During the summer I took part in an archaeological excavation at the ancient city of Aeclanum in central Italy. This region of Italy is immensely important to my area of study, and contains some of the most complete evidence we have for Roman urbanism. During my first year of university I developed an interest in the practical application of my degree, and a curiosity as to whether I would enjoy excavation and consider it as an occupation. Archaeology is something that complements my degree of Ancient History very well, and gives a practical side to an otherwise very theoretical subject.
Aeclanum is a fantastic site an hour east of Naples, in view of Mount Vesuvius. Unlike the more infamous Roman cities of the region, Pompeii and Herculaneum, Aeclanum was not pristinely buried by the eruption in 79CE. This means that the site contains a much messier variety of remains than the snapshots provided by Pompeii. The finds ranged from Republican Italy through to the early Middle Ages. The excavation entailed two weeks of field experience that covered both the practicalities of using pick-axes, shovels and trowels to expose a 2nd century two-storey dwelling, and also the documentation of our finds. This included intricately plotting the exact locations of ‘contexts’, their drawing and photographing, and the thorough washing and labelling of all our finds.
Before I left I was anxious about the hostel style dormitory accommodation, as well as spending two weeks in the company of almost total strangers. I was also concerned that I would be no good at archaeology and would make a fool of myself, having no prior practical experience. I soon learned that these sorts of worries are groundless; everyone is in the same boat. It was easy to make friends among people who had similar interests, and who shared my inexperience. I discovered that you just need to throw yourself into the mix to enjoy yourself thoroughly. Putting yourself out there can be just as rewarding an experience as the activity itself.
I also learned that graffiti habits haven’t changed all that much;
That there are more pieces of pottery underground than I imagined possible;
And, that refilling a hole you have spent two weeks digging is immensely demoralising!
The whole experience was incredibly informative. The project had the explicit purpose of teaching beginners about the processes of archaeology and providing a space for practical experience. They were not afraid to let us loose with our trowels on the trenches. We were given a good amount of information about the site, previous excavations, and the specific objects that we found, which gave our finds more meaning and made the whole experience more rewarding. The dig also highlighted the chaotic nature of archaeological sites of this kind. This physical experience of my subject will allow me to better understand the evidence that I deal with in my degree and ground my knowledge of the lives of those I learn about.
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