Archaeology in the age of Coronavirus

So what is happening here?

Every archaeologist I know has had to confront the effects of the Covid-19 which has completely upended the field of archaeology.  Like many others we of the LULP had to postpone our dig season for this summer. Postponing this season was the only choice we could make we the health of our students and ourselves. Libarna has been an abandoned city since 500 AD, it can wait a little longer to yield its secrets.

We love conducting our research and answering important questions about the Roman world. Our postponed 2020 field season is disappointing.  Missing a season will delay our long term research goals but will not stop us. Not being in the field is not unusual; archaeological projects often have study years when research and writing are prioritized over collecting new data. In this vein the LULP is continuing to work during this summer, albeit from home. Currently, we are planning next year’s field season. One major part of this planing is students for the field school, which I will address in the next blog post. We also are applying for grants and writing up papers.

Another reason we are upset is because we make close connections with local archaeological departments and community members. With a delay, we miss out on a year of all the joys and pains of the village life. We especially worry about our famiglia italiana during this crisis.

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So what information or words of wisdom can we offer for the current situation. Modern epidemiology is not in our normal purview. However, we as archaeologists have studied multiple eras of human history. Many times before humans have had to confront global pandemics. Even in the Roman period, two major pandemics struck during the reigns of emperors Marcus Aurelius and Justinian. What we can learn from historical examples is that societies can recover even from these severe shocks.

We wish you all well and hope you are safe and healthy during this time.

New Team Members Part 3

the revenge of the team….

Part 3 is about another specialist we are adding to the roster,  an archaeobotanist. So what does an archaeobotanist do? Why do we need one of these? Archaeobotany- as the end of the word sounds- is botany or the study of plants. Plants are used by humans in all sorts of ways not just for eating. Grapes were the main ingredient in wine which was a huge part of Roman culture. Plants were used for use for fuel, medicine, and even decoration.

Do you know that each plant has unique seeds and pollen? Kinda like a fingerprint for each plant. A trained specialist can identify these.

Take an easy example of the acorn. It’s one of the most recognizable seeds from a tree when you see it you know it is from an oak tree. However, not all plants have seeds that are easy to identify by the naked eye. That is when a microscope comes in handy. By comparing a found archaeological specimen with a reference collection (as seen below) different species can be identified.

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Tools’ of an archaeobotanist (clockwise): Dissecting microscope, wood collection, fruit and seed collection, reference literature, charred samples, wood slide collection. (Photo J. Markwirth © GoetheUniversität Frankfurt am Main.) 

So what kind of things can we learn if we know the species present? Well, are there are a lot of desert plants? Because if there are it was likely an arid environment in the past. Are you currently in a flat plain but you find lots of evidence of pine cones and old-growth forests? That would suggest the site has suffered from deforestation. Was it caused by humans or changes in the natural environment? These questions and more can be answered by a trained archaeobotanist. Any and all plant matter we find in the 2021 season will be going to Hannah Lessiter to be studied.

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Hannah completed her BA (Hons) in Classical Studies in 2019 and is now studying for her MA in Classical Art and Archaeology at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK. She has participated in excavations in the UK and Italy. Her most recent work in Italy includes working as assistant Archaeobotanist in Vacone as part of the Upper Sabina Tiberina Project.

We welcome her to the team!

New Team Members! Part 2

So if you have read our previous blog you will know that due to the current situation our plans have changed. So on to part 2 of our new team introductions for 2020 2021!

What other staff are needed in the field when we begin excavating? Just as we had team leaders for the survey groups we also need trench leaders. Individuals who will make sure all data is recorded, all notes were taken, all artifacts labeled properly. They also oversee the students (AND REMIND THEM TO DRINK WATER, WHY DO THEY NEVER DRINK ENOUGH WATER?). These important tasks take immense concentration, skill at multitasking, and a set of lungs to scream “DRINK WATER” across a field.

Why is it so vital to have someone in this role?  Because archeological excavation is a destructive science. Essentially we only get one shot at digging up the past. Once the soil is removed a lot of information like the seeds and pollen gets lost, which we will discuss more in New Team Members Part 3.

Most importantly we must record the spatial relationships between objects as we excavate them. One of my favorite images to show students is this;

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This meme plays on the fact that unless you know something about 20th-century music technology these objects at first seem unrelated. However, anyone who has dealt with a tangled cassette knows one of the best ways to rewind it manually is with a pencil.  This context would have been clear to viewers a few decades ago but as the technology changes, this knowledge has been lost. If this image stumps some of my students now, imagine trying to figure out the relationship between objects from millennia ago. It can be incredibly difficult. One thing we hypothesize is that spatial proximity suggests a connection between the two objects. So what if we did not record that the pencil was found right next to the cassette? Then we have objects that are recorded separately just a music cassette and a writing utensil. An entire nuanced experience of tape maintenance, mixtape creation, frustration leading to adaption to CD technology, is lost. Perhaps a more pertinent archaeological example is if we find a lot of broken pots, used up tools, trash, and bones in one location we can hypothesize it was a midden. Recording these spatial relationships between objects is why it is vital to have a detailed plan in order to record as much information as possible.  Early on in the planning process, we realized the LULP needed more supervisors so that this comprehensive field recording could take place.

Supervisors on the edge of the trench are vital- especially when conducting field schools with students. Without them, things descend into chaos rather quickly. They record data and teach excavation skills. Which is why I am happy to introduce Petur Hansen who has a wealth of experience in excavation- and some skills in GIS which will be useful for us as we record things in the field. With Petur’s experience, he is a boon to the students because they will get more interaction with an experienced digger. As a member of staff, we have someone who knows how to make hypothesizes and catch mistakes in real-time!

Petur

Petur is a graduate from the University of Leicester with a Master’s degree in Archaeology, mainly focusing on zooarchaeology. He has participated in archaeological excavations in Israel, Puerto Rico, Faroe Island, and England. The excavations have been varied, both regarding time periods and aims. Since 2017 he has worked as a project-based archaeologist with Tjóðsavnið, the Faroe Island National Museum, excavating an early medieval church site and a Viking settlement. His involvement with Tjóðsavnið, has also included post-excavation work, producing a faunal report and processing environmental samples. Petur also volunteered with the University of Leicester Archaeological Services during his Masters, working in post-excavation. His interests are mainly zooarchaeology and colonial dynamics. 2021 will be Petur’s first season with the LULP.

We are excited to have him with us! Look for the 3rd part of this series where we introduce our Archaeobotanist and talk about her important role!

News on the 2020 and 2021 Field Season

We love working at Libarna and believe it has so many stories to tell us about Roman life. We are already planning the 2021 field season which promises to be amazing.  However, we must confront the elephant which is sheltering in place. The 2020 season will not be occurring. The social disruption is too great and the unknowns are too many. This is a major disappointment to us both as researchers and as friends of Serravalle and Arquata. We hope that our Italian colleagues are well. If you want to learn more about them we have earlier blog posts about the rangers and about the community.

However, we also need your help- we started a crowdfunding campaign before the season was delayed and despite the change in global circumstances, we must see it through. We are asking for small donations- just a few dollars to help us reach our goal. Please visit our page to learn more. All funds raised will go to the 2021 season.

Please stay safe and take care of each other. We will have more blog posts soon to entertain you all as we practice social distancing!

 

Coronavirus Update

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Dear All,

After much debate, we have decided that our excavation season will proceed as planned.  The pandemic of Covid 19 is serious and it is especially concerning for us since we are working in Italy. In order to be best informed, we are in daily contact with public health officials, epidemiologists, and doctors. (For example, individuals such as Dr. Michael Friedman, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration who also worked for the National Institutes of Health. He also served on the Federal Bioterrisom Response Taskforce after 9/11. Dr. Eleanor Friedman, an epidemiologist who wrote a thesis on the SARS coronavirus and quarantine efforts in Singapore.  We are also getting updates and information from other doctors who are similarly qualified but not related to Nana.)

With all of this information, we have decided not to cancel or delay our plans to begin excavation this summer for a few reasons

  1. All the experts we are in contact with are suggesting we proceed with caution but not panic
  2. As we start excavation in June we have time to further monitor the situation and make informed decisions
  3.  We have connections with the Italian community and we consider each other family. We know no matter what the crisis we would receive excellent support from them if required.

So far there is no reason not to press ahead with our plans. Please know we are taking precautions to ensure the health of our students and staff, which is our utmost concern. We will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves. We will continue to update everyone as we move forward.

Sincerely,

Nana, Katie, and the LULP team.

CROWDFUNDING STARTS TOMORROW

Libarna is a fascinating place! Just like today, back in Roman times, Italy had a great deal of regional cultural diversity. The region where Libarna is located was multiethnic, settled by Romans, Etruscans, and the Liguri, a Gallic tribe.  Our big questions are: what made life in Libarna unique and how can we see this in the archaeological remains? We have demonstrated the archaeological potential of the site with our geophysical research.

We begin excavations this summer and want to bring you along! Get insider information through our newsletter which we send exclusively to our donors, communicate with students and staff, and know that you are supporting new archaeological research.

For as little as $5 you can help support this exciting project and become a member of the extended LULP team! Your donation, small or large, empowers our mission of exploration, education, and community engagement. All funds will be used directly by the project.  Please donate what you can and mention our research on social media.

To donate follow this link

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Meet our new team members! (Part 1)

So far LULP has mainly been concentrating on non-invasive surveys at Libarna. But this summer that will all change when we open up our first trenches. Archaeology has a number of sub-disciplines, it’s not just wielding pickaxes!  (Though that also requires a lot of skill to be safe. Ask Katie, she will give you a 20-minute lecture on using a pickax as a precision instrument.)

But back to the point, now we will have small finds like coins, faunal evidence like animal bones, and botanical evidence like seeds. Our new specialists will study the material we excavate properly in order to get as much information about the past as possible. So as our project grows in new directions so does our staff. But who are these new faces? In Part 1 we will highlight Osteoarchaeology- which translates from ancient greek as “ancient bone studies.”

Bones are great pieces of evidence for archaeologists. While another organic matter decomposes, bones are more likely to survive in the archaeological record. From them, we can learn what kind of animals people farmed with or ate. Or if we are lucky enough to find a grave we can learn about the humans themselves. For example, let’s use a non-copyright stock image.

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Photo by Maël BALLAND on Pexels.com

I am not an Ostearcheologist. So what can I tell you about this bone? Its a jaw of a plant-eater. I am guessing it belonged to a sheep or goat ….maybe. Needless to say, this amount of information is not good enough. (I may do a post on metal objects just so I can show off and recover from this public failure.)  But, this example does show why it was important to add an Osteoarcheologist to the team. A true expert could answer a number of questions. What animal did the jaw bone come from? What was the general health of the animal? Looking at the wear on its teeth what how old was it when it died? Was it used for meat, wool, or milk? All of this information is vital when trying to reconstruct the daily lives of Libarna’s inhabitants.

So meet Chloe

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Chloe measuring animal bones in the lab.

 

Chloe studied at the Univerisity of Sheffield in the UK where she recently graduated with a Master’s of Science in Osteorachaology. She is Australian by birth and she received her BA from the University of Melbourne in Classics and Ancient History. She has participated in digs in Europe and Australia. Also, she recently won a poster competition at the Australian Archaeological Association’s annual meeting.  We are glad to have her with us!

But she is not the only new team member. Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing you to others! So stay tuned. Also, I am sure when Chloe sees this post she will identify the animal and email me.

Field School Recruitment

Hey everyone! Are you a student looking for a summer project? Or do you know any students who might be interested? We are recruiting right now for summer! Please contact us to learn more. As you can see from our pictures our students have a blast learning about archaeology and Italy all while earning university credits. See our Field School page for more information.