Pompeii SycamoreS assist with Excavation of world-Famous aRCHAEOLOGical site

Espresso Time

It is a little before 10 a.m., and Indiana State student Hannah Redlin is hurriedly filling cups of espresso.

The crowd is beginning to gather, waiting patiently for their morning caffeine boost. The group of scholars take a break at one of the most famous archaeology sites in the world: Pompeii.

Among the crowd is recent Indiana State alum Kortnee Bell and Dr. Alex Elvis Badillo, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Systems. Others at the site are from higher education institutions across the nation and world, including Tulane, Princeton, Columbia, and Oxford.

Researchers gather for a cup of espresso during a morning break from excavation work.
Dr. Alex Elvis Badillo, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Systems at Indiana State University.

The three Sycamores are among those participating in the Pompeii I.14 Project, which is leading the excavation of portions of an ancient city block (or insula) that consisted of shops, dining rooms, and other interior spaces. Of particular interest is a large garden, which is mostly unexplored.

The excavation team works in the garden.

About Pompeii

In August of 79 CE, an eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius buried the Roman city of Pompeii in a deluge of ash and volcanic material, killing thousands of residents and leaving the community in southern Italy abandoned for centuries.

Since its rediscovery in the 1700s, the tale of the violent destruction of Pompeii has captured the imagination of both the public and academics.

While most of the attention focuses on the community’s tragic end, the sudden burial and preservation of the city offers a rare snapshot of life and society in a Roman city.

Overview of Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.
An unexcavated portion of Pompeii shows the ground level at the time of the city's rediscovery.

A 3D Picture Tells a Story

Badillo has the unique opportunity to explore the excavation site from some interesting angles. Serving as the head of the Digital Data Initiatives team, Badillo and his team is tasked with designing and supporting a workflow that digitally captures the excavation process by using tablet computers and documenting the site and excavation using innovative 3D datacapture methods.

Badillo uses a drone to capture images of the excavation site at Pompeii.

The team consists of Gretchen Zoeller from the University of Pittsburgh, as well as Indiana State alumnus Kortnee Bell and Cade O’Fallon of St. Olaf College.

Indiana State alumnus Kortnee Bell and Cade O’Fallon of St. Olaf College review images of the site.

The tools of the trade for the digital team include a series of high-performance laptops, Apple iPads, a drone for aerial imagery, and mirrorless DSLR Fujifilm cameras. The team utilizes cameras and drones to systematically photograph excavated areas and artifacts, creating a series of overlapping photos. Those images are then used to digitally reconstruct a high-resolution 3D scene.

The Big Picture

Badillo’s team is part of a larger research project called Pompeii I.14 Project and headed by Dr. Allison Emmerson, an associate professor at Tulane University. The project's name references a location within ancient Pompeii, with the exact address of the building being I.14.1/11-14.

“This project is extremely collaborative,” Badillo said. “We have various experts who are working together to try to make sense of the site, to reconstruct it.”

In addition to the digital data team, the group includes experts in a variety of fields including ceramics, wall painting, architecture, zooarchaeology, environmental archaeology, and excavation.

Mark Robinson, head of environmental archaeology at Oxford University, examines samples collected from the garden.

Day in the Life of the Digital Team

For Badillo and his team, a typical day at Pompeii begins with an early morning gathering at De Vivo, a coffee and pastry shop located just outside of an entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii. From this location, the team decides its mission for the day before moving to the site and setting up shop in “The Monster,” a large research and storage facility a short walk away from the I.14 excavation site.

Badillo, O'Fallon and Bell leaving "The Monster" on their way to the excavation site.

Bell and O’Fallon spend much of their time at the excavation site using the Fujifilm cameras to capture imagery to convert into 3D models, while Badillo and Zoeller primarily work from The Monster processing the models and maintaining the massive amounts of collected data.

Cade O'Fallon documenting a room within the site.

“My role here is more in the realm of the spatial and data sciences," Badillo said, adding that the group is tasked with developing workflows to collect, maintain, share, visualize, analyze, and preserve all the data from the project. “We are the backbone of the project.”

Badillo, O'Fallon, and Bell inside of "The Monster."

Thanks to sponsorships from Apple and Fujifilm, the digital team has developed a paperless workflow using iPad Pro tablet computers. This includes the development of digital forms for each of the special teams for logging and collecting data, in addition to the 3D photogrammetry spatial documentation.

“The sketches, the photos, all of the observational and metric data about the excavation, the soils, what's being found, and all of the artifacts get recorded into a digital form that then gets sent to the cloud where the data team can deal with it and make it searchable.”

The ultimate goal is to provide a digital resource that can allow researchers the opportunity to study the site in detail without having to be on site. “We can search and revisit the excavation, but then we can open up the data and look at it much closer,” he said.

Researchers use iPads to paperlessly catalog artifacts.

Kortnee Bell

For Bell, the path to Pompeii began back in 2017, with an impromptu trip to Terre Haute. “I didn't know about ISU,” said Bell, who is from Peru, IN. “My friend from high school said, ‘We're going on a college tour this week. Do you want to go?’ And I was like, ‘Sure!’”

What started out as a good way to get out of class turned into a life-changing moment. “I got there and I immediately knew that's where I was going to go to school,” she said, “At ISU, I really fell in love with the atmosphere.”

Bell said she felt comfortable and not overwhelmed. “I stopped applying (to other universities) after that because I just knew that was going to be it.”

During her sophomore year, Bell stopped by the newly created Geospatial and Virtual Archaeology Laboratory and Studio (GVALS) and met Badillo; she worked for GVALS during the rest of her time at ISU.

Badillo and Bell discuss capturing images of a space in the excavation site.

“He kind of took me under his wing,” she said, adding that Badillo eventually gave her the push to take on her first real photogrammetry archaeology opportunity despite her reservations. “He's really good at pushing me out of my comfort zone, of like making me do stuff, making me figure stuff out even when I'm a little freaked out by it.”

That project involved assisting Badillo with structure-from-motion (SfM) photogrammetry as part of the Bethel Cemetery Relocation Project near the Indianapolis International Airport.

Bell and O'Fallon alternate between taking notes and photographing each location.

Badillo said he was impressed with Bell’s work ethic. “She'd sit and run 3D models while she's doing homework or learning something else, so I was very impressed with her dedication and her using her own time to come to the lab and learn.”

While primarily interested in anthropology, Bell said she enjoyed the photogrammetry work and discovered that it offers a bridge between anthropology and archaeology.

Bell photographing casts of human remains located in a room within the excavation site.

Following graduation, Bell landed a position with the archaeology firm Stantec, and then with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where she had worked with Badillo on a project as a student. “My whole degree field was prepared and cultivated by this kind of really perfect set of things that came together all at once at ISU, and through ISU supporting us doing that,” she said.

Eventually, Badillo reached out to Bell and asked if she would be interested in joining the digital team at Pompeii. “I know her skill set and she's currently working in archeology with a firm, and this is a great opportunity.”

The trip to Pompeii was Bell’s first time abroad. “I feel like finally I kind of solidified my place in the food chain a bit in my career to be like,’ Yeah, I've done that.’ I've gone to Italy and worked in Pompeii and people kind of understand, like, the gravity of that a bit.”

Hannah Redlin

As a shot put and discus thrower for the Indiana State track and field team, senior Redlin is used to competition.

Redlin participating at an indoor track meet.

Redlin had to go through an application and interview process to secure a spot on the excavation team. Badillo said the competition was intense. “We had people from all over the world apply from all kinds of schools, from Ivy League to public universities.”

Hannah Redlin with items collected in the garden.
Artifacts discovered during the excavation

Redlin landed one of the excavation positions and was able to gain some valuable field experience. “I want to specifically do bioarchaeology, but I have no in-field experience with any type of excavation,” she said, “So this is giving me those foundational skills and I can maybe find a field school for more specific (fields).”

“So we're here for 36 days and we're going to be in trenches just excavating in certain areas,” Redlin explained. “But we'll also get experience in the lab at the Monster with pottery, cleaning, some dry sifting….”

Redlin sifts through soil for items at the research site.

Badillo said the Pompeii experience will give Redlin a leg up after graduation.

End of the day

Following a day in the field, the excavators and researchers head back to the hostel and gather in the courtyard to relax, chat, and escape the sun. For Bell and Redlin, this is another important aspect of the experience – the ability to network with others and make connections.

“(For Hannah), she is working with a team of people that are not just her peers or even from her region,” he said. “It shows that she can work in that kind of collaborative environment.”

After about an hour, the members of the team began filtering out into the modern streets of Pompeii to find dinner locations.

For Badillo, these experiences are invaluable.

“Working and being involved in different archeological projects has allowed me to create many opportunities for students,” he said, adding that he hopes to include students next year in a project he is directing in Oaxaca, Mexico. “For an archaeology student, the experience of working in the field is critical because if you want a job after you graduate, you have to have a field school or a field experience that's substantial.”

Badillo, O'Fallon and Bell in the Monster.

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