MASTER OF LIBERAL
STUDIES PROGRAM, SMU
An SMU-MLS student experience
at Poggio Colla 2009
By Jody Stout
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
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
Matt and Julie Russell, who met as students on this excavation
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
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 thats where we want to be, not just because
we think its where were 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
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
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
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. Weve 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.