Cody Barnett and Ryan Leonard have been friends for more than 20 years, but not until recently did these Bishop McGuiness high school graduates discover their shared passion for archaeology.
Their appetite for adventure and history has led them to two excavations in Italy where they have unearthed remnants of the Etruscan civilization, a people who lived in what is now modern Tuscany from the eighth to fifth century B.C. Digging up the past through archaeological means is an opportunity of a lifetime and one Barnett and Leonard are hoping to share with several Oklahoma college students through a nonprofit organization they formed in 2009 called the Institute for Mediterranean Archaeology, or IMA, Barnett said.
“We want to expose young people and Oklahomans in general to opportunities in Italy to excavate and to explore,” Barnett said. “That's what's so great about archaeology. Every morning when you wake up, you don't know what you're going to find, and it keeps you motivated and captivated knowing what might be there underneath. I mean this is real science. We're not just there playing around in the dirt. It's absolute real science, real archaeology going on.”
Barnett, who majored in history at the University of Oklahoma, recalls a day in 1993 when he witnessed the discovery of gold underneath a mosaic floor in a merchant's villa in Italy. The excitement Barnett, 44, experienced as a college student holding the 2-ounce pieces of gold in his hands is something he wants others to feel, and is the reason the Sonic Drive-In franchisee covers through IMA the cost for equipment rental, van rentals, administrative fees and other expenses associated with the digs.
“We're trying to limit the exposure to students as far as the cost. So, whatever I can take on personally, as far as the financial burden to make sure the dig is a success, then I try to assist with that and give money to IMA,” the Oklahoma City native said. “In turn, IMA will spend the money to take care of whatever the needs are for that particular excavation season.”
IMA is currently sponsoring two digs in conjunction with archaeologists David George of St. Anselm's College in New Hampshire and Claudio Bizarri in Italy. One of the excavations is in Coriglia, Italy, near Orvieto, which is about an hour north of Rome, and another is under the city of Orvieto, where 1,300 caves were found and believed to have been dug by the Etruscans. Three of the caves are pyramids, and archaeologists think they could have had some religious significance to the Etruscans. So far, the digs have yielded animal bones, coins, roof tiles, pottery and other domestic pieces.
IMA will support a third dig this summer near Allerona, Italy, on a 13th-century Christian church built atop a Roman structure. Archaeologists think that underneath the Roman infrastructure may be some sort of Etruscan formations since the Etruscan people predate the Romans.
“The most fulfilling thing is opening up these opportunities for students from Oklahoma to participate,” said Leonard, an attorney from Beaver. “This is such a unique thing that if you're into history, this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's something they will never forget.”
The digs usually last for about six weeks, but students can spend less time, if necessary. Leonard, 41, said students will benefit greatly from studying abroad and learning in the hands-on experience that the excavations provide.
“Spending time in a foreign country broadens your perspective,” said Leonard, who experienced his first archaeological dig in Russia during his high school years. “It opens your eyes that there is a very wide world out there. To combine the study abroad with the neat experience of digging through dirt that hasn't been touched in over 2,000 years and walking where the Romans walked is all very fascinating.”
Students can seek out opportunities to get involved with IMA by visiting www.digumbria.com. The vision for IMA is to become a leader in establishing new archaeological excavations throughout the Mediterranean and to create a partnership with more universities in Oklahoma, Leonard said.
We want to expose young people and Oklahomans in general to opportunities in Italy to excavate and to explore. That's what's so great about archaeology. Every morning when you wake up, you don't know what you're going to find, and it keeps you motivated and captivated knowing what might be there underneath.”