Free the Phallus: Grievances on the Gabinetto Segreto

As I entered the Gabinetto Segreto at the Naples Archaeological Museum, I expected to encounter unpalatable sexual obscenity. The doorway is gated by a metal fixture emblematic of a prison cell door, and traversing it makes you feel defiant (Figure 1). A collection that originated in a “secret cabinet” for erotically charged artifacts from the Bay of Naples, to be viewed by a select few upon appointment, now comprises an entire room open to the public. However, with the room’s positioning at the end of a long, winding gallery, it is still difficult to find. Asking the guard where the room was located made me feel sultrous, a sentiment augmented by the man’s eyebrow-raised response. “Ahhh, Gabinetto Segreto,” he replied, insinuating that I was seeking the gallery for my own deviant ends.

Figure 1. Kane, Kayla. Gabinetto Segreto entrance.  2019. 

However, this need not be the case. In Mary Beard’s book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, one of the most comprehensive accounts of daily life in the ancient city, chapter seven touches upon ancient Roman conceptions of pleasure. Beard emphasizes that Roman sexual culture diverged greatly from our own, positing that “power, status, and good fortune were expressed in terms of the phallus” (Beard 2010, 233). Hence, not every display of genitalia was inherently erotic to the Romans, and the presence of the phallus was ubiquitous in Pompeii, dominating the city in “unimaginable varieties” (Beard 2010, 233). Rather than exploiting this culture to educate the public on Roman society’s fascinating difference from our own with respect to sexual symbolism, scholars for generations have reacted adversely, such as by covering up frescoes that were once viewed casually in the domestic context. 

Indeed, Beard recalls that when she visited the  site of Pompeii in 1970, the “phallic figure” at the entrance of the House of the Vetii (I assume she is referring to Priapus weighing his apotropaic phallus) was covered up, only to be viewed upon request (Beard 2010, 233) (Figure 2). When I visited the site in 2019, people crowded around the image with collapsed jaws, personifying the anxieties of early archaeologists about putting these objects on display. But Priapus’ phallus was not an inherently sexual appendage, and thus does not merit shock for being placed in the home. Rather, his phallus was widely considered an apotropaic symbol often associated with warding off theft. Hence it’s placement in the fauces of the home, a passageway through which a thief may wish to enter. 

Figure 2. Kane,  Kayla. Priapus in the House of the Vettii. At Pompeii 2019.

This history of “erotic” display at Pompeii brings us back  to the Gabinetto Segretto. While some pieces in the collection descend from brothels, and prospectively, held either pornographic or instructional applications (scholars continue to  debate the function of brothel erotica), other pieces were quotidian decorations in the domestic and public spheres. In Sarah Levin-Richardson’s publication Modern Tourists, Ancient Sexualities: Looking at Looking in Pompeii’s Brothel and the Secret Cabinet, she argues that the 21st century saw a new era of accessibility of the Gabinetto Segreto’s objects. Levin-Richardson praises the newly curated collection, stating that “the decor of the display space mimics each of those locales to help  tourists understand the original contexts in which these items appeared” (Levin Richardson, 2011, 325). She highlights the “intended itinerary through space” that the room creates by grouping objects that descend from similar spaces, such as those from brothels, domestic realms, and streets (Levin Richardson, 2011, 325).

Having experienced the Gabinetto Segretto first hand, I find Levin-Richardson’s view of the modern collection far too optimistic. While I understand that rendering the collection open to the public was in and of itself a progressive transformation, an even more beneficial move would have been to eliminate the Gabinetto Segreto entirely by rehoming objects to galleries containing  artifacts from similar loci, demonstrating the casual nature of sexual representation and its commingling with more prudent art. 

As such, I hated my visit to the Gabinetto Segretto. I resented the curation of the collection, namely the implication that all objects in the collection belong together in a sexually deviant category. As discussed in ARCH 350, when an object is taken from a site and placed in a museum, it is removed from its context, which is the archaeologist’s responsibility to reconstruct through extensive recording methods. In my opinion, it is of commensurate import for the museum curator to reconstruct context within a museum display. At the very least, I would have liked to see clear indications of the non-erotic spaces from which many of the objects originated.  

It was particularly disheartening to see a fresco depicting a conjugal bed occupied by a man and woman in the fore with a transparent figure, likely an ancilla, in the background (Figure 3). The perspective is such that we view the couple from behind, not seeing any genitalia. The Gabinetto’s possession of a painting of this sort, one in which sex is not depicted but merely implied, showcases the intense anxieties of eighteenth- and ninteenth-century scholars and curators in making public galleries palatable. I find the lasting seclusion of items like this in the secret cabinet consistent with outdated views on Roman sexuality. 

Figure 3. Kane, Kayla. Conjugal bed from the House of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus  at Pompeii. 2019.

Indeed, I recognized this painting as being from the peristyle of the house of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus. The provenance of this fresco in the domestic realm makes me question its placement in a room that also contains art from the brothel, an inherently sexual locus. Although Levin-Richardson highlights that domestic paintings were grouped together to reconstruct their context, clear identification of the painting’s domestic setting is nowhere to be found. Its location in the peristyle is also significant, as an peristyle, being a transient space, did not feature images intended for people to spend much time reflecting upon. Therefore, if the Pompeians didn’t look upon images like these and revel in their sexual obscenity, they shouldn’t be placed in a “cabinet” that invites us to do just that.

Beard, Mary. 2010. Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. Main. Non Basic Stock Line.

Levin-Richardson, Sarah. 2011. “Modern Tourists, Ancient Sexualities: Looking at Looking in Pompeii’s Brothel and the Secret Cabinet.” Oxford University Press.

Euripides and Etruscans: Depictions of the Attack against Paris

A few weeks ago, we went to the National Museum of Archaeology in Chiusi, where there is a special cinerary urn that I had noticed during research for a previous class. This urn depicts Deiphobus’s attack on Paris. Through research, I have found that this cinerary urn exemplifies how the Greeks influenced the Etruscans and how the Etruscans manipulated Greek myths.

Depicted above is an Alabaster cinerary urn from the 3rd century BCE from museum in Chiusi. The lid depicts a deceased woman. The coffin depicts the scene of Paris’s recognition and attack.

These urns were used by Etruscans to hold the ashes of their dead and were shaped differently depending on the region and the time period. During the seventh to sixth centuries BCE, Etruscans from Chiusi preferred Canopic urns to hold their dead (Huntsman 2014, 141). Then, during the fourth to first century BCE, Chiusi continued to prosper, so more people had access to formal burials. Therefore, burials became more complicated, with the incorporation of more complex urns (Huntsman 2014, 143). The urn that I had learned about is from this period.

Here is a closer look at the cinerary urn pictured above.

While much of Euripides’s Alexandros has been lost, many fragments remain. This urn depicts the scene of the attempted attack on Paris and his recognition. The first in a trilogy about the Trojan War, Alexandros tells the story of Paris—or as he was called as a baby, Alexandros. Before Alexandros was born, Hecuba, queen of Troy, had a dream that he would bring ruin to Troy (Karamanou 2013, 416). In response, he was left to the elements to die but was taken in by a herdsman who gave him the name Paris (Karamanou 2013, 416). Eventually, Paris went to Troy and competed in games held in the lost Alexandros’s honor, which he won (Karamanou 2013, 416). However, in his rage at having been beaten, Paris’s brother Deiphobus plotted with Hecuba to kill Paris (Karamanou 2013, 416). While it is unsure from the fragments how the next scene begins, the scene on the urn depicts how it ends: Paris seeks shelter at the alter of Zeus Herkeios while Deiphobus tries to kill him and Kassandra tries to stop Deiphobus. However, the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) shows this image under the header of “Alexandros threatened by Kassandra armed with a double-edged axe and/or Deiphobos” (LIMC 1994, 959). Therefore, it is unsure whether Kassandra threatens or protects Paris.

Another inconsistency is that there is a fourth figure on this urn. Going left to right along the urn, there is the unknown figure, Paris kneeling on the altar, Kassandra wielding a double-edged axe, and Deiphobus. There are also a few thought provoking details to the figures. The figure to the far left wears boots and a headdress, which might indicate priestly ornaments. Painted on the altar is a palm-branch, which is the symbol of Paris’s victory of the games (Karamanou 2013, 419). Kassandra wields the double-edged axe in what appears as a forward motion toward Paris rather than a backward motion toward Deiphobus. However, on an urn from Perugia which depicts the same scene, there are only three figures: Deiphobus on the left, Paris in the middle, and Kassandra on the right. This urn is depicted below.

This picture of a funerary urn from Perugia depicts the attack against Paris and is from page 672 of Volume VII of the LIMC.

Furthermore, on the back of a bronze mirror, also from the Hellenistic period, there are—once again—only three figures: Deiphobus, Paris, and Kassandra. Like the urn in Chiusi, Paris kneels on the altar, and he holds a palm-branch. Once again, Kassandra swings the double-bladed axe. However, Karamanou suggests that the attacker is Hecuba instead of Kassandra because she had been part of the plot to kill Paris (Karamanou 2013, 419-20). These differences in theory show how the myth might have been re-imagined.

“Bronze mirror-back relief (late fourth century BC) Tarquinia, Mus. Naz. RC 6279” (Karamanou 2013, 419).

Another question arises. How did a Euripidean tragedy get to Etruria? One theory is that the mirror-backs, and maybe the urns, might have been modeled after a fourth century South Italian vase-painting that is now lost (Karamanou 2013, 423). Another theory is that “educated Etruscans . . . commissioned artists to reproduce these scenes” (Karamanou 2013, 424). Furthermore, “South Italian tragedy-related vase-paintings were . . . usually used for funerary purposes” (Karamanou 2013, 424). Maybe Etruscans had enjoyed these tragedies during their lives and wanted them depicted; maybe they thought that they taught the living important lessons (Karamanou 2013, 424). Either way, they thought that this Greek tale was relevant to their lives.

Finally, Etruscan mirrors and urns are important to look at because of their uses. Mirrors show what people want to create in their identities and what they want to reflect (Izzet 2005, 4-5). Additionally, mirrors were often found in tombs (Izzet 2005, 16). Mirrors and urns showed what scenes were relevant to Etruscan society. They also show how Etruscans might have manipulated Greek mythology to better represent themselves, or what they wanted represented (Izzet 2005, 16). Therefore, no matter the goal, Etruscans imagined and re-imagined the Euripidean tale of the attack against Paris.


Huntsman, Theresa. “Hellenistic Etruscan Cremation Urns from Chiusi.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 49, no. 1 (2014): 141-50. doi:10.1086/680029.

Izzet, Vedia E. “The Mirror of Theopompus: Etruscan Identity and Greek Myth.” Papers of the British School at Rome 73 (2005): 1-22.

Karamanou, Ioanna. “The Attack-Scene in Euripides’ “Alexandros” and its Reception in Etruscan Art. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement, no. 126 (2013): 415-31.

Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC). Zürich: Artemis, 1981.

Roman Coinage and Purchasing Power

Some people have all the luck in the world, especially when it comes to discoveries on an archaeological dig! My trench-mates, unlike me, just so happen to be those kinds of people. In the earlier phases of our excavation, we had the great fortune to find a few Roman coins in our trench. As I went about my day over the following weeks, I found my mind returning to the coins we found. I wondered how much purchasing power those coins had as I bought gelato at a nearby shop. What were the various denominations of Roman coins? What could you get for an sestertius? How would that compare to modern forms of currency? 

Roman coins come in a variety of sizes, materials, and designs. The first known form of “currency” in Central Italy were bronze lumps known as aes rude (Sydenham, 1925). The predecessor to coinage in the ancient Roman world was the aes signatum (Louis Comparette, 1918). These decorated bronze bars were used as bullion, meaning their value was tied to their weight. The first proper Roman coins, aes grave, were bronze and emerged in the 4th century Republic. The aes grave was essentially an evolution of the aes rude and aes signatum, with value being determined primarily through weight. As Rome expanded and developed so too did their currencies. Several variations and denominations of coins emerged, each with different weights and values. The Roman monetary system was based upon the  The denarius became the primary silver coin of Rome, replacing previous iterations (Mattingly, 1952). The sestertius, originally a small silver coin during the Republic, later evolved into a larger bronze coin equal to 1/4th a denarius. The as was another denomination that equaled to 1/16th of a denarius (, 2002). These divisions are just a few of the dozens of variations of coinage throughput the entire history of the Romans, however they serve as a strong basis for understanding the purchasing power of Roman coins.

aes grave depicting the two-headed god Janus
Silver dienarius depicting Consul Marcellius

The purchasing power of Roman currency is a fascinating subject, especially when compared to our modern economy. This was done by comparing the incomes of unskilled laborers in Rome to those of modern minimum wage workers, and deducing how much of a particular item they could purchase. Bread is the ideal point of comparison, as it made up a large portion of the Roman diet and remains a significant part of modern diets. The average Roman family had the monetary equivalent of 140g in gold, which was enough to purchase roughly 9 loaves of bread per day (American Numismatic Society, 2016). In comparison to modern times, the average American household has five times as much equivalent income, and likewise can purchase five times as much bread per day. While modern industrialized society has given us easier access to money and goods, the relative purchasing power of gold has remained rather the same. 

Bronze sestertius of Antoninus Pius

An interesting aspect of Roman coinage is the rather rampant counterfeiting. It is believed that many of the plated coins in museums and collections today are actually ancient forgeries (Crawford, 1968). These coins, often identifiable by errors like the two sides of the coins bearing iconography from different eras or flaws uncommon in legitimate minting, were almost always discovered and discarded by ancient peoples(Crawford, 1968). So numerous were these fakes that the nummularii were created as a position within Roman banks. These bankers specialized in identifying forgeries, using a number of techniques including punching small holes inside coins to identify their internal composition (Crawford, 1968). 

This brings us full circle to the coins found within our trench. Three coins were found within the some of the upper U.S. of B7-B6. Two were identified as sestertii, while a third was a small coin that couldn’t be identified at the time. One of the sestertii was able to be identified, dating to the reign of Antoninus Pius. This paired with the vernice nera found in lower strata, this gives us a general time-frame of habitation lasting from the 2nd century BCE Roman Republic to mid Imperial Rome. Knowing the purchasing power of these currencies helps us understand the status, wealth, and what kind of lives people of our villa lived. This is just a single piece of the puzzle, and there are many more pieces waiting to be found.

Works Cited: 

Sydenham, E. A. “THE AES GRAVE.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, vol. 5, 1925, pp. 53–77. JSTOR,

COMPARETTE, T. LOUIS. “AES SIGNATUM.” American Journal of Numismatics (1897-1924), vol. 52, 1918, pp. 1–61. JSTOR,

Mattingly, Harold. “THE DIFFERENT STYLES OF THE ROMAN REPUBLICAN COINAGE.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, vol. 12, no. 42, 1952, pp. 67–71. JSTOR,

“Roman Economy – Prices in Ancient Rome.” Roman Economy – Prices & Cost in Ancient Rome, 2002,

“Rome: A Thousand Years of Monetary History.” American Numismatic Society, American Numismatic Society, 2016,

CRAWFORD, M. H. “PLATED COINS—FALSE COINS.” The Numismatic Chronicle (1966-), vol. 8, 1968, pp. 55–59. JSTOR,


Aes grave, Proraserie libral, obverse: Bearded Head of Janus. Accessed June 30, 2019.

Coin Showing Consul Marcellus Reverse: Consul Marcellus consecrating trophy. Accessed June 30, 2019.

Antoninus Pius Sestertius “Pietas With Four Children”. Accessed June 30, 2019.

The Ara Pacis

This summer we have talked extensively about the victory of the Romans over the Etruscans, Gauls, Umbrians and other Italic peoples in 295 BC during the Roman Republic. In addition to conquering Italy, Rome also began to assert its political dominance over much of the Mediterranean during this time. Later, the Roman Republic collapsed due to civil division and transformed into the Roman Empire ruled by Caesar Augustus in 27 BC.

Augustus, after successfully defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, is credited with restoring general peace back to Rome which lasted from 27 BC-180 AD (Hazelton 1922, 359-363). As a reward for Augustus’ outstanding leadership and superiority, the Senate of Rome decided to have a ritual altar erected in his honor. It was called the Ara Pacis, or the Altar of Peace.

 The Ara Pacis was an open altar upon which priests and vestal virgins were required to make annual animal sacrifices on unto the gods (Elsner 1991, 50). It was originally placed in the Campus Martius, but due to the fragility of the altar when it was excavated, it was reconstructed and placed in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis. I had the opportunity to visit the museum during our required overnight trip to Rome this past weekend.

The altar is enclosed by a massive structure made of marble containing reliefs on the inside and outside on all sides; some are still intact while others are either in a nearby display case or still missing. I walked inside of this enclosure towards the altar where I observed wall decorations depicting cattle. After looking inside, we were instructed to look carefully at the outside reliefs and were also given possible interpretations for their placement.

Seeing the Ara Pacis up close and in person, I was able to learn that it served not only a functional purpose, but it also relayed important messages about the public’s view of Augustus. Augustus not only established himself as a military leader in combat, but it was also believed that he had divine powers (Burton 1912, 82). After the deification of his uncle / adopted father Julius Caesar, Augustus declared himself to be “Divi Filius” or the son of a god. Not only did he hold political control over the world, but he suggested subtly that he had power over nature, the universe and the supernatural realm.  It seems that the artist took this into account when crafting the reliefs. On the back panel of the Ara Pacis, there is a depiction that (among many other interpretations) may be the goddess of earth nurturing two children, emphasizing fertility. This relief is surrounded by the personifications of the sea winds and terrestrial winds, promoting the prosperity that Augustus brought to Rome.

As I mentioned previously, there are multiple panels with distinct depictions. I was particularly in awe of the panel of the right side. This displayed reliefs of members of Augustus’ family above a floral frieze (acanthus scrolls) dotted with creatures from nature—a snake, frog, and lizard illustrate Augustus’ influence over even the smallest elements of nature.

I found this particular panel to be the most profound because it fully demonstrated the propaganda that was being communicated to the Romans: Augustus came from a lineage which had a strong grasp of power from the greatest political matters to the smallest processes of nature. The floral patterns took on even more significance when we found a cup decorated with an acanthus leaf design on our site the following week.

I enjoyed my visit to the Ara Pacis Museum and hope that I will be able to recognize more intricately detailed reliefs and learn more interpretations about them the next time that I visit.

Burton, Henry Fairfield. “The Worship of the Roman Emperors.” The Biblical World 40, no. 2 (1912): 80-91.

Elsner, John. “Cult and Sculpture: Sacrifice in the Ara Pacis Augustae.” The Journal of Roman Studies 81 (1991): 50-61. doi:10.2307/300488.

Haight, Elizabeth Hazelton. “Reconstruction in the Augustan Age.” The Classical Journal 17, no. 7 (1922): 355-76.

Volcanoes? Vulcan Knows

This past week, we discovered a purple piece of volcanic rock known as andesite at the Gioella-Vaiano archaeological dig site in trench B7. Professors Rebecca Schindler and Pedar Foss both hypothesized that it may have been used to line the entrance to a stokehole in a hypocaust or kiln at the villa since andesite is heat resistant. However, the Romans also used volcanic rock and ash in their architecture.

Piece of purple andesite found at the Gioella-Vaiano archaeological dig site.

According to legend, when Romulus founded Rome in 753 BCE, he settled Rome on the Palatine hill. This hill, along with the other six hills of Rome, were remnants of an eroded volcanic plateau; this meant that the hills contained volcanic deposits. The earliest use of volcanic rock in Roman architecture was in the 6th and 5th century BCE when the Romans quarried tuff rock from the Palatine hill (Jackson and Marra 2006). Tuff formed when lava or limestone consolidated to create mineral cements that bonded to create the rock. Although it was a pyroclastic rock, tuff was not that durable, because it is fairly porous.

However, Roman expansion allowed for the discovery of other types of tuffs that were stronger than that from the Palatine hill because the acquisition of land and the creation of infrastructure made them more accessible. According to Jackson and Marra (2006), the Romans had discovered and used seven different tuffs in their architecture by the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE. Tuff was used among other materials in building construction and was sealed in place with concrete.

It is notable that the Romans also used volcanic ash, known as pozzolana, in their concrete. Romans used pozzolana because it created such a strong mortar for concrete that it could even be used for underwater construction. Scientists, using Marcus Vitruvius’s writings on Roman architecture as a guide, discovered that when cement containing pozzolana interacts with seawater, the water crystallizes the ash within the mixture which creates Al-tobermorite and phillipsite (Ahmad 2017). Additionally, it uniquely cured without drying, which made it ideal for constructing thick foundations (Marder and Jones 2015). These features made pozzolana popular in concrete because it allowed for strong, durable structures.

The most intelligent and grand use of volcanic rock and ash by the Romans was at the Pantheon in Rome. First built by Agrippa and rebuilt by Hadrian after the earlier version burned down, it exhibits the height of Roman engineering. The Pantheon is most famous for its unreinforced concrete dome—still the largest in the world—which we saw firsthand during our overnight trip to Rome.

The Pantheon located in Rome, Italy.

To support the weight of the dome and keep it from breaking under pressure, the architect needed to somehow make the dome lighter. This was achieved in three ways. First, the architect utilized five rows of coffers on the inside of the dome to use less material; the second method involved gradually reducing the thickness of the dome as it rose; the last method involved volcanic stone and ash.

The inside of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.

To make the dome lighter, the architect used his knowledge of the different characteristics of volcanic stone to his advantage. At the bottom of the dome, the architect placed brickwork and stress-resistant tuff connected by a concrete mixture of pozzolana and lime (Marder and Jones 2015). As each upper layer was added, the architect mixed in various types of volcanic rock into the concrete mixture of pozzolana and lime in order of increased lightness. From the heaviest volcanic stone to the lightest stone, the order of fillings was as follows: Cappellaccio tuff, tufo giallo, pumice, and volcanic slag. The strategic use of these volcanic rocks reduced the weight of the materials as the structure rose which reduced the compression on the lower layers, creating less thrust on the structure below (Marder and Jones, 2015).

Given that we discovered the presence of volcanic rock at the site, and given how the abundance of volcanic rock made it cheap to purchase, I am curious whether we will find volcanic tuff in the villa’s foundations. Furthermore, I wonder whether the concrete we have at the site includes pozzolana. Unfortunately, since Romans usually used local materials, that is unlikely. However, Professor Jim Mills said that if we wanted to test for volcanic ash, we could take a thin section of the mortar at our site and analyze its composition using petrography.

Works Cited:

Ahmad, Zahra. 2017. “Why Modern Mortar Crumbles, but Roman Concrete Lasts Millennia”. Science, July 3, 2017.

Jackson, Marie, and Fabrizio Marra. 2006. “Roman Stone Masonry: Volcanic Foundations of the Ancient City.” American Journal of Archaeology 110: 403-436.

Marder, Tod A., and Mark Wilson Jones, ed. 2015. The Pantheon: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139015974.

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.