When I first met Michelle, she greeted me as if I were an old friend. After watching her present the fruits of her research on new narratives in Sardinia at the University at Buffalo with conviction and grace, we spent an evening of intense conversation and laughter; her piercing blue eyes never dropped my gaze as I spoke and sat beside her, hanging on her every word. As we exited and stood outside, she commented on the spaciousness of the urbanscape around her, reaching out her hands and dancing, while with this same vivacity she tore through her suitcase for a sweater to ensure that I would not be cold. This immediate kindness, timelessness of connection, and passion were as clear in Michelle’s eyes the moment I met her as they were in her gentle and studious footsteps over the ruined walls at the Populonia excavation, in her splendid presence as she explained the IMPERO Team’s progress at Castellaraccio from atop its jagged collapse, and in her constant desire to teach those students she cares about on a personal level from the moment she touches their lives.
Just as she balanced on those stone walls, Michelle likewise lives a woman of liminal space: She is composed of “two sides, parallel and consistent through time” as she is balanced between her dual American and Italian parentage, stands in between the worlds of Classical and Medieval Archaeology, and occupies the unfortunately murky zone of a female field worker and academic. Despite (or because of) these dualities, this archaeologist, who originally pursued Classical Archaeology at the University of Siena, went on to study the developing field of Medieval Archaeology with one of its founders, Riccardo Francovich, and take up the call herself—participating in various excavations as one of the many pioneers in the developing, but still literature-lacking, field of Medieval Archaeology, sorting out and creating new typologies for mountains of pottery with no comparisons “because no one had really studied medieval common ware except for…very fine objects and…precious things you find in Museums.” Francovich not only electrified and expanded archaeological study at the university, but he inspired, pushed, and believed in his students like Michelle, treating them “as already experienced archaeologists” and ushering Michelle into this unknown space. Now, Michelle occupies a position to do the same—to inspire students beneath the shadow of the grand, standing structures that she fell in love with under Francovich, marking out the histories of the places that we visited and rediscovering and redefining the areas of her excavations.
From this position of uncharted and multifarious research, Michelle is all at once a commanding and personable figure for the young women who follow her. Moved by thoughts of the marginalized, invisible, and unheard state that “every little brown girl” in America faces, the realities of young women obstructed in her own field and beyond are deeply present in Michelle’s heart. She remembers her experience as a young academic, where she, like all women, had to work twice as hard to prove her merit while facing the constant potential and certainty of her intellectual and physical labor being exploited. She recalled not only the dismissiveness of men and how women in academia were “marginalized [and] quickly eliminated,” but the viciousness that women who managed to climb the ladder of respect and power directed towards her and all the women beneath them; Michelle, as a staunch feminist, instead stands as a compelling role model for the young women who look up to her in her field and in daily life. She follows in the footsteps of her heroic late friend and “adopted” family Noma Copley—who, although briefly an archaeologist, was mostly concerned with the living, recording the opening of the death camps in WWII, working as a United States Army translator, and collecting and creating art; she “devoured life in every possible way…and, born in the early years of the 1900s, engaged in what she was not ‘supposed’ to do and thrived in all she did.” Our director believes that, like Noma, “… we need to…rekindle with our courage and continue doing things that we would never do”; we must “share the inequality that we are all raised and born with” to raise up others (“especially underprivileged girls”), love our womanhood, and not confine or change who we are to reach the top because our words can radically transform the lives of others. Michelle’s heroes, Maya Angelou, whose fearless words of positivity spoken at Michelle’s brother’s graduation drew an unprecedented reaction from the archaeologist, and Oprah, who rose from nothing and now uses her success to elevate her community, “reach and help people in a way that other people don’t…[that] really touches the soul and gives hope to people, because we are being deprived of hope as well, and if you take away hope, you are done, we all are done.” Thus, Michelle dreams of a new generation of “strong women who just speak for what they produced and what they are”—who are not fundamentalist nor lacking in their feminism. She fights for herself just as her post-WWI poverty-stricken grandmother and great aunt from Calabria did, whose joyless circumstances did not prevent them from becoming the first women to study Law and Letters at universities in Italy. With warm compliments and attentive eyes and ears eager to keep us engaged, Michelle has turned her intermediary position into one of brilliant light and inspiration for others.
Following the example of these women, Michelle has always been an outsider from the norm in her choices of research. After her initial excavations in the field of Medieval Archaeology, Michelle was “recruited by [Francovich] to go and study…[the] island of Sardinia.” “Ignored by scholars” but rich with inhabitants knowledgeable of their history, Sardinia brought Michelle to the liminal space of not only unexplored terrain, but of a land teeming with multifarious influences and heritages—some largely cut off from the world, others inextricable from the surrounding Mediterranean. Fascinated with the continuity of pagan narratives during the onset of Christianity and constantly challenging the historical narratives documenting such conversions in culture and belief, Michelle found herself tackling the issue of colonization both on the religious and economic fronts after uncovering the true extent of Pisa’s presence on Sardinia. Even now, she is leading a re-examination into the extent of Muslim influence and settlement on this mysterious island.
In this spirit of giving voice to the voiceless and identifying suppression and influence, Michelle is concerned with how stories are told; for example, she advocates caution when dealing with historical documents and older publications of a site, not because she finds them unimportant, but because she realizes the power of narrative. As post-colonial issues and breaking out of the Eurocentric, Christian accepted histories presented by institutions and people in power are deeply important to Michelle, she aims to not fall into the same trap herself. Thus, she enters her sites with an open and clear mind, speaking to the artifacts alone and always critically revisiting documents or marginalizing them, as she recognizes the inability of anyone’s, even her own, subconscious to resist searching for pre-conceived beliefs about a site within the raw data. According to Michelle, “we are witnessing a fascinating historical period as the archaeological data derived from the new scientific techniques available allow us to reframe critically the past in an unprecedented way.” Moreover, Michelle believes in the power of bringing creativity through artistic images and narratives into the archaeological world, such as how the artist Mark Dion does with his rigorous, surreal, and unorthodox re-organization of scientific material and finds which makes you “rethink completely in a revolutionary way of how we recount our past,” or as the Theoretical Archaeological Groups (TAG) similarly “’play’ with ways of looking at the past,” that will also help to break the colonial narratives and the postcolonial dynamics of the present. Nevertheless, Michelle admits that one needs to be wary of abstract approaches that distance the researcher or viewer from the find—“[We] could use alternative formats to widen the spectrum of interpretations, as long as it does not substitute the ‘objectivity’ of the data with the ‘subjectivity’ of the narrative and fall once again [into] imposing personal agendas.” Through diverse approaches adapted to local circumstance, archaeology can be more global, interdisciplinary, and accessible to the people, “as a form of art can say things more powerfully things than academic [texts] often unapproached by lay readers.” Underlying this incentive is the larger necessity for publication of all sorts; a proponent of “non-invasive archaeology,” Michelle believes that “if you don’t publish [sites], we leave them at the abandonment of posterity where we have simply destroyed without reconstructing what we have found.” We all have a responsibility to the field of archaeology and the world to decrease our footprint, study sites already opened but not understood, and present the data of the past and interact with the people of the present as unshackled from narratives of oppression as possible.
After her early research on Sardinia incorporating these themes and her graduation from the University of Siena, Michelle was invited to work at the colony of Cosa with the American Academy in Rome to identify and expand their investigations into the untouched Medieval and Late Antique phases of the site indicated by historical documents. After this work, Michelle remained fascinated with the Tyrrhenian coast. Her interest in glazed pottery and architecture wove her into the contemporaneous and interconnected research on the coastal city of Pisa and the city’s trade routes during the 13th-15th centuries, as she tracked the pottery of the same kind in the unplumbed churches of the nearby island with which Pisa communicated. Thus, in her late twenties, Michelle left the Italian peninsula for the first time since moving there at a young age to receive a Master’s in Architectural History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London; yet, she knew that she needed to go further. Feeling the pull of her father’s home country of America, Michelle completed her Ph.D. studies at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University with Marvin Trachtenberg. Here, she focused on the differences in urban development models between Classical and Medieval cities and undertook her pride-bearing Sardinia Project.
While in graduate school, Michelle reanalyzed Dr. Stephen Dyson’s previously-excavated castle nearby Cosa, Capalbiaccio. Her excavation work would come to mimic her personal liminality and coexistence within other spaces, as her primary tasks at both sites and her work beyond became taking “the data…out of context and bringing it back in another way.” The move to America facilitated a dynamism in her own personal threshold existence as well. Once in the homeland of her father, Michelle felt the Italian blood of her mother in her every breath, and although she retained that connection to the place of her birth—even excavating with volunteers a tavern linked to the history of her small hometown of Troy, Ohio—She “feels Italian…[her] soul, [her] identity, [her] core is Italian…but…[she] always treasured, loved, and respected the American side…the more unknown side.”
She does not feel separated from Ohio or New York while identifying as an Italian, however; in fact, when Michelle “goes in a place, [she] teach[es] it or [she] dig[s] it” and becomes connected to it. Thus, the skyscraper city that she lives in now, after teaching a course on the formation and architectural history of New York City and following contemporary art, became just as much a part of her as the small town where she was born and her home across the sea; the gloomy metal of New York blossomed into beauty, and she began to appreciate her American side and her duality, her cultural richness, in a way that before sometimes felt like a “handicap.” In that same city, she began working as an Adjunct Professor at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a free tuition college that parallels her belief and Italian values that “education should be free…for everybody.” The nature of her work as a professor at The Cooper Union has allowed her to teach medieval topics with the aid of archaeology while simultaneously conducting her own research on Sardinia and the hilltop of Capalbiaccio with Professor Stephen Dyson and doing much-missed field work with Professor Sebastiani and the IMPERO Project in Tuscany. Michelle’s personal multicultural nature, alongside her transnational work, sometimes makes it difficult to translate her constantly fresh paradigms of investigation to her international colleagues— “In the beginning,” it was hard to occupy both identities at once; now, she believes such a vantage point has been “very enriching, ultimately.”
Michelle is a woman who loves life. She enjoys it by drawing “the things she sees…putting plants wherever she can” and caring for them, her contagious curiosity, and laughter-filled discussions with a student for just a tad too long during a lunch break on site; she loves it like a mother through her concern for the future while pondering emulation and The Handmaid’s Tale on the Monteverdi Estate’s corner bench. Though her students and colleagues imagine her larger than life, Michelle is equally inspired by the generations following her—despite being in a moment in time where “the past and history are very strongly under attack” in the world of academia, she is moved by those fighting for our fields of study and imagines the world that we can create. According to Michelle, our future lies in the hands of children, who hold in their hearts “the purity of wanting to change the world.” This is a driving force which Michelle retains, as she takes up the cause to study on the fringes of archaeological research, shine brightly from her personal and professional liminality, and challenge the stories of our past, realities of our present, and possibilities of our future.
Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes