On taking up an Archaeology student placement, by OU student Frances Breen.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius created an emotional shockwave that still resonates throughout history. It does not seem too outlandish to suggest that everyone, child or adult, has heard of Pompeii: frozen in time, it has captured the imagination like nowhere else.
I was lucky enough to be offered a place on a four-week excavation run by Etruria Nova as part of a Grampus Heritage project, which took place in July 2018. A group of archaeology and classics students from all over the UK were given the opportunity to work alongside archaeologists and students from the University of Genoa as they completed the excavation of a row of shops on one of the main streets in Pompeii. As part of the Erasmus scheme, flights and accommodation were provided. How could I refuse?!
Arriving at the weekend gave us time to settle in and get to know our fellow students. Excursions had also been arranged and we travelled first to Herculaneum. It is an incredibly well preserved, somewhat eerie, site – much less frequented by visitors than Pompeii. The huddled remains of people trying to flee are still visible in the once-waterside archways, a stark reminder of the enormous human toll of the eruption. As I walked out into bright sunshine I thought about the weight of responsibility archaeologists and historians bear in trying to tell the stories of those who perished.
Setting off for work at 7am gave us the first view of our home for the next month. Pompeii is closed to the public until 9am and it felt surreal to be walking the empty streets I had seen only in books, revelling in the quiet as the sun rose. We were given a tour of the different areas we would be working in – fresco, pottery, zooarchaeology, stratigraphy and excavation – and were then placed according to experience. As I have a background in archaeology, graphic design and photography I was assigned to the pottery lab. In reality the ‘lab’ is a colossal warehouse containing decades of finds – and lots of mosquitoes. We soon fell into a routine: after walking up to the excavation site in the morning we would collect the previous day’s finds, carefully put them into bags and label according to the context in which they were found. These would be loaded into trays and carried back to the lab (not an easy walk!) for further cleaning, classifying and labelling. Marking small pieces of pottery with a special solution – a bit like nail varnish but more pungent – and then inscribing a series of tiny letters and numbers with a quill pen required precision and a steady hand. It felt fittingly archaic. After a short lunch break we would walk back to site to wash that day’s finds. Not knowing what might be revealed as 2,000 years of dirt and dust was gently washed away elicited a thrill of excitement. I loved it.
The second week saw a reintroduction to technical drawing, coached by our two patient supervisors. It took a while for the skills I had learned years ago to click back into place, but thankfully they did. I was then given the task of recording some incredible items – my favourite a beautiful, nearly intact oil lamp with exquisite detailing. As it was placed into my hands I held my breath, terrified of damaging the eggshell-thin material. For a ceramics nerd, it was a dream placement.
During weekends we were given the choice of visiting other interesting sites including the glorious Greek temples at Paestum (dating from around 600 – 450 BC) and Naples Archaeological Museum. Having visited Naples a couple of years ago I instead took the opportunity with a couple of friends to visit the Villa Poppaea at Oplontis, a beautifully preserved villa a short train ride from Pompeii. We were the only visitors and spent the next couple of hours exploring the tranquil, shaded rooms adorned with amazing frescoes – the vivid colours appearing to have been painted only yesterday.
The last week came all too quickly. The excavation sites had to be covered and backfilled, as is standard practice. That meant long days carrying buckets of soil back and forth – no easy feat in the sweltering sunshine of Italy in July! The pottery lab also had to be organised, catalogued and left in good order for next year, a process made more complicated as two students had to leave the project early. While my (aging) knees were grateful to be spared the vast majority of the backfilling, being responsible for the storage of so many items was somewhat daunting. My supervisor and I worked well together and managed to complete the task with minutes to spare before the doors were locked, our finds tucked safely away for future archaeologists to discover.
I learned a great deal during the placement. Not just about pottery, but also about how resilient I am. As an adult learner it can be unnerving to learn new skills – dogs, tricks – but I surprised myself. This opportunity would not have been possible without The Open University, the support of my wonderful tutor and the confidence I have gained since returning to study. If you have any doubts about what is possible – please, don’t! You are stronger than you think, and there are amazing experiences to be had. Just remember to take lots of suncream…!
Frances is studying A330: Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds.