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.


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.

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.


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;


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 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







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.


Nana, Katie, and the LULP team.


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

Screenshot_2020-03-03 How did Rome create new cities to build an Empire

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.

person holding up a jaw bone with teeth remains of an animal
Photo by Maël BALLAND on

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

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.


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!

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.


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.