University of Kentucky professors' surprise discovery: prehistoric settlement in Italy

UK professor George Crothers, left, and graduate students Donald Handshoe, center, and Justin Carlson surveyed the archaeological site in Italy.
UK professor George Crothers, left, and graduate students Donald Handshoe, center, and Justin Carlson surveyed the archaeological site in Italy.

University of Kentucky professors Paolo Visona and George Crothers have spent their professional lives studying ancient civilizations — Visona, mostly Greek archaeology; and Crothers, mostly early Native American populations in Kentucky's Green River valley.

This summer, their research was in neither of those areas, yet it turned out to be one of the most unexpected and exciting professional moments in either man's career — a culmination of expertise, planning and lots of luck. Visona now calls it a "perfect combination of circumstances."

The story started years ago, when Visona, a native of northern Italy, was in graduate school. He met a farmer who told him about artifacts that would surface in his fields in Valbruna, an area near the village of Tezze di Arzignano. The farmer described pieces of mosaic and ceramics that looked as if they came from Roman settlements.

This was not really a surprise. The remains of Roman towns have been found all over Italy, including both north and south of where the farmer lived.

But two years ago, the farmer, Battista Carlotto, by then in his 80s, contacted Visona seeking to learn for sure what lay beneath the fields that had been in his family since the 1400s. Visona started arduous legwork on the area, finding reports in old manuscripts in Venice's Bertoliana Library that witnesses had seen the remains of a Roman city — including massive walls and a huge statue — uncovered by floods in the area in 1795 and 1892.

Time was becoming crucial because of Carlotto's age and because "over time, the area was getting industrial development, and there was less and less farmland available," Visona said. "It was a matter of taking advantage of this invitation."

Visona had a rough idea where part of the town was likely to be because of his archival research and Carlotto's finds, but it's impractical to just start digging big trenches on a working farm. That's when Visona thought of Crothers and his expertise with two crucial pieces of equipment: a magnetometer, which measures magnetic field strength of objects below the ground, and ground-penetrating radar, which can visualize shapes and can tell how deeply something is buried.

"All this was a perfect opportunity to involve UK, because George's equipment made it possible to do non-invasive research," Visona said.

The men made a pitch to the UK Office of Research, which provided a grant for their travel, and to the authorities of Arzignano, who had to approve their work. The authorities also agreed to provide resources such as lodging and food for the researchers.

On the first week of July, they flew to Milan. They started taking measurements of the chosen field, an area about 33 yards by 131 yards. Every night, with the help of graduate students Donald Handshoe and Justin Carlson, they analyzed the measurements from the two machines, creating a digital map of objects that lay at least 8 feet below the surface.

In three or four days, their hopes were confirmed: They had found two long, straight lines running east to west, almost certainly a road in a classic Roman grid.

"That was huge because it was the first evidence of a street grid," Visona said. "It was a huge step forward."

They also noticed big square areas — probably roof tiles, which Crothers said "have a heavy magnetic signature" — and right angles, which were probably the remains of walls.

As they filled out the map, however, something unexpected showed up. Two large circular areas were deeper than the other finds. Why would they be below the Roman settlement?

Visona remembered Roman inscriptions that had described indigenous people in the area when the Romans arrived, a prehistoric population known as sub-Alpine, with settlements around northern Italy that could date from the Neolithic to the late Bronze Age. The circular structures could be huts, Visona concluded, especially given that there was an established pattern in other areas of Romans building on the sites of other civilizations.

"It is thrilling because, from expecting a site that could be tied only to Roman occupation, as a result of our work we found a much more complex site," Visona said. Venice, the provincial capital, started as an Iron Age settlement upon which the Romans built, he said.

"Now we want to know as much as we can about how the land was used over time," Crothers said. "What were the relations with some of these indigenous populations? Was it military conquest?"

Or, as Visona put it, for how long and in what manner did the two peoples co-exist? Based on artifacts from the site, he said, the Roman settlement could have been there more than 400 years, until the 3rd or 4th century A.D.

Both professors will publish their findings, and both hope to be involved in any future investigations, including a dig. However, they face a complicated tangle of bureaucratic rules, funding hurdles and time. For now, the UK group is working with the University of Venice Ca-Foscari, which is analyzing some of the ground material found at the site.

"It's intriguing that we got more than we bargained for," Visona said. "This was a complete novelty."