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Insight: Roman Life on the Danube Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by James Wiseman

[image] The legionary amphitheater at Carnuntum, which accommodated 8,000 spectators, was the scene of military parades, gladiatorial combats, and wild animal fights. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE]

Some 25 miles east of Vienna, on the right bank of the Danube, the ruins of Roman Carnuntum spread over an area of almost four square miles, from the little town of Petronell to the spa of Bad Deutsch-Altenburg. The ancient remains were recognized at least by the thirteenth century, when inhabitants of the region and visitors began uncovering Roman-period buildings and gathering up artifacts. By the nineteenth century it had come to be known as "the Pompeii before the Gates of Vienna," an exaggerated claim, but a description that conveys the romantic appeal of the site in those years.

It was only in the third decade of the last century that archaeologists began to direct work at Carnuntum. Since then, the change in the treatment of archaeological remains has been profound. Carefully documented excavation by professional archaeologists became standard, whether planned with a specific research focus or undertaken as part of a rescue-archaeology project necessitated by public works or other essential construction. Their research has greatly expanded our understanding of life on the middle Danube in Roman times both for civilians and for the military. Conservation of artifacts and site preservation have been emphasized, and the ancient remains are now being presented to the public in an informative, sometimes even entertaining manner.

Much of the credit for the transformation of activities at Carnuntum belongs to Werner Jobst, professor of classical archaeology of the University of Vienna, who now heads the Archaeological Park of Carnuntum. The first phase of the project to create the park took place from 1988 to 1993, and included some activities that are now completed, like the renovation of the museum, and others that are still in progress, like the restoration of the great baths.

Relief from a shrine in Carnuntum, now displayed in a museum, shows the god Mithras slaying a bull. The cult of Mithras was popular with Roman soldiers. (James Wiseman) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

The restoration of the museum, designed nearly a century ago by the architect Friedrich Ohman in imitation of a Roman villa, was one of the first tasks undertaken in 1988 by the park project. The building has been restored to its original handsome state, and, with some 3,300 artifacts and graphic displays, is the largest Roman museum in Austria. I was especially impressed by the diversity of objects from the daily lives of soldiers and the quality of their display: medals, decorative pieces for dress, paraphernalia for horses, tools, and other objects (weapons, of course, among them!).

A portion of the civilian town has been made into an open-air museum, so that visitors may stroll along paved streets and look into private houses, bathing establishments, a latrine, and even part of the great sewer system beneath the streets. In one area a portico bordering a street has been restored and gives access into a small, fully restored Temple of Diana and corridors leading to other structures. Nearby are exhibits of Roman games, pottery, and even Latin language instruction; visitors can also mint imitation Roman coins. The amphitheaters have become centers for performances and events both for adults and for children.

Excavations continue in various parts of the ancient site, but the emphasis has clearly shifted from recovery to preservation. Carnuntum is an excellent example of what can successfully be accomplished in combining professional archaeological research, preservation, and interactive public education.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and is professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

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© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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