There is no doubt that the study of archaeology is intrinsically linked with the quality of the soil on the site being observed.  But what can the composition of the soil teach  us to better understand the relationship between strata and the artifacts found there?  This question becomes increasingly significant when we understand what tools were used in working the land.  The ability to work soil and make agriculture manageable is a hallmark of human ingenuity and as such is witnessed to be heavily intertwined with different cultures’ iconography and mythology.  In Etruria, there is a common myth centering around farmers’ agricultural development and the tools they utilized  hinting to the tools’ symbolic meaning.  Common on cinerary urns dated to the 2nd century B.C.E. is imagery depicting “The hero who fights with the plow” as seen in figure 1.  This myth reveals potential social upheaval in Etruscan society at the time and the depiction of agricultural tools solidifies their significance within local history not only as a staple of farming life but also as a symbolic tool in understanding the definition of city boundaries. (Archaeological museum of Chiusi 2017).  The plow, in particular, was a necessary tool used in planning a city and tilling its boundaries was often the first step as well as a sacred religious practice.   This solidifies the plow not only as a necessary tool in human agricultural development but as an important symbolic one.  The social upheaval during the 2nd century B.C.E is centered around the Etruscans’ conflict with incoming Romans.  The depiction of a tool, necessary for drawing city lines and agriculture, being used as a weapon directly addresses the Etruscans’ appeal to incoming Roman power.


Fig 1. The Hero Who Fights with a Plow

The act of tilling earth, while necessary for the aeration of soil, inherently disturbs the original stratification of what is being worked.  This can result in tillage erosion directly threatening the geomorphology and soil distribution of the area.  It is incredibly relevant in the field of archaeology that each and every strata of soil must be examined to understand the basis of humans’ interaction with the area.  While this impact has always been recognizable in the redistribution of soil layer, for the majority of human history tilling has been accomplished through the use of animal drawn plows which statistically do not reach the same levels of redistribution that modern day, mechanized implements do (Van Oost K. et al 2006).  The introduction of mechanized agriculture in the form of motorized vehicles and plows substantially lessened the workload that individuals were forced to undertake while increasing the amount of soil disruption possible (Van Oost K. et al 2006).  Fig 2 depicts a comparison of such devices and the size of the implements speaks to the difference in workload that an animal-powered device can exert compared to a mechanized one which potentially reaches meters farther.  In this regard the effects of modern, mechanized agricultural production are immediately apparent to the archaeologist who must deal with these disturbed strata of soil.


Plow Smaller

Figure 2. Comparison of ancient and mechanized plow

It is obvious that these practices disturb soil layers and their accessibility to the archaeologist, but they also result in the countless destruction of sites and artifacts that lie just below the earth (Keller Donald, Rupp David 1983).  The direct impact of agricultural tilling is apparent on our work on the Gioiella site where modern, mechanized farm equipment has disturbed multiple strata of soil and heavily broken up a number of artifacts including Arretine ware, terracotta tiles, and other cookware implements.  In figure 3, the disruption of soil strata is clearly evident and with continuous tilling multiple layers are mixed together with any fragile artifacts suffering potential damage.  While it is not possible to determine whether or not these methods result in all of the damage found at the Gioiella site, there is not doubt that continuous tilling has resulted in the disruption of soil strata and artifacts.

Soil TIll Smaller
Fig 3. Disturbed Soil strata at the Gioiella site

And this is where our studies at Gioiella as archaeologists and the local history of Italy intertwine on a deeper level.  The previously discussed disruption of soil strata is clearly visible in the farmland worked in figures 3 and 4 in the sunflower fields.  The prevalence of the hero myth, common in Etruscan culture, has briefly highlighted the significance of agricultural tools in the both the agricultural sphere and religious sphere of human culture.   As such there is a bitter irony that modern developments in mechanized agriculture have reached the point where they may so easily destroy this rich history.  This conflict is unavoidable as humans always refine methods to work their land more efficiently.  However, we must use our understanding of this disruption to grasp the relationship between human development in the past and the present.

Fig 4. Example of Soil Tilling at the Gioiella site

Works Cited

“Cinerary Urns” Archaeological Museum of Chiusi, 2017

Donald R. Keller, David W. Rupp “Archaeological Survey in the Mediterranean Area” B A R International Series 155, pp. 1-15 1983

Van Oost, G. Govers, S. De Alba T. A. Tillage erosion: a review of controlling factors and implications for soil quality”  Quine Progress in Physical GeographyVol 30, Issue 4, pp. 443 – 466 First published date: August-19-2016



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