I’ve never been to Ostia before; in fact, I’ve never even been on an archaeological dig before. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Kent University’s excavation in Italy this year as an administrator and archivist. Our group is about 25 people in total from all different nationalities and specialisms which makes for a great mix of people. Staying in tents means that everyone has got to know each other pretty quickly over the early breakfasts, evening meals and buses to site. One of the favourite, non-archaeological, parts of the day seems to be the evening shower, when all the sweat and dirt from the day’s work can be washed away.
Arriving at Ostia Antica on the first day, my initial impression was the scale of site and its remains. It can be pretty daunting, especially if like me you are armed only with a guide in Italian and a tourist map! Luckily, I had the expertise of one of my fellow participants Julien, who showed me some Late Antique houses and shops, and explained how to spot them. Shop fronts would have been covered with boards or planks when closed, whereas houses had hinged doorways to close them from the street. These left different marks in the stone thresholds; either an incised line for a shop or ledge with circular holes at either side for a house doorway. The extant decoration inside these buildings is impressive, with the remains of opus sectile floors, marble fountains, bars, wall paintings and mosaics still remaining from when they were inhabited. Walking through the same streets and building entrances as the Ostians of Antiquity really gives you a sense of the city during its working life.
Wall painting, mosaic and bar counter
Seeing the team excavating is especially interesting; there are four sites being worked on at the moment small teams of people. The first step is devegetation which prepares the area and structures. This can be hard work, especially in the hot Roman sun, although it’s a task not necessarily devoid of interest; Faith found a Roman coin in one of the walls of the Foro della Statua Eroica, whilst clearing the ground in the same area also revealed the existence of a walled up room. I’ve also been lucky enough to join Elizabeth, Aoife and Solinda in the depot at the top of the site, where finds are cleaned and catalogued. Fragments of vividly painted wall plaster are brushed free of dirt and then the coloured surface cleaned with acetone. Some of the examples I’ve handled are polychromic, featuring coloured lines and other decorative features; others are important for their reverse sides, which still have the imprints of the craftsmen’s fingers and the lathe walls the plaster was originally attached to.
Cleaning plaster fragments in the depot
Site is hot and dusty, with stones worn smooth from the centuries of people walking over them. This can make it a pretty hazardous place to work, not forgetting the mosquitoes, which seem to have a taste for me in particular, the few scorpions which have been spotted, and the snakes (of which only their shedded skins have been found so far!). There are also some tiny lizards which scamper around the ruins, basking in the sun, which entertain the diggers. The dig is incorporating some pretty high tech equipment – our colleagues at Birmingham University have been laser scanning areas of the city for us, which allows the analysis of details you can’t see with the naked eye. It also means that 3D computer models of the Ostian buildings can be made at a later date which is fantastic for Kent’s Visualisation of the Late Antique City project. Elsewhere trenches are beginning to appear.
Eamonn taking colour photos to project onto the laser scanned images
The bivium has already been excavated in previous years, however the complex nature of the archaeology there means that this year the guys are pulling up the geotextile that sits below the topsoil and protects the evidence below. This will allow them to re-evaluate the archaeology and hopefully draw some useful conclusions. In the paleastra, the trench has revealed what looks like a well and drain. There have also been a few finds already, including pottery sherds and glass tesserae.