classical archaeology

From the Villa to the Villas – In the Shadow of Mt. Vesuvius

Some like them exotic, some like them simple. I guess I like them big, luxurious and… Roman. I can’t say exactly when my passion for Roman villas (I guess the title gave me away, eh) started, but there surely is a pattern there: from the moment when I was asked to do a research for my Archaeology & Anthropology class in high school, and I chose to discuss the Villa of the Mysteries in front of a bunch of clueless 17 years old Australians, to the life-changing moment when I submitted my application for a Curatorial Internship at the J.-P. Getty Museum. But this is not the story of how I spent my days as a Classical Archaeologist strolling around the reconstructed peristyle of the Villa of the Papyri – although I could fill pages with the amazingness of experiencing my dream job [Dream job /dri:m dʒɒb/: to work in any Archaeological Museum filled with Classical Antiquities].

This is the story of how I decided to come back home, to Italy, and got myself a room with a view on Mt. Vesuvius.


Mt. Vesuvius seen from Villa Arianna, Stabiae. Photo caption ARC


The year, 2010. I am writing my thesis on some Neronian frescoes (not just “Neronian” but “Neronian-Neronian”, aka, from one of the many wings of Nero’s palace in Rome), and decide to go look at similarly themed-frescoes in the best wall-paintings archive in the world: the Vesuvian sites. On a sunny day, I make my first encounter with Villa San Marco and Villa Arianna, and immediately fall in love  (Pompeii what?).


Four years later, I am currently working in Castellammare di Stabia for the Restoring Ancient Stabiae (RAS) Foundation, trying to preserve and make known this often-forgotten site (by tourists at least) to local and international audiences. Each year, the Foundation facilitates archaeological excavations and conservation campaigns from all over the world; promotes summer schools and university-level lectures and visits to the archaeological sites of Campania, as well as programs for local schools. It has also funded some major exhibitions and made the objects recovered at Stabiae tour the world – a big pro for a museum geek like me. So what does an archaeologist do at the RAS? Or rather, what do my colleague, Paolo Gardelli, and I do? We try to fit together a puzzle of pieces, often on the very same day!

Piece 1 – Digging and Restoring


Lapilli anyone? Photo caption ARC


Mind there: before actually digging and restoring, there’s a lot of paper-work to do. But once that’s over (if it is ever over), and once the projects and the collaborations have been signed, the archaeological fun begins. I have been here only a month now, but I did get my peek on all the different projects that are taking place at Stabiae: from looking for the lost root cavities in the gardens – or in a corner viridarium – to washing floors to make the marble pieces stand out; from scooping underground to see what is left there to scratching the surfaces of columns to take the salts away, I got to see all this taking form and meaning. After a long pause, I even got to hold a trowel again. And it is like going on a bycicle: you just never forget how to use it.

Piece 2 – Research


Villa Arianna, diaeta 12, detail of IV style decoration. Photo caption ARC

Digging is publishing, shouldn’t this be the rule? And what does an archaeologist like me do in two villas full of frescoes? She picks one. Daily task for me: finding a wall-painting that needs publishing, or I think deserves publishing, or I love particularly (okay, this is getting harder). Then study it, make it as if I painted it with my own bare hands and amazing taste in juxtaposing colors and themes. Find the reason beyond a certain subject (why that small Psyche over there?), a color (why is that column green?), a context (why in that room?).

Piece 3 – Education


Our 2014 Summer School group visiting Villa Arianna. Photo caption ARC

 Last but not least, our daily tasks also involve teaching and taking schools and university groups to see the villas. Our Education programs are many and varied, and they also include simulated digs in a dedicated area at the Institute, workshops, lectures on the Vesuvian sites, archaeo-music… There’s much to choose from, and I personally enjoy doing it. I’m truly convinced that part of the mission of an archaeologist (or a curator, for that matters) is to share his/her knowledge and simultaneously take from others. Have you ever met a 10 years old girl asking you if Diodorus Siculus ever wrote anything on Cremona? It’s a priceless experience.

Day is over, time to go and immerse myself in one of the many books that has been written on the cities buried by Vesuvius. Oh yes, another perk of working here.

Gladiators and the Colosseum

For Dr Pier Matteo Barone the Day of Archaeology 2014 was spent teaching students of the American University of Rome about Roman architecture. One great advantage is that the class doesn’t have to stay in the lecture room or look at powerpoint images – they can go and see the real thing!

“Have you seen pictures of monuments like these in your classes? Ever wondered why ancient Rome is so attractive? Or whether you could really sense the ancient Roman gladiators fighting in the Colosseum? In the summer I teach ARC 101, Roman Archaeology on-site, to a group of students made up mostly of Study Abroad students who come to Rome for an intensive fix of Roman archaeology! It’s great because students can discover the richness of Roman archaeology through a combination of academic instruction and on-site visits, getting hands-on experience. The temperature can get pretty hot in Rome in July but it beats being stuck indoors!”