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Archaeological discovery offers new insights into ancient Rome
Discoveries at the dig east of Rome may challenge the self-perceptions of the ancient Romans.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
by Martin Barillas
Archeologists digging in Italy have unearthed a structure unlike anything the Romans were known to have built in the era 350 to 250 years before Christ. The Roman monument, which is as large as a football field and dates some 300 years before the well-known Colisseum of Rome, has two terraces connected by a huge staircase. It is also notable for a massive stone retaining wall and beautiful and geometrically patterned floors.
The monument also dates 100 years before the Romans' invention of mortar - development that gave wings to their architectural ambitions that had its nascence in the period in which the newly discovered structure was built. Archaeologists dug up the site known as Gabii, which is built with giant stone blocks in a fashion familiar to anyone who has built with Lego blocks. According Professor Nicola Terrenato of the University of Michigan, it may be the earliest public building ever found. Terrenato is a professor of classics who leads the project. It is the biggest such project led by Americans in 50 years. Some 60 researchers and students from several universities participated in the summer dig. Sponsored by the University of Michigan, the dig is slated to end in 2014.
The complex at Gabii, which may have been an exceptionally lavish private residence, holds a stone retaining wall, geometrically patterned floors and two terraces connected by a grand staircase. It's unlike anything the Romans were thought to be building at the time, Terrenato said, according to a release from the university.
Terrenato said "There are a lot of constructive details that are beautiful to look at and they tell us more about how the Romans were building at that stage," adding."This shows us they were beginning to experiment with modifying their natural environments—cutting back the natural slope and creating a retaining wall, for example— about a quarter of a millennium earlier than we thought."
"This is at least 300 years before the Colosseum, and it represents a crucial, formative step in the process that leads to it."
The size of the blocks in the retaining wall each weighed thousands of pounds, which is unusual for the period. The size of the blocks was the only way the residents could keep such a structure stable because mortar had yet to be invented. "This is like Lego construction," Terrenato said. "They stacked them one on top of each other without any glue binding them together. This is the only technique they had access to and it must have been the desire for this kind of grand construction that drove them to the invention of mortar about 125 years later."
The discovery offers insights into the Romans of the time, who thought of themselves as modest and conservative. Historians such as Cicero claimed that the Romans only became lavish after the soldiers returning from the conquest of Greece brought home a taste for extravagance. However, the newly discovered monument predates that by one or two centuries.
"Rome conquered Greece in the 140s BCE. Roman historians said the soldiers came back and wanted Greek luxury, which is way of trying to shift blame," Terrenato said. "We now know that long before they conquered Greece, the Romans were already thinking big. This tears apart the view of Romans in this period as being very modest and inconspicuous."
Gabii is situated on undeveloped land in modern-day Lazio, ancient Latium, east of Rome. Once a major city, it waned by the third century as the Roman Empire grew. The goal of the Gabii Project is to show what a city in the region looked like before Rome's great development. Because the site is outside Rome, archaeologists are able to explore its deepest levels—something that's impossible to do within city limits because of later construction piled on top.
"Even though we could not observe the complex in its entire extent, we know we are dealing with a monument without parallels in the region, including Rome," said Marcello Mogetta, project managing director and a U-M doctoral student in classical art and archaeology. "My bet is that this will become a benchmark in future surveys of Roman architecture."
Assistant Professor Andrew Johnston of Yale University, the director of the program's field school, hailed the education impact of the dig. "In the longer term, this is a discovery that we expect will radically change our understanding of Roman Republican history and archaeology," he said. "But more immediately, our students are returning from the field to the classrooms of their home institutions—Michigan, Yale and over a dozen others—with a new set of skills, methodologies, approaches and questions that we hope will enrich and inform their studies in various academic disciplines in manifold ways."
In 2009, the dig unearthed an unusual Imperial Roman lead sarcophagus at Gabii. Weighing about 1000 pounds, the sarcophagus was made from sheets of lead that were folded over the human remains. What made it unusual what that it did not in the usual pattern for sarcophagi, of which only several hundred imperial lead sarcophagi are known. The sarcophagus at Gabii was formed by wrapping sheets of lead around the dead, and then crimping the 'head' end and leaving the 'foot' end open and exposed. The sarcophagus was sent to the American Academy in Rome to be examined. According to a blog entry by Mellon Professor T. Corey Brennan, the sarcophagus contained the remains of someone of elevated social rank.
See dig website here.

Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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