The Accidental Archaeologist

The author hasn't gotten over the disappointment of learning that unearthing the remains of a shattered Etruscan vase doesn't qualify him for a Nobel Prize in Archaeology. Still, he consented to chronicle his unusual experience--and unexpected find--for OAM readers.

Geoff Mulvihill '96

I cleaned dirt a good part of the morning. It made sense while I was doing it. I brushed the loose dirt from the unloosened dirt into a dustpan, which I emptied into a bucket. Later I sifted the contents of the bucket through a big screen, searching for clues about where life's been. I found some limestone and a few chunks of roof tiles. No big deal.

Or was it? My vacation had taken me to the top of a mountain near Vicchio, Italy, a Tuscan village 50 minutes by train from Florence, to meet up with some Oberlin friends. They were spending their summer at Poggio Colla, an archaeological field school sponsored by Oberlin College, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The 20 college students at Poggio Colla (some from Oberlin, some from other schools) were spending the 1997 season--from June 21 to August 2--cleaning dirt alongside anthropologists, geologists, and archaeologists, among them Oberlin's Susan Kane, an associate professor of art and codirector of the field school. They started work at an hour painfully close to dawn and continued until dusk as many as six days a week.

Even though I was a visitor, the friends I'd trekked all over Tuscany to find woke me near dawn, and handed me a garden trowel and some tools you usually see in the dentist's office. I don't know their technical names, but their functions are scraping and poking. Archaeologists don't dig with a backhoe. They scrape dirt away with the garden trowel, digging down maybe a quarter inch at a time.

Eventually I struck something--even an old English major like me can recognize a find that way. All I knew was that it wasn't a chunk of limestone or a roof tile. That's where the dental tools came in. I used a little number just like the ones they use to scrape plaque off your teeth to clean off my piece of smooth pottery, which was about the size of a doughnut, but without a hole.

I told my trenchmaster, Oberlin senior Melissa Stolz, about the find and she handed me a couple of big tape measures and a plumb bobto use for describing the location of my find. Meanwhile, Sam Carrier, an Oberlin associate professor of psychology who had accompanied his wife, Professor Kane, to the site, took pictures to further document it. Someone identified the object as the base of a vase, probably in the neighborhood of 2,500 years old. With more digging, I found the rest of it--delicate shards shattered against a wall, as if someone had thrown the vase and as it broke, dirt had been dumped around it. Jane Williams, the dig's conservator, brought in her set of dental tools and excavated the vase. She later pieced it together, a task that must have been like completing an intricate 3D puzzle.

When I began cleaning dirt that breezy Saturday morning last July, I was skeptical, but once I discovered the vase, I understood the appeal of being on a dig. I started asking what were probably annoying and pedestrian questions about archaeology in general and Poggio Colla specifically. Trenchmaster Melissa answered them patiently--except for the one about whether my find qualified me for a Nobel Prize in Archaeology.

That one she deftly bypassed, because the vase itself is not very valuable, except when considering where it was found and what was around it. Preliminary excavations began in the 1960s, but Poggio Colla was not known as a major find until the field school was established in summer 1995. The artifacts unearthed there during the last three seasons were left by the Etruscans, who inhabited the region in two major phases between the seventh and third centuries B.C. Until the site was discovered no one had believed that Etruscan civilization had extended that far north. The range of the elusive Etruscans wasn't the only piece of conventional wisdom challenged by the finds being unearthed. Very few details about Etruscan architure are known because very few examples exist. One of the earliest examples of the Etruscan order--a three-foot-round sandstone column base--was discovered at Poggio Colla in 1995. The dig's architect surmised that the base's original column--made of wood and long-since decayed--would have supported a 25-foot-high building. Two years later, while I was easing my vase from the ground, Sarah Kupperberg '97 was in Trench Three cleaning what appeared to be walls of a temple.

I had been digging in Trench One, a part of the site that wasn't known for numerous finds in 1995 or 1996, but which had given up a bronze head, possibly from the fifth century B.C. Greg Warden, the dig's codirector and an art history professor at SMU, told me he reopened Trench One "to see the context of the bronze head." Melissa told me that was archaeology code for "we're eager to find another cool bronze head."

Trench One didn't come through with any more cool statuary, but it did yield other good stuff. Foundations were found for two parallel walls. Along them was half of a huge rim--as big around as a basketball hoop--that was probably part of a grain storage container. There were 10 stone doughnuts, known in archaeological circles as loom weights, which Etruscan weavers used to hold down the yarn as they wove. The artifacts turning up in Trench One have led Codirector Kane and other dig members to believe that Poggio Colla was a commercial center with ties to other areas of Etruria and Greece.

After spending several hours with the vase, I had grown attached to it, as if I'd made it myself. That's why it hurt a little when I talked to Karen Vellucci, who works at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and runs dig house, where all the finds are cleaned and sorted. When I told her I was calling about my vase, she told me that it was "very beautiful considering it was such crummy pottery." Karen probably thought that was good news for me--but I'd been calling to ask when I could collect my Nobel Prize.

Former Oberlin Review editor Geoff Mulvihill is a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Photograph by Sam Carrier. For more information about the field school, see "Digging for Knowledge: Archaeologist Susan Kane Helps Rewrite History," in the November 1995 issue of Around the Square and Poggio Colla's web site: