How Archaeology Showed Me a Different Side of Italy

For one writer, digging outside the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto brought her closer to its past and present.

How Archaeology Showed Me a Different Side of Italy

A view of Orvieto, protected by its volcanic stone tufa walls, from the direction of the dig site

Photo by Paolo Trovo/Shutterstock

I have been to Italy as many iterations of myself: As an insecure teenager seeing the country up close for the first time while on family vacation; as a curious study abroad student finding a voice in a new language. As a makeshift farmhand in the countryside. A solo traveler. A wife. But among those many selves, the one I return to most in my memory is that of archaeologist.

Once upon a time, summer for me meant the uncovering of ancient things. Bones and rocks and, if we were lucky, coins or mosaics or religious offerings. It meant long days under the sun, carting around wheelbarrows and perfecting our trowel technique. Back then, I was part of an international group of archaeologists and students working at a field school outside the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Most participants were Italian. Some, like me, were American; the few years I dug, there were small contingents of Dutch and Swiss, too. We’d work for four- or eight-week sessions to excavate a site hypothesized to be the Fanum Voltumnae—the most important religious and political sanctuary of the pre-Roman Etruscan civilization.

We woke every morning tired. Each of us rose just early enough to pull on pants and steel-toed boots and make our way to the high-ceilinged kitchen in a convent where most of us stayed. Like the walls, the kitchen was spartan. There was a refrigerator and a full range, and just enough shelving to hold the morning fare provided for us. Juice boxes of arancia and ACE—a mix of orange, carrot, and lemon—sat along the wooden tables in the dining room, but most people drank coffee. Few words passed among us as we gathered ourselves from sleep. Those silences quickly grew comfortable; the heavy-lidded “good mornings” and buon giornos so routine. After eating, we’d slather each other in sunscreen and make our way by car or foot to the dig site and officially start the workday, already looking forward to lunch.

The writer (standing, with shovel) and her trenchmates work on the dig site in 2008.

The writer (standing, with shovel) and her trenchmates work on the dig site in 2008.

Photo by Jessica Lee Penman

During those hours spent under the sun, we peeled away the layers of the earth in search of some kind of truth. We swung pickaxes and hauled dirt, palms bubbling with blisters that soon turned to callouses, badges of our labor. It was difficult, sweaty work, much more tedious (and less glamorous) than Lara Croft and Indiana Jones had led me to believe. Not everything belonged in a museum. Some things, like sherds of commonware pottery that provided no further cultural insight, were tossed altogether.

I thought I’d gotten to know the walled town of Orvieto the year before, when I’d spent a semester wandering its medieval backstreets and eating gelato in its piazzas. But as our site beyond Orvieto’s walls sloughed off its dusty skin and I held pieces of it in my hands, my relationship to the place deepened.

If digging brought me closer to Orvieto’s ancient past, “corvée”—kitchen and cleaning duty—brought me closer to its present. Instead of working in the trenches for that day, a rotating group of three or four students would clean the kitchen and bathrooms in our living and dining spaces. We would also manage the team’s meals, which included cooking a hot lunch for the whole crew and picking up dinner from a caterer in town.

Thanks to my comrades on corvée, I learned the ins and outs of Italian food and drink. In my mind’s eye, I can still picture my friend Giovanni teaching me how to make coffee. It’s morning. We’re alone in the convent kitchen, up early to lay out breakfast, and he stands in front of the stove. The aluminum Bialetti moka pot gleams under the fluorescent lights as he places its base below the faucet; I watch as water rises to the safety valve. He scoops the coffee grounds into the funnel with a warning: Don’t pack them too tightly, otherwise it won’t work.

That was only my first lesson. On corvée, I also learned how to measure the correct amount of pasta to feed 50 hungry people, how long it takes to boil enough water for that pasta, and how to turn those leftovers into something different the next day. I learned by eating, too. Through my fellow diggers, I memorized family recipes that had come—like them—from all corners of Italy. One of my favorite dishes was from Antonella, who often coordinated corvée efforts.

I barely knew Antonella when she took charge during my first corvée. She was an opinionated, confident, and intimidating young woman from near Naples, and that day, there was no discussion as to what we’d be making for lunch. As Antonella loaded the grocery cart with boxed milk and cornflakes and other breakfast necessities, she sent me to find our ingredients. Cans of tuna—packed in olive oil, not water—and a big jar of capers. White onions, black olives, and short pasta, not long. Something like rotini was best, she told me, because its curls would catch the sauce in each bite better than spaghetti. Canned tuna in pasta? I wondered. Is this really what capers are for?

Back in the kitchen, my skepticism melted away. The olives gave the dish salt, the onions gave it sweetness, the tuna gave it fat, and the capers gave it the right amount of tang. I learned that day how seemingly small details—like the shape of pasta—can make a big difference. And paying them attention shows care, whether cooking for 2 or 20.

Above all, what drew me closest to the place and the people were the nights.

Dinners were a ritual more sacred than the looseness of breakfast or the mid-day exhaustion of lunch. We started at the bar for aperitivo. Freshly showered, we’d arrive like pilgrims in pairs or trios, converging around the same time for a beer or an Aperol. We’d push together chairs and tables, creating rings of seats. Someone’s lighter would click, and cigarette smoke would unfurl across the patio. With it, a tide of English and Italian chatter.

An hour would fly by, until someone looked at a phone or a watch, prompting chairs to scrape backwards against the ground. We’d stroll across the street to our rented dining hall and pick an empty paper plate from the tables. As we ate, we sat across from whatever face had grown familiar in a matter of days, not weeks. Living and working together bred a closeness. Helping feed one another did that, too. Whether we liked it or not, everyone would become familiar. Familial.

If the trenches and the labs were our office, the table was where life on the dig took place. It was our home.

Those meals were not memorable because they were fancy or postcard-worthy. In fact, when I left the dig, I was sick of pasta. But the food was less important than the meal; the nutrients less important than the time. If the trenches and the labs were our office, the table was where life on the dig took place. It was our home.

As eating wound down and cups of coffee replaced cups of wine, Gabriele or Giacomo or Simone might bring out a guitar. After all, music, like food, is less beholden to the borders of language and politics. So it was that on many nights, while the corvée team cleaned and the trench supervisors conferred, the rest of us would sing.

We’d gather chairs and pull benches onto the gravel patio next to the dining area. Someone might lean against the door jamb, creating a silhouette in the threshold between the dining room’s light and the nighttime blackness. Voices would come together in English and Italian, this time not in conversation but in song: On a dark desert highway/cool wind in my hair and Hello, darkness, my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again. The vowels stretched and danced in the mouths of non-native speakers, most of whom knew those lyrics far better than I. Sometimes we entered the world of Italian prog-rock and folk, with haunting ballads of blind love by Fabrizio De André, or funny ditties ribbing the Church. We ended those long days with an intangible joy settling over us.

I left archaeology in part because I realized I didn’t love it—I just loved digging in Orvieto. More than the days excavating, I wished for the nights singing, the hours talking over empty plates, and the feeling of once-foreign words emerging as my own. Now, it’s been nearly 10 years since my last stop at the dig. Since then, the team has made many important discoveries, and the site has expanded beyond my own recognition. But when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I can text one of the many friends I made, cook some pasta alla Antonella, pour a glass of cheap red wine, and listen to Fabrizio De André as the night deepens around me. It will never be quite the same. But it will be enough.

>>Next: The Untapped Region Where Italy’s Oldest Culinary Traditions Live On

Sara Button is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience.
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