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Krista Kaput and the Kingdom of Stratigraphic Layers

Krista Kaput sent us a postcard from an archaeological dig in Italy


It sounds like glorified manual labor, with the “trenchMASTER” being accordingly named. But, in actuality, this seemingly dull work was beyond fascinating.

Welcome to the next installment in our Summer Postcards series! We’re asking our students what they’re up to and how they’re making the most of this summer. Today, we hear from rising fourth-year Krista Kaput about her archaeological adventures in Italy. 

-Jessen O'Brien, New Media Editor

This summer, I worked on an archaeological excavation in the Latin city of Gabii, Italy, and you know what I learned? Indiana Jones is a liar. His depiction of archaeology as a reckless, adventurous, destructive practice is utterly inaccurate. Rather, archaeology requires one to be meticulous, thoughtful, and observant. It is about finding the little details and, through those details, creating the bigger picture. One doesn’t get immediate glory or satisfaction, but rather achieves it through weeks, and sometimes years, of hard work.

The Gabii Project was launched in 2007 through the cooperative efforts of the University of Michigan and the Kelsey Museum. The city of Gabii was a neighbor and rival to Rome in the first millennium BC.  The Project’s aim is not only to understand the archaeology of the city of Gabii, but also to contextualize that knowledge of Gabii within the wider picture of Central Italy and the Roman Empire.

With these aims in mind, our group excavated a site that was a small fraction of the city. The site contains four trenches – B, C, D, E. Each trench had a field supervisor or trench master, an assistant to the field supervisor, a couple of field interns, and the other student workers. I got to work with a diverse group of people from various universities and parts of the world. We became a unit, working together to complete whatever tasks we had been assigned.

Our work was not easy. A day regularly consisted of pickaxing, troweling, shoveling, and hauling wheelbarrows full of dirt. It sounds like glorified manual labor, with the “trenchMASTER” being accordingly named. But, in actuality, this seemingly dull work was beyond fascinating. I learned how to observe the changes in the soil to identify different stratigraphic layers. I never thought I would put so much effort and care into brush strokes, but I did. Everything we did in our trench mattered—every piece we pickaxed or shoveled helped to contextualize and create a visual for what the house and city looked like, and being able to share in the excitement with people who care and put in as much effort as you was simply fantastic.

I was very fortunate to be assigned to trench B, which was rich in finds. There was a ton of pottery, animal bone, metal, glass, travertine, etc. At the beginning, I would carefully sift through all the soil, keeping every artifact. However, after the novelty wore off and identifying things became second nature, I was quickly and easily distinguishing the artifacts.

But my trench didn’t just have traditional finds. It also contained burials. In my five and a half weeks of work, my trench group found eight burials, including a lead sarcophagus that was the focus of a recent article. Whenever we found a burial, a lot of care and attention went into preserving what we found as best as we could because this wasn’t just some 2,000-year-old skeleton. This was someone’s child, mother, wife, husband, or father. Someone had mourned the loss of this person.

So, unlike Indiana Jones, my summer of archaeology wasn’t filled with being chased by natives or finding precious treasures. Instead, I met amazing people and learned a lot about the specifics of archaeology, as well as how to think analytically and conceptually as an archaeologist. But, more importantly, I created memories that I will have with me for the rest of my life, memories that I wouldn’t trade for the Crystal Skull, Holy Grail or anything else.


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