“Is that even a job?” I swear to you, I must have been asked this question at least a hundred times. No wonder: most people hardly believe that someone who styles himself as an archaeologist may actually be scratching out a living by digging ancient ruins in search of answers about how our ancestors lived. Nor does the scepticism stop at the first answer. The next step, of course, is that of equating the archaeologist with Indiana Jones, from which follows the inevitable list of whips, ancient treasures (“What is the most precious thing you have found?” ranks in the top 5 of most frequently asked questions), Harrison Fords and Sean Conneries (I bet you who are reading this also thought of all that).

 

So let’s begin this blog by debunking some stereotypes about archaeology and archaeologists. Yes, I do love Indiana Jones. No, archaeologists are not like Indiana Jones. And no, I have never found gold, nor is the search for treasures what animates the work of archaeologists the world over.

 

Tutankhamun’s burial mask displayed at the Egyptian Museum (Cairo, Egypt). Copyright: Creative Commons.
Obisidian tools from Ain Zeppori in Galilee (Israel). Obsidian is a volcanic glass which was widely used to make tools. It is among the first traded commodities. More than 6,000 years ago, the items pictured above travelled over more than 500 km from central Anatolia (modern Turkey). Source: Milevski et al. 2014.

Rather, archaeologists are animated by the curiosity to discover how past societies developed. To this end, what would appear to be rather inconsequential objects such as a fragment of charcoal, a pottery sherd or a burned seed are often as valuable as the most precious of the items discovered by Howard Carter in Tuthankhamun’s tomb in 1922. It is the quest for understanding past lives, compounded with this relentless hunt for clues that hooked me up to archaeology.

Since 2015, I have been working as an associate researcher at the School of Archaeology of the University of Oxford. The journey to get here was neither short nor easy.

I first discovered archaeology as a seven-year old growing up in Bologna. Every summer, my mum would take me to visit some of the thousands of archaeological sites scattered across Italy. Running around the ruins of Pompeii (a Roman city destroyed by perhaps the most famous volcanic eruption in history, more than 1900 years ago) or Agrigento, my mind would wonder to a time when those ancient houses and temples had been bustling with life. Pretty soon, I started digging too, though back then it was mostly in the schoolyard (my teachers were not impressed).

By the time I got to secondary school, though, ancient stuff had taken a back seat in my mind. When they were not occupied with the usual teenage preoccupations (for which read: girls, girls, girls), my thoughts were all concentrated on computing. Yeah, you got that right reader: for computing, read videogames. But at least some of that screen time was being put towards something useful since by my senior year at school I had actually started earning some good money as a web-designer. But when it came to picking a university degree, my choice fell on Ancient History. It was at that point that my fate was sealed.

Little me in Pompeii, aged 8, in 1992.

Of my first degree, I remember especially the long nights spent with my best friend preparing for our end-of-term exams. Those nights, filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of coffee, with the joy of learning and the labour of writing convinced me that I had found what I wanted to do: I would try to become an ancient historian.

I graduated from the University of Florence with a BA in Ancient History in 2007. A year earlier, I had moved to London as an Erasmus exchange student, convinced as I was that my mad dream of carving out a career in academia would never come true if I remained in Italy. So, although the exchange programme came to an end after nine months, my stay in London did not: ten years later, I have yet to return home (whatever that means: I’m planning to write another blog about that, so stay tuned).

However, moving to Britain did not by itself give me a career in the field that I had chosen: far from it. From 2007 to 2013, I completed a master degree and a doctorate, while working lots of odd part-time jobs. I picked my area of research based on what I knew the least and yet attracted me the most: I decided to specialise in the ancient Middle East, a region that I had never visited, whose current languages (mostly Arabic) I could not speak and whose ancient ones (mostly Greek and Aramaic) I had never studied. To make it worse, my chosen topic (village societies before the advent of Islam, for which read stuff that happened between 2000 and 1500 years ago) would require lots of work in the field: as an ancient historian working, up to this point, mostly on texts, I had done very little of the ‘work of spade’ of the archaeologist.

 

The countries of the Middle East and the location of Qanawat (Syria) and Jerash (Jordan)

If you think the whole thing already sounded like a recipe for disaster, read on: it is about to get worse. Because of all the countries of the Middle East, I decided to pick Syria, a country that, less than two years after beginning my PhD, had descended into a civil war which made it entirely inaccessible to relief agencies, journalists and, among others, archaeologists. By that point, I had only made it to Syria once, for an excavation that kept me in a little town south of Damascus for two months in 2010.

At my arrival at Damascus airport, on a late night in May 2010, I was rattled with anxiety. Although I had spent the previous two years learning ancient Greek and Aramaic, trying to get to grips with modern Arabic and brushing up my French (the latter the language spoken by the excavation team I had joined), and reading all there was to read on the archaeology of pre-Islamic Syria, in the company of my colleagues in Syria I felt as an outsider. As the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle put it, I had been thus far focusing on ‘knowing that’, rather ‘knowing how’: in other words, I had focused on learning notions, but had not yet learned how to put them to use.

The minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (Syria)

Those two months in Syria changed everything. As well as marking the beginning of my career in archaeology, Syria sealed in me a passion, which borders on the obsession, for the modern Middle East, its history, society, and culture.

I have my friend Agostino to blame for that. A few months before leaving for Syria, he had got me a copy of Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation (HarperCollins, 2005)  (Cronache Mediorientali, the Italian translation, is published by Il Saggiatore, 2007). At over 1,100 pages, the book makes for a great door stopper. But it is also a remarkably good read: from the early 20th century to the second Gulf war, the book winds its way through the thread of promises, betrayals and conflicts that have shaped the modern Middle East (Fisk, a long-time Middle East correspondent, has since gone slightly mad in his coverage of the Syrian conflict: but this is another story). As the sunshine broke through the early-morning mist of mountainous southern Syria, the rest of the excavation team would find me glued to those pages, sitting in the courtyard of the house which we had made our base, a house whose foundations were as old as 1500 years, set as they were on the ancient square of the Roman centre of Canatha, modern Qanawat.

Our excavation house in Qanawat (Syria).

From that point onwards, I just couldn’t get enough of the Middle East. As Robert Fisk would say, I just couldn’t stop turning the pages of Middle Eastern history: I yearned for finding out about yet another chapter in the wonderfully rich history of what has been often called the Cradle of Civilisation, in honour to the region where the first cities were born, and the first written scripts invented.

Our excavation site: the hilltop sanctuary of Baalshamin (Si’a, Syria)

In July 2010, as our excavation season in Syria wrapped up, I packed my things and got ready to travel south to Jordan. Although I had seen little of Syria except for Damascus and the south of the country, I wasn’t worried: with excavation seasons already planned for the following year, I felt sure that I would see plenty more of Syria in years to come. More than that: during those two months in Syria, the thought had begun to dawn on me that I would one day live there. Only by doing so, I’d increasingly find myself thinking, would I be able to leave the ‘knowing that’ behind, and appreciate to truly ‘know how’: how to really speak Arabic; how to really engage with the archaeology and heritage of the Middle East; how to make sense of why I had decided to dedicate my life to researching the ancient history of that part of the world to which so little seemingly bound me.

With these thoughts in mind, I set out to visit some of the archaeological sites of northern Jordan: time was short, and I wanted to see as much as I could before having to head again across the border to Damascus for my flight back to London. In Jordanian Jerash, one of the biggest and most famous Greco-Roman cities of the Middle East, I took hundreds of photos. I was particularly interested in documenting the city’s Byzantine mosaics and churches, which I had been studying on unpublished archival material dated to the 1920s. I felt a sense of urgency as I braved the mid-July heat: who knows, I thought, I may never see this place again.

But I was wrong on all accounts. While the Syrian civil war gutted all my hopes of one day living in Syria, I would not only return to Jordan: I would move there.