Stefano “steko” Costa works for the Soprintendenza archeologica in Genoa, Italy. He is a PhD candidate in Late Roman Archaeology at the U of Siena and when he's not busy acting like an open [source|data|access|knowledge] guru he studies pottery of the 5th, 7th, 8th and 20th centuries.

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.

The daily bureaucracy of the Soprintendenza

5:47 AM CEST. My #dayofarch starts with the phone ringing the alarm tune. I remember it’s #dayofarch today. I tweet, for those few already awake.

I can’t get “The magnificent seven” out of my head so I play it from Youtube while I shower, reinventing the lyrics.

I wake up so early every day, so I can avoid rush hours and spend less time commuting. The radio keeps me company, with horrible news of a shooting in the US, dozens of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean, and a Earth-like planet found by the Kepler team. It’s a “twin” or “cousin” depending on which news channel you listen to. Most journalists are so clueless that the artist impressions of Kepler 452b have become “photographs” in their words. There is an atmosphere. There may be plants (according to the spectral footprint data received by the telescope). There may be life. What if there is no intelligent life? What is there was intelligent life on Kepler 452b but they self-destroyed their advanced civilisation and now the simpler organisms are starting over, with their simple goals? A good science-fiction work must involve some archaeology, after all.

I work at the Soprintendenza Archeologia della Liguria, as I recounted in the past few years in my #dayofarch posts.

At 7:22 AM CEST, I’m at work. Today it should be a “relaxed” day, at least compared to yesterday when I was working in parallel on two urgent dossiers. For the first two hours I’m “digging” through old records dating back 30 and even 50 years ago. I don’t do fieldwork, I don’t work in a lab. My work here is mainly at a desk, with occasional inspections at storage facilities and excavation sites. The main task I’m following is the harmonisation of all records on State-owned archaeological finds that are kept in storage spaces out of our immediate control. This includes “temporary” storage at excavation sites, museum depots, etc. With a few exceptions, 90% of items related to archaeology are a property of the State, in Italy. Our records for all the items stored (and even on display) at local museums are lacking. The strategy is quite straightforward: look what we have in our archive, what is in the museum archive, what is actually in the museum, compare, supplement missing information in the form of inventory records, assign inventory numbers, assess monetary value. Lather, rinse, repeat ‒ it’s an endless work and I’ve been told that no one before me had the exact role of doing this, which probably explains the gaps in our archive records. There’s some beauty to this work, though, like early examples of digital typesetting and beautiful old-school typography:

Two hours later, I start having a general picture of the situation of the museum I’m looking at, but yesterday’s dossiers strike back. First I talk with a colleague from the Direzione Generale Archeologia in Rome, who needs some documents about the Piazza Verdi dossier sent by e-mail. Unfortunately digital dossiers can easily get at several GB in size, so it’s more efficient to send a DVD via traditional mail. In this case, the Direzione Generale needed an excerpt from the dossier as soon as we could. Presto and done! The second urgent dossier from yesterday is the transition of all archaeological museums from the Soprintendenza to the newly formed Polo Museale who keeps together all State-run museums in each region. I took care of collecting and harmonising all documentation about the five archaeological museums of Liguria. Yesterday we sent the entire dossier out, but today I was told that some documentation was missing, so a supplement was needed.

Then, from 11:00 to 12:50, I’m out of office for a protest sit-in at the local office of the Treasury Ministry. We’re protesting because they blocked the payment of part of our stipends since 2014. The Renzi government is imposing huge austerity measures on key sectors like school, culture, health, transport … but few seem to notice. In our case, the dirty trick is they keep the money for one or two years, and then obviously we are paid, but without any interest rate (and in the meantime, some other reduction usually happens, so the actual stipend remains the same).

Back at the office, I continue working on the Piazza Verdi dossier. It’s a common preventive archaeology situation, but it got of of hands for political reasons because it involves a big architectural project. I speak again on the phone with my colleague in Rome, we cross-check the documents we already sent out in DVD with the ones they already had. Bureaucracy, that is.

At 13:50 I’m out. It’s Friday! I’ve got a two hours drive from Genoa to Torino, where I live with Elisa. It takes five minutes of full-force AC before I can enter the car that was parked under the sun. It is 36 °C outside.

When I arrive in Torino, after a short nap (after all, I woke up pretty early) my second #dayofarch starts: it involves Byzantine pottery and #phdwriting ‒ I wrote extensively about my research in a series of daily blog posts from Crete, but it’s difficult to keep the motivation up and the words going. I write my PhD thesis before dinner. I have dinner. I write my PhD thesis after dinner. At 23:32 I’m quite exhausted.

This was a rather terse account of my 4th #dayofarch, but hopefully it provided some interesting insights into what goes on at the Soprintendenza.

Archaeology in the Mediterranean: do not drown if you can

On July 11th this year I was in Eastern Crete. In the morning Elisa and I went to Agios Nikolaos to visit Vera Klontza-Jaklova and her team  doing preparation work on the finds from Priniatikos Pyrgos. As always, it was instructing to see material from other research projects and discussing about ceramic finds with the actual thing in your hand is just so much better. Then we headed towards Priniatikos Pyrgos the site, that sits nicely between two sandy beaches just a few kilometers east from Agios Nikolaos. Swimming in the Aegean is one of the many privileges we have as “adoptive citizens” of Crete. After lunch we slowly moved to Mochlos, a Minoan settlement that is partly built on a very small isle, 100 meters away from the coast. There’s a small boat that will bring you on the isle ‒ and pick you up when, after visiting the archaeological site, you ring the bell of the chapel built on the shore. The best part is sitting at one of the bars on the main shore, drinking a φραπέ and looking to those busy Minoans across the minuscule stretch of water.


The modern village of Mochlos seen from the Minoan site on the islet


The title of this post has nothing to do with the waters of the Mediterranean, nor underwater archaeology for that matter, but rather with the reflections I have been making in the days before going to Agios Nikolaos, Priniatikos Pyrgos and Mochlos. On Sunday I had the privilege of being interviewed by Let’s Dig Again about my experience as an Italian archaeologist abroad. During the live broadcast, Cioschi suggested that some of what I said about being careful not to drown in Mediterranean archaeology could be good material for this very post. And here I am, one week later, still with the same motto: do not drown.

It’s not just the sheer size of the storage buildings filled with hundreds of thousands of finds even for single archaeological sites (millions and millions if taken all together), the unmanageable amount of published and unpublished literature even when restricted to small geographical regions and specific chronological periods, the ever increasing difficulties and costs of fieldwork for Mediterranean archaeology. That would be enough to have an headache and give up for good. Rather, I am increasingly worried about the heavy burden of tradition, both “old” and “new”, so to speak. The excavation site of the Byzantine Quarter in Gortyna is only meters away from the 1904-excavated temple of Apollo Pythios, for which we have detailed diaries of Federico Halbherr, the founding father of Italian archaeology in the Mediterranean ‒ and that’s roughly 110 years of studies that seem to stand against you, with the epigraphy and monumental archaeology en vogue until the mid-20th century and then the gradual explosion of modern positivist Mediterranean archaeology with all our stratigraphy and chronotypology and political-historical framework and Roman empire and that. I only study a subset of this, a slice from a bigger cake really: ceramic finds.


Microphotograph of a ceramic body ‒ a red-slipped dish I still don’t know much about, labeled GQB CER 636.1


Digging for Roman Pottery

This year’s day of archaeology starts more or less where I ended last year. I have spent the past 13 months working in Albintimilium, the archaeological site of the ancient city at the frontier of Italy. The work is a mixture of several things: on weekends, the site is open to the public and with my colleague I guide visitors through the small introductory exhibition, the Roman baths (with mosaics, too), the city walls and the Roman theatre. We could have more people visiting us, admittedly, but in April and May we had many schools. As you can imagine, 10 years old kids are much smarter at understanding the Romans than most adults, let alone archaeologists, will ever be, so there’s some satisfaction in it.

On weekdays, the work is different and it varies from coding open source databases for archaeological finds to cataloguing of Early Medieval architectural decoration. And, of course, Roman pottery. Lots of Roman pottery, as in two entire buildings filled with more than 5000 crates of stuff. Some of these finds date back to 1915! The vast majority is resulting from the more than 30 years of excavation by Nino Lamboglia, who pioneered stratigraphy and chrono-typology in Roman archaeology starting as early as 1938. All this material needs reviewing, reordering, cleaning etc. on a regular basis. For some reason, the recent finds are the ones who need the most work. This month I am going through some 140 crates from excavations carried out in the 1980s at the Late Roman and Medieval site of Costa Balenae (gallery of images from Wikimedia Commons), some 30 km away from Ventimiglia.

An older inventory. Note that it was written entirely on paper records.

An older inventory. Note that it was written entirely on paper records.

From a general inventory done some years ago we already know that 90% or even more of these finds is made of bricks and tiles, and I am separating actual pottery and amphorae into smaller and more manageable bags. Bricks and tiles need to be stored separately, and the best approach to quantification is probably by using weight. One may also suggest that, once a quantification is available and no particular differences can be seen in fabrics or shapes, they can be disposed of, allowing us to save a lot of space in the ever-crowded building. The remaining pottery will be processed in further detail, even though at a first look its breakage rate is very high and that will pose serious identification problems, not to speak about functional interpretation. Quite surprisingly for a site that has Late Roman phases, I could not see but one small piece of African Red Slip (or terra sigillata chiara as Lamboglia labelled it in the 1950s) so far. I have only reviewed 15% of the material however.

Not Roman! 19th or 20th century glazed pottery.

Not Roman! 19th or 20th century glazed pottery.

What is perhaps most interesting is that there are some pottery finds that are not Roman, such as this big sherd of a late 19th or early 20th c. basin. There is little evidence of stratigraphic contexts for these so I assume they came from the topsoil cleaning done before the actual excavation. I have written before about the need to adopt a less mechanical approach to work done on finds, without forgetting that storage facilities are not separate from the real world and they tell stories that should be very familiar for an archaeologist. For example, at least 3 different people must have been doing some kind of work on these finds before myself, based on the different handwritings I can see on the finds, on the labels, on the inventory. There should be a record of who they are, but I couldn’t find one yet.

Instagram filters will make anything look beautiful. Almost anything at least.

Is this the best time of the year for this kind of work? Not really, as the temperature is constantly above 30 °C during the day. However during the winter it would be much less comfortable (cold, rain, not enough natural light) and spring is always busy with schools as I said above. There is also a lot of dust in the bags, so I need to wear a dust-mask. Not a good item to wear in the summer if you ask me. The other reason for doing this right now is that there are new excavations ongoing (since a few years actually) at the site and reviewing the extent of older excavations together with their finds is very important. What I forgot to mention, but it should be obvious by now, is that this material was never published ‒ as happened for many other excavations done in that period. Nowadays the situation is slightly better, even though in general there is a lower detail in the short reports that get regularly published. My day of archaeology was dedicated to making these finds easier to manage and study.

Archaeology is Adventure – Even When You End up in the Office

People like to think about the life of archaeologists as a very adventurous endeavour. They are right, except that in my experience is has mainly to do with extreme logistics, rather than dark dungeons and holy relics.

Two weeks ago, I had started thinking about what to write in my Day of Archaeology post. I was already in Gortyna, Crete, to study ceramic finds for my PhD. I spent my days in a sunny and dusty storage building, classifying and drawing late Roman and early Byzantine potsherds. Something very normal. No adventure involved, but still I was in Crete, one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Every day looked the same, with the exception of Sunday (afternoon). Occasional excitement for a few cooking pots, a painted jug. “Fun” counting and weighing sherds one by one, trying to develop new ways to assess depositional history. Not so different from what they told us last year from Knossos, just one hour of driving from Gortyna.

4th to 5th century cooking pots – The Day of Archaeology I had imagined before THE call

Then, on Tuesday 19th June 2012, ten days ago, I got a phone call. THE phone call. The phone call that turns my life upside down. And my 29th June 2012, Day of Archaeology, became totally different from what I had imagined.

I was being hired as museum assistant at the Ministry of Culture in Italy. A permanent position. Il posto fisso, as we say in Italy. If you think of Italian bureaucracy as a slow and inefficient monster, you have to adjust your views, drastically. I was asked to be in Rome in a few days to sign the contract. I had to leave Crete in less than 24 hours. Pack half of my stuff, and leave the other half there, together with my car and tons of potsherds waiting to be studied. Poor Alessandro, who was with me in Gortyna, moved to Athens instead of spending two weeks alone in the Mesara. I am lucky, and I have some good friends in Rome. I spent 5 days in Rome waiting to sign the contract. I went to two international conferences, visited the Soprintendenza office where ArcheoFOSS took place only two weeks ago, attended the Baptism of a friends’ baby and met many friends. That’s the adventurous everyday life of an archaeologist in Rome.

On Monday 25th June, I signed the contract it the magnificent Ministry headquarters palace. And I took a train from Rome to Genoa on the same day. On Tuesday, I did my first working day, at the office of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Liguria, waiting to move to my destination: the archaeological site of Albintimilium, close to France. The place where Nino Lamboglia started his pioneering study of (Late) Roman pottery more than 60 years ago.

Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Liguria, Palazzo Reale, Genova

And so comes my Day of Archaeology. At the office, making phone calls to organise my stay in the Riviera di Ponente, speaking with new colleagues, taking instructions on the tasks I will be doing next week, joining the trade union and above all trying to get an idea of what is happening to my life on the day of my 29th birthday.

In my 10 years doing archaeology, I’ve seen that you never know what is going to happen and you have to be always prepared to change strategy to follow your path. It is true, archaeology is adventure, and you cannot turn it off.