Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
The Roman site at Rapolt sits on top of a plateau called “La Vie,” which is east of a magnificent andacite rock outcrop called Magura Uroiului, or simply Uroi Hill. The village of Rapoltu Mare is just 10 minutes’ walk from the plateau’s corn field. Every day, as we hike up to the site and back after digging, we would meet the same wonderful people from Rapolt, greeting us and occasionally try to start a conversation. Sometimes the conversations we started would continue in the evening, as we visit the local bar and play backgammon or chess.
The site we hike to is called a Roman villa rustica or country estate. Test trenches from past seasons found Palmyran glassware and a stylus, or writing utensil, which suggests that this villa rustica perhaps housed a rich and cultured family. This season, after having surveyed the plateau using GPR (ground penetrating radar), it seems that this so-called villa rustica may be much more than a rich residential-agricultural estate. The exterior walls delineate a roughly 100m x 100m square complex that is oriented north with military accuracy. Along the western exterior wall, a series of interconnected structures seem to form an almost palace-like compound that has a length of almost 100 meters north-south and 40 meters east-west. There is also the possibility of guard towers along the eastern and southern exterior walls, but this requires excavation to confirm. Furthermore, there have been discoveries of Roman floor tiles with imprinted caligae, or shoe nails, typically found on the bottom of a legionary’s shoe, suggesting that there was considerable military involvement in the construction process. What is somewhat odd is that no tiles or bricks are found to be stamped with seals of the institution or household that manufactured them, contrary to common practice. This combination of military involvement, along with the size of the walled space and interlocking nature of the buildings enclosed within the exterior wall, suggest that the Roman complex may have functions that could be associated with defense and administration, instead of being the residence of someone of considerable importance.
I was happy to learn how to use the total station and to use GPR, which is especially exhilarating because one could be able to see instant feedback once the reflected electromagnetic radiation is received and processed. It was also particularly exciting to be able to complete the most surprising section of the Roman complex, namely the western exterior wall and the plateau-like buildings associated with it. The excavation work itself is also full of pleasant surprises. While digging in the northwestern-most trench, near some Roman Period foundation walls, I came across a concentration of finds below the Roman level. The feature included bones, bits of mud brick, and pottery sherds that led archaeologists from the Deva Museum to believe these may represent a much earlier settlement of the neolithic Starčevo-Criș culture. Also, when cleaning through the rubble, I came across some fragments of painted plaster that seem to be edges of a figural wall painting. The most exciting find for me is perhaps the discovery of the collapsed second floor of the exterior south wall building. The figure-eight tesserae (mosaic tiles) are all still tightly fitted together, clearly burnt. Many figure-eight tesserae were found in the past three seasons, but it was not until this season that such interlocked flooring has been found.
Besides excavation and survey, I was able to visit some of the Roman and Dacian sites in the vicinity of Rapolt. The one that I will remember forever is Micia Castrul, or simply “little fort,” located in Vetel, a village west of the city of Deva. The site is visible on Google maps, but the excavated foundations and walls of this fort and the civilian settlement that developed around it have now been covered by vegetation. A taxi driver from Deva kindly agreed to help me get there. What is interesting is that upon hearing that my destination is a Roman site, he seems to think that Micia Castrul must be a properly maintained and accessible tourist location, and insisted on driving me to the site proper instead of dropping me off nearby. After half an hour of braving through muddy trails and tall grass, he was finally convinced that I was right: I need to walk there myself.
Our selfie is still one of my most cherished moments.