Summer 2008 – The Archaeological Dig
In June 2008, I flew to Rome with twelve other students from Queen's University to participate in a joint archaeological excavation of the Torre Di Satriano site. Arriving first to Rome, we visited the various prominent tourist sites – place we had only studied in classes.
After a seven hour train ride to Ferrandina we took a short bus ride to Matera. There we were met by our professor who escorted to the hostel at which we would stay for a week while we took classes at the Università degli Studi della Basilicata. Matera is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. Perched between the Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano (UNESCO world heritage sites), the city has been inhabited for thousands of years.
Everywhere there are churches and dwellings cut into the hills, decorated with medieval frescoes. At night, the whole city wakes up from the afternoon long slumbers to walk along the street with their friends and families until well past midnight. We spend most of the day in the classroom, learning the methodology behind archaeological excavation as well as the history of various local sites.
It seems the native Italian populations built Greek-like cities and even sometimes lived in Greek colonies, though they rejected Greek democracy in favour of oligarchy. This can be seen in the burial styles, in which a main leader was inhumed like warrior/king, not a Greek orator/politician.
Friday and Saturday are spent travelling. First we visit Metaponto and Heraclea, two Greek colonies on the Eastern coast. In between museum visits, we go to the beach were we play soccer with some Italians and swim with the jelly-fish (medusa). They are hard to see among the relentless crashing waves. Only Andrew is stung by a sizeable blue neon floating thing. Then we went to Venosa (birthplace of the famous Roman poet Horace) and Melfi. Both are hill towns located in the interior mountain range. Melfi is perched particularly precariously on the side of the mostly inactive Mt. Vulture (last errupted 750,000 years ago, perhaps we are overdue). The regional aqua frizzante comes from Mt. Vulture.
At the end of our week in Matera, we took the regional inter-city but to Potenza, where we were met by our Italian counterparts in the Archaeo-Bus. We call it that both because it carries archaeologists ant because it is rather archaic. Along with five other Canadians, I am assigned to Saggio VII, the archaic hut which dates to the 6th century BCE.
Most of our days were spent clearing dirt. First with gentle pickaxe strokes, then with the careful application of shovels and trowels, and finally with brushes and dust pans. Were we to find anything of import, we might use scalpels. Yes, most of archaeology is sweeping dirt from dirt.
At the hut remains, there are banks of hard, yellow claw, rife with concotto (a decorative ceramic waterproofing that covered the outside of the hut and was literally baked when the hut was destroyed by fire), which turns the clay red, and ash from all the incinerated organic material once in the hut, with turns the clay grey. Otherwise, it is very had to distinguish between stratigraphic units, especially inside the hut, where we were hardly allowed to remove more than a millimetre of dirt at a time.
To properly trowel and clean a square or quadrant, you are not allowed to stand within the square or, for that matter, in any other square. You cannot sit, though the ground is unbearably hot anyway, and who doesn't get tired of squatting. You cannot stand on concotto, as it crumbles upon contact, even though it must be removed and preserved.
There are a few tried, though often dangerous, stances which the seasoned archaeologist may adopt, all of which required the flexibility of a trained yogini and the dexterity of a cat.
While cleaning Tomb 63 in Saggio IV, I would balance my stomach on the rock wall of the tomb and lean over into the tomb so that my legs had to be braced above me against the wall of another tomb. I was told I looked ready to go swimming at the beach.
On the weekends we travelled to Pompeii and Paestum, where we were further immersed in local Italic and foreign touristic culture. At the museum at Paestum, a Hellenistic colony which was deserted due to plague in the 4th century BCE, we saw artefacts similar to those uncovered at the newly opened late archaic site (Saggio X) at Torre Di Satriano. Paestum is home to the best preserved Greek temples outside Greece and to a very wicked beach!
By the time our three weeks in the dig were over, I spoke passable Italian and had learned more than my share of technical terms about the artefacts we had uncovered and catalogued as well as the methods we were using. Back in Rome, I was able to view various museum exhibits and interpret artefacts using my first hand knowledge. This is a black-gloss style cup from the late 6th century, missing on handle. This is a coarse-wear amphora used for storing grain. This is a painted archaic cup imitating a style of decoration popular in Athens during the 7th century but produced locally. This is a bronze belt.