Before we exchanged any words, I first came to know Valentina Pica by her contagious smile. Framed by clever eyes that betray her profound expertise and deep curiosity, this grin was constantly shining and in motion, whether exchanging jokes with the other members of the IMPERO team, watching others enjoying one another’s company, gazing out the window at the rolling hills surrounding Monteverdi, or crouching down over the ledge of one of the trenches at Podere Cannicci with a freshly found bronze fibula in hand, bringing it back to life before the students’ eyes. Although only with us for a week and among old friends, Valentina’s sweetness extended to everyone she met regardless of age or position, always aching to teach and to learn; it reached even to her quickly-acquired friendship with our cat, Sebastian, who gravitated towards her side both for her affection and for the bits of her meals that she would share with him. Her equitable demeanor influenced her humility as well, talking freely about her passions while downplaying her personal impressiveness and minimizing her ability to communicate in English, and this paradigm allowed her to disseminate her knowledge with no malice or conceit—meticulously washing and organizing pottery with one of the students, teaching him as much as possible, and presenting the objects of her expertise to a room full of eager eyes with thorough explanation and as much information as possible.
At the same time, sites such as Podere Cannicci and Castellaraccio, the small finds of which Valentina relishes in the palms of her hands, are not the loci of her original passions. Knowing since elementary school that she wanted to be an archaeologist and never dreaming of other forms of work that deviated from her clear path, this scholar was first drawn to Egypt, although the conditions of the country have prevented her from working there. In Viterbo, close to Rome, and later within Rome itself, Valentina undertook the study of Near Eastern Archaeology as an Egyptologist in particular; however, although she completed her thesis on the architecture of the Pharaohs in Egypt, her excavation work and presence in the city of Rome turned her towards Roman Archaeology—leaving her previous foci that are tremendously difficult to study in Italy for new horizons. Alongside her partner Massimo Brando, whom she has collaborated with for nine years, Valentina works as a free-lance archaeologist during the week and a tour guide on the weekends, filling her days with a constant engagement with antiquity. Although she valued having different hobbies from prospective partners when she was younger, believing that she would never find love with another archaeologist, the ability to share their passions has become central to their relationship; in Valentina’s words: “We speak about everything, not only archaeology, but it is important for me to share about my work, my job, my daily life with Massimo”—highlighting the saturation of her acquired research concentrations within her personal interconnections.
Her specialty in small finds itself comes from a love of their complexity and the worlds uncovered, for so long lost to the light, when these items are given due attention: Due to the difficulties of studying these objects and their neglect in the world of research, “you can discover something new…the particularity is when you touch, when you find a particular object, you have to understand, you have to imagine the use…when you find [them], it’s a joy.” Simultaneously, Valentina finds excitement in the act of digging as well, deeply enjoying both the toil under the sun and that different labor within the storage room while appreciating the absolute importance of both. When excavating, Valentina is filled with excitement at the need to understand different contexts and to imagine “the human activities” that would have been performed there; moreover, she is moved by the team-building born from the act of digging and the banter between colleagues with different eyes and with varying opinions and interpretations. In digging something new, “you have this moment of discovering,” but this is a sense that translates into the storage room as well, where “when you wash pottery, you don’t know what’s in the crate…and when you wash, you see…that you discover a new piece of something.” In fact, Valentina does not believe in drawing a hard distinction between these different forms of work, instead asserting that all archaeologists should work in the storage room in addition to digging “to interpret…what you have…dug”—to see the fuller picture.
In this all-encompassing spirit, Valentina has circumscribed herself into her studies: “My work is my life…because I like what I do…for me it is not really…work”; even when she is not working, her curiosity continues to drive her towards discovery, and her warmth moves her to love the living things around her. In particular, she adores traveling whenever she can—both to discover places unknown and to revisit the streets of Rome that she knows well—and devotes herself to caring for her cats. In the spaces between, Valentina delights in metal as well as hard and classic rock, laughing with me in the star-lit darkness about the “ancient” music of the 1970s and 80s beginning to fall out of favor with the youth of today whom she has met on other excavations. Lounging in the warm night air and speaking freely in this way, Valentina embodies the unity of research and humanity; both on site and off, she is drawn not only to an enjoyment of the past, near and distant, but to the new—to the people, the places, and the joys waiting to be discovered, rediscovered, and brought back to the light.
Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes
Photo by: Massimo Brando