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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Life in the Day with the Archaeologists of LULP!

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

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

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

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

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

The beautiful visitor’s centre

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

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

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

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

Working hard in front of the Greek style theatre!

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

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

Archaeologists Assemble: Meet the 2018 LULP Team

Welcome to the third season of LULP! We are nine strong this year and going full steam ahead on another year of survey. Before we get to far into the business of data collection, some introductions are in order!

Of course, we have Drs. Katherine V. Huntley and Hannah Friedman (that’s Katie and Nana respectively in the field) at the LULP helm. Dr. John Bradford joins us from his new digs at the Colorado School of Mines (not mimes… we confused some students with our sloppy diction), and brings with him, for the third and fourth week, postgraduate student, Adam Mangel. Shura Harris, our Survey Coordinator and Outreach Officer, is representing the UK and eagerly hoping for England’s domination at the World Cup. Our resident Libarna specialist and archaeologist, Melania Cazzulo, joins us in the field again as well. Back at the keyboard today is Nicole Inghilterra, Camp Director and Education Coordinator.


Speaking of students, our contingent arrived here on Saturday! Boise State University master’s student, Hayley Noble, might be missing some baggage (thanks Delta) but she’s certainly not lacking in enthusiasm. Back in Boise, Hayley studies the history of World War II and female Soviet combatants. Also joining us from BSU is Joseph Bradshaw, a media arts major. We’re not at all joking when we say Libarna would make for some good documentary material! Senior project perhaps? Elijah Castillo came all the way from the Longhorn State, but he’s spent the past month in Spain studying at the TTU Seville campus, so he’s well past the jet lag phase of travel. As a kinesiology major, Elijah brings a totally different perspective to the table. Here’s to hoping we’re carrying the jerry-can in an anatomically correct way! We’re turning them all into archaeologists, one field at a time.

Things kicked into high gear the moment we assembled, and we have a busy four weeks ahead of us. In-between introducing the students to the region, we’ve already been able to examine a concrete parking lot and a gas station with our fabulous new GPR machine, something we couldn’t have done with the equipment we were using in previous years. We’ll soon be moving back to fields that gave us good results in preliminary work last year, as well as few more new locations, but that’s another post altogether!


Essential Equipment for Excellence…packing for summer in Italy!

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

1: TAPE!

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

2: A hammock

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

3: Earplugs

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

4: Sharpies

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

A small selection of our glorious sharpie collection

5: First Aid Kit

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

6: Entertainment

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


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

Back to (field) school – Archaeology in Action!

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

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Learning about archaeological mapping

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

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

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

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Students completing journal entries in the field!

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

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


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


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

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

Melania giving our students a tour of the Capurro Collection

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

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



Hopes and Dreams for Fieldwork in 2018

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

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

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Getting to grips with the GPR

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

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

Helping move the hay bales!

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

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

Students completing a mapping exercise

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

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



Crop Encounters of the Archaeological Kind!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Crop marks at work!
Crop marks at work!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the fabulous summer parties!

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

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

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

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

Audience members enjoying the talk being given at our open day

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

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

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!