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On the night of September 7th 2017, a fire destroyed the archaeological park of the Roman villa of Faragola (Foggia). It was a severe blow for Italian archaeology: no one had ever imagined that - in the 21st century AD - ashes and destruction could affect our antique beauties. Here, Giuliano De Felice, among the protagonists of the excavation of the villa, tries to reflect on the incident from a distance: how can we reconcile rebuilding the site with preserving the memory of this tragic event?
De Felice, G. 2018. Faragola. Destruction and reconstruction of an archaeological site. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 155-156.
In the morning of September 7th I turned on my phone – as I do every morning – at 7.57 but, instead of starting to delete the usual overnight junk mail, I opened a WhatsApp notification. The message was as laconic as it was brutal: “someone’s set fire to the cover of the Faragola villa.”
I was only able to truly take in what had happened a few minutes later, with the arrival of the first images of what, with smoking steel and streaks of fire, looked more like a plane crash than an archaeological site.
Words often leave room for hope: is it a prank? a false report? exaggeration? The images certainly did not. I immediately closed my eyes and whilst, for a moment, the violence and devastation faded into darkness, other images, images of a much, much older destruction, started forming in my mind. I saw another site, my very first dig, San Giusto – not too distant from Faragola – investigated in remote 1995, a further and exceptional testimony to a territory – that of the Foggia landscapes – hiding truly unique places and sites.
San Giusto was a vicus with an extraordinary example of a dual church, unusually majestically isolated in a desert of hills sloping towards the Sub-Appennines. Around the middle of the 6th century AD, a fire destroyed one of the two churches, bringing down the mighty roof directly onto the floor mosaics. It was a building of hundreds of square meters, not much different from the area of the cenatio (the dining room) of the Faragola villa. The practical outcome? Iron and ash: under the layers of collapsed walls, in direct contact with the mosaic, there were hundreds of nails, shear pins, brackets and hinges spread everywhere in a dusty, blackish, almost threatening layer.
This is what normally remains of a large wooden ceiling and its carpentry after a fire, whether after a week or 1500 years, in San Giusto as in Faragola. Now, it is certainly not a mystery that archaeologists are used to encountering destruction, collapse, earthquakes, fires during their daily work, and are well aware of the signs that each of these events leave in the stratigraphy.
Ash, rubefaction, collapses, fragments, all are in essence what remains of the violence of the past. Harmless residues, because they are distant, historicized and investigated with professional detachment. Yet, knowledge of and daily encounters with the tragedy and violence of History by no means safeguard archaeologists from the cruel live coverage of the web and social networks, from the pain of seeing and feeling the heat of the flames, the smell of burning, wisps of smoke arising from the rubble, stones turned red by exposure to heat, marble turned to dust, mosaics exploding into small fragments of blackened tiles.
But this time these traces have instantly dragged us all back into History, that same History that we thought we had defeated by turning it into an object of study or immobilising it in a future archaeological park.
Archaeology does not teach us only how to study and analyze traces of life and destruction but also – and especially – how to rebuild. And that means right away, a few days after the fire, it is time to roll up our sleeves: the rubble has been already removed and we are working on the construction site again, starting over. (At San Giusto, instead, church A was permanently abandoned after the fire: no one ever removed the rubble or rebuilt walls or roof). Starting over means not only safeguarding what is left, but also opening the site to the public immediately, as was done on October 5th, 6th and 7th, just one month after the fire.
For archaeologists ‘reconstruction’ is a noble term with a very full and profound significance. It does not involve just putting objects and monuments back together (stuff like ‘restore the former glory’) or choosing what and how to do it, but rather analysing, interpreting and telling the whole story of a site, a landscape, or a context. This will also be done in Faragola by narrating, emphasizing, and musealizing this fire as well. It is important that we show that the fire was not an ending – as it is often the case in archaeological sites – but merely a phase in a longer story.
The archaeologists at work today in Faragola are perfectly aware that while it is their duty to try to restore Faragola using all available means, from restoration to multimedia, it is equally important that this tremendous event, which no one would have wanted to experience, is also not forgotten. It would be wrong to ignore, remove or forget any part of it by cleaning up and restoring the site. The story must be shown and told, because forgetting the destruction would become part of the destruction, possibly its most irreparable side.
Since September 7th 2017 Faragola has irreversibly became a traumascape: a place whose value no longer rests only in the remains of a remote Past, but also in its bearing witness to contemporary history: it shows us how violence and destruction are still all around us and how things can become ruins and archaeological artefacts overnight.
Even before the investigators have finished, even before learning what was the cause, the guilty party or the motive, the Faragola fire is, first and foremost, a tremendous but extraordinary lesson of history and life: archaeology and cultural heritage are not the irenic world of beauty, art, admiration and contemplation, but a place in which history takes shape and becomes both memory and future.
De Felice, G. 2012. Una macchina del tempo per l’archeologia. Metodologie e tecnologie per la ricerca e la fruizione virtuale del sito di Faragola. Bari: Edipuglia.
Turchiano, M. & Volpe, G. 2016. Faragola e l’eredità delle ville in Italia meridionale tra Tardoantico e Altomedioevo. Anales de Arqueología Cordobesa. 27: pp. 77-96.
Volpe, G. & Turchiano, M. 2010. Faragola di Ascoli Satriano. Guida agli scavi archeologici. Foggia: Claudio Grenzi editore.
Volpe, G. & Turchiano, M. 2010. The last enclave. Rural settlement in the 5th century in Southern Italy: the case of Apulia. In Delogu, P. & Gasparri, S. (eds) 2010. Le trasformazioni del V secolo. L’Italia, i barbari e l’Occidente romano. Atti del Seminario di Poggibonsi, 18-20 ottobre 2007, pp. 531-577. Turnhout: Brepols.