Victoria Pipas, a 1ST person experience in the Sanisera Field School

Victoria Pipas in the Roman Dig

Victoria Pipas in the Roman Dig

March 2013: I was enjoying my junior year at Kimball Union Academy as a mature sixteen-year-old, juggling a rigorous course schedule, participating in a plethora of clubs and organizations, running half-marathons—and becoming queasy at the thought of sleeping somewhere besides my own bed for an extended period.

That’s right. I was a hopeless homebody who had cunningly avoided leaving the safety and security of home and loving family for much more than a night. I maxed out at about four days, and that was at my grandparents’ house. 
After a scarring summer camp experience in first grade, I had a nauseating fear of leaving my parents. It was completely irrational, but even sleepovers with friends caused anxiety.

However, when presented with the opportunity, the shortsighted Tori in my head applied for a Cullman Scholarship at my school. This scholarship offers students a paid opportunity to travel anywhere and participate in any organization during the summer. I had found a Roman archaeology program on a Mediterranean island, and without giving much thought to the possibility of actually receiving the award, I had applied. So you can imagine my ambivalent feelings when my name was announced as one of the six scholarship recipients: Yes, I got it! Going to Spain! Ooh, nooo. Going to Spain. By myself. Across the ocean. For three weeks. Why did I apply?

Inventorying Roman pottery in the Sanisera School

Inventorying Roman pottery in the Sanisera School

As June 2 approached and people wished me well, I would smile deceivingly. Yes, I’m so excited to fly halfway across the world and travel alone . . . for the first time in my life. 
Before I knew it, my parents were driving me to the Dartmouth coach station. I suddenly realized that it was going to be impossible for me to will the car to break down. Well, I thought, maybe they cancelled the bus unexpectedly. Or maybe all of Spain is smothered in a volcanic eruption. Somehow I managed to get on the bus and leave, waving at my tearful mother through the window.

The moment she left my sight, however, all the panic dissolved. Suddenly, I wasn’t a nervous kid being dropped off by her parents. I was a world traveler boarding a plane to Spain. Fast-forward a day: I arrive in Menorca, Spain, perhaps the perfect island. The hilly countryside is dotted with cows, the coasts are rocky, the streets are cobbled, and the water is a perfect crystal blue. 
We are greeted by our instructors, Fernando and Cristina. Fernando speaks only Spanish, but when he finds me napping, his favorite English phrase to practice becomes “Come on, Veectoria! Get up!” Cristina is an olive-skinned beauty with curly black hair and a dimpled smile that never disappears. She is our teacher at the “city” dig in the ancient Roman city of Sanisera. This Balearic island, I soon discover, was once home to three Roman port colonies: Mago, Iamo, and Sanisera. Mago became the modern-day Maó, and Iamo, the smaller, more peaceful city, became the modern-day Ciutadella. That left one colony unaccounted for: Sanisera. Pliny the Elder made mention of three colonies in his Historia Naturalis, yet only two had ever been discovered. In the 1970s, archaeologists began excavating around the small bay of Sanitja at the northwestern tip of the island. What they found was unprecedented: the lost city of Sanisera.

Victoria has discovered a bronze Roman nail

Victoria has discovered a bronze Roman nail

Our instructor, Fernando, recommenced archaeological work there in the late ’90s, and in 2004, the Sanisera Field School became an international reference center for students. That’s how our small group came to be digging in 2,000-year-old dirt for pieces of Roman amphorae and tableware. Every day, we wake early for a Spanish breakfast of very strong coffee, juice, and a few biscuits. We then drive across the hilly countryside in a decaying bus to the Bay of Sanitja. Here is Sanisera, the city that we excavate.

Excavating, I soon discover, is not for the feeble; it consists of about 95 percent pickaxing and 5 percent brushing off valuable artifacts. But finding that one small bit of bronze is worth the backbreaking labor. Pottery here is plentiful, and most of the pieces are small and insignificant, and end up in the dirt pile. However, large chunks of thick, red amphorae are collected in rubber buckets and toted back to our lab. Also saved are unique pieces, like those with a shiny orange glaze or decorative engraving. All of this pottery must be scrubbed clean, classified, labeled, and inventoried before it can be donated to the Museu de Menorca. These activities fill our afternoons. My favorite is labeling; each piece is swiped with a small strip of glue and inked with its site number. I love the precision and satisfaction of labeling hundreds of the smallest pieces with a quill and ink.

We also learn to categorize the pottery: first, by amphorae (large storage vessels), tableware, or roof tiles. Then, each of these groups is subcategorized based on its characteristics. We learn that Roman Ebussitan amphorae came from Ibiza and can be identified by their chalky white clay. African tableware has burnt black rims from oxidation during the firing process. I even write two songs to help our group remember the identifications, sung to the tunes “Be Our Guest” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” However, my songs don’t do me much good on our end-of-session pottery quiz—I score a 6.5 out of 10. Cristina assures me that in Spain this is a passing grade.

Ciutadella is the charming port town where we reside for three weeks. Picture your favorite European destination, complete with cobblestone streets, cafés, gelaterias, and dockside seafood restaurants. Now subtract nearly all the tourists, and you have Ciutadella. The entire island has a population of about 94,000, about 15,000 less than Manchester, New Hampshire. Except in July and August, the island is mostly tourist free, and the cafés are filled with native Menorcans. I love running along the stone, seaside boardwalk at sunset, then heading back to the residence for a cold shower and a quick dinner. Then our group heads out to our favorite café for the evening. The hours slip by, the sun a deceiving timekeeper (the summer sun never seems to set on the island).

This trip was an immersion in every sense. I was immersed in the study of Ancient Roman civilization, Menorcan culture, the Spanish language, college-student life, and most importantly, my own independence. Menorca is a place I now call home.

Have you ever dreamed of excavating a Roman city? For more information on the Sanisera Field School, visit the website www.ecomuseodecavalleria.com

 

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