Queen Adelaide’s castle in the Tuscan marches

Thanks to modern scientific analyses, the every-day circumstances of Tuscany’s Dark Age peoples are no longer mute. One thing is certain from this excavation: objects and nature played an active part in transforming the primitive experiences of Tuscany’s 9th-century peasants and their early feudal masters into some of the most sophisticated lifestyles in Europe by the 12th century.


The Tuscan sun conjures up a timelessness, a region imbued with eternal history. Nothing is further from the truth. Much of Tuscany outside the spell of its Renaissance towns has enjoyed a Mediterranean spirit that has ebbed and flowed with the economic oscillations of the Middle Sea. One such ebb and flow has been the subject of our University of Siena / European Research Council project (with the acronym of nEU-Med) based in the Pecora valley and pivoted on the enigmatic site of Vetricella in western Tuscany. Assiduous research in the archival sources shows that for a time this was a royal fisc (property) called Valli, a place known in the charters as Teupascio – Royal Water. Unfortunately, the texts tell us no more about this place. On the other hand, Vetricella’s archaeology is exceptional. Given its spare regal affiliation, we are now beginning to ask: does Vetricella throw new light on Italy’s nebulous Dark Age monarchs? Excavations at Vetricella have produced an Egyptian 4th-century BC scarab and an Etruscan figurine. Both little treasures almost certainly came from robbing local Etruscan tombs. Our excavations have also brought to light a remarkable number of early medieval silver coins. The making of coins in Italy for four centuries, between the later 7th century and the 11th century, was at best spasmodic. To find 22 coins at a rural site – even one with royal connections – is something of a surprise. These obvious riches, though, pale in importance with the broad sweep of finds that we have unearthed. The real treasures are those that give sharp focus to the people of Vetricella and the changing landscape in which they lived. Thanks to modern scientific analyses, the every-day circumstances of Tuscany’s Dark Age peoples are no longer mute. One thing is certain from this excavation: objects and nature played an active part in transforming the primitive experiences of Tuscany’s 9th-century peasants and their early feudal masters into some of the most sophisticated lifestyles in Europe by the 12th century.


This striking reconstruction by Francesco Sala shows the unusual castle constructed at Vetricella in the mid 10th century AD. A simple oratory stood just beyond its palisade. The location of Vetricella in the Pecora valley placed it between the Tuscan coast and the mineral-rich Colline Metallifere. IMAGE: Francesco Sala.

Vetricella today occupies a slight rise in the low-lying fields in the Pecora valley. It is located at a now virtual crossroads that has all but disappeared under modern ploughed fields. The site sits 10km (6 miles) inland from the natural harbour at Scarlino Marina (ancient Portus Scabris), close to Follonica lagoon, reclaimed in the 19th century, and beside the Via Aurelia, the Roman coastal road passing through Tuscany to southern France. An aerial photograph taken in 2000, when aerial photography was first permitted in Italy, shows it resembling a Martian landing place. Three concentric circles, highly visible from above, marked the spot in otherwise empty ploughlands. Ground-truthing produced a few sherds and animal bones, which prompted the first tentative excavations in 2007. These showed extraordinary promise and paved the way for the nEU-Med project.

The Vetricella excavations were pursued alongside a study of its environmental context. Our aim was to make sense of its role in the medieval revival of this region. Known today as the Maremma, it was famous in Etruscan and later medieval times for the copper, iron, lead, and silver ores in the Colline Metallifere: thickly wooded hills set back from the coast, 12km (7 miles) east of Vetricella.

Roman remains are just about everywhere along Italy’s coastal littoral. But not at Vetricella. A Roman port of some substance existed at Portus Scabris and a Roman sanctuary town flourished a few kilometres to the north at Populonia. Roman villas hereabouts are few. One explanation for this is that an Imperial estate occupied this tract of the Maremma, where mining ores was a privilege monopolised by the emperor.

Finds from Vetricella include an Etruscan figurine and a 4th-century BC Egyptian scarab. Both were presumably looted from local Etruscan tombs during the medieval period.

The hallmark of Roman places is the rubbish: debris of a quintessential consumer society. Ceramics, like glass and metal objects, were produced on an industrial scale. All this ends abruptly in the mid to later 7th century. Objects no longer mattered much for the next two centuries. Portus Scabris and Populonia faded away, as coastal towns and ports did throughout the length of Italy. Bound up with the collapse of commodities was millennial-old Mediterranean commerce. This was reduced to a minuscule scale. The rich web of towns and villas inland were either deserted or occupied in a desultory, makeshift way. Charting the next steps through to a medieval revival in the age of the Crusades has been a motivating factor for carefully studying all aspects of what happened at Vetricella, where an astonishing array of objects and remains speak to the first chapters of Italian feudalism.

Vetricella’s earliest phase is badly mangled by later levels. Careful excavations show that an open site existed close to a channel leading to Follonica lagoon. The few features are intriguing. Apart from irregular post-built structures (architecturally primitive by comparison with Anglo-Saxon, Danish or Frankish dwellings), the most important discoveries are small kilns. Filled with charcoal and equipped to be worked with a bellows, quite what their function was mystifies us. Associated finds are few. Telltale simple 7th- to 9th-century cooking-pot sherds, as well as a Lombard copper-alloy fitting – a finely wrought triangular-shaped counter plate to adorn clothing or leather – pinpoint the settlement to the least known era in Italian archaeology. The likeliest interpretation is that this was a distant landing place on the Tyrrhenian coast managed by the Lombard court either in inland Chiusi or far to the north in Lucca. Was it to acquire and manage minerals such as iron ore from Elba and the Colline Metallifere? Only further analyses will tell.

In its next phase, Vetricella was transformed into a place. Three concentric V-shaped ditches were excavated to make a highly distinctive fortress. The compass-defined ditches adopted radii of 44, 88, and 132 Liutprand feet, the local measure. Quite why the perfect precision was necessary remains an enigma. Plainly the symbolism was important.

The Roman port known as Portus Scabris existed near the later site of the Vetricella castle. Here, Emanuele Vaccaro holds an amphora fragment found at the Roman port.

Within the innermost circle was a small tower, probably made of timber in its initial version. The unusual early castle architecture of this place resembles the new fortresses of the earliest feudal era in the Rhineland from the middle of the 9th century onwards. The V-shaped ditches were equipped with a shelf near the base from where silt might be removed. Radiocarbon dates show that this unusual castle dates to the mid 9th century and lasted for three or four generations.

The symbolic envisioning of this property conjures up a royal intervention, likely as not the fiscus at Valli in the territory of Teupascio (Royal Water). Certainly, the radiocarbon dates link it to the 840s. This was when the parvenu King Adalbert I, at the behest of his German Carolingian masters, consolidated the newly created Tuscan march reaching down the Mediterranean to the border with the papal state. Benefitting from Carolingian support, Adalbert and his successors sought to control a coastal tract close to the rich mineral mines. Our survey of Vetricella’s immediate environs revealed numerous scatters of iron-smelting waste almost certainly dating from this moment. Given Vetricella’s near perfect form, it may have also served another role. Was this one of the elusive toll stations that medieval texts occasionally describe but have so far evaded discovery? Did the new Tuscan kings control small-scale trade coming in and out of the lagoon channels?

Vetricella’s associated objects include exceptional numbers of distinctive storage amphorae. Initial analyses indicate these were made locally and used as wine containers, as though feasting was the new norm. These may throw light on a crucial decision to make Valli something special.

Arianna Briano and Lorenzo Marasco excavating the mysterious phase 1 kilns. These contained charcoal and were designed to be fired by bellows, but what they were making remains unclear.

Transforming Vetricella

Silver coins and radiocarbon dating fix the next chapter in Vetricella’s history. At some time after c.950, the concentric ditches were partly but not wholly filled and then, after an interval, completely filled in. Evidently, the strange symbolism was no longer important. These fills are rich with material showing that Vetricella was on the cusp of genuine regional standing. The 9th-century castle form was eschewed for a new, simpler design. Mortar mixers around the central tower indicate that it was now partially or wholly built of stone. Around the inner edge of the innermost ditch, a stout palisade was erected. In form, the place had utterly transformed its appearance. Outside the palisade, the faintest traces of a simple oratory were discovered. In time, this was surrounded by burials. This little building was probably constructed of dried mud blocks. For all its simplicity, it boasted a cobalt-blue glass bowl made by an international master. At this moment, the first iron-working forges appear. These were making a great array of prosaic objects, from knives, keys, and locks to horse gear.

The humdrum character of the iron finds is very different from the bulk of the household objects from Vetricella in this period. Thin-stemmed glass goblets reveal that the castellan dined in style. Fine cuts of pork – essentially prosciutto – bear this out. The burials provide a more nuanced picture, revealing gender disparities. A group of eminently well-built men clearly had enjoyed good health. The same could not be said for the infants inhumed around the oratory or for the women awarded less propitious resting-places in shallow graves away from the shrine.

This new iteration of Vetricella was accompanied by daring changes to the surrounding landscape. A study of the Pecora river channel sediments, and augering of the reclaimed lagoon, have thrown up a dazzling array of evidence. From this work, the project environmentalists have shown how the Pecora was canalised. These land-works would have diverted winter river-water away from the fortress while providing opportunities to build mills. Plant life revealed by charcoal fragments shows the terrain was being tamed again.

The concentric castle ditches create crop marks that present a distinctive bull’s eye when seen from the air.

The transformation of Vetricella almost certainly speaks to a time of upheaval and investment. One intriguing possibility is that its new royal owner – the long-lived Queen Adelaide – later to become St Adelaide – ordered her fisc to be revamped. Adelaide led a life worthy of a Hollywood star. Born in Burgundy in 931, she acquired Valli on the death of her father, Rudolf II, in 937. Married at 15 to Lothair II, the nominal King of Italy, she was a widow on the run three years later, after her husband was poisoned. Happenstance or good planning led to her finding refuge in 951 in the court of Otto, King of the Germans, the most eligible monarch in Europe. Two years later they married, and alongside him Adelaide helped forge the Ottonian Empire. Their new iteration of the Holy Roman Empire was sealed by their joint anointing in Rome by Pope John XIII as Emperor and Empress on 2 February 962. With this ceremony, Vetricella was no longer a liminal place but a strategically sited coastal property. Thanks to Adelaide’s patronage, her husband, son (Otto II), and grandson (Otto III), established stability and she retired to a monastery at Selz, Alsace in 991, passing away on 16 December 999.

Excavating this tempting target revealed the ditches and also the robber trenches for the central tower; the robber trenches are in the centre.

Adelaide’s tacit support may account for an integrated strategy to develop the property. It may be no coincidence that this was occurring as villages here and throughout Italy were being defined and granted formal foundation charters by local aristocrats vying for power with the imperial family. The charters point to a new, more bureaucratic approach to landownership. From this time date many of Tuscany’s celebrated hilltop villages and small towns.

The volume of discarded material – rubbish – was little short of astonishing compared to its near absence in the later 7th- to 9th-century levels. Things now mattered as the first feudal age (defined by the French historian Marc Bloch in his celebrated Feudal Society [1939]) took shape. Even so, Mediterranean trade stubbornly remained on a small scale. Ports like Pisa, judging from recent excavations, were still primitive by later standards.

Vetricella underwent further change in the early 11th century. The fate of the stone tower is far from certain. It was certainly abandoned, and many of the exceptional group of silver coins may belong to a hoard associated with this event. Was Vetricella sacked, we have asked ourselves? Life here certainly changed out of all recognition. The little oratory was maintained, though, and around it, iron-working forges remained active. Ore from Elba was still worked for tools and an array of equipment. Pre-eminent amongst the iron objects found in the excavations are horse trappings and gear. Next in number are small knives, fishing accessories, a limited range of agricultural tools, structural fittings such as slide locks, and winged spears for hunting. Unusual finds include some real novelties – secateurs for cutting grapes and a possible die for casting we know not what. Noticeably rare are jewelry or personal ornaments. The craftsmen were producing commodities to meet demand, we surmise, either on estates owned by the Empress Adelaide’s heirs or else from emergent regional towns like Pisa.

Vetricella’s status waned during the 11th century to near invisibility. After Adelaide’s death on the eve of the millennium, her descendants vied with local lords, the Aldobrandeschi, for control of Royal Water. By the end of the 12th century, with the rise of local towns such as Massa Marittima, this once exceptional and indeed symbolic property was no more than a point in the landscape where farmers assembled to thresh corn. By the 13th century even this had ceased, and all memory of five centuries of grand living here – much of it associated with the Tuscan and Ottonian courts – had disappeared.

Vetricella’s is a story that shows how little we know about the roots of medieval society and how much has yet to be learnt. Of all its many secrets, though, it is the intricate details of its material culture that have galvanized our team.

A story of metals?

Deep mining and open-pit mining were immensely important to the Etruscans, as they were again from the 12th century to the modern era. The Colline Metallifere produced copper, lead, and silver, as well as iron that helped fuel the rise of Renaissance Tuscany. The offshore island of Elba was also staggeringly rich in iron. When we started our project, it was assumed that metals played the same role during the Dark Ages. Thirteenth-century coins, for example, were minted by Massa Marittima using local silver. Were 9th- and 10th-century Italian coins, albeit few in number, minted with Colline Metallifere silver? A programme of spectrographic analyses undertaken with the University of Florence drew a blank. The coins excavated at Vetricella, all minted in Italy, were made with silver variously brought from western France and Saxony. Colline Metallifere silver was apparently left in the ground.

Francesco Sala shows his reconstruction sketch of the mid-9th-century timber tower.

On the other hand, the finest ceramics employed in Vetricella’s 9th- and 10th-century household were decorated with lead green glaze. These are so-called sparse glazed wares that belong to the first generation of lead-glazed wares found in central Italy, the Meuse valley, and parts of England from the 9th century onwards. Representing only a minuscule percentage of the pottery vessels at Vetricella, these were produced at the castle of Donoratico, on the north-west flank of the Colline Metallifere. Isotopic analyses of the Donoratico and Vetricella glaze wares have revealed a surprise. The lead in the glaze is local, from the nearby Campiglia Marittima district of the Colline Metallifere. As lead and silver occur in the same mineral veins, this discovery begs many questions. Mining lead for decorating tablewares, so it seems, was deemed more imperative than mining silver for coinage.

Like the glazed pitchers, the collection of stemmed goblets associated with the 10th-century tower belongs to a new European fad for fine dining. Twenty goblets have been found in a glass assemblage that amounts to 180 vessels, including bottles and lamps. The goblets bring to mind early Imperial Roman glassware, and form part of the so-called Carolingian renaissance, when the arts of antiquity were revived. Quite where these glasses were made remains a mystery. Their origin on the international market is hinted at by the presence of a small cobalt-blue cup decorated with white blobs and lines. Similar bowls are known from places as far afield as the Viking emporium of Haithabu, in North Germany; a small Benedictine abbey-church at Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, France; and the cave sanctuary of Olevano sul Tusciano above Salerno. Chemical analysis shows this exquisite vessel was made of Near Eastern natron glass, quite possibly recycled from ancient glass. The 12th-century scientist Theophilus describes exactly these vessels in his treatise on glassmaking: ‘One also comes across various small vessels of the same colours,’ Theophilus wrote, ‘which the French – who are most skilled in this work – collect. The blue, they melt in their kilns, adding to it a little clear and white glass…’ The Vetricella bowl was found in fragments close to the putative oratory. Was this one, like its Saint-Savin analogue, a cup used to deliver the sacraments at an altar?

The robber trenches of the central tower at Vetricella, with modern plough furrows visible to the side.

A high-end lifestyle has also been detected in the animal bone assemblage. Over 2,000 pieces have been found, most associated with the 10th-century castle at Vetricella. Unlike contemporary villages in Italy, the high percentage of pigs as opposed to sheep is striking. Pork mattered here. The standout discovery is that 20% of the pigs were juvenile. This appears to suggest a passion for suckling piglets – maiolino, as it is known in Italy today. Added to this, study of the pig scapulae shows a distinctive, fine cutting, as though the butchers on site were preparing prosciutto. There are also an unusual number of older pigs, indicating perhaps that the creatures were put out to pannage in the lands around Vetricella.

The cemetery at Vetricella shows that fine dining and health did not entirely go together. Of the 51 skeletons studied so far, 36 are sub-adults (70.6%) and 15 are adults (29.4%). It was possible to establish the age at death of all the 36 sub-adults. Infants (0–1 year) represent 29.4% of the whole skeletal sample and 41.7% of all sub-adults. The percentage of individuals between 0 and 14 years of age is 58.8%, higher than normal, as children typically comprise about 30% of medieval Italian graveyard populations. Three skeletons stand out: these are fetal individuals who died between the 31st and 35th weeks of gestation and therefore between the eighth and ninth months of pregnancy. Whether they died pre- or post-partum cannot be defined.

Adelaide (seen on the left) had an eventful life. After her first husband was poisoned, Adelaide married Otto (right), King of the Germans. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons, тольд Муратов

Defining sex also was not always straightforward. Only 20 individuals aged 16 years old or more were positively identified. It was possible to determine the sex of 19 of them (14 adults and five sub-adults between 16 and 19 years of age). The 14 adults comprise nine males and five females; the five sub-adults consist of three males and two females. The males are distinctly taller than comparative males from other Italian cemeteries. The females, by contrast, are notable for the presence of anaemias. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses allowed us to exclude the hypothesis of nutritional-deficiency anaemia and to confirm the hypothesis of congenital anaemia. One cause of such anaemia may have been malaria. The lagoonal hinterland of Vetricella was probably once infested by Plasmodium falciparum, transmitted by the Anophele mosquito. Quite why the women were blighted with this while the men enjoyed comparative health remains a point of speculation. Did the men belong to an aristocratic caste, enjoying a higher quality of living? Research is proceeding on the DNA of the skeletal assemblage. This may shed light on any relationships between the men, the women, and the high number of infants.

One male caught our attention: this tall individual’s right foot had been amputated before he passed away. A dozen metres from where he was buried, we found an iron spike that was almost certainly his purpose-made end of a staff. The pointed side of the spike would have been inserted into the staff (charcoal remains were still visible on the point). An X-ray showed that between the spike and ferrule, iron wedges had been set to stabilise the whole thing. Similar spikes have been found with burials in graveyards from Bavaria and Saxony. In the past, these spikes have been interpreted differently. Was the spike made for individuals sporting mobility problems or an insignia of office, or even a pilgrim’s staff? This man had suffered various traumas in his lifetime as though he, like several of his peers interred here, had once seen military action.

An organised landscape

Study of the charcoals and the sedimentation associated with Vetricella’s changing story has proved incredibly illuminating. Burnt charcoals from oaks and other deciduous trees show that local wood was collected for fuelling fires and forges. In the Pecora valley, these woods are currently located on slopes and hills 100-200m above sea level, about 6km (4 miles) from Vetricella, while the evergreen Mediterranean vegetation is widely distributed along the terrain near the archaeological site, dominated by Q. ilex trees and shrubs of maquis. The latter, judging from the charcoal, were rarely collected for fires.

Glass from the site includes stemmed goblets associated with the 10th-century tower, reflecting a renewed interest in fine dining.

Following the collapse of the Roman world, a green ocean enveloped much of Europe. Pollen cores from nearby Lake Accesa together with those from the Pecora river sediments reveal the rhythms of the vegetation history. Deciduous oak forest thrived in hitherto cultivated landscapes across the coastal littoral. Hard to imagine today, Vetricella’s castle community started systematic clearances from the later 9th century onwards. Setting fire to the vegetation was a solution used from the Palaeolithic until modern EU regulations outlawed the process. Fire clearance released soils, after which rainfall caused downwash, taking the form of colluvium. Charcoals found in a palaeochannel of the Pecora river, dated using radiocarbon, revealed four phases of fire events belonging to two major fluvial / erosional processes. The first phase, pinpointed to the Etruscan age (800-450 BC), occurred when the river was characterised by its natural gravel-sand wandering along a meandering course. The other events occurred in the Middle Ages. From AD 650, fire contributed to the medieval upstream reclamation and clearing of flat marshlands. From about 850 to 1050, the use of fire spread over a wider area in the valley, enlarging potentially arable lands. Between 1150 and 1300, the presence of fires reveals a regional clearance phase. These fire episodes played an active role in changing the fluvial landforms of the Pecora river into a braided gravel-bed course. From about AD 650, they were a determining factor in the first erosional processes of the upstream calcareous tufa terraces. By about 850, widespread fire clearance markedly increased upstream fluvial erosion rates. Within a century, by 950, increased destruction of the forest floor escalated the downstream gravel-rich deposits of the Pecora.

Metal finds from Vetricella include these broken shears. Image: Foy 2017.
The remains of an adolescent buried at Vetricella. Of the 51 skeletons studied so far, 36 are sub-adults.

Clearance influenced regional vegetation history. From AD 950, open habitats now dominated the landscape. Pollen from chestnut and olive, among many trees, start to reoccur. Olive groves had been cultivated in antiquity and continued to be cropped in Byzantine south-east Italy but not, apparently, coastal Tuscany. The introduction of chestnuts, perhaps brought from the eastern Mediterranean, is hard to believe, given the immense boreal canopy famously covering western Tuscany today. In every sense, the spirit and form of the area around Vetricella was changing by the year AD 1000. Its green ocean had become a memory.

Never a non-place

Vetricella was never a non-place. Those winnowing wheat here in the 12th century probably had some sense that a royal place had come and gone. Its story fills a gap between the Pax Romana, with its emphasis upon commodities, and the birth of pre-Renaissance Italy with its very different mores but a love of objects once more. The people of Vetricella, or Valli as it was known over several centuries, saw their surroundings change dramatically. Some suffered malaria because of it. Some prospered from its connections inland, and across to Elba and along the Tyrrhenian coast. Most of all, the archaeology speaks to the earliest feudal era, when towns and markets barely existed. The value of commodities was keenly recognised. Science and technology were harnessed to new demands for prosaic tools and fine household accoutrements. The spirit and principles of such a place – hard though it is to imagine in our urban world today – provided the stimulus ultimately to reinvent town living. With that came coinage re-entering quotidian life, along with a world of small things forgotten, which meant so very much at the time and still does to us as archaeologists today.

This iron spike was found near an individual whose right foot had been amputated. Did the spike form part of a staff used to aid individuals with mobility problems?
Davide Susini and Prof Pierluigi Pieruccini stand beside the augured cores they have extracted from the Percora valley, allowing the development of the landscape to be charted.
The Vetricella field team.
For the University of Siena’s nEU-Med, see the website: www.neu-med.unisi.it/en, and the recent open-access volume: G Bianchi & R Hodges (eds) (2020) Vetricella: An Early Medieval Royal Property in Tuscany’s Mediterranean, Florence: Insegna del Giglio.