Oberlin Blogs

Postcards from Italy

August 31, 2011

Eli Goldberg ’12

It was the beginning of July. I was packing frantically, and emptying my inbox with equal fervor. In a bit over a day, I was leaving for five weeks of field work in Italy -- one of the perks of being an archaeology major. Five weeks in Europe! Five weeks of excavation and research! Five weeks with limited Internet access... how liberating!

And then this happened.

July 1 (via Facebook) Eli Goldberg: Leaving for Italy in 33 hours! If you want a postcard, make sure I have your summer address. (standard disclaimers apply: Italian mail is absurdly slow, I habitually overestimate my postcard-writing capabilities, your postcard is not guaranteed to be written in a language that you actually know, &c.) ‎(... or, for that matter, in a language that _I_ actually know.) Ma'ayan Plaut: Oh MAN I just got a great idea! What if you tell the story of your trip though the postcards you send? Is that too crazy? Am I being too sneaky? Eli Goldberg: Oooh. I like that idea. (I like it a lot more than trying to blog from Italy!) I'm imagining a thing where I send you an update via postcard every few days, and then cobble them into a blog post (or a series of posts) once they all arrive... want to do it?

And so Ma'ayan and I began our transatlantic postcard-blogging experiment! In the process, I learned two important things:
1. Mail from Italy to the U.S. is slow and unreliable. (Hence, the reason you're reading this now instead of a month ago -- and one of the postcards was lost entirely, or is still wending its way across the Atlantic.)
2. It's hard to say insightful things on a small postcard, especially under the combined influence of archaeology, sleep deprivation, and limoncello.

But here, as best as I could capture it, is all the glitz and glamor of archaeological field work distilled into seven postcards...







July 4
Dear Ma'ayan,
Well - it involved two days and three countries, a car, a plane, two trains, a bus, and another car, but I finally made it! For the next month I'll be here in Tornareccio, a tiny little town sandwiched between the Apennines and the Adriatic, which happens to be the home base for the Sangro Valley Project. A small crew of archaeologists have been here for the past week, but there's still a lot to do before the season starts. Tomorrow we start moving equipment into the local middle school, turning it into a makeshift laboratory and student dorm. For now, though, there are new staff to meet, old friends to catch up with, and a huge Italian dinner to eat!


Tornareccio: two thousand people, four bars, three churches, one gas station -- and, for a month or so every summer, a few dozen archaeologists. This is a part of Italy that most American tourists don't ever get to: close-knit, traditional rural towns tucked away in the mountains. Coming in as an outsider, it's a hard place to get a handle on -- and most of the archaeologists are definitely outsiders, set apart by language, culture, and history. The Sangro Valley Project is a collaboration between Oberlin and Oxford, and although we've been working in and around Tornareccio for nearly two decades (sleeping in the middle school, digging on the mountain, walking through farm fields in search of sherds), the annual influx of Brits and Americans still attracts attention, amusement, and probably no small amount of annoyance.

I first came here as a field school student in 2009, the summer after my first year at Oberlin, and it was easily the scariest thing I'd ever done. I'd been abroad before, but never for nearly this long; my Italian vocabulary was limited to musical terms, pasta shapes, and bastardized Latin; I knew practically nothing about the town, and practically no one from the project. After three years, it's familiar enough to be fun rather than terrifying. No way will Tornareccio ever become home for me, the way Oberlin did -- but I have a strange little relationship with this corner of the world.





Postcard #2 didn't make it back to Oberlin, but here's what it said:

July 8 Dear Ma'ayan, We got a busload of new faces today: 20-odd field school students, looking jetlagged and nervous but eager. This is my third season here, and for me it feels like coming back to summer camp; I'd almost forgotten how scary it is to show up for the first time, with no experience and no idea what to expect. I'm vicariously excited for them, but really glad I'm not in their shoes! Some are prospective archaeology majors and some are just along for the ride, but they'll all be digging come Monday morning - we'll see how it goes... Eli

This summer about four dozen staff and students rolled through the SVP at various times (getting everyone in and out of Tornareccio on time is a big deal.) As with any archaeological project, there's a definite hierarchy, and the farther up the pyramid you are, the less time you spend holding a trowel and the more time you spend doing paperwork and being a diplomat. At the top is Susan Kane, the project director and chair of Oberlin's Curricular Committee on Archaeology. (Hovering over her head is the regional archaeological superintendency, which gives us permission to do what we do.) Susan acts as the SVP's long-term memory, supervises everything and everyone, liaises with local government and friends of the project, and deals with crises ranging from "we can't find a site!" to "we're out of Ziploc bags!" Below her are staff managing excavation, field survey, computers, and lab work, and specialists who deal with everything from ceramics to seeds to ethnography -- not to mention the cook, who at the beginning of each season announces his firm conviction that "an excavation marches on its stomach!"

At the bottom of the ladder are the field school students, there to learn and to move dirt. Field school is a rite of passage and an essential career move for any aspiring archaeologist: it's the moment when you put down your textbooks, pick up a trowel, and discover how things really work -- sweat, sunburns, muscle aches and all. The SVP's Oxford students come from a rigid curriculum of nothing but classical archaeology, while the Oberlin students are about split between committed archaeology/anthropology/classics majors and curious ones just looking to explore, in true liberal arts fashion. Each year a few experienced students return to help supervise in the trench, or to work on an honors project, as I'm doing. I think of our roles in summer camp terms: if the field school students are the campers, we're the CITs -- definitely not staff yet, but experienced enough to know our way around.





July 11 Dear Ma'ayan, Perfect timing: our first day in the field coincided with a huge heat wave. The high temp today was above 40ºC; not pretty. To avoid the hottest hours, we got up at 5:30 AM and by 6:30 had started work. Most of the first day is just orientation: teaching the students to use trowels and picks and instilling in them the two fundamental principles of archaeological excavation: 1. Don't dig holes! 2. Keep your dirt clean! We're already uncovering a ton of roof tile - my specialty and the topic of my honors project - so it looks like I'll be busy. Eli

Days of fieldwork are long. They start around 6 or 7 AM standing in line for breakfast, smearing on sunscreen, and hopping into a van to the site. They end with an evening lecture, an enormous Italian dinner (have I mentioned the SVP has great food?), and more often than not a night at the bar. What you do in between depends on who you are, what the weather is like, and what's happening at the site. As a field school student, you spend the first week learning to use the tools of the trade -- a trowel and a pick, a hoe and a malepeggio -- and rotating among the various specialists to learn how they work. Once you've seen a bit of everything, you get a chance to spend more time in the areas that interest you. On any given day you might be clearing off a building foundation in the trench, drawing and documenting artifacts, sorting ceramics, floating soil samples to look for seeds, or walking through fields in search of our next site. This is one of the things that fascinates me about archaeology: no matter what your skills and passions are, chances are they're relevant in some way, and there's a use for them on site.






July 16 Dear Ma'ayan, Saturday! Yay! This is our day off, and after the first week of work, I needed the break. Most students took the bus to the beach to swim in the Adriatic; I went hiking on Monte Pallano with Miriam and Jamie, two of the four 2012 archaeology majors. Pallano and surroundings have been the focus of much of our project's work, and it's covered with archaeological material: the summit has megalithic walls and an ancient sanctuary, while the slopes are scattered with crumbling shepherd's huts and agricultural terraces (the subject of Jamie's research here). Armed only with trowels, snacks, and an archaeological theory textbook, we plowed through brambles to the alleged site of a medieval tower, took exceptionally silly pictures, and made it back in time for dinner. Relaxation accomplished. Eli

There are so many things I could write about the wonders of days off, but I think this picture says it all:

Archaeology majors in their natural habitat: waging trowel warfare on Monte Pallano.






July 24 Dear Ma'ayan, Our heat wave finally broke, and I have never seen Tornareccio like this before. Fog rolled in slowly all afternoon, bringing wind and chill, turning the mountains around us into islands. Everything is gray and close; moist mist seeps under closed shutters. The Italians seem shocked; I think it's wonderful. Today is Sunday, so out of respect for the Catholic community here we are not working in the field; this meant I could spend the day on the balcony of our flat, drinking tea, reading articles, enjoying the feeling of sitting in a cloud. Tomorrow it's back out into the field, unless we get rained out... Eli

In some ways, archaeology is all about the unexpected. Despite the best educated guesses, you never really know how much you'll find until you start digging, and it can take a while to determine what exactly you've got. Your site is 300 years earlier than you thought; there are three buildings where you only expected one; you find a pit full of animal bones the day after the faunal expert leaves; the potsherds don't match the regional ceramic sequence. And you've only got a few weeks to figure it out. This is in addition to the logistical uncertainty of archaeological work: everything from weather to local and international politics can get in the way on a moment's notice. Things pop up, and you find ways to keep working, and adapt your theories as you go.

This year brought a few more surprises than usual. We were digging in an area we'd never worked in before, a family compound in the center of town, which came with a whole new set of local relationships and social expectations. As we worked through the site, locating a building and chasing down the foundations without much else to go on, theories flew: an early medieval church? A Roman bathhouse? The final story -- well, I'll let you know when it's published. Suffice to say that even on a relatively small site, archaeological interpretation is never straightforward; it's an exercise in keeping your mind open and flexible. As Miriam, one of the student trench supervisors, commented to me, there aren't many other jobs that require so much physical work, so much detailed observation, and so much intellectual creativity all at the same time.






July 28 Dear Ma'ayan, Today we finished excavating, which means: site photography! [A labelled stick figure diagram shows a "photographer with very long cable". At the end of the cable are three "huge orange balloons (looked like giant peaches)" supporting a "tiny camera", which is snapping pictures of a "large hole in the ground with ancient building foundations". Only the photographer's magical skill prevents the wind from blowing the camera into the adjacent "massive dirt heap (not to scale)".] Not depicted: 27 students eating cookies and watching the show... Eli

The end of excavation always takes me by surprise. This year we worked on-site for two and a half weeks, an unusually short season. Suddenly the digging was done, and artifacts needed to be labeled, nested in boxes, and carried off to storage; our makeshift labs in the local middle school needed to be dismantled; and the site needed to be backfilled. There's something bittersweet about seeing what you've worked so hard to excavate swallowed by soil -- maybe to be uncovered again the next summer, maybe to sit untouched for years, decades, centuries...






August 6 Dear Ma'ayan, One of the secret perks of doing fieldwork here is that in order to travel in and out of the Abruzzo, you basically have to spend a night in Rome. So this is technically my sixth trip to Rome, although none has been longer than 36 hours. I always go to my favorite restaurant and see my favorite monument, the Pantheon, then just wander without a map. After a month in one very tiny town, it's startling but exhilarating to be in a huge, anonymous, limitless city - and to be on the way home... Eli

Here's the deal: there are lots of things you can do at Oberlin, lots of things to study, lots of research opportunities. But -- even with all the hard work and all the little frustrations -- I honestly believe I have the coolest major, and the coolest summer job, in the world. At least, it's easy to believe that when I'm sitting outside the Pantheon on my way home from the field: boots caked with ancient dirt, sleepy and sore and sunburned, watching tourists walk by and wondering what it would be like to do this every summer for the rest of my career.

And I made it home with the best souvenirs of all: new data and fresh samples for my honors project! But that's a story for another post...

A thousand thanks to Ma'ayan for being my correspondent and photographing the postcards for me!

Similar Blog Entries