Friday, February 26, 2010

Ulysses-adorned amphitheater found near Fiumicino airport

Somehow with all the bustle that always accompanies the approaching holidays I somehow missed seeing this notice of a marvelous find of a "mini-Colosseum" near Rome's Fiumicino airport reported a few months ago.  When I visited Ostia in March 2009, I remember reading that much more of the ancient port remained unexcavated because it lay under the Fiumicino airport. 

[Image of Ulysses sculpture courtesy of the University of Southhampton]

This small amphitheater, however, is considered part of the ancient Roman port of Portus that actually succeeded Ostia as the Roman Empire's primary port at the mouth of the Tiber River in the second century CE. 

Apparently, the site was originally discovered in the 1860s but has remained largely undisturbed since then.  Now, researchers have been able to employ 3-D geophysics, computer visualization, environmental analysis and digital recording as well as excavation to reveal the details of what became one of  the largest maritime infrastructures of the ancient world.

"With the help of ground penetrating radar, the archaeologists have uncovered luxuriously decorated rooms, a colonnaded garden, a finely carved marble head, possibly depicting the Greek hero Ulysses, and a well-preserved toilet, designed to be used by three people at a time.

"The toilet belonged to the palace. It is located between the amphitheater and a porticoed garden. It is really an impressive building, with marbled floor and walls," said Simon Keay, project director and leading expert in Roman archaeology at the University of Southampton.

The researchers are now analyzing the dirt from the toilet -- basically ancient human waste -- to build a picture of the diet of the people who frequented the site." - More: Discovery News 

Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia   Mayfair Games Ostia The Harbor of Rome   Roman Amphitheaters (Watts Library)   Look Around a Roman Amphitheater (Virtual History Tours)   The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation (Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History)   The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre

Palace of Tarquinius Superbus unearthed in Gabii

When I heard that Italian archaeologists think they have unearthed the palace of the notorious son of the last king of Rome, I felt a rush of excitement.  The Tarquin dynasty holds such a colorful place in early Roman history, especially considering all the lore surrounding the fateful rape of Lucretia, that the discovery of the actual palace that may have been near the site of the notorious desecration  is like the Roman equivalent of Schliemann's discovery of Troy.

[Image - Tarquinius and Lucretia by Titian, 1571.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Archaeologists say the richly decorated monumental roof was dismantled and they hope to reconstruct it later this spring. Archaeologist Marco Fabbri of Rome's Tor Vergata University, directed the excavation.

"Fabbri and colleagues from Rome's Archaeological Superintendency believe that the residence was furiously demolished, probably during the Roman revolt in 510 B.C. that ultimately led to the foundation of the Roman Republic.  The ongoing excavation has so far unearthed three, disconnected rooms which most likely opened onto a porticoed area.  Under the building's exceptionally well-preserved floor slabs, eight round cells contained the remains of five stillborn babies.

'We hope to unearth the rest of the residence this spring. In particular, we are looking to piece together the richly decorated roof,' Fabbri said.

A terracotta fragment of the roof has already been found. It features the image of the Minotaur, an emblem of the Tarquins.

'It's a strong piece of evidence to support the hypothesis that the edifice was built for the Tarquin family,' Fabbri said." - Discovery News
 The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations   Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History   Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies   Etruscan Myths (The Legendary Past)   Etruscan Roman Remains by Leland, Charles (BETRROM)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

East Asian Remains Found in 1st century CE Roman cemetery

A research team working in a 1st -2nd century CE Roman necropolis near the ancient town of Vagnari in southern Italy have unearthed a skeleton of a man with East Asian ancestry, according to DNA analysis.  When I was researching an article on the Han Dynasty for Heritage Key, I read that one of the important achievements of the period was the development of trade with the Roman Empire in the 2nd century CE. But the age of the remains and the possibility that there are more than one individual in the cemetery with East Asian descent makes it appear that there could have been a substantial group of East Asians in Vagnari before history tells us a formal delegation from the Han Dynasty had even made "First Contact". 

Vagnari was actually part of the emperor's estate during this time with its inhabitants engaged in tile production and iron working.

"So far the evidence suggests that Vagnari was a settlement of artisans and lower status individuals. The most likely location for the house of the imperial procurator who would have managed the estate is up the hill near the top of the plateau now called San Felice where a building provisionally interpreted as a villa is being excavated by a Canadian team directed by Hans vanderLeest (Mount Allison University) and Myles McCallum (St Mary’s University, Halifax)." - The Vagnari Project  

What seems puzzling is that if this man or even more than one of the 73 burials unearthed in Vagnari were slaves from China, how did the Roman emperor acquire them?  We don't know of any campaigns by the Romans that far east during that time.  Were they presented as a gift to him by a trade delegation? 

It will be interesting to see if any East Asian artifacts turn up as the excavation progresses.  Although the slaves could have been without significant possessions I can't imagine them living out their lives without fashioning some amulet or talisman to remind them of their former homeland, especially since the Romans did not discourage foreign religions.

The research team hope ongoing excavations will provide clues to globalization, human mobility, identity, and diversity in Roman Italy.

"This multi-faceted research demonstrates that human skeletal remains can provide another layer of evidence in conjunction with archaeological and historical information," says Tracey Prowse, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, initially of McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) and, since 2006, of Southern  Illinois University Carbondale, the lead author on the study. . - DNA testing on 2,000-year-old bones in Italy reveal East Asian ancestry

  Comparison between Roman and Han Empires: Military of ancient Rome, Culture of ancient Rome, Huo Qubing, Wei Qing, Emperor Wu of Han, Roman mythology, ... Roman law, Government of the Han Dynasty   The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China (Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Ancient World)   The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China)