In 1994 I was pondering what I would do when finally a grown-up (my retirement was expected some 5 years thence), and decided to find an activity with certain specific features:
- A thitherto neglected intellectual interest, which could, however, also imply
- A certain amount of muscular activity, to keep myself physically fit
Archaeology seemed to satisfy my requirements. In June I stumbled upon a short item in Milan's daily Corriere della Sera, announcing a forthcoming meeting of the Gruppo Archeologico Milanese (G.A.M.) for the presentation of their program of summer excavations, open to volunteers for a very reasonable sum. I attended, listened to their proposals and enrolled in the first of their 2 fortnightly campaigns at Rossilli-Gavignano, a hilltop village of some 2,000 inhabitants 30 miles SE of Rome and featuring a new, thitherto untouched site, my mind naively filled with romantic visions of some Tutankhamon-like discovery. Due to last-minute engagements, I could only join the group in the evening on the Thursday 3 days after digging had started, at the beginning of August. Driving on the motorway down to Rome, I could see its traffic information panels showing progressively higher temperatures, finally reaching 38°. The town council of Gavignano had accepted enthusiastically the proposal of archeological digs in their area, probably hoping in some consequent tourist bonanza, and put at the disposal of the fearless northern volunteers from Milan:
- Their elementary school as a hostel.
- Their school cook to prepare our meals.
- Their schoolbus and driver to commute us to/from the dig site.
When I arrived at the school, the group overseer showed me the crowded classroom where I was supposed to bunk with a bunch of noisy and smelly youths. Fortunately I had spotted another classroom used as storeroom for spare bunks and mattresses, and was able to secure it as my independent bedroom for the duration, on account of my smoking and other alleged noxious nocturnal habits.
G.A.M. membership card
The following morning, reveille at 7 AM, breakfast at 7:30 and down to the dig site, where to my horror I was informed that the work schedule was 8 AM to 4 PM on odd days, and 8 AM to 12 on even days, as a pithy concession to the hot season.
The site was located on a hillock on the Via Latina in the plain below Gavignano, partially occupied by a farm erected on the ruins of a Middle Age abbey dedicated to St. Mary.It featured two separate dig areas:
- Medieval in the farm courtyard, with traces of some ruined ancient walls.
- Roman on the hillock SE slope, showing the protruding remains of what could have been a nympheum, i.e. a wall alcove typical of Roman gardens and usually containing a statue.
I elected to work in the Roman area, and soon discovered that archeological excavations consisted basically in taking turns at using:
- Picks to break the soil.
- Shovels to remove the broken soil.
- Wire meshes to sift the removed soil for artifacts.
- Barrows to dump the sifted soil (and create a new, small hillock in the process).
All this under the hot August sun without any shadow. Only girls where allowed to perform lighter duties such as brushing the excavated ruins for a finer cleanup (nevertheless, a few days later a young girl was rushed to the local hospital with sunstroke). Only one duty afternoon was I excused from the dig and allowed to repair to the cooler school as a helper for washing, selecting and cataloguing the pitiful excavated artifacts.
Results of my travails? The nympheum, excavated down to a gruelling depth of some 5 feet, turned out to be a disappointing, poor isolated structure. Then a lot of SHARDS of pottery. No Tutankhamon. One day our dig was visited by officers from the Rome Soprintendenza (Archeological Authority), out for a day in the countryside and a look at/photo of our efforts. I realised by their attitude that officials were more than happy to let a bunch of volunteers grapple with unpromising sites.
Three days before the conclusion of our turn at the site, finally a dramatic discovery in the Medieval area, along the ruins of the abbey walls: two skeletons!
- A human skeleton, with arms crossed over his breast and very little in the way of burial objects (an iron buckle and a bronze clasp, see photo below)
- A bovine skeleton, some 30 feet away and at the same depth (therefore buried in the same time frame)
The most widely accepted theory for the human skeleton was: the earthly remains of a buried monk, whose tunic, sandals, wooden cross and any other artifact of perishable material had been dissolved by centuries underground.
But why the other skeleton ? My personal theory: the cow had died of heartbreak upon the loss of her favourite monk (or viceversa?)
I must confess that I had never felt so physically fit as after my tour of forced labour.
Report on the Gavignano ExcavationsPublished later in ARCHEOLOGIA, the bulletin of Gruppi Archeologici d'Italia: