught how to set up and operate the total station. By week two, while I was still working in the trenches, I was operating the total station under the supervision of Julia whenever the archaeologists needed to record points.

The findings of this season were intriguing to say the least. The scatters had led us to believe that we should have found some signs of a house or living quarters. However, we found no signs of living quarters. Often it is assumed that where a scatter exists, one would expect to find a village. Our findings dispute this assumption. Instead we found signs of productivity and disposal. One of our trenches appeared to be a giant dump, containing waste such as animal bones. Another, which contained two poorly formed walls and a floor, seemed to be a workspace of some kind. The largest quantity of pottery was found here, some in very good condition. Finally we had two more trenches that provided us with very little information regarding Roman peasant life for two very distinct reasons. One of these trenches might have been a kiln, but yielded very little material culture. The final trench of the excavation we believed to be a Roman cistern at first, but upon further examination was determined to be the foundation of a medieval tower.

The Roman Peasant Project exposed me to many new experiences and taught me many new skills. As a student of Classical Languages I was excited and intrigued by the goals of this project. The classroom creates a very limited and skewed view of Roman life. It is the material culture of the elite that commonly shapes our understanding of the classical world. The literary works that I have translated in class revolve around matters of love, family, war, politics, and empire. My education has not presented the peasant’s point of view on any of these topics. In fact their desires, concerns, and ways of life are peripheral to my own studies. The Roman Peasant Project widened my perspective.


Floatation in the rain

Floatation in the rain


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