Classics Professor’s Grant to Fund Dig in Italy

Assistant Professor of Classics Darian Totten has received a $25,000 award from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). This is only the second year that the AIA has given its Cotsen Excavation Grant, which is intended for first-time project directors. Totten will use the award to direct a new archaeological dig at the site of Salapia in Trinitapoli, Italy, that will be staffed in part by Davidson students.

Totten will collaborate with two Italian colleagues, Roberto Goffredo and Giovanni de Venuto, whom she met while working on previous projects.

Totten explained, "We will be working around a lagoon on the coast of the Adriatic Sea called the Lago Di Salpi-a very protected aquatic environment that likely was a successful port settled as early as the first century BCE."

The lagoon's coastline today functions as the second largest producer of sea salt in Italy. Water laps onto shallow saltpans on the shore, encrusts there, and then the salt is harvested. Totten said this salt collection process is now mechanized, but in the past people used pickaxes. Totten and her colleagues are interested in understanding both the development of the town in general, and the economic and socioeconomic benefits that salt production provided Salapia in ancient times. The importance of the industry is evidenced in the fact that the names of Salapia and the nearby village of Salinis, reflect the Latin word for "salt."

The group will not only investigate the urban site of Salapia, but also will conduct research at San Vito, a Roman villa inhabited from the late third century BCE, the oldest villa until now identified in Puglia. The site is located in the middle of an area that now serves as a nature preserve, but was once a large, luxurious rural estate, as evidenced by the decorative terracottas and painted plaster walls archaeologists uncovered in 1950. Totten and her team will redirect their attention from the residential spaces of the villa to those of agricultural production. They want to know how the villa functioned economically and socially, and how San Vito was connected to other places surrounding the lagoon.

"These sites provide a spectacularly rich context through which to learn about the Roman economy, Mediterranean trade, and the effects of these activities on those living around the Salpi lagoon during nearly eight centuries," Totten writes in the student application for the summer excavation project.

The three professionals have different, complementary specialties. Goffredo works with GIS modeling, de Venuto is an expert in studying animal bones, and Totten organizes the ceramics lab. Ceramics are one of the primary artifacts that archaeologists unearth, and can help identify exchange patterns, economic activity and patterns of domestic life in the past.

Totten received her doctorate from Stanford University and has participated in excavations in Italy, Greece and other regions of the Mediterranean, but this is the first time she will serve as co-director of an excavation. The project also will help her further develop her expertise in the material culture of southern Italy during the Roman and Late Antique periods. "Material culture" includes the objects that people from the past have used, produced, traded or destroyed as part of their daily lives. It can include anything from small pieces of pottery to massive buildings and monuments, and the archeological study of these artifacts can illuminate patterns of social interaction, cultural exchange, economic processes and the development of ideologies.

Totten will recruit up to 10 Davidson students to join the Salapia excavation team from June 30 to Aug. 1. Totten's Italian colleagues will bring 10 of their own students to the site. Totten said that the academic experience will be conducted in the format of field school, in which the project leaders teach students archeological methodologies in the field, and in the "finds" lab. Students who participate will receive credit for the Davidson course "Fieldwork in Mediterranean Archaeology," which emphasizes archaeological methods and modes of reasoning. The course can fulfill a requirement for Classics majors, and also be applied toward the Archaeology concentration.


  • February 28, 2014