The best-defining memory of Sandro that I have is perhaps when I saw him in the purest bliss and wonder during the guided tour of the Abbey di Sant’Antimo. Nibbling pensively on the frame of his glasses, the thirty-seven-year-old professor, leagues ahead of his age in respect and prestige, stopped every few moments with childlike joy as his hands traced the ages of the reliefs, etches, and architecture before me and my peers—his fingers marking the few centuries of difference between the Medieval patterns or pointing out the remainders of a Roman villa reused and embedded in the walls. The tour guide consistently turned back to scold him as he became lost in his element; in those moments and many others, I remembered why Sandro is such a captivating teacher: on-site laboring beside us, in the museum narrating the story of the pottery before us, and even taking us around the town walls and church frescos of Paganico, my professor always leapt at the opportunity to bestow all that he knows and share in the same excitement of this field of study that he has had since he was a child. In fact, the continuity of his passion is sewn into the very fabric of his clothes in the patches on his work pants and shines forth from the image of the whittled trowel that he has had for almost twenty years. As he peered down at his students at work and teased us, tested our knowledge, and deflated our egos with his grin stretched wide, Sandro likewise wove us into the continuity of his passion while acting as a leader that any of the students would follow eager, wild-eyed into the dark—gasping, laughing, and crying out in exasperation together from amongst the soil.
This continuous passion for archaeology has been a permanent fixture in Sandro’s life, with an appreciation for ruins embedded into his being as early as two months old in his parents’ arms gazing over the ruins of the Acropolis of Athens. As a young boy growing up in Grosseto, he was drawn away from the city to the mountains near his grandparents’ house where he spent his summers; now, his eyes scan these breathtaking formations and imagine how they connected, aided, and hindered less-visible ancient communities and their economic and social networks—piecing together “little pieces of fragments…to recreate the big picture” like the puzzles that he loves to complete. Although Sandro believes that “archaeology is a puzzle…you don’t know where the research is leading…you have to connect [the pieces] to get the final image.” At just seven years old, this meticulous worker loved to watch documentaries and even physically cut-and-pasted “puzzle pieces” of photocopied pictures into an Ancient Egypt research project for school. After this project, the thorough, young archaeologist continued his personal studies into the field with the aid and encouragement of his parents, as his father had wanted to be an archaeologist himself when he was young. Although it has been redirected away from Egyptian archaeology, Sandro has retained this love of research, his careful eye, and his impressive work ethic to this day on a much larger scale. When he was sixteen, he leapt at the opportunity to be a part of an excavation at a Medieval Castle with the University of Siena, and, perhaps to the surprise of his mother and despite his shyness at that age, the experience made him fall in love with the field rather than turn away from it. Left to remove collapse and excavate a room on his own by a director that doubted him, Sandro’s suffering bore excitement as every stone that he removed revealed “one tiny centimeter more of that room…to uncover a small piece of…a much bigger picture.” With just himself, “a pickaxe, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, and huge romantic blocks,” Sandro was “the only actor in that moment…bringing back to the light…a piece of history that nobody had seen for centuries”—turning over the awe-inspiring designs of maiolica tile in his hands that he would later immortalize in a tattoo on his leg. Sandro described his rise from that nervous, starry-eyed boy to IMPERO Project Director, stating: “One day…I was a normal archaeologist with a Ph.D. and then the day after I was co-director of a project with two colleagues of mine…Things can happen quite quickly…You have to suffer…but in the end, it is going to be rewarding; it is going to be something you don’t expect.” Although he had never anticipated it, Sandro always “had hopes [to be in the position that he is in now], but [he] was lucky enough to achieve the dream of a life.”
In 2003, Sandro traveled for the first time by himself to Albania to excavate, where, digging for the first time in a new country, dealing with a new language, and working without his friends, he was struck with interpersonal dynamics which he did not anticipate. His knowledge of English, the mediating language during that excavation, from his high school studies of Shakespeare and Milton proved to be unaligned with the way those around him spoke; yet, the kindness of others seemed not to be bound to language at all. The Albanian locals, who were “some of the poorest people [that he] had ever met in his life” and could not communicate with Sandro and his peers, extended all the hospitality to the visitors that they could offer to make them feel at home—shattering the culturally-ingrained stereotypes of the area and its people prevalent in Italy at the time. Within his own team, Sandro remembers how he felt as a nervous, young boy in these conditions under the shadow of an extremely prestigious director, one whom Sandro deeply respected and whom he found himself alone with early one morning. The man, despite the difference in age and status, invited Sandro not only to come sit with him, but spoke amicably to him and asked him to call him by his first name—revealing the power of a superiors’ kindness to both garner continued respect and to connect to students on a personal level. Sandro always tries to value and recreate this kindness with his students—although he believes that a threshold should be maintained between supervisors and students and jokes about their differences in age, Sandro’s personal and professional relationships are unaffected by these distances. He believes that real respect is not determined by a performative distance but by professionalism on site, so he is all at once capable of leadership, listening and learning from others both young and old—”because we can always learn something from people, especially when they’re coming from completely different cultural contexts”—and maintaining a lighthearted atmosphere. Thus, he feels free to stick his tongue out for goofy pictures, maniacally laugh and say “I’m so evil” to his students, play with and sneak biscuits to the grateful dog, Candela, and pet the stray cat Sebastian fondly despite claiming to dislike him. These unique dynamics and circumstances mold archaeologists into communities; to Sandro, this is “one of the best aspects of archaeological excavations…[we are] forced to share our lives with other peoples’ lives…[and] form bonds that last after the end of excavations.” The bonds formed in the shared burdens and beauty of the field, like what Sandro shares with his friend of seventeen years and fellow IMPERO Team Director, Edo, cannot be shaken nor dulled by time or distance, and this understanding of and shared passion for this field likewise binds Sandro and his girlfriend Valentina together. By remaining adaptable to new situations, learning from the cultural shocks endured beyond his small town of Grosseto, remaining humble despite his skill, and by acknowledging and learning from the people around him and the “at least ten little mistakes” he makes every day, Sandro is always trying to grow. He has redefined his context numerous times: once convinced that he would be a solely medieval archaeologist and now a teacher of Roman archaeology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, far from Valentina and his family across the sea, Sandro has traveled far, teaching even in Sheffield and Prague. He “always suggest[s] [to] people to do these kinds of challenging experience[s] and to change the familiar environment with something completely different…[as] your mind will open in so many directions [that] you would never expect.”
Just as Sandro finds himself bound communally with others, so he feels the connections between people and his homeland. He recognizes “a certain kind of local responsibility…we have to study the past not just for our academic careers, but to give the local communities [the] historical identity that they have lost” as well as our research and the sites themselves. This will aid a better-informed bond between the inhabitants, their past, and the land that can exist beyond the site’s eventual abandonment and evade exploitation by tourism and larger political movements. Too often academics are bound only to their research and the ruins and leave the land, leaving the present inhabitants as detached as they came; too easily is archaeological data misused as the experiment is removed layer by layer with each context. Sandro aims to combat all this by: involving the local community with the IMPERO Project through initiatives such as Sunset Archaeology and by considering the creation of a local, dynamic museum in the area that is relevant to the native people and their story; doing justice even to the ancient communities on the land by “[merging] landscape archaeology with archaeological fieldwork” to view the entire territory as the site and the excavation sites as activities within the landscape; and stressing the importance of working carefully and thoughtfully while training the next generation of archaeologists. Even when pushing back against forces that want to manipulate archaeological narratives and the stain of powers who have negatively employed archaeology in the past, we must let the findings speak for themselves, allow others with different points of view to review our data and interpretations, and give the inhabitants a voice in their own history lest we “fall into the [same] trap.” According to Sandro, “the community has to identify itself with its own past” to strengthen itself and its sense of its place in the larger story of the landscape. The sites excavated during the IMPERO Project are Paganico’s past; they are “their roots—they need to see it, they need to feel it, they need to understand it,” and the IMPERO team aims to give them back. All else, all the personal and academic goals of the IMPERO Team, come second to this mission for the project.
And these roots cry out—Sandro, from that first moment alone with the past at the Medieval castle to the man with this mission statement, became united with the relics of the voiceless, as a “personal story of somebody…like you, me, and everybody else” is revealed with every uncovered context and with “every time [he] touch[es] a piece of black gloss or the piece of roof tile [that he] throw[s] on the spoil heap or ask[s] people to bring to Massimo.” Each artifact, that piece of pottery, “that tile, was attached to a common person. We will never know his or her name, but uncovering and studying it…is like [giving] those people the possibility of speaking again, even if they will be always anonymous.”
Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes
Photo by: Emma Ramacciotti