As someone who is interested in Roman history and culture it doesn’t get more exhilarating than an invitation to visit one of the most exciting locations of discovery, Mount Vesuvius. Constantly erupting since antiquity, this area represents the juxtaposition between the fragility of man and the power of nature. An area of such beauty is marred by the destruction this volcano has wrought over the years (and yes, Vesuvius is due to erupt “any second” according to geologists!). However, this is not another article about the, albeit breath taking, sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii but about having the rare opportunity of looking at remains from sites excavated in the summer from the so called “dark side of Vesuvius”. The Apolline project, which ran the course, was set up to explore the previously overlooked sites at the other site of the volcano. With sites dating from after the famous eruption in AD 79 that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum, it presents the ideal opportunity to discover what Roman life after AD 79 and up to the eruption of 472 AD was like.
So it was with much and excitement and trepidation (I’d never studied osteology before and I spoke no Italian) that I set off from a cold England to Naples. It was a short drive from the airport to the small town of Pollen Trocchia, on the outskirts of the city. Our accommodation was basic but had everything we needed and became instant friends with the other people on the course who were from place as diverse as Argentina, USA, Ireland and Croatia. The course was divided several sections. Firstly we were given lectures and practicals on human osteology, learning about landmarks (easily identifiable features on the bones). Special emphasis was given to the cranium and long bones, and from these we began to learn about how you can find out which bone a fragment is from, estimate the age and sex of the individual and postulate whether they suffered any diseases. We also had to give presentations on articles we read about isotopic analysis on human bones, a technique which has a great potential on osteological research, especially in determining the diet and migratory habits of individuals. Next we spent time labelling and sorting real fragments dug from the sites during the summer. Although any of you who have done labelling can vouch it can be a thankless job at times, it was good to get hands-on with remains that no-one had yet catalogued, and with much help from our tutor, sort the fragments into bone types, which is a very tricky business with some fragments being only millimetres in size.
There was also time for exploring the rich heritage and culture of the area. Being in this small town near Naples, we were seeing a cross-section of what Italy is really like, a world away from the nearby tourist spots of Sorrento and Pompeii. Although Naples is not a place for the faint-hearted, (it is strongly advised that you don’t go anywhere in the city alone!) it is a place deeply immersed in its cultural heritage. The city is full of impressive churches, including the magnificent Duomo, with beautiful frescoes spanning the lady chapels, and the cavernous nave. The National Archaeological Museum is a treasure trove of Roman art, including a collection of Greek replicas with all the favourites (with no less than 3 copies of Aprodite Knidos) and the Farnese collection. Also it would be impossible for me not to mention the extraordinary food available in the birthplace of pizza itself. The authentic margarita pizza will only set you back about 3-5 euros and tastes amazing (forget dominos, there’s no going back now!). Lastly spending a day climbing the volcano itself is something I’ll never forget. A very hard hike, it was worth it to look down into the steaming crater and volcano that has shaped both the landscape and people of the area.
It remains to say that I recommend this course to anyone who wants an in depth introduction to human osteology and wants to experience Italy. The programme was varied and exploring the local area was part of the adventure, to see the real life behind the region made famous by its past.
Visit the Apolline project for more information.
– Samuel Boobier, student, University of St. Andrews