In conversation: Andrew Johnston on digging up Roman history

Andrew Johnston, assistant professor of classics at Yale and director of the Gabii Project’s field schoolLast summer, archaeologists from the University of Michigan, Yale, and other institutions digging at a site near Rome known as Gabii unearthed a monument that dates back 300 years before the Coliseum. Among the researchers working on the Gabii Project was Andrew Johnston, assistant professor of classics at Yale and director of the project’s field school.

Johnston, who joined the Yale faculty in the fall of 2012, recently spoke with YaleNews about his role in the project and how the discovery of these ancient artifacts influences teaching at Yale. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

How did you become involved with the Gabii Project?

I started working on the project as a graduate student in 2009, during the first field season. I had known Nicola Terrenato, a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Michigan and the director of the project, from when I attended the Summer Program in Archaeology at the American Academy in Rome a couple of years earlier.

That program was really my first foray into archaeology. I spent the summer traveling around Rome and Italy learning about Roman monuments, material culture, and urbanism. I was trained formally as a historian but I thought knowing about archaeology would be a good piece to add to my tool kit. I really fell in love with and was fascinated by the way archaeology enriched my work as a historian. And so I’ve been very fortunate to see this project develop from the beginning as I’ve developed as a scholar. It’s been a really rewarding experience both personally and professionally.

What is your role in the project?

I wear two hats. I direct the field school, which is a program where we take undergraduate students with no background in archaeology and train them in the skills and methodologies of cutting-edge 21st-century archaeology. Also, I’m a trench supervisor, so I am responsible for one of the areas of the excavation site. I supervise the day-to-day operations and the decision making, such as how we excavate and interpret what we find. We’ve had Yale undergraduate students and alumni who are now graduate students participating in the program in the last couple of years, and we’re hoping to have even more in the future.

What is it like working with students who have no background in archeology?

Having been there myself — fairly recently in fact — I can empathize with the excitement and the apprehension that they feel. I think one of the initial and most common reservations the students have is that they just don’t want to mess up. It’s certainly a challenge for us and for them because as we say, archaeology is the great unrepeatable experiment. Once something is excavated, it can never be re-excavated.

One of the most exciting things for the students — but at the same time I also think one of the most terrifying — is they get to see something that no one has seen in 2,500 years, and they are the one who sees it in its original context. The responsibility falls to them to preserve as much information about that context or that object as they can because no one will ever see it again like they see it in that moment. They have a responsibility to the past and to the present – to the people whose cultural heritage it is that we are excavating – and then to posterity to preserve the data. We want to encourage and foster the students’ excitement but also to train them to excavate responsibly and accurately. This is the balancing act that we are constantly trying to do.

Does this fieldwork influence your teaching at Yale?

I do think my fieldwork at Gabii gives me a different perspective on ancient history. I find that it enriches our understanding of the origins, development, and expansion of the Roman republic, and I’m able to share some of these new discoveries and insights in the classroom.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, in a lecture on the transition from monarchy to republic at Rome, I shared a slide of a recently uncovered monument from Gabii with my students and explained to them that they are among a very small group of students who have ever seen and thought about this monument this in an American classroom. I think the students feel a sense of immediacy and progress in our knowledge about our past. It’s not that Roman history is static and that it is as it has always been for 2,000 years, and they are learning Roman history the way people learned Roman history 100 years ago. No, it’s a very vital discipline that is always changing and it challenges us as students, and it challenges us as teachers. That’s one of the exciting things about teaching here at Yale and teaching ancient history hand in hand with teaching archaeology.

Will you recruit more Yale students to go with you to work on the Gabii Project?

In the fall semester, I teach a course on the history of the Roman republic which is very closely bound up in a lot of ways with the history of the site of Gabii, and I try to incorporate Gabii into these lectures. I also encourage students to explore archaeology as a discipline and as a methodology in the field school that we run at Gabii, which we hope in the near future will be formally affiliated with Yale.

I encourage Yale students to come out and explore the site of Gabii because I believe that even if they go on to do something completely different — not history, not classics, not archaeology, nor anthropology —the analytical skills that they learn in excavating — including the eye that they develop, and the ability to generate big arguments from what seem to be such small finds in the earth, and to then create narratives from these finds — are transferable to a lot of different things that they will go on to do.

How has archaeology become more interdisciplinary over time?

One of the ways in which the Gabii project is very exciting is students really see how archaeology is being done in the 21st century. Twenty-first century archaeology is very interdisciplinary. At Gabii, for example, we analyze soil micromorphology, archaeobotanical remains, and we have an anthracologist on staff who studies ancient charcoals.  Our topography team does really innovative work with digital mapping and recording, including techniques like three-dimensional photomodeling of contexts in the field.  We’re asking and answering questions about the past that were unimaginable even 50 years ago, and trying to preserve data that might help answer questions in the future that are unimaginable today.

These cutting-edge scientific applications are deepening our knowledge of the past and show us how hard science and humanities — which usually we think of as two very separate fields — are being brought together to work hand in hand, pushing the disciplines of digital cartography, anthracology, and soil science forward at that same time as we are pushing our knowledge of Roman history forward. In general, the study of human environments and the way people interact with their environments, the way cities are born, the way cities develop, and ultimately the way that cities die is very relevant for a lot of disciplines.

How does the Gabii Project fit into Yale’s international archaeological efforts?

The Gabii Project gives Yale a prominent presence in classical Mediterranean field archaeology, which it hasn’t had in a long time. We have the very famous Dura-Europos excavations that are now a wonderful exhibition at the Yale Art Gallery, but, since the work at Dura under Michael Rostovtzeff in the first half of the 20th century, Yale hasn’t had as significant an excavation in the Roman world. I hope this project puts Yale back on the map in that respect. It certainly gives students opportunities for summer programs that are very valuable for them both intellectually and culturally.

I think institutionally it’s good for the intellectual profile of the university to have that presence, and to continue the proud tradition of classical archaeology here at Yale while looking forward as well, bringing students into one of the most cutting-edge excavations going on in classical archaeology today, and one of the largest American excavations in Italy in half a century.