This summer I went to Vacone, Italy on an archaeological dig. Organised by the University of Edinburgh, we were a group of students excavating a Roman villa for three weeks. The Principle’s Go Abroad fund was instrumental in my going on this trip, as it helped pay for my board and lodgings as well as my flight costs.
On paper I was there to try my hand at archaeology; really I was hoping to find something more to history than primary sources and textbooks. Much as we all love the library (or not), I wanted to stop reading other people’s accounts and get out there to see it for myself.
Walking in the Forum, Rome
I am not a well-travelled person. Before this I had never been to Italy or even flown on my own. I was going to an unknown country with people I had never met. Honestly, I was terrified. I had lists running through my head of all the things that could go wrong; illness, injury or pickpocketing. I’m not even an archaeologist, so the probability of making a fool of myself seemed pretty high. Yet for all my worries, and though I probably made a fool of myself plenty, my time in Vacone was incredible.
Excavating was certainly hard work, especially at first. The days passed in a flurry of picks and shovels, blisters and bruises, and an ever-growing spoil heap that had to be somehow traversed with a wheelbarrow. Yet strange to say, it was brilliant. A particular brand of camaraderie comes from seeing each other plastered in mud every day – I gained so many new friends from the experience. There’s also fierce joy in physical exertion, and nothing can express that spark of excitement as your trowel uncovers something in the soil. My best find came near the end of the dig, when I unearthed a hoard of beautiful stucco. It had seen the Roman Empire in all its glory, a tangible piece of history that had waited millennia to be found. That’s what made me realise that while books and papers are important, in the end they are only descriptions of the past. Holding a lump of patterned stucco in my hands, I felt at last I had found the real thing.
My time on excavation gave me a new perspective, not just on history but on myself. I know better what I am capable of and feel more confident travelling abroad. As a place to visit Italy is breath-taking. From the clamour and energy of Rome to the sleepy walled towns amid rolling forested hills, the country is stunning. Spectacular storms rolled down our valley some evenings, making the lights flicker. One night we played an impromptu game of rugby in the streets of Orvieto with some local children. These are the treasures I have taken away from Vacone; not just technical skills and an obsession with stratigraphy but also memories, new friends and a sense that my horizons have been thrown wide open.
Friday night drinks in Configni
Game of Thrones night