Archive for the ‘Roma, Caput Mundi’ Category

Opulent imperial-era home found at Milvian Bridge

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of an opulent imperial-era residence on the banks of the Tiber near the Milvian Bridge. The site was found last November during a preventative archaeology survey in advance of utility works, but excavations were suspended and trenches filled in out of concern that the seasonal rise of the water level in the Tiber would damage the ancient remains.

Excavations have started again in the spring. Only a fraction of the structure has been unearthed and the team still sin’t certain whether it was a villa or smaller private dwelling. The part that has been exposed is contains mosaic floors in the luxurious opus sectile, a mosaic style which used polychrome marbles instead of the small, even tesserae tiles, arranged in a variety of floral, geometric and figural shapes. The floors in this building feature floral motifs, at least the ones revealed so far.

They are of exceptional quality, the colors of the marbles vivid and diverse. The homeowner must have spared no expense. It is incongruous, however, that such a high-end edifice decorated in precious materials would have been built so close to the bank of the Tiber.

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Intact 4th c. B.C. tomb found in Roman suburb

Monday, June 4th, 2018

An exceptional intact chamber tomb from the 4th century B.C. was discovered during construction of a water pipeline in a suburb of Rome. It was found when an earthmover opened a hole in the side of the chamber, thankfully doing no damage to its overall structure or contents. By law, an archaeologist must be present at construction projects in Rome and environs, but the area had been worked for a year with little archaeological material to show for it so on-site archaeologist Fabio Turchetta didn’t expect they’d stumble on anything of any import. He certainly didn’t expect to find a complete, untouched tomb from the early Roman Republic.

The chamber tomb was dug into soft volcanic tufa and sealed with a large slab of limestone. It contained the skeletal remains of four individuals, three men and one woman between the ages of 40 and 50. They were inhumed at different times. Two of the men were placed up high on stone ledges. The woman was on the floor of the tomb in a crouched position and the third man next to her. Archaeologists believe it was a family tomb, that the people buried there were related to each other instead of the tomb having been invaded and reused in a later period, a common practice that often resulted in the destruction or damage of earlier burials.

The deceased, the two men on the ledges in particular, were laid to rest with a spectacular array of funerary goods. Two iron strigils, scrapers used by athletes to clean themselves after a workout, inspired the team to name the chamber “The Tomb of the Athlete” even though the interred would have been well past athlete age in their era, and anyway strigils were used for cleaning by non-athletes as well.

A total of 25 artifacts were recovered from the tomb, mostly black-glazed pottery bowls and plates with their white decorations still vivid. The tomb was in such inviolate condition that the vessels still contained the remains of funerary offerings: bones of chickens, rabbit and a lamb or kid. The tomb and the number and quality of the grave goods and offerings indicate the deceased were wealthy people, part of the societal elite.

A coin found next to one of the skeletons dates the tomb to between 335 and 312 B.C. The bronze coin depicts the head of Minerva on the obverse and a horse head inscribed “Romano” on the reverse. The style of the pottery confirms the dating of the tomb to the second half of the 4th century B.C.

The Case Rosse neighborhood where the tomb was found is on the Via Tuburtina, a Republican-era road that goes from Rome east to Tivoli (ancient name, Tibur) and then Pescara on the Adriatic. It exits the ancient traditional boundary of the city through the Porta Esquilina in the Servian Wall, and the historic center of Rome through the Porta Tiburtina in the Aurelian Wall (built in the late 3rd century A.D.). Case Rosse is 10 miles outside of the ancient city of Rome.

The Via Tiburtina was decades away from being built when the men in the chamber tomb died, and the Servian Wall, built in reaction to the first Sack of Rome in 390 B.C. by Gallic forces under Brennus, was just a few decades old. It was a momentous century for the city in many ways. Rome bounced back quickly from the sack and in the second half of the 4th century defeated their Italian neighbors — the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Volsci, the Sabini, assorted other Latin tribes — and absorbing their lands and peoples into the foundation of what would become a vast empire.

The individuals buried in the tomb, therefore, were likely Latins, as the Roman identity was still attached to the city itself and only taking its first steps outside of the pomerium with the dissolution of the Latin League confederation after it was decisively defeated by Rome in 338 B.C. One of the reasons this tomb is so important a find is that its untouched condition and organic materials provides them with a unique opportunity to study the funerary rituals of the Ager, the countryside that had been absorbed by Rome politically but was still not Rome.

On Friday, archaeologists began to remove the occupants and the artifacts, which will be sent to a laboratory for research, including DNA testing on the skeletons to determine the familial connection.

One expert, Alessandra Celant, a paleo-botanist at the University of Rome La Sapienza, carefully collected ancient pollen and plant samples from the tomb — “the tip of a pin is enough,” she said — that she will study to potentially reconstruct the flora and landscape of the area, as well as funerary rituals.

The tomb was mapped with a laser scanner, and once it has been emptied, it will be sealed.

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Happy Birthday, Rome, from the Antonine Wall.

Saturday, April 21st, 2018

It’s April 21st, the traditional founding day of the city of Rome when, according to legend (one of them, anyway) Romulus ploughed a furrow laying out the boundaries of the city, sacrificed to the gods and became the first king of Rome by popular acclaim. Ancient sources vary on the date of this mythical event (in fact, archaeological evidence indicates Rome has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, ca. 14,000 years ago) but for the past couple of thousand years the most widely accepted date for the founding is 753 B.C., which makes the Eternal City 2,772 years old today.

It was a comparative baby of 895 years old when its legions built the Antonine Wall across the width of Scotland, a series of defensive ramparts, ditches and forts marking the furthest northwestern boundary of the empire. The soldiers left distance stones, slabs with reliefs and inscriptions documenting how much of the wall they’d built, features unique to the Antonine Wall.

A new study by University of Glasgow archaeologist Dr. Louisa Campbell has found that those distance slabs, now worn down to their natural sandstone, were originally painted in bright red and yellow. She used X-ray and laser technology to analyze the Second Legion’s distance stone, found at Summerston Farm in the 17th century.

Inscribed with a dedication to Antoninus Pius (“For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, the Second Augustan Legion completed [this work] over a distance of 3666.5 paces”), the stone depicts Roman cavalry with two captives on the left of the inscription, and an eagle on top of a capricorn (emblem of the Second Legion) on the right. It is currently on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum.

Dr. Campbell used portable X-Ray Flourescence and Raman Spectroscopic technology to analyze the traces of pigment remaining on several distance stones, including the Summerston stone. They identified a limited palette of vibrant red and yellow that was used as visually impactful propaganda that would have conveyed a clear message to indigenous peoples about the power and strength of the Roman empire.

There is a clear format to the application of pigments in the Roman Empire with specific colours expected to appear in certain contexts, eg reds in letters and Roman cloaks and military standards, different colours of red depicting spilled blood of indigenous captive warriors and ochres probably applied in layers to provide life-like skin tones, as evidenced on marble statuary.

There is even evidence for red on the beak of the Roman eagle which Dr Campbell suggests symbolises the eagle feasting on the flesh of her enemies.

A base layer of gesso was applied to the stones in the first instance which was then painted onto, but conservation practices appear to have negatively impacted the survival of these exquisite sculptures.

This is innovative work that has not previously been attempted. It presented some challenges which have now been mitigated and the next phase of the research seeks to determine whether other stone statuary, including Pictish symbol stones and other early medieval sculpture was adorned in colour.

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Spanish tech used in Switzerland to prove Roman shaft was a fridge

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

The archaeological site of Augusta Raurica outside Basel, Switzerland, has been excavated continuously for decades. It is the oldest known Roman colony on the Rhine but was never overbuilt after it was permanently disabled by earthquakes and barbarian raids in the 3rd century. Because of this, the site’s remains are extensive and in an excellent state of preservation. Today Augusta Raurica is by far the best preserved Roman city north of the Alps.

In 2013, a dig unearthed a number of stone-walled shafts. Archaeologists suspected they may have been used for cold storage. Romans would pack the space with snow and ice in the winter and add straw for insulation. Supplies stashed in the shaft could then be kept cool even when the sun was hot.

Peter-Andrew Schwarz from the University of Basel has experimented twice trying to get the refrigerator effect to work. The first time the team packed the shaft with snow, shoveling it all in in one fell swoop. This method did not work. The temperature inside the structure never even reached freezing during the winter.

The second attempt packed snow and ice into the shaft gradually, fitting ice blocks into gaps. This half-worked. The pit got cold and stayed cold until June.

Now, however, researchers plan to use methods developed by the so-called ‘nevaters’ or ice-makers on the Spanish island of Majorca. This will see Schwarz and his team placing 20–30-centimetre-thick layers of snow into the shaft. These individual layers will then be compacted down with a straw cover placed on top of each one.

“With this method, people in Majorca could keep food cool in summer before the arrival of electric fridges,” Schwarz told regional daily Basler Zeitung in 2017.

The experiment is taking place even as you read and the site is open to the public, as is its wont. Visitors will have the chance to see the pits while archaeologists work to figure out if they were used for refrigeration. The tests end on Friday.

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Roman hair from the Capitoline Museums for Janet Stephens

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Janet Stephens, intrepid hairdressing archaeologist, was on my mind often as I traipsed through the rooms full of Roman busts in the Capitoline Museums. Her intensive research on Roman hairstyling coming from her perspective as a professional stylist, a unique viewpoint that gave her special insight into an arena most historians know nothing about, led her to fascinating discoveries like that Roman matrons likely had their elaborate braided updos sewn together instead of wearing wigs. She also unravelled the complexity of the seni crines, the characteristic hairstyle of the Vestal Virgins.

When I interviewed her almost six years ago, I asked her what changes she’d like to see in the archaeological community if she had her choice. She replied:

I would love it if all archaeological museums would display their sculptures out in the middle of the room instead of in niches and against walls! And I wish there were mirrors behind every small sculpture displayed in a case.

The Capitoline Museums have not made her dream come true, I regret to report. It’s a damn shame because that mirror idea is brilliant. The good news is that even though the busts are still on shelves up against the walls facing the room, many of the female portraits have been turned just enough that you can see the sides and back of their hair. You might have to crane a bit to do it, but it is now possible to see the business end of the Roman women’s hairstyles and even get a pretty decent picture of several of the most interesting ones. Yes, some Stretch Armstronging is required, but nothing too contortionist for single-jointed, non-rubberized people to handle.

I looked for hair that I couldn’t recall having seen her recreate on her YouTube channel yet and that had some intricate elements to it. Nobody famous, therefore, because Janet has already done quite a few empresses and society leaders. My final choices range in date from the 1st century A.D. through the 4th, and all these nameless Roman ladies have in common are great ornatrices and fly dos.


The last woman’s hair is less complex than some of the others, perhaps, but I found its tiger-striped elegance no less intriguing, so she gets the big embed to show off the fine details.

Simple, but stripey.

All of these busts were spread out in the ancient marbles gallery, keeping company with some of the famous sculptures of antiquity. My last post on the Capitoline Museums will cover the big names too. Stay tuned!

 

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Nero’s Domus Aurea blew my mind.

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Technically it qualifies as one of Rome’s hidden gems simply because it is so enormously overshadowed by its neighbor, the Colosseum, which was built on the site of an artificial lake that had provided a lovely prospect to Nero’s massive palace on the Oppian Hill above. It’s weird to think of it as hidden, however, because it was just so insanely huge in its day. Nero took advantage of the Great Fire of 64 A.D. to confiscate a stretch of land in central Rome more than 80 hectares in area.

By the time of his death four years later, the palace almost entirely covered three of the seven hills, and it wasn’t even finished yet. Lavish beyond anything that had been seen before, ingeniously designed to be cross-lit with windows and skylights galore, the palace was really a complex of pavilions linked by grand open spaces that could be used in a myriad of ways. The interior was decorated with exquisite frescoes, marble inlays, mosaics and gilded stucco reliefs that reflected the light to create dazzling optical illusions. It was this play of light and shine that gave the Domus Aurea its name.

Deliberately destroyed by Vespasian (r. 69-79 A.D.) to erase the memory of Nero and his works from Roman history — it was Vespasian who had the lake drained to build the Colosseum as a symbolic return of Nero’s purloined property to the people of Rome — the ruins of the imperial palace were reused by Trajan (r. 98-117 A.D.) as the foundation for a great complex of public baths. He tore the marble inlays, mosaics and frescoes off the walls and floors and reused them in the baths. The damaged walls were rebuilt with tidy bricks and the open spaces filled with soil.

By the time the underground spaces were rediscovered in the 15th century, nobody even remembered that the baths were Trajan’s (they were believed to be the Baths of Titus), and they certainly had no idea that the “grotte” (caves) underneath were part of the long-vanished Golden House. Still, what little was still visible of the Neronian structure had a great influence on Renaissance art. Treasure hunters and artists would lower themselves into the so-called caves and copy the delicate floral and figural frescoes on the walls by torchlight. They then used this newly discovered style in their own artwork when they decorated the walls of Renaissance palazzi. It became known as the grotesque style after the “grotta” in which the originals had been found. (Only centuries later did the term evolve into the grotesque figure as we know it today.)

The Domus Aurea and Trajan’s Baths began to be identified correctly starting in the 18th century, and later excavations would ultimately reveal about 150 identifiable spaces from the Domus. For many years, including all the years I lived in Rome as a child and young adult, whatever was left of Nero’s famous Golden House was closed to visitors. It was structurally unsound, prone to sudden collapses and moisture seepage that sometimes reached the level of outright waterfalls. So when I read that parts of it were reopening for guided tours with a new virtual reality element that recreated how the palace had looked in its heyday, I was more than up for it.

To call this visit one of the highlights of my Romecoming is to vastly understate the case. It. Was. Amazing. Our guide was an archaeologist, deeply knowledgeable and brimming with love and enthusiasm for the incredible site. The site itself …. It’s sublime. Even denuded of all of Nero’s vanities, it still cannot be denied. Huge. Beautiful. Frigidly cold. And the virtual reality element was like the most fantastic rollercoaster Octagonal room skylightride I’ve ever been on. Without a doubt it is the greatest combination of ancient setting and cutting edge technology I have ever had the fortune to witness. It takes you on a tour through time, and even though you’re sitting down the whole time wearing a goofy VR helmet, you feel like you’re moving through time with it. I would do it every day if I could.

This short film shows you some of the 3D reconstructed elements seen in the introductory video (which they awesomely projected on the brick wall of the Trajanic-era entrance hall) and in the VR experience.

This is the money documentary that covers the four years of painstaking restoration done by hundreds of experts that made the reopening of the site possible. You need to use autotranslated closed captioning if you don’t speak Italian, and as usual the translations are pretty bad, but if you can stand to deal with the gibberish, it is worth it for the views of the space alone.

 

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Finally some updates

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

I’ve had the hardest time getting to things that I’ve written about in the past so I could post first-person updates. (The hours and availability of sites and museum exhibitions in Rome and environs are, let’s just say, fluid.) Finally today is the day.

Let’s start with everyone’s highest priority, the cat sanctuary at the Largo di Torre Argentina. When last we saw our feline overlords and their faithful staff, they were under threat of eviction by the city, which had issues with the shelter having been set up in an excavated space under the street that is part of the ancient remains of a temple complex built at various times between the 4th and the 1st centuries B.C. The city had a solid case because the sanctuary was built without a permit on an ancient archaeological site and was therefore illegal. It also had a crap case because it claimed the sanctuary was a health hazard when in fact it has the most exacting sanitation standards I’ve ever heard of for an animal refuge, and that it compromised the ruins which weren’t in any kind of peril whatsoever from the small and discreet structure tucked away in what would otherwise be an empty overhang.

The potential loss of the invaluable services they provide to the city’s feral and abandoned cat population — hundreds of cats have been adopted, unadoptable ones virtually adopted, and tens of thousands of cats in the colony spayed — was devastating to cat lovers and Rome lovers alike. Petitions and phone calls protesting the proposed eviction ensued, but I hadn’t read any follow-up on the outcome.

I can now confirm that not only is the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary alive and kicking, they are now the official tenders of the cats, city approved! Check out this sign:

They weren’t open when we stopped by so I couldn’t get inside the sanctuary itself, or inside the sunken temple site at all, for that matter, but I’ll take another stab at it if at all possible. Meanwhile, I was able to get a couple of paparazzi shots of the stars of the show. They were supremely unimpressed by my attempts to get their attention, and really just by my existence in general.

Just a few blocks away, today I got some shots of the ruins of the Athenaeum of Hadrian discovered in Piazza Venezia during construction of Metro Line C in 2009. It’s not like I hadn’t already walked by it about a dozen times already. I just failed to recognize what I was seeing until I drove by it on a bus last night, weirdly enough. When the excavation ended in 2012, the plan was to build the subway stop somewhere nearby in a sewer line and keep the ruins visible to the public. There is no stop yet, but the ruins are visible to the public. Well, sort of. You have to look through a couple of fences. I still managed to sneak the camera in between the links and get a decent pic or two.

Speaking of sneaking the camera in for a decent pic, I went to Piazzale Augusto Imperatore yesterday to check out the restoration work on Augustus’ long-neglected mausoleum, and even covered in scaffolding and construction mess, it still looks hella better than it did in the 80s when it was basically a weed-choked mound with some bricks around the edges/shooting gallery.

It is closed to the public for the duration of the restoration project, all the work done behind a tall barrier, but I got lucky when one of the people working on the site was having a conversation with someone else working on the site and left the gate open for a moment. I rushed in, got a quick shot and hauled ass just before he slammed the gate shut on me. He was even more annoyed by my antics than the cats at Largo Argentina.

I shall close with my favorite update of them all, an entirely fortuitous encounter that went down today at the Capitoline Museums (which have been exceptionally renovated, by the by, but more on that later). There’s a tiny little three-room temporary exhibition going on there right now on reclaimed treasures. The first room has looted artifacts that were recovered by the Carabinieri Art Squad, and guess what was there? The Etruscan black-figure kalpis by the Micali Painter that was pried out of the clutches of the very, very unwilling Toledo Museum of Art in 2012, years after the unique piece was conclusively proven in court to have been stolen.

I didn’t know about the exhibition and I didn’t know the vase, which depicts pirates being turned into dolphins by Dionysus as punishment for their attempted kidnap of the god, would be at the Capitoline. I loved writing that article exposing the whole sordid backstory, I love the kalpis and I loved getting to see it in person, especially since the only pics I could find of it were scans from printed material where you can see the grain of the paper. I had to take it from the side to minimize the horror of flash glare, and yes, I did get yelled at by the guard for taking a prohibited indoor picture. I REGRET NOTHING.

 

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The aquila has landed!

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The flight was terrible, as they always are these days, and departure was delayed over an hour, but it was all forgotten upon landing. (Okay, upon getting through security.) Sun and blue sky and Father Tiber welcomed me in their warm embrace and I hit the streets as soon as I dropped my crap off at the hotel. A quick jaunt to St. Peter’s where I hoped to catch the Pope canonizing some saintly types but alas, didn’t quite make it on time. That’s cool, though. I got to hear the Vatican band play the Italian national anthem and enjoyed the jaw-dropping view of how freaking clean the colonnade and facade of the basilica are. It never once looked anything near that ideal off-white when I lived there. And the fountains in St. Peter’s Square! In my day, whatever parts weren’t black as coal on them were coated in green algae slime. Not anymore. All that gunk has been replaced by pure travertine creaminess.

Follow in my footsteps.


Sono Pazzi Questi Romani manhole cover with original sampietrini basalt pavers. Murder on the shoes and just plain murder when they’re wet, but they are so quintessentially Rome. They’re gradually replaced with terrible modern replacements everywhere except on small streets and in the historic center to preserve its character.


Just a charming little fountain at the end of a street near the Tiber. It’s drooling more than fountaining these days on account of water restrictions.


I crossed the Tiber on the Ponte Sisto and saw this in the distance. Makes it easy not to get lost even after so much time has passed.


I didn’t cross over to see the Castel Sant’Angelo up close and personal due to my hustling to get to St. Pete’s. Maybe I’ll go back to see it lit up tonight.


Almost there!


And here we are. So bright and creamy in the sunlight. The banners you see hanging from the church balcony celebrate the new saints, Capuchin friar Angelo d’Acri (d. 1739); Manuel Míguez González, founder of the Daughters of the Divine Shepherdess (d. 1925); the 30 “Matryrs of Natal” who were killed by Dutch troops and their local allies under the direction of radical Calvinist Antonio Paraopaba in Natal, Brazil, in 1645; and the “Child Martyrs of Tlaxcala,” three indigenous Mexican 12- and 13-year-olds who were killed in the late 1520s (the Franciscan advance guard evangelizers only got there in 1524) for refusing to renounce their Catholicism.

That’s 35 saints made in one fell swoop! And I was there! (In time to hear the band wrap it up and watch the guys on the dais parade out solemly.)

 

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Colosseum’s vertiginous cheap seats to reopen

Friday, October 13th, 2017

The latest phase of the Colosseum restoration has made possible the reopening of what were once its cheapest seats and are now a vertigo-inducing thrill ride with the best view in town, 40 years after they were last open to the public.

Its structural issues and propensity to drop heavy stone blocks at unpredictable times for decades severely restricted what areas were accessible to the public. After nearly four years of restoration, visitors can already tour the subterranean level, where the gladiator cells were and the wild beasts were kept before the slaughter, the imperial terrace and I level (where the senators sat), the II level (where the knights sat) and the III level, a gallery never before opened to the public where painstaking cleaning revealed crown insignia in white plaster. That was where what we’d now call the middle class got to sit. The IV level was reserved for merchants and assorted petty bourgeoisie. Last and indubitably least were the denizens of the V level, the city’s poor who couldn’t afford a closer view of the carnage or fancy marble seats. (I’d take the wood benches any day, thanks.)

Starting next month, visitors, in guided tours of no more than 25 people at a time (for their own safety), will be able to view the fourth and fifth levels and a connecting hallway that has never been open to visitors. A lucky few got to visit the newly opened floors at a press preview on October 3rd.

Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini takes in the view. Photo by Andreas Solaro, AFP.Italy’s culture minister Dario Francheschini was on hand to visit the new levels, which during ancient Roman times were the cheap seats, since they were farthest away from the spectacle.

Today, however, the top two levels of the 52-metre (171-foot) high Colosseum offer priceless views of the stadium itself, as well as the nearby Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the rest of Rome.

The nosebleed seats will be open to the public come November 1st which turns out to be a bit of a bummer for me because guess where your friendly neighborhood history blogger is going. Oh, and at least I’m getting there while access to the Pantheon is still free. They’re planning on charging 3 euros a ticket for the most visited site in the city (an estimated 7.4 million visitors in 2016, a million more than the Colosseum) starting in January.

That’s right. The mothership is calling me home. I’m flying to Rome on Saturday and will be there through next Sunday! Since my days will be crammed full of extremely nerdy pursuits, my blogging will be reduced in terms of length and depth of research, but I still hope to post daily. Due to time constraints and the potential of connectivity contretemps, it will be more of a travelogue/postcards from Rome sort of deal, which I hope will provide you some enjoyment on its own merits. My general plan will be at long last to see in person things I’ve only posted about in the past (newly opened archaeological sites, museum exhibitions, etc.) and write eye-witness updates. With pictures. Lots and lots of big pictures.

All of this is hotel Wi-Fi permitting, of course, although I suppose nowadays it’s a simple matter to find free Wi-Fi out in the wild in Rome. The last time I was there you still needed a school email account and a floppy disk to use this series of tubes they call the internets. I saw a gluten-free pizzeria when I was checking out the historic center on Google Maps the other day. If there is anywhere in the world where you feel the passage of time more keenly than Rome, I don’t know of it. I shall wallow in it.

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Wood beams, furniture preserved by fire found in Rome

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

The construction of Rome’s Metro Line C continues to be the archaeological gift that keeps on giving. The latest discovery is an early 3rd century villa that collapsed in a fire. The intense heat of the blaze charred wooden beams and the collapse of the structure on top of them helped preserved the organic remains for 1,800 years.

Organic remains preserved by instant carbonization have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but those cities succumbed to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that froze everything in time. Buildings burned down in Rome all the time, some fires spreading rapidly throughout the city like the Great Fire of 64 A.D. over which Nero is said to have sung mournfully about the destruction of Troy, some relatively contained either by (rudimentary) firefighting measures or by a fortuitous separation between buildings.

Surviving organic remains, however, are extremely rare in the city of Rome. Even though the tightly-packed, wood-heavy ancient city was subject to regular conflagrations, most of the evidence for them in the archaeological record consists of marks, dark spots indicating charring. Thousands of years of battling the water table and Tiber floods and construction over construction have made Rome a tough environment for the preservation of wood, textiles and organics of any type. The discovery of fire-preserved wood from a villa in the city is therefore an extremely exciting find.

“The fire that stopped life in this environment allows us to image life in a precise moment,” said Francesco Prosperetti, in charge of Rome’s archaeological ruins and excavations.

Experts say the Rome ruins might be from an aristocrat’s home at the foot of the nearby Celian Hill or from a nearby military barracks, which itself had been explored in other excavations for the subway line.

The remains were discovered last month at the bottom of a 33-foot hole bored into Rome’s undercarriage near the ancient Aurelian Walls (built between 271 and 275 A.D.). The most significant find was a charred wooden ceiling that collapsed during the fire. It is unique in Rome’s archaeological record. Pieces of furniture, hardened by the fire, also survived: the leg of a stool or table, a larger leg or foot believed to have come from a trunk, and two tables, one large rectangular one, one smaller piece. Other surviving wooden architectural features include a wooden railing or balustrade, rectangular wooden joists that acted as anchors for the rods that attach the plaster to the ceilings and walls, and a large support beam for the floor that Vitruvius described in De architectura as a contignatio. The beam still has notches where the transverse beams were once installed and a large iron nail driven into the middle of it. Fragments of a wooden window jamb with traces of the glass panes still extant were also found.

Non-organic features have survived in fine condition as well. There are frescoed sections of brickwork wall dating to the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (late 2nd, early 3rd century) decorated with delicate red florals against a white background. Part of a black-and-white mosaic floor that had once been on the upper story of the building survived its plummet with its handsome double border, heart-shaped leaves and wave pattern intact.

Dog skeleton. Photo courtesy the Italian Culture Ministry.In another nod to famous Pompeiian finds, the skeleton of a dog still posed in the crouching stance it was in when it died, was found at the door of the house. Archaeologists think it was trying to escape the fire but was trapped by falling debris when the building collapsed. The dog’s jaw complete with teeth has remained surprisingly intact. The skeleton of a second smaller animal found at the site, possibly the dog’s puppy or a cat, has yet to be identified.

The architectural and decorative materials are all in good state of preservation thanks to the fire, and archaeologists will study them in detail to discover new information about how wealthy Romans of the 3rd century lived, how their homes were built and furnished. Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) will also study the site. They hope to determine whether the fire and collapse were caused by an earthquake.

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