An ordinary day in “emergency archaeology”

The alarm goes off at 5.30 am.

You hair is a mess, your eyes are only half open, and you desperately wish a cup of coffee could magically appear on your nightstand.

A new working week is starting.

Today’s location: Rome, suburbs.

The rucksack is packed with all you need for the day: the chalkboard, the ranging pole, the North arrow, your camera, alongside with the scratchpad, the hat, a bottle of suncream. The sun can burn you if you’re working on a construction site with no trees and no shade and you can’t risk a sunstroke, because that would mean staying home for a few days and that’s just not possible, especially not now, after having spent months waiting for a new job to turn up.

Yes, because, sadly, it’s not like you get to work every day, and there are times in which not even praying to the Roman Lares will do you good.

So, no hesitation. It’s time to leave.

All your security tools are already in the car: helmet, gloves, safety boots, high visibility waistcoat, and, of course, your trowel. The rest of your supply is made by a folding ruler, some pencils, a drawing board, drafting film, preferably pre-cut, the plumb bob, the compasses, a mallet and survey pegs. And last but not least a good measure of patience.

Ready, set, go!

You wish good morning to the workmen, check on the authorization and, finally, it’s time to start watching the bulldozer work.

Because, you see, it’s not true that archaeology is adventure and mystery or very improbable discoveries of alien made artefacts no one has ever seen before.

Archaeology can be, and, most times, is, a graduate with full marks and honour who stares at a bulldozer.

In Italy, we call it “emergency archaeology”: wherever construction works are happening (funded with public money more often than not), there must be an archaeologist to keep an eye on them and prevent damage to any archaeological remains that might be hidden in the ground.

Once you’re on site, you need to find “your” spot. This means a position which, considering the dugout edge, the working bulldozer and truck, still allows you a good view on the digging operations, keeps you from getting in the way of said operations, and thus prevents any possible harm. Strictly in this order.

After a while you usually manage to find the perfect spot, and you might even end up even standing in the shade for a few hours. Maybe it’s your lucky day after all.

And now: let’s dig!

Standing, helmet in place, wearing your high visibility waistcoat and safety boots and keeping a big bag on hand, you can start your working day.

The bulldozer does its work, always the same, and most times there’s nothing ancient there, but you still have to record everything.

That’s why after one part is dug and before the workmen lay down the pipe, you have act fast.

With an almost catlike leap you grab the ranging pole, the chalkboard, and the North arrow. And then you try to remember where the chalk and the compass are.

In a moment, everything is ready for you to take the picture.

You manage to set the ranging pole just right, find the perfect spot for the chalkboard. One, two, three… “click!”

And that’s usually when someone decides it’s a good idea to walk right between you and the dugout you’re trying to photograph.

Alright, you keep your cool and try for the second time.


While the workmen are distracted doing something else you then take your measurements, so that when they will be busy setting down the pipes, you will be able to draw a first sketch. Once you’re home, this evening, your “masterpiece” will have to become a beautiful, if useless, digitalized section, using Autocad or a similar software.

Since you have some time now you sit down on the sidewalk, retrieve your sketchpad and write down the daily entry of your excavation journal.

Then you check the time. It’s almost 12. Lunch break is only a few minutes away.

Midday, and chaos ensues.

Some sit in the truck, some run away to buy their lunch, some will sing the praises of the wife’s culinary ability and you, as quietly as you can, go look for the best bar around here.

It’s not really about the best or the cheapest food available. Whichever place you choose, its primary value is to be a way to escape the heat in the Summer, and the chill in the Winter, and to have a more or less decent toilette every time of the year.

While you eat your sandwich, which you brought from home, and drink whatever you bought in the bar so that you can stay without raising too many eyebrows, one thought whirls in your mind: when will they stop digging for the day? And, more importantly: how many possibilities are there of finding “something” before this work is done?

Because that’s what really proves your ability. Not the one you acquired in the library or built in your previous experience as a professional archaeologist in the field, but your ability to deal with what “emergency archaeology” truly entails.

In the exact same moment you’ll say “Stop the bulldozer”, in fact, a battle of wills will start, and no one ever told you about that back when you were a student.

Suddenly, you, the archaeologist, become the enemy, and every look, every word from the people around you have one mission and one mission only: to convince you that what you saw is not really there.

That wall you’re so sure you saw in the dugout? It doesn’t exist, and “it’s not like we can waste any time”.

And that’s when you will forget for a little while the archaeologist in you and brush off your abilities as a PR: surveyors, engineers, construction managers, foremen are arriving on site, and to each of them you have to explain that the area of the dig must now be enlarged, that the whole sector must be cleaned out, that you need to record the new-found archaeological structure, and that from now on you’re the boss.

Your only ally will be the Soprintendenza* official, whom, alerted at once, will come to supervise and give instructions.

Alea acta est.

From this moment how the rest of your day unfolds will depend on what kind of people you are working with.

If they cooperate, then when the working hours are over, you’ll go home tired, yes, but happy.

But if a cold war follows you’ll go home with one, very troubling thought: why on earth am I doing this?


Antonia Falcone

Paola Romi

(translation Domenica Pate)

* In Italy the local government department responsible for monuments and heritage.

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