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A Brush with History in Tuscany

The wakeup call is early, and the climb is steep. At the top waits a full day of digging. But for several Franklin & Marshall students and faculty, it is the ultimate liberal arts experience.

Six students traveled to Italy over the summer as part of the archaeological travel course to Poggio Colla, an Etruscan settlement site about 20 miles northeast of Florence. An annual offering by the Department of Classics, the course trains students in Etruscan archaeology and in the theoretical and practical aspects of fieldwork. The College partners with Southern Methodist University to operate the program, which ran this year from June 27 to Aug. 8.

Photos courtesy of Ali Neugebauer '11

"This is doing the liberal arts, to be in the field, uncovering knowledge and linking it to things we already know," says Ann Steiner, provost and dean of the faculty and Shirley Watkins Steinman Professor of Classics, who launched the course in 2002 and helped to teach it again this year. "You learn up close how much the past is part of the present, and you ask questions. Who owns the past? What do we do with it? What does it mean for this little town in Tuscany to come face-to-face with its ancient self?"

To answer those questions, students conduct research projects that replicate the methodologies of documentation found in archaeological site publications. Training takes place in the field and is supplemented by lectures given by staff and visiting scholars.

Gretchen Meyers, assistant professor of classics, led the class for the second straight year. Robert Sternberg, professor of geosciences, joined the course as a visiting scholar.

"The exciting part is that students are participating in research while they take the class," Meyers says. "The learning you can see occurring is dramatic. From an academic perspective, it's a thrilling, immediate, hands-on learning experience."

The 25 Franklin & Marshall students who have worked at Poggio Colla since 2002 have uncovered some spectacular finds, including votive deposits, jewelry, a jar containing 100 silver coins and a statue base with lightly etched letters. The most striking find to date may have been the gold earrings and jewelry discovered by Kacie Coughlin '05. "It really is miraculous," Steiner says. "These things come up as globs of dirt and you realize that they're treasures."

Ali Neugebauer '11, a member of this year's class, says the dig was nothing like she expected. "Looking back, it was better than I thought it would be," says Neugebauer, who, in addition to Erica Koppenhoefer '11 and Matthew Naiman '12, will present her summer work at the College's Autumn Research fair, which will be held Friday from 12:30-4 p.m. in the Frey Atrium of the Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building. "The things that stand out are the amazing times I had working on the hill, rocking out to Red Hot Chili Peppers with my trench mates and the amazing dinners we were rewarded with at the end of the day."

The students lived in a restored Tuscan farmhouse, enjoying authentic Italian cuisine in the evenings. "There are no words for that dinner," Meyers says. "It's a special feast."

What is truly special, however, is unearthing history.

"There's something about brushing aside dirt and realizing you're the first person to see this in 2,000 years," Meyers says. "It's a unique academic experience."