Are you an Etruscanist?
(This post is from the evening of October 3rd)
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to hang out with some of the British archaeology students who are spending time here excavating as part of their academic programs back in England. To be fair, they’re not all strictly British, with people from Ireland and Scotland making up some of their number. I thought it’d be a nice change to speak with some others for whom English is their first language. Turns out my expectations about having easy conversation were well off as I discovered that English really is different on either side of the Atlantic, and I had just as much—if not more—trouble understanding some of what they were saying as I’ve been having with a few of my fast-speaking Italian digging buddies. Added to all the British-isms that I, as a mere colonist, am too dimwitted to understand, was all the archaeological jargon that was being thrown around, and I found myself in quite the confused state.
After comparing each other’s tans to very specific colors used to describe soil on digs, one of the group turned to me and asked, “So, Peter, are you an Etruscanist?” It took me a few moments to comprehend that I had not just been asked a rude question, before I could answer with a brief, “No, not at all.”
Archaeology is one of those fields that is already pretty specialized when looked at from an outside perspective. It gets even more so when you actually go inside the broad range of topics that are all covered by that more general, umbrella term. In archaeology, you have all different types of specialists. First of all, there is all of human history to consider, as well as all of the regions in which civilizations have taken root. Beyond that, people can specialize in digging up certain types of structures. There are tomb specialists, house specialists, and everything in between. One of the Italian students working at my site is writing her senior thesis about the Kylix, a particular type of Grecian vase that the Etruscans liked to import. A whole thesis on one particular type of pot? I couldn’t imagine writing anything like that. When I found a fragment of a pot handle about the size of the first segment of my thumb, the British student I’ve been working with told me that there are people who could identify the type, size, and use of the pot it came from—all from that one piece. What seems crazy or impossible to lay-people like me is fairly commonplace for an archaeologist.
The sort of surreal experience that has been this archaeological dig is only added to by the setting near the small town of Marisiliana in Italy’s Grosseto province. The town and surrounding area are home to only 3,000 people, and it seems that everyone who lives here either works on a farm, in the local quarry, or hunts. Downtown Marsiliana has everything you could need in a town, however. There’s a grocery store—a particular chain that is really only a convenience store in larger places—and a school, and the bar and church share the same parking lot. After a long day at the dig, we sometimes get taken to the bar so that the Italians can enjoy an Aperol Spritz—an originally Venetian mix of Prosecco, soda, and Aperol—a bright red and bitter Italian aperitivo—and buy their cigarettes.
Walking into the bar is always strange for me. By the time we get there, a row of men is sitting outside—smoking, drinking, and chatting—watching us as we come in. Before we arrive, the only woman in the vicinity is behind the counter, selling drinks, and I—with my distinctly non-Italian features—get to walk into the building with a group highly predominated by female archaeologists.
On the wall is a photo from the local hunting initiation that all the men in the region go through at some point in their lives. Wild boars are common in this area, and it seems to be the game animal of choice. Along the path through the woods to our excavation site, you can see spent casings of shotgun shells littering the ground every so often. One day, one of the leaders of the excavation thought she heard a boar wandering around in the woods and made us all scream to scare it away. The initiation ritual that goes along with a successful boar hunt is a pretty gruesome affair. The now-dead boar is cut open by its killers, and then the child who went along on the hunt must get down on his knees and place his head inside the open stomach of the beast, immersing it in viscera. Come to think of it, it’s a lot more gruesome than what Han Solo does to the Tauntaun to keep Luke Skywalker warm on Hoth, but it’s pretty much the same idea…