Home » 2013 - 14 Academic Year » Getting My Hands Dirty Again

Getting My Hands Dirty Again

By Jeanna Cook, Classics Faculty

This summer, I will fulfill a promise that I made to myself eight years ago.  In the summer of 2006, I spent aBronze Man season excavating at the site of a first-century Roman farmhouse outside of Lucca, Italy. I loved every moment of that summer, and upon the conclusion of the excavation, I promised myself that once I completed my undergraduate studies, found a job, saved some money, and earned my graduate degree, I would go back to digging. This summer, I am returning to the field, the archaeological field, that is.

Now, I know what you’re thinking and it’s probably all Indiana Jones and the like. No, I’m not going to brush the dust off my weatherworn leather hat and crack my trusty whip on my way out of Maple/Elm as I start mysummer’s quest for the elixir of life. Truth be told, my summer will probably be spent scraping silt off stones with my trowel, sifting through bucket after bucket of dirt pulled from my trench, and cleaning potsherds with a toothbrush. All of this, mind you, is the important work of a proper excavation. From a methodological perspective, I value the process of recording and analyzing data in a systematic way. Excavation, when conducted properly, produces physical artifacts, along with the context of their stratigraphy, which, in turn, support or correct our assumptions about the past. Archaeology in the moment-to-moment is more monotonous than it is adventurous, more dirty than it is glamorous, and though a quest of sorts, a more tempered and painstakingly slow process than the thrill of a find might suggest.

With that disclaimer, I thought would indulge those among us who just can’t help but be captured by the thrill of a find. This excitement is the feeling that many an archaeologist, amateur to expert, will openly admit prompted their desire to get into digging. Lore of terrific finds drives a number of us to get caught up in the process. Quite often, these finds come about simply on a whim or by sheer good luck. They rarely require the sixth sense of a trained archaeologist. In fact, though each “find” story concludes with the painstaking labor and dedicated process of an excavation, it begins with the chance of being in the right place at the right time. In part out of the spirit of Indiana Jones and in part out of my excited anticipation of returning to the field, I thought I would share a few of archaeology’s most impressive “find” stories.  Crack your whip and away we go!

Riace Bronzes, Riace, Calabria, Italy, August 16, 1972

On one of his final days of vacation in Monasterace, Italy, Stefano Mariottini decided to go snorkeling off the coast of Riace. Mariottini, a chemist from Rome, enjoyed snorkeling as a leisure activity, in the southern Tyrrhenian Sea. While diving at a depth of around twenty feet, Mariottini noticed what looked like a human arm sticking out of the sand. Shocked to see the arm interrupting this underwater paradise, and with building concern that it may be the corpse of a missing person, he dove deeper to investigate. As he swam closer to the protruding appendage, he tried to push sand away from the arm, seeking to uncover whatever remains lay buried. In the process, he touched the arm and upon recoil realized that it was not made of human flesh but of hard metal. As far as he could tell, what he had found buried under the sand was not a human corpse but a life-size and largely life-like metal statue.

Four days later, the Riace bronzes, two six foot bronze statues in the likeness of Greek warriors, were pulled from the sea by a diving team. The arm that Mariottini had found belonged to one of the two. Depicted in athletic posture, the details of the musculature, veins, and the even the curls of the hair on their heads lend an impressive life-like quality to the bronze-cast statues.  It is easy to see why Mariottini had assumed that the arm he found while snorkeling was that of a human corpse. The dive team worked in the area of the find to recover any additional artifacts, but nothing else turned up. Without the remains of a shipwreck near the site of the discovery, archaeologists working on site believe that the bronzes, dated by style to the 5th century BCE, may have thrown off a ship attempting to lighten its load during a storm.

Not only are the bronzes both stunning pieces of artwork, their style and composition are also of significant value to classical archaeologists and art historians. The detail with which the bronzes are cast, the ivory and silver features of their facial features that still remain in tact, and the stylized contrapposto stance of the athletic warriors distinguishes them as exempla of the fine craft of Greek sculptors during the mid-5th century. Dating these bronzes to this period provides historians with another critical link in the successive changes in style, materials, and artistic perspective that distinguishes various phases and periods of Greek art. Furthermore, the rarity of the find makes it all the more compelling, as very few bronzes from this period have survived to modern times. The majority of bronze statuary was melted down during later antiquity and repurposed. The Riace Bronzes were the kind of find any archaeologist could barely dream of coming across during a lifetime of professional excavation – not a bad find for a snorkeling chemist!

Bronze Man

Mariottini (on the left) stands with one of two life-size bronzes he discovered while snorkeling. Retrieved from http://classics.olemiss.edu

Otzi the Iceman, Otztal Alps, Austrian-Italian Border, September 19, 1991

On a sunny day in September, two German tourists, Helmut and Erika Simon, hiked along an Alpine glacier on the Austrian-Italian border. In their descent from a peak on the East Ridge, they walked carefully along a trench that had filled with meltwater, ice, and snow. While trekking in single file along the edge of the trench to avoid the water, Helmut noticed something dark that stood out on the white snow. He assumed it was trash and went to reach for it, when suddenly both he and Erika recognized what they had found.  Protruding out of the ice were the bare shoulders of an emaciated human corpse.

Helmut and Erika made a quick return to the summit lodge where they had started their trek that day. Once there, with the help of the mountain guide at the summit lodge, they reported their discovery to both Austrian and Italian authorities. Passing on the responsibility of their find to the mountain guide at the lodge, they continued their descent, assuming that they had come across a terrible mountaineering accident. What they did not realize until months later was that they had found Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy, the well-preserved corpse of a man who lived around 5,300 years ago.


Photograph of the Simon couple’s “corpse” discovered while hiking along an Alpine glacier. Image from http://www.archaeologiemuseum.it/en/node/233

An Austrian team arrived via helicopter on the next afternoon and made an attempt to jackhammer the corpse out of the ice. Rushing because of the onset of bad weather at high altitude, they managed to damage the hip of the corpse along the way, but were eventually able to extract the corpse. Two mountaineers on the scene made the discovery of artifacts near the corpse, including hide, string, clumps of hay, and an axe, all of which were brought down along with the corpse to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck. At this point, those involved in the rescue were under the impression that the corpse was at least a few decades old. The environment of snow cover and glacial ice that covered the corpse had brought about a mummification process that had kept this corpse so well preserved. Six days after the mummy was discovered, a professional archaeologist inspected the corpse and the artifacts, and with the evidence of the copper axe, he determined that the body was at least four thousand years old.  Carbon-14 analysis was later used to date the mummy in four different scientific institutions, with the consensus that the Otzi the Iceman (named for the Otzal Alps where he was found), lived between 3,350 and 3,100 BCE.

Helmut and Erika Simon, two tourists out for a hike, made a terrific find. Not only did they discover one of the oldest mummies in the world, but also one of the best preserved, due to the wet environment of his mummification. Individual cells in his body tissue were preserved in the process of his mummification, providing plenty of opportunity for further investigation into his biochemical make-up. Furthermore, the full kit of his clothing and equipment found alongside the corpse of the Iceman provides evidence of a life lived during the Stone Age in this region of Europe.

Terracotta Army, East of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China, March 29, 1974

When three Chinese farmers set about digging a well outside of the city of Xi’an, they set about a task that seemed as though it would just be another day of hard word.  Drought that season had forced the closing of one well and compelled the digging of another. As they dug deeper, intending to reach an underground reservoir, they happened upon a few fragments of what appeared to be a terracotta figure. The pieces represented near life-size human features. Their nature captured the interest of this group, who reported the find to local authorities.

What the well-digging team did not realize when they pulled out a few sherds of a terra cotta figure was that they had actually uncovered the first pieces of what turned out to be a true-to-life 3rd century B.C.E terra cotta army. In that first pit alone, where the farmers dug their well shaft, 1,087 terra cotta soldiers were unearthed. Many still stand at the ready over two thousand years from the date on which they were originally interred. These soldiers represent Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi and the first imperial dynasty of unified China (221 B.C.E), standing armed around the site of his unexcavated tomb.

Terra Cotta

Thousands of terra cotta soldiers stand at the ready. Image whc.unesco.org

Since the opening excavations of the site where the farmers made their discovery, archaeologists have found 600 underground vaults containing thousands upon thousands of terracotta soldiers. The site spans a 22 square-mile area, of which the majority is yet to be excavated. In the pit of the discovery site, columns of warriors have been reassembled from their broken pieces and now stand in proper formation. As if the quantity of the terracotta army is not impressive enough, each individual soldier is distinguished by individual terracotta features. Each soldier is unique, marked by his hairstyle, clothing, or facial expression. Further investigations into the find suggest that what was once thought to be solely an army of the Qin dynasty may actually be the entire imperial guard and court. The terra cotta soldiers are individual masterworks of realism. They are exempla of the quality of sculpture prior to the Han Dynasty, as well as the craft of the sculptors. They provide physical evidence to support further investigation into military organization during the first unified imperial rule of China, the Empire of a Thousand Generations. The plethora of terracotta artifacts provide a means for sampling, studying, and admiring these works world-wide, including the few who have been sent out to exhibits internationally. A job well done, well-digging team!


Stories like these never fail to amaze me.  There are so many artifacts waiting to be unearthed and so many mysteries waiting to be solved in the field of archaeology.  So, again, why even bother to excavate when such terrific finds can be stumbled upon while hiking in the Alps or scuba diving off the coast of Italy?  Why not just plan a great vacation for this summer and hope to trip over the next Sea of Galilee boat (1st century fishing boat found in Israel by fishermen) while taking a walk on the beach?  I’ll let you in on a secret.  If you enjoy the thrill of the find, truth be told, it doesn’t really matter what you find.  Every find is thrilling, every potsherd, animal bone, and terra cotta roof tile makes you feel closer to human lives lived well before your own. Handling the physical artifacts of a former people brings their day-to-day existence to a state of reality and unlocks the mysteries of the lives of average folk, the ones who didn’t make the chapters of your AP World textbook. The rarity of their stories makes their artifacts all the more thrilling to find. Finally, with the help of informed hypotheses, careful methods, patient processing, and keen observations, archaeology brings the thrill of the find to a public audience, helping everyone better understand our ever-changing interpretation of the past. I can’t wait to get my hands dirty once again.

Jeanna Cook is a member of the Classics Department and coaches soccer and lacrosse at St. Mark’s. She lives in Maple & Elm House and is co-head of Burnett House. She earned her B.A. in Classics at Davidson College and just recently completed her M Ed. at Boston University.

Resources (Riace)

Riace bronzes. The Classics Department Page. Retrieved from http://classics.olemiss.edu

Whitley, James. (2001). The archaeology of Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Resources (Otzi)

Fowler, Brenda. (200) Iceman: Uncovering the life and times of a prehistoric man found in an

alpine glacier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Iceman. South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. Retrieved from http://www.archaeologiemuseum.it/en/node/233

Resources (Terra Cotta)

Lubow, Arthur. (2009, July). Terracotta soldiers on the march. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com

Mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor. UNESCO World Heritage. Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/441

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