Gravina di Puglia, a medieval town located about 60 km south west of the port city of Bari, is not only a fascinating place to visit (thanks to the presence of dinosaur tracks, caves, grottos and the like) but over the years Gravina di Puglia has also revealed itself to be an archeological treasure trove.
Gravina is separated by a deep ravine and on the north side of the ravine, in a nondescript area on the outskirts of town (location to remain anonymous), archeologists have been carefully digging and shifting through shards of old rock and gravel and in the process have pieced together a remarkable back story involving the Roman Empire, old bones and trade between Rome and China.
Once upon a time
Archeological study and excavation that began in earnest in the summer of 2008 has offered jigsaw-like clues as to the rise and fall of the small settlement of Vagnari. Researchers have concluded that the earliest occupation at Vagnari was a small settlement established in the 4th century BC. Sometime around the beginning of the 1st century AD, the settlement was acquired by the Roman emperor and the work conducted in and around the area was dedicated to tile-making and iron-working.
According to an article in Science Daily, Tracy Prowse, assistant professor of anthropology at Mcmaster University and whose research focuses on the bio-archaeological analysis of the people buried in the cemetery, revealed that researchers excavating in what is identified as the Vargnari cemetery made a surprising discovery when they extracted ancient mitochondrial DNA from one of the skeletons buried at the site and discovered the 2,000-year-old bones revealed an individusal with East Asian ancestry.
In the simplest layman’s terms – how is it that someone from China (or the general vicinity thereof) came to be living in Southern Italy?
Prowse has been digging at the cemetery at the site of Vagnari for the last seven years. Based on her work in the region, she thinks the East Asian man – who lived sometime between the first to second centuries AD (considered the early Roman Empire) – lived as a slave or worker. The burial timeframe was based on “grave goods” that were placed in his grave. In this case a simple metal pot. Even more interesting is that there is evidence that someone was buried on top of him.
At this point, Prowse’s research demonstrates that the “East Asian Man” definitely was not born in Italy and likely came to Vagnari from elsewhere in the Roman Empire. How and why is something that can only be guessed at.
The Vagnari excavation shows no signs of letting up. In fact, student archeologist volunteers are already being recruited for an “excavation summer” at the site – contributing to the dig while earning college credit at the same time.
In the meantime, this excavation offers archeologists an exciting opportunity to study a small cross-section of Roman society including how they lived and worked.