NCAS History Professor Leads Archeology Field School in Italy

Lawrence Lerner

Studying abroad during college can be a life-changing experience for undergraduate and graduate students alike. No one knows this better than Rutgers-Newark History Professor Gary Farney, who for six summers has led a Rutgers summer study-abroad program in Greece.

This past summer, he started an archaeological field school in Italy, providing a rare multi-year opportunity for NCAS students and others to gain hands-on experience in surveying, excavation and conservation.

“To my knowledge, archaeological digs have been infrequent at Rutgers,” says Farney. “There have been several seasons of field work by the Anthropology Department in New Brunswick, but that kind of work is a bit different.”

So Farney, whose expertise lies in Roman history, numismatics and material culture, created the Upper Sabina Tiberina Archaeological Field School. In its inaugural summer, it drew nine students, along with an experienced staff of seven academics and archeology-and-conservation experts from major universities and organizations around the U.S. and Italy.

Digging for Knowledge

They began excavating a Roman Republican villa site at Vacone, in the Upper Sabina Tiberina region of Italy, about 40 miles northwest of Rome, while living in the small nearby village of Casperia.

The project, which will span several years, attempts to discern Roman settlement and land-use in this region during the middle and late Roman Republic (third to first century B.C.E.), which may have served as a model for later Roman expansion and exploitation in the rest of Italy and Europe

Farney ‘s team got geophysical surveying help from the Rutgers-Newark’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES), who used ground-penetrating radar to determine roughly what man-made objects were one-to-two meters below ground at the site before excavation began.

“This is crucial work requiring a certain level of expertise,” says Farney, “and I can’t thank EES enough.”

They found traces of Roman life spanning many centuries, starting with two villas, one from the first century A.D., the other from the first century B.C.E., which lay under a mosaic floor that had been untouched since Italian archaeologists first discovered it in the 1980s. The team also discovered a child’s skeleton fully intact in what appeared to be a burial tomb, and ceramics and remnants of what they believe to be a vineyard dating to the medieval period.

A Wealth of Experience

Farney, who is chairperson of Rutgers-Newark’s Department of History and Director of the Program in Ancient and Medieval Civilizations, is no stranger to excavations. As a grad student, he had excavated three Italian sites, and he’d been longing to return since the publication of his first book on ancient Italic ethnic groups.

He’s also no stranger to setting up study-abroad programs for Rutgers-Newark and NCAS students. From 2005 to 2010, Farney organized and led summer archeological and art-history tours of Greece through the Rutgers Study Abroad office.

In this regard, Farney has set himself apart.

“Newark faculty and students aren’t involved with Study Abroad all that much. It's always been a passion of mine to change this,” says Farney. “Providing opportunities for students to be abroad helps create a global campus here at Newark.”

Of the nine students who studied abroad with Farney this summer, four were from Rutgers-Newark (three undergraduates and one graduate student). Of those, three represented NCAS.

Undergraduates from Rutgers-New Brunswick and Villanova University rounded out the group. All of the participants received six course-credits from Rutgers’ Office of Study Abroad, which sponsored the field school along with the Departments of History and Earth and Environmental Sciences at Rutgers-Newark and the American Academy in Rome.

Changing Lives

Sara Ketterer, a senior from Little Falls, N.J., majoring in ancient history, represented NCAS at the field school. For her it was a dream come true.

“I’ve always wanted to go on an archaeological dig since I was a child,” says Ketterer. “It was amazing to see Roman mosaic floors I’d read about and to see how much work goes into a dig. For anybody even considering archaeology, this hands-on experience gives you an idea what’s in store for you.”

Farney believes his summer field school is set apart in still other ways.

Giving undergraduates a chance to dig with active instruction, to learn how to run a total station, or to draw and map out a site were important. He also wanted to offer conservation and preservation instruction, especially to graduate students.

“It’s rare to get instruction in conserving ancient objects and material by a professional conservator in the field,” says Farney. “This could draw students who are interested in material culture, public history or museum studies into the Rutgers-Newark fold.”


Past participants in the Upper Sabina Tiberina Archaeological Field School may receive internship credits in the future. Those interested in participating for the first time can contact Professor Farney directly at


Photos courtesy of Anna Scime