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Pottery excavated from the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, and dating to the sixth century B.C. is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano.

Pottery excavated from the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, and dating to the sixth century B.C. is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano. (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

Pottery excavated from the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, and dating to the sixth century B.C. is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano.

Pottery excavated from the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, and dating to the sixth century B.C. is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano. (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

Vases excavated from the area near the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, and dating to the fourth century B.C. are displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano in nearby Succivo.

Vases excavated from the area near the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, and dating to the fourth century B.C. are displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano in nearby Succivo. (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

An eight-century B.C. water jug taken from one of the tombs excavated at the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano in nearby Succivo.

An eight-century B.C. water jug taken from one of the tombs excavated at the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy, is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano in nearby Succivo. (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

A bronze pendant in the shape of a human figure is one of the items taken from an eighth century B.C. tomb excavated on the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy. The pendant is part of the permanent exhibit at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano.

A bronze pendant in the shape of a human figure is one of the items taken from an eighth century B.C. tomb excavated on the site of the U.S. Navy base in Gricignano, Italy. The pendant is part of the permanent exhibit at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano. (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

A bronze fibula, an ancient device used to fasten clothing, is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano in Succivo, Italy. The item was taken from an eighth century B.C. tomb excavated roughly two decades ago at the site of the U.S. Navy base in nearby Gricignano.

A bronze fibula, an ancient device used to fasten clothing, is displayed at the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano in Succivo, Italy. The item was taken from an eighth century B.C. tomb excavated roughly two decades ago at the site of the U.S. Navy base in nearby Gricignano. (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

It’s impossible to stick a shovel into the ground in southern Italy without hitting something very old.

Few people were surprised, then, when construction crews working on the future U.S. Navy support site in the farming town of Gricignano in the mid 1990s began uncovering artifacts. Yet the discoveries would exceed expectations, in particular the excavation of 93 Bronze Age tombs occupied by the remains and possessions of their owners, from amber necklaces to pottery and a finely carved Egyptian pendant.

Those artifacts are displayed today in the Archeological Museum of Agro Atellano, an excellent little museum in the nearby town of Succivo, a stone’s throw from the Gricignano base near Naples. Anyone interested in life on base before the Navy Exchange will be well rewarded by a visit.

Agro Atellano was a region of the larger Campania plain, a broad expanse south of Rome and west of Italy’s mountainous spine made fertile from regular volcanic deposits. The same volcanism shaped the movements of civilizations that farmed the plain, wiping out villages and forcing populations to abandon settlements from time to time.

The Bronze Age settlement at Gricignano was itself fleeting, according to archeologists, who date it to the last three decades of the eighth century B.C. Villagers farmed and traded their surplus with coastal communities, including early Greek colonies at Ischia and Cuma. They had contact with the sea-going Phoenicians and traded for items as far abroad as Egypt and Syria.

The museum lays out many of those possessions across its two floors. The upper floor exhibits items removed from the tombs excavated at the Navy site; the lower is devoted to artifacts from the surrounding communities, including some dating back to the 18th century B.C.

Displays are in Italian, and museum staff doesn’t speak English. Yet they can provide a copy of the quick guide, or guida rapida, a free pamphlet with excellent English-language descriptions of each display.

The guide explains how each tomb reflected its occupant’s position. Men were buried with tools and weapons, women with food jars, jewelry and spindles. The tombs of the elite were clustered together and filled with finer bronze brooches, or fibulas, used to fasten clothes. A soapstone scarab — an Egyptian amulet carved in the shape of a beetle — embedded in one fibula indicated its owner’s wealth.

A few tombs held cremated remains, suggesting some of the elite had picked up the Greek rite from neighboring communities.

Later inhabitants would produce more elaborate art and infrastructures. Water jugs and vases painted with mythological scenes reflect the growing influence of Greek colonizers, who would go on to found Neapolis, modern day Naples.

Roman rule arrived centuries later, bringing alliance and upheaval. Rome punished the Atellan communities for siding with Carthaginian conqueror Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Archeologists working on the Navy site found rubble in some canals from the time, a hint of the destruction.

Now that’s something to ponder while waiting for checkout at the Navy Exchange.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com


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