Geophysical Surveys for the Minor Centers Project

Hello! Kayt here, and this year I am finally in the field for the Day of Archaeology! I’m working with my colleagues Gijs and Tymon (who isn’t here because his third child is arriving any day now!) from the Minor Centers project at the University of Groningen in the Pontine Plain. The project is looking specifically at the role of minor central places in the economy of Roman Central Italy. You can read a lot more about the background of the project and access our fieldwork reports and papers on the project website.

We’re in Italy for a few weeks to do two things. First of all, Gijs is here with a team of student volunteers drawing and cataloging finds from fieldwalking surveys last Autumn and early this year. There is an awful lot of ceramic material associated with the sites we’re examining as part of the project, so they have a huge task! Yesterday they passed the 1,000th sherd drawn, and they still have crates and crates to process! It’s vital work though: we need a good understanding of the ceramics in order to date the sites we find, and if possible, understand their function. Sometimes we can locate sherds with a very specific purpose, like milk strainers used in cheese production. At other times we can identify production sites because we find by-products of industrial processes like iron slag or over-fired pottery that has a particular glassy surface. With a thorough understanding of the ceramic material, we can date our sites and say something about their function. If we can go one step further and identify pottery production sites and trace the clays and temper used in the pots, we can start to examine short-distance trade networks. We have a specialist joining the project in the Autumn to do just this! With all of these elements in place, we can build up a network of minor towns and road-stations trading with each other and over greater distances, and with the chronological data from the ceramics, we can examine how that network changed over time, perhaps in response to policies handed down from Rome.

Drawing progress at basecamp

Drawing progress at basecamp

I arrived two days ago with a team of topographical survey specialists from our institute to carry out a series of geophysical surveys on targets identified by the fieldwalking. The aim of our geophysical surveys is to understand the spatial limits and layout of the sites we find by fieldwalking, or that are already known from historical records and previous archaeological work. The reason we are braving almost 40 degree temperatures to do this, is because one of our key sites, Astura, lies within a major military base. We can only have access for survey in July and August, when the military (quite rightly) think it is too hot to work and go on shut-down. So we’ve been there today and yesterday. It’s painstaking work because the area is covered in dense forest. We have identified a series of open clearings that are probably in the area of the archaeological site and we are slowly surveying them with single-sensor handheld gradiometers. We can’t use the very fast cart-based systems with multiple sensors, in part because of all the trees and bushes, and because the more modern systems rely on dGPS: we have tree cover. This means we need to work on grids recorded in a total station and tied in to the ‘real world’ using reference points on things like buildings. This is why we have the specialist topographers with us! Sander and Erwin make my life a lot more simple. I only have to worry about the geophysics, and they take care of the rest, which is great. We did some work in the same area last year and identified two possible kilns or perhaps salt-production hearths and possible traces of walls. But the data from the last two days is disappointing: either we are outside the settlement area, or the buildings are too deeply buried or poorly contrasted for us to discover. We’ll have a discussion tonight about whether it is good to return tomorrow to finish the area free of trees, or whether we should move on to one of the inland sites near the via Appia. The picture below is one of the most open areas of the site, right by the sea. You can just about see the Torre Astura in the background, between the pine trees. The building you can see now is medieval but it occupies an area in use since well before the Roman period.

Magnetometers warming up this morning, with Torre Astura in the background

Magnetometers warming up this morning, with Torre Astura in the background

It is very hot and dusty work, and I am very grateful to my student volunteer Tom, who is giving up a chunk of his summer to help out. I wouldn’t change my job for all the tea in china though. Italy is an amazing country, with wonderful people and beautiful places to be outdoors working at. Today alone I’ve seen three different kinds of lizards and a wild boar and her stripey piglets running across the road to the site. Who knows what we’ll see tomorrow? Or find in the data? Perhaps a nice early christian church, or a roman cemetery? Maybe I’ll find the kilns Gijs really wants to go with his pottery! However, tonight we have a big festa in the town we are staying in to enjoy, because it is the feast of Santa Anna, who is locally venerated. If you want to keep in touch with what we are up to, you can follow me on twitter @girlwithtrowel - I try to update at least once a day from the field, sometimes more often.

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Geophysical Surveys for the Minor Centers Project by Day of Archaeology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.