indexAs we are deep in the winter season and the natural forces of rain, wind, and snow become more and more vicious we thought this would be a good time to tell you about some incredible people we know in our Italian “hometown” – Arquata Scrivia.

Italy has its fair share of natural disasters – flooding, storms, and earthquakes to name but a few, but how do they plan a rescue response? The police force, medics, and fire department preform heroic services but additionally, there are Gruppo Rangers Volontari, or volunteer groups, all across Italy.  In Arquata Scrivia the local Rangers have a rescue and training base. In the summer for the month we are in town they allow us to use it as our accommodation, which we usually refer to as “the lodge”. We transform their workspace into our bedrooms, kitchen, and office. However, even with us there the Rangers are prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice!

oej7fnR3Move-in day to the Ranger Station 2018!

In between our cots and supplies are safety helmets, resuscitation dolls (good for the middle of the night practical jokes), safety posters, and of course the many many awards that the Rangers have collected all over the walls.  After two years, we thought it was about time we learned a lot more about the Rangers and their important work. It’s only fair to share that information with all of you!

We spoke with the current Chief Ranger, Gian Paolo Gifra who was proud to tell us of this history of Arquata’s Rangers. He told us that throughout Italy, there are many independent groups; ordinary citizens, bakers, shopkeepers, teachers, dentists, etc. who train in rescue and first aid in order to assist when disaster strikes. The Arquata Scrivia Rangers were founded in 1985 and originally comprised of an association of men working on horseback. They maintained and preserved the forests surrounding the town. A lot more work goes into sustaining a forest than you might think! Paths need to be cleared, damaged and sick trees need to be removed and wild animal populations need to be kept in check! Careful forest management means the woods are safe for people to work in and enjoy while providing food and fuel to the surrounding community.

After a few years, the group began to expand its mission helping control wildfires and rescuing stranded hikers. They eventually graduated from horses to specially equipped Range Rovers! The Gruppo Rangers Volontari started training in advanced rescue skills so that they would be prepared for any future disasters.

The people of the city of Alessandria (located about 40 minutes from Arquata) were grateful for this foresight as the first major emergency the Rangers dealt with was on November 6th, 1994. The Tanaro River Basin experienced devastating flooding and the city of Alessandria was particularly hard hit leading to many deaths. The Gruppo Rangers Volontari provided assistance. They rescued trapped locals from the water and mud damaged areas and provided life-saving logistics – bringing in blankets, food, and helping with temporary housing.

After this major event, there was a governmental push to recognize all of the local associations of small volunteer rangers. Although they kept their name, they became part of the Protezione Civile – Piedmonte, Civil Protection Association of Piedmonte, which recognized them as an official volunteer group. At that point, standards were set nationwide for training ensuring that everyone was fully trained and qualified before going out into dangerous situations. This change ensured that every member both present and in the future would have the necessary skills and knowledge to be truly helpful in a disaster situation. Arquata’s Rangers were up to the challenge of meeting these standards and they have grown stronger since then. This recognition also meant that they can be called to work on national emergencies if required.

And required they have been. Arquata Scrivia and the province of Alessandria are proud that their Rangers have been awarded many medals and certificates of merit. They assisted with the flood of Grondona in 1995, the Umbria earthquake in 1997 (they were awarded a medal by the Ministry of the Interior), the flood of  Casale Monferrato and Morano sul PO in 2000, and the earthquake of April 2009 in Abruzzese.


The Rangers’ Facebook page is filled with pictures like this- here Chief Gian Palo Grifa helps people (and animals) in a disaster zone.

The group runs entirely on public donations – they must pay for their insurance and equipment, although the local commune (council) has donated a building with office and workspace (which is what we take over in the summer!) in which they can hold meetings, training sessions, and store all their equipment and cars.

Like the rest of Arquata, these folks welcome us and the students each summer. They provide support to our archaeological endeavors; without them, LULP would not be able to function. So hats off to Arquata’s Rangers! Like the rest Arquata Scrivia we are glad to know if the worst should happen, we have them nearby! If you want to know more about them please visit their page on Facebook!

Summer 2019 – Season Report

In our previous post we explained why we’ve been radio-silent for the last few months, but just because we’re quiet, it doesn’t mean nothing is going on!

We have been working hard behind the scenes to keep LULP up and running, and ensuring that we are fully prepared for our first excavation season in 2020.

One of our co-directors, Dr. Katie V. Huntley, travelled to Italy this summer for what we call “a research season” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – no digging but lots of time spent in archives and museums…researching!

Read below for her report from the 2019 “research season”

Being in the field is exhilarating and there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than at Libarna. However, there is a lot of important archaeological work that takes place off-site. Those of you that read this blog and follow LULP will already know this. It’s the reason why we might sometimes seem to disappear but we are always working away, whether it’s forging relationships within the communities around Libarna, recruiting students to our fieldschool, dealing with the nuts and bolts of organizing the field work, writing reports of work for the Soprintendenza, or doing the required bureaucratic paperwork for our permits.

This summer, we were unusually quite, but boy were we busy! I made an expedition to Torino (Turin to English speakers), where the Soprintendenza Archaeologia Belle Arte e Paessagio per le Province di Alessandria Cuneo e Asti (SABAP-AI for short) is located. Also in Torino is the incomparable Museo di Antichita (Museum of Antiquity), one of the Musei Reali di Torino (museums housed in Turin’s Royal Palaces).

Nicole Inghilterra, another member of our team, came along to assist me in completing the two goals I had for the summer:

  1. To get an idea of the breadth of the museum’s collection of artefacts from Libarna, and how it is organized. 
  2. Read and digitize some of the reports from previous excavations at Libarna, particularly those carried out to the south of the archaeological park (fields we have designated as A and B). 

Image 1 Katie in archives with excavation reports from Libarna

Dr Huntley exploring the archives!

Here’s what we found in the museum: there is a lot of material from Libarna – thousands of artefacts from excavations carried out at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century through some of the more recent excavations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Archaeological excavations are great, but they produce a tremendous burden on museums and other repositories of cultural heritage that end up housing those artefacts. All of those finds represent a ton of information about life at Libarna. 

One of the ways that I  hope LULP will grow in the future is to develop some specific projects to study these materials. We got a very small start in our mission to create a massive database of artefacts from Libarna with materials excavated in 1911 and in the 1940s, which included oil lamps, bronze vessels, and metal implements. We are waiting on permission from the museum to show some images of those artefacts with you, so stay tuned! 

Our work in the archives was equally as productive. One of the most important things we learned is that during the 1990s, Field A underwent extensive excavation. We had previously been working under the assumption that a small trench was excavated in that field, but it turns out that the entire field was excavated! Knowing this helps us understand why our GPR data in that field was so incredibly clear. 

Here you can see our GPR results – a crossroads is clearly visible to the bottom of the image, with housing surrounding it 

The soil, disturbed by the excavations was much less dense than the archaeolgoical features, which allowed those features to come through so clearly. The original archaeological report was rather brief and didn’t offer much information on the structures found or any sort of updated map of the area. This makes our GPR data particularly useful. We can fill in all that information left out of the report and incorporate it into Libarna’s map, all without having put trowel to soil!

So what does this mean for our excavations moving forward? We had planned to start in Field A, but now that we know the extent of the excavations, it has made us rethink our strategy slightly. We will probably still put a trench in Field A – it appears that the excavations in the 1990s did not go down below the imperial layers (the 1st cent.), so there is probably good stratigraphic information still preserved below that can help us understand the earlier period of Libarna’s life. Since those later strata have been destroyed, we will probably also put a trrench in another area of the site where those layers have not been disturbed. We are currently trying to figure out where that will be….More on that to come!

And here was our reaction when we saw the GPR data we showed you above!

One of the best aspects of our expedition was getting to work with Dr. Simone Lerma, the SABAP-AI’s funzionario archeologico of the site of Libarna. He is the archaeologist in charge of managing and maintaining Libarna and he oversees all the research carried out on the site. LULP would not be able to function without the help and support of Dr. Lerma, so we are eternally grateful for all of his assistance. 

Image 3 Katie Simone Nicole
Dr Huntley, Dr Lerma, and Nicole in the archives

Dr Lerma took over the management of Libarna in 2018 and this trip was a good opportunity for him to get to know us, and LULP as a team. As we’ve noted before, excavation destroys the site and produces a substantial burden on the SABAP-AI and museum to care for the structures and artefacts, so it is vitally important to build trust before we are allowed to start digging. 

Overall it was a short, but extremely productive expedition that has given us some ideas about possible new directions that LULP could venture out into. Who knows what exciting places we might end up!


So there you have it – the report from our first “research season”. As with any season, whether it is research, survey, or excavation, there are a great deal more questions to answer by the end than the number you started with! We hope to be able to update you with answers to some of these questions over the coming weeks, months, and years, as we continue our research into the wonderful town of Libarna.

Where have we been?!

We have not been active for a while and you may have been wondering what is going on…Over the past few years we have been truly touched by the support and encouragement we have received online, on the ground in Italy, throughout the USA, and even across the globe. It is because you share our enthusiasm for Libarna and LULP that we knew an announcement like this would be disappointing. After much deliberation, we decided that it was best to postpone the start of excavations until summer 2020.

This was due to a variety of different complications, so good and some bad. It’s been a difficult year for some in our personal lives and in terms of health. For others there have been exciting developments like new job opportunities and we also have a new member of the LULP team – the addition of a beautiful baby girl in May!

With these various complications and obligations in our lives, we realised that it would not be possible for us to conduct the quality of fieldwork that Libarna deserves. We want to emphasize our commitment to Libarna and the local communities of Arquata Scrivia and Serrvalle Scrivia. We will be back in the field in July 2020 when we will begin excavating two trenches located in one of Libarna’s insula (a city block with houses, shops etc.).

For now, we will be focusing on some of the other necessities of an archaeological project: publication and grant writing. We have two papers in the pipeline – one is a report on our last field season and the other is about those amazing crop marks that helped us to flesh out Libarna’s urban plan in 2017. (If you don’t know what we’re talking about, check out our previous blog all about crop marks!) We will let you know when those are published.

We can’t wait to get back into the field and continue our research into life at Libarna and the mechanisms of Roman colonialism. Libarna has so much more to tell us! Expect more content from us as we begin to gear up for an exciting new season!

For more regular updates make sure you are following us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @LibarnaULP

What Do We Get Up To When We’re Not In The Field?

It’s been a little while since we last posted on the blog, but lots has been going on behind the scenes. A little over 5 months have passed since we returned from Italy, but that doesn’t mean work has stopped, oh no! We’ve been as busy as ever making sure that everything is in place for this summer’s excavation. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, after 3 years of survey we are finally getting to the good stuff – digging! Of course, survey is very important, it would be unconscionable to excavate without having done all of this preparation, and we’ve loved every minute but….we’d be lying if we said the excavation wasn’t the bit we all look forward to the most! Less “sun, sea and sand”, more “sun, sweat and soil”, but we love it!

So what have we actually been doing these last 5 months? Lazing around dreaming of Italy? Of course, but there’s real work to be done if we want to make our dreams of excavation a reality. Almost immediately after returning from Libarna, our co-directors Katie and Nana began work on a paper about our results over the last few years to present at the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America) annual conference which took place just a few weeks ago in San Diego. With over 3,000 attendees from over 30 countries, the conference is a great way to share LULP’s research and the history of Libarna with the rest of the archaeology world. Thousands of researchers apply to present their work here, and we are very fortunate to have been accepted for two years running. And even more fortunately, we were a lot warmer this year in San Diego than we were last year in Boston….I’m shivering just thinking about it. The LULP team is not built for the cold, that’s why we work in Italy!!

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Over 12 inches of snow and -30 temperatures at the Boston conference in 2018!

Anyway, so after putting in our application to the AIAs, our focus turned to summer 2019. There are very precise rules and regulations in place when it comes to archaeology in Italy, and particularly excavation. We were granted a 3 year survey permit in 2015 by the Soprintendenza (Italian governmental archaeology department) but now we had to go through a much more rigorous process in order to apply for an excavation permit, known as a “permesso”. Without boring you too much, we basically have to include a short essay outlining what we plan to do, what research questions we hope to answer and why it is important to increasing knowledge of the ancient world. We then have to provide proof of our financial abilities to carry out this work and also to cover a governmental tax which helps pay for conservation and storage of anything we find. In Italy, anything we uncover while excavating is owned by the government and cannot leave the country. Once it has been excavated it obviously needs to be carefully conserved and stored, and since we’re the ones that dug it up…we have to contribute a certain amount to help fund that conservation. After all that, we have to hand over personal documents like passports of all the staff members, sign a load of forms renouncing our claim to anything we find, and complete other various bits of paperwork. You see where I’m going with this, there’s a lot to be done. Oh, and did I mention….it’s all got to be done in Italian!! What a nightmare. Thankfully, we’ve sent it all off and, despite a slight delay courtesy of the Poste Italiane, it has arrived and is being considered as we speak.

Now alongside the paperwork for the permesso, we have also had to search for some new members of the LULP team. We’ve had a great time over the last few years working with each other, and at first it might seem a bit strange to have a few new faces, but we’re very excited to spread the word about how amazing Libarna is with even more researchers and archaeologists. Obviously, survey and excavation are very different, and with excavation comes finds and with finds come specialists! Of course, we don’t know exactly what will be uncovered when we start digging, but we have a good idea of what has been found during previous excavations in the area, so we can make an educated guess as to what kind of specialists we will need. We have several new team members joining us, including pottery and archaeobotany specialists, and some Italian archaeologists familiar with working in this kind of soil and location who will be assisting our students and making sure everything in the trenches runs smoothly. We’ll post a blog soon introducing you to our new crew, so keep an eye out.

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Looking at pottery found at Libarna in previous excavations helps us evaluate what kind of objects we might find

In addition to all of that, we have also been working hard with our contacts in Italy to organise accommodation and food for our team while we’re out there. It’s not easy trying to find somewhere that ticks all of our very particular boxes, but we have some great friends out there who work incredibly hard to accommodate our needs as best they can! Our requirements are slightly different this year because we’re excavating, so we will be more numerous, more hungry, and certainly more dirty than in the past. 4 showers between us is just not going to cut it this summer! Fortunately, it wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be to get all that sorted, and now it’s all done we can focus on the remaining tasks that need to be completed before we arrive in just 5 months time!

Very importantly, as we are a field school, we need students! Applications for our 2019 field school are now open so check out our field school tab for information on what you could learn and how to apply.

And finally, the last big task before we can fly out to Italy is fundraising…we had an incredibly successful fundraising campaign last year, raising well over what we were asking. Our generous donors helped pay for the month-long loan of our GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) machine, which gave us some fabulous results and helped us choose where we will be excavating this summer. We were overwhelmed by the response! This year we are running two campaigns, a donation drive and a crowdfunding campaign. The donation drive is Italy based, and dozens of kind souls have donated the use of their pickaxes, buckets, shovels, and wheelbarrows for us to use during the summer. It has been so wonderful to reach out to the local people around Libarna and see their excitement and interest in what we are doing. It makes our work there so much more enjoyable.

In a short while we will begin a fundraising campaign on this side of the Atlantic – archaeology is an expensive affair, especially when you have to ship people and equipment thousands of miles across an ocean, so we’re asking for any help we can get. Even forgoing a coffee one morning and donating what you would have spent could make a huge difference if everybody else did the same! Our campaign isn’t up and running yet, but we’ll let you know as soon as it is. Feel free to spread the word about Libarna, our story, and our campaign – donors might even get a little thank you present if they’re lucky…..

Well, that’s the abridged story of everything we have been doing since August, and everything still to do before we leave for Italy in 139 days! We’ve got a lot more blogs on the way, and we’re always posting on our other social media so make sure  to give us a follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see more regular updates. If you’ve ever got any questions, you can always send us a message from our contact us page. 

A Life in the Day with the Archaeologists of LULP!

Many people ask what a typical day on site looks like when you’re working on an archaeological project, and the truth is in many ways, every day is different, and you never know what might happen. In other ways however, our time here can be quite repetitive! Rather than bore you with a list of our daily routine, we’ve written a “Life in the Day” (yes, you read that right, it’s not a day in the life) to help explain how we spend our days on site!

The Door of Knowledge – our daily timetable and chore routine for the students!

We arrive from the highway speeding between Arquata Scrivia and Serravalle Scrivia to the small carpark signposted for Libarna. Our site is situated between two railway lines, a highway, and an autostrade (motorway), demonstrating just what an important location it is even in modern times! After bringing up lunch items, machinery, and students, we leave any items we don’t need immediately in the storage room under the visitor’s centre. Libarna is open to the public 6 days a week, (closed on Mondays, following the Italian tradition) and has several wonderful employees who provide great tours for those who visit. Inside the visitor’s centre is a wealth of information – books on excavations, archaeologists, the local area, and a fabulous guide book in Italian and English with some excellent images and reconstructions. It is also where conferences are held throughout the year, we have held one there for the last two years, and our co-directors have appeared via video-link at some other presentations during the winter!

It might not seem like much, but this road is a very busy and super speedy highway between major towns in the area

Walking out from the visitor’s centre you are immediately confronted by two major parts of the ancient site – the edge of the forum, and the main section of excavated remains including the amphitheatre and insulae blocks containing shops and houses. These both have spectacular viewing platforms where you can see the site as a whole from above, but they are both accessible for closer viewing too!

The beautiful visitor’s centre

Surrounding the excavated remains are working fields, used by the local farmers to grow a variety of different crops. Depending on what the weather has brought the year before, some crops might have been harvested by the time we arrive, and others might still need a little time to grow before we can get into those fields to work. These areas near to the extant remains are one place that we search for undiscovered remains, and in fact during our first season here in 2016 they discovered the Roman baths during some recovery work for the railway. Also during our first year here we labelled all the nearby fields with letters in order to easily distinguish them from each other, and to make it easier to communicate which fields we are talking about. If you ever hear us talk about “field N” or “field E”, that’s why – no secret codes, it’s just easier than saying “that field over there, behind the one with the weird tree and the ditch with the frogs”!

After a morning of working hard in the fields we take a lunch break in the “back yard” of the visitor’s centre, which gives us a great view of the theatre as we eat the sandwiches we made before we left camp, as well as some fruit and maybe a packet of crisps or cookies if we’re feeling generous. The theatre was excavated in the 19th century, and would have seated several hundred spectators. Although this is a Roman site, it has a Greek style theatre, which was not at all unusual for a Roman city. The Romans loved all things Greek, and would have adapted many Greek plays to suit their particular audiences. We can only imagine what a fantastic scene it would have been with a full audience a stage of actors complete with masks and elaborate costumes. This year in fact, the Libarna Arteventi Association organised a troop of actors to put on a performance of Plautus’ “Casina”, originally written in the 2nd Century B.C.!

Lunch break at Libarna and time for a nap, some reading, or completing those last bits of paperwork!

Sometimes local food trucks park in the Libarna car park, so we might pop down to get some fresh focaccia, farinata (a local delicacy which is a bit like a pancake made with chickpea flour), or a varied selection of fruit! This is also the perfect time for a quick nap (the noise of the constantly running trains soon fades into the background, but it’s the cicadas that will annoy you most), some reading or planning, and generally enjoying the view and each other’s company. We might also get a quick visit from Silvano, Libarna’s caretaker, who is great fun, and allows us to keep all our gear in his garage for 11 months of the year when we’re not using it!

Working hard in front of the Greek style theatre!

After lunch we have a few more hours work before we get another snack break. This might involve more adventurous work in fields further away from the areas of Libarna that have already been excavated. We know that Libarna was fairly extensive, but the fact that it had no city walls means that we don’t have a very clear idea of where the city finished – it is believed that there was a gate on each side of the city, but whether the activity of the town extended past these gates is unknown…at the moment! It’s something we’re very keen to work on!

By 4pm it’s time to begin packing up our equipment and make our way back to site and then head home to camp. Luckily we are provided with a room at the visitor’s lodge to keep our equipment in overnight, so we don’t have to ship everything back and forth every day. Then we make our way back onto the highway and home to Arquata Scrivia for the evening, which we’ll tell you all about…some other time!

Essential Equipment for Excellence…packing for summer in Italy!

It’s come to our attention that many of the people following us on social media are new to archaeology, so we thought it would be a good idea to introduce you to the most essential pieces of kit for any archaeological field-school or project. Of course you’ve got all the boring stuff like suitable clothing, sunblock, and of course data collection equipment, but really, these are the things that we just can’t live without!

1: TAPE!

Gaffer tape, duck tape, duct tape, whatever you want to call it. At LULP our favourite is “Alien Tape”. It’s super sticky, it tears easily, it’s colourful, and it’s fixed everything from a broken case of playing cards, to a disintegrating watch strap, to actual survey equipment! Not only can you fix things with it, but you can label just about anything, and the bright blue colour makes it easy to see where you left your water bottle in the grassy field! Last year we only took one roll, but this summer we’re not taking any chances, and we’ve got three full rolls stashed away in case of emergencies.

2: A hammock

At the end of a long day working in the field, or with a fresh cappuccino watching the sunrise, or an afternoon nap during a weekend day off – there’s no bad time for a session in the hammock. We like this one from ENO, but we have a Decathlon one too! (More on this amazing store in a later blog) They’re tiny enough that they can travel everywhere in your bag, strong enough to hold two people, and the flexible hanging straps mean you can set them up pretty much anywhere. Good for a nap, good for a chat – there’s almost nothing that can’t be fixed by some hammock time.

3: Earplugs

This one is fairly self-explanatory. You WILL be sharing a room with lots of people and most of them WILL snore. Everyone will deny it, but they’re lying. Trust me.

4: Sharpies

I am a self-confessed label fanatic, but even I have realised that bringing my electronic label maker abroad is one step too far. Sharpies make for a great alternative, and can be used to mark almost anything, and they come in a huge variety of colours! The best part is, if you bring more than one you can actually label your sharpies too! I know, incredible right?!

A small selection of our glorious sharpie collection

5: First Aid Kit

Ok, I know I said no boring stuff, but this one is very important! You might not have even thought of the first aid kit for the entire season, and almost forgotten about it in the back of the car, but on the last day of survey someone will stab themselves through the foot with an electrical resistivity meter…(probably – I can neither confirm nor deny that this happened to the author, but you can judge for yourself from the photos below). Alternatively, you might trip up a step and twist your ankle…no judgement, we’ve all done it. Without fail, accidents (no matter how minor) are definitely going to happen, and it’s always best to be prepared!

6: Entertainment

Yes, we work hard and the days are long, but sometimes we do get a little free time to relax and recuperate. UNO is a team favourite, along with a vicious card game called Racing Demons. Tiny hands on sticks also make for great entertainment both in camp and on site – they can be used for poking, stroking, picking, playing hand-ball-hockey, and generally adding a little excitement into the day.


And there you have it – our most essential pieces of equipment for a successful field season! Of course, there are so many important things we need to pack with us, but we always make sure that these get packed into the suitcase first, and if  there isn’t enough space for something impractical like a second swimsuit, sunglasses, or work trousers (ok, maybe you should find room for these), then it’s just an excuse to do some shopping in Italy!

Back to (field) school – Archaeology in Action!

As our arrival in Italy approaches, we’re putting the final touches on our plans for the summer. The aim of our project here at Libarna is, of course, research, but a large component of what we do is the LULP field-school that provides students with a well rounded education in archaeology as well as a real cultural experience in a country most of them are visiting for the first time. This might seem like just a fun summer in Italy, (and it is) but it is so much more too! Most of our students are taking the field-school to earn credit for their University course, so it’s important that we make sure they are really learning a lot and taking everything in from the activities we provide and making the most of their time abroad. We take students from all fields, not just ancient history or archaeology, so for some of our students this is their very first taste of the classical world.

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Learning about archaeological mapping

So how exactly do we go about creating this summer school? When students first arrive we give them a thorough tour of the ancient site and explain a little about what the town would have been like all those years ago. They all receive a copy of the guidebook created by the Libarna Arteventi Association and the Soprintendenza, and after reading it they should all have a good idea of where they will be working, what has been found already, and what we might be expecting to find in the coming years, as well as other basic information on the area in ancient times.

One of the most important things we make the students do is keep a journal for the duration of the season. They are encouraged to keep a personal diary of their time in Italy as well, but their work journal is focused on answering questions that we set for them, taking notes on anything new they learn, and any other archaeology related information they’re introduced to throughout the project.

Daily work in past seasons included anything from working with the GPR or RES machine, setting up grids in new fields in preparation for survey, going out with our drone specialist, looking at pottery and other finds from previous excavations, or working on other specialist tasks. For all of these activities, we set a variety of different questions for students to answer in their journals, for example “explain how to set up a grid”, “why do use grids in the first place”, “what difficulties has X machine had and why”. We also provide compulsory readings based around the techniques we are using, and will set questions in relation to these to ensure they have been thoroughly read and understood!

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Students completing journal entries in the field!

As well as archaeology specific questions, we want to enhance our students’ appreciation and experience of the local culture, so we encourage them to think carefully about life in Italy and ask them about what differences they notice between America and Italy. We expect them to note something daily, even if it’s just a few words – “water always comes without ice”, “you have to pack your own bags at the grocery store” and “ketchup tastes different” have all been past answers! This may not seem particularly academic, but it’s an easy and effective way to encourage the students to really think about these little differences between our cultures. We also ask what their perceptions are when they first arrive and then how they have changed by the end of the season.

In addition to journal questions and the main activity of data collection, we also have the students participate in smaller tasks where they learn about other aspects of archaeology such as phenomenology (the study of consciousness and how individual experiences affect the way we think about things)mapping, and learning how geography affects sites both in our archaeological study of them but also in the founding of towns and colonies thousands of years ago.


We also take the opportunity of being on site to show them pottery and other small finds from previous excavations at Libarna, and talk to them not just about our pottery, but how it is examined and processed once it has been excavated, including recognition of diagnostic pieces, labelling, and drawing of archaeological diagrams. There are also a great deal of other things that have been excavated such as bones and beads that we can examine and teach them about.


Now obviously after a week hard at work, we all need a little break at the weekend, but we do require students come to an archaeological museum in the city we send them to, where we will give them a guided tour, talk to them about the area and how it links to Libarna, and in a few museums we can even show them some exciting finds from our site! The cities we visit at the weekends are Genoa, Milan, and Turin, which all have excellent archaeological museums – if you ever find yourself in Italy make sure you check them out!

We are also incredibly lucky to have a museum very close to site in the neighbouring town of Serravalle Scrivia. The Town Hall houses the Capurro Collection, which contains about 60 finds from excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Giovanni Francesco Capurro was a (rather unconventional) priest from the town of Novi Ligure, about 6 miles north of Libarna, who tried to save finds from excavations and display them in a museum in order to encourage ordinary people to visit and learn about the area and not simply specialists. His whole life’s focus was on helping the less fortunate, whether that was teaching children the alphabet or creating a free and public museum for everyone to enjoy. We are so lucky that we have this little museum to explore, and incredibly grateful to Giovanni Francesco Capurro for creating it, and the council of Serravalle Scrivia for maintaining it today!

Melania giving our students a tour of the Capurro Collection

Of course, all of these activities take place alongside data collection, which forms a huge part of our daily routine, but is not the be-all and end-all of our project. This field school is about so much more than just collecting data, both for the staff and the students. We want to help create well rounded human beings, educated in archaeological techniques, knowledgeable about the local culture, and experienced in working and socialising with a diverse group of people.

We like to think of this field-school as more than just archaeology – it’s a holistic education experience. Even if you’re not with us in Italy, we hope you too can get something out of our work in Italy through these blogs!



Hopes and Dreams for Fieldwork in 2018

In a previous blog (you can read it here) we revealed the results from our last season at Libarna, and with the countdown ever diminishing, it’s now time to think about the work we will be doing this summer. We have spent the last two years collecting data with our resistivity meter and the drone, and now with our new piece of equipment, the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), we hope to search for structures even further below ground that our other methods couldn’t see. But we won’t just be working on areas we haven’t been able to get results from, we also hope to run the GPR in areas we have used the other equipment. Why, you might ask, if you’ve already got results? What’s the point in going over the same place twice?

Well, do you remember from science class at school, the first rule of making something a fair test and ensuring an accurate outcome? Double check your results! Doing something once doesn’t guarantee that your answer is correct. In a similar vein, we use different techniques over the same area of ground to ensure that all the results match up, and we haven’t got fluke data from one machine caused by the weather, user error (it happens), or other environmental factors. This way we can take all the data, from all the different machines, compare them, and create a more definitive plan of what the city once looked like.

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Getting to grips with the GPR

This year we won’t be using any other techniques, just GPR, and the reason for this is quite simple – we’ve already got a lot of data from the other equipment. Some might argue that you can never have enough data, but the truth is, we’re still evaluating and processing our results from the last two years. New data will be more of a hindrance than a help at this point. We are hoping to use the GPR in a few new fields, particularly in areas where we don’t anticipate good results from other techniques, but mostly we want to see if we get the same, or better, results in fields we’ve already gone over with the RES and the drone. This way we can be a lot more certain of our findings.

We won’t be entirely sure which fields we can work in until we arrive and find out which areas are in crop and which have already been harvested. We only survey harvested fields so as not to damage the plants! Occasionally, we might get notice a week or two before, but because farming is so dependent on the weather, we often have to just wait and see what happens. Fields can also be harvested while we are on site, which means that we can get to work as soon as the newly formed hay bales have been moved (sometimes we get a bit impatient and help the farmers out)!

Helping move the hay bales!

In addition to having too much data to process, the more equipment we having running at a time, the more spread out we are over the site, and the harder it can be for students to really get familiar with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. With only one piece of equipment, they can get really proficient with this particular technique, and it also gives us time to introduce them to other aspects of archaeology more thoroughly. Things like examining finds from previous excavations, and allowing students to really understand the details of what work has gone on at the site and how it enhances our understanding of the history of Libarna.

Having less equipment doesn’t mean that there will be less time spent working, it just means that we can fit in other activities that occasionally have to fall by the wayside when we have data to collect. Primarily, this project is a field school, so the education element of the work is one of our main priorities. If they’re not needed out in the field with the GPR, our students will be taking tours of the site, learning about previous excavations, the wider area of northwestern Italy in the Roman period, archaeological drawing, osteology, data entry, and a great many other things that are crucially important to archaeology.

Students completing a mapping exercise

In addition to these tasks on site, we also ensure that all of our students write a journal about their experiences, and they also have daily questions to answer about the work we have been doing and new things they have learnt. We’ll be going into more detail about the specific education aspect of the project in a future blog, but we try to make sure that students leave the project having gained a wide variety of new skills and knowledge.

And there you have it! Our plan for 2018 is…collect GPR data! It might sound simple, but there’s a lot that goes into the data collection, and of course the very important processing afterwards! We’re only 41 days away from the beginning of the season, but there’s still a lot that can’t be planned just yet. We make sure that staff members arrive several days before the students so that we can work out a plan for the first week and get students to work as soon as they arrive (after a few days acclimatisation of course)!



Crop Encounters of the Archaeological Kind!

We mentioned in a previous blog that our drone “Dronita” had picked up some spectacular crop marks, but what creates these marks, and what can we actually determine from them?

When we mention crop marks most people’s first response is “crop circles? Wow!” But there are no mysterious alien forces at work here! A crop circle is a design pressed into the crop (by whichever process you choose to believe) but a crop mark is an area of land where subsurface archaeology has prevented or limited the growth of the crop. Much less exciting (or more, if you’re an archaeologist)! As a result, when a field is in full crop it can be easy to spot lines or structures as there are sections where nothing has grown.


But how exactly does the underlying archaeology prevent the crop growing? Obviously we’re not talking about small pieces of pottery here, but much larger structures such as buildings or roads. The bricks and stones below ground prevent roots from growing to their full ability and as a result the crop grows less well and appears more stunted than those surrounding it which can grow without any obstructions.

Additionally, the presence of stones takes water away from that area and into other sections of the soil, making them more fertile and in these sections the plants will grow more robustly than the others.

Depending on the crop, the marks can be more or less obvious. Thankfully, M.C. the crop growing in many of the fields we surveyed in 2017, was quite short and completely unable to grow above the subsurface archaeology, which made the crop marks incredibly apparent, which was great for us!

Crop Marks
Here you can see some structures and even possible paving stones from the road!

More difficult to see from the drone is a “positive crop mark” which is essentially the opposite of what we’ve been talking  about above. With a positive crop mark, the area below the plant is likely a depression deeper than the rest of the field. Often, these ditches or holes are filled with much more organic and fertile soil, thus resulting in the plants growing stronger than others in the field.

You can see in this rough diagram (drawn by yours truly) how all this works.

Crop marks at work!
Crop marks at work!

And that is everything you need to know about crop marks! Any questions? You can always ask on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram . We’ll be answering some FAQs in a later blog, so if there’s something you’ve always wanted to know about archaeology, Italy, or our field school in general, get in touch! And if you’ve been enjoying our recent updates, don’t forget you can follow our blog by email and get notifications every time we post, so you’ll never miss an update!


The Ties That Bind: using Archaeology to build relationships in Libarna

We’ve spoken before about the great relationship LULP has with the community surrounding Libarna. We are so grateful to have such amazing support when we are in Italy (and back at home, of course!), but is a good relationship with the community really that important? The simple answer is – ABSOLUTELY, YES! It’s the difference between a great season and a terrible one, and is instrumental to the long term success of a project.

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Meeting the Mayor of Arquata Scrivia and other members of the local council

When you are working on an archaeological site, often you reside within a neighbouring town or village – you eat there, sleep there, shop there. Any time you’re not at site, you are “at camp,” which in some locations can be an actual camp site, but for us is the town of Arquata Scrivia, about 2.5 miles from Libarna. The municipality of Arquata Scrivia is quite sizable – over 6,000 people, but they’re spread over 700 sq. miles of countryside, and the actual center of town is relatively small, only about 1 sq. mile. While there are enough people that the locals don’t know everyone individually, we certainly stand out like a sore thumb as foreigners, and it isn’t unusual to pass people who smile and simply say “archeologia!” or “Americano?”. “Si”, we reply, everybody smiles, waves, and goes on their merry way.

Even these small interactions are vitally important. We need to be part of the community for our the project to be a success! Much of the area is privately owned, and it is their land we are asking to survey, and although one of the benefits to survey is that it’s not as disruptive as excavation, we’re still tramping all over their fields, parking in their favorite spots, and buying up all their newspapers whenever we get mentioned! It would be incredibly easy for someone to deny us access to their fields, and they are perfectly entitled to do so, but fortunately this hasn’t happened yet!

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Buying up copies of La Stampa for every member of the team!

We make a huge effort to include the town in our work as archaeologists, and also to make our presence as beneficial as possible in other ways. We shop with independent businesses for everyday necessities rather than visiting the big chain superstores, we make daily visits to cafes for a morning cappuccino, the bakeries for our breakfast bread, and the gelaterias for a post dinner treat! In addition to this input into the local economy, we also invite the whole town to an open day where they can learn more about what we have achieved that summer, try out our equipment, and get to know us a bit better over food and drinks kindly provided by local businesses we have visited over the season.

In return, we are invited to a slew of local events – Arquata Scrivia is extremely fond of a summer party, with one almost every week, in addition to the regular Friday night aperativo! We have also had visitors to the site during the week who have brought us dishes of fresh foccacia, fruit and even cakes to enjoy for lunch! We are fortunate that the people of Arquata Scrivia are naturally very generous and kind, but undoubtedly without reciprocation, we would not have the same wonderful relationship that currently prevails.

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One of the fabulous summer parties!

Not only does being friends with locals support our work but it means that we always have people there to help if we have a problem – if the door breaks at our accommodation, we get a flat tire, or we can’t figure out how to work the machines in the laundromat – someone is always there and willing to lend a helping hand.

One of the reasons that Arquata Scrivia is so keen on us being there is that many of them come from families who have lived in the area for generations. They feel a connection with Libarna that is difficult to comprehend unless you have experienced something similar. The buildings we find, the paving stones, the pottery, these are things that their ancestors built and used. Arquata Scrivia is in their blood – they consider themselves descendants of the Romans that lived here 2,000 years ago, and that is why it’s so important to them, and they are so excited to have us here helping them.

This excitement that they have for the site transfers to us, we are enthusiastic as archaeologists, but we are captivated as individuals too – that we can help them understand and learn more about their heritage. It’s hard not to feel this way when you hear stories about how Libarna has shaped these people’s lives – there really is something truly special about Libarna, and the people of Arquata Scrivia.

This passion is exemplified by the work of the Libarna Arteventi Association, a “cultural association that aims to promote the territory, focusing on the archaeological area of Libarna.” Throughout the year they hold a variety of events in  collaboration with other organisations such as wineries, restaurants, and even sports teams, to assist with the creation of a “tourist-cultural network and increase knowledge of the archaeological site and surrounding area.” All the members of the Libarna Arteventi Association are volunteers, but they put a huge amount of effort into organizing fantastic events all year round. Without their support, our project would certainly not have received the attention and appreciation that it has so far.

Audience members enjoying the talk being given at our open day

In addition to this local group, we also have a great deal of appreciation for the Soprintendenza archeologia belle arti e paessagio, which is the governmental department that deals with and regulates the archaeology, art, and history of Alessandria. It is they who have final say on what we can or cannot do, they provide us with permits, and allow us to use land owned by the government to conduct our work. When we begin excavation, we will be held accountable by them.

We cannot overstate just how much we appreciate everything that the local community, the Libarna Arteventi Association, and the Soprintendenza do for us, and it is one of the reasons we are counting down the days until we come back to Libarna- only 50 days to go!!