SMU archeologists unearth the past

Students travel to southern Italy in search of Roman artifacts

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Myles McCallum, who teaches archaeology at Saint Mary’s University, says finding traces of ancient seeds and other organic material can be as important as unearthing artifacts and buildings. (Photo: Andre Dezsi)

When aspiring archeologists from Saint Mary's University return to southern Italy this summer, they will be looking for more than ruins and artifacts.

Myles McCallum, who co-ordinates the San Felice Archeological Research Project, says archeologists can learn a lot from looking at ancient seeds and other organic material.

Environmental archeology uses these clues to compare how people from different regions lived, what they ate and even what types of goods they produced and sold.

"Frequently these elements have not been done well or have been marginalized, where as for us they have been central elements of our activity," says McCallum. "It's some of the most interesting evidence."

This fall, McCallum received almost $40,000 from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, a federal organization that funds studies trying to better understand individuals, groups and societies.

"Without the money we would've been hard pressed to move forward," says McCallum, because analyzing seeds and other organic material is expensive. Discoveries can now be analyzed in laboratories this year, instead of at some future date when money is available.

Digging up the past

The San Felice project started in 2004 to explore the area where a Roman villa stood between the first and third centuries AD.

A joint effort of researchers based from Nevada to England, the project includes a field school for students.

The work starts at 6:30 a.m., five days a week, and finishes in mid-afternoon.

"We'd work until everyone was pretty much beat, exhausted and felt really good about the day," says Kyle Cigolotti, a Saint Mary's student who participated in the program. "It was full days, but it was really fulfilling."

Cigolotti says he benefitted from those he met. "There were so many people there that had gone through doing their masters, that were entering their PhDs, had done their PhDs and the input from them was just priceless."

The laboratory facilities of the office of the Archeological Superintendency of Puglia are made available to students so they can learn to catalogue and analyze what they find.

McCallum says students face a steep learning curve, and not just as they learn about archeology.

"They suddenly are all sunburned because they haven't been putting sunscreen on every, you know, 25 minutes, and they don't drink enough water so you have to keep harassing them and after a few days they're just, they're kind of zoning out, so the first weekend people just sleep a lot."

Lab tests done thus far show indigenous grains were grown in the area, not the grains Roman estates usually cultivated.

"What we have is the Romans move in and they let the locals keep doing what's been successful, for at this point a couple of thousand years, and so they continue to produce as they had before it's just now producing for the Roman state," says McCallum.

"It's most striking that you see this sort of stuff at the environmental level that you might not notice if you're just looking at the architecture."

 

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