Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Yesterday was incredibly hard work and we were so exhausted when we returned we cooked a simple store-bought pasta and fell into bed. But before you expend much sympathy on us, it was also incredibly fun. We were toiling in the vineyards of archaeology.

Yesterday morning about 8:30 Fernando showed up and we rounded up Fabio, who loaded us into Rolando’s Jeep, a Russian-made Lada Niva 4 X 4, and we headed out to the Bay of Trentova, down the coast from Agropoli. We left the coast road after several miles and it immediately became clear why we needed the Lada; this was a road in only the most generic sense of the word. Thankfully it has been dry here for at least two weeks (the proverbial Mediterranean climate), so there was no serious danger of being stuck, just of bouncing off the ceiling. But then, suddenly, there we were on a beautiful little Roman road, pavers perfectly fitted, well-wrought curbstones, the camber in the middle to shed water just like I tell my students, and straight as an arrow. Most impressive of all, it was in near perfect condition after some 2,000 years. And we in America are lucky to get 40 out of ours.

The Roman road quickly disappeared and we endured more carnival ride, but soon enough arrived at the site of a Roman villa maritima, one of those luxury villas the Romans built all up and down the southern Italian coast to get away from the stress of life in the big city, to enjoy the pleasant year-round weather, and to luxuriate in the spectacular views for which this area is so rightly famous.

Unfortunately, the Roman villa was superseded by a Medieval villa which still stands, though in a state of perilous ruin and now used as a cow barn. The Roman villa is some 4 meters down, and only a small test dig has been conducted, four meters square, to establish the existence of the villa. What remains visible is still impressive. The villa was surrounded by a huge stone wall, apparently some 16’ tall and several meters wide. This site is thought to go back several centuries BCE, and the assumption is that the wall was built during the Punic Wars when the fearsome Carthaginian fleet caused such fear along these coasts.

Elsewhere Fernando showed me a huge stone into which had been cut two parallel cavities, about 2’ wide and 5’ long, which the original discoverer had suggested were tombs. Not very likely; no other such tombs exist and cuttings on one end seem to be for the wooden stanchions to support a superstructure, and another scholar has suggested a press bed for olive oil instead. Then we saw a spring which issued from the hillside behind the villa, for which the Romans had wrought a well crafted reservoir complete with a painted wall in front; the Romans adored the aqua minerale of this region as much as their descendants now do. We followed the continuation of the Roman road as it made its way down to a small bay, a port for the facility, and Fernando pointed out places on the hillside where the local stone had been quarried to be shipped from this harbor.

Unquestionably the most impressive thing about the site was the sheer volume of items, Roman as well as Greek, which were clearly visible on the ground. It’s what the archaeologists call surface scatter. Fabio has an incredibly sharp eye for such things and he pointed out fragments of Greek drinking cups, of Roman plates and bowls, of marble fragments beautifully cut to create an intarsio floor, probably for part of the bath complex that Romans included in their villas, of fragments of Roman glass, clear and of the brilliant cobalt that the Romans first made famous. All this in an area the size of our house lot back home. This is an extremely rich site, just screaming to be excavated. So why not? Lack of funds, of course. There are just so many sites in Italy and so little money to support such research. But Fabio and Fernando call this “another Paestum, just waiting to be discovered.”

After a brief excursion to the top of the hill for a panoramic view of the area and of Paestan Plain, we headed home for some lunch and a brief riposo. Then we were off to chase more archaeology. Fabio had to work, but we were joined by Sandy’s new best friend, Katuscia. We love being with this young woman. She is beautiful, bright, funny and warmhearted. And she seems to be quite smitten with Fabio. The problem is that Fabio has a mistress, one he has adored, according to Uncle Luigi, at least since he was eight. Her name is Archeologia, and she is stiff competition indeed.

We were headed for the mountain town of Perdifumo, but we stopped in Vatolla along the way to see another cantina, this one in the basement of a medieval palazzo that belonged to the Spanish family of Vargas. Fernando had made arrangements to meet the custodian of the palace—it has become an inside joke with us that Italian cultural attractions are siempre non oggi!, ‘always open...just not today’!—but in the event he was nowhere to be found. Two hours later Fernando was able to track him down (he’s a volunteer for the Italian Red Cross as well) and we made a brief tour of the carefully refurbished palazzo, which is now a center to commemorate a local boy who made good, the famous philosopher and educational reformer Giambattista Vico. But no cantina, the very thing we came to see! It seems a different custodian had the key to the cantina, and he, too, was nowhere to be found. Oy!

So down the road we went to Perdifumo, where we parked the car and strolled through the little town, asking periodically where was the famous palmento. It’s one of those ironies of Italy that in the midst of such cultural wealth very few people really know or care what they are living amidst. Finally some gentlemen playing penuchle in the piazza who sent us off to the suburbs, followed by more confusion and several more puzzled locals, before a little nono came walking down the road and pointed to an olive orchard right beside us... and there was the palmento, largely obscured by olive nets and vine stakes, not 50 meters away. Without his help we would never have found it. The owner of the orchard kindly offered permission to explore, and we finally bagged the big one.

At least big to a couple of classical geeks. Palmenti are large treading vats cut into native stone, with one, two, sometimes three separate but connected vats. This was a single vat, but the more typical form has two, an upper and a lower one, connected by a small hole in the adjoining wall. The best guess is that grape clusters were harvested and dumped into the upper vat where they were trodden by naked feet, still the absolute best method for gently extracting grape juice, called must, without extracting too much tannin from the skins and seeds. The grape solids would settle to the bottom of the upper tank and when the tank was full the aperture between the vats, probably plugged with wet clay, would be opened and the pure must allowed to drain into the lower vat, to be racked into fermentation vessels. Remaining juice might be left on the marc, the solid parts of the clusters, to obtain color, flavor and a bit of tannin, all of which derive almost exclusively from the skins of the grapes. After perhaps 24 to 48 hours the juice would be racked off the marc and the marc put under a press of some sort to extract more of the precious liquid.

So what’s the big deal? It has to do with the history of wine. There is a debate in scholarly circles as to when exactly wine was first systematically produced in the Old World. To explain, wine is a food product that will essentially make itself, since colonies of yeasts are lurking on the grape skins just waiting for that barrier to be broken so they can have a regular sugar-eating orgy, in the process of which they will fart out CO2 and pee out ethyl alcohol. You’ve all seen those little colonies—they appear as grayish coloration on dark grapes—and perhaps didn’t even know what you were looking at. The point is that making wine, at least bad wine, is a fairly simple technology. The problem is that wine very quickly and inevitably turns to vinegar unless oxygen is excluded from the product. So the development of pottery in the late Neolithic was a very big deal.

But what about Middle Neolithic or even Paleolithic? We simply don’t know, but it’s fun to speculate. Are the palmenti that cluster along the Apennine regions of Italy, from Aemilia-Romagna all the way down to Calabria, neolithic vats? Probably not, although it is difficult to say. How do you date a native stone? The most knowledgeable scholar in this area, the Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Brun, thinks they go no further back than the Roman period. The point is that theoretically they could have provided winemaking in the Neolithic, at least in the so-called ceramic period after there were jugs to store the wine in. And we are in the process of developing the analytical tools such as chromatography and mass spectrometry to determine many things about such vessels, so someday we may have a more definitive answer to the question. In the meantime Dave just had to hop in this palmento and do a bit of imaginary grape treading. Katuscia was a good sport and helped me out. And later that night at home I raised a toast to our ancestors, whoever they were, who developed the wonderful technology of wine. And half the night I dreamed, not of sexy Italian girls, but of sexy Italian palmenti!

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