Underground City

Anthropology Student Jenna Locke

Anthropology Student Jenna Locke

Saint Mary’s students and profs are joining colleagues from across the globe to help rewrite what we think we know about the ancient world

This spring, exploring an ancient religious compound in the ruins of a 2,800-year-old Italian city, Saint Mary’s Professor Dr. Myles McCallum experienced the kind of visceral thrill that you imagine an archaeologist lives for.

“I’ve never excavated anything at all  like it,” recalls Dr. McCallum, of Saint Mary’s Department of Modern Languages and Classics. “You go down a set of stone steps, and there’s a central light-well, where on the summer solstice the sun lines up at the high point of the day and comes shining through a little window, illuminating a tiny sacred picture on the wall. It was defiitely bit a of an Indiana Jones feeling.”

Dr. McCallum would have been one of only a few dozen people to set foot in that space, and experience that kind of moment, in centuries. It’s just one part of a sprawling archaeological site where Saint Mary’s faculty and students, and a host of colleagues from universities across the world—including project director Dr. Fabio Colivicchi, of Queen’s University—are uncovering new findings that are challenging some of the most common conceptions of early Roman history. 

The ancient Etruscan city of Caere sits below the present-day Italian community of Cerveteri, today a small city about 50 kilometres north of Rome. For about 400 years, however, between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE, this was much more than a small town—it was a fairly major Mediterranean centre.

Until relatively recently, historians generally believed that the Roman conquest of the area that happened in the third century BCE largely wiped away the existing Etruscan culture. 

Evidence being uncovered at Caere, however, is showing something different: a “cultural tapestry,” in Dr. McCallum’s words, in which Etruscan and Roman cultures mingled long after the conquest in a way that is little reflected in surviving official records of the era, but which is clearly evident in the art, materials, environmental evidence and agricultural systems being examined by the team. The Caere excavation is uncovering new data showing “strong continuity” of the built environment, of the population, and even of cultural and other institutions. 

It’s even showing that that Greeks weren’t the first to build cities in the area, as was widely assumed before. 

The chance to be part of uncovering an ancient city, temple by temple, well by well, house by house, was an invaluable—and messy—experience.

“It wasn’t believed that Italians had even thought of making cities until the Greeks arrived and showed them what cities were, but now we have some urban form that existed at least 100 years before that.”

The excavation has provided an exciting field-school opportunity for students to participate in building new knowledge about our relationship with the past, and get on-the-ground experience in piecing together ancient sites, bit by bit.

Jenna Locke is a fourth-year honours student in Anthropology, who plans to pursue museum studies after graduation. The chance to be part of uncovering an ancient city, temple by temple, well by well, house by house, was an invaluable—and messy—experience. “The first couple of days we were removing past-season fill,” Locke recalls, “so basically just dirt, and it became an eight-metre pit we never thought would end.”

After digs, Locke and other students would take pre-dinner strolls through one of the ancient necropolises that surround Cerveteri. This was especially fascinating for Locke, who’s interested in funerary architecture, and hopes to enroll in Museum Studies at the University of Glasgow.

“I’m looking at an online certificate in antiquities trafficking from the University of Glasgow,” she says, “and after that I can bridge into doing the campus-based course...a professor there told me many of their students go on to museum work, from the Smithsonian to other major European museums.”

Both Locke and Dr. McCallum—one with a few months of experience, one with decades—are clearly driven by the excitement of discovering and piecing together the evidence of the past, both for its own sake and in order to illuminate how it has brought us to where we are today.

And both in the classroom or in the field, the daily novelties they encounter keep things invigorating. Especially in Caere, with new knowledge turning up literally underneath one’s feet. “You create hypotheses,” says Dr. McCallum, “but almost on a daily basis you revise those too: ‘Oh, I guess that bright idea I had yesterday isn’t the case after all. On to the next idea.’”