Gabii

The Gabii Project: Archaeology in The Information Age

Racel Opitz demonstrates use of the tablets to students .

Racel Opitz demonstrates use of the tablets to students .

Rachel Opitz doesn’t dig much at Gabii, but rather records. Leading a core team of four, her topography, data entry, and photogrammetric modelling unit is tasked with the construction of a digital database on a large scale.

“We have scale issues,” Rachel chuckles, “Well, they’re not issues because the method works.”

Rachel’s team has implemented strategies and introduced technologies aimed at increasing efficiency within The Gabii Project to support a large open area excavation. They upgrade software and propose new methods nearly every field season. Most recently, Rachel brought tablet technology to the scene, replacing almost all of the paper recording formerly done in the trenches with direct to digital recording on Panasonic ToughPads and Android tablets, linked in real-time to the project’s ARK database and GIS system.

“One of the reasons we were able to open such a large excavation area as is that the recording is just so fast,” Rachel states plainly. “You can answer very different archaeological questions working at this scale”

Several forms of digital recording can be uploaded and processed in real-time using the current configuration.

Several forms of digital recording can be uploaded and processed in real-time using the current configuration.

The Gabii Project isn’t the only dig using digital recording. Excavations at Çatalhöyük and Pompeii—to name a couple high-profile cases—are also making use of similar systems, and such methods have been increasingly adopted in recent years. In Rachel’s opinion, what sets The Gabii Project apart is Program Director Nicola Terrenato’s insistence on using these systems extensively from the beginning.

“More and more people are doing some variant on what we’re doing, and that’s a good thing. Of course we try to stay at the forefront, so five years from now we’ll be doing something totally different.”

 

You can follow Rachel’s work at: http://gabiiserver.adsroot.itcs.umich.edu/gabiigoesdigital/

The Gabii Project: A Moment With the Field Directors

Gabii Project Managing and Field Directors Marcello Mogetta and Anna Gallone visit Area F to see how things are going.

Gabii Project Managing and Field Directors Marcello Mogetta and Anna Gallone visit Area F to see how things are going.

Greetings from Gabii! As we are a large excavation, it will be my job today to gather reports from our staff and post their impressions of the work they do here and of archaeology in general. But first, a little bit about us…

The Gabii Project is an excavation and field school run jointly with The University of Michigan and The University of Verona. We are excavating the Ancient Latin city of Gabii, about 20 km East of Rome. The city grew alongside Rome through the first millennium, BC, and into the 3rd century AD, when it was finally abandoned. Throughout its existence, the city underwent many of the same changes as its more famous neighbor except for one crucial point: it hasn’t been developed further. This fact allows us pure excavation of the site, without millennia of modernization stacked atop it.

But today, we focus less on the story of the site, and more on those who have cultivated it. First, we have Managing and Field Directors Marcello Mogetta, and Anna Gallone…

Anna Gallone and Marcello Mogetta taking a quick break.

Anna Gallone and Marcello Mogetta taking a quick break.

“Archaeology is one of the best activities ever,” begins Marcello, “because you have the feeling of discovery; I guess that’s what drives us despite the effort, the grueling conditions associated with digs.”

At The Gabii Project, however, Marcello’s work is mainly administrative. As a so-called “big dig,” there is a lot of logistical work to be done not only on-site, dealing with safety concerns, and choosing where to dig and where to spend money, but also during the off season where securing permits, writing and submitting papers, and choosing new staff take precedence.

“The important point to realize is that these are not isolated tasks,” maintains Marcello, “It’s so linked together… and this is not something that starts on June 1st and ends on August 1st, it continues throughout the off season.”

“What happens here in five weeks is the result of ten months of preparation,” Chimes in Anna, whose work is also primarily logistical.

Even with all of the preparations and planning, the two are still very busy during the field season. This affords the two little time to participate in the actual fieldwork, their real passion. While they do make time to buck this trend where they can—such as when they lead the excavation of a lead sarcophagus in 2009—the two long for their days working in the field.

“Our secret dream is to go work as volunteers in another field school, with fewer responsibilities,” Marcello half-jokes, with Anna adding: “Back to the old days, when the only thing that really mattered was excavating a layer correctly and finding something cool.”

Anna Gallone and Marcello Mogetta snag a rare moment to join the active excavation

Anna Gallone and Marcello Mogetta snag a rare moment to join the active excavation

Regardless of the desire to get back out to the field, both are fiercely proud of The Gabii Project and their roles therein. In fact, both of their favorite parts of the program have to do with its inherent structure.

“I’ve been a field archaeologist for 20 years now,” states Anna. “I have never ever seen a site with so many people working together at the same time on so many different aspects.”

As for Marcello, “The project is constantly evolving, I mean the way we started six years ago, you would hardly recognize it. In a way, this is like a living organism, growing and changing, so I’m very curious to see what this is going to look like in 10 years.”

Investigating Urbanism at Ancient Gabii

One would scarcely guess that a mighty ancient city once occupied the site of Gabii as it is today simply a quiet spot in the eastern suburbs of Rome, Italy. Yet a quick look at the physical landscape and its now dormant volcanic features makes it plain why a first millennium BCE city grew – and prospered – here. The Gabines found themselves at a key crossroads, positioning them well to capitalize on trade in central Italy and to eventually enjoy unprecedented political and ritual friendship with Rome herself, as described by the ancient authors.

It was perhaps the fact that the site of Gabii is now abandoned – a rarity for the ancient Latin cities, shared perhaps only with Tusculum – that attracted a team from the University of Michigan to begin work on the site in 2007. A key question for the Gabii Project team then (and now) revolved around a great curiosity of the beginnings of urbanism and its processes in Italy, along with a full exploration of the material culture correlates for the emergence of social hierarchy in Latium. A two-phase geophysical survey revealed a latent street grid that proved a worthy impetus for excavations to begin in 2009.

Fast forward three years to June 2012 … the project has now completed two survey seasons, three excavation seasons, and is embarking on its fourth excavation season. Our multi-national team brings students at all levels from all over the world to work in the heart of this extinct Latin city where they learn first-hand the cutting edge techniques of field archaeology. The site is offering up a complex narrative of settlement and abandonment that begins with evidence for Orientalizing period elite burial of infants and continues to Imperial Roman inhumation burials and industrial works, especially those aimed at exploiting the local tufo bedrock. In the middle of the story, so to speak, is a fascinating glimpse of what Italy was like at the mid-point of the first millennium BCE, when archaic elites lost traction and gave way to a differently organized society. The physical evidence of this at Gabii comes in the form of abandoned archaic compounds giving way to a quasi-orthogonal town plan that changes the alignment and apportionment of the city itself.

Our team has been in the field for over two weeks thus far in 2012 and while on June 29 we were idled by a public holiday in Rome, the day was a good one for reflection on the project, its participants, and its aims. The dual goals of excavating early Italian urbanism and helping to train a new generation of field archaeologists work surprisingly well in the pluristratified urban contexts of this Latin site. The team looks forward to unlocking more of Gabii’s secrets in the coming weeks and years.