Unearthing Ancient History in Tuscany

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

Populonia is one of the most important active archaeological sites in Italy. From 900 BCE to 100 CE, it served as the center of iron smelting and trade in the Mediterranean. Iron was the city’s economic base and source of wealth. The transfer of the city from Etruscan to Roman rule (at about 250 or 200 BCE) did not halt its metalworking activities; iron exports supported Roman expansion in Africa, and the Augustan ruling class (50 BCE to 50 CE) had important economic interests in the area’s industrial production and commerce.

To reconstruct the economic and social history of the city Populonia, we must understand when iron smelting took place; how society in the city formed around iron smelting activities; the trade routes and the people who lived and worked in the harbor, mines, and iron-smelting industry.

To achieve these goals, our project aims to continue excavating at two sides: the Roman villa on Poggio del Molino (“Windmill Hill”), and the heart of the lower city of Populonia in the areas called San Cerbone and Casone, where denizens smelted iron and were buried in the land behind the harbor. This part of the city is preserved as part of the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park.

On the north side of the Baratti Gulf, the Villa of Poggio del Molino is, so far, the most significant site to help us reconstruct the history of Populonia between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE. Focusing the research at Poggio del Molino villa gives us extraordinary evidence about a dark period in Populonia history. The villa was built at the beginning of the 1st century CE, when the main city of Populonia was abandoned for unknown reasons and became a ruin. Because the villa was continuously inhabited until the end of the 5th century CE, it is still one of the few existing sources of historical information from this time period.

The southern side of the gulf, in the area where Baratti Archaeological Park is situated, is undoubtedly the most important place to explore to understand the many hidden details of the people who lived, worked, and died in Populonia between the 7th and the 1st century BCE.

Research Aims

Through our excavations, we aim to fill gaps in our knowledge of the industrial history and coastal economy of the Populonia area from the Etruscan period (beginning in 800 BCE) through the Roman period (beginning at about 250 to 200 BCE) and up to the early Middle Ages (at 600 CE). Our results will help illuminate how the Etruscan and Roman economies operated, and how the Romans exploited the natural resources of the territories they ruled. We still know very little about the political, economic, architectural, and religious changes brought by the arrival of the Romans in this part of the Etruscan coast.

Our findings can inform educational programming, conservation techniques, and excavation methods, which in turn will help preserve these sites for future generations. Archaeological sites in the bay of Populonia-Baratti face threats from treasure hunters and looters, and we aim to use our findings to show the public the great cultural value of protecting these historic sites. We also provide a rare opportunity for young people to gain professional experience. It is very difficult to enter the field of archaeology in Italy, and by giving local and international students internships and jobs, we can help them enter the field and continue the research that we believe is so important.

We are digging in an area that covers the western part of the necropolis in San Cerbone, one of the most important cemeteries in Populonia. The tombs that are visible now became buried beneath iron slag heaps between the 4th and 1st centuries BCE, when the cemetery was abandoned as a result of growth of the iron ore smelting activities in the territory of Populonia (4th to 3rd centuries BCE). People used machines to excavate the slag at the beginning of the twentieth century, partially destroying many tombs in the process.

The oldest features in this area date back to the 7th century BCE: two circular tumulus (mound) tombs belonging to powerful, very wealthy families in Populonia. During the 6th century BCE, the necropolis kept growing, but no new tumulus tombs were built. New so-called "shrine-shaped tombs,” used by the most important families, imitated the structure of the city’s temples. The cemetery’s sarcophagi, made from slabs of local sandstone called panchina, belong to the same period. Objects found in these graves lead us to conjecture that they were built for members of Populonia’s middle class. In spite of fact that they are smaller than the shrine-shaped tombs, more than one person could be buried in the same sarcophagus.

Of greatest interest is the internal organization of the cemetery: the graves follow at least two roads, which meet in a space that could be identified as a crossroad. The necropolis—the city of the dead—imitates the main features of the cities of the living.

How You Will Help

You will help us reconstruct the area’s complex past as fully as possible. All teams will excavate the lower city of Populonia (the Etruscan necropolis and early Roman building for iron smelting) in the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park. If weather prevents work outside at any point, you’ll help reconstruct the shapes of excavated object by trying to rebuild the original from the fragments collected, draw, and record and analyze data. Some teams will get to join a class in experimental archaeology, where you’ll try your hand at creating a tool using prehistoric methods.

Teams 1, 2, 3, and 4 will excavate at the Villa Poggio del Molino, and help fill key gaps in our knowledge of the industrial history and coastal economy of Populonia and its territory. Volunteers on these teams will have the opportunity to visit the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park and learn about the work happening there.

Teams 5–7 will excavate at the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park as well as a new site, the ancient city of Populonia, which is just outside the Park. The area has not yet been investigated by rigorous archaeological scientific methods, but it is doubtless a critical place to discover more about the lives of the people who lived in Populonia between the 7th and 1st century BCE. Volunteers on these teams will still have the opportunity to visit the Villa Poggio del Molino and learn a great deal about the project’s discoveries and other work at that location so far.

Archaeological Excavation and Technical Relief: Collecting samples after removing earth from them with specialized tools and taking earth away by wheelbarrow. Drawing of plans, sections, etc.

Recording and Analysis: Cleaning, marking and listing, drawing, and cataloguing mobile artifacts. Geological analysis of stone building material.

Conservation and Restoration: Pottery, reconstruction of shapes, drawing. Wall and pavement decoration, drawing, preliminary conservation operations.

Cultural Dissemination: Demonstration of the archaeological activity on site to the general public. Contribution to periodical reports, both in print and on the website.

Active and Passive Protection: Temporary protection of site; housing of artifacts; planning of definitive protection of the site.


Life in the Field

Once here, you’ll watch presentations and practical demonstrations to prepare for fieldwork. Staff members will be available at all times to clarify anything and help where necessary. You’ll also learn about our research and the methodology (such as the stratigraphic method) through staff talks throughout the expedition, which may happen in free afternoons or evenings. On most days, you’ll have time to relax in the early evening, just before dinner. NOTE: You are welcome to help with meal preparation, and you will be required to assist with table setting and cleaning up after meals. Other students and volunteers will also work on the sites, but the Earthwatch volunteers will work in separate groups.

  • 8:00 a.m. Breakfast
  • 8:30 a.m. Meet on site and daily briefing
  • 8:45 a.m.–1:00 p.m. Work on site
  • 1:00–2:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 2:00–5:00 p.m. Work on site
  • 5:15 p.m. Return to the accommodations
  • 5:30–8:15 p.m. Recreational time; assist with dinner prep.
  • 8:00 p.m. Dinner
  • 9:00 p.m. Wash up and relax.

Those joining the project for 13 days will have one full recreation day. All teams will attend evening lectures, and a wine tasting may be organized (at the volunteers’ own expense) on one evening.


Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

Note: Punctuality is important, as the project has fixed schedules. Please plan to meet the team promptly every morning.

  • Day 1: Rendezvous, travel to accommodations. Welcome.
  • Days 2–6: Health and safety briefing, lectures, update, and work on site. Excavation, survey, and other research tasks as detailed above.
  • Day 7: Tidy up and departure
  • Day 7: Recreational day: visit to the Necropolis of Le Grotte, the Acropolis of Populonia, and the Medieval Castle of Populonia
  • Days 8–12: Excavation, survey, and other research tasks as detailed above
  • Day 13: Tidy up and departure
  • 10:00 a.m.– 1:00 p.m.
    • Visit to Archaeological Park of Baratti and Populonia, which includes:
    • The necropolis of San Cerbone (7th–5th century BCE) with tumulus, aedicula and sarcophagus tombs.
    • The striking Necropolis of Le Grotte 4th to the 3rd century BCE), excavated in an ancient quarry of panchina building stone, and the underground Hellenisticage chamber tombs.
  • 1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m.
    • Lunch
  • 2:30–3:30 p.m.
    • Visit the Acropolis of Populonia, built between the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 2nd century BCE.
  • 3:30–4:30 p.m.
    • Visit to the medieval castle and village of Populonia or the archaeological museum of the Territory of Populonia, Piombino. The exhibit traces the historical development of the relationship between humans, territory, and resources, in which the theme of iron production, past and present, assumes a particularly important role.
  • 6:00–8:30 p.m.
    • Recreational time
  • 8:30 p.m. Dinner.
    • Pizza at a restaurant.


Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Teams 5 will stay at the Populonia Stazione and Teams 1–3 and 6 and 7 will stay at the apartments in the Populonia Castle

The accommodations feature modern furnishings, free Wi-Fi, television, single beds, and gas heat. Each apartment has a small kitchen with a stove, dishwasher and fridge. Here, teams will prepare breakfast and dinner. Apartments vary in size according to how big the teams are. People will share rooms with others of the same gender, but the apartments themselves will be mixed gender. A typical apartment will sleep a total of 5–6. The staff will make room assignments. This project can accommodate couples in their own rooms with prior notice. Single rooms can be guaranteed for the additional cost of €400 per week, payable to research staff upon arrival. Or, you can request a single room for free, which is subject to availability and will depend on numbers and the gender makeup of the team. If you would like a single room, please request one at the time of booking and note it on your volunteer forms.

Towels and bed linens are provided. If you are particularly susceptible to feeling chilly during the night, bring warm pajamas and/or a light sleeping bag.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The accommodations have hot showers, flush toilets. A maximum of 4–6 people of both genders will share a shower and a toilet.


You are welcome to bring electrical equipment. Electrical outlets are 220 Volts, 50 Hz, standard European plug.


Wireless Internet is available. Computers/tablets aren’t available, so you will have to bring your own electronic devices. If you wish to call home, a public telephone box is available, and if you inform the staff at the start of the project they can take you to purchase an international calling card.


You’ll enjoy typical Italian-style cuisine on this expedition. You’ll help yourself to breakfast in the morning from a selection of the foods listed below, which may vary slightly from day to day.

We’ll have lunch on-site each day. Volunteers will prepare their own sandwiches, and staff will shop for and help provide various food items for the packed lunches. At the Archaeological Park where we’ll be working, there is a bar and restaurant where you can have your break during the morning. There, you can get coffee, water, other beverages, ice cream, croissants, and sandwiches (at your own expense). Staff will prepare the evening meal, but you are more than welcome to help out and learn how to cook some delicious Italian recipes. Volunteers will take turns setting the table and washing up after meals.

There is drinking water available on site at the accommodations. There will also be juice, tea, and coffee at the accommodations.

Dinner is eaten later in the evening in Italy (between 8:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.); there will be biscuits and fruit available to snack on, but if you wish to have more snacks when you return from the field then you will need to bring some or purchase them from the small supermarket.

Below are examples of the foods you might expect in the field. Variety depends on availability. Please be flexible.

  • Breakfast: Yogurt, fruit, cereals, bread, sweet snacks, biscuits, croissants, tea coffee, and juice
  • Lunch: Rice or pasta dishes, sandwiches, and fruit
  • Dinner: Varieties of meat, fish, pizza, pasta, with vegetables and salad accompaniments and dessert
  • Snacks: Biscuits/cookies, fruit
  • Beverages: Water, coffee, tea, juices

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

Accommodating special diets is not guaranteed and can be very difficult due to availability of food, location of field sites, and other local conditions.

Project Conditions

The information that follows is as accurate as possible, but please keep in mind that conditions may change.

At San Cerbone, the ground is flat and open; shade will be provided. It will likely be dry most of the time, but if it does rain the ground can become very slippery.

At the archaeological park, you may want to walk the long, very steep paths through the woods to the Benedictine monastery of San Quirico.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day; maintain a good team attitude in all types of weather and in the potential presence of insects.
  • Tolerate temperatures listed above, and often hot and humid conditions; shade is provided, but the sun and humidity cannot be avoided entirely.
  • Get low enough to the ground to comfortably carry out excavation activities.
  • Regularly get oneself up and down from the ground during excavation tasks for up to two hours a day, which can potentially cause strain on the back and knees. There will be the opportunity to work from chairs if required during pottery lab activities.
  • Traverse over rough, uneven terrain (often wet and slippery), low-lying walls, and steep slopes with no handrails while on the excavation sites.
  • Tolerate sometimes dusty conditions while working, which, combined with a breeze, can sometimes be uncomfortable for contact lens wearers. Wearing glasses may be more comfortable.
  • Traverse over uneven and often steep terrain for periods of up to three hours if partaking in optional recreational walking trips to see surrounding areas.
  • Get oneself up and down out of a vehicle and ride, seated with seatbelt fastened, for periods of approximately two hours.
  • Public toilet facilities at the San Cerbone site are easily accessible, but will require a 5-minute walk to the ticket office/bookshop. At the villa site a small, narrow portable toilet facility will be available.
  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.

Note: Excavation requires constant hard work, and participants may find this very strenuous. We strongly recommend that you undertake some training (walking, carrying, bending) to strengthen your level of fitness before joining the project.

Health and Safety


There is a large, well-equipped hospital approximately 20 minutes away from the site. In the event of an emergency, we would transport the injured party to the hospital in a project vehicle or by ambulance. There is a place to land a helicopter near the site, and there is a helipad at the hospital. Minor injuries will be treated on site with basic first aid.

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


As in any country, transport is a risk. All minibuses and cars will be fitted with seatbelts, and all passengers must wear them whenever the vehicle is in motion. Only experienced drivers will drive vehicles. Each vehicle will contain a first-aid kit and a cell phone for communication.

Participants may not drive, even their own cars, during the project.

Walking/ Terrain

The terrain may be rough and can become very slippery when wet. Appropriate footwear, with good traction and steel- capped toes (required by the Italian government) must be worn. Do not run on site and be aware of where you walk. Walkways must remain clear; do not leave tools, equipment, or personal bags in places that could create a hazard for others. You may not park wheelbarrows, walk close to, or sit on the edge of the work pits. Metal grid pegs with orange caps mark areas on the site where you may not walk. During site planning, we stretch red and white string between the grid pegs at approximately three to six inches (eight to 15 centimeters) above the ground, which creates a trip hazard you should be cautious of. You will not be permitted on site without staff. The terrain of the villa research site is rough and uneven, and presents a significant risk of tripping and falling if care is not taken.

Strains and sprains

Wear sturdy footwear, long socks, and trousers on site. Also, pay attention to your own abilities and work within your limits. You may want to use gloves and kneeling pads. We will instruct you to not overfill buckets and wheelbarrows and on the correct procedures for lifting heavy objects. Ask for assistance when moving large items. When lifting rocks or stone blocks, take care not to trap your fingers. If you’re working underground at the site, we will instruct you to wear a helmet.

Animals / Plants
  • Scratches from Vegetation. Again, watch where you walk and wear long-sleeved tops, long pants, and gloves to avoid scratches. You must have an up- to-date tetanus vaccination.
  • Mosquito Bites. There are many mosquitos around the site and accommodations, and with them, the danger of infection and disease. Bring mosquito repellent and wear long pants and sleeves, especially in the evening, to avoid bites.
  • Wildlife. Do not approach harmful animals; let field staff remove them safely. Although vipers are rarely seen, do not go off paths into the surrounding woods. Because of spiders and scorpions, take care when moving stones, choosing a place to sit on the ground, and putting on shoes. Some hairy caterpillars on the surrounding pine trees may cause a rash.
  • Hay fever. Plants at the sites may cause hay fever in those who are susceptible to it. Bring any appropriate medication and tissues to the field.
Climate / Weather
  • Sun exposure Please wear high SPF sunscreen, a sun hat, and lightweight long-sleeved clothing, and rehydrate regularly with water, which is freely available on site. Some shade will be available on site.
Project tasks/ Equipment
  • Eye irritation/ infection. Excavation work will stir up dust and grit, which can cause infection or discomfort to eyes. Although normal eyewear provides some protection, safety glasses will be available, and instruction will be given regarding keeping eyes safe.
  • Injury from tools. Volunteers will be instructed in the correct use and safe storage of tools. Staff will supervise use of tools and volunteers must listen carefully to instructions.
  • Damage to excavation site. We will demonstrate correct excavation methodology and remind you not to walk, sit, or leave belongings on the ancient walls and artifacts, which could cause long-term damage. Always listen carefully to instructions.
Personal Security
  • Theft. Petty crime is common in cities. Always keep your wallet, purse, valuables, passport, and other travel documentation in a secure place while passing through stations and airport. There is a small risk of petty theft on site, as members of the public occasionally pass through, so we will ask you to store your bags in a safe place. Keep valuables locked up or in your possession at all times. The accommodations will be locked when we leave for the day.

We will brief you on the risks of swimming in the sea, and only confident swimmers should enter the water. You may not swim in bad weather. Staff will assess and approve all swimming sites daily. Swimming alone or after drinking is not permitted.

Distance from Medical Care

20 minutes by car

Travel Planning


Galileo Galilei International Airport, Pisa PI, Italy

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • C. Megale, A. Camilli, E. Sorge (a cura di), Archeologia in cantiere. Nuove scoperte dagli scavi di Baratti, Pisa 2014. On line https://unifi.academia.edu/CarolinaMegale.
  • Green, Kevin. Archaeology: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Renfrew, C and P. Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods, Practice. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.
  • Megale, Carolina. Fare l’Archeologo per Passione e per Mestiere. Livorna : Books & Company, 2009. On line https://unifi.academia.edu/CarolinaMegale.
  • Bonafante, Larissa. Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies. 1986. (preview at bit.ly/WV07cz).
  • Thomson De Grummond, Nancy and Erika Simon. The Religion of the Etruscans. 2006. (preview at bit.ly/W6ue5B).
  • C. Megale, S. Genovesi, The Roman Settlement of Poggio del Molino: the Late Republican Fort and the Early Imperial Farm of Poggio del Molino. Preliminary data, FOLD&R, n. 347, 2016.
  • C. Megale, S. Genovesi, Economy and production in Late Republican Settlement of Poggio del Molino, Populonia, in L. Bombardieri, A. D’Agostino, G. Guarducci, V. Orsi, S. Valentini (a cura di), Identity and Connectivity: Proceedings of the 16th Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, Florence, Italy, 1–3 March 2012, BAR International Series 2581 (II), 2013, pp. 901-908.
  • Archaeological Guide to the Province of Livorno and the Tuscan Archipelago. Florence: Nardini Editore, 2003.
  • Semplici, Andrea. Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park. Florence: Fotolito Toscana, 2008. Note: This guide is only available on site; Carolina has a copy.