University of Michigan

Dealing with the dead of Villamagna, Medieval Italy

I really don’t like dead bodies. But the thing about archaeology is that you never really know what you’re going to dig up, and in my last major dig, there were lots and lots of dead bodies – in the end the team excavated nearly 500 medieval skeletons from the area around a church at Villamagna, near Anagni in central Italy. The results of that excavation (the cemetery and all the rest of the large-scale multi-year project) are now being published; interim reports can be found here. Our book includes an inventory and preliminary discussion of the skeletons, the demography of the cemetery and basic paleo-pathology, a discussion of the isotopes and discussions of the topography and chronology of the cemetery, the burials and the finds. But these dead people won’t lie down and I keep finding myself dealing with them, now well after we’re finished digging. Because ours is the largest collection of excavated skeletons from medieval Italy, I’m hoping that these bones can be further studied by bioarchaeologists who are going to be more able to design and carry out a programme of scientific research that will benefit from such a large sample size, from clearly defined and meticulously recorded stratigraphic contexts. I’m in Rome this week trying to help this project along.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

The team who is going to take over the study of the bones of Villamagna include the indefatigable anthropologist who directed the initial inventory and study of the project, Francesca Candilio, and now a pair of bioarchaeologists, Sabrina Agarwal from Berkeley and Patrick Beauchesne from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Their interests lie in understanding better the general health of the population and how it might have changed over time, looking at oral health, at indications of stress on the body associated with certain kinds of work, at changes in bone density at certain moments of development and during the lifetime, and indicators of disease. Francesca has some ideas about some peculiar bone formations on some of the bones, and has identified some people who suffered fatal wounds, while others lived with their wounds for many years. Through information about nutrition levels, general health and indications of physical labour in this population we can reconstruct these particular aspects of daily life in a rural village for which we have otherwise limited data available from textual sources or other archaeological indicators. I am not a bioarchaeologist, but I remain on board because I want to think about ways in which this kind of information about health and life course can relate to the stratigraphic contexts of the cemetery and the rest of the site.

4348

HRU 4348, the male who died in the 13th century because of a projectile wound to his head, the point of which is still there!

We all met in Rome this week, Sabrina and Patrick flew in from California and I came over from London; Lisa Fentress, the project director, and Francesca are based in Rome. We visited the site, brought some specimens to Francesca’s lab, and collected some of the samples for preliminary work to be done. We went over our data collection practices from the dig and reviewed the anthropological inventories and analysis that the dig team carried out. Francesca explained the methods her lab uses for age-ing and sexing the skeletons, and her binders full of measurements and data. She pulled out some of the interesting pathologies, and weirdnesses in the population, and also showed off one of her favourite head wounds: a guy who was buried in the thirteenth century, inside the monastic cloister, with a ballista point lodged in his cranium.

I feel very pleased that these bones will be taken over by such a competent and interesting team of people. I like Sabrina and Patrick’s approach of social bioarchaeology (Sabrina recently edited a book on the topic), looking not just at health and living conditions of people, especially through the lenses of gender, age, and social status. Francesca has expertise in teeth patterns, looking at migration of populations through dental traits, and will be happy to include Villamagna teeth in her data sets.  I think there is still a lot of work left to be done figuring out this population, and devising a strategy for the archeo-anthropology and bioarchaeology which will exploit the stratigraphic data from the excavation alongside the samples of the skeletons, and I’m interested in thinking this through.

Aside from feeling pleased to shepherd the bones into the hands of another team, there are two issues which really interest me about this research. One: the majority of these skeletons (ballista-point guy not included) came dates from about 1300 to about 1400 (several of the skeletons were dated by C14), so after the monastery was suppressed and the monks expelled. For that period we have very little information about who owned the estate of Villamagna and how the church was administered, so I’m very keen to think more about who takes over a monastery and its estate lands when the institution is suppressed and there is no clear successor to administer the estate. The village and the site of the monastery which we excavated were clearly abandoned about 1300, but this major cemetery with lots and lots of skeletons are clear evidence that the church was still in use, and some priest was involved in burying the dead. The other issue that I’m very excited about at the moment is that in the middle of this phase, in 1348 and 1349, life in central Italy must have changed radically. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in southern Italy, where – by some counts – the population was reduced by half. If I look around me right now and imagine half of the people who surround me dropping dead, my job, my family, and every aspect of my life would be radically different. It may have been so for Villamagna in the fourteenth century and I would like to know whether this was the case, or whether the Black Death didn’t affect this place in particular. We have no indication of Plague Pits, no sense of epidemic-scale deaths, which in itself is might point to the site’s survival relatively unscathed. On the other hand, the site must have been profoundly affected by the three earthquakes which shook southern Italy on 9 September 1349. In Rome, part of the Colosseum collapsed from the quake whose epicentre was located down in the Apennine mountain range—much closer to Villamagna than Rome was. It seems very unlikely that the standing buildings of Villamagna were not destroyed, and thus the population forced to relocate or otherwise reorganise their subsistence. And yet we have only slim indications in the archaeological record of that kind of destruction and rebuilding. Was everything already abandoned then? Or was it restored, only to be abandoned 50 years later? I hope that having a better sense of the population buried here might help shift our thinking about these two catastrophic events and catastrophe in general in a rural village.

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.

 

Archaeological Conservation at the Kelsey Museum

At the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, my colleague Claudia and I provide conservation for the Museum’s daily activities as well as for two of its excavations. Today we’re working on objects from Karanis, a Graeco-Roman farming town in Egypt, where the University of Michigan excavated in the 1920’s.

These objects will be shown in an upcoming exhibition here at the Kelsey Museum, Karanis Revealed, and they are currently undergoing conservation.

Two of these objects, the knife and the inkwell (top), will need conservation treatment before they’re exhibited. The knife blade, made of iron, has active corrosion that could get worse during the exhibition. The inkwell, made of faience, has cracks and areas where the surface needs to stabilized. The painted bone on the lower right just needs extra TLC; low light to protect the paint from fading, and special handling since the paint is powdery and comes off easily when the bone is touched.

The research and examination undertaken by conservators can help archaeologists understand the materials they excavate, but the primary goal of archaeological conservation is to preserve excavated artifacts. It would be sad if something that’s survived for 2,000 years fell apart after excavation for lack of care!