Excavating Artena

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On February 1st, my Museum History and Theory class ventured to the small Italian town of Artena to experience an archaeological excavation firsthand. The first day of class Professor Kalb had the following quote on our syllabus:

“All of Rome is a museum. Little is more satisfying than merely wandering, bumping into examples of how human beings decided to decorate 2,500 years of history.”

Each week our class has gone to a different museum in Rome. And yet, this quote describes how everyday can feel like going to a museum. Everywhere you turn there is a piece of history or a beautiful landmark! After seeing many different pieces of ancient artwork and artifacts, Professor Kalb gave us the opportunity to see where and how these pieces of history are found.

 Professor Gadeyne, coincidentally my Art History and Roman History professor, accompanied us to the hill town of Artena to show us where he and many other students have spent countless summers excavating an archeological site with traces of villas from thousands of years ago spanning over hundreds of years.

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Professor Gadeyne in action!

We first went into the Artena museum where the collections of everyday objects found at the site. Professor Gadeyne explained how these pieces were specifically chosen out of hundreds of pieces found to be cleaned up and restored for the museum.

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For example, there were nails on display that were over a thousand years old. However, these were only three nails of hundreds that were found on the site. Even though the other nails will rust and decay, the archaeologists must make the difficult decision of choosing to preserve only certain objects based on their budget. It made the whole idea of a museum of antiquities change for me. As museum visitors we only see what the archaeologists had chosen to preserve and show based on time, money, and space. Each item within the museum seemed all the more precious. It was as if these items were preserving the history of the other items that couldn’t be preserved.

After seeing all the objects in the museum, our bus made its way up to the top of the hill. Because Artena is such a small town, the roads up the steep hill were not really conducive to a tour bus carrying 30 eager students. The locals looked at the bus incredulously as the tour bus inched its way up the winding hill.

At the top we enjoyed a lovely view of the countryside. I love living in Rome and just adore living in a city. And yet, it’s so great that we have the opportunity to see the smaller towns outside of Rome. The countryside in Italy is absolutely beautiful! Italy has so many little treasures to offer and the excursion was a really great way to see one of those small town treasures.

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Che bella!

At the top of the hill, Professor Gadeyne gave us a tour of the site. However, a local miniature horse found its way into the site! Professor Gadeyne was able to call the locals to retrieve him but he used the moment as an opportunity to remind us that the site does not belong to the archaeologist but rather to the people of Artena. The villa is a part of their history and we are simply visitors.

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The miniature horse loved to neigh right over what Professor Gadeyne was saying!

We walked through the different building structures from each century. Professor Gadeyne showed us how the real life archaeological site is not as “National Geographic” as you would think. Many of the mosaic tile floors were covered with plastic sheets to protect them and there were pieces of ancient pots here and there that couldn’t make the cut of being preserved by specialists. It was extraordinary to me that one site could have so many treasures hidden beneath the dirt; and yet, only certain parts of it could be preserved. There was a sort of bitter sweet nature to the site. The excavation provided pieces of history but also had to destroy layers of history to discover more.

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An overview of the archaeological site

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“Just a piece of a pot from the 4th century B.C.”, said Professor Gadeyne as he casually placed it back on the ground.

The experience allowed me to see how museums aren’t just a matter of finding a perfectly preserved artifact and displaying it for the public. The whole process of one item reaching a museum goes from the archaeologist digging who decides to give it to the restoration specialist who restores it for the museum curator who decides the display of the item- and that’s the simplified version!  What used to be a household item suddenly becomes a part of a complex process of choosing how to preserve history.

After the archaeological site, we all went to a local restaurant where they cooked us a delicious meal! Despite repeating “basta!” over and over, the waiters were so excited to have us that they continued to fill our plates with more pasta. From the assortments of antipasti, local wine, and mounds of pasta, we all slept well on the way back to Rome.

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Artena was just the first of two more excursions to come! Each week I am enjoying going from museum to museum but this day excursion to Artena made me really excited for my future weekend excursions. For my Late Antique/Early Byzantine Art and Architecture course, we will be exploring Ravenna and then for my Roman History course we will be rummaging through the ruins of Pompeii. Until then, arrivederci!

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