The Italian Dig

Through an unexpected friendship initiated on the Vegas Strip more than a decade ago, faculty and students from Baylor are leading the San Giuliano Archaeological Research Project, a large-scale excavation of ancient Etruscan and medieval remains in central Italy.

The Italian Dig

Centuries before construction of the Roman Colosseum began in A.D. 72, before the Apostle Paul authored his letter to the Romans around A.D. 56, the Etruscans were a powerful and wealthy civilization based in ancient central Italy. Etruria included the region now known as Tuscany, extending southward into western Umbria and northern Lazio (circa 800-750 B.C.). Through the centuries that followed, the Etruscans expanded to the north and south, and west to Corsica; it is believed the aristocracy grew rich through trade with Celtic and Greek neighbors as evidenced by the imported pottery, metals and other valuables discovered in Etruscan family tombs.

Relatively little is known about this ancient civilization, where they came from, their influence on or by other cultures or what their eventual succession by the Romans looked like. However, through the San Giuliano Archaeological Research Project (SGARP) launched in summer 2016, Baylor undergraduate students are digging for answers to these and other questions. Under the direction of Dr. Davide Zori, assistant professor of history and archaeology in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, together with Dr. Lori Baker, associate professor of anthropology, and Dr. Colleen Zori, lecturer of anthropology, this transdisciplinary project is centered on the archaeological past of the San Giuliano plateau, located approximately 45 miles northwest of Rome.

Baker, who also serves as vice provost for strategic initiatives, collaboration and leadership development, notes that “hundreds and hundreds” of Etruscan tombs encircle the plateau. The site also includes the remains of a medieval settlement, constructed much later, which is thought to have been abandoned some time before A.D. 1300. 

“There is more work to be done than can be completed in my lifetime.”

Dr. Lori Baker

“It’s huge,” Baker says. “Last summer, we surveyed 580 tombs. I’m most interested in the Etruscans and the skeletal remains, and the Zoris have really been focused on the medieval settlement which probably has an Etruscan settlement beneath. There is more work to be done than can be completed in my lifetime.” 

In terms of archaeology, San Giuliano is a veritable jackpot, which is fitting, because the story of how Baylor University came to spearhead and direct such a large-scale excavation doesn’t begin in Tuscany or Rome. It doesn’t begin in Italy. However improbable, this story begins on the Las Vegas Strip. 

Dostoyevsky in Vegas

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2006, Dr. Alden Smith, chair and professor of classics and associate dean of the Honors College, received an email from a major airline advertising “two-for-one” trips to Las Vegas. Having never visited, the professor thought it might be an interesting way to celebrate his 25th anniversary with his wife. 

“It sounds worse than it is because it sounds like I was gambling or something, but I wasn’t gambling. I don’t gamble,” Smith says. “My wife wasn’t terribly excited about it, but I talked her into going for three days and two nights.” 

Shortly after the 2007 New Year, the Smiths flew to Las Vegas and checked into the Luxor. “The one that looks like a pyramid,” Smith says. 

He had brought a copy of The Brothers Karamazov with him on the trip. It was a Christmas gift from his son and, Smith figured, if he wasn’t sidling up to a blackjack table or watching Cirque du Soleil, he would have time to take in a Russian literary masterpiece. On an after-dinner stroll along the Vegas Strip, he found a place to pause, pulled out the book and started reading. 

“At one point, there’s a man next to me speaking Italian with his family. It happens that I speak Italian,” Smith says. A Virgil scholar, Smith has directed the Baylor in Italy study abroad program for many summers. “I wanted to know what he thought of Las Vegas, and he said he loved it. He said the fake Venice place [the Venetian Resort Hotel] with the canal and the painted-on sky is much cleaner than the real Venice.” 

The man introduced himself as Gianni Profita, and he noticed his all-time favorite book in Smith’s hands. They discussed Dostoyevsky’s novel, analyzing the story and its principal characters. Smith talked about his work at Baylor, and Profita shared that he had studied classics as an undergraduate. 

Strangers became fast friends that evening in the desert; but, thankfully, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay there. Profita invited Smith to join a dinner party at his home in Rome the following month and offered the use of his personal villa, located northwest of the city, near Tuscany—glimpses of the generosity that would benefit Smith and, in time, Baylor. 

Gianni on the Spot

An expert on economics and management within the multimedia and audiovisual communication space, Profita has taught related courses at Rome’s University La Sapienza and other institutions. He has held several official titles, serving the Italian Cultural Coalition for the Treaty on Cultural Diversity, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Italian Society of Authors and Composers. Along with his curriculum vitae, Profita’s projects and interests highlight an undeniable personal investment in the preservation of Italy’s peerless cultural heritage. At least one other characteristic is undeniable: his ability to deliver the impossible. 

“To be around Gianni is to be in the presence of a man who gets things done,” Smith says. “He knows everyone. He can arrange things.” 

The first time he was wowed by Profita’s ability was in 2010 when Smith traveled to Florence to spend time with an original, fifth-century manuscript by Virgil, preserved in the historic Laurentian Library. Permission to use the manuscript is extremely difficult to come by, and required of Smith an exhaustive list of credentials, including letters from Dr. Thomas Hibbs, dean of the Honors College, and then-Baylor President Ken Starr. Smith received confirmation in advance of his visit that he would have time with the manuscript; but upon his arrival in Florence, there seemed to be some confusion, and he was denied access and instead offered a replica to use. 

The next day, Smith met Profita in Rome and shared the story with his friend. Profita calmly told Smith to go back the following day. Smith stressed that officials at the library were adamant, but Profita repeated, “Go back.”

“On faith, I took the train back to the library in Florence the next morning,” Smith says. “And they met me at the door. They welcomed me in and apologized. They put the mask and gloves on me and they let me use the manuscript for as long as I wanted. Gianni makes things happen.” 

The Proposal 

In 2014, Profita floated an idea by Smith—something that would benefit Profita’s beloved Italy as well as Baylor. 

“Gianni proposed to me that we might have an archaeological dig in Italy,” Smith says. “I immediately went to our anthropology department and talked to Dr. Lori Baker, and she said she was interested.” 

Smith also spoke with Dr. Davide Zori in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core—whose research and archaeological fieldwork in Iceland explores the Viking expansion into the North Atlantic—along with his wife, Dr. Colleen Zori, lecturer in the department of anthropology. 

Word of a possible, Baylor-led archaeological dig pinballed around campus, generating interest in multiple departments and at the administrative level. There was one reservation, and it was a big one. 

“The Italian government doesn’t just issue archaeological permits for Americans to work in Italy every day,” says Baker, who specializes in molecular and forensic analysis of skeletal remains. “Usually you have this long-standing partnership with an Italian university or other institution and then you’re able to use your connections and relationship to come on to a project that they already have going. Harvard, for instance, has a presence there. Several major U.S. universities own buildings there, engaging in archaeology as well as classics, art and design. Baylor has sent faculty and students to do work in Italy, certainly, but we’ve never had an institutional presence there.” 

The broad consensus was that procuring a permit to excavate in the Italian countryside would be a years-long process, if not an impossibility; nevertheless, Baker and Davide Zori travelled to Italy in 2015 to survey three possible sites. 

Dr. Davide Zori / Dr. Colleen Zori
Dr. Davide Zori / Dr. Colleen Zori

“Gianni said he could get the permit for us in six months,” Smith says. “I convinced Davide Zori based on my experience with the Virgil manuscript in Florence. On faith, Dr. Baker and the Drs. Zori put a lot of work into this project and recruited students. Everything was in place, so they needed this permit to come through. We all sat through the spring with bated breath.”

Sure enough, Profita emailed Davide Zori and Baker in April 2016 with news that he had secured the permit—mere weeks before the group from Baylor was scheduled to arrive in Rome. 

“I thought the chances of us being able to go from not having any institutional presence to having a site, where Baylor is directing the investigation and excavation of the entire site was unlikely,” Baker says. “But, if anyone could do it, it was Gianni.”

Excavating San Giuliano

Of the three sites Baker and Davide Zori surveyed in fall 2015, with the assistance of Profita and several of his colleagues, it was determined that the San Giuliano plateau would be the best site overall, offering skeletal remains, artifacts and architecture from two important, transitional periods in human history. 

“We have focused our attention on the Etruscan and medieval periods as eras of particularly significant societal change,” Davide Zori says. “These two periods saw the most intensified use of the San Giuliano plateau. We are seeking to understand both the rise and fall of the Etruscan urban center and the medieval incastellamento, or castle-building process that reshaped the Italian landscape in the 10th and 11th centuries.”

As of now, students may work at the San Giuliano site as part of Baylor in Italy—a summer, study abroad program typically attracting art, classics, English and political science majors. Still, the study abroad program and the SGARP field school offer very different experiences. 

“With a study abroad program, you have students in classrooms and out touring museums and studying Latin, Italian history, art and so forth,” Baker says. “We could have the two programs be separate, but our goal is that we have students who are studying Latin and history and art and architecture and geology see all of these emerge from an archaeological site, interacting with one another and bringing different perspectives and ideas.” 

In summer 2018, the Baylor students joining the excavation at San Giuliano will stay in the same location as the Baylor faculty in a collection of villas in Barbarano Romano—a picturesque medieval village which, in many respects, seems almost untouched by modernity. 

“We have rented a series of villas within one residence, surrounded by fruit trees,” Baker says. “We keep trying to tell the students how spoiled they are. We have lunch brought out to us at the excavation site. Barbarano Romano is within walking distance of the archaeological site, and it’s this very traditional place where, mostly an older generation is choosing to stay, and there’s not a lot of industry. It’s hard to get even a hammer in places like this. The young people are leaving, and I think Gianni thought this excavation might revitalize this area that he loves and cares about.”

The San Giuliano plateau isn’t far from Profita’s personal villa—the one he offered to Smith so generously some 10 years ago.

“This place has never been professionally excavated,” Baker says. “People in town are hoping that tourists will want to come and see these remains, these ruins.”

The day-to-day for students at SGARP involves a lot of work across multiple academic disciplines. From morning until around 5 p.m., students are out in the field, collecting materials; they spend the evening uploading photographs and data sheets, and analyzing ceramics, skeletal material and everything else they recover. 

Senior forensic anthropology major Avalon Stutzman worked closely with Baker during summer 2017, unearthing and identifying Etruscan skeletal remains. Though tedious, her work helped determine how many bodies were likely buried in the two tombs which have been fully excavated, and draw conclusions about the hundreds of other tombs.

“It was a life-changing experience..”

Avalon Stutzman

“It was a life-changing experience,” Stutzman says. “I learned things there that most people will never know in their lifetimes. I was working with skeletal remains that were upward of 2,400 years old. How many times in your life do you get to pull something like that out of the dirt and be the first to lay eyes on it in the last couple thousand years?”

Stutzman is currently applying to Baylor’s graduate program in biomedical studies with a concentration in molecular genetics. She hopes to continue on as a research assistant at SGARP, working with Baker. 

“I didn’t really know what I wanted out of the experience when I went to Italy. I went in open-minded, and it’s a program where you can find your niche,” Stutzman says. “I did try a little of everything, but once I started working with the skeletal remains, it gave me a really good sense of what I wanted to do in Italy and going forward. Working with Dr. Baker has opened doors for me that I never imagined.”

None of this would be possible if Smith hadn’t carried The Brothers Karamazov with him to Las Vegas more than a decade ago, nor without Gianni Profita’s generosity and vision. Profita founded Virgil Academy in 2015 as a vehicle for SGARP and possibly other excavations like it. As Virgil appears in The Divine Comedy to serve as Dante’s guide, so Virgil Academy was established to guide international universities in the study of Italian archaeological heritage, helping to navigate bureaucratic and other barriers as well as the logistics involved in arranging a long-term visit.

“What I especially want to emphasize is Virgil Academy’s deepest motivation: Humanistic culture unites and speaks to all people,” Profita says. “Dr. Smith is a great Latinist and an expert in Virgil, and I'm an economist in the film and television industry. Theoretically we are two very distant people—a Texan and an Italian with very different interests. But, in Dostoyevsky, we found common ground that we later also found in Latin literature and Etruscan archaeology.”

Eventually, Baker hopes the Baylor Institute of Archaeology will lead a formal consortium around SGARP—an entity through which other departments at Baylor may participate at the field school, and through which select colleges and universities would be invited to work at San Giuliano. While Baylor is involved with other consortia, the University has never established one of its own.

The idea, Baker says, daunts some of the folks involved. But, Rome wasn’t built in a day. 

“Through the Virgil Academy, Gianni is leaving a legacy and he wants his legacy to be impactful,” Baker says. “He would like to bring in additional schools, but he’s letting this grow through Baylor University, which is wonderful because we want this transformative experience for our students and we want to be connected with other institutions who share a similar mission.”

Dr. Davide Zori and Dr. Colleen Zori
Dr. Davide Zori and Dr. Colleen Zori

To read more about SGARP, watch videos about the project and to explore partnering with the field school, visit