Category Archives: ITALY

An extraordinary find: Ancient, underground Etruscan pyramids spotted in Italy

An extraordinary find: Ancient, underground Etruscan pyramids spotted in Italy

Archaeologists are scratching their heads about an underground pyramid-shaped structure they have been excavating beneath the historic medieval town of Orvieto in Italy. But it may not be a mystery forever. They hope to find answers as they continue to tease artifacts and architectural materials from the soil.

Ancient Etruscan Underground Pyramids Discovered in Italy

“We discovered it three summers ago and still have no idea what it is,” write Prof. David B. George of St. Anselm College and co-director Claudio Bizzarri of PAAO and colleagues about the site. “We do know what it is not.  It is not a quarry; its walls are too well dressed. It is not a well or cistern; its walls have no evidence of hydraulic treatments.”

Calling it the “cavitá” (‘hole’ or ‘hollow’ in Italian), or hypogeum, the archaeologists have thus far excavated about 15 meters down.

They marked their third year at the site in 2014. By then they had uncovered significant amounts of what they classify as Gray and Black bucchero, common ware, and Red and Black Figure pottery remain. They have dated deposits to the middle to the end of the 6th century BCE.

“We know that the site was sealed toward the end of the 5th century BCE,” George, et al. continue. “It appears to have been a single event. Of great significance is the number of Etruscan language inscriptions that we have recovered – over a hundred and fifty. We are also finding an interesting array of architectural/decorative terra cotta.”

Excavation on the west wall of the hypogeum near the Etruscan tunnel that connects this pyramidal hypogeum (Room A) with an adjacent one (Room B).
Looking from Room B through the Etruscan tunnel into Room A
Above and below: The medieval columbarium – a place for raising pigeons – in the cavità used as a lab to sort bucchero.
An extraordinary find: Ancient, underground Etruscan pyramids spotted in Italy

Orvieto has long been known for its scenic medieval architecture. Located in southwestern Umbria, Italy, it is situated on the summit of a large butte of volcanic tuff, commanding a view of the surrounding countryside, and surrounded by defensive walls built of the same volcanic tuff. 

Beneath it and in the surrounding areas of the medieval town, however, lie ancient Etruscan and Roman remains, a focus of archaeological investigations and excavations by various teams for decades.

George’s excavations have centered on four different sites in the area, two (Coriglia and the Orvieto underground structures) of which will be further excavated in the near future.

The Coriglia excavations have resulted in a wealth of finds, including monumental structures such as Etruscan and Roman walls, Etruscan and imported Greek ceramic materials, three large basins dated to the Roman Imperial period, and apsidal structures with associated features related to the management of water for baths or other purposes.

“We have uncovered evidence for occupation of the site dating from the 10th century BCE all the way to the 16th century CE, as well as random realia from World War II,” write George, et al.

View of Orvieto.
At Coriglia: Trench F showing a viscera with hydraulic cement and flooring with a collapsed vault to the right (Likely 2nd century CE). On the left a medieval industrial reuse of the structure.
‘Trench C’ showing the recently discovered caldarium of a Roman bath (Imperial period) at Coriglia

Overall, excavations under George and Bizzarri’s direction in the area have recovered monumental structures, sculptures, mosaics, coinage, inscriptions, ceramics, frescoes, and numerous other artifacts.

Looking forward, he anticipates new finds that will shed additional light and answer more questions about what the sites at Orvieto and Coriglia are all about.

“We are still trying to determine how the structure was ‘killed’ [filled in and then abandoned] – in a short period of time confined over the course of a few months or over a much longer period,” says George, referring to the cavitá.

“The tight dating of the Attic pottery seems to indicate a short period but the enormous quantity gives one pause. At Coriglia, our current hypothesis is that it is a sanctuary. We wish to test this by excavating in areas that should yield architectural and ceramic evidence that would be associated with such use.

We are still working on the phasing of our walls and getting a handle on three periods of expansion, at least one of which followed a mudslide.”

Even more important, however, maybe what their findings will ultimately say about the lives of people in the region so long ago. Write George, Bizzarri, and colleagues, “based on what is known from similar sites in the region, the members of our archaeological expedition may be confident that they will make discoveries that will reflect daily life in the Etruscan and Roman periods.”

The Mosaics of Piazza Armerina: The Villa Romana Del Casale

The Mosaics of Piazza Armerina: The Villa Romana Del Casale

This wonderful ancient Roman site near the town of Piazza Armerina was entirely off my radar and is the kind of spot that you will easily overlook without noticing it. But if you may, you really need to visit Villa Romana del Casale, since it is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins I have ever seen.

Villa Romana, rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is most renowned for its incredible mosaics. Now, you could be saying, “So what, I’ve seen ancient mosaics before, and usually they’re not that complete or impressive.” But I’m telling you, the mosaics here are going to blow away your expectations. I’m wary of over-hyping this attraction,  so hopefully, the rest of this article will show you why you need to visit.

History of Villa Romana del Casale

With any historical attraction like this, you have to acknowledge its history to truly appreciate it. Although today found right outside Piazza Armerina Villa Romana del Casale predates the small city by many centuries. Built-in the 4th century AD, the villa replaced a smaller rustic residence from the 3rd century. Historians believe that a member of the Roman provincial aristocracy, possibly a governor, owned the villa at this time.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the villa was fortified in the 5-6th century AD. In later centuries, it grew to become a large medieval settlement, until its people abandoned it in the 13th century. In around the 15th century, a small community known as Casale was founded here over the now-forgotten ruins. The ruins were then essentially lost to time until the 19th-20th century when people started to discover the treasure trove beneath.

More and more of the ancient villa was uncovered by excavations in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It was only a matter of time before UNESCO declared it a Worth Heritage Site in 1997. Since 2004, those responsible for the sight have undertaken major recovery work to preserve the site and its incredible mosaics.

The Villa Romana Mosaics

Although there are quite a few elements to Villa Romana, the mosaics are easily the most noteworthy. I will touch on the other parts of the ruins a little later, but if I’m honest, they’re greatly overshadowed by the mosaics. Seeing the ruined outline of an ancient Roman villa is a rare thing, but to see room after room of that villa covered in intact mosaics is another thing entirely.

And it’s not like it’s the same mosaic patterns over and over. There’s an incredible variety of designs here, from mosaics with scenes related to a particular theme to beautiful geometric patterns. While the geometric patterns are nice enough, I personally enjoyed the thematic ones as they had a story or idea behind them.

Understanding the Mosaics

Some mosaics are centred around a theme like the seasons, showing you how that concept was perceived at the time. Others relayed an aspect of life at the time, such as women competing in athletic sports. Then there are the ones recounting a local legend or story from mythology, like the tale of Orpheus and the labours of Hercules. Imagine having a story from Roman mythology sprawled across your floor.

Because you’ll see these mosaics in most of the villa’s rooms. They decorated the floors of important halls, but also bedrooms and even regular service rooms and side rooms. That seems a little extravagant for the servant’s quarters or your pantry, but apparently not for them.

By the way, you do learn about each room, its purpose and design throughout your tour of the villa. As you go there are information boards that identify the themes and characters of the mosaic. They also often point out subtle symbolic or figurative elements that show the level of thought and detail that went into the mosaic design. With that understanding, you appreciate what you’re seeing even more.

Peristyle Courtyard

While there are a few fragments of mosaics in the entrance to the villa, it’s the peristyle where you first get a real sense of the mosaics here. The peristyle is basically a central courtyard for the villa, with a portico surrounding a garden and fountain. What makes the peristyle special is that the walkways around the outside are covered in mosaics, most of which are nearly complete. That said, there’s also the ornately carved columns and even fragments of frescoes on the walls.

The mosaics here all follow a single design, that of an animal surrounded by a wreath. There’s quite some variety in the animals depicted, but also in the colours used. To see the mosaics, visitors walk on elevated walkways that really help give you a sense of the scale here. What’s more, the walkways bring you across to the rooms off the peristyle, many of which have their own unique mosaics inside.

Ambulatory of the Big Hunt

At this point in the visit, it’s hard to imagine anyone spot being a clear highlight. But then you come to the Ambulatory of the Big Hunt and it becomes clear that this is the highlight. You may have seen lots and lots of mosaics so far, but none quite like.

That’s because the Ambulatory of the Big Hunt is one continuous corridor mosaic that runs 60 metres from one side of the villa to the other. The scale of this mosaic is unbelievable, but the fact that it creates such a comprehensive scene is even more remarkable.

The ambulatory tells the story of the Roman Venatio, where wild animals were fought in amphitheatres for the purposes of entertainment, broken down into distinct episodes.

As you move from one side of the Ambulatory to the other, you follow the story of the Venatio. First, you see scenes of how wild animals were captured from across the Roman Empire. The size of the Roman Empire means that the scene includes quite an exotic range of creatures, from lions and rhinoceroses, but also mythical ones like griffins. Then, the scenes show the animals transported across the seas back to Rome. Once you understand the theme it’s amazing how clear the meaning is behind each episode.

Other Ruins of the Villa

Having talked about the mosaics to death, let’s take a quick look at the other things to see here. You’ll encounter other parts of the villa both before and after the mosaics, with the Roman baths and the Basilica the two most memorable. Admittedly, Roman baths with each of the different temperature rooms are fairly common at archaeological excavations. But I did like how you can see they heat each of the rooms with the cutaway floor inside.

Then there’s the Basilica, the largest and most important room of the villa, which hosted the court. Although it too has some mosaics to look at, what makes the Basilica special is its rare polychrome marble surfaces. The different marble used originates across the Mediterranean and its liberal use for the floors and walls highlights just how important this stately hall was.

ANCIENT EROTICA Pornographic Pompeii wall paintings reveal the raunchy services offered in ancient Roman brothels 2,000 years ago

ANCIENT EROTICA Pornographic Pompeii wall paintings reveal the raunchy services offered in ancient Roman brothels 2,000 years ago

The amorous activities of ancient Italians have been revealed by wall paintings in a historical Pompeii brothel. The ‘Lupanar of Pompeii.’ are decorated with Centuries-old wall paintings showing explicit sex scenes.

ANCIENT EROTICA Pornographic Pompeii wall paintings reveal the raunchy services offered in ancient Roman brothels 2,000 years ago
Wall paintings in a historic Pompeii brothel have revealed the amorous activities of ancient Italians. The ‘Lupanar of Pompeii’ is decorated with centuries-old wall paintings depicting explicit sex scenes

Before the Roman city was famously wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, the sex house was once a hangout for wealthy businessmen and politicians. Researchers claim the services offered by prostitutes may have been suggested by the erotic paintings showing group sex and other acts.

The Lupanar of Pompeii was the centre point for the doomed city’s thriving red-light district. The ancient Roman brothel was originally discovered in the nineteenth century. It was closed but was recently re-opened to the public in October 2006.

While the brothel is neither the most luxurious nor the most important historic building in what remains of Pompeii, it is the most frequently visited by tourists from across the world.

Prostitutes at the brothel were not exclusively women. Men, especially young former-slaves, sold themselves there too – to both men and women. The erotic lives of Pompeii’s prostitutes were recently illustrated by Western University professor, Kelly Olson.

Mural from a Pompeii brothel.

Professor Olson focuses her work on the role of women in Roman society, and the apparent open sexuality visible in the many frescos and sculptures.

The Classical Studies professor travelled to the ancient city last month as a featured expert on Canadian broadcaster CBC’s programme ‘The Nature of Things’.

Speaking of life in ancient Pompeii brothels, she said: ‘It’s not a very nice place to work.’ ‘It’s very small, dank and the rooms are rather dark and uncomfortable,’ she told CBC.

‘Married men could sleep with anyone as long as they kept their hands off other men’s wives,’ she said. ‘Married women were not supposed to have sex with anyone else.’

The building is located in Pompeii’s oldest district. The two side streets that line the brothel were once dotted with taverns and inns.

The ancient Roman brothel was originally discovered in the nineteenth century. It was closed but was recently re-opened to the public in October 2006

Upon entering the building, visitors are met by striking murals of erotic scenes painted on the walls and ceilings. In each of the paintings, couples engage in different sexual acts.

According to historians, the paintings weren’t merely for decoration – they were catalogues detailing the speciality of the prostitute in each room. Two thousand years ago, before the devastating volcanic eruption, prostitution was legal in the Roman city.

Slaves of both sexes, many imported from Greece and other countries under Roman rule, were the primary workforce. The Unesco World Heritage Site is of special importance because, unlike other Pompeii brothels at the time, the Lupanar of Pompeii was built exclusively for prostitution appointments, serving no alternative function.

Its walls remain scarred by inscriptions left by past customers and working girls. Researchers have managed to identify 120 carved phrases, including the names of customers and employees who died almost two thousand years ago.

Researchers believe the erotic paintings depicting group sex and other naughty acts may have indicated the services offered by prostitutes

Many of these inscriptions include similar phrases to those ones would find in a modern-day bathroom, including men boasting of their sexual prowess.

On the top floor of the building sit five rooms, each with a balcony from which the working girls would call to potential customers on the street.

Much like in ancient Rome, researchers speculate that Pompeii prostitutes were required to legally register for a licence, pay taxes, and follow separate rules to regular Pompeii women.

For example: When out on the street, Pompeii’s working girls wore strict attire – they wore a reddish-brown coat at all times, and dyed their hair blonde. Prostitutes were separated into different classes depending on where they worked and the customers they served. 

Though the historic sex site has been ‘closed for business’ for some time, that hasn’t stopped some raunchy holidaymakers attempting to re-christen the building.  In 2014, three French holidaymakers were arrested for trespassing after breaking into the brothel ruins for a late-night sex romp.

Pompeii was an ancient Roman city located near modern Naples, in the Campania region of Italy

A Frenchman and two Italian women, all aged 23 to 27, allegedly broke into the Suburban Baths to fulfil their fantasies inside a former brothel that is still decorated with centuries-old wall paintings depicting explicit sex scenes.

But authorities brought the group’s middle-of-the-night threesome to a premature end.

Archaeologists uncover ancient street food shop in Pompeii

Archaeologists uncover ancient street food shop in Pompeii

Archaeologists in Pompeii, the city buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, have made the extraordinary find of a frescoed hot food and drinks shop that served up the ancient equivalent of street food to Roman passersby.

Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, the shop was discovered in the archaeological park’s Regio V site, which is not yet open the public, and unveiled on Saturday.

Traces of nearly 2,000-year-old food were found in some of the deep terra cotta jars containing hot food which the shop keeper lowered into a counter with circular holes.

Frescoes on an ancient counter discovered during excavations in Pompeii, Italy.

The front of the counter was decorated with brightly coloured frescoes, some depicting animals that were part of the ingredients in the food sold, such as a chicken and two ducks hanging upside down.

“This is an extraordinary find. It’s the first time we are excavating an entire termopolium,” said Massimo Ossana, director of the Pompeii archaeological park.

Archaeologists also found a decorated bronze drinking bowl known as a patera, ceramic jars used for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora.

Pompeii, 23 km southeast of Naples, was home to about 13,000 people when it was buried under ash, pumice pebbles and dust as it endured the force of an eruption equivalent to many atomic bombs.

“Our preliminary analyses show that the figures drawn on the front of the counter, represent, at least in part, the food and drink that were sold there,” said Valeria Amoretti, a site anthropologist.

Amoretti said traces of pork, fish, snails and beef had been found in the containers, a discovery she called a “testimony to the great variety of animal products used to prepare dishes”.

About two-thirds of the 66-hectare (165-acre) ancient town has been uncovered. The ruins were not discovered until the 16th century and organised excavations began about 1750.

Rare documentation of Greco-Roman life, Pompeii is one of Italy’s most popular attractions and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sunken Medieval Village is Eerily Emerging from an Italian Lake

Sunken Medieval Village is Eerily Emerging from an Italian Lake

At the bottom of a lake, a forgotten medieval town that has been ‘frozen in time’ looks ready to resurface, probably giving tourists a direct glimpse back into the past.

The streets of the village are usually submerged under 34 million cubic meters of water

Since 1947, the Italian village of Fabbriche di Careggine has been submerged under the waters next to a hydroelectric dam, but for the intervening years, it has remained in remarkably good condition under the man-made lake.

A group of blacksmiths founded the small community in Tuscany in the 13th century and soon became well-known for the ironwork produced there.

Now, the town – which is near to another settlement called Vagli di Sotto – could re-emerge as the dam is drained for maintenance works.

This has happened four times since the dam created Lake Vagli, and each time as the waters receded, the church and several buildings from the old village creep eerily from the past into the present day.

The most recent time the village was at surface level was in 1994, and thousands of tourists flocked to the site to catch a glimpse of 13th-century life.

Pictures taken back then show that the church, the cemetery, and the bridge in and out of town are still standing.

According to the daughter of the ex-mayor of Municipality of Vagli di Sotto – a fairly tenuous source, admittedly – the works could see the submerged settlement dragged out of the depths and into the 21st century.

Lorenza Giorgi, whose father Domenico Giorgi was the mayor back in 1994, said on Facebook that the plan is to drain the lake next year.

She wrote: “I inform you that from certain sources I know that next year, in 2021, Lake Vagli will be emptied.

“The last time it was emptied in 1994 when my father was mayor and thanks to his commitment and to the many initiatives that, with effort, had managed to put up in one summer the country of Vagli welcomed more than a million of people.

“In 1994 my father tells me that it was difficult to attract such a large number of people and that everything was done without burdens on the administration, besides those of ordinary representation of a small municipality.”

But every once in a while, the lake is emptied and the medieval village resurfaces

She continued: “I hope that next year, strong of the past experience of which everyone has a beautiful memory and with the help of social networks, we will be able to repeat and overcome the great success, with just as much attention.”

It has also been reported that the energy company that owns the dam (ENEL) is considering draining the lake in order to boost the ailing tourism industry in the area.

Roman treasure discovered by chance: Hundreds of ancient gold coins hidden for centuries

Roman treasure discovered by chance: Hundreds of ancient gold coins hidden for centuries

A precious cache of ancient Roman coins discovered on the site of a former theatre in northern Italy is being investigated by archaeologists. The coins, at least 300 of them, date back to the late Roman imperial era and were discovered in the basement of the Cressoni Theatre in Como, north of Milan, in a soapstone jar.

An absolutely astonishing find that will provide significant information about several Roman emperors.

“We do not yet know in detail the historical and cultural significance of the find,” said Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli in a press release. “But that area is proving to be a real treasure for our archaeology. A discovery that fills me with pride.”

Whoever placed the jar in that place “buried it in such a way that in case of danger they could go and retrieve it,” said Maria Grazia Facchinetti, a numismatist — or expert in rare coins — at a press conference.

27 of the Roman coins were put on display during the reveal of the discovery.

“They were stacked in rolls similar to those seen in the bank today,” she said, adding the coins have engravings about emperors Honorius, Valentinian III, Leon I, Antonio, and Libio Severo “so they don’t go beyond 474 AD.”

“All of this makes us think that the owner is not a private subject, rather it could be a public bank or deposit,” Facchinetti added.

Archaeologists also uncovered a golden bar inside the jar.

According to the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, coins were transferred to the Mibac restoration laboratory in Milan where archaeologists and restorers are examining them.

The ministry did not place a value on the coins. But reports in the Italian media suggest they could be worth millions of dollars.

The historic Cressoni Theater opened in 1807 before transitioning into a cinema and eventually closing in 1997. The site is not far from the Novum Comum forum area, where other important Roman artefacts were discovered, according to the ministry.

The find is one of several surprising discoveries of Roman coins in recent years.

In 2016, archaeologists unearthed a rare 2,000-year-old Roman a gold coin in Jerusalem. The coin featured the face of Nero, the Roman emperor best known for playing the fiddle while Ancient Rome burned, and was likely struck in 56-57 AD.

A quadrillion tons of diamonds lie deep beneath the Earth’s surface
It was discovered at the Mount Zion archaeological dig, south of the Old City of Jerusalem, where a University of North Carolina-Charlotte team was excavating throughout the summer.

That same year, a team of archaeologists unearthed 10 ancient Roman and Ottoman coins from the ruins of a castle in Okinawa, Japan.

Discovering ancient Egypt in the heart of Rome, Italy

Discovering ancient Egypt in the heart of Rome, Italy

Have you ever seen a real mummy? In the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, which is a section of the Vatican’s museums, you will. It is the body of a woman, whose name was probably Amenirdis and it is greatly conserved.

Many are the monuments and rarities coming from Egypt in Roman times, as for instance hieroglyphics, stelae, mummy cases coming from the city of Thebes, canopic jars and ritual objects.

These are just a few of the treasures and wonders you can admire in the shrines located through the corridors in which you will find yourself fascinated. There is a whole part of the museum dedicated to the funeral customs of Ancient Egypt.

Did you know that for ancient Egyptians the death was not the meaning of an end?

Death was not the end of life but the beginning of a new existence. They believed that men had two souls: Ba and Ka. The first one was destined to the afterlife to receive the prize or the punishment concerned, whereas the second one remained with the body to look after it: it was used to put in the graves goods, food, beverages, clothes, cosmetics and all the things that the deceased may need and used during the normal life so that, even in the afterlife, they might survive.

Also, the physical body of the passed ones had to be as conserved as well preserved for the afterlife, and they had to be recognizable, this is why the technique of mummification was used.

The mummification technique had a profound spiritual meaning: the body, once mummified was made incorruptible and spiritualized. Another constant and typical funeral custom of ancient Egypt was to conserve even the organs of the passed ones.

The Canopy jars

The Canopy jars were the four vessels in which the mummified deceased’s organs were conserved. Usually, they were made in alabaster but also in other materials like stone or steel.

The caps are four because they are the representation of the four sons of Horus.

They collaborated with Anubis in the mummification of Osiris’s body, (the sovereign of the realm of the dead) and this is the reason why they became patrons of the canopy jars.

Duamutef, whose jar has a wolf’s head, containing the stomach of the deceased, Hapi, with the head of a monkey, conserving the lungs, Imset, the human head, conserving the liver and the last one Qebehsenuf, with the rapacious head, containing the guts.

The Sacred Vessel

You will find these sculptures too, usually made of wood. They were often used and collocated in tombs to represent positive advice for the deceased in his or her travel. It was a tangible symbol that connected the Ka with life.

Navigation had a huge importance in Egypt: Egyptian people’s life highly depended on the Nile and it was venerated as it was a real and proper God.

A cat from ancient Egypt in Rome

Bast or Bastet is the name of the Egyptian cat goddess, venerated for protection and fertility. In ancient times to kill or injure a cat led to serious penalties and also cats were mummified and this explains how much they were respected and loved by people. So, cats where and are loved even nowadays by people from all over the world, even by the Egyptian Goddess Isis! There a place in Rome was walking just in front of Palazzo Grazioli and looking up you can find a cat statue which was part of the Isis Goddess Temple.

And there is also a “Roman” Pyramid

Discovering ancient Egypt in the heart of Rome, Italy

Rome is well known for its ancient architecture – the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trajan’s Market and the Roman Forum to name a few – but one thing it is not often associated with is pyramids. But right in the heart of Rome, sits a 2,000-year-old pyramid, measuring 30 meters along each side and 35 meters in height. You can’t miss it! Yet very few people have heard of Rome’s Pyramid of Cestius.

The Pyramid of Cestius was built along the Via Ostiensis, an important road in ancient Rome, sometime between 18 and 12 BC. While it is debatable whether the Egyptian pyramids were ever really used as tombs, the pyramid of Cestius most definitely was.

Within the pyramid is a barrel-vaulted burial chamber which, according to the inscriptions on the east and west flanks of the pyramid, housed the body of a Roman politician known as Gaius Cestius Epulo , a tribune, praetor and member of the priesthood. A second inscription announces that the building of this pyramid was completed in 330 days.

Pyramids were royal tombs and this particular custom came to Rome thanks to the Egyptian influence on Rome’s architecture developed after the civil war and Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Archaeologists uncovered entire roman city without digging

Archaeologists uncovered entire roman city without digging

Archaeologists first managed to map a full roman city, Falerii Novi in Italy, using advanced GPRs, which allowed them to reveal surprising information while it remains deep underground. The technology could revolutionise our view of ancient settlements.

The team, from the University of Cambridge and Ghent University, has discovered a bath complex, market, temple, a public monument unlike anything seen before, and even the city’s sprawling network of water pipes. By looking at different depths, the archaeologists can now study how the town evolved over hundreds of years.

The research, published today in Antiquity, harnessed recent advances in GPR technology which make it possible to explore larger areas in higher resolution than ever before. This is likely to have major implications for the study of ancient cities because many cannot be excavated either because they are too large, or because they are trapped under modern structures.

A slice of ground-penetrating radar data from Falerii Novi, revealing the outlines of the town’s buildings.

GPR works like regular radar, bouncing radio waves off objects and using the ‘echo’ to build up a picture at different depths.* By towing their GPR instruments behind a quad bike, the archaeologists surveyed all 30.5 hectares within the city’s walls — Falerii Novi was just under half the size of Pompeii — taking a reading every 12.5cm.

Located 50 km north of Rome and first occupied in 241 BC, Falerii Novi survived into the medieval period (until around AD 700). The team’s GPR data can now start to reveal some of the physical changes experienced by the city at this time. They have already found evidence of stone robbing.

The study also challenges certain assumptions about Roman urban design, showing that Falerii Novi’s layout was less standardised than many other well-studied towns, like Pompeii.

The temple, market building and bath complex discovered by the team are also more architecturally elaborate than would usually be expected in a small city.

In a southern district, just within the city’s walls, GPR revealed a large rectangular building connected to a series of water pipes which lead to the aqueduct.

Remarkably, these pipes can be traced across much of Falerii Novi, running beneath its insulae (city blocks), and not just along its streets, as might normally be expected. The team believes that this structure was an open-air natatio or pool, forming part of a substantial public bathing complex.

Even more unexpectedly, near the city’s north gate, the team identified a pair of large structures facing each other within a porticus duplex (a covered passageway with a central row of columns). They know of no direct parallel but believe these were part of an impressive public monument and contributed to an intriguing sacred landscape on the city’s edge.

Corresponding author, Professor Martin Millett from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics, said:

“The astonishing level of detail which we have achieved at Falerii Novi, and the surprising features that GPR has revealed, suggest that this type of survey could transform the way archaeologists investigate urban sites, as total entities.”

Millett and his colleagues have already used GPR to survey Interamna Lirenas in Italy, and on a lesser scale, Alborough in North Yorkshire, but they now hope to see it deployed on far bigger sites.

“It is exciting and now realistic to imagine GPR being used to survey a major city such as Miletus in Turkey, Nicopolis in Greece or Cyrene in Libya,” Millett said. “We still have so much to learn about Roman urban life and this technology should open up unprecedented opportunities for decades to come.”

The sheer wealth of data produced by such high-resolution mapping does, however, pose significant challenges. Traditional methods of manual data analysis are to time-consuming, requiring around 20 hours to fully document a single hectare. It will be some time before the researchers finish examining Falerii Novi but to speed the process up they are developing new automated techniques.

Falerii Novi is well documented in the historical record, is not covered by modern buildings and has been the subject of decades of analysis using other non-invasive techniques, such as magnetometry, but GPR has now revealed a far more complete picture.

Further information

*GPR is so effective because it relies on the reflection of radio waves off items in the ground. Different materials reflect waves differently, which can be used to create maps of underground features. Although this principle has been employed since the 1910s, over the past few years technological advances have made the equipment faster and higher resolution.

Funding

The project was funded by the AHRC. Lieven Verdonck, from Ghent University, was employed on a post-doctoral fellowship from the Fund for Scientific Research — Flanders (FWO). The team is grateful for support from Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per l’Area Metropolitana di Roma, la Provincia di Viterbo e l’Etruria Meridionale.