Medieval Tuscany

Medieval Tuscany to conquer the EU

On the Day of Archaeology2015 I shall be designing a new project. Quite unexpectedly, Siena University in a partnership with The American University of Rome has been awarded a prestigious ERC Advanced grant by the European Union (under the Horizon 2020 scheme). Giovanna Bianchi (who lectures at Siena University) and I thought up the concept and gave it a very academic title:

‘The creation of economic and monetary union (7th to 12th centuries): mining, landscapes and political strategies in a Mediterranean region’.

This mouth-full is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of the Maremma, with its glorious miniature Sienas at Massa Marittima and Campiglia Marittima. Our ponderous title, though, is rich with romantic promise. The Tuscan coastal strip runs from the Etruscan promontory sanctuary and port at Populonia past Piombino, the industrial gateway to the island of Elba, and as far as Grosseto.

The motive for the project lies in the hills that discretely rise up from the coastal plain and disappear under a thick covering of chestnuts and firs. These are the Colline Metallifere. The Etruscans first procured copper and iron here, transporting it down to Populonia to ship to the Celts and the Greeks. The Romans seemingly acquired better mines and let the hills be. But a Lombard family with strong Frankish connections, the Aldobrandeschi – whose scions still live in these parts – returned to the Etruscan adits. On and off a thousand years of metal prospecting followed.  In recent decades mining has given way to acquiring sulphur and gas, providing continued employment for the tight villages connected by snaking woodland lanes. Here, believe it not, are the riches that helped to shape Tuscany, becoming as it did by the 12th century the cornerstone of medieval Europe.

Cugnano: the location of one of the excavations of the project

Cugnano: the location of one of the excavations of the project

Our project is explicitly a scientific one. Our objective is to understand how this region that was reduced to prehistoric circumstances in the later 6th century (after the Gothic wars), by steps was transformed to boast splendid townscapes like Massa Marittima by the later 12th century. After decades of research by my old friend, Riccardo Francovich, and his energetic pupil, Giovanna Bianchi, the Siena University hypothesis is that mining in the hills started in the later 9th century at lost villages like Cugnano. The ore was then passed down a river corridor to a lost port on the coast at Carlappiano. Close by is the earliest castle excavated in Italy at Ventricella.

So, working with many collaborators, we aim not only to excavate at these three points in the procurement chain, but also to use a battery of new techniques to analyze the mining and the coins minted from the local silver, while new research takes place on the plentiful 8th-to 10th century charters here.

With this squad of scientists there is a wealth of material to add a vital new chapter in Mediterranean history. Added to this, there is the prospect to make the Maremma the centerpiece of a new medieval story, part of Charlemagne’s legacy and the stage upon which the Renaissance was constructed.