A little more Sherlock Holmes than Indiana Jones

Prof. Ben Luley discovers a first-century bar.

According to classics and anthropology Prof. Ben Luley, archaeology is more like being Sherlock Holmes than Indiana Jones.

“There is no sign that tells you what you are looking at,” Luley explains. “You have to figure it out. You find all of these clues and have to piece them together. That’s part of the fun of archaeology.”

That’s exactly what he did when working on an excavation site known as Lattes in southern France. After excavating a largely residential second-century site, Luley and his colleagues stumbled into a first-century tavern.

It’s a find that not only caused quite a stir in the archaeological community, but this discovery—which many are referring to as the "bar older than Jesus"—was publicized by media outlets like USA Today, the Smithsonian, Live Science, and others.


While Lattes itself has been an active excavation site since 1983, Luley—who is in his second year of teaching at Gettysburg College—began working there as a graduate student in 2006. 

Due to the sheer size of the site, there are multiple research projects taking place. The area that Luley was excavating with his colleagues consisted largely of small residential spaces. It wasn’t until the end of their first season of field work that Luley and his colleagues realized that this area might not be the residential space they were expecting.


“We started seeing things that made us think of a tavern, but it wasn’t until the second season that we started seriously thinking about that possibility,” Luley said. “It was larger, so we could tell it was made for more people.”

It was more than the size of the space that gave Luley and his colleagues the impression that they were dealing with something a bit outside of the norm, though. They also found an abundance of food remnants and pottery fragments, in addition to the foundation for three large fire-hardened clay stoves. Together, these artifacts presented only one logical conclusion—the space had been previously used as a tavern. It's necessity makes sense to Luley, too.

“If people weren’t growing their own food, they needed a place to eat,” Luley said.

However, he says the presence of the tavern signifies more than just a need to eat outside of the home.

“The tavern shows how much the society changed after the Roman conquest. It shows the impact the Roman Empire had in terms of how lives were fundamentally changed due to changing economics,” Luley explained. “It gives a really good insight into how local people are impacted by global processes, whether during the first century or today.”

This find does more than provide insight into the changing dynamics of life for average citizens of the region after the conquest of the Roman Empire. It also illustrates one of the most important lessons Luley has learned about archaeology—you never know what you are going to find.


Luley shares the lessons he’s learned as an archaeologist with his students, often taking them to Camp Security, a Revolutionary War-era excavation site near York, PA.

“You have expectations with any excavation, but you are proven wrong all of the time,” Luley said. “There are so many things that make archaeology exciting, and finding something that you weren’t necessarily expecting to find is one of them.”

It’s also part of the reason why he feels archaeology is so important. While historical documents can provide one type of insight into a particular time period or region, handling historical artifacts can add a deeper understanding—or the only understanding, when documents are not available.

“Documents tell one story. But if you look at what the people from that time period were throwing away and what they used, it tells a completely different story,” Luley explained. “It's important because it gives an insight  that we wouldn’t have had before.”

For now, though, Luley is working to publish an article further analyzing the implications of this discovery, while continuing excavation at the site.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Kasey Varner, assistant director of communications, 717.337.6806

Posted: Mon, 13 Jun 2016

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