After my latest failure to excavate anything remotely Anatolian or Near Eastern, I decided… “%@$!*#1 it. Never mind my degree and specialisation, I will just go excavate in a country I actually like to spend my summer in. Country of choice: Italy. No explanation needed, I think.
It was not long before I saw an excavation floating across Facebook. The Durham or Newcastle Uni Archaeology Society, I am sure. Project found. Having accepted my fate as an underpaid archaeologist, my humble demands are as follows nowadays: as long as I do not lose money on the project, I am in. Excavation Director Man said I could have free accommodation and food in exchange for digging holes. This was a good start, because, believe it or not, some projects actually expect archaeologists (not students, fully trained archaeologists) to pay for the privilege to dig holes. For the flight, I arranged a small travel bursary. Not for the excavation, but for a conference I was presenting at in Poland later in the summer. The Travel Bursary People did not mind the small stop-over in Italy, it seems. I never mentioned it, they never called me out on it. I also intended to fly from Poland to Palestine afterwards, but this never happened due to the summer 2014 Gaza conflict. WizzAir never did refund my 80 EUR flight from Warsaw to Tel Aviv on account of war breaking out. Seems like a legit reason to cancel, I would have thought? Life lessons…
Anyway the flights I did scrape together from the travel bursary were no less adventurous: for around 100 EUR I believe I did Stansted-Naples, Rome-Warsaw and Warsaw-Stansted. Not the nice airport in Rome, obviously. The tiny far-away one. This was also the memorable summer where my flight to Naples was so delayed (4 hours, give or take) that EasyJet actually resorted to giving us food vouchers. Vouchers worth less than any item for sale in the departures hall. This goes in my top 5 ‘most useless airline apologies’. (Mysterious explanation: ‘we can’t find the crew, we will try to get a new one from Luton’ what?) I landed in Naples so late that I could not possibly make it out to my remote mountain site, so wonderful Excavation Director Man actually came and picked me up from the airport at 1 AM, let me stay at his family apartment for the night and bought me amazing awesome Italian coffee in the morning. Now that, that goes in my top 5 ‘nicest things people have done for me’. I am not sure I thanked him adequately to be honest.
That was a long and relatively unrelated pre-amble to the actual excavation; sorry. I had picked the coast near Naples rather optimistically, picturing myself swaying a pick-axe in bikini while looking out over the Mediterranean Sea (disregarding all site safety protocols, obviously). Typical Dutch mistake: I did not check the elevation levels on the map. (No seriously, I always forget, and always live to regret it. Room in Cambridge. Apartment in Germany. On a hill, every bloody time.) Turns out, the site is on a huge specimen of a mountain, near a little place called Castello del Matese. Seriously, it was so high up (about 1 km), we were almost permanently inside a cloud. Fog everywhere, rain all the time.
Our accommodation was heaven compared to Romania: a roof without holes, (some) electricity, (some) hot water, bathrooms, comfy (old) beds and bonuses: a fireplace, a guitar and a kitchen stocked with Italian food. Since it was so bloody cold and wet most the time (in Italy, in July) this was very welcome. Oh and extra, extra bonus: truffle area meant fresh truffles! That said, it was some sort of ‘eco lodge’ in the middle of nowhere and the internet was definitely not good enough to stream the football (European or World Cup that year? Cannot remember, but it was one of the last times Holland was actually remotely good…). From the outside, in its little cloud, the place was definitely a bit depressing looking. Good thing this is easily remedied by friendly Italians and awesome food!
What we had at the site was probably the remains of a c. 2nd century BCE public building of some sort (lets’ call it a sanctuary), later turned into a farm. Probably a sheep farm. The suggestion is that the public building may have first been destroyed, which could have happened in the 90-88 BCE ‘Social Wars’. The farming went on for a while, at least till the 2nd century CE, maybe 4th century CE. In fact, it was still going on as we were excavating, cattle and horses being frequent visitors. What makes this remotely interesting? The ridiculous location. Not only an interesting place for a late Roman farm, but also right on the border between what used to be Roman and Samnite territory.
Intro to the Samnites: an Italic group of people who lived in South-Central Italy before Rome became an Empire. Around the 1st century BCE there was a lot of fighting between the Samnites and the Romans about dominating this part of Italy. The Samnites were made up of a bunch of tribes (like most groups in the area around that time) and at first helped the Romans fight in Gaul (4th century). Then they fought the Romans for a while (3rd century). Then they were of course kind of forced to join them (2nd century) (becoming ‘allies’ together with a bunch of other groups). They still resisted though, so whenever something was going on they would join the force opposing the main Roman body of power (like in 90 BCE war). Rebels! They lost (again) however, so that was really the end of that. Of course this does not say a lot about who the Samnites really were and what their society was like. That is why it is cool to find some traces of them.
At the moment nothing is really known about the existence of specific Samnite cities or literature. Maybe there was nothing like that; who knows. They come across as poor farmers, but whether that is a gap in the archaeological record or a reflection of reality, I cannot judge. A few Roman writers have commented on Samnite culture and social structure, and of course grave goods can be used to form a picture, but it is not a lot to go on to be honest. They were probably… democratic. But how it all worked is a little unclear. I am going to guess there was some hierarchy, too. They worshipped a number of major Roman deities such as Jupiter et al., a load of minor mythological figures, and also some Greek ones. Probably not quite according to the same pantheon however. They spoke Oscan. Some mysteries left to be solved, I guess!
What else is there to do around Naples? Oh hey, Pompeii and Herculaneum. I have visited a couple of times before so I did not go all out taking beautiful photographs of frescoes, stepping stones and Vesuvius (regretting this while writing the blog-post). Instead, I resolutely told the lady at the ticket office I would act as tour-guide for my colleagues. Possibly in Italian. Bit over-confident maybe. Or a lot. Anyway. Things to note: Pompeii is really bloody expensive (I think I might have been going for a double student-tour-guide discount there in some sort of desperate attempt to save money; not sure). Pompeii really needs this money, to stay standing, but rumour has it that most of it goes to Italian mafia… Actually, correction. I just googled it, and the website advertises the ticket price as 11 EUR (5.50 concessions). Maybe I miss-remembered that. Or they finally changed it. Or I mixed it up with Petra in my head. I would say 11 EUR for a whole day in an entire ancient city is not expensive anyway. Herculaneum costs the same, but is significantly smaller and unless you are as enthusiastic as I am it does not require a full day to see. There are combination tickets with other sites and museums in the area, depends a bit how long you plan to be there! Oh in case you did not know: Pompeii and Herculaneum were prosperous Roman towns which are very well preserved due to their untimely destruction during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, chronicled by Pliny the Elder.
Top tip for Pompeii: get a map. Like any modern city, it is big and all streets look the same. I have never visited without getting lost, with one memorable two hour search for mum when I was little. Highlights include the brothel, with frescoes showing different positions and prices; the baths, because who does not love hypocausts; the villa of the mysteries – bit of a walk, but beautiful when not under construction; the fresco of Venus Marina, city goddess of Pompeii; the amphitheatre (where we finally found mum); as well as the forum, where some casts of dying people are on display on the side; and the temples surrounding the forum. Details: stepping stones in the streets, to avoid rainwater and animal waste; little shops in front of houses, where you can see holes which used to hold pots (sometimes re-constructed with actual pots). I could write a very long blog-post about Pompeii alone, and every single villa and fresco (there are four different phases/styles of fresco, but google that if it interests you). These were my recommended highlights though. Also: bring food, or leave the site and go back in (it is possible). The cafeteria in there is an absolute waste of money and time. There are however a few points where you can re-fill your water-bottle, Roman style. Bonus information: like Rome, Pompeii was not built in a day, and people lived in the area in pre-Roman times; with people, I mean a handful of Samnites.
Herculaneum: while many improvements have been made and it is certainly possible to visit, this is not the most wheelchair accessible site in existence. It include a massive ramp to get there and also a load of curbs/sidewalks to scale. Just saying, it is definitely possible, but not totally ideal for the elderly or little sisters with knee complaints (ahem). On the other hand, I would say this is definitely more child-friendly than Pompeii, as you can let your kids run around and explore cool corners and alleyways without actually losing them entirely. There are so many little rooms to peek into; it is awesome. Herculaneum was the harbour town related to Pompeii (the coastline has moved since) and it is a bit smaller and friendlier to roam around. Of course my all-time favourite thing from Herculaneum is the Villa of the Papyri, where they, yes really, found a pile of papyri. You cannot see the library there now (it is undergoing very serious conservation in some museum or other; wish I could work there by the way), but it pleases me knowing that it was there once upon a time all the same. Also, while on the topic, Herculaneum has a so-called Samnite House (later House of the Great Portal), which is, unsurprisingly probably, the oldest building there and definitely worth seeing.
Oh but my sigh-seeing did not end there. On my way to Rome, to go to Warsaw, I decided to have a look around Ostia. Hold on, travel story first: I had a ridiculous flight (very cheap, remember) at something like 5 AM, and none of my friends in Rome checked their Facebook messages, so my only option was to sleep at the airport. I took a surprisingly nice and cheap train from somewhere on my mountain to Rome (to which I was kindly driven by wonderful Excavation Director Man). Oh if I can ever give any advice: do not sleep at Rome Ciampino airport. The main departures hall closes at night, and of course I was not allowed to check in my luggage until like two hours before my actual flight, so me and Luggage (now Pillow) were sent to the little building next to it. There was no internet (maybe this has changed since 2014?) and there were also no sockets, so the only thing to do for something like 8 hours was to read a book and try to sleep. The latter was impossible, because there were very, very bright lights, and also a cleaner who seemed to drive one of those little cleaning cars around the entire bloody night? Really? I just remember it being bright, it being loud, it being cold (in July) and it being dusty. No chairs, no benches, no (affordable) food, nothing. Just sad, sad travellers lining the walls with coats and hats over their heads. Also, my laptop, which I could not plug in anyway, was broken, which was just a depressing thought in general. One of the most unpleasant nights in an airport I have ever, ever had. Anyway, back to the day before.
I dropped Luggage at the train station (having to pay some extortionate amount of money, and having to wait in line for at least twenty minutes) (now that I write this, maybe it was only 5 EUR, I can clearly exaggerate…) and got on the subway/tram to Ostia Antica. Sadly, I was wearing my excavating-in-the-rain-on-a-mountain kit, and carrying my backpack with laptop (too paranoid to leave it at the station) in 35 degree weather, so this expedition was hot. Wow, cannot tell you how badly I wish I had worn shorts that day. At least I had a heat-stroke-proof hat on, right. Anyway, from the station it is a little walk up to Ostia (5 minutes?), and tickets are 8 EUR (4 reduced). This is a big site, somewhere in-between Pompeii and Herculaneum I would say. The buildings on the outer edges are not especially fenced off, so it it quite free to explore. I took my time, because the plan was to get to the airport as late as possible (i.e. last bus from the train station). I have been to Ostia much fewer times than Pompeii and Herculaneum (in fact, had I been there before? I am not completely sure) so I cannot pretend to point out amazing highlights. What I remember best are: some kick-ass mosaics, a rather disappointingly reconstructed theatre, a lot of interesting commercial buildings and very nice city entrance gates. I am sure there must have been lovely latrines and baths and some temples too. Also, the café there has free wifi! In case you urgently want to e-mail your supervisor after dropping off the earth for a few weeks due to being in a cloud on a mountain. Since Ostia was the harbour of Rome, and not demolished by a volcanic eruption, buildings here are generally a bit older than in Pompeii and Herculaneum, dating more like 2nd-4th centuries CE. If you are looking for something to do in Rome for a day, especially off-season, this should be at the top of your list. Even when I was there in July it was much, much more quiet than, lets’ say, the Colosseum.
That pretty much concludes my adventures in Italy in the summer of 2014. Do let me know if you run an excavation and would like me to come excavate it. I can supervise students and everything, as long as you feed me. Archaeology interests me. It just does. Money or no money. Find my e-mail address on the About page.