Dig This

Amid the rolling hills of Umbria, Drew students are unearthing what appears to be a rest stop on a 2,200-year-old precursor to the Jersey Turnpike.

Muccigrosso says that Roman coins proved vital in dating the site. (Photo by Bill Cardoni)

By Christopher Hann

“In Italy,” John Muccigrosso says, “you’re much more likely to hit something if you put a hole in the ground.”

He ought to know. For the past two summers, the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts has led Drew students on an archaeological dig near a small Italian town north of Rome. Eight weeks of excavation beside a 1,200-year-old church on an ancient Roman road has yielded—besides a big hole in the ground—some surprising finds, including a pair of human leg bones.

Digging just outside the town of Massa Martana in Italy’s Umbria region, Muccigrosso and the students have employed aerial photographs, geomagnetic surveys and a healthy dose of sweat equity to identify what appears to be a complex of buildings. Inscriptions on local monuments, most likely erstwhile gravestones, suggest the site was once a stopping point known as Vicus ad Martis Tudertium. The road dates to 220 B.C., when construction began at the be­hest of the Roman political leader Gaius Flaminius. The Flaminian Way stretched north from Rome across the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic Sea, then up the coast to northern Italy.

Photographs of the dig, taken from the elevated cab of a cherry picker, reveal the outlines of the three-meter-wide road and the walls of adjacent buildings—probably homes and shops, possibly a temple, Muccigrosso says—which are believed to lie about 18 inches beneath the surface. Relying largely on coins found on the site, Muccigrosso traced the walls of one building uncovered in the dig to the 1st century B.C. The outlines seen in the aerial photos, caused by the drier soil above the roadbed and the building walls, resemble chalk lines etched across the fields of alfalfa where the dig is unfolding.

Although Muccigrosso wasn’t around when the Flaminian Way was laid out, you get the feeling he wishes he were. He fell hard for Italy the first time he traveled there, while a junior at Amherst, for a classical studies program in Rome. To the future classics scholar, the legendary landscape inspired endless wonder. Mucci­grosso marveled that he might be striding the same roads once trod by Cicero. He was hooked. After grad­uation he returned to Italy for a year, spending a month on a dig on a hilltop in Tuscany.

Three years ago, Muc­­­ci­grosso re­ceived a Drew Pres­i­dential Initiatives Fund grant to travel to Italy and arrange a dig pro­ject for students. Senior Gene­vieve Puleo, an art history major who took part in the 2008 dig, calls the experience “the best decision I ever made at Drew.” Stu­dents pay $4,600 plus airfare to take part in the four-week dig, for which they receive four credits. Food and lodging are provided, and the students typically spend weekends day-tripping to Rome and Florence.

For senior Meredith Dolan, an archae­ology minor, the 2009 dig exposed her to what she calls “real archaeology.” Dolan says she’d been on small digs of old homesteads in Pennsyl­vania. “But never in a foreign country and never a site this old,” she says.

Muccigrosso and his students have un­covered bits of pottery, elaborately carved hairpins and dice made of bone or ivory and dating to the 1st century. In the soil next to the walls, they found coins bearing the names of Marcus Antonius, ill-fated consort of Cleopatra, from the 1st century B.C., Julius Caesar and his great nephew Caesar Augustus, who ruled the Roman empire for 40 years starting in 27 B.C.

Muccigrosso has two years remaining on a three-year permit issued by the Archaelogical Superintendency of Umbria. In May, he’ll return with another group of Drew students to continue to unearth the subterranean mysteries that await them at an ancient stopping point along an ancient road.

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