A highlight of my art history grad school days at Columbia was a two-month stint as a student archaeologist on a Roman mosaic dig in Tunisia in the summer of 1972. The operation's headquarters were in Tunis, but I was assigned to a project in El Djem (the ancient Thysdrus), about 100 miles south of Tunis.

El Djem amphitheatre El Djem amphitheatre inside

When you approach El Djem, what looms above all other buildings is the stone amphitheatre, built in the early 3rd c. CE. This is the second largest amphitheatre after the Coloseum in Rome.

the team ry room

The director was Margaret Alexander (Univ of Iowa), shown here with her husband and two other staff. The leader at El Djem was David and Noelle Soren (whom I visited in AZ in 2018). Lodgings for student archaeologists were rather spartan.

feet on mosaic workers lifting mosaic floor

As a source of discovery, the dig was a bust. We were lifting up previously restored mosaic floors and making soundings for evidence that might have been missed before. There were no dramatic new finds.

Sbeitla approaching Sbeitla capitoleum

But Tunisia was a treat! Once a verdant "breadbasket of the empire," the now arid land preserves dozens of Roman sites, including whole cities, rising from the landscape with nothing else around. This one is Sbetla, or the Roman Sufetula.

Dougga temple Dougga street

The most spectacular site is Dougga, named by UNESCO as "the best preserved Roman small town in North Africa." Built on an earlier Punic site, it covers 160 acres in the middle of nowhere. Partially reconstructed, it offers public buildings and wide streets from the 2nd-3rd centuries.

Thuburbo Maius Sbeitla Arch of Diocletian

Another splendidly isolated town is Thuburbo Maius, founded by Augustus, prospering in the 2nd c. — the temple dates from 168. These cities thrived for 100s of years — the arch in Sbetla was built for Diocletian (243-313 CE)

mosaic Utica El Djem mosaic in Sousse

Ancient Roman mosaics survive throughout the Mediterranean. Tunisia has hundreds, some in situ, like the underwater scene in Utica; many fine specimens are on view at the Bardo Museum in Tunis — such as the October panel in a seasons mosaic, found in El Djem.

plaster head, El Djem 1 plaster head, El Djem 2

The tiny arcaeological museum in El Djem held this plaster "sketch" or model, created by a Roman sculptor as a preparatory study for a final work presumably in stone or bronze. The hair style suggests late 2nd century. But how expressive! I've never seen anything like it in the many museums I've visited.

Bay of Tunis lunch

The director spent half the year in Tunisia, so the dig provided a palatial house in Kherredine, a suburb of Tunis, with a spendid view of the bay.

On the dig, a favorite lunch was tomatoes, onions & tuna. Gee, a food shot decades before Facebook!