Having returned to Dallas after two weeks in Italy as part of the Etruscan Archaeology class offered by SMU’s Master of Liberal Studies program, yes, it’s good to be home. I have returned to my pets, my own pillow, driving my car and Mexican food. These are all good reasons to be home. But, reality can come rushing back all too soon. Summer session two begins tomorrow, my dentist wants to reschedule, my former student’s tutor wants to consult, bills are due, my luggage is at least a day behind me.
Only a couple of days ago, my life was an adventure, set in another time and place, devoted to an elite mission – perceiving and understanding the culture and legacy of the Etruscans.
The first week of travel was devoted to visiting museums and tomb sites in Rome and across the landscape of ancient Etruria. The tours were all the more exceptional because they were led by Dr. Greg Warden, one of the world’s leading scholars of Etruscan art history.
Images of hillside villas, undulating mountains, brilliant sunflower fields, silvery olive trees, and lush gorges still linger in my memory. The cool stone walls carved to perfection 2,600 years before, the dank smell of mold issuing from the dark recesses of ancient tombs, the determined brilliance of ancient wall paintings – dancing Etruscans and lounging banqueters – are all still vivid to my senses.
The second week of exploration was devoted to archaeological study at Poggio Colla, an Etruscan site about 20 miles north of Florence in the rustic Mugello Valley. This was the point in the journey I expected the greatest test of my abilities and experience, yet I was eager to learn the art of excavation.
I was taking on the study of history and culture in a way that no amount of reading could satisfy. I envisioned myself reaching into the earth, revealing the matter of human experience with my own hands. I could not wait to begin digging. What I would dig up, was indeed the matter of human experience, some of it ancient, some very much of the present.
In the trenches
Once I was nestled into an antique farmhouse in the historical town of Vicchio, my routine as an excavator began. I awoke in the mornings at 5:45 and threw on the least dusty clothes I could find, put together a hasty breakfast with my roommates, and hustled to make carpool. The 4×4 seemed a kind of monster driving through the little town, but was necessary for scaling the hill that would lead to the site. For a mile I twisted, bumped and rocked straight uphill, often laughing aloud in response to the hopelessness of maintaining any sort of composure in such a situation. Then I climbed up, on foot, another half a mile or so, the rest of the way to the site.
Rotating among three active trenches, I used pickaxes, and trowels and sifters, and took orders. I was a completely different person, with only a vague memory of who I had been when I left Texas, just days before. I had become a person who used the latrine – the one I helped dig. I sweated and burned under the sun; I bent until my back seared with pain, I knelt until my knees were raw. I squatted until I felt the pinch of every muscle I knew existed between my hips and toes; I even felt the rebellion of a few muscles I had never recognized before. I had many times given into my age and exhaustion and sat down in the excavation trench – feeling the shame of it; supervisors’ eyes heavy on me and my own disappointment heavier. I was blistered and achy and insecure. I was reminded of how terrifying it can be to be one of the least competent in the bunch.
Always surrounded by people I had just met, I constantly questioned the impression I was making as a student, a woman, a person. Working with many students half my age, I felt alternately superior, having watched a great deal more television than they, and envious, having lost a great deal more muscle, stamina and optimism than they. Working under people whose knowledge and skills were formidable (some of them also, half my age), the need to please them played with the highs and lows of my days.
Evidence of the Etruscans
In the evenings, a quick shower answered most grievances, and fried squash blossoms soothed all else. After leisurely communal meals, feeling the elegant buzz of red wine, I strolled through a wheat field and down the middle of a vineyard to find my way back to the converted farmhouse that was my home for the week. And it did feel like going home.
Before I left, I knew I felt genuine affection for those people half my age, and I recognized that my insecurities were no greater than theirs. My admiration for the supervisors and directors was matched by my gratitude for their patience and encouragement. I parted with memories of one-liners, songs sung, and of hundreds of little kindnesses – a bottle of sunblock shared, a plate cleared, the weight of a backpack lifted, a seat deferred. And I remember all of these moments set against the most extravagant landscape the earth has to offer.
I can still feel the exhilaration of the morning of my final day of excavation, uncovering the base of an ancient Etruscan vase – they were here! The Etruscans lived. They had a purpose; they had needs and means by which they met those needs. And I can prove it!
Leaving Vicchio and Italy, I thought of the people I am glad to have known, even if just for a little while, and I was aware of some uncertainties yet to be resolved, some insecurities lingering. I was and am aware that I am grateful for the discomfort – the aches, the challenges, and the self-awareness. I am reminded that I am alive, engaged, and not unlike the Etruscans, that my story is yet, unfinished.