Environmental History and Archaeology: A Summer Spent at the Excavation of a Late Antique Infant Cemetery in Umbria, Italy
For environmentally-minded historians, and particularly for those of us who study periods that suffer from a scarcity of written sources, archaeological data can be crucial. Excavations give insight into past material culture, providing information about past societies that is absent from the written record and offering tangible evidence of human interactions with the natural world. Yet, despite its many benefits, interpreting archaeological data isn’t easy, and shouldn’t be taken on lightly by those unfamiliar with the field. This summer, I had the opportunity to spend five weeks excavating at La Villa Romana Di Poggio Gramignano (VRPG), a Roman villa-turned Late Antique infant cemetery in Umbria, Italy. My experience taught me to appreciate, not only how difficult it is to properly use a pick-axe, but also the range of specializations within the field of archaeology and the rewards of interdisciplinary collaboration.
VRPG is located about 6 km from Lugnano in Teverina in Umbria, on a steep hillside overlooking the Tiber river. It was first excavated by Daniela Monacchi of the Soprintendenza Archaeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio dell’Umbria, between 1982 and 1984, and again between 1987 and 1994 by David Soren, of the University of Arizona, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archaeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio dell’Umbria. While most of the site has not yet been uncovered, these initial excavations exposed large sections of the living quarters of the villa. Soren’s findings suggested that the villa was first built during the late-first century BCE. By the late first or early second century AD, the site’s hilltop setting destabilized the south side of the villa, causing it to collapse. While supports were constructed in the third century to prevent further damage, the use of the villa waned during the third century, and by the fifth century the villa had fallen into disrepair. The site was not fully abandoned until the sixth or seventh centuries, though, and the tens of infants uncovered at the site so far date to the mid-fifth century.
Soren and his team uncovered no fewer than 47 burials at the site, ranging in age from prenatal to three years old (Soren 1999). The stratigraphy of the site, and paleoenvironmental data, suggested that the infants had been buried over a short timespan, leading Soren to blame a sudden epidemic of malaria, caused by Plasmodium falciparum (Soren 2003). While interdisciplinary analyses of the skeletal remains have corroborated this interpretation (Sallares and Gomzi 2000; Inwood 2017), the rooms that make up the cemetery were not fully excavated during Soren and Monacchi’s excavations. After two decades of inactivity, the site was reopened in 2016 under the leadership of David Soren and David Pickel, of Stanford University, in order to complete the excavation of the infant cemetery and gather additional information about the occupation of the site.
I worked at VRPG between June 24th and July 26th 2019. While the five-week excavation certainly helped me develop my shovelling and pick-axe technique (as you can see in the picture above), it also gave me a behind-the-scenes view of archaeological research. The excavation at VRPG was a complex collaborative effort between a large group of researchers, including field archaeologists, ceramicists, zooarchaeologists, osteologists and conservators, all of whom worked together in order to excavate, catalog, and interpret the wide array of materials found on the excavation, from potsherds to human remains. During my time in Lugnano, I was able to gain some basic experience in these various sub-disciplines, and, by watching specialists at work, I learned to appreciate the great variety of skills necessary to carry out archaeological excavations.
Our excavation also looked outside the traditional bounds of archaeology; in order to test Soren’s malaria hypothesis, we extracted teeth from some of the infants and sent them to the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University, where Hendrik Poinar and his team are mining them for remnants of pathogens and genetic material. While the results of these tests may not be available for some time, with any luck they will help to shed light on both the people who were buried at VRPG and the pathogens they harboured.
After five weeks in Italy, I came home with a little bit of a tan, more than a few aches and pains, and a fresh perspective on the study of the past. Given my interest in ancient landscapes, I appreciated the opportunity to work directly with the natural environment of VRPG, to stand on the same hill and take in the same (or similar) view of the Tiber river as the site’s late Roman occupants centuries ago. Unlike most historians, archaeologists also work in close proximity to modern communities. Throughout the excavation, I was inspired by the level of interest our research received from the local community, who were not only supportive of our investigation into their local history, but also incredibly hospitable and patient to a bunch of foreigners, some of whom, myself included, could hardly string together a sentence of Italian.
I have no doubt that this experience will help me to interpret archaeological data in my later research, and, when necessary, to reach out to those who know a lot more than me, whether they study bones, ceramics, or aDNA. While I don't think it’s necessary for every environmental historian to have personal experience on an archaeological site (though I would certainly encourage doing so), it is essential that we familiarize ourselves with archaeological methods and theories before attempting to make use of archaeological evidence. Better yet, environmental historians should aim to go even further, and include archaeologists in our academic circles and research projects. Generating and interpreting archaeological material isn’t easy—in fact, in my experience it’s a difficult, dirty, and dusty job. But it’s also the best way to sift through the sources available to us without misinterpreting them, leading to more interesting and productive scholarship.
Bryna Cameron-Steinke is a PhD student of Environmental History at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on the development and use of marginal landscapes in early medieval northwestern Europe. She is interested in how climate and disease influenced the cultures and economies of marginal regions, namely marshlands and woodlands.
J. Inwood, Identifying Malaria in Ancient Human Remains: A Molecular and Biochemical Approach. PhD diss., Yale University, 2017.
R. Sallares and S. Gomzi, “Biomolecular archaeology of malaria,” Ancient Biomolecules 3 (2000): 195-213.
D. Soren and N. Soren, A Roman Villa and A Late Roman Infant Cemetery: Excavations at Poggio Gramignano (Lugnano in Teverina) (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 1999).
D. Soren, “Can archaeologists excavate evidence of malaria?” World Archaeology 35.2 (2003): 193-209.
Articles written by students and faculty in environmental history at Georgetown University.