How I Spent My Summer: John Clarke

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The University of Texas campus was quiet over the summer, while students and faculty spent their time working on projects around the globe. The College of Fine Arts was no exception. Students and faculty from all three departments took advantage of the break from coursework to pursue research, teach seminars or test the waters of a future career. Here is a glimpse into what happens when classes end, and the fun begins.

Department of Art and Art History's John Clarke, Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor in Fine Arts, led the Oplontis Project in Italy.

Jenny Muslin, Art History graduate student, in the middle of Villa B surrounded by the wine jars collected from the site.Can you tell me about the Oplontis Project in general and this summer's focus?

The Oplontis Project just completed its 11th season of fieldwork. The aim of the project is to publish two contiguous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Villa A, attributed to Nero’s wife Poppaea, and Villa B, both located under the modern town of Torre Annunziata, Italy. They are just 3 miles from Pompeii and were buried to a depth of 28 feet by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Italian excavators, working between 1964 and 1991, uncovered 99 luxury spaces in Villa A with extraordinary frescoes and statuary. At Villa B they found a commercial center, likely a wine-bottling enterprise, and 54 human skeletons. Unfortunately, when funds ran out, excavations halted, and the work of study and publication was not completed. In 2005, with Michael Thomas (Ph.D., Art History, 2001), I approached the Italian Ministry of Culture with a proposal to study all of the already-excavated material and to conduct our own excavations below the A.D. 79 levels—all with the aim of producing the definitive publication of both sites. We formed with Oplontis Project, housed in the Department of Art and Art History, with funds from private Texas donors, the University and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Does anything from this summer's work in particular stand out?

Three things stand out from this summer’s work: the collaboration with two universities on a major exhibition, “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii,” new evidence about the ancient wine industry and the discovery of earlier phases of Villa B.

I’ve worked on this exhibition since 2009. It will showcase discoveries we have made—especially the beautiful frescoes from Villa A. By a special permission from the Ministry of Culture we are also bringing gold and jewelry found on the skeletons, as well as seven priceless marble statues, to the United States. It will open at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan in February 2016 and then go on the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. I had a great time helping the curators, conservators and faculty from both universities get ready for this big event. They came to work with me in the storerooms and museums, measuring, photographing and designing curriculum and community outreach in expectation of this amazing show. I’ll never forget photographing the beautiful gold coins and jewelry in the huge safe of the Naples Archaeological Museum!

Meanwhile, at Villa B, our doctoral student, Jenny Muslin, discovered that the original excavations grossly underestimated the number of wine jars (amphoras). Along with Plan II undergraduate, Lillie Leone, she catalogued nearly 1,200, meaning that Villa B was a major wine-bottling center 2,000 years ago. Forty volunteers from Kent Archaeological Field School, U.K., helped with the amphora study and the excavations, directed by Ivo van der Graaff (Ph.D., Art History, 2013). Ivo’s trenches proved that were earlier buildings beneath the warehouse area, datable by wall-painting fragments and coins found in the fill.
These and other UT students left this season with valuable archaeological experience and career advancement through the publications they are producing that document their discoveries.

We had lots of visitors, the most fun group being the Flying Longhorns, led by Andrea Keene. Michael Thomas gave them tours of the Villas, and I spent a wonderful day visiting Pompeii with them.

Were you able to take some time away from the project to have some fun or do any sightseeing?

My most exciting adventure was an arduous hike up Mount Faito, above Pompeii. It is the highest peak in the region. You look down to the east on Vesuvius (it seems tiny!), and on the east you see the mountains of the Amalfi coast disappearing into the Mediterranean.

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