Vetricella and Vignale

Glorious early autumnal weather is perfect for excavating in Italy. The colours in the soil clearly show up layers and features and provide an opportunity to make informed judgements about stratigraphic relationships. From these relationships new archaeological narratives emerge.

At Vetricella the excavations are into their third week. Everyone is now excited. We have a working hypothesis for this unusual early medieval site between the lost Follonica lagoon and the Via Aurelia. Now we are working to confirm or develop the interpretation.

Vetricella mortar mixer cut by portico post

First, it is clear that the Lombard ‘landing place’ of limited importance was transformed by a mortared tower within three concentric ditches later in the 9th century. But if this martian-like form is utterly unusual in the lexicon of Italian archaeology the successor phase (Vetricella period 3) is now emerging and is quite as bizarre.

Period 3 appears at this stage to consist of a timber portico made with 25-30 cm wide upright posts ranged around all four sides of the earlier stone tower. Architecturally it is mystifying. Of course, this makes it all the more intriguing. Added to this it seems the posts were all removed before the site entered its last period of use.

We are still debating the character of the last period. On the north side of the site vestigial remains of iron-working furnaces are coming to light. Close to one furnace came two prick spurs. On the other side of the site more child burials are cropping up. Traces of any church have eluded us, but who knows what will happen next week!

Lorenzo Marasco with a prick spur

The real pleasure of archaeology is not knowing!

This is certainly the experience at the nearby excavations of a Roman villa at Vignale, a few kilometres north of Vetricella and beside the Via Aurelia (see www.uominiecoseavignale.it) . Professor Enrico Zanini from Siena University has been excavating here since 2003. The little villa has now evolved to have a fascinating history.

19th-century excavations established the location of part of the site but not its real character. A Republican amphora kiln production site was transformed into an Imperial maritime villa between the Aurelia and Piombino lagoon. But it is the latest phase that has excited Enrico. Fourth to 6th-century mosaics, exquisitely made, repaired and repaired again, have just been discovered beside an elegant bath-house overlying the old atrium to the villa. The mosaics are an iconographic treat, artistically intriguing enough to ensure plenty of debates. Enrico is bemused – fourteen years to find something that was so close to the edge of his trenches that has upturned all his ideas about this place.

Vignale Roman villa

For the Vetricella team it is an eye-opener. Nothing medieval has been found in Enrico’s trenches. This villa was evidently abandoned in the 6th century and close to it, so the sources show, a major early medieval estate is recorded, that later was supplanted by a hilltop village.

On this glorious day being an archaeologist, puzzled by the serendipity of the past, is a peerless occupation as the sunny faces on those digs affirm!

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