Sunday, 4 October 2015

New finds from Volterra to Pompeii

The remains of the apparent side wall of the oval arena (Photo: Repubblica Firenze)

I have been lately been making plans for the Stockholm Volterra Project with the knowledge that some exciting new finds have been made there and elsewhere. The finding of a possible amphitheatre was declared the most important find of its kind in 100 years – one can consider semantically, if this refers to the amphitheatre finds or monuments in Volterra in general. In any case, the site has remained unnoticed for hundreds of years since its use during the Roman times.

If we move to Rome itself, the new 6th-century BC house remains from the Quirinale Hill have got a lot of attention. In the images the site looks really exciting, but one should not forget that the find like this is to be expected within the area of Archaic Rome. The houses in the 19th century in the area were built with such a hurry that most of the archaeology went unaccounted for in the feverish building works. The new capital of the unified Italy needed new quarters and when one now looks at the urban structure around the Presidential Palace and Via Nazionale it is clear that this neighbourhood was formed in a couple of decades. The fact that the archaeologists then could keep track of some of the burials towards Esquiline is next to a miracle. We can just guess what disappeared in the feverish building activity – and in the light of this new find, what is lurking within the cellars and foundations in the area.

Linked image of the houses on the Quirinale Hill (from Corriere Web Roma site)

The finds came from inside Palazzo Canevari, the former geological institute, from the area of Largo di Santa Susanna, between Piazza Barberini and Piazza Repubblica. The Soprintendenza assumed that the area may have a cemetery, but found 6th century houses instead. The degree of surprise of course is related to the perception of Archaic Rome. We do have the houses of the same period from the Palatine Hill. Of course, it is the slope of the Palatine Hill, the area of the House of Rex Sacrorum, so this was a tone through from the Forum. Nevertheless, the area where Palazzo Canevari is did locate inside the ‘Archaic’ city walls that one can see standing by the Termini train station. Of course, the Archaic character of the walls have been questioned and they have been dated to the Republican period, but the 6th century walls are also known from Veii, so this area was likely to lie within the residential area. Livy's historic references to the expansion of Rome around 500 BC suggest that there were some wide-spread residental areas around Rome during the 6th century.

Linked image from inside Palazzo Canevari (from Repubblica Roma)

I was also relatively unsurprised by the find, since there is ample evidence from elsewhere in central Italy of Archaic houses with stone foundation and sometimes with stone walls. This may surprise some of my colleagues, since I am known to favour so-called low count for the Early Iron Age population numbers. However, here we are talking of the Archaic period and 6th century BC. My view is that from the looser Iron Age villages grew the denser ‘hut’ town areas of central Italy and during the Archaic period proper urban areas with rectangular houses. The Rome must have quite large. Thus, the lack of houses is down to the fact that the areas within the Archaic Rome are covered by built modern town. When the archaeologists start to dig deep enough, they will found more of these structures, if they have not been dug away when the foundations were put in place.

Specialists from the Soprintendenza scanning a cast

More exciting news are coming from Pompeii, where different cemetery excavation projects are revealing new details of the individuals and their origins and health. The Anglo-Spanish excavations at Porta Nola and the Soprintendenza have just released information about the scanning of the casts made in the 19th century of the victims of the volcanic eruption. The BSR blog written by Stephen Kay tells in general of the project and describes briefly the CAT scans that have been done as part of the project by the Soprintendenza. Daily Mail (yes, in archaeology news indispensable, no matter one thinks about it otherwise) has published a series of photos in the article that show the internal remains within the casts. The real surprise has been the good teeth these Romans had. The diet was apparently low in sugar so there were few cavities.

Linked image of the vases (photo: Bastien Lemaire)

Elsewhere, the French excavations at Porta Ercolano revealed a Samnite cist grave with all its southern Italian painted vases. Ever so often one only sees these vases in the museums, so it was exciting to see them in situ, even if broken down. They will be conserved into their previous glory. This grave is from the pre-Roman period in the 4th century BC. Well recorded tombs of this period will help to tell the story of Pompeii in the multicultural Bay of Naples.

Linked image of the cist (Photo: Géraldine Bénit)

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