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Vetricella excavations: month 6

A mixture of showers and long fine days is helping the digging as they move into the sixth month of excavation of this unusual lagoon-side early medieval centre in Tuscany. A few new elements are emerging, lending colour to our understanding of this place between the 7th and 11th centuries.

The earliest period – between the 7th and early 9th century – now includes a substantial post-built structure. Quite what it was remains unclear. An enigmatic charcoal-filled kiln belongs to this early settlement. Otherwise the accompanying ground surface is largely devoid of material.

The foundations of the mortar mixer & tower looking East

The second period, when the tower was erected and the three concentric ditches were excavated around it, becomes ever more intriguing. The central point of the tower – the compass point for creating the three ditches at 44, 88 and 132 Liutprand feet – is marked by a small pit in which an unused quern stone was discovered. Its purpose is unclear. Probably it served as a base to support an upper floor. Almost certainly belonging to this phase are fine fragments of three wine glasses. Stems and other pieces belonging to another twenty or so have been found in the shallow deposits surrounding the tower. Fish bones and a tortoise shell have come from these deposits too. But it is the prodigious number of wine glasses that seem to signal a dining culture that in the past I speculated was introduced in Carolingian times to Italy.

The stem of a 9th-10th century wine glass

The third period stretching through the 10th century into the 11th century includes the forges (with nearly 2000 tools) to the north and the growing cemetery on the south. Over forty graves have now been excavated on the south side, including a second young woman. Some of the earlier graves follow a neat east-west alignment, but the later ones are far more irregular. If there was an oratory here, as seems likely, it was small with shallow foundations. Supporting the case for this is the discovery of fragments of a cobalt blue jar with white rectilinear patterning on its surface. Clearly a vessel of some importance, parallels are well known from Viking graves as well as Dorestad, the emporia at the mouth of the Rhine.

Grave of a young woman (left) cutting the feet of a young man (right). Two graves beyond.

Vetricella looks as though it served different purposes in different eras. Was it originally a landing place close to the lagoon, providing access to the Pecora valley? Then, in the 9th century this became a key place with a distinctive material culture – rich in every way – controlling we have to assume resources passing through this corridor, transported further afield by sea. Finally, perhaps its status was demoted, but its role as an interlocutor between maritime and a coastal communities remained. At this time, the forges and cemetery took shape, but precisely why, and how this fits into the political and settlement history of the Maremma has yet to be resolved.

Never could we have imagined the exceptional material culture of this place. Vetricella for long a non-place, lost to memory in the 11th century, is earning a stellar new reputation.

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