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!!

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!


Libarnjitos from the Heart

Much of the history of archaeology is a study in imperialism. As well meaning or nobly driven as the inquiry might have been, the past is littered with tale after tale of temporary visitations that did not bode particularly well for those lucky enough to live alongside the ruins so highly prized by scholars or the fickle gaze of popular culture. Antiquities in the Mediterranean have a particularly contentious past, and oftentimes, the modern lives of residents living among great monuments of the ancient world remain overlooked entirely.

As hindsight is 20/20, more recent projects have made a concerted effort to chart a new path, one where cultural property, no matter how interesting and important to academia or lay audiences, is respected as part of a living and dynamic cultural landscape. Our scholarship is only a part of the greater scope of Libarna’s influence and we have structured the LULP to reflect that as community involvement is a cornerstone of our work.

Coffee run sighting of our LULP promotional posters!

Without the support and permission of organizations like the Libarna Arteventi Associazione or the Soprintendenza Archeologica del Piemonte, we wouldn’t be here. Alessandro Quercia, Melania Cazzulo, Iudica Damei, Antonio Santopietro, Donatella van Wyngaardt, and so many others have become active members of our team, furthering our investigation, and enriching our student experience.

On Sunday, with the help of the Libarna Arteventi Associazione, we continued our tradition of inviting the community to come to Libarna for a behind the scenes view of our work. Last year, a great time was had by our staff and a few dozen of the local landowners who came by to watch Mike fly Dronina (may she enjoy her retirement in peace) and Nana as she beeped her way to local stardom (at least within Melania’s family).

Nana and Melania work to hone the presentation.

This year’s gathering had a bit more of a formal flair as we were presenting to regional officials associated with the SOP as well as residents and regional archaeological enthusiasts. The Libarna Arteventi Associazione helped us put together some great posters which we hung in all of our favorite bars, shops, and message boards from both this year and the last. Melania coached us through sending our message loud and clear, and sooner than we thought, Sunday was here.

Nana and Katie presenting our work at the conference.

We were expecting a few people, maybe forty or so for the conference and a bit more for the practical demonstration. What we weren’t expecting was a standing room only crowd with a line out the door and attendees outside every window! While much of the data is still being processed, we were able to show off our love of the site and the successes we’ve experienced thus far. Katie even set an additional goal for herself-delivering the whole of her presentation in Italian. Nana stuck to English, but since the data she has been working on this season did so much talking, the language barrier fell pretty quickly.

And then it was time for a truly heartwarming moment. Iudica, as a representative of the Libarna Arteventi Associazione, shared an extra special surprise-we had all just been made citizens of Libarna. To hammer in the gravity of such a thing, the mayor of Libarna himself had to grant special permission for our new status since the vast majority of us aren’t EU citizens. It was a gesture that truly made our stay.

Once our documents were presented, we switched gears and brought out the practical part of the day! Of course, Dronita made her public debut, and the resistivity machine, and gridding set up (equally important components of survey) were also demoed. We even had interactive stations where visitors could try their hands at each task. Dronita was presented with a crown, she is a bit of a princess after all, and we had a few brave souls run a line or two on the res.


Alessandro, Mike, Sesha, and Dronita after a successful demo flight.

Which brings us to the Libarnjitos. The fields surrounding Libarna are full of wild mint, dosing us with archaeo-aromatherapy on every step. Last year, we made a few jokes amongst the staff about how delicious it would be to make mojitos with the Libarna mint for a refreshing pick-me-up after a hot day’s work. But they wouldn’t be mojitos anymore, with such a special ingredient in the mix, they would be Libarnjitos!

When we shared this with Melania, she thought it was brilliant, and we promised to treat her and the Libarna Artiventi Associazion to a round as soon as we had a spare moment. Unfortunately, as often happens in the field, that spare moment never really arrived, so we decided to make Libarnjitos the featured drink of our community outreach day.

After our co-director, Katie, conjured up a delicious batch of traditionally muddled drinks for us one night, we knew we were on the right track, but the idea of making fifty or more of them on the fly in a field wasn’t exactly practical. Ashley Mason put her thinking cap on and decided to make a few modifications that would launch us into mass production. With our Libarnjito syrup (patent pending), we arrived on scene ready to treat visitors to our “invention.”

Ashley and Shura prepare the Libarnjito syrup.

As I was manning the table for a time, I would like to think the Libarnjitos rivaled Dronita in their popularity, so much so that we even made the regional section of the national Italian newspaper, La Stampa. “Cocktail di saluto a Libarna con gli archeologi americani,” read the headline. “Cocktails of welcome to Libarna with the American archaeologists,” for those of us who need a helping hand with our Italian. While the article was about much more than drinks, the final line read that our Libarnjitos came from the heart.


Guests flock to the Libarnjito (and other assorted snacks) table.

As kitschy as it might sound, Libarna is a local treasure. We are just the latest to have fallen in love with this site. So many of those here have given their all to Italian archaeology and Libarna, we are merely the very lucky souls who have life changing opportunity to work (and drink) alongside them!


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.

Workin’ for the Weekend

Field school isn’t just about toiling away in the fields, the weekends are every bit as important. Of course, there is the very essential R&R that keeps everyone sane, a little adventure and exploration to introduce our students to the beauty of the region, and then there are the museums. We’re particularly lucky to be positioned nearby several amazing institutes. Our home in Arquata Scrivia is situated in between Genoa and Turin, which makes the Ranger Station optimally suited for weekend excursions to either city for a peek into their vast collections.


When Saturday rolls around, it’s time for a field trip from field school. Dr. Katherine V. Huntley and Dr. Hannah Friedman are experts in the archaeology of ancient Rome, so a tour through a museum with them is a mind opening experience even for those of us who have studied classics for years. With Katie’s focus on urban and domestic life and Nana’s experience studying centers of ancient industry, no stone is left unturned.

Nana getting into her numismatics groove in Turin.

We start the students off in Turin’s Museo Archeologico in the Musei Reale Torino. Housed in the 16th century palace complex of the Savoy dynasty, the collection of regional antiquities is absolutely stunning and takes the viewer deep into the past as we descend into the subterranean galleries of the palace basement. The palace structures lie above a Roman theatre and we begin our tour with a worm’s eye view of ruins barely visible above ground. As Libarna has one of the foremost remaining theatres from the Roman world, this offers a great point of comparison.  


Starting in the more recent past of Medieval Piemonte, we travel deeper in time to ancient Rome with exhibits that walk students through both the material culture itself and the analytical process involved in drawing conclusions from shards of bone, stone, and pot. This understanding is particularly important when you are solely conducting survey. It’s all about perspective. These kinds of exhibits are crucial to help them see that, while it might not be the most scintillating thing they’ve ever done, standing in a field with a rope, a tape measure, or a resistivity probe, really is contributing to that shiny, finds filled future we all envision when thinking of archaeology.


Katie answering questions regarding various small finds in Turin’s Museo Archeologico.


With archaeological evidence of the Langobards, Etruscans, Romans, and Gauls within arm’s reach, the exhibit also works as a fantastic primer on how the material evidence of these different peoples varies. How is terra sigillata from Gaul (the predominant type found in Libarna) different from the classic “Arretine-ware” produced further south? What images and motifs are considered regionally unique versus those that would have traveled along the commercial arteries of the Roman Empire? And what about that weird, green glazed pottery that somehow snuck itself into production in the Roman world?


But Turin isn’t the only place where such a wealth of material culture resides. In the opposite direction, the Museo di Archeologia Ligure sits high on a hill in Genoa (once an Etruscan colony itself),overlooking the sea. Here is where the lion’s share of finds extracted from Libarna throughout the centuries resides. While a bit smaller, the collection does a fabulous job of impressing upon visitors the cultural flexibility present in the ancient world. Words like “Romanization” trap learners into a false prison of antiquity as a place where imperial forces arrived and merely stamped their almighty imprint upon the largely blank, barbarian landscape.

Nana and Katie introduce the students to the collection in Genoa.

Finds from Libarna tell a very different story. Whether you’re looking at a grave marker featuring a delightfully mustachioed reclining fellow (who certainly breaks the Roman mould) or a piece of pottery that doesn’t seem to follow any distinctly “Roman” pattern, the collection in Genoa is a reminder that we are largely in uncharted territory up here. The southern and central Italian peninsula has been studied repeatedly in an attempt to distill the Roman presence, but much of what we think we “know” about the north is framed by the context of the south.


By encountering these pieces that fall so far outside the box, we challenge the students to see antiquity as the diverse, fluctuating, regionally sensitive time and space it really was. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the concept of a largely uniform “Roman World” took hundreds of years of study to establish as well, so our work to bring the complexities of life in Libarna to light might take a while as well. A couple of weekends in Turin and Genoa seem like a good place to start.


Once we’ve filled their minds with all we can of Italian antiquity, our students are free to spend the next day and a half discovering their own private Italy. For some, this will have been their first trip out of the United States, or even their home state. For all, this marks an opportunity to become more than a tourist and get an intimate view of life in places like Arquata Scrivia and its neighboring towns, to trade stories of their work and journey with fellow hostel-goers when further afield, and to share an experience that shows them just a bit more about who they really are. It’s what our weekends are all about.

2 GPRs and a Funeral

For a short, inaugural season, what we were able to accomplish last year was pretty impressive. That said, we came away with a laundry list of things we wanted to do in coming seasons (speaking of laundry, if you missed Shura’s struggle with the mountain of dirty linens we amassed over the past week, take a look at our most recent Instagram pics here). A more comprehensive survey using ground penetrating radar was at the top of that list.

In the final week of 2016’s season, we rented a day’s worth of ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey and processing from the fabulous specialists at Tech Gia in Turin, but one day only gave us two test grids on opposite ends of site. What that limited data told us was instrumental in deciding where we wanted to go and how we would structure our approach this season, but we wanted more!

When an article from the Boise State University’s Arbiter made the rounds, we snagged the attention of Dr. John Bradford in the geosciences department. John has extensive experience all over the world conducting GPR surveys for mining, and utilities development, so when he said this was a project he was eager to be a part of, we jumped at the opportunity to host him and his daughter, Austin. We could only steal them for a week, but it has been a ridiculously productive five days.

John and Austin torture Katie with a recently deceased European Rhinoceros Beetle. No archaeologists were harmed in the taking of this photograph. Please excuse the excessive lense flare…


Week two, with GPR as a central focus, started off with a bang. Because of the more time intensive nature of data collection through GPR, we were expecting to get a maximum of 10 grids evaluated. We picked our chosen fields carefully and John, Austin, and their little yellow unit tore through most of those within the first three days! All of this of course was done while guiding the students (and staff members) in the collection and interpretation of GPR data.

And then it all ground to a screeching halt…

Unfortunately, the nature of GPR survey (literally dragging the radar over uneven terrain, often including large stones and all sorts of damaging goodies) means that the units themselves have limited lifespans. Five or six years old is downright geriatric for a model like the one John brought with him, and while it was trucking along well, the abuses of international travel, hundreds of kilometers of survey in Greenland, and a full life of rocks and hard places took their toll. Rest in peace little friend.

John immediately flew into action and tapped into a vast underground network of geophysicists spanning the world. Hyperbole aside, John contacted a few friends across the Italian peninsula and wrangled not one, but two possible solutions that would help us finish strong. Lo and behold, one of those contacts happened to work with a delightful company we knew and loved, Tech Gia! John and Austin made the drive up to Turin bright and early Thursday morning and picked up the new unit.

Now, something to remember, GPR machines themselves come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. John’s model was a fleet little yellow guy that required two operators, but was compact enough that it would fit in your standard suitcase. TechGia’s model looks like a cross between a baby buggy and a seed dispenser. It only requires a single operator, but it also operates through a completely different system, which means that after the drive to and from Turin, John gave himself a crash course in the new unit and blazed through another four grids.

The final frontier! John races the new GPR unit down the 100 meter lanes of field M.

Friday we were ready to rumble. It was the last day of GPR and we had already gone through ten grids. We rallied the troops and constricted a long, slightly oddly dimensioned rectangular grid along the busy Via Arquata, and ploughed through it all before lunch time. After a couple of small control grids and the tail end of another field we had hoped to get a better look at, John and Austin were finally done, and were very happy campers with a grand total of twenty grids surveyed through GPR.

We celebrated our collective success in a little trattoria in Gavi and wished John and Austin happy travels. Not to get too emotional, but we will certainly miss them and hope that there will be at least a few more weeks of their GPR expertise in future seasons (that is, if we can manage to stop snoring long enough to get John a full night’s sleep…). In the meantime, we’ll be reliving the fun as the processed data starts coming our way!

Hitting the Books

Our experiences in the field stay with us forever, sometimes with a bit too much clarity depending on the situation… Whether it was the kind of season you’ll share with anyone willing to listen, or your favorite on-site horror story, there has been many a moment when we’ve all promised ourselves in trenches, labs, and fields the world over, that if we were in charge, we would do things differently.  So, between the eight of us on staff, we have quite a bit of material to bring to the table when shaping the student experience of the LULP.

The challenge is always this: How do we immerse students in the physical components of archaeology (it’s not all racing giant boulders after all) in between sharing the realities of the investigative process, our academic mission, and our passion for the history of this region, all while conducting research ourselves? It’s a big question to ask, and this year, we have implemented a rigorous educational component to better answer it.

We’ve structured the season in such a way that our newly minted field archaeologists are getting up close and personal with as much of the research process as possible. As this is an upper division college course, reading plays a large part in the experience but, tying the kinetic to the mental gymnastics are the student journals. The Journal (capitalization intended) is an essential tool in field archaeology, and we introduce our students to it in daily questions aimed to tease out evidence of the knowledge we hope to impart.

IMG_20170703_154138Which is what exactly? We began week one with a crash course in phenomenology. Libarna is an excellent test case for this after centuries of piecemeal excavations and investigations all with very different goals to guide them. Since our students come from varying backgrounds (business, anthropology, and geosciences to name a few) a big part of the learning component in the first week is geared to orient them in the site armed with the methodological and theoretical tools to tackle what we might find.

In the following weeks, readings and discussions introduce students to the why behind what they do from eight to four every day. They get up close and personal with the science behind our fancy tools with articles discussing resistivity, remote sensing, and ground penetrating radar. Then it’s on to discussions of material culture analysis, osteology, community engagement, and more.

Daily, students practice the technical component of physically conducting survey. The basics of setting up a grid, operating a resistivity meter, GPS, and GPR unit are all important skills to this phase of the LULP, and the students start with Pythagoras and soon produce beautifully constructed grids that could bring a tear to the eye (trust me, it’s magical), which they then plot through GPS, and survey with our trusty resistivity meter and GPR unit.

IMG_20170711_112212And throughout each week we pepper them with question after question, challenging them to look beneath the surface (pun very much intended) of what they pour their blood, sweat, and tears into each day. Why is a strong relationship with the community so important to the LULP’s success? Why take so much time painstakingly surveying, both from the ground and air, before excavating? What kind of challenge does a site that has seen excavations here and there, but seldom a publication, present to those exploring it today? How can we target where to dig in future years all while being as non-destructive as possible?

Field school is a 24 hour educational experience, one which we hope our students enjoy, as exhausting as it might seem in the moment. There is nothing else quite like it, and at the very least, they will have quite the story to tell.

Welcomed by Candlelight

Few things say, “have a fantastic field season,” quite like a welcome feast at the annual candlelight festival.


Earlier in week one, we’d heard rumblings that the Comune di Arquata Scrivia wanted to host a dinner welcoming the Libarna Urban Landscape Project on Thursday evening. Aside from the obvious reasons for anticipation (who doesn’t love a party?), it would also give us a chance to meet more of the community and thank them for their hospitality and generosity. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but from what we’d tasted so far at the local trattorias, the food was guaranteed to be excellent. As a delightful surprise, we found that Thursday was also the night of a festival of candlelight, the Notte Delle Candele. A night full of music, breezy white clothing, and of course, lines of votive candles weaving through the streets of town.



We dressed to impress (or were at the very least clean), however, we were a bit short on white clothing, so we stood out a bit in the crowd! Not knowing what the comune had in store, we were ushered into the 16th century Palazzo Spinola where the mayor Albert Basso (adorned in his very official, ceremonial sash) and members of the council, Paolo Spineto, Nicoletta Cucinella, and Stefania Pezzan, gave our directors a beautiful welcome. And then came another surprise-a stack of books made an appearance and were gifted to the project. These local travel guides, historical surveys, and books featuring regional artists are fantastic additions to our field library.


After several rounds of pictures, we turned to the next phase of the evening-the feast. And yes, I truly mean feast. For those of you out there who have not yet experienced the pleasure and obligation of a classic Italian dinner, the flow of food seems endless, and you must have at least a little bit of everything. The comune took us to a lovely trattoria on the edge of the Piazza Santo Bertelli where we had front row seats to the early hours of the candlelight festival. As the choir assembled and vendors brought out their wares, our plates were filled with salads of faro, beef tendon, and vegetables; breads, lasagna, egg pies, roasted tomatoes, cheeses, and finally a divine apple cake with swirls of spices in its delicate crumb.


While the festival stepped into full swing, Melania took us on a tour of the oldest house in Arquata. The flickering candlelight illuminated our path to the medieval home where her grandfather was born. Today, it is a workshop and gallery for craftsmen creating incredibly detailed dioramas of religious scenes and imaginings of life long ago in Arquata Scrivia. As we climbed the stone steps of the house, we found ourselves captivated by the delicacy and beauty of each vignette.



After that, nothing was left but to enjoy the festival. Song filled the piazza and children were given white balloons with small LED lights casting a warm glow to match the flickering candles. At the culmination of the festival, hundreds of white clad children throughout the square and streets released their balloons into the darkness of the night.




We are very happy to be here, and it is so rewarding to know that Arquata Scrivia is just as excited to host us as well. Thank you so much for the very warm welcome!