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From the Trenches: Coring Ancient Rome Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by Albert J. Ammerman

From the Forum to the Temple of Jupiter, new research is rewriting Rome's earliest history.

[image] A drilling rig bores into the Forum basin in front of the Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar. Deep corings of the Forum have revealed that the early Roman filled in the flood-prone area to create a new civic space. (Albert J. Ammerman) [LARGER IMAGE]

Over the years, scholars attempting to reconstruct Rome's origins have commonly taken sites in their later, highly modified form and projected that form back to the remote past without basing their reconstructions on any scientific evidence. This practice is a source of many misconceptions about early Rome. Now, coring at the city's ancient sites is enabling us to trace Rome's earliest development. My work, for example, has revealed that the Temple of Jupiter stood on the Western side of the Capitoline Hill's southern summit, contrary to where it has appeared on recent archaeological maps.

The search for early Rome takes us back to the time before the Republic, which tradition says began in 509 B.C., to the preceding three centuries, named the Regal period after the seven legendary kings of Rome. At the end of the eighth century B.C., Romans were still living in wattle-and-daub huts; less than two centuries later, they were residing in good-sized houses with foundations made of blocks of tuff and constructing large buildings such as the Temple of Jupiter. Over the span of a few generations, major changes took place in the lives of these early inhabitants. The story of this transformation has long remained obscure, buried beneath centuries of fill.

Notions about the period were drawn, for the most part, from what could be gleaned from ancient sources. The writings of Roman antiquarians, in the tradition of the scholar Varro (116-27 B.C.), generally focus on the meaning of place names and not on how the places themselves actually came into being. There is the further problem that almost all of the texts that have come down to us were written four centuries or more after the events of the Regal period. Thus, the ancient authors often composed their accounts of the remote past with an eye toward the future greatness of Rome. For example, the leading role of the Capitoline Hill in city legend is linked with the recovery during the Regal period of a human head (the word for head in Latin is caput) when the foundation trenches were being dug for the Temple of Jupiter. "Here was to be the citadel of the Empire and the head of the world," wrote the historian Livy in the time of Augustus. While Livy recalls major political figures and their deeds in the Regal period, he does not elaborate on interesting projects such as the installation of drains in the Velabrum, the low valley that connects the Forum area with the Tiber.

In 1985, the Italian government invited me to coordinate environmental studies to be conducted in conjunction with three large excavations in the center of ancient Rome on the east slope of the Capitoline. At the time, I was the head of a small research group at the University of Parma in northern Italy, one of the few groups in the country specializing in environmental archaeology. In view of the extensive scholarship on ancient Rome, my first thought was that almost everything must already have been researched. Just the opposite proved to be the case. Few studies of this kind had ever been attempted before in Rome, and those predating our work were often limited by misconceptions about the location of sites.

The archaeology we are carrying out here is akin to noninvasive methods in modern medicine. We extract cores from the ground and record the sequence of archaeological layers to define the boundary between the deepest layer and the natural soil, while also studying the geology below. The result is a much clearer sense of how much Rome has changed over time and how, even in the earliest centuries, the Romans took an active hand in modifying their landscape, transforming a difficult place for a city--with its sharp juxtapositions of hilltops and deep valleys--into functioning urban space.

Albert J. Ammerman divides his time between New York, where he teaches archaeology at Colgate University, and Italy, where he is currently a visiting professor at the University of Venice.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America