Hello From the Gabii Project

Gabii Project 2016


Our last day of the 2016 field school at Gabii, the morning starts normally. Gabii normal, anyway. Troy calls up over the walkie talkies.  “Hi Topo. We have a photomodel for you in Area C.” Matt responds “Be right there.”


Matt telling Troy that he’ll be down shortly!

This happens several times a day, every day. A box full of RAD targets taped onto jar lids, a camera and walkie talkie head out the door with Matt. The student responsible for the excavation and documentation of the bit of stratigraphy in question  points out the area to be modeled, targets are dropped down and photos taken. At this point Tyler has shown up with the prism to survey the targets and the limits.

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Tyler’s expertise with the prism is unparalleled.

Sometimes he and Ema talk but mostly they have a system of hand signals to indicate they are level, or on the last point of a feature.  Impressively, they can signal with one hand while keeping the prism level with the other. At this point in the summer we’ve taken so many points on the RAD targets that we’ve worn holes in their centers with the pointy bottom of the prism pole. Matt heads back up to the topo hut and starts the processing the photos into a 3D model using Photoscan, software beloved by many an archaeologist doing 3D documentation in the field. By the time the survey is done and the ground control points are on the network to be snagged, the model is completed. Matt georeferences the model and final products are exported and loaded to the server and project database. Out at the topo fortress Ema and Tyler organize the survey data into the project GIS. The whole business takes about 20 minutes. Then Jason calls up. “Hi Topo. We’re going to have a photomodel for you in area I in about 10 minutes.” Wash, rinse, repeat. In parallel, Liz is trawling through the database assessing the state of play. Documentation quality control is part of the end-of-season ritual. Are the records complete? Do we have nice photos and sketches of everything? Mostly yes, sometimes no.


Olivia showing off her fantastic drawing!

Luckily we have another week to sort things out. The morning rolls on, with staff dropping off tablets to be charged at morning break, and a bit of a survey sprint right at the end as everyone rushes to finish one last thing before trench tours and a celebratory lunch. Not that it’s ever the last thing.


Feast time!

We’ll be back next year for more “Gabii normal” days in the field.


Rachel Opitz


The Gabii Project’s 2016 field season is finishing today and it’s really been a banner year in the finds laboratory. As usual, we had a fantastic amount of help from our field school students washing and processing the artefacts which were excavated.


The fantastic finds rotation!

Unusually, we had the largest finds staff we’ve ever had this year for the first time: six full time staff members and one consultant who visited to lend a hand and answer particular questions about materials from our Roman Republican phases. I direct the lab, overseeing the overall management of the objects and their ultimate study and publication. Our other lab staff this year were 4 graduate students and 2 professional archaeologists with a variety of specializations and experience with all manner of artefacts. Their knowledge, enthusiasm, dedication, and hard work in what is often a chaotic department in a busy and populous “big dig” like Gabii has been incredible this season. I call them my finds lab dream team. They are amazing.

Besides just cleaning, identifying, dating, counting, and weighing all of the artefacts recovered during the season, the staff battles a mean afternoon wind which threatens to blow away all their bags, labels, and reference volumes, as well as an increasingly complicated storage situation.

Storage is a very common problem on excavations — it is often logistically difficult and expensive to maintain safe, secure, high quality long-term storage facilities for our artefacts. And the number of artefacts grows every year, but often our storage facilities do not!


Some of our many cassette used to store finds!

We have over 800 plastic crates of primarily ceramics, but also construction material like mosaic fragments, plaster, brick, and tile, and small finds like metal and bone tools.

Protecting against looting and theft is a primary concern when working in a remote areas, but we also have more benign foes: the mice and snakes who chew through the bags of our carefully-sorted pottery — making labels impossible to read or destroying bags altogether.

We have developed several strategies for dealing with these challenges: we try to over-label, we create a substantial digital record of everything we excavate, we try to be very conservative with our use of plastic crates: putting together artefacts from multiple archaeological contexts into the same crate (always all separately bagged and labelled, of course).


Shannon, a member of the finds staff, helping Matt with a photo model used for digital records!


Laura Banducci

A Beautifully Written Good Bye:

One amphora base emerges from the heaping trays of ceramic material that excavators pulled from the dirt. Something red and powdery stains my fingertips before I realize that a layer of pigment still rimes its interior surface, that I am holding a paint pot set aside centuries ago, its contents not quite depleted. In moments like these the goals of archaeology—discovering and reconstructing traces of past human activities—slip into narrow focus. The broad strokes of building, occupation, and abandonment give way to evidence of individual lives: the unique whorls of a potter’s fingerprints, a patched jar, a letter scratched into a surface. Beyond its academic face, archaeology is a deeply emotional process. If objects have biographies, we extend them. With every touch, we connect with the alien past and revive it, see unfinished moments to fruition.

As the season ends, Gabii pauses as well. We sweep out the huts, strip the shade from the lunch area, and say goodbye to friends. The afternoon breeze curls around the bare benches and table up in the finds lab, patient in expectation of next season’s staff and students, who will pick up the fragments where we dropped them and repopulate the city once again.


Alison Rittershaus