Field School in Southern Italy: Vulture Project

While working on my Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Alberta, I had the privilege of being a member of the Vulture Archaeological Project. During the summers of 2009 to 2012, in the town of Rionero, Italy, I was part of an international team of academics and students attempting to gain a better understanding of this region’s past. The project is named after the dormant volcano, Monte Vulture, at the base of which lies the beautiful town of Rionero.

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This archaeological endeavor was conducted under the direction of Dr. Richard Fletcher, aimed to investigate the Vulture zone of the Lucanian Frontier as a sphere of pre-Roman cultural interaction and Late Roman Stability. The project consisted of an archaeological survey of the region around the volcano and the excavation of a Roman villa (large industrial farm) and its associated cemetery. While the survey aimed to identify important sites in the surrounding area and collect data on land use and settlement patterns from the Early Iron Age to the Late Roman period, the excavation attempted to determine when the site was used, its economic importance, and gain a glimpse into the lives of the people that inhabited it. The project is responsible for recording numerous new sites in the area, and excavating approximately half of the villa (80×40 m). The project was funded through contributions from the Comune of Rionero in Vultur, the Comunità Montana Vultur and from the instruction fees paid by the students attending the field school.

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Although I am not a Classical Archaeologist by training, I was able to apply my skills in a variety of ways.  My pre-archaeological career involved a substantial amount of time in a supervisory role so I started my time at the Vulture Project as a Field Supervisor.  My training in Human Osteology was an asset and I was not only responsible for overseeing cemetery excavations, but also conducting skeletal inventories and primary analysis of the human remains that were recovered. Since archaeological regulations in Italy state that excavated sites must be preserved, I was also in charge of the restoration and preservation of the site’s integrity.  This involved applying mortar and concrete to unearthed structures, and generally making the site presentable by Italian standards.

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My time with the Vulture Project still remains one of the highlights of my archaeological career.  Although it was no vacation, and excavating in 40°C with no shade will discourage even the most seasoned shovel bum, I feel fortunate and grateful that I was able to experience the beautiful southern Italian countryside and touch its past.  Due to this project, I have friends from all corners of the globe and memories that will last a lifetime.

If you ever want to have a similar experience, I highly suggest that you become involved in an archaeological dig either where you live, or abroad.  Many field schools do not require any previous training, and at many digs, volunteering will only cost the price of room and board.  While traveling, it is actually a very cost effective way to become intimately familiar with a region and become submerged in the local culture.

Lightning Trees

Last year, while conducting survey with Brittany in a remote region of northern Alberta, I noticed some unusual scarring on a large spruce tree. Upon closer examination I realized the tree had been struck by lightning.

Usually when lightning hits a tree, one of three things may happen:

  • If the tree is wet on the outside, the electrical discharge may travel down the outside of the bark to ground and have little effect on the tree itself.
  • If the tree is not wet, the discharge may travel down the tree on the inside of the bark, which will result in scarring. In my experience, this will usually be one or more scars that revolve around the trunk of the tree as the discharge travels downwards.
  • If the tree is not wet, but is full of moisture, the moisture may be super heated and instantly turn into gas that quickly expands and causes an explosion. This may blow the bark off the tree, blow the top off the tree, or in some circumstances completely destroy the tree.

The tree that Brittany and I stumbled across had a considerable amount of damage due to the lightning strike. Yet, even though the tree had substantial bark scarring and its top blown completely off, it did not die and seemed to be in pretty good shape.

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The top of the tree exploded from the lightening.

As rare as finding a lightning tree may seem, trees are actually struck by lightning very frequently. The Government of Canada reports that there is an average of 2 million cloud to ground lightning strikes per year in Canada, igniting approximately 45% of all our forest fires. These fires account for nearly 80% of the total forests burned annually. Although I wasn’t aware of these statistics until recently, my time working as a Forest Fire Fighter made me very aware of the frequency, since many of the fires we were called to fight were started by lightning. Even during a torrential downpour, lightning may still strike a spruce tree, causing a small fire to start at the base where it is sheltered by the branches. Days or even weeks later, when the temperature rises and the vegetation dries out, the fire may grow substantially in size. Suppression of these fires cost Canadian taxpayers a substantial amount of money. The Government of Canada has a whole section of their website dedicated to severe weather.

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Lightening scar at  the base of the tree.

Taking refuge under a tree during a thunderstorm is very unwise. It may seem like a good place to keep dry during a sudden downpour, but it is actually one of the most unsafe places you could be. Indoors is always the safest place to be. However, if you are caught without shelter in a thunderstorm, the best place to be is in a low lying area such as a ditch. You might not stay dry, but you will be safe from lightning. Just make sure you watch out for flooding!

If you do happen to stumble across a lightning tree like Brittany and I did, you may want to take a little token for yourself (as long as it doesn’t harm the tree if it is still alive). Many people believe that the wood from a lightning tree will bring you good luck. Others believe that the power passed from the lightning to the tree, can then be passed on to whoever possesses its wood. Even if you are all full up on power and luck, you could always just keep the wood as a souvenir and reminder of the raw and devastating power of nature.