Archaeologists in Action: James Miller

At Oberlin, interest in archaeology is not limited to its majors. Part of the reason that we have created Archaeologists in Action is to bring awareness to the fact that there are opportunities to engage with the archaeological world for students of many different majors. Today we share with you the perspective of fourth year History and Classical Civilization double major, James Miller, on his experience with archaeology. During his time in college, James has both taken archaeology classes and participated in an excavation at the Sangro Valley site in Italy.

As we begin the interview, the first thing James tells me is that he has been interested in archaeology for almost as long as he can remember. He explains that he first became aware of the archaeological world through watching the Indiana Jones films as a child. “I was always interested in history and in adventure” he recalls. Though archaeology in the real world is quite different from what is often portrayed on screen, for James the real thing has not proved disappointing.

James recently had the opportunity to spend a month excavating in Italy through the Sangro Valley Project. For many years, Oberlin students have had the opportunity to participate in this annual field school along with other students and professional archaeologists. James heard about Sangro Valley from the Classics Department during his freshman year, and decided to take part in the program two years later.

“It was really cool being in Italy” he says, “and in a part of Italy that wasn’t so crowded.” He additionally enjoyed the time he spent with the other students participating in the program, telling me: “you make connections with people.” Regarding the actual excavation, James informs me that “you get down to it pretty much right away.”

James (left) excavates with a fellow archaeologist

James explains that while the site at Sangro Valley was inhabited at many different points from the Neolithic Period onward, most of the artifacts that they found there are from Iron Age Samnite culture. James is particularly interested in the peoples living in the Mediterranean region prior to Roman contact, and the Samnites are one of these groups. “I was really lucky,” he says to me “because I got to do archaeology in my major field of interest.” As is often the case in archaeology, James was able to learn more Samnite culture through this excavation: “If you’re digging up a place where they were living, you should be able to put everything in context, and build something in your mind about how it could have looked like.”

He goes on to say that Archaeology is particularly important to the study of the Samnites, because our literary sources that discuss this culture come almost entirely from the Romans. James explains that the Romans “saw them as their greatest enemies”, pointing directly to the reason why our literary accounts from that time are heavily biased. Because of this, archaeology gives us the opportunity to learn more about the Samnites from a more impartial source. As Professor Wueste discussed when I interviewed her a few weeks ago, archaeology is particularly significant when it allows us to learn about people whose voices aren’t represented in the literature of their time.

At an archaeological excavation, work generally begins early in the day, especially in this region of Italy where the average temperature is around 98 degrees. “You have to get acclimated to the heat within that region”, James informs me. “To try to avoid that, we would…be out in the field by 6:00 or 6:30.” After a break to have lunch in the shade, excavation would continue until around 5:00 in the afternoon.

As is the case at many archaeological sites, one of the most common artifacts found was pottery. “I think I was the only one who found nearly complete pots”, James tells me, clarifying that “you find lots of pottery, but you don’t usually find complete things or nearly complete things.” This was one of the most commonly used materials in antiquity, and like other ancient artifacts often has difficulty lasting through time in one piece. As a result, pottery sherds are often the most frequently found archaeological artifacts at any given site.

James notes that he and his fellow excavators also found a bronze fibula, a type of brooch that was used to fasten garments. The fibula was discovered in five pieces, which the conservators at the site were able to put back together into its original form. This was a particularly exciting discovery since metal objects are a rare find in archaeology. Since the archaeological record most often consists of those objects that were discarded, lost, or left behind when individuals moved from one place to another, some materials are found less often than others. Bronze and other metals were much more valuable in antiquity than the average piece of pottery, and thus were more likely to have been melted down and reused than to have been discarded in a place where modern archaeologists could find them.

While it can be very rewarding, James warns that archaeology is often difficult. He explains that it is “hard work, but [there are] little rewards with each day”, adding that excavation involves a significant amount of “getting dirty and working with your hands.” James doesn’t want this to discourage anyone though, and states: “It’s worth it, don’t be daunted by the 6 days a week 12 hour days…It’s worth the time.”

The Archaeologist in Action at Sangro Valley

Clearly for James, the hard work and early mornings were worth it. He tells me that one of the most amazing things about archaeology is having the opportunity to “dig up history that hasn’t been touched for thousands of years.” During this process, “you feel like you’re doing something important and exciting.”

In addition to James, I personally know several other people who have taken part in this excavation over the years, and all have described this as an excellent experience for students interested in archaeology. Though the continuation of this particular program in future years is regrettably unknown, there are many other opportunities for undergraduates to participate in archaeological excavations, such as the site at Morgantina that Professor Wueste discussed. If you happen to be a student interested in going on a dig but don’t know where to start or who to ask for help, you are welcome to contact us and we will do our best to point you in the right direction.


Clara is a 4th year at Oberlin College and the Scribe of OAS. Read more about her and the other board members on the About OAS page.

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