Field school isn’t just about toiling away in the fields, the weekends are every bit as important. Of course, there is the very essential R&R that keeps everyone sane, a little adventure and exploration to introduce our students to the beauty of the region, and then there are the museums. We’re particularly lucky to be positioned nearby several amazing institutes. Our home in Arquata Scrivia is situated in between Genoa and Turin, which makes the Ranger Station optimally suited for weekend excursions to either city for a peek into their vast collections.
When Saturday rolls around, it’s time for a field trip from field school. Dr. Katherine V. Huntley and Dr. Hannah Friedman are experts in the archaeology of ancient Rome, so a tour through a museum with them is a mind opening experience even for those of us who have studied classics for years. With Katie’s focus on urban and domestic life and Nana’s experience studying centers of ancient industry, no stone is left unturned.
We start the students off in Turin’s Museo Archeologico in the Musei Reale Torino. Housed in the 16th century palace complex of the Savoy dynasty, the collection of regional antiquities is absolutely stunning and takes the viewer deep into the past as we descend into the subterranean galleries of the palace basement. The palace structures lie above a Roman theatre and we begin our tour with a worm’s eye view of ruins barely visible above ground. As Libarna has one of the foremost remaining theatres from the Roman world, this offers a great point of comparison.
Starting in the more recent past of Medieval Piemonte, we travel deeper in time to ancient Rome with exhibits that walk students through both the material culture itself and the analytical process involved in drawing conclusions from shards of bone, stone, and pot. This understanding is particularly important when you are solely conducting survey. It’s all about perspective. These kinds of exhibits are crucial to help them see that, while it might not be the most scintillating thing they’ve ever done, standing in a field with a rope, a tape measure, or a resistivity probe, really is contributing to that shiny, finds filled future we all envision when thinking of archaeology.
With archaeological evidence of the Langobards, Etruscans, Romans, and Gauls within arm’s reach, the exhibit also works as a fantastic primer on how the material evidence of these different peoples varies. How is terra sigillata from Gaul (the predominant type found in Libarna) different from the classic “Arretine-ware” produced further south? What images and motifs are considered regionally unique versus those that would have traveled along the commercial arteries of the Roman Empire? And what about that weird, green glazed pottery that somehow snuck itself into production in the Roman world?
But Turin isn’t the only place where such a wealth of material culture resides. In the opposite direction, the Museo di Archeologia Ligure sits high on a hill in Genoa (once an Etruscan colony itself),overlooking the sea. Here is where the lion’s share of finds extracted from Libarna throughout the centuries resides. While a bit smaller, the collection does a fabulous job of impressing upon visitors the cultural flexibility present in the ancient world. Words like “Romanization” trap learners into a false prison of antiquity as a place where imperial forces arrived and merely stamped their almighty imprint upon the largely blank, barbarian landscape.
Finds from Libarna tell a very different story. Whether you’re looking at a grave marker featuring a delightfully mustachioed reclining fellow (who certainly breaks the Roman mould) or a piece of pottery that doesn’t seem to follow any distinctly “Roman” pattern, the collection in Genoa is a reminder that we are largely in uncharted territory up here. The southern and central Italian peninsula has been studied repeatedly in an attempt to distill the Roman presence, but much of what we think we “know” about the north is framed by the context of the south.
By encountering these pieces that fall so far outside the box, we challenge the students to see antiquity as the diverse, fluctuating, regionally sensitive time and space it really was. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the concept of a largely uniform “Roman World” took hundreds of years of study to establish as well, so our work to bring the complexities of life in Libarna to light might take a while as well. A couple of weekends in Turin and Genoa seem like a good place to start.
Once we’ve filled their minds with all we can of Italian antiquity, our students are free to spend the next day and a half discovering their own private Italy. For some, this will have been their first trip out of the United States, or even their home state. For all, this marks an opportunity to become more than a tourist and get an intimate view of life in places like Arquata Scrivia and its neighboring towns, to trade stories of their work and journey with fellow hostel-goers when further afield, and to share an experience that shows them just a bit more about who they really are. It’s what our weekends are all about.