What Did Our Archaeology Project Discover in 2017?

We’ve talked a lot about our day to day work on site during the field season, and we’ve tried to give some insight into what a field-school is really like, but one thing that has been kept a little more secret is the actual results of the work we’ve been doing. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, although we collect a lot of data during the time we’re in Italy, much of this can’t be fully processed and evaluated until we are back at home. Secondly, we have to be careful what preliminary data we reveal as unfortunately, there have been incidents with previous archaeological projects where information on potential remains has been taken advantage of by others digging illegally for personal profit. We have no reason to believe that this would happen at Libarna, but unfortunately it has just become standard practice in this day and age. Once the data is processed and publications are made available, we can comment in more detail of what we’ve found.

Before anything else, let’s remind ourselves of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

By surveying the area with multiple geophysical techniques, we can establish what kind of remains might be lying under the ground and where they are. This means that we can create a dynamic map of the ancient city without having to dig first, causing much less disruption to the local community. It allows us to determine where excavation would be most effective.

2017-07-03 14.13.40.jpg
The drone in action

Now we’ll recap what we were doing last year. Our two primary methods of data collection in 2017 were the drone and an electrical resistivity meter. The drone provided us with some absolutely incredible results due to a combination of two factors:

  1. Having had little to no rainfall since the end of May, the ground was extremely dry by the time we started work at the beginning of July.
  2. Local farmers had been sowing their fields with a particular type of plant, which for secrecy purposes we’ll call M.C. (Magic Crop).

These two factors combined to provide us with incredible crop marks, some visible to the naked eye, others only with an aerial view from the drone. We’ll be doing a separate blog post focusing on crop marks and how they are formed, but in short – they are areas of the field where crops don’t grow as well and can be indicators of subsurface obstructions.

Here you can see an example of the same crop marks from the air, and from the ground!



The drone showed us the urban layout of Libarna in a level of detail and completeness we had never seen before. It was able to pick up internal divisions within building structures, what we think is a sewer below the road, and even individual columns and paving stones! It was just amazing to see these images, and makes the prospect of one day excavating these areas even more exciting.

The fortuitous conditions of both weather and crops cannot be understated, and it has given us a lot to think about in the planning of future seasons. Finding out when farmers will be using this crop in particular and working with them to enable us to survey every area we can is now one of our top priorities. In 2016 we used the drone to survey some of the same fields and could see none of what we did when they were planted with M.C.

Crop Marks
Here you can clearly see building structures and paving stones in the road!

An issue for Libarna is that several areas were excavated hundreds of years ago, unsettled, and we now have little to no documentation of those digs remaining. In the late 19th century, small areas of the site were excavated, but we have only word of mouth reports of what was found where. In 2017, we were able to finally confirm the location of the forum with crop marks and details uncovered by the drone! This is a very important discovery, and gives us hope that much of what the community believe about the ancient city may well be true. This is a perfect example of why we are hoping to create something known as an “oral history” of the area. Throughout the years, stories have been passed down through the generations about Libarna, and we’ve had many people telling us “my great grandfather worked in this field and found x.” While we have to take these stories with a pinch of salt, there is certainly a lot of benefit to having these written down and accessible, before they are forgotten and left behind by time.

Where M.C. wasn’t planted, we used a resistivity meter (RES), which we have talked about in greater detail here.

2017-07-06 08.35.34
Resistivity Meter (RES)

In direct contrast with the incredible drone results, the results from the RES were somewhat limited, again as a result of two different factors:

  1. The RES works by conducting electricity throughout the ground, and with the little moisture that was in the soil, not only was it harder to actually get the machine into the ground, but once it was in, the readings were not as effective as we had hoped.
  2. The RES can only read 1 metre down, and we have reason to believe that in some areas of the site subsurface archaeology may be much deeper, meaning that even though it is present, it cannot be detected by the RES.

This is why we are hoping to use a new technique known as Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) this summer. In both 2016 and 2017 we had the use of  GPR for a week, and during these test sessions found that the machine worked incredibly well in the difficult conditions, corroborated things we had determined with the drone, and discovered totally new structures too!

2017-07-13 14.41.46
GPR at work!

Ultimately, we had a very successful season in 2017! Triumphant results from the drone, and even though the RES was not a total success, the simple fact that we have discovered the archaeology might be deeper down than originally thought is a result in itself. After only a few days with the GPR last year we knew it was definitely something we needed to make greater use of, so this summer will be focused mainly on the GPR, looking at new and old fields, and learning even more about the layout of Libarna. We have added nearly 7 hectares of information to the ancient map (as seen in red on the map below), and hope that with the greater abilities of the GPR we will be able to add even more this summer. We’ll be posting an update on what we’re hoping to achieve in 2018 very soon, so keep an eye out!

Map with Red Additions


We Need Your Help!

Today we launch our official fundraising campaign for the 2018 season! As a young project (we are only in our third year) it can be difficult to find a continuous source of funding, especially with so many other interesting projects happening all over the world. The last two years have demonstrated to us that there is a great deal of potential for this site, but we need your help to maximise the work we are able to do!

That’s why we have set up a fundraising campaign through Boise State University’s own crowdfunding platform – PonyUp! We hope that this will give you some confidence that the money you donate will go solely towards the work of this project (note that things like flights, insurance, and any personal costs incurred will NOT be covered by these contributions).

You can find our fundraising page here.

2017-07-06 19.20.21

In case you’re new here, let me tell you a little about our work, and why it’s so important, both to us as archaeologists, and to the local community.

Who and what is the Libarna Urban Landscapes Project?

The Libarna Urban Landscapes Project (LULP) is a Boise State History department project that is bringing new technologies to the study of Libarna, a 2000-year-old city in northwest Italy. LULP has 3 main goals: exploration, education, and engagement. This year our team of undergraduate and graduate students are hoping to use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to investigate the parts of ancient Libarna that are still under the ground.

Exploration: Why is some old city in northwest Italy so important?

  • Today, Italy is a country with a lot of regional diversity. Much of this diversity may go all the way back to ancient times. Libarna is going to help us learn about what made the region unique in the Roman period, and understand what makes northwest Italy unique today.
  • LULP is using scientific technologies like GPR, electrical resistivity, and a drone, to survey Libarna. The goal is to recover as much information about the subsurface archaeological remains as possible. This will help us fill in the map of Libarna and target areas for future excavation.

2017-07-13 14.41.46

Education: How does our archaeological work benefit students?

  • While LULP is dedicated to training the next generation of archaeologists, we also train students from many different disciplines. Fieldwork provides all students with a number of transferable skills, such as logistics and project management, IT and geophysical technology experience, creative problem solving, and teamwork skills.
  • LULP allows students to participate in cutting edge research. The multidimensional nature of archaeological work allows off-shoot research projects that are perfect for undergraduate and graduate students. These potential projects are in various fields, including business and marketing, education, computer science, and of course, history and archaeology.

Engagement: How does archaeological work foster international relationships for Boise State and Idaho?

  • The project provides students and volunteers with a culturally immersive experience. The LULP fosters relationships with the local community through a number of ways, including organised research presentations and demonstrations, patronage of local businesses, and participation in public festivals and events.
  • LULP is helping to make Boise State and Libarna international names! Last year LULP appeared in several Italian newspapers, including the national paper La Stampa, no less than seven times (you can see some of these articles on the “Press” page of our website).

Open Day

What do we hope to achieve this year?

Using different technologies we are able to see archaeological features below the ground without the need to dig. By layering the results of the different techniques, we are able to get the most complete, dynamic map of the ancient city. Our last two seasons in the field have already yielded promising information from two technologies: electrical resistivity and drone survey. Now we want to use the Ground Penetrating Radar to expand our knowledge of the site even more. We know it has real potential: last year we conducted a limited trial run that showed a great deal of promise. You can see what the GPR recovered in the image below – evidence of an ancient house, roads, and other structures.

GPR Results

In fact, we have already been able to add more than 1/4 square mile of information to Libarna’s map. you can see all our contributions highlighted in red below. Imagine how much more of the map we’ll be able to fill in with GPR data this summer!

Map Red

And that it what we need your contributions for! Renting and running a GPR and all the things that go along with a fieldschool, but in reality, you will be funding a great deal more than just equipment, you’ll be helping the light of ancient Libarna shine once again!


Aaaaand we’re back!

It’s been a while since we’ve posted a blog, but fear not – we are back for the 2018 season! It’s always nice to take a bit of a break from work, and although the field-school might only run for a few weeks in the summer, planning and preparation goes on year-round.

There are only 61 days to go until we arrive back in Italy and the excitement is building! But, there’s still a lot to do before we start work. It’s easy to forget about all the things that go into running an archaeological field-school – when I attended my first dig as a student I was totally oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes to make sure everything ran smoothly. Six years later I now know just how much forward planning and organisation it takes!

Really, preparation for the next season begins before the previous one is even finished – working out what we have achieved and how it affects what we want to do in the future. Is there anything super exciting that we want to investigate further, or is there somewhere we’re getting no results and can move on from? Which equipment gave us the best results? Are there any other techniques we can use on the same area to try and achieve different results? The list of questions is endless.


Evaluating the season before we head home

The end of the season is also a great time to reflect on how the season went overall, not just in relation to our research but more basic things like how well the sleeping and meal arrangements worked, was the chore rota effective etc. We also like to check with the students if they have any particular comments on what they liked, or things they think could be improved. We’ve found it’s much better to do this while we’re still in country, as once you leave and get back to normal life your memories focus on the incredible fun you had but the fact that you had to send someone on an emergency run to the store for toilet roll (twice) seems to be forgotten…..

Immediately after our return home there’s a lot to do: processing data; writing up research; applying for conferences, grants, and journal publications. Student recruitment also begins early, so we have to update the handbook, create flyers and leaflets, and attend study abroad fairs to spread the word and encourage people to join us in Italy. In addition to the students, we also need to make sure we have enough staff members to cater for all the student and research needs and depending on what our plans are for the season, we may need people with new and different skills and specialisations.

image1 (2)
Preparing the new student handbook


With people comes paperwork! Health and safety declarations, dietary requirements, vaccination certificates, travel insurance, flights, and for many of our students, applying for their first passport! Then we have to tell the Italian government how many people will be coming, apply for permits, check with local landowners that we can conduct our survey on their land and ensure we know which fields will be harvested and when, so we can map out our plan of attack.

Once we’ve got the numbers we need to work out the finer details – where will everyone sleep, how do we feed everyone, how many cars will we need to hire, do we need to buy any new equipment? Fortunately, we have great contacts in Italy who can help us organise accommodation and who store a lot of our equipment for us when we’re away. There are also things we can do at home, like working out readings on archaeological techniques and equipment, journal questions and other activities for the students, weekend timetables, planning a few tasks that can effectively fill the students’ time if we have any unexpected free time (this can be anything from a machine breaking, to a team finishing their task early, or even just bad weather).

2017-10-04 09.56.47
Recruiting students at the study abroad fair!

Finally, all of us have our own personal to do lists – buying new clothes (or digging out the old ones from the attic – no pun intended), checking you’ve got enough medication/contact lenses/favourite snacks to get you through the season abroad, purchasing foreign currency, and finding someone to look after the cat! (I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or if we’ve all been drawn to each other but we’re a fairly heavily pet orientated staff with 8 cats and 3 dogs between us!). Once all that is done, it’s time for the real work to begin! All this preparation ensures we have a fantastic field season, and we hope you enjoy reading about it in the upcoming months as much as we enjoy being there!


Survey 101 – An Introduction to Resistivity

We’ve been talking a lot about RES-ing, GPRs, drones and all the technology we’re using here on site in Italy, but what do all these machines actually do, and how do they help us as archaeologists? If you’ve been wondering about these very issues then read on! The first piece of kit I’ll be talking about is the resistivity meter or, RES.

In the most basic terms, the RES measures the flow of electricity through the ground and any structures that might be hidden there. Archaeological features can be identified when the resistance that the electricity faces is much higher or lower in certain spots than in the rest of the surrounding area. This could either be high resistance from something like a rock or stone, or extremely low resistance from an organic material or even displacement of stones that may once have formed an ancient structure.

The machine itself is made up of three distinct parts – the remote probes, the mobile probes, and the brain (or computer). The remote probes are placed in the ground and once the brain is attached to the mobile probes, they get walked up and down the field. The data is formed by measuring the electricity passing between these two sets of probes.

But how is data actually collected and organised by the machine? The backbone to any survey is the grids – 20x20m or 10x10m squares, set up with coloured poles and cones to mark the corners. For the RES we also place small markers at 2 metre intervals on two opposing sides of the square. We try and fit as many grids as possible within a field in order to maximise the area we can survey.

Once the grids are up we can begin RES-ing. points need to be taken every metre, and by using metre marked ropes between the 2 metres markers on the perimeter we can quickly walk up and down the grids by moving the ropes to the premeasured markers.

Students walking the RES in front of the theatre

All members of the RES team for the day have assigned jobs that rotate every time we move to a new grid. The main task is to walk the machine up and down the ropes within the grids, inserting the probes at every metre mark. Each pair of probes measures 50cm in each direction, giving an overall reading of 2m x 1m. Equally important is the cable holder who ensures the electric cord is not being pulled too tightly and also that it is clear of the mobile probes. Probes piercing electrical cable = bad news.

The last two places are filled by rope wranglers who manoeuvre the ropes across the grids whilst also ensuring the cable isn’t tangled and the walker is evenly aligned between the ropes.

We have found that these are the minimum numbers for an effective team, but should more people be with us for a session, jobs can always be found for them as additional rope or cable wranglers.

Note taking is also a hugely important part of any survey. We like to keep records of as much as we can so that in the event of any problems or discrepancies with data we can look back and work out what might have gone wrong and where.

You can see from the picture above that we note time, date, location, namer of the walker, name of the supervisor, temperature, humidity, as well as a technical sketch of the field and grids.

Once the data has been collected it is “dumped” onto a computer and processed. Whilst is can often take a trained eye to spot things, there are occasions when features jump out of the screen and are immediately visible. Take this shot for example…

Processed data from the RES

That gigantic black line running through 2 squares…yes, that’s a structure! knowing the size of each grid (20x20m) we can also judge the approximate size of the structure which helps determine whether something might be, for example, a wall or a road.

In this field you can also see that one of the squares has not produced any data. In this case it was because there would have been a fence running through the corner if we had placed a grid there. this is also visible on our paperwork.

With this data, we are now able to make a much more educated decision on whether or not the area is worth excavating in the future, and we can also add structures to maps of the area.