A deeply committed archaeologist and teacher endowed with extraordinary intellectual curiosity and the ability to communicate with others, Maria Teresa Grassi (Milan 1957-2020) dedicated her entire life to archaeological research. She commenced her studies at the Roman dig in Angers conducted by the University of Milan and wrote her thesis on the subject of the Celts and Roman influences on Northern Italy, a subject which reflected her innate attraction to more obscure aspects of her subject. Her book “I Celti in Italia” was to become a cornerstone of studies in the field.
“Archaeology is a historical science: the study of objects enables us to reconstruct stories, be they big or small. Stories which haven’t yet been told (…). I have concentrated on the Celts not least because they did not write their own narrative: it was written by their enemies and was therefore not exactly impartial. But thanks to the objects they left behind we can reconstruct their story. History repeats itself and it is a precious resource which must be cared for and conserved.”
Exploring remote lands, building bridges between distant worlds and bringing to our attention things that otherwise passed unobserved was a vocation for her. This passion naturally flowed into her work as an archaeologist and her brilliant career as a teacher at the University of Milan. She was a Professor from 2000 and an Associate Professor from 2003 holding the Chair of Archaeology of the Roman Provinces. She was vice-director of the Department of Sciences and Antiquities from 2002-2009 and vice-director of the School of Archaeological Specialisation from 2010-2013.
Ever since its inception in 1986, Maria Teresa Grassi was one of the protagonists of the University of Milan’s archaeological investigations of the ancient Roman vicus of Bedriacum near Calvatone (CR). She was director of the dig from 2005-2020 and here she established a school where she taught students the importance of scientific rigor, dedication and above all, the virtues of teamwork. She imparted not only a love of research – in particular of ceramics studies – but also the importance of an awareness of the necessity to share knowledge. Thanks to her perseverance, a Visitors’ Centre named after her was opened at the Calvatone-Bedriacum dig in 2011.
Maria Teresa Grassi’s interest in the Middle East was more recent. In 2007 she was the architect of an accord between the University of Milan and the Museum of Damascus with a view to establishing an important international scientific project: the Joint Archaeological Mission between Italy and Syria at Palmyra (PAL.M.A.I.S.), of which she was joint director together with Waleed al-As’ad.
The ambitious objective of the Mission was to throw light on the private lives of the ancient inhabitants of the oasis. The investigations (which also involved other Italian research centres such as the IULM University) concentrated on the entire south-western quarter of the ancient city, including the Agora, city walls, Transversal Colonnade and the Great Colonnade. The Pal.M.A.I.S. mission carried out the first general survey of this area which had hitherto been totally unexplored and initiated the excavation of a large structure (Peristyle Building) which had been in use from the Severan to the early Umayyad period.
The research proved to be an important scientific contribution in a field not otherwise well studied at Palmyra – that of private residential buildings – furnishing essential elements for the reconstruction of the urban development of the city and for the better understanding of its transformation over time and different cultures. The Palmyrene studies and publications under the leadership of Maria Teresa Grassi have touched upon a variety of subjects ranging from the material culture of the Roman, Byzantine and proto-Islamic eras, to numismatics, Greek and Palmyrene epigraphy, archaeometry, topography and urbanism.
The mission was active at the site up to November 2010. In March 2011 the deteriorating military and political situation put a sudden end to activities in the field and what took place subsequently was characterised by death, destruction and ignorance. Maria Teresa Grassi attempted to compensate for the horrors taking place at the site with her indefatigable commitment to the study and dissemination of awareness of the cultural legacy of Palmyra. She was convinced that the wealth and diversity of this legacy could teach us tolerance and open-mindedness and a commitment to the pursuit of peace and concord.
“In the oasis men, gods, traditions and cultures mixed and cohabited. To those arriving from the West – the Mediterranean and the Greco-Roman world – Palmyra must have seemed a very ‘Oriental’ city, whereas to those coming from the East – Mesopotamia and Persia – it would have appeared completely ‘Western’. Its culture, much of it highly original, constituted an ideal meeting point between East and West. For those of us who are aware of the city’s status as an ancient cultural crossroads, the violence which is now being wreaked upon appears even more devastating.”
Thus, when the village of Tadmor and the archaeological site of Palmyra were invaded by terrorists in 2015-16, Maria Teresa Grassi did not remain idle. She applied her considerable energies and resources to counteract the brutality and barbarism by immersing herself in an incessant series of scientific conferences both in Italy and overseas. Through public meetings and demonstrations she sought to raise awareness for her Syrian friends and react to the pain that the devastation, hatred and violence was causing her.
“The extraordinary human-, cultural- and scientific collaboration which I have experienced over the past four years has been interrupted. The existence of the last ‘Lord of Palmyra’, Khaled al-As’ad, has been brutally terminated. He worked tirelessly for decades studying, preserving and documenting the archaeological site. His sacrifice must never be forgotten and his stand against hatred and violence must continue to ensure that the site, the nation and its population live on.”
In order to honour the memory of the historic Director of Antiquities and of the Museum of Palmyra, Maria Teresa Grassi and Marco Di Branco edited an Italian translation of the “Guide to Palmyra” written by Khaled al-As’ad and Adnan Bounni in 1976, adding a bibliography and a substantial introduction to the history and archaeology of the city.
Her final monography, “Palmira. Storie straordinarie dell’antica metropoli d’Oriente” (Edizioni Terra Santa, 2017), is a brilliant synthesis of scientific rigor and narrative flair. Created thanks to the collaboration of the Fondazione Terra Santa, it constitutes an invitation to future generations to let themselves be seduced by the inheritance of the past and to have the courage to transform it with critical rigor and imaginative flair into innovative ideas for the creation of a better world in the future.
For Maria Teresa Grassi, the preservation of memory wasn’t only synonymous with the preservation of monuments. It was above all a commitment to caring for people: both those with whom she had shared important episodes in her life and those with whom she had never become acquainted, but whose future task it would be to interpret ‘memory’ together with herself.
Building solid relations between individuals and communities was a prerogative for Maria Teresa Grassi in all her fields of endeavour, from Lombardy to Libya, from her beloved to Tunisia to immortal Syria. An attentive and sensitive observer and scrupulous documenter, she had an exceptional ability to articulate and describe objects and people no longer visible to us, to capture their essence and thus make the invisible accessible to all because, in her own words, “our task is to throw light upon things”.