Feature

Mysteries of Libarna

A Texas Tech professor is part of a team investigating the ancient Roman colony in northern Italy

drone flying aboved excavated portions of Libarna
Dronina the drone flies over excavated portions of the Libarna site.

Its name has endured for more than 2,000 years, but little else is known about the ancient city of Libarna. Its founding people were not Roman, but it eventually became a stopping point on a major Roman road. Even after 200 years of excavation, not much more is known about the site or its significance in the history of ancient Rome.

How the native residents of Libarna interacted with their new Roman neighbors once the city was conquered and added into the Roman Republic is still a mystery.  

Hannah Friedman, assistant professor in the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures at Texas Tech, has teamed up with researchers from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and Boise State University on a project she hopes will shed new light on life on the edges of Roman territory.

Libarna, a site in northern Italy, was originally founded in the second century BC and later became a Roman colony, which gives researchers a look into how Roman citizens interacted with the cultures of newly conquered territories.

“Were they completely happy that the Romans came in? Possibly not,” Friedman said. “Were they upset about it? Probably. What kind of culture was created that was maybe a hybrid between the two? Everything we know about Roman Italy really comes from the south. Our project will really fill in regional gaps.”

During the summer, Friedman and four Texas Tech students joined the rest of the project’s team for four weeks in Libarna to begin creating a map of the site and a plan for excavation. Friedman is a geospecialist, which means she uses tools like drones and resistivity machines to determine the scope and layout of the site before the team begins excavating it.

Aerial views of the site can reveal things like the outline of an ancient building, which gives researchers a better idea of what an area may hold. A resistivity machine can map archaeological features when they are of higher or lower resistivity than the surrounding soil. The machine measures how quickly electricity travels. In places where the electricity current is slow, it’s likely the current encountered something dense like stone. Mapping that speed can give researchers a clearer idea of where rooms may be buried without ever having to lift a shovel.

The Long Road to Libarna

girl operating resistivity machine as boy holds power chord beside her
Texas Tech graduate student Mike Boyles helps with the resistivity machine.

The Libarna project is one that started about two years before Friedman and the rest of the team even landed in Italy. First, Katie Huntley of Boise State University, who heads the team, and Penelope Allison from the University Leicester toured Libarna. Friedman, who received her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Leicester, was called and asked to join the project as a geospecialist.

For the next year, everyone on the project began compiling more than 200 years of research that was already done on the site.

The via Postumia, an ancient Roman road, runs right through the site. The location is a flat area before the Alps, which made it ideal for ancient Rome and for modern-day Italy.

“So just like the Romans, modern Italians saw this as an incredibly useful place to run utilities, a major road and two railroads through,” Friedman said. “The Italian government would excavate right along where they were digging, so we’ve got these two little strips of knowledge and the amphitheater and nothing else. It’s really been driven by modern construction, not by academic research.”

Once the team compiled what it could, its members spent the next year planning the pilot season, including securing permits from the Italian Government, recruiting students, booking travel and lodging, and securing funding.

“Pilot seasons are really expensive,” Friedman said, “because it’s hard to prove that you have got something to work on yet. A pilot season is you going out there and finding that, so the startup funding we got from the Texas Tech Office of the Vice President for Research and the Texas Tech Humanities Center was vital to the success of this project.”

Now that a research agenda and plan have been established, the group will begin exploring and examining the site next summer. Friedman says the team has permits to dig for the next three years, but the project could potentially last more than a decade.

A Clearer Picture

Friedman shows a drawing to resident with drone on table in front of her
Hannah Friedman explains the site during an outreach event to education nearby residents about the work and goals of the research project.

Although it seems like archaeologists already know everything there is to know about ancient Rome, there are still major gaps of knowledge about the empire’s non-elite culture.

“For a very long time in Roman archaeology, it was controlled by white, European males,” Friedman said. “They sort of went out for their society, for their museums and dug up a site looking for prestige pieces, which is stuff that looks pretty, and brought that back. So when they found things of let’s say the poor, regular, normal human beings, it wasn’t of interest to them and they just threw it out a lot of the time, or it’s stored in a huge box somewhere and never been studied.”

Friedman said the focus of the project will be on what regular Romans were doing at the time. While they will still preserve any artifact they come across, the main objective is to get a better understanding of the Roman culture as a whole, not just the elite class.

“We know a huge amount about the Roman army, for example,” Friedman said. “We know some about the economy, and about mining and metallurgy. What we don’t know about is slaves or women or children.”

It is incredibly important that historians get an accurate portrait of the entire breadth of Roman culture because, although the Roman Empire has been gone for nearly two millennia, its influence can still be found all over the world – even in the United States.

“The Roman Empire was an incredibly diverse, amazing place filled with all sorts of different people,” Friedman said, “and we don’t ever talk about that, which is dangerous because often we use the Roman Empire as our cultural touchstone in America.”

People often put modern views of race and class onto the Roman Empire, and then use that perception to justify political moves or the way people think about the world, Friedman said.

“If you go to the mall in Washington, D.C., you’ll see Greco-Roman buildings. We’ve chosen to represent ourselves as Greco-Romans. So, if we have a false idea of who we’re trying to be, a very limited idea of that, we’re doing both ourselves and the ancient Romans a disservice. We really need to change the perception of the Roman Empire, especially if we keep using them as our cultural touchstone.”

 

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