An SMU-MLS student experience at Poggio Colla 2009
By Jody Stout

2009 MLS students Jody Stout and Erin Shanks

Having returned to Dallas after two weeks in Italy as part of the Etruscan Archeology class offered by SMU's Master of Liberal Studies program, yes, it's good to be home. I have returned to my pets, my own pillow, driving my car, and Mexican food. These are all good reasons to be home. But, reality can come rushing back all too soon. Summer session two begins tomorrow, my dentist wants to reschedule, my former student's tutor wants to consult, bills are due, my luggage is at least a day behind me.

Only a couple of days ago, my life was an adventure, set in another time and place, devoted to an elite mission-perceiving and understanding the culture and legacy of the Etruscans. The first week of travel was devoted to visiting museums and tomb sites in Rome and across the landscape of ancient Etruria. The tours were all the more exceptional because they were led by Dr. Greg Warden, one of the world's leading scholars of Etruscan art history. Images of hillside villas, undulating mountains, brilliant sunflower fields, silvery olive trees, and lush gorges still linger in my memory. The cool stone walls carved to perfection 2,600 years before, the dank smell of mold issuing from the dark recesses of ancient tombs, the determined brilliance of ancient wall paintings-dancing Etruscans and lounging banqueters-are all still vivid to my senses.

The second week of exploration was devoted to archaeological study at Poggio Colla, an Etruscan site about twenty miles north of Florence in the rustic Mugello Valley. This was the point in the journey I expected the greatest test of my abilities and experience, yet I was eager to learn the art of excavation. I was taking on the study of history and culture in a way that no amount of reading could satisfy. I envisioned myself reaching into the earth, revealing the matter of human experience with my own hands. I could not wait to begin digging. What I would dig up, was indeed the matter of human experience, some of it ancient, some very much of the present.

Once nestled into an antique farmhouse in the historical town of Vicchio, my routine as an excavator began. I awoke in the mornings at 5:45 and threw on the least dusty clothes I could find, put together a hasty breakfast with my roommates, and hustled to make carpool. The 4x4 seemed a kind of monster driving through the little town, but was necessary for scaling the hill that would lead to the site. For a mile I twisted, bumped and rocked straight up hill, often laughing aloud in response to the hopelessness of maintaining any sort of composure in such a situation. Then I climbed up, on foot, another half a mile or so, the rest of the way to the site.

Rotating among three active trenches, I used pick axes, and trowels and sifters and took orders. I was a completely different person with only a vague memory of who I had been when I left Texas, just days before. I had become a person that used the latrine--the one I helped dig. I sweated and burned under the sun; I bent until my back seared with pain, I knelt until my knees were raw. I squatted until I felt the pinch of every muscle I knew existed between my hips and toes; I even felt the rebellion of a few muscles I had never recognized before. I had many times, given into my age and exhaustion and sat down in the excavation trench--feeling the shame of it; supervisors' eyes heavy on me and my own disappointment heavier. I was blistered and achy and insecure. I was reminded of how terrifying it can be to be one of the least competent in the bunch.

Always surrounded by people I had just met, I constantly questioned the impression I was making as a student, a woman, a person. Working with many students half my age, I felt alternately superior, having watched a great deal more television than they, and envious, having lost a great deal more muscle, stamina and optimism than they. Working under people whose knowledge and skills were formidable (some of them also, half my age), the need to please them played with the highs and lows of my days.

In the evenings, a quick shower answered most grievances, and fried squash blossoms soothed all else. After leisurely communal meals, feeling the elegant buzz of red wine, I strolled through a wheat field and down the middle of a vineyard to find my way back to the converted farmhouse that was my home for the week. And it did feel like going home.

Before I left, I knew I felt genuine affection for those people half my age and I recognized that my insecurities were no greater than theirs. My admiration for the supervisors and directors was matched by my gratitude for their patience and encouragement. I parted with memories of one-liners, songs sung, and of hundreds of little kindnesses-- a bottle of sunblock shared, a plate cleared, the weight of a backpack lifted, a seat deferred. And I remember all of these moments set against the most extravagant landscape the earth has to offer.

I can still feel the exhilaration of the morning of my final day of excavation, uncovering the base of an ancient Etruscan vase-they were here! The Etruscans lived. They had a purpose; they had needs and means by which they met those needs. And I can prove it!

Leaving Vicchio and Italy, I thought of the people I am glad to have known, even if just for a little while and I was aware of some uncertainties yet to be resolved, some insecurities lingering. I was and am aware that I am grateful for the discomfort--the aches, the challenges, and the self-awareness. I am reminded that I am alive, engaged, and not unlike the Etruscans, that my story is yet, unfinished.



2004 MLA students dining at the Casa di Caccia, left to right: Mary Phelan,
David Foster, Patti Hawkins, Matt Russell, Jason Hawkins, and Julie Russell.


Matt and Julie Russell, who met as students on this excavation in 1998,
later married and this year returned to work as graduate students.


Julie Russell, an M.L.A. student from SMU, and Andrew McClellen excavating in PC 27.


M.L.A. student Mary Phelan in the Podere Funghi during her 2nd summer on the MVAP.


Assistant Field Supervisor Sarah Titus and volunteer Matt Russell in PC 20.



Judy Culbertson and Paige Russell, two of the 2001 season M.L.A. students, worked all day every day with their teams in the trenches--from 7:00 in the morning until 4:30 and sometimes 5:30 at night. They attended all of the lecutres and workshops presented by the professional staff and volunteered for various additional chores. Judy and Paige have been enthusiastic, hard-working, low-maintenance and cheerful additions to the excavation team. Thank you!

Judy Culbertson sweeping in Locus 4 of Trench PC 23, where she excavated this season.


Paige Russell digging in her trench, PC 18.


Cindy Lutz excavating in Trench PC 21.

The MLA program is designed to allow working people who have already been graduated with a degree to pursue a general, liberal arts course of study. Most of the classes are in the evening on campus at SMU. Some have more exotic locations, places like the Mugello Valley of Tuscany. For the most part we are a bit older than the undergraduate and graduate students. Many of us are motivated by a desire to learn for the sheer fun of learning as opposed to pursuing a degree that will lead to a career. We are a mixture of people from diverse fields like banking, retail, real estate, oil, and accounting. We are in school because that’s where we want to be, not just because we think it’s where we’re supposed to be.

2000 M.L.A. students working in Trench PF 5 during the first few weeks of the season:
Jerry Nelson (left) with Jurriaan Venneman digging, and Patricia C. Bowles (right) sifting.


Sarah Benac digging in Trench PC 21.


The residence for M.L.A. students is on the road up to the excavation,
with views of the Mugello Valley and mountains. Photo by Larry Lehman.


Mountains of the Mugello. Photo by Larry Lehman.


One of hundreds of digital photos M.L.A. students Theresa Smith
and Christi Thompson shot of catalogued objects in the Casa di Giotto.

During these two weeks we have learned a lot about archaeology and about the mysterious Etruscans. We met some nice and some interesting people, and we were also able to renew some acquaintances from last year. We were able to visit Florence, Orvieto, and Siena. We’ve enjoyed great food and wonderful wines. The Tuscans have turned the preparation of mushrooms and truffles into an art form, but that is a subject for another time. On behalf of all the MLA students, thanks to the students and staff at the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project. Thank you for letting us participate. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your skills with us. It has been a grand adventure.