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Rome Via Ostiense Bioarchaeology Fieldschool

Written by: Kayreen Dizon

September 14th 2023

I recently did a four-week field school in Rome, excavating part of the Necropolis of Via Ostiense. It was such an eventful and exciting time that I wanted to share my experience.

Site of the Necropolis of Via Ostiense

After a night of unpacking and nervous introductions, the first working day consisted of a tour of the site. Our field director explained that in ancient Rome, the road (Via Ostiense) was lined with necropolises for people housing the dead. The site that we were working on was just a very small section of the road that stretched kilometres with many columbaria dating to the 1st century CE. Some of the rooms still had preserved frescoes that were just beautiful and amazing inscribed marble urns and altars. The rest of the week involved cleaning the site and preparing our workstations for the micro excavations and identifications.

Room with frescoes and mosaic

Work at the site was divided into four sections, with most students having the chance to try each.

1. Microexcavation of the urns

For this season, our team focused on excavating the first level of this large columbarium, with each student responsible for a single urn. Let me just say that excavating urns full of cremated human remains was not at all what I was expecting when I signed up for this field school. First, our tools consisted of a paintbrush, long tweezers, and a bent spoon. The paintbrush was used to clean the niche, while the tweezers and bent spoons were used to remove the bones from the urn. Using such mundane instruments to excavate the remains of a human being who died over 2,000 years ago gave me a feeling of shock that I really can’t describe.

Me trying to see into the urn

The urns were constructed into the fairly small niches of the columbarium and were impossible to remove from the walls, making it very difficult to look straight into the urn and remove the remains (but I did try!). We did the micro excavation in 5cm levels, separating them in labelled plastic ziploc bags. My urn ended up being four levels, so I managed to complete excavating in less than an hour. After removing the remains, the next step was to clean the bones to make it easier for identification. This part was simultaneously one of the most soothing and tedious parts of the field school. With a tub filled with water and a toothbrush, we carefully cleaned and brushed each fragment from every level. While staring at a tub of water for eight hours can get boring, the cold water was a nice break from the Rome heat.

Bones excavated from my urn

Some people found very interesting things in their urns. One person found fragments of what we initially believed to be a ceramic doll but turned out to be a bell with legs as the clapper. Another person found a lot of flat glass fragments that, when fit together, created a mirror. A common occurrence in a lot of our urns was finding a single bone fragment that was unburnt. For example, the remains in my urn were very fragmented due to the intense level of burning, except for a single second molar found in the first level. Our field director explained that people were very hesitant during the transition from cremation to inhumation. To feel more at ease, mourners would place a single bone into an urn in their family columbarium but allow the rest of the corpse to be buried.

2. Identification

This section ended up being what we spent the most time on. Throughout the month, we would go through four urns, working together to attempt to identify the fragments within each level. Heavily relying on the Human Bone Manual and reference bones, this part proved to be difficult as cremated remains are really a whole other level of bone identification. Having to recognize how cremation alters bones, sometimes to such unrecognizable degrees, made this part of the work very interesting. However, there were many bones that, I have to admit, I was very excited to identify because they are bones that I was taught are very rare to find in the archaeological record. (For the rest of the bioarch nerds, I identified the body of a hyoid, a manubrium, and multiple sphenoid fragments). Identification also gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of subadult bones. While the moments were sometimes hard, it was interesting to attempt to identify unfused bones and age the individuals.

After our field director confirmed the identification of a bone, it would travel through the chain of documentation. This included weighing the fragment, creating a label with important information about the fragment, urn, level, and room it was found in, entering it into the database, and sending it along to be photographed. All of this information would later be compiled into a larger database for the field directors to analyze later. Once the piece was photographed, it was threaded onto a large string.

Me with the identified remains of an urn

3. Drawing

Learning to draw ceramics became a short 2-day lesson for everyone. We were taught how to draw urn lids, pottery sherds, and other ceramics found in the urns. I learned that there is a standard practice in archaeology for drawing ceramics that can be very confusing at first. This included learning how to use a contour gauge to accurately get the shape of the objects (which is one of the most amusing tools I have ever used). After getting through the initial confusion on using a contour gauge and how to properly measure the sherds, drawing pottery can be really fun.

Inscribed marble urn

4. Inscriptions

As I mentioned before, the site still had a lot of inscribed marble urns and funerary altars. A small group of students who can understand some Latin were responsible for recording the inscriptions. Similar to drawing ceramics, there is a particular standard in recording inscriptions. It involves recording the entire inscription, measuring the size of each character, the spaces between the characters, and the size of the urn/altar. Later, these students would also attempt to translate the inscriptions and, surprisingly, discovered that a lot of them tend to state how much space the person owned in the columbarium.

Portuense Necropolis

I was really lucky to have joined a field school in a city with a lot of rich history. As part of the program, we went on a few field trips relevant to the work we were doing. This included the Centrale Montemartini Museum known for being in an old power plant and having an impressive collection of

mosaics, sculptures, and busts. We also visited the Portuense necropolis, which was funnily discovered during the construction of a small shopping mall and eventually became a display in the mall. However, the

best field trip was during a visit to the Vatican City. Most people are unaware that underneath Vatican City are a few large necropolises discovered decades ago. Thankfully, our field director was friends with the field director and able to get us a private guided tour of the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis, a site no longer open to the public. This necropolis was such an amazing experience because of the preservation, the obvious transitions in style, the unique placements of remains, and, of course, the sheer number of urns that you can see. Although not a field trip, our field school was also very lucky to be filmed by National Geographic to feature the site in an upcoming episode of Lost Treasures of Rome. Having a film crew at the site following your every move with a giant camera was a nerve-wracking but really cool experience.

Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis under Vatican City

This program was such an amazing experience and was worth every penny. I highly recommend this field school to anyone interested in bioarchaeology, AND the site is covered!

BONUS: Kayreen’s Rome travel tips

● DO NOT travel to Rome in August! It was unbearably hot as most days were almost hitting 40s. It is also peak tourist season and the month when most locals take their holiday vacations.

● DO buy your tickets ahead of time online because lines can get crazy long if you wait to buy when you get there. Also, be aware that a lot of the popular monuments and attractions will have fake websites trying to scam you out of your money.

● DO visit any random basilica you see on the street. Walking into any that I came across was honestly my favourite pastime because the artwork in them was always just breathtaking.

● DO NOT visit monuments and attractions in the morning, as they tend to be when they are the

busiest. I found it better to see things in the afternoon with fewer people around, and you can beat the worst of the heat!

● DO go to the Porta Portese Sunday flea market. It has hundreds of stalls selling everything from antiques to clothes to shoes to bags to books, all for really cheap!

● DO rely on the metro. It is almost as reliable as the Skytrain, but be aware of the busses as I found that they barely show up :(

● DO visit all of the popular attractions (Capitoline Museum, Roman Forum, Vatican Museum, St.

Peter’s Basilica, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Colosseum, etc.).

● DO have as much gelato, pasta, pizza, and wine as you possibly can because I promise it is so good that you won’t get sick of it.


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