Discovering a lost world
March 1, 2005
VAIL – A big discovery for most of us is a $20 bill in a gutter somewhere. Or an old stone with a trace of gold in it. About 20 years ago, Paolo Visona stumbled across an ancient city.Well, maybe not stumbled. Visona, a passionate archaeologist, had done significant research of this rural area in the toe of Italy, where in 1987, he unearthed Contrada Mella, or what an ancient Greek researcher dubbed as Mamertion, a lost Hellenistic city dating back to the Third Century B.C.”We put on the map a city whose existence was previously unknown,” said Visona, who is a professor at Colorado University in Boulder and founder of the Mamertion Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming this ancient city into a tourist attraction with the purpose of educating the general public on this era of history and lifestyle.
Mountains inside of mole hillsDiscovering an ancient city takes more than just thrusting a shovel into the dirt and pulling up the Third Century equivalent of a traffic light. Archaeology is a pursuit that requires a vast amount of patience and imagination.”You don’t just have to be inspired. You have to look at a lot of data. You have to almost become part of the land,” Visona said. “You have to do a lot of walking by yourself, and walking with the locals. A big part of being an archaeologist is learning from the environment and learning about nature and how humans try to change it and adapt to it. In some ways, being in Colorado where we’re not in a highly urbanized environment, we have to know how to use our resources and how to use the land. So, you see how ancient people did that. You just look at a hill and start thinking, ‘If I had been an ancient person, where would I have wanted to live?’ Where would I have gotten my water?’ That’s part of this adventure. Once you’ve been digging long enough, you have an idea what to expect. If you live in an American city block, you know there must be a lane, a corner of an alley. It’s not to difficult to transpose that. You talk to the people. There’s a long history to this area and legends … People who have seen things. You realize that some of these legends and stories have a kernel of truth. People have memories of when they were children, and of what their parents and grandparents told them.”Visona, who was born in northern Italy and has dual citizenship, has invested a lot of his time earning the trust of the people in this southern region of the country, which, during the time when Visona made his discovery, was still known for practicing Mafia-style murders originating from territorial issues and perceived acts of family honor.
As far as artifacts, of everything that Visona and his team have excavated from Contrada Mella over the years, some of the more exciting finds have included a tomb and the remains of a 40-year-old woman. Neither were simple discoveries. Mysteriously, the tomb was embedded inside of a pottery kiln and the woman’s bones had been spread across a large area by a bulldozer and presumably by other means of shifting over thousands of years.Hidden gems”The biggest victory came when I found the skull, also the chest and ribcage of this individual,” Visona said. “Before we sent it in for study, I had already decided it must be a woman. There were small things you would associate with a female burial – there were perfume bottles found in the area of the disturbed grave. There was an embronzed tool to apply cosmetics. We found pieces of the tomb. It was poorly built with some large tiles. I assumed she must have been inside a wooden coffin inside of a sarcophagus made of tiles.”Another astute surmise Visona made during the excavation process was identifying two strangely positioned bricks as something significant. This something turned out to be an entire Roman villa.
“Archaeology is like detective work. It’s like figuring out pieces of a puzzle, most of which are not there,” he said. “For several years, I decided not to touch two bricks that were at right angles to a major avenue. In my view, they were sort of suspicious. Nothing is found at right angles in nature. They turned out to be the corners of a major villa. In 1988, I found them myself, all alone at the end of the season in a pile of rubble. It was something I decided not to touch. It turned out to be the corner of a room, of a villa. I was vindicated as an archaeologist.”Although there have been many small rewards along the way, Visona is still far from a complete excavation, and still farther from his overall vision of transforming his site into an area resembling a historical attraction along the lines as Pompeii, another ancient city in southern Italy whose remains have become one of the most frequented tourist sights in the region.”If it were here in the U.S., we would put a bubble over it and people would come in droves,” Visona said. “But the area is owned by the town we stay in. These people are farmers. They don’t starve – every family has a small orange grove or some equivalent – but 50 percent of them are unemployed. We have this great vision to try to remind people how important it is to preserve this cultural heritage to humankind. I would like to see organic olive oils sold there … and the usually line of mugs and T-shirts. You can commission a project, but it’s still just for my veiled audience – my peers in scientific journals will know about this. The key to everything is culture. You have to educate people about the great historical value. It’s my legacy in some ways. I’m not giving up.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado