Analysis of Malaria in the Tiber and Chiana River Systems

Until mid-June it was unusually cool in Italy. But as the sun began to come out, the spring rains dried, and a horrible buzzing sound began. Not the innocent din of pollinating bees, but the snarl of mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes have been interacting with humans for thousands of years. Some theories suggest that they co-evolved with humans after preying primarily on other primates. Regardless of their origin, there is genetic evidence for the coevolution of malaria with humans (Hill et. al 1997). While historical genetic records are not available to modern scientists, there is evidence of malaria in the ancient Mediterranean world. Our archaeological dig site in the Chiana river valley has many similarities with the Tiber River valley which has historically fostered a mosquito problem in Rome. This manifested as “Roman Fever,” another name for the strain of malaria specific to the Mediterranean and Africa known as Plasmodium falciparum (Miller). The term mal’ aria, which translates to “bad air” (Wrigley), shows that the Romans lacked an understanding of the disease. Malaria is actually caused by a parasite inside the mosquitoes that enters the bloodstream through their saliva as they suck out blood. The disease killed 429,000 people in 2016 (World Health Organization). 

Recently discovered evidence suggests that malaria was a contributing factor to the stressors that collapsed Rome. Certain DNA markers can be detected in bones from malaria victims buried in Roman cemeteries. Bones have to be in sufficiently good condition to perform specific disease-based DNA analysis, so it was not until the late 1990s that DNA evidence for malaria in Italy was detected, beginning with bones testing positive for malaria at excavations in Lugnano (Soren). Since malaria came from Africa, it is suggested that it spread through trade routes that led to Rome (Thompson). DNA in teeth from the 1st-3rd century CE discovered in 2000 at three Roman-period sites across Italy also provide concrete evidence for malaria (Miller). Because there are no clear historical records of the disease, it is hard to estimate effectively its impact on the Roman Empire. However, knowing that the disease was present has important implications for all of Italy, including the Chiana river valley in Etruria.

We do not yet have direct evidence of malaria in the ancient Chiana river valley, but similar conditions to the Tiber suggest its plausibility. Due to their close proximity, both rivers had similar topography. Small hills along the rivers would have helped to create areas of standing water that are excellent breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The Chiana underwent a long process of draining between 1500 to 1840; prior to that it was a swampy area that was nearly uninhabitable during the middle ages (Platner). Accumulation of standing water also resulted from frequent flooding of the Tiber. Pools of water near the capital would cause the mosquito population to bloom.

  • Image of the Tiber River Valley from
  • Topographic Map of Italy from Shutterstock

This figure from (O’Sullivan et. al 2008) illustrates a basic model for anthropogenic impact on mosquito populations that are compare ancient Rome with the Ross River in Southwestern Australia. The two main mechanisms essentially rely on increased standing water leading to larval development and decreased biodiversity increasing mosquito susceptibility to parasites as well as decreasing predators.

Recent research has suggested that deforestation and water development such as irrigation and dam-building along with soil salinization can greatly increase mosquito populations. Both the Etruscans and Romans engaged in extensive water engineering projects (irrigation, bathhouses, aqueducts, etc.), so a comprehensive study may someday be able to illustrate how malaria may have adversely affected their social and economic systems.

Because both Rome and Etruria invested heavily in agriculture and modified their river systems, both civilizations may unintentionally have increased the levels of mosquito breeding. New agriculture enabled by deforestation would have increased soil run-off into water systems, slowing down and stopping up drainage (O’Sullivan). Modifying the Chiana River valley could also have caused mosquito predators to die or migrate. Irrigation systems often increase soil salinization, which can drive off mosquito predators. Because mosquitoes have relatively quick life cycles, population blooms after rain may have left insufficient predators to trim their numbers. With widespread trade linking Italy to other Mediterranean shores and beyond, it is likely that malaria was widespread.

Despite the welts covering each of us at the end of each day, no one on our trip has gotten malaria. However, the widespread danger of this disease even in the age of modern medicine shows how large of an impact this disease could have had on the Chiana river system and upon the occupants of the villa that we are excavating.


Hill, Adrian V. S., Annette Jepson, Magdalena Plebanski, and Sarah C. Gilbert. “Genetic Analysis of Host-Parasite Coevolution in Human Malaria.” Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences352, no. 1359 (1997): 1317-325.

Miller, Mark. “Researchers Find Evidence for Deadly Malaria in Imperial Rome 2000 Years Ago.” Ancient Origins. December 07, 2016. Accessed June 10, 2019.

O’Sullivan, Lara, Andrew Jardine, Angus Cook, and Philip Weinstein. “Deforestation, Mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: Lessons for Today.” BioScience58, no. 8 (2008): 756-60. doi:10.1641/b580812.

Platner, Samuel. Tiber River. Accessed June 10, 2019.

Soren, David. A Roman Villa and Late Roman Infant Cemetery at Lugnano in Teverina, Italy  L’Erma Bretschneider, 1998.

Thompson, Andrew. “History – Ancient History in Depth: Malaria and the Fall of Rome.” BBC. February 17, 2011. Accessed June 10, 2019.

“Val Di Chiana.” Val Di Chiana Valdichiana Tuscany Italy. Accessed June 10, 2019.

World Health Organization, “10 Facts on Malaria,” December 2016.

Wrigley, Richard. “Roman Fever: Influence, Infection and the Image of Rome, 1700-1870.” Choice Reviews Online51, no. 03 (2013). doi:10.5860/choice.51-1289. 

Photo 1

Fox, Jesse. “Dengue in Northern Italy?” TreeHugger. October 11, 2018. Accessed June 10, 2019. 

Photo 2

Tiber River Park. Accessed June 10, 2019. 

Photo 3

“A Map Showing the Topography of Italy. Largest Towns, Rivers, and Provinces Are Labeled. Elements of This Image Furnished by NASA.” November 09, 2013. Accessed June 10, 2019.

Photo 4

O’Sullivan, Lara, Andrew Jardine, Angus Cook, and Philip Weinstein. “Deforestation, Mosquitoes, and Ancient Rome: Lessons for Today.” BioScience58, no. 8 (2008): 756-60. doi:10.1641/b580812.


Etruscans versus Gauls: On Urns

The tombs of the ancient Etruscans are one of the few ways people today can glimpse a civilization that dominated Italy and the Italian political and cultural scene in the 6th century. The tomb containing the urn pictured above is the Tomba della Pellegrina, located in present day Chiusi (known in antiquity as Clevsin by the Etruscans and as Clusium by the Romans). This tomb dates to the 4th century, when Etruscan political independence began to decline with the onset of Roman power. Other powers also rose to challenge the Etruscans, including Syracuse, who effectively ended Etruscan influence in Campania in two victories at Cumae in 504 and 474. This urn does not focus on these defeats. Instead, the urn has a scene of a battle between a warrior on the ground and a warrior on a horse, with a comrade of the dismounted warrior on the left appearing to be crushed. The two can be distinguished as comrades due to the similar appearance of their shields, which are almost as large as the body, and have the same oval-like shape. This style of shield is a prime characteristic of a Gallic warrior, making this scene a Celtomachia with its Etruscan horseback hero on the far right of the urn fully equipped in armor (Holliday 26 – 27). The Celtomachia, a depiction of battle with Gauls, began to appear on Etruscan funerary ornamentation in the 5th century (Holliday 24). Why would a funerary urn for an Etruscan man or woman depict this? The answer is twofold. Firstly, the depiction of the Gauls on funerary art tracks a Greek tradition. Secondly, it is a way to represent actual historical events and concerns of 4th century Etruria.

An Etruscan vase imitating the Greek black figure design. On display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Chiusi.

The Etruscans loved to imitate Greek art and pottery. In the numerous Etruscan tombs that have been discovered, the largest sample of Greek art comprises pottery of Etruscan craftsmanship. This transplantation of Greek artistic forms and scenes continued onto funerary urns. Contact with the Greeks was long prevalent when Chiusi and Volterra became the main producers of funerary urns, and the appearance of the Celtomachia began to increase (Holliday 27-28). One vital ritualistic reason for the urns was “symbolically [to allow] the deceased to take part in important social rites alongside other deceased family members and with the necessary accoutrements” (Huntsman 149). Etruscan tombs would frequently be visited by the family members, always reminding visitors of the ever-looming presence of the Gauls.

By the 4th century, the Gauls were a prominent player on the Italian peninsula. “By the early fourth century” the Gauls moved south and put pressure on the northern regions of Italy, eventually pushing Etruscan political power back into the Etruscan heartland (Holliday 29). The Gauls continued to raid throughout central Italy, culminating in the Sack of Rome in 390 BCE, which nearly saw the city of Rome destroyed due to Roman interference in an Etruscan-Gallic dispute (Hook). Rome too became an enemy of the Etruscans, who by 396 BCE were themselves on the defensive after the Romans destroyed Veii (Holliday 29). Thus, the threat of Gallic warriors raiding the lands of Etruria and the Romans strongly encroaching on Etruscan life disrupted prosperous Etruscan cities and gave urn makers a historical basis for artistic and violent representations of battle. The figure on the right of the urn, wearing more ornate armor, looking to strike at the enemy from horseback, is how the Etruscans would view themselves in comparison to the Gauls. This pose is a “common representation of Greek mythology”; the noble warrior striking down the barbarian (Holliday 26). The Etruscans, using this Greek conception, looked to idolize their fallen and inspire their own people against the enemy. This does not mean that the Gauls were more barbaric or violent then any other group in Italy. This was a tumultuous time of warfare for Etruscans looking to maintain their power, Romans looking to usurp it, and Gauls playing a role in both conflicts. No one group was better than the other. The Celtomachia is the Gallic facet of this uncertain time for Etruscans. It is most likely that these urns “were very likely made for men who had fought in the wars against the Celts”, which shows that the Celtomachia had a personal effect on Etruscans (Holliday 40). Since they had to battle Celts and fight off raids, they looked to the Celtomachia to shape ways to honor and commemorate their valiant family heroes.

Not an urn, but an Etruscan funerary stele found in Felsina, dating to the early 4th century . The dismounted warrior in the bottom panel has the same oval shield depicted in the Chiusian urn. Displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Bologna.

The Celtomachia appearing on funerary urns found in Etruscan tombs were more than just pieces of art. They represent a century of Etruscans under siege by Gauls and Romans. The Gauls were just one enemy, but they were a constant threat to the Etruscan cities in their twilight, potential raiders and bringers of sorrow. By designing Celtomachia for their urns, the Etruscans looked to honor fallen family members as well as mirror Greek artistic conventions for battle against foreign foes. These urns were more than just tombs for the dead, but made a cultural statement for the Etruscan people.

Work Cited

Edwards, I. E. S., J. B. Bury, S. A. Cook, F. E. Adcock, M. P. Charlesworth, C. T. Seltman, John Boardman, Averil Cameron, Peter Garnsey, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby. The Cambridge Ancient History. 152

“Felsian Burial Stele.” Digital image. Archaeological Museum of Bologna. Accessed June 6, 2019.

Hook, Judith. “Rome after the Sack.” The Sack of Rome, 2004, 181-91. doi:10.1057/9780230628779_13.

Holliday, Peter J. “Celtomachia: The Representation Of Battles With Gauls On Etruscan Funerary Urns.” Etruscan Studies 1, no. 1 (1994). doi:10.1515/etst.1994.1.1.23.

Huntsman, Theresa. “Hellenistic Etruscan Cremation Urns from Chiusi.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 49 (2014): 141-50. doi:10.1086/680029.

Faustina Augusta


On June 22, my trench (A6) discovered a coin resting between clumps of clay.  The coin rested in a pile of disturbed soil with only the eye-catching green hue drawing our attention and halting our trench’s progress. We removed the coin from the trench and began inspecting it, looking for visible details to date the coin and pondering what the coin’s discovery meant for our trench. Both sides of the coin had a layer of clay build-up covering portions of the images but the clay did not hide the word AVGUSTA. At first, I was excited to have an artifact in my trench with text but after clearing the clay away we discovered a more interesting detail. With a steady hand (and a dental pick), the clay layer on the obverse was removed, revealing the name FAVSTINA and a female profile (Figure 1). The reverse side of the coin featured a female figure holding a staff in her left hand and a bird to her right (Figure 2).

The woman featured on the obverse side of the coin is Faustina the Younger (AD 128 – 175), daughter of the emperor Antoninus Pius and wife to Marcus Aurelius. Faustina is identifiable by her wavy hair pulled into a bun which hangs low on the back of her neck and her hooked nose. Faustina’s low bun hairstyle did not come until later in her life, after AD 160, so this coin portrays an older Faustina. She was the only child of Pius to reach adulthood and the birth of her first child – the Antonine heir –  was a big deal and led to her receiving the title of empress before her husband was named emperor. The birth of her first child after only a year of marriage showed that the line of succession was secure. It was then that Faustina received the official title Augusta, an honorary title few empresses prior to her were grantedfrom the Senate.  While there is much to be said about this coin, the most important takeaway from its discovery is what the coin can tell us about our site. With the coin dating to AD 161 to 175, we know that the clay fill we were digging in my trench dates to AD 161 at the earliest.

Bust of Faustina the Younger

The reverse side of the coin (Figure 2) shows Juno holding an offering bowl in her right hand, a scepter in her left hand, and her symbolic animal, the peacock on her right. Faustina began appearing on Roman coins in association with Juno, the goddess of marriage, protector of children, and wife of Jupiter; Juno’s image emphasized Faustina’s status as Augusta and her relationship to the previous emperor Antoninus Pius and the current emperor Marcus Aurelius. By the end of her life, Faustina and Aurelius had twelve children. The fertility of the couple was celebrated in a time when most Romans struggled with infertility, which further solidified her association with Juno as a protector of children. While Faustina is not the first Roman woman to be compared to Juno, she established herself as a dutiful Roman wife when she ensured the line of succession of her family by giving her husband an heir and accompanied Aurelius when he went on campaigns (Faustina was named mater castrorum, “mother of the camp”).

Of course, other coins of Faustina the Younger are not limited to only images of Juno on the reverse side. Faustina is often portrayed with what are considered the traditional Roman goddesses — Diana, Venus, and Juno — along with the personifications of joy, concord, happiness, and mirth. On some coins, Faustina is even shown holding one or more of her children. These images help reinforce her piety and motherliness.

I have rarely seen images of ancient women without their husband’s profile next to or overlapping their own on coins. The coin of Faustina the Younger shows an older woman, well established among her people, and representing hopes and ideals of the Roman people. The Senate’s naming of Faustina as Augusta before her husband became emperor is especially interesting. Finding this coin at our site reinforced my interest in the portrayal of women in antiquity and sparked a fascination in a form of art I had not previously considered — coins.

Works Cited

“Aureus (Coin) Portraying Empress Faustina the Younger, AD 161/175, Issued by Marcus Aurelius.” The Art Institute of Chicago.

Boccaccio, Giovanni. 2003. Famous Women. Harvard University Press.

Burns, Jasper. 2006. Great Women of Imperial Rome: Mothers and Wives of the Caesars. New York: Routledge.

Destruction and Reconstruction: Rebuilding Ancient Pottery from Fragmented Remains

Imagine yourself stepping into a museum where you’ve been promised fantastic displays of ancient pottery.  Now, picture the pottery itself.  It’s likely that you’re envisioning interestingly decorated, seemingly complete artifacts.  If you take a closer look at museum pottery, though, you may notice that many of the ceramics are actually a patchwork of old and new material.  This realization struck me as I wandered through archaeology museums in Chiusi and Chianciano.  You see, unless you’ve been blessed by some otherworldly deity, most pottery that you uncover as an archaeologist comes up looking like an expert-level jigsaw puzzle (see figure A).  How, then, do these fragmented remains become pristine-looking museum displays? This transformation occurs through the meticulous process of ceramic conservation and reconstruction.

pottery shards
Figure A: Here’s an example of pottery found at our site.  Here, we’ve just finished washing and Laying out pieces to dry.

etruscan vase
Figure B: Etruscan funeral vase from the 7th century BC displayed in the Museo Civico Archeologico in Chianciano Terme, Italy.  Photo courtesy of Sam Petri.

The story of ceramic conservation and reconstruction begins with a single question: why?  In the case of museum display, conservators complete ceramic reconstructions for educational, commercial, and practical reasons.  Educationally, a complete artifact provides viewers with a more concrete idea of the item’s use and purpose.  Most museum-goers are not experienced archaeologists, so fragmented bits of pottery hold little meaning; therefor, complete artifacts better cater to the general public.  Additionally, completed ceramics result in a more impressive spectacle; thus, they attract larger crowds.  While putting on a show isn’t really the main goal, museums must consider the commercial logistics of hosting exhibits.  If no one tours museums, they won’t stay open.  From a more practical standpoint, ceramic reconstruction helps to stabilize artifacts.  Especially in cases where there are heavily fragmented sections or missing parts, reconstruction serves to protect pottery from falling apart by providing structural support (See Figure B: notice the lighter, reconstructed sections.  Without these additions, the vase would be unable to stand on its own).

Funeral urn .jpg
Figure C: Etruscan funerary urn from the 7th century BC displayed in the Museo Civico Archeologico in Chianciano Terme, Italy.  Photo courtesy of Sam Petri.

After understanding why we reconstruct pottery, one must consider a few basic principles when it comes to reconstruction.  As Professor Schindler explained to me, with ancient ceramic restoration, modern additions must be distinguishable and removable from the original artifact.  The practice of having differing new and old materials ensures that reconstructed fills remain unmistaken for ancient ones, and alerts viewers to the possibility that new additions may not necessarily be 100% accurate (See Figure C: note the highly distinguishable orange fill that contrasts with the ancient, much grayer ceramic material).  The ideology of distinguishability wasn’t always the case, though, which is why some older reconstructions don’t follow this practice.  Another important principle to bear in mind is artifact safety.  New additions must not compromise the original artifact, and should be thoroughly considered before approval.

In regard to the process of restoration itself, techniques are highly subjective to individual pieces, but there are a few overarching steps.  Interestingly, ceramic restoration dates back to the Romans themselves.  Archaeologists have found evidence of the Greeks and Romans using “clamps, dowels, and rivets” to repair pottery- techniques which were used until the 20th century (Koob 1998, 50).  Fortunately, ceramic restoration for museums no longer uses these practices.  The first step involves identifying the type and material of your artifact. From there, you can then select appropriate adhesives and fillers.  Although you are working with ceramic material, you should never use heat during the restoration process (Larney 1971, 69).  In most cases, ceramic reconstruction does not involve traditional pottery-making methods.  After examination and identification, you should thoroughly clean and dry your artifact. While most pieces have been washed before being sent to a conservator, reconstruction requires a more precise cleaning.  If you are reconstructing a previously conserved piece, it’s necessary to remove old adhesives and repairs (Larney 1971, 70).  Following cleaning comes bonding, which involves a trial run (often using Sellotape) and a final application of adhesive, which depends upon the type of ceramic material (Larney 1971, 71).  From bonding, one moves through the processes of reinforcing, filling, and retouching, with reinforcing being mainly necessary before long-distance travel (Larney 1971, 74-75).  Throughout these steps, you should use bonders and fillers that do not expand or contract when dried.  Check out figure D to see an example of a finished display with reconstructed pottery.

full display.jpg
Figure D: Black-figure and red-figure pottery, as well as  Etruscan black-figure pottery from the 6th and 5th Centuries BC displayed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Chiusi, Italy.  Photo courtesy of Nicole Roenicke.

So, what does ceramic restoration look like at our site?  Currently, we’re still in the digging and research phase, so we’re primarily focused on fieldwork (See Figures E and F).  As we gather ceramic material, we wash, record, and process finds.  Eventually, we plan to construct our own museum displays based on the research we’ve completed.  Reconstructed or not, ancient ceramics are pretty cool.

The site.jpg
Figure E: Here’s a photo from my group’s tench, A7, where we’ve been uncovering lots of interesting pottery (and other cool finds)!

Figure F: Check out some of the ceramics (and bone) we’ve uncovered in A7 this season. Later, we’ll clean and process the finds.


Koob, Stephen. 1998. “Obsolete Fill Materials Found on Ceramics.” Journal of the     American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 37, No. 1(Spring, 1998), pp. 49-67.

Larney, J. 1971. “Ceramic Restoration in the Victoria and Albert Museum.” Studies in Conservation, Vol. 16, No.2 (May, 1971), pp.69-82 //

The Truth About Bones

Over the last few weeks of digging, I have had first-hand experience in finding an array of materials such as pottery, glass, bronze coins, an iron key, wall plaster, tiles, bricks, and bones. Personally, the most interesting material to find are the bones because they come in all different shapes and sizes, belong to different animals, and provide evidence for the daily lives of the Romans in terms of what they ate and manufactured from animals.

Prior to the dig, I did not think about bones very much and had not really seen many of them in my everyday life. My main interaction with bones was watching TV crime shows and scientific documentaries. So, for me, this dig made me curious about living animals and their interactions with the Romans on our villa. The three main questions I have pondered are: What types of animals would one expect to find on a villa? What effect do these animals have on the Romans, meaning are the animals eaten, kept as pets, or used in some other way? Finally, what challenges are associated with analyzing bones in the present to understand what is happening at a given site?

The first question is more basic and thus is easier to answer. This is due to extensive research on the subject matter, and we have also found a lot of animal bones on our site. Some of the bones found on site have been identified as being from cows, wild boar, and horses. We have also found bones that are a lot smaller that could have been from hares, foxes, deer, pheasants, quail, or mice. It would have also been common for the Romans living on this villa to have had fish and shellfish, considering how close we are to a lake, although it was probably a river in antiquity. Another animal that was on our site is a dog.

Additionally, we can use the present to understand the past, meaning we can infer from the fauna we see today, what could have been around in the past. Today, we see many different types of birds around our site due to Lago di Chiusi being so close. We also have had mice that have nested in our trenches. The professors have encountered hares on their way to the site. Also, if we went down to the lake, we would find fish. Understanding all of that, we can posit that animals like the ones we see today could have thrived in this warm and humid environment.

Mollusk shell found in trench A7 at Gioella-Vaiano archaeological dig site.

My next question had to do with how the Romans used these animals. To understand this, I had to analyze the bones closely as we dug and do some research to understand what interactions Romans had with animals and what Romans ate. 

As we were digging, we came across a cow bone with butcher marks on it. Basically, the butcher marks are cuts deep into the bone that could not have been made by the bone being fragile and cracking. This indicates that the Romans ate cows because they were slicing the meat off the bone. Many studies have analyzed how Romans ate cows.

Such studies also indicate that pork was more widely eaten, probably because pigs are smaller than cows, so they are easier to transport; pigs also breed more efficiently. Archaeologist Anthony King, in his study of mammal bone patterns in regions of the Roman empire, remarks that “the pork-rich diet seems to be a remarkably consistent dietary pattern that was normal and desirable in the region around Rome itself…” (King 5). On our site, we have found tusks from wild boar and part of the mandible of a pig. 

In addition to these animals, a single horse tooth has been found. Horses would have been used for transporting people, such as to Chiusi or Rome. There are also indications that horses were eaten in Roman times. This animal may have also been used for farm labor. However, it is more likely that an ox would have been used for heavy plowing; people would of course have done much of thedaily work on a farm

Horse Tooth.jpg
Horse tooth found among the rubble at the Gioiella-Vaiano archaeological dig site.

A dog would not have been a source of food. A sculpture found in Pompeii depicts a fierce-looking dog watching over people as they work. The idea of dogs protecting people is not a new concept because they are loyal and strong. Last year, on site, tiles were found with a dog’s paw imprinted into them while they were drying before firing

Another interesting way of utilizing an animal is to fashion items out of their bones once they have died. Evidence of this has been found on our site in the form of a needle and a hairpin, both made of bone. The importance of this is that it emphasizes that Romans, in their everyday lives, did not waste materials; they fashioned them into items of utility and beauty.

Example of worked bone, in this case a hairpin. This was found in the A6 trench at the Gioiella-Vaiano site.

The final question I had deals with the present day finding of bones and the challenges associated with understanding their usages. Unfortunately, bones are brittle, so they tend to break over time. When we are pickaxing and troweling, it is not uncommon for us to break a bone into pieces which can sometimes be hard to analyze on site. Another problem is that it can be hard to reconstruct what happened to an animal since we often only find one bone. This means that we must surmise what happened, using others’ opinions as well as our own.

Broken Bone.jpg
A split bone found during digging the A7 trench at the Gioiella-Vaiano site.

Finally, the most difficult problem to comprehend is the context of bones. On site, we work stratigraphically, meaning we remove artifacts, clay, and soil in layers. This allows us to reconstruct a sequence of events. However, it can be hard to distinguish between debris that was created in antiquity and what happened in modernity because of natural deposition events, and human factors that can change the landscape, such changing land-use patterns and industrial plowing.  

Overall, bones help us betterto understand the everyday life of Romans on our site through the animals with which they interacted. One main interaction was between Romans and the animals they utilized for food, including cows, wild boars, and mollusks. The other main interaction was about utilizing animals to manipulate and protect their landscape, such as horses and dogs. These ancient interactions are communicated to us in the present through ancient documents and,critically, through the analysis of bones. 


Beard, Mary. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. London: Profile, 2009.

King, Anthony, trans. Diet in the Roman World: A Regional Inter-Site Comparison of the Mammal Bones. Master’s thesis, The University of Winchester, 1999. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1999.

Passing The Flame: Pottery Oil Lamps

Working on an excavation site takes a lot of determination, energy, and wide array of skills. It requires extensive manual labor in the blistering heat, attention to detail, a very specific set of rules and regulations, and, to properly maintain and successfully operate an excavation site and team, a vast collection of historical knowledge. There are rewards, however; if you have a yearning for knowledge, and a desire to touch a piece of history, the extensive effort is worth it. The location of this project doesn’t hurt either.

Even on the most grueling days, while the sun is bearing down on me and I’m hauling a wheelbarrow full of dirt and clay onto the spoil heap, I take a second to look around and remember where I’m standing. I look at the stalks of wheat which surround our site, bending and forming waves in the breeze. I see the calm waters of Lake Chiusi just below us, and the city of Chiusi, itself, atop the hill across the lake, and it places me in the historical context of our site, standing near one of the most important cities in Etruscan history, and at the gateway to the lifestyle of the wealthy villa owners and agriculturalists who lived there. Excuse the corny sentiment, but the beautiful scenery and these momentary reflections soothe me and give me the motivation to continue trying to unearth some amazing finds. The prior commentary after all, is not to discourage, but instead to paint a realistic portrayal of a day at the site.

This area of which I speak is the site of the Gioiella-Vaiano Villa in Castiglione del Lago. I’ve had the great opportunity of attending the Trasimeno Archaeological Field School and excavating this beautiful site under the instruction of Dr. Foss and Dr. Schindler, professors at DePauw University in Indiana. A typical day in the field involves proper sectioning, elevation measurements, pick-axing, troweling, articulating, and cleaning. Common finds include potsherds, brick, and tile, among less common bones, tesserae, and metal. One item that was particularly intriguing was a near completely intact clay lamp. This discovery was made by our trench mates, and immediately piqued the interest of all our group members, resulting in a team huddle and history lesson by Dr. Foss. I was able to connect to history tangibly, and understand what led to the item’s creation.

Aside from my own personal pleasure in being part of a team that’s discovering these items, it helps construct the timeframe and historical context of our site and its inhabitants, this being the overall goal. Therefore, intact pieces are extremely valuable to archaeologists, since analyzing their material, style, and maker’s marks or inscriptions allows a date to be established. For example, the lamp we found has an inscription at the bottom that is likely the mark of an established lamp maker, which can show us the origins of its creation by tracing their other handiworks found elsewhere, as well as getting a date of manufacture. Aside from the maker’s mark, much can be learned from the materials within the clay itself, as it varied upon location. In addition, the lamp can also vary by style, markings, designs, color and texture. All of these features can indicate where the lamp was produced. Not only this, but it can give you a window into the culture of a particular society, and even more so, can display the status of its users, which is safe to assume were of high class at our site.

These lamps are important for archaeologists today, but they were obviously particularly important functionally for the Romans, and others in the Mediterranean, back then. Artificial light was common, and its use was widespread all across Rome. These pottery oil lamps were seen as an advancement from the traditional beeswax or tallow candles that were used beforehand. They were more expensive, but they, of course, lasted longer. The way these lamps were used was by adding oil into the central hole, and then lighting a wick placed in the nozzle of the lamp. These wicks were usually made of linen, and sometimes flax or papyrus. Olive or vegetable oils were the source of fuel for the lamps.

There were three different ways to construct pottery oil lamps: handmade, wheel made, or by mold. Molds became the popular choice later on since they offered an easier and more efficient way to make large quantities, while keeping manufacturing organized and standardized. Molds were made using either clay, or the preferred plaster, since it can be left out to dry rather than fired like the clay. The mold would be in two halves, into which the clay would be pressed and then the halves pressed together, and afterwards left to dry. Following the drying process, the mold would be removed and wet clay added to the seams to make it appear neat. The holes would then be cut out, forming either the filling, wick, or air hole, and then the handle would be added or shaped. Finally, the lamp would be left to air dry before being fired in a vertical kiln.

Pottery oil lamps come in many shapes, ranging from simple round and oval, to elaborate animal shapes. The lamp we found on our site is a discus-style lamp, which was the dominant style between the first and second century A.D. The number of nozzles can also vary, but the lamp we found, although missing its nozzle, only possessed one. The type and amount of decoration can also differ, based on size and shape limitations. Some contained particular scenes or depictions that related to the culture or history, while others, like our lamp, have more simple embellishments, such as raised circles and dots around the central hole, forming a cornucopia.

Aside from the simple function of lighting a dark room, these oil lamps served additional purposes, as well. They were used as a source of illumination for businessmen inside and outside of their shops to attract customers, by soldiers in their forts or camps, by fisherman to light their boats when fishing at night, and they were even used on galleys to indicate their positions to other ships. Even the entertainment industry made good use of these lamps by illuminating sporting events, or as special effects for their theater shows. And of course they were used ritualistically to light temples and shrines, or even as ritualistic offerings, since light was considered a blessing. It was used for burial practices, as well, “in order to light the way into the afterlife.”

Regardless, each style and function provides a different story for archaeologists to interpret, and with enough evidence, add another chapter to the history books. So although they may appear to be only simple objects, their diverse utility in the past and narrative forming capabilities in the present, make them complex and valuable pieces at an archaeological site. Unearthing this, among the many other objects found in our site, in conjunction with all the schooling, museums, and field trips, has provided me with an enriching experience which is a great starting point for any prospective archaeologist and historian.

“Description and History of Oil Lamps | Milwaukee Public Museum.” Oneida Culture – Indian Country Wisconsin. Accessed June 25, 2018.

Finding Flora: How Archaeologists Study Ancient Environments

Understanding the environment is useful in archaeology for multiple reasons. It is necessary to answer research questions regarding the landscape, layout, and function of a site. There are various methods of examining the ancient environment, including, on Roman sites, carbon analysis and art historical examination. Carbon analysis provides solidly scientific evidence, as remains can be identified down to exact species. While art historical examination can be accurate and specific as well–and more cost effective–it can be difficult to be as precise if the art is not well-preserved.

Carbonized plant remains are typically preserved well in the Italian environment, as at our Gioiella Roman Villa site. In particular, we have found a substantial amount of carbonized wood remains, which I find particularly interesting because even after several centuries it is still visibly identifiable as wood. When samples such as these are submitted to a lab, they are studied under a microscope so the cell structure is visible. This allows researchers to identify the species of tree or shrub.

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H. Schweingruber, Fritz & Börner, Annett. (2018). Fossilization, permineralization, coalification, carbonization and wet wood conservation. 183-192. 10.1007/978-3-319-73524-5_13.

However, carbon analysis is not limited to wood. For instance, at Pompeii, 24 species of plants were identified from seeds, nuts, grains, and fruit carbonized during the destruction of the city by a volcanic eruption. There are no such examples at the Gioiella site, and if there are non-wood samples to be found they certainly won’t be as expansive as in Pompeii. These hypothetical samples would most likely be seeds and they would most likely be found in a kitchen area, which has not been located yet (but you never know).

Alternatively, examination of artistic depictions of flora is a more traditional approach to ancient environmental research. Several major works of art have been intensely studied in order to identify all of their vegetation. One example that I saw on our group trip to Rome was the Ara Pacis Augustae, an altar dedicated to Augustan Peace. It is ornately decorated with people, animals, and plants all living in harmony. The simple, yet effective, museum in which it is housed featured a comparison between the art and what the plants look like in reality, which gave me a new appreciation for the art historical approach–some of the plants are more recognizable than others.

Another famous example is the garden frescoes at the Villa of Livia in Prima Porta. It is one of the best visual examples we have of Roman gardens due to the exceptional quality and sheer volume of plant life. Research has been “based on the most diagnostic morphological aspects, such as the general habit of the plants, typology, shape, size, and color of the fruits and flowers, if present, and the morphology and layout of the leaves” (Caneva, Giulia & Bohuny, Lorenza 2003), which is a complicated way to say that the scholars examined all the aspects of the plants in the frescoes and then compared them to actual plants.

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Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, Garden Frescoes, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

I get to see an example of plant life popular in Roman art and still visible across the Italian landscape today while I eat my lunch at the dig site. It is an acanthus plant, also known as Bear’s Breeches, which was the model for the capital on Corinthian columns.

Seeing and experiencing the broad differences in ancient floral analysis has only ignited my passion further. I have always been enthusiastic about archaeology and plants, but they weren’t so deeply connected. Now that I have gained firsthand experience of the excitement of pulling a particularly beautiful piece of carbonized wood out of the ground, or recognizing a plant that I see everyday in the art that I admire, I’m becoming more and more excited for my future career.

Works Cited

Caneva, Giulia & Bohuny, Lorenza. (2003). Botanic analysis of Livia’s villa painted flora (Prima Porta, Roma). Journal of Cultural Heritage – J CULT HERIT. 4. 149-155. 10.1016/S1296-2074(03)00026-8.

H. Schweingruber, Fritz & Börner, Annett. (2018). Fossilization, permineralization, coalification, carbonization and wet wood conservation. 183-192. 10.1007/978-3-319-73524-5_13.

Meyer, Frederick G. “Carbonized Food Plants of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villa at Torre Annunziata.” Economic Botany 34, no. 4 (1980): 401-37.

Stuart, Revett. (1827). Antiquities of Athens, Plate VII, Chapter III, Volume 1.

Wall Text, Ara Pacis Museum. Rome, Italy

Roman Bathhouses in Private and Public Settings

As a member of trench D2, I have learned A LOT about Roman bathhouses in the past couple of weeks. Trench D2, located on the eastern side of the dig site, has revealed itself to be the location of the bathhouse in our villa. We know this for several reasons: first, we are finding massive amounts of construction debris, which tells us that there was definitely a building there. Next, we are also uncovering tons of broken tubuli. Tubuli are hollow rectangular tubes “which carried the hot air provided by the furnaces” (Cartwright 2013). Finally, we have also found several examples of pilae, which are pillars that held up the raised floor (suspensurae).

Examples of tubuli (image credit: Kelly Kobashigawa)

Roman Baths Floor, ButrintExample of pilae and the suspensurae (image credit: Mark Cartwright)

So how exactly did heating the bathhouse work? It’s actually very ingenious. The Romans used an under-floor heating system (the hypocaust system). An underground furnace sent warm air all throughout the suspensurae and warmed both the floor and the baths. The walls provided heating from the tubuli. Furthermore, Roman bathhouses were typically positioned in a way that allowed southern sunlight to pass through the windows so that the rooms could be heated naturally as well. Since our villa was occupied from the late 2nd century BC through at least the 3rd century AD, the bathhouse probably underwent some changes as new technology came about.

Typically, Roman bathhouses included several rooms that had various purposes. The frigidarium was the cool room and was unheated, the tepidarium was the warm room and was indirectly heated, and the caldarium was the hot room where the heating system was located. At larger bathing complexes, several more features were also common; for example, exercise rooms (palaestrae), open-air swimming pools (natationes), toilets, libraries, and outdoor gardens (Trueman 2015).

An example of one of these larger bathing complexes is at Pompeii: the Stabian Baths. I had the fortune of visiting and seeing a massive bathing complex first hand. Of course, much of it is in ruins, but it is still amazing to imagine what it would have been like when it was in full swing. It would have been full of life, a great place to socialize, and beautifully decorated with sculptures, paintings, stucco, and mosaics.

Bathing was a major part of Roman life and culture. Therefore, bathhouses were extremely important socially, politically, and economically. Public baths acted as business and trade centers because of all the socialization going on through both athletic activities in the gymnasium and intellectual activities in the libraries. Politically, elaborate bathhouses had the opportunity to show off the wealth and power of Rome and its sponsors. Economically, large-scale bathhouses had the ability to employ large amounts of workers during their construction and operation.

However, the bathhouse at our villa was not public. Despite its privacy, it likely operated in its social, political, and economic functions on a lesser scale. It still would have been a place for members of the household to socialize with guests, and the complexity of the rooms still depicted their wealth. On our site, we are finding examples of painted walls (no statues yet), and are getting a better sense of the wealth of the owners of the villa.And we do have a fragment of the mosaic floor.

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Mosaic floors are common in Roman bathhouses. So far, in the bathhouse area, we have only found white, black, and grey tesserae. A tessera is a small square of stone, tile, glass, or other material that is used to make up the mosaic. So far, we have one fragment large enough to tell the pattern of our mosaic floor–it is a geometric design, a black and white checkerboard.

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Two examples of tessera found in the D2 trench

Overall, bathhouses were extremely important to Roman culture. Whether public or private, they were a key component of the daily routine. I feel so fortunate that I get to work in the bathhouse area of our villa! We’ve found so many amazing examples, and it still is surreal to hold ancient artifacts in my hands. So much is left to be discovered in the short amount of time we have left!

Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. 2013. “Roman Baths.” Ancient History Encylopedia.

Kobashigawa, Kelly. 2013. “Time Tested Applications of Solar Energy in Rome.” Engineering Rome.

Truman, C. N. 2015. “Roman Baths.” The History Learning Site.

Roman Mosaics

In Roman times, mosaics were a popular way for wealthy elites to decorate their private villas and show off their status. Throughout our time in Italy, we have seen numerous examples of mosaics and have gotten a taste of how prevalent they were in the lives of the elite. The mosaic collection at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome was particularly effective in demonstrating not only the huge variety of mosaics but how elites used them ostentatiously to decorate their homes.

Looking at this collection, you can’t help but imagine the time and the craftsmanship required to lay hundreds of tiny square stone tesserae in each of these pieces. The intricacies of every piece are astounding, especially ones that appear to have used even smaller tesserae to create a shading effect. At the same time, you can also imagine the excitement of owners choosing their designs, colors, portraits they wanted to display, and getting to show off their unique mosaics to their guests.

Much like modern day fashion, the popular style of mosaics evolved over time, from black and white geometric patterns to realistic portraits of people, animals, and everyday life. The collection at the Palazzo Massimo fully captured this range, though the mosaics pictured above stood out to me. The mosaic of Dionysus automatically caught my eye because its impressive use of shading. This technique, opus verticulatum, used smaller tesserae and was intended to mimic the realistic look of a wall painting [1]. Each of these mosaics were also impressive for their use of blue and green colors. The mosaics of Pan and the satyr are actually both part of a larger mosaic that uses teal tesserae, which are not featured in any other mosaic in the collection. Specially colored tesserae were made out of glass and had to be imported, which made them much more expensive than traditional black and white tesserae that could be cut from stone or marble within the country [1]. Clearly, the owner of these mosaics wanted to make known their access to prestige materials.

These mosaics also depict figures that originate from Greek mythology. As we have learned throughout the course, the Greeks had a major influence on both the Romans and the Etruscans, starting with their establishment of colonies in Italy around the 8th c. BC. Trade around the Mediterranean was the major catalyst for the exchange of cultural ideas. The Romans highly admired the Greeks and infused many of their ideas into their culture. This is visible especially in Roman art and architecture. Roman mosaics probably evolved from Greek Hellenistic style mosaics. Greek mythology was also adopted by the Romans, though most gods and heroes were given Latin names. The adoption of Greek gods was an easy transition, mostly because Italic peoples did not have definite personified gods prior to this [2]. The god Dionysus, called Bacchus by the Romans, is pictured in the first mosaic [3]. He is known as a god of the earth, wine, ecstasy, and festivity [2]. Dionysus was a popular god to be depicted in Roman art, and it would make sense to find his depiction in a Roman villa, simultaneously used for production and leisure. In the second mosaic, Pan, known as the shepherd’s god, was often depicted with horns and goat’s feet and played a flute of reeds [2]. Satyrs were mythical creatures of the wild and like Pan, they also had goat features. Satyrs were often depicted with Dionysus [2].

Seeing the mosaics at Palazzo Massimo were especially helpful in contextualizing the mosaics we have been finding at our site. In trench D2, where the bathhouse was, we have found many single pieces of black and white tesserae, as well as a large intact piece still connected at the lower end of our trench. We hope that we have found enough of the mosaic intact so that a pattern maybe recreated in the future, but much of the pre-existing mosaic has been disturbed by extensive plowing in the area. During the past week in trench A6 and A7, we also have found blue glass pieces of tesserae laid in mortar, for wall decoration. This was a surprising find and shows that the owner of the villa had enough wealth to import these colors.


[1] Cartwright, Mark. “Roman Mosaics.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 14 June 2013.

[2] Hamilton, Edith. “Mythology Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.” Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, Anniversary addition, 2017.

[3] The editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dionysus Greek Mythology.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018.

Abandon, Bury, Recycle

When I first began taking archaeology classes I learned about sites all over the world, ranging from small hunter-gatherer fire pits to the large ancient city of Cahokia. Both types of sites, no matter the size, presented a question for me. One that would sit in the back of my mind, unanswered until I would take a trip to Italy. The question was: how did these sites get abandoned and buried underground or forgotten in the forest for archaeologists to unearth? Small sites associated with mobile people, like the Willandra lakes sites in Australia, were an easier pill to swallow because those people only stayed at there for a short time. The seasonal special purpose sites such as Vaeget Nord, Denmark were somewhat understandable because they were not occupied all year round. However, this site was chosen for its environment suited for hunting. Why would the people of Vedback want to give up an area that was so helpful to their survival? The biggest confusion came with large cities and monuments of the ancient world. If a society spent so much time, money and effort on a construction why would they leave it? For example, how did the citizens of Rome let their symbols of power fall into such disrepair that they ended up buried, forgotten, thirty feet under? Thirty feet! Even small villas populating the countryside were left to crumble.

I was not left alone to question the behavior of ancient peoples. Every time I would mention my interest in archaeology, one of the first questions asked of me was how all that “old stuff” ended up underground. The only answer I could give was the site must have been under attack at some point, forcing the residents to flee and leave behind their broken pottery for some poor archaeologist to find. However I knew this answer only applied to a small set of sites.

On my trip to Italy I am working to uncover a Roman villa. Finally I had the perfect opportunity to answer my burning questions first hand. As it happens, the answer was so much easier to grasp than I ever made it. In the case of our Roman villa on the hillside of Gioiella, one theory is that it began when Roman veterans of the Second Punic war were settled in the area. The villa is believed to have been a site of production for the big three food products: olives, wine, and grain; and maybe pottery as well. It had a prime location for trade, being only a day’s ride away from Perugia, Cortona and Chiusi.

View of farm land and lake from Gioiella Site

The site continued to operate until the third century CE when the environment changed. The river that ran at the bottom of the hill began to silt up—maybe due to deforestation—creating a swampy area filled with mosquitoes carrying malaria. People began dying so the area began to depopulate. The main path of trade along the river could not be used and transport prices over land were very expensive. This answered one part of my inquiry: why this site was abandoned. It is understandable to leave your home behind if the environment is no longer suitable. Changes to the environment can have a drastic affect on the ability of a site to be desirable for people to stay there. Now I had two possibilities for site abandonment.

By the thirteenth century Perugia was in control of the area around the villa. Since no one lived in the area, the city was unable to collect taxes from it. Perugia began large-scale land reclamation to bring people back to the area. When medieval people were settled on our site they had to build their own house. Instead of trying to find their own materials they stole from the abandoned Roman building decaying on their farm. Of course at the time these medieval people may not have known this was a Roman villa they were so haphazardly stealing from. Hundreds of years had passed since its latest residents, allowing for their history to have been lost. Unused pieces were knocked over and covered over with soil to make more land for farming. Who knew they were recycling even in the medieval period! This explains why the villa was destroyed and how it ended up underground.

Gioiella Villa Showing Missing Stones on the Steps

People used this practice of reusing building materials of previous constructions for their own needs for centuries before and do so even today. It makes complete sense too. Why go find your own materials when perfectly usable ones are sitting on your land? This happened even with huge monuments such as the Forum of Trajan in Rome. In the medieval period the Forum was transformed into an area filled with small farms and shops. The farms used the protection of the walls and used fallen materials to build their homes.

Recycling could also be symbolic, as in the case of Augustus’ obelisk in Rome. An Egyptian pharaoh, Psammetichus II, originally constructed the obelisk in the seventh c. BC, but after Augustus conquered Egypt he had it moved to Rome to be used as a sundial. It is a symbolic representation of his domination over the Egyptian people because it is Egyptian in origin. In fact, both rulers dedicated the obelisk to the sun. By reusing the material of an earlier construction Augustus was able to draw upon the power of the past glory of Egypt and equate it to himself.

Augustus’s Obelisk

Many leaders of Rome used the idea of embodying the glory of other cultures by using their style of architecture. This process is how many temples were preserved; materials and sacred land were reused as churches when that religion began to dominate Europe. It was a symbolic way of banishing the pagan religion and Christianizing the region.

Church Reusing a Roman Temple’s Columns

Ancient sites can be abandoned, destroyed, buried and forgotten for many reasons, from something as simple as recycling material to the complicated effects of environmental changes. However a site was preserved, it allows future archaeologists to uncover its secrets and understand the intricate world of these ancient people.