Keep recording, merge, repeat


Today is the Day of Archaeology! Again, and for the fifth time, I’m here to give a glimpse of what I do, no matter how exciting or boring, in my daily life as an archaeologist. Again, this year’s Day of Archaeology is strongly influenced by sweeping changes in the structure and nature of Italian archaeology.

I’ve spent the past few days in Rome, with thousands of friends and colleagues all hoping to pass the first selection of the big, one-in-a-decade public exam to become a funzionario archeologo, that is a State employee in charge of many archaeology-related tasks such as preventive archaeology, cataloguing, managing museums and archaeological areas. This year’s exam will result in hiring of 90 archaeologists – there were 2,600 of us trying but just 455 could pass the first step, a rather crude Trivial Pursuit-style test touching subjects such as public administration law, cultural heritage law, English language and “Italian cultural heritage”. This last category was by far the most absurd, with questions ranging from the self-evident (what material are the Bronzi di Riace made from? who painted the Cappella Sistina?) to the unbelievable (in which exact year did this obscure painter die? is that famous painting by Tiziano in room 1 or 2 of a certain museum?). I won’t go into more detail: many have commented already and we can all agree that, while perfectly unbiased and fair from the point of view of giving a job to someone, it’s certainly a bad way for the Ministero to hire the best people for this particular job.

Today I am back to work however, with a few tasks related to catalogue records of finds and sites, including preliminary inventories of finds from preventive archaeology. It’s probably well known by archaeologists, but perhaps less by the public, that an endless stream of mundane artifacts is found, cleaned and stored away, waiting for someone to study. Only a few of these items will eventually find their way to an exhibition or a museum, even though that remains crucially the most effective option to give something back to the public. The Soprintendenza where I work organised one such exhibition this last spring, putting on display some of the most interesting results of 15 years of preventive archaeology. Some artifacts will lend themselves more easily to a museum environment (complete pieces, especially decorated ones), while some others are very difficult to put in context because they’re too fragmentary or invisible (bones, radiocarbon dates). In the past year I worked a lot with my colleagues to recover and improve our digital catalogue records in the SIGEC (the central catalogue system managed by the Central Institute for Catalogue and Documentation), despite the many quirks in the web-based interface. A critical part of the work is now represented by the creation of records for archaeological sites, in order to link artefacts to their provenance, and to create the basis for a “carta archeologica” of Liguria (something that has existed for decades in other regions). I can’t stress enough how hard it is to pinpoint archaeological sites on a map, especially those sites that are known only from short reports from the 1970s — and there are hundreds, spanning from the Neolithic to the Early Modern period. I’m troubled by the fact that we already lost and we are still losing knowledge about archaeological landscapes that was available a few decades ago, but was poorly recorded or neglected for too long.

I’m on a train as I write this post, and I know there will be another bag of things I need to do at work today, pure bureaucracy derived from the merging of the Soprintendenza Archeologia with the other Soprintendenza: basically there’s going to be a single body dealing with all architectural, archaeological, historical heritage, instead of separate ones. It’s a good thing in theory, but if you have ever experienced something similar you will know that it takes a lot of time, effort, money (furniture, conservation labs, libraries and documentation archives don’t move on their own). In practice, the next months will consist of all the usual work while trying to work out the merging process. Liguria has it easy but in other regions there’s also a further division into smaller areas going on at the same time. If you do archaeological fieldwork in Italy, even as a student, I encourage you to take some time and learn about the new structure of the Leviathan.

Exactly one month ago, on my 33rd birthday, I defended my PhD dissertation at the University of Siena. It took a long time, and the months leading to the final version were quite exhausting, but at the same time I’m proud I achieved this result and the committee seemed quite satisfied with it. I must now do further work to publish my thesis: that is not the most difficult endeavour in the works, however.