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Rooting up ancient Rome

Dig almost anywhere, and you're likely to find remnants of the city's glorious past. But now, preservation and public presentation are favored over excavation.

July 19, 2009|Susan Spano

ROME — It is often said that you can't repair a water main, break ground for a parking garage or dig up a potato in Rome without finding a treasure.

The roots of the Eternal City, which just celebrated its 2,762nd birthday, go deep and are still being unearthed. When first plumbed in the 16th century, the layer cake underneath the city yielded classical artifacts that helped inform the Renaissance.

Almost as inevitably as yellow mimosas bloom in the spring, archaeologists keep coming here, wrangling excavation permits and opening trenches. Passersby see red-and-white-striped plastic tape and piles of dirt, but rarely learn what is being sought in the rubble, because when a dig yields an important find, it takes years of negotiation, fundraising, preservation, public-access construction and scholarly interpretation to open a site to visitors.

As a resident, I often pass excavation sites and wonder what is going on. I got a chance to find out last fall when I visited a dig in Aqueduct Park, on the southeastern side of the city, where an ancient water conduit makes a broad bend on its way into the capital. Since 2006, when the American Institute for Roman Culture began an archaeological dig, the park has yielded treasures: intricately worked mosaics, the head of a god thought to be Zeus and structural evidence of a 1st or 2nd century bathing complex larger and more sophisticated than any yet found in the area immediately surrounding Rome.

Records identify it as the site of the Villa delle Vignacce, owned during Imperial Roman times by brick manufacturer Quintus Servilius Pudens.

It is unclear whether the multistory bathhouse, with its intact Roman saunas, was part of a private villa or a public complex.

In either case, the site calls into question long-held concepts about the configuration of Imperial Rome.

"To find an urban-style bathhouse in suburban Rome is striking," said Darius Arya, the institute's director.

Lacking funds to preserve the dig last winter, Arya summoned an earth mover to cover it, obscuring the hard evidence of the discovery.

Before doing so, however, he enlisted Gabriele Guidi, an associate professor at Milan Polytechnic, to document the site. Using advanced laser technology, they assembled a virtually enhanced plan of the bathing complex.

That's good news for scholars, but of scant interest to tourists. Arya said that shoring up the site, encircling it with a semi-permanent fence and building roof structures to protect it from the elements during the digging off-season, which usually lasts from October to April, would have cost more than $500,000.

In 2006 and 2007, excavation work at Villa delle Vignacce was underwritten first by the American Express Foundation, then by private donors. Last fall, Arya hoped for support from Rome to keep the site open, but city money did not materialize, and private funding has dwindled in the wake of the global economic meltdown.

Umberto Broccoli, the city's superintendent for cultural heritage, has begun to reevaluate such work in the Italian capital, pressing archaeologists to find money not just for excavation but for site preservation as well.

Broccoli likened archaeological sites to children. "It takes a great deal to maintain them," he said. "If we can't properly look after them, do we need more children?"

The emphasis on preservation includes rethinking the way the city's scant funds are being allocated at high-profile sites such as Circus Maximus, a chariot racecourse just south of the Roman Forum, known to have been used until 549. Tourists can visit the site, but it has suffered from poor drainage, and layers of earth have obscured the original track.

The city has found $2.85 million to restore the site, but only a fraction will go toward excavation. The rest is earmarked for creating a park-like space so that visitors will be able to stroll in the footsteps of charioteers.

"Conservation is now coming to the fore in a systematic way," said Giorgio Buccellati, professor emeritus at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. "But it costs money, which is hard enough to find for excavation."

An alarming failure to preserve archaeological discoveries occurred at Herculaneum, a Bay of Naples town that was buried, along with Pompeii, by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

Excavation there in the 1980s left the low-lying site an eyesore and endangered extremely perishable findings made of wood, cloth and papyrus.

The town's imperiled condition prompted David W. Packard, president of the Los Altos, Calif.-based Packard Humanities Institute, to pledge $100 million to the Herculaneum Conservation Project, which is trying to fend off further degradation, implement long-term conservation strategies and fully document the site.

Almost as important as conservation is the process of preparing sites for public visitation. This entails providing safe access and clear explanations for guidebook-toting sightseers.

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