Middle Ages at work

It’s a cold morning of the end of october and the air is already chilly, almost wintry. The northern wind clears the sky and the sight reaches the horizon and meets the islands of Montecristo and Elba.

Above our heads an ancient medieval fortress, mighty and lonely.




What’s it thinking about us? About this few people who are walking up on the paths in the wood, willing to build up a house travelling again over the gestures and knowledge of that thousand-year-old humanity who erected the Fortress of San Silvestro.


These and many other thoughts come into my mind. Emotions are strong and a dream has become true. I’m not feeling cold anymore. I hear voices from a distance, it’s Dario, the master builder, the guardian of “knowledge”. He tells me about the lime to put out, firstly in the morning, carefully, and he reminds me of how, in his childhood, he started working with his father…and how a construction site of his times was not so different from our medieval one.



My dream. After passing 15 years digging and studying medieval architectures of towers, palaces, churches and castles all around Tuscany, after a PhD and many projects abroad, eventually theory becomes practice. The idea of building a house in the way they did in the Middle-Age is really taking place.
The project is called “Medioevo in corso” and is born from a collaboration between the co-op Coopera, in which I take part, and the company Parchi Val di Cornia, that has been managing greatly a web of Museums, Archaeological and Naturalistic Parks in the Populonia promontory area, in the province of Livorno, for more than 20 years.

Our construction site is at the feet of the fortress, right outside the building circuit, and we are three working on it. Dario, the hand and the head. A huge man, shadowy..but just on the surface, a life dedicated to work, today the custodian of an endangered knowledge that should be kept alive.
Then comes me, Alessandro, archaeologist specialized in medieval architecture, apprentice and scientific project consultant, as well as object of Dario’s continuous jokes….all because of my urge to write notes and take photographs of things he thinks the most insignificant. As a rule, there’s also a third assistant who shares with us the burdens of the workday.

But why building a house in the Middle Age?” This is the question I hear most of the times. The possible answers are many. The ripercussions of the project vary from the regard to the communication of the archaeological data, to the scientific research and the archaeological restoration. The hard daily life of the construction site, the meticulous reconstruction of all the operations linked to it allow to answer to a series of questions so well, that the only study won’t have done it. Only to this day, I have a pretty clear idea of all the necessary resources (stone, lime, water, wood) to build a house, and now I can suppose an evaluation not too far from reality, for the building of an entire castle.

Our structure follows the model of the houses of the castle that date back to the XII century reconstruction: a one-floor house, 6 x 4 m, with a pitched roof, covered in sheets of stone.

As though in a “workshop”, I learn all the essential steps to “put out” the lime, that is to turn it into slaked lime to be kneaded with water and sand in a “mixer”, built on the model of that brought to light during the dig of the Donoratico castle (Castagneto Carducci – LI). They are tanks dug in the ground where the lime could be kneaded in a continuous cycle with a wooden machine, avoiding the heavy manual operations. Structures like these date back to a period between VIII and X century and the few examples found in Europe always correspond to construction sites linked to important monasteries or royal palaces, places where highly specialized workforces circulated.




…I learn to square a stone voussoir with chisel and mallet, I learn to wall up just with plumb line and level, but every evening the strain is rewarded by a wall, growing in its height, that will be found there by my future colleagues even in a hundred years.




I learn to build a wooden scaffolding and a roof made of sheets of slate.





I learn that the transmission of knowledge is a path that arises from the observation of the gestures, from the imitation of them, and I understand the meaning of “work-shadowing”.


A medieval construction site is a challenge against time, it’s a game with eternity. Just now I manage to understand it and will be able to pass it down.

How to spend a day at your museum, when you are an archaeologist but you work as a guardian

Once upon a time, there was a young girl and archaeology student. She visited the National Archaeological Museum of Florence and, when she saw the terrible and magnificent bronze statue of the Chimera, she said “One day I will work here!”. Maybe Someone listened her and a few years later, when she graduated, the Italian Ministry of Culture announced a competition for more of 300 Museum Assistants to archaeological Superintendencies. For the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany only 10 people won, and among these, there was me.

The Etruscan bronze staue of Chimera

The Etruscan bronze statue of Chimera

Yes, it’s me the young girl who expressed the desire in front of Chimera! In may 2010 I and nine other young archaeologists like me started to work at National Archaeological Museum of Florence.

Yeah, that’s right: our work consists in checking the halls of the archaeological museum. We are guardians (the correct name is Museum’s Assistant…) so we check our masterpieces, like bronze statues of Chimera, Arretian Minerva and Arringatore, or the François Vase, or coffins and mummies in the Egyptian Museum.

The daily life of the Museum’s Assistant is boring. We spend 6 hours each day in our hall and we intimate to the people “No flash” and “Restrooms are on the Second Floor”… It’s not an exciting work at all… Rarely, visitors ask for some information about the museum’s collection or about some archaeological artifact; above all, the Archaeological Garden of the Museum fascinates the public, and a lot of people ask for information about it.

The Museum's garden

The Museum’s garden

When we don’t stay in museum’s halls, we work at the “supervision room”, a space where we supervise all the museum for security: the museum is checked by cameras and in this room we watch the cameras. It’s a surveillance system that helps Museum’s Assistants in their work. Furthermore, we work three or four nights a month, to ensure the surveillance at night.

The work of Museum’s Assistant is boring. It’s boring if you know that you could use your working time in a different way. It’s boring because we are archaeologists and our competence is wasted. We could really help the museum in its mission to engage the public, to educate young public, to communicate archaeology, to increase culture. Instead, our competence is not appreciated and we stay in our hall to sentence “No flash” and “Restrooms are on second Floor” (but also “Second floor today is closed, I’m sorry” or “The garden is closed, I’m sorry”…).

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m glad to work in the museum. But I can’t use my competence as an archaeologist because my work is to check the artifacts and no more! My job profile instead consists of a lot of others roles: communication, treatment, collaboration in educational activities with schools… From 2010 to 2012 I didn’t carry out any of these others features of my job profile. Finally, from spring 2013 something changed.

Our Superintendent asked to the Museum’s Assistants collaboration in increasing accessibility for the Museum. I am able to write a blog, I’m archaeoblogger and museumblogger too, so I suggested to open a blog dedicated to all the Florence Museum’s activities. The Superintendent liked the idea, but he wanted a blog dedicated to all the Archeological Superintendence of Tuscany! From May 2013 the Archeotoscana blog is active, together with a facebook fanpage and a twitter account. I and another colleague, a young archaeologist like me, we work everyday on the blog and social media communication. When? Yep! When we work in the “supervision room” or when we work by night! We have not an office, obviously, it’s impossible to think that! But when we are in museum’s hall, if you see us with smartphone in our hands, you know that we’re not playing, but we’re twitting… (and of course, I dedicate a lot of time when I’m at home, as a real social media manager… my husband is not happy, but… 😉 )

Chimera is the symbol of Archeotoscana Blog and Social Media

Chimera is the symbol of Archeotoscana Blog and Social Media

In my opinion, our blogging is great work because there are very few museumblogs in Italy, and very few archaeological museum’s blogs. So, I think our work is important to increase communication with the public and to increase public too. I believe strongly in this, so I want to keep up the good work!

Furthermore, during last winter Museum’s Assistants took part in educational activities. So, we collaborated with Educational Services and we organized some events like the “Families at Museum’s Day” or the “Digital Invasions” that had a lot of success. These are good opportunities for the Museum to open its doors to more and more people in a different way… I’m glad to be part of this activities and for the future we will plan others cultural exhibitions… stay tuned!

The Families at Museum's Day at National Archaeological Museum of Florence

The Families at Museum’s Day at National Archaeological Museum of Florence

Yes, I know, my main role is staying in museum’s hall to say “No flash” and “Restrooms are on Second Floor”. But I hope that the current situation will change. And for me, now, the Museum’s Assistant is not a so boring work…

Digging on the Web

On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy preparing to head off to the field (in sunny Tuscany (!!)), square away some data, and finish work on some tech consulting.  That last bit is a clue that I’m not really a “normal archaeologist”. Actually, I’ve never met an archaeologist that I’d consider normal –  which is what attracted me to this field in first place. But even among archaeologists, I’m something of an odd-ball.

I have a background in Near Eastern archaeology, and did my dissertation research looking at interactions between Egypt and the Levant (modern Israel, Palestine, Lebanon) in the Early Bronze Age. But for various reasons, both personal and professional, I shifted gears toward the digital side of archaeology, co-founded a nonprofit with my wife (and boss!), and for the past 10 years, I’ve loved almost every minute of my work day. Except writing grant proposals (but there are some necessary evils in all work).

My research and professional interests focus on archaeological data, and much less on digging and field work for myself. This focus means I have a very different professional network, set of collaborators, and work life. Though I work closely with other archaeological professionals, I’m also heavily engaged with folks well outside the discipline, including Web and information scientists, digital librarians and archivists, technology companies, “digital humanists”, and researchers in scholarly communications.

I keep such odd company because I’m really interested in improving the way archaeologists communicate and share their research. Archaeology is intensely multidisciplinary and collaborative. It involves inputs from all sorts of different sciences, and many archaeologists work together in large teams. Sharing the results of all this research needs to reflect the collaborative nature of the field, and it needs to speak with people in other disciplines and walks of life. That’s why I’m so interested in making it archaeological data more open, easier to share, and easier to reuse.

My primary project is Open Context. It’s a system for publishing archaeological data, openly, on the Web, for all to browse and reuse. On this “Day of Archaeology”, I’m busy indexing tens of thousands of detailed records of archaeological contexts, objects, bones, and other material from Kenan Tepe, a major excavation in Turkey led by Bradley Parker. This collection represents the monumental effort of almost 10 years of field work. You can browse around its photo archives and see many thousands of pictures, mainly of dirt. Though it is free to access and use, the data are priceless. Excavation is a destructive process, and the documentation describing such excavations will be the only record available to revisit and re-analyze excavation results. That’s why comprehensive publishing with platforms like Open Context, as well as archiving with digital repositories like tDAR, the ADS, or the CDL is so important.

As this blog post should make clear, I love working with the Web. And what I like most about it is that I work with a growing and vibrant community of like minded people who want to see more from archaeology than costly journal articles read by a narrow few. The developers of ARK, Portable Antiquities, all the collaborators of Pelagios, and the bottom-up group linking archaeological data, are all hugely talented and make my work life rewarding and fun. All this makes archaeology (for me) as much about community and the future as it is about the past.

Archaeology on the Puccini Lake

Sun is shining in Massaciuccoli, Tuscany! We’re diggin’ this interesting Roman building, it’s 5 professionals, plus many students from Pisa, Florence, Cardiff & Aberdeen Universities!

The excavations in Massaciuccoli started long ago with the digging up of the thermal bath covered by beautiful I century A.D. mosaics in 1934. Today the Team of professionals and students is immersed in the excavation of the rest of the building, just across the road. This more recent excavation started in 2006 and it will finish in the next year, 2012.

Because of the display of the building and its surronding, initial therories categorised it as a Roman Villa, but due to new finds such as a pottery stamp with the image of two gladiators and pieces of a furnace, new theories have arose. One of them  is the possible use of the building for pottery production, and the area 4000 may have been a market place open to the public. In the area next to area 4000, there was also found a holy room containing an altarpiece and in front of it a base for a statue. In this room the walls are covered by a mix of mashed bricks, clay and a kind of mortar that draws them together.

It is an interesting site which offers new challenges and experiences everyday. Young archaeologists and students from around the world are invited to join our excavation!

Click here for a brief video about these last months of excavation (Febr-June 2011), and here for a video and interview (the latter in Italian), or follow us on Facebook!

So you want to be a Roman bioarchaeologist…

If you’re anything like me, you’ve wanted to dig up the bones of dead Romans for as long as you can remember.  (Well, except for that brief period where I wanted to dig up dinosaurs and the even briefer one where I thought I might become a mathematician.)  But if you live in the southern U.S. like I do, you’re certainly not discovering Roman skeletons in your garden all the time.  What does a Roman bioarchaeologist do every day?  Generally, teach, research, and talk to colleagues and the public about teaching and research.

Osteology Field Lecture

Sometimes I get to teach osteology in the field (Tuscany, Summer 2004)

Teaching.  The great thing about the American incarnation of the discipline of anthropology – something I didn’t honestly learn until graduate school – is that it’s what we call four-field: it combines archaeological, biological, cultural, and linguistic approaches to understanding humankind, past and present.  As a university professor, it means that, in a given semester, I teach undergraduates about genetics, monkeys, and cultural relativism more often than I talk about my own research projects on the ancient Romans.  But the amazingly diverse subject matter of my typical Introduction to Anthropology course also means that I can draw from almost any topic in the week’s news to illustrate my lectures and to foster discussion: How does the hubbub over the “gay caveman” from the Czech Republic reflect our preconceived notions about sexuality?  Why does anyone care if Shakespeare – or any Elizabethan Brit – smoked pot?  Who polices American gender norms, telling us that little boys can’t paint their toenails pink and little girls shouldn’t pretend to nurse their dolls?  In teaching students about anthropology, I try to teach them to question the ideas we take for granted and to critique the categories that we often think of as inherent and immutable, to let them see that every culture has its own rules and is a product of its own time.

Roman Woman with Healed Broken Nose

Roman Woman with Healed Broken Nose

Research.  I’m not going to lie – fieldwork is the best part of my job.  Who wouldn’t like digging up dead Romans by day and eating pizza in the shadow of the Colosseum by night?  While teaching gives me the thrill of watching students who have never been exposed to anthropology realize they love it, holding the bones of someone long-dead and reading their biography from their bodies still gives me chills.  After two millennia, the Romans introduce themselves to me, telling me where they were born, showing me their scars, and complaining about their arthritic knees.  It can be hard to listen to the woman with a fractured nose (a victim of domestic violence?) and especially to the babies who didn’t have a chance to grow up because of a simple lack of antibiotics and multivitamins.  And yet, as the field of bioarchaeology has advanced and incorporated the techniques of chemical analysis, my research on the ancient Romans has gone beyond the wildest dreams of my 12-year-old self.  I’ve gotten to identify immigrants to Rome and to investigate their lives in the largest urban center of its time, a topic the historical sources rarely discuss.  I’ve gotten to find out what the average Roman ate, and to see that their childhood diet was actually quite different from what they ate as adults.  And I’ve gotten to work with an array of amazing international archaeologists and anthropologists along the way.

Outreach.  The final piece of my job is not mandatory but is becoming increasingly common.  In his keynote address at the American Anthropological Association meeting last fall, the archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff pointed out that there are no academics representing the face of anthropology.  We no longer have a Margaret Mead or a Franz Boas. Moving the discipline forward in the digital age, he said, means that it’s going to be “public or perish.”  So why be content with the few dozen people who will read your dissertation?  Being an academic today is about putting yourself out there as an expert, being the face of some topic, the person who can explain the importance of an anthropological concept to students and the public.  I have tried to take up this challenge with my own blog, which I envision as a public form of the informal communication that I have all the time with my colleagues.  Through blogging, I have started discussions with people in my field, in other academic disciplines, and outside of the academy completely.  It’s also been useful as a way for me to work through my plot bunnies (or academic otters), those nagging ideas that may not be fully formed but need to get out so that I can focus on one thing at a time.  Fortunately, other academics are also choosing this route to public engagement, and projects like Day of Archaeology allow us to contribute to a broader discussion of what the discipline means and how best to show others our enthusiasm for it.

It’s certainly not easy being a bioarchaeologist in academia, juggling several facets of our work on a daily basis and multitasking like mad.  But the rewards are fantastic: not just flying around the world to excavate in exotic locales, but watching students have “a-ha” moments after a heated discussion about evolution, and explaining to the public why we anthropologists don’t single out the privileged few who “shaped” society while ignoring the millions of others who actually made that society function.

I may not be a dinosaur-mathematician, but I’ve discovered that my childhood dream of studying the dead could come true with a little hard work.   I will continue to define myself broadly as an anthropologist and narrowly as a Roman bioarchaeologist for as long as I can.

 Kristina Killgrove currently teaches anthropology at Vanderbilt University, researches the Romans at Gabii, and interacts with the public through her blog (Powered by Osteons) and her Twitter feed (@BoneGirlPhD).