Most of my summers have been spent working in research laboratories, but this year I left the bench to do some literal dirty work on an archaeological dig. I went to Italy as part of a field school to excavate a bath in the Roman city of Carsulae, located on the Via Flaminia, a trade route connecting Rome to the Adriatic. The city had a forum, a large arch, two temples, an amphitheater, and two necropolises in addition to the baths on the southern border. The baths had been previously excavated from the 1950s to the 1970s, but then abandoned until 2005. The roofs and most of the above-ground architecture of the baths are no longer standing, although three main rooms and various furnaces have been identified from the remaining structures. The goal of the current excavation is to expose the remaining parts of the building to the foundation level to prepare the structure for conservation.
Carsulae is in Umbria, about an hour and a half north of Rome and about five minutes from the town of San Gemini where I stayed during the dig. San Gemini is a very tiny medieval town with a center square for social gatherings, which, due to its proximity to Carsulae, is full of “borrowed” Roman-era columns and decorative stones. It does have a Roman-era interior which is where the lab for recording and conserving the different finds from the dig was located. The town’s placement near the top of the mountain gave us a beautiful view of the bigger city of Terni below, as well as the neighboring mountain town of Cesi and the Apennine mountain range. We arrived when the blooming linden trees filled the entire town with their sweet smell. Compared to other digs, we got to live in the lap of luxury – we had an air-conditioned hotel with working showers and three very delicious meals served to us every day. In addition, our site had a roof so we didn’t have to bake in the sun, although our first week saw far more yard work than digging.
The site hadn’t been excavated in two years, so the architecture was covered with tarps and sandbags and was completely overrun by plant life. Our first order to duty was to mow the grass as close to the ground as possible, which ended up being much harder than initially expected as it turned out the grass was full of hidden stinging nettles, thistles, large hissing beetles, and a thorny blackberry bush. We spent most of the first two days tackling the not-so-friendly flora and fauna armed with only a few hand clippers, a scythe, and one very dull sickle so rusty it looked like it had just been pulled out of the dirt at the site. By the third day we admitted defeat and negotiated with the Italian Guardians that run the archaeological park to bring in a lawn mower and a weed whacker to clear the brush. There was a collective cheer when we heard the tractor with the equipment coming down to the site.
Fortunately for us, we still had plenty of grunt work to keep us occupied. We spent the rest of week one hauling sandbags and tarps out of what lovingly became known as “the pit.” Since most of the site’s architecture was below ground we had to crawl down the face of a cliff to get into the center of the bath to remove everything. What is left of the bath is the lower foundation of the hypocaust, which had a lot of pillars to support the upper floor and leave a space where hot air from the various furnaces at the site could be pumped underneath the floors to heat the bath. That was great for the Romans but not so great for the future archeologists playing a game of field twister trying to avoid knocking over pillars and crumbling walls to retrieve tarps and broken sand bags. Once the ruins were uncovered our job was to clean up the dirt and mud that had washed in over the winter with our trusty brushes and dustpans. The rest of our time was spent waiting for meetings with the architectural conservators and various engineers to discuss plans for the conservation and continued excavation of the site. By the end of our first week, we were excited to scrub out the dirt ingrained in our skin and spend our weekend traveling around the country.
The second week of the dig opened with a misty morning and exciting news for the dig team. Since we cleared out the tarps and sandbags the week before, we finally got our chance to start digging. Everyone was paired up in teams of two and assigned a square to work in for the next few weeks. The excavated section of the bath has three rooms surrounded by various furnaces. The western half of the bath had a large apse with what looks like a large furnace attached to the biggest room. Next to that was a room similarly sized with a large bricked-up furnace attached to it and on the other side of this middle room was an even smaller room with more bricked-up furnaces. It is assumed that the largest room was the calendarium (hot room), followed by the tepidarium (warm room), and then the frigidarium (cold room). Across the three rooms was a mosaic floor that sat on pillars above the hypocaust; however, this floor suffered major damage that caused it to completely break into large chunks in certain areas so that the bottom-most floor tiles of the hypocaust were exposed. My particular square was right in the center of the tepidarium, which had the most damage to the floor. It was rather cramped because it was hemmed in on both sides by large chunks of mosaic floor (and when I say large I mean the size of a person) that had toppled over around a center open section where we were supposed to be digging.
By day two, we were given pick axes, trowels, brushes, buckets, and dust pans and sent down into the pit. Any dreams of being Indiana Jones started to dry up after a few days of digging and only one very dirty Band-Aid from a previous dig season to show for it, but never fear, broken mosaic floor means many loose tesserae (the tiles in the mosaic). Our first tesserae set off a mini-pit party that consisted of very cramped and careful dancing but by the
end of the week the buckets full of the little guys quickly turned our celebrations south. In addition to the tesserae, we also started to unearth chunks of cocciopesto (the medium which the tesserae were bound to form the mosaic) which we were not allowed to step on lest they hold an intact upside down mosaic underneath making a small space even smaller. Needless to say, we got very close, literally and metaphorically, over the next couple of weeks.
Week two also marked the start of our lab sessions. Every day after digging, we would go back to town to clean and preserve our finds in the lab as well as file the copious amounts of paperwork that accumulated during the day. Unlike a shiny science laboratory stocked with fancy equipment, our lab was in the basement of a school building and our equipment of choice was a toothbrush and bucket full of water. Remember those buckets full of tesserae? It turns out you have to clean each one of the pieces – by hand. While we grumbled over our developing dishwasher hands, some of the other squares had more luck and found things like wooden Roman dice, bricks with imprints of animal prints, pottery sherds, and Roman glass. In addition to our cleaning sessions, we also had lectures from the site’s conservator who went over how different techniques and materials could be used for preserving artifacts in the field and the lab.
Whitehead, Jane K., ed. “Excavations of the Baths at Roman Carsulae (Italy).” Excavations of the Baths at Roman Carsulae. Accessed August 31, 2016. http://ww2.valdosta.edu/~jwhitehe/Carsulaeweb/Carsulae_home.htm.