Mediterranean archaeology offerings help students 'rehumanize the past'

Roberto Paolini painting red clay on a vase

Roberto Paolini, an artist from Cerveteri, Italy, uses a brush to apply red clay onto a vase modeled after an ancient southern Italian vessel. Paolini, who is one of only a few artists today who practice the ancient style called red-figure vase painting, visited campus in April to demonstrate the craft for UArizona students.

Kyle Mittan/University Communications

One morning in April, about a dozen University of Arizona classics and anthropology students gathered under the eucalyptus trees in the Women's Plaza of Honor to watch an artist at work.

Using a series of fine-bristled brushes dipped in wet clay, Roberto Paolini – an artist from Cerveteri, Italy, a famous ancient town north of Rome – traced over graphite drawings on a vase modeled after an ancient southern Italian vessel.

Roberto Paolini painting red clay on a vase

Paolini traces brushes, made of rabbit whiskers and dipped in wet clay, over graphite drawings of the figures on the vase.

Kyle Mittan/University Communications

Paolini led the long bristles of his brush, just a few millimeters wide and made of rabbit whiskers, precisely along each graphite line. Students craned their necks to see the images of people dressed in robes taking shape, as they took pictures with their phones.

Like the vase he was replicating, Paolini's painting style – called red-figure vase painting – is thousands of years old. The technique, invented in ancient Athens, was a common pottery decorating method used by artisans in Greece and in southern Italy between the sixth and third centuries B.C.

Paolini is one of only four or five artists, he said, who practice the style, which he learned from his uncle. Paolini, now 36, began painting when he was 12, initially as a hobby. He started selling his work when people would stop by his studio asking to meet the artist, expecting someone older.

"They would say, 'I want to meet the guy,'" Paolini said. "I would say, 'I am the guy.'"

By coming to campus and demonstrating his work, Paolini brought to life the ancient Greek and southern Italian pottery and iconography that classics and anthropology students had spent the semester studying.

Eleni Hasaki

Eleni Hasaki

"You cannot teach a craft with only pictures," said Eleni Hasaki, a UArizona professor of anthropology and classics and a Mediterranean archaeologist who studies ancient craftsmanship, and who helped organize Paolini's visit. "You have to see what we call the energetics of the craft, the labor, the time investment, the mastery, the skills."

Paolini's visit was part of an international research project called A.G.A.T.H.O.C.L.E.S., a partnership between UArizona and the University of Turin in Italy that seeks to better understand the craftsmanship of ancient potters in southern Italy and Greece. Marco Serino, an assistant professor at the University of Turin and an expert on southern Italian vase-painting, is the principal investigator. Hasaki serves as the project's supervisor in the U.S.

The project name, A.G.A.T.H.O.C.L.E.S., stands for The Archaeology of Gesture: Apprenticeship, Tools, Hands, Organization, Collaborations, Learning Experience and Social Network Analysis. Agathocles was also the first tyrant of Syracuse, who ruled Sicily between 316 and 288 B.C. The three-year project is funded by a grant from Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, a funding program by the European Union for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers.

The project, as well as Paolini's visit and Hasaki's research, are part of a longstanding network of Mediterranean archaeology offerings on through the UArizona School of Anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and the Department of Religious Studies and Classics in the College of Humanities.

"Now, more and more, we're attracting students not only for the ancient resources we have, but also the interdisciplinary expertise that can be applied to ancient contexts," said Hasaki, who also holds appointments in the School of Anthropology and the Department of Religious Studies and Classics. "No matter how you want to approach antiquities research, we have done it."

'It's the journey that counts'

Originally from Athens, Hasaki has spent her career studying the workspaces, techniques and industry of ancient artisans, especially potters and painters. Her research often overlaps three key areas: antiquity, or ancient objects; artists today who use and replicate ancient techniques, such as Paolini and a core group of vase-painters from Greece; and digital humanities, which uses digital tools to better understand topics in the humanities.

Hasaki once built a replica of an ancient Greek kiln in Tucson for firing ceramics, which she uses for research and in her classes. With colleagues in the School of Geography, Development and Environment, she helped create an online map and database of ancient kiln sites in Greece.

A more recent project Hasaki helped lead involved taking existing databases of information about painters and potters in ancient Athens and, using computer software, creating a map to visualize the artists' relationships to one another – a process called social network analysis – to better understand the ceramics industry more broadly.

Along with professors David Killick and Daniela Triadan, Hasaki co-directs the School of Anthropology's Laboratory for Traditional Technology. Complete with a ceramics studio and equipment that can process metal samples, the lab allows students and researchers to recreate ancient pottery-making techniques to test hypotheses and answer questions about the processes artisans used centuries ago. The practice is called experimental archaeology.

"It's reverse engineering a process while acknowledging that you're only coming up with one possible explanation, not the final answer – but it's better than knowing nothing," Hasaki said. "With experimental archaeology, it's the journey that counts, not the destination."

Marco Serino and Eleni Hasaki standing next to Roberto Paolini while Paolini paints a vase

Serino, left, with Hasaki and Paolini during Paolini's demonstration with students in April.

Kyle Mittan/University Communications

In the spring, during Paolini's visit, many of Hasaki's undergraduate students created pots in the lab while documenting the process. Hands-on experiences like those, Hasaki said, are valuable for understanding the technological processes of ancient materials.

"They understand much better when they go through a process, any process. They learn from mistakes, they learn patience and perseverance," she said. "It enhances their appreciation for the course material, and I think it will stay with them for life when they go to museums, to conservation labs, to field excavations."

After reading several of Hasaki's papers about ancient artisan workspaces and social network analysis, Serino thought she would be a valuable collaborator on the A.G.A.T.H.O.C.L.E.S. project and reached out.

"I thought that my project would fit very well with her expertise, and then I realized that the University of Arizona had the facilities to do experimental archaeology and to do research to social network analysis," Serino said. "All of this fit very well with some parts of my project, which is why I asked her to help me."

Rehumanizing the past

Kat Moore

Kat Moore

Emily Blumenreich

As a sophomore last semester, Kat Moore, an honors student majoring in anthropology, history and classics, was originally nervous to take Pottery Craft and Society in Ancient Greece, a course Hasaki teaches mostly to graduate students.

But Hasaki's teaching style – blending lectures with opportunities for students to work hands-on with ceramic replicas of ancient vessels and to use digital tools to visualize the materials – made the class more accessible than Moore had expected.

Students spent significant time in Hasaki's lab, some of them creating their own pottery projects with the help of Tucson ceramic artist Cynthia Jones, the lab's ceramics instructor. By keeping students so immersed in the pottery-making process, Moore said, Hasaki and the course "rehumanized the past."

"A lot of people look at the object and don't think about where it came from," Moore said. "Eleni really rooted the human element: 'Who exactly were crafting these objects that we would find and what were their lives like?'"

Moore was among the students who gathered around Paolini at the Women's Plaza during his demonstration in April. Watching an artist replicate the movements and techniques of ancient potters, Moore said, further emphasized the human element behind the inanimate objects the class had spent the semester studying.

Thanks to industrialization, Moore said, it's easy to forget about what goes into the material items most people use every day.

"Thinking about the ancient world is in sharp contrast to that because it's all person labor," Moore said. "There is a human or multiple people who worked on this one object so that it can be used."

This summer, Moore will complete archaeological field school in Ferns, Ireland, studying the ruins of a 12th-century monastery. The lessons from Hasaki's class, Moore hopes, will help rehumanize the past in Ireland and any future archaeological experiences.

"It's really valuable to teach students how to critically look at old datasets and create new meaning from them, or reaffirm meaning," Moore said. "It's about teaching new skills that feed into inspiring students, especially undergraduate students, to ask new questions about the past and the impact they're going to have for future research."