University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Megara and a Mole-Hill: Roman Villa Excavation in Transylvania – Jordan Rogers


By: Anne Tiballi

September 19, 2016

Even with training in classics and ancient history, my knowledge of the province of Roman Dacia, incorporated into the Roman Empire after Trajan’s two major campaigns in 101-2 and 105-6 CE against the Dacian king Decebalus, was partial at best before embarking on my first excavation. The lack of literary evidence concerning the campaigns, the province’s ultimately brief inclusion in the Empire (the Emperor Aurelian withdrew Roman administration from the region in 275 CE), and its peripheral location as the only Roman province across the Danube River, has led to its peripheral status in the field of ancient history. But, as I found, Roman Dacia—especially the parts of the province nestled within the Carpathian mountains—has a lot to offer.

Megara Uroilui looming in the distance. Photo by Jordan Rogers.
Megara Uroilui looming in the distance. Photo by Jordan Rogers.

It didn’t hurt that our site had a wonderful view; our western backdrop was the daunting precipice of Megara Uroilui, a former andesite quarry for both our site and those surrounding it and the tail end of the Carpathians, flanked the site from the south. The mountains were not just good for ogling—even with temperatures approaching 100 Fahrenheit, they shielded us from humidity and sent a mostly constant and cooling breeze down from their heights.

Before we broke ground, I had the opportunity to become familiar with Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), a remote survey technology used to locate subterranean features, as well as the software packages used to analyze its data. GPR proved relatively reliable in terms of locating static features (such as walls) up to a meter and a half underground, provided you are creative in interpreting the data. I was amazed when what seemed like an incomprehensible mess of signals slowly transformed into the shape of a structure; and this would be the building which we were to uncover the next week!

A view of the village of Rapoltu Mare, from the Medieval Hungarian church. Photo by Jordan Rogers.
A view of the village of Rapoltu Mare, from the Medieval Hungarian church. Photo by Jordan Rogers.

Our villa site proved to be more wealthy than I expected, although the site director, Andre Gonciar, had always had confidence in its potential. The villa structure itself was the second structure to be excavated on the site, with the first being what is most certainly a gatehouse with a beautiful, three-doored travertine threshold still intact. The gatehouse was still being excavated by a team of Romanian archaeologists while we broke ground on the villa. The Romanians were a delightful bunch who brought energy and enthusiasm to the site and to our excavation—I remember our trench making a particularly notable find, resulting in a bottle of Marius’ homemade rosewater being passed around in celebration. Of course, this was one of Marius’ many homemade concoctions, the others being not as suitable for drinking in the field.

A view of the site, from the West.
A view of the site from the west. Photo by Jordan Rogers.
This is perhaps a good time to wax poetic concerning my new favorite drink—Palinca. Almost everyone in Romania makes their own, usually out of homegrown plums, apples, or pears. The wonderful thing about palinca is that you will never taste two similar batches, as might be expected from an unregulated beverage. But the best palinca I had in Romania (and I tried a decent number of vintages) was provided at our final gathering, the last hoorah for our crew, the Romanian archaeologists, and the local villagers who were housing us. Paul, an art history professor at a university in Cluj-Napoca, brought what he described as a “rare vintage” of palinca. And oh, was the taste rare—clear as distilled water, strong as a

horse’s kick in the mouth, and spicy like a red-hot candy, that palinca still haunts my dreams. I asked Paul if he had made that batch himself, and he responded that his old friend was a “master” of palinca distillation, and drank the stuff everyday. “He’s dead now…” A long pause followed, in which we both sipped what I thought might be my death-knell. “Not from the palinca though! Ha!” Paul was a character—I think he told me and others that same story about five times that night. Dead man’s palinca, can you believe it?

A view of the villa’s western external wall in trench two, from the North. Photo by Jordan Rogers.
A view from the north of the villa’s western external wall in trench two. Photo by Jordan Rogers.

We also had the opportunity to attend a spectacle in Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana, the Roman capital of Roman Dacia, where some of our Romanian archaeologist friends participated in battle reenactments. They were even kind enough to let us try our hand at using their equipment, resulting in some very hilarious and badly performed skirmishes between us untrained archaeologists. Kids will be kids!

Roman-Dacian reenactment in the Roman provincial capital of Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana. Photo by Jordan Rogers.
Roman-Dacian reenactment in the Roman provincial capital of Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana. Photo by Jordan Rogers.
Christian, one of the reenactors, told me my head was too fat for his helmet! Photo credit: Corinne Watts.
Christian, one of the reenactors, told me my head was too fat for his helmet! Photo credit: Corinne Watts.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to experience an extended stay in such a beautiful and welcoming location. The Romanians we met were all incredibly kind and giving, even though we often could not communicate as effectively as we might have wished. Still, as a first-time excavation experience, I could not have asked for anything better; in fact, I think I might have to make fieldwork an annual undertaking, both for its restorative properties—it’s good to sweat!—and the possibilities for it to supplement my own work in architectural studies. It definitely helped that my trench mates were wonderful people and hard workers. They deserve to be mentioned. Thank you Morgan, Rachel, Rachel BA, Katie, and Miranda for making an already good experience a great one!

Trench two members. Photo Credit: Jane Sancinito.
Trench two members. Photo Credit: Jane Sancinito.

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