An Introduction to the “Villa of the Antonines” Archaeological Field Project in Italy
A brief history of the site and how we began work there:
In 2010, we started the “Villa of the Antonines” Project in an attempt to shed new light on a largely neglected, but important, archaeological site along the route of the ancient Via Appia, just 18 miles southeast of the center of Rome.
The archaeological remains are today located within the boundaries of the modern town of Genzano di Roma (population about 22,000), which overlooks the Lago di Nemi, a crater lake in the Alban Hills. In ancient times, the site was in the territory of Lanuvium, one of the urban centers of the people of Latium before the emergence of Rome as a great power, and the nucleus of which lies about 1.5 km to the southeast of the site. By the end of the BCE period, Lanuvium possessed Roman citizenship and, being close to the metropolis, was a popular location for villas as favorite summer resorts; Cicero, for example, mentions in his letters how he stopped there or passed through on a number of occasions. That at least by 86 CE the ancestors of the Antonine imperial dynasty, which was to rule during the mid- to late second century CE, possessed a family villa located at or near Lanuvium emerges from the biography of Antoninus Pius in the Historia Augusta, the 4th century collection of biographies of Roman emperors, and a local connection with the family is supported by inscriptions from the town. The Historia Augusta speaks of the births of both Antoninus and Commodus there, and refers also to Commodus—who we know eventually developed a taste for performing as a gladiator—as killing wild beasts in an amphitheatre at Lanuvium.
In 1701, several fine marble busts of Antonine family members were unearthed somewhere not too far to the north of still standing, imposing Roman brick and concrete ruins now known to have formed part of a bath complex. Subsequently, the vicinity around the baths came to be referred to as the “Villa degli Antonini.” Up until the early 20th century, antiquarians and early archaeologists who visited the surrounding area continued to report the presence of various other physical remains that probably also belonged to the villa. To a great extent because of creeping urbanization and illegal development, most of these features can no longer be identified and, although this villa is one of the major elite Roman residences in the area of the Alban Hills, it is so far the least investigated. Today, next to the baths, a tiny rural road once surrounded by olive groves has become the busy Viale del Lavoro, which now leads to an industrial area (Zona Artigianale). In recent decades, too, the area immediately around the baths has suffered from extensive refuse dumping and almost total neglect.
In 2010, within a gently sloping, 3-hectare, protected plot of land that, fortunately, is now owned by the town of Genzano, we began an investigation of a sector right next to the baths that had been explored briefly in 1996 by a local group of amateur archaeologists just long enough for them to find walls belonging to an intriguing curvilinear structure, but then abandoned. The goal of our project was to systematically study this potentially important site and, ultimately, to attempt to place the whole complex in the context of imperial villas in the region of Latium and beyond. We started our investigation by focusing on the curvilinear structure in order to determine its nature and its relationship to the baths. In 2010, we decided to concentrate our efforts on a relatively small, targeted area, but from the beginning we also combined excavation with the latest non-invasive geophysical imaging techniques, which allow scanning the ground without moving large amounts of dirt. These geophysical surveys, which have been carried out in all three seasons, are an integral part of our excavation and are overseen by Prof. Michele di Filippo of the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and his collaborators Dr. Flavio Cecchini and Dr. Siro Margottini, with the help of graduate, undergraduate, and postdoc students.
The curvilinear building as it presently stands is characterized by a series of nearly identical rooms (each approximately 3.5 x 4 m in size) that are defined by radial walls connecting two concentric curving walls; a third, innermost curving wall is very close to the second one and encloses, together with it, a channel about a half metre in width. The facing of the concrete walls consists mainly of opus mixtum and opus vittatum, a common construction technique during the second century. Much of our excavation work between 2010 and 2012 involved investigating the rooms of the eastern part of this curvilinear structure, as well as excavating some adjacent areas immediately outside of it. Especially since the channel mentioned above included near its midpoint a vertical shaft connecting to an underground channel (cuniculus) beneath, the structure had been tentatively interpreted as a monumental fountain or a series of basins connected in some way with the baths immediately adjacent.
The geophysical surveys, including testing by GPR, magnetometry, and seismic refraction tomography, have so far involved extensive sectors to the northeast, north, northwest, and west of the main excavation area. By the end of the 2011 season, we had identified a roughly elliptical area of low conductivity to the west of the excavated portion of the curvilinear structure and compatible with the continuation of that building so as to form an ellipse or circle. In 2012 we were able to test these results by opening a NW-SE trench cutting across the unexcavated western side of the hypothetical elliptical structure. This almost immediately brought to light segments of curvilinear walls and connecting walls of identical construction technique and plan to the walls present in the already-excavated eastern area. The walls of both areas may therefore be attributed to a single structure of elliptical shape with an outer diameter of about 54 metres measured on the long axis.
Inscribed brick stamps present in the fabric of the elliptical structure, as well as stamps found sporadically in the immediate vicinity, fit well with an Antonine date and include one in situ example from the estates of Faustina the Younger that dates between 147-176. This raises the real possibility that we have here the amphitheatre at Lanuvium where the Historia Augusta states that Commodus was in the habit of killing wild beasts, especially as the urban nucleus of ancient Lanuvium appears not to have contained such a structure. Our architect Carlo Albo has been studying several large blocks of worked peperino stone that are still strewn about the site which apparently come from the topmost level of the amphitheatre, where they would have helped support an awning system (velarium) to shade spectators from the sun, similarly to the arrangements at the Colosseum in Rome.
Our principal excavation work area in the eastern part of the amphitheater, where we are trying to understand its structure in greater detail, has involved slow and painstaking work, but we have made interesting discoveries there, too. This past season, for instance, we were able to show that a curving wall first identified in 2011 belongs to a still largely buried spiral staircase, of which only the base of a window, a fragment of one of the treads, and the central support are currently visible, and which led to one or more chambers that are at present underground.
A brief survey of the finds:
The archaeological materials recovered during three seasons show a special preponderance of marbles and displaced mosaic tesserae. The very numerous pieces and fragments of marble of varied thickness and dimensions include white marbles (Proconnesian among others, which has a sulphurous taste if you lick it) as well as colored ones such as serpentine, porphyry, giallo antico, pavonazetto, cipollino, and africano—basically the most common decorative types imported from North Africa and the Aegean region. Some of the pieces have regular geometric shapes and were once part of opus sectile flooring, while others are fragments of cornices or molded slabs from wall decoration. The tesserae, or cubic tiles used for mosaics, include many from black and white compositions (leucitite and white limestone), while the remainder are small colored glass tesserae that represent a large part of the color spectrum and include transparent examples covered with gold leaf. These, together with the marbles, highlight the striking decorative richness of this residential complex. Opulence of this kind is also suggested by two pieces of mosaic glass inlay found in 2010, including one belonging to a rectangular plaquette with floral decoration that has a close parallel in an example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (you can see the Met specimen at: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/130010092?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=glass+inlay+lily&pos=18).
The proportion of ceramic materials that we have recovered from the site so far is relatively modest in comparison. Prominent is architectonic material such as fragments of roof tiles, tubuli (pipes for conducting heat in bath walls), and of course the brick stamps noted earlier. The stamps include several inscribed ones that were manufactured in brickmaking establishments located in Latium during the mid- to late second century; many of the other stamps, which have geometric designs only but which are not inscribed, were probably used to distinguish production units or crews in the brickyard. With regard to ceramic vessels, we have found numerous fragments of African red slipware and cookware, but very few fragments of Italian and Gallic terra sigillata. Other artifacts include various nails and studs that probably come from wooden chests, furniture, or wooden doors but that are difficult to pin down chronologically given their simple forms and utilitarian function, as well as a bone die and a coin of Caligula.
Plans for 2014 and beyond:
During the 2014 season we will further investigate the amphitheatre-like building the existence of which was established in 2012. We are planning to not only excavate the staircase and the underground chamber, but also to enlarge the new sector that we opened toward the west last year with the aim of defining the layout of the building in more detail. We will also continue to expand toward the east in order to define the relationship of the amphitheater to the adjacent bath complex and to other adjacent structures, and we would like to open new test excavations to the north of the amphitheatre. Moreover, we will continue our collaboration with Prof. Di Filippo and his team; they will run a microgravimetry survey to try to trace the route of the cuniculus and detect other voids that might indicate the presence of further canalization, water pipe networks, water collecting tanks, or underground chambers.
While working at the site Monday through Friday, participants will receive hands-on experience in all aspects of recordkeeping, including photographic documentation and drafting. They will also get acquainted with the methods of mapping, field survey, geophysical investigation, and Roman epigraphy. Workshops and in-class lectures will be an integral part of the program. Regular laboratory sessions will take place both on-site and at the Museo delle Navi Romane—built to house the famous ships of the emperor Caligula--in nearby Nemi, where participants will also learn about the practice of museum work. Here, students will take turns cataloguing and studying the artifacts from the site. We will also visit the municipal museum in the town center of modern Lanuvio, and there will be a one-day weekend fieldtrip to historical and archaeological sites in the Alban Hills area. Students will have the opportunity, during their spare time and on weekends, to experience and explore the friendly town of Genzano or to make excursions into Rome.
Life on the Dig—Accommodations, meals, work schedule, and the local scene:
We stay at the Diana Park Hotel, about 1.5 km from the site. It is known throughout the region for its spacious restaurant on a terrace overlooking the scenic Lago di Nemi, a crater lake whose rim is covered by forests. From the terrace you can look across the lake to the ancient sanctuary of the goddess Diana on the other side, you can imagine the emperor Caligula sailing on the lake on his pleasure barges (which were in fact raised from the lake bottom during the 1920’s), and you can admire the play of shadows across the Alban Mount beyond. Students are assigned to shared rooms (usually the max is 3 per room). The breakfast of coffee, tea, rolls, yogurt, fruit juice, and the like is ready just before 7 AM, and by 7:20 everyone needs to be out in front to get into the vehicles going to the site for the day’s work. In a few minutes, we are in Viale del Lavoro, where the ruins of the baths stand up above the lush vegetation covering part of the site. Work continues until around 12:30PM, when a great lunch arrives from the hotel. After an hour’s break under the awnings, we resume work and study until about 4:30. The rest of the day is free. Sometimes we change this routine slightly to accommodate the schedule of a visiting geophysicist or other expert who is going to give a talk or demonstration.
The hotel is located within the boundaries of modern Nemi, but it’s just a few blocks’ walk from the there to the business district of Genzano (population ca. 22,000), where you will find a supermarket, snack bars, restaurants, pubs, and the main piazza with its baroque fountain and picturesque streets, where you can eat ice cream while watching the local residents congregate at the end of the day. Near the hotel there is a pool where, for a fee, you can cool off. From the town’s main street you can get a bus to Anagnina, where you can catch the subway (Linea A) that takes you into Rome.
You need to make your own arrangements for getting to Rome. On Sunday, June 29, you need to be in Rome by 12 noon so that we can arrange for you to be picked up at an arranged point there and driven to Genzano. On Saturday, July 26 we will arrange for your transportation to Rome. On one of the Saturdays during the program we will run a field trip to local places and sites in the Alban Hills area. The other Saturdays, and of course Sundays too, are free for you to relax or travel in Italy.
How to apply:
We as co-directors interview (Montclair State students in person, others via Skype) all applicants for 25-30 minutes each. But we are always pleased to speak with you informally, whether by phone or email. Our contact information:
Professor, Department of Classics & General Humanities;
Director, Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies
Deborah Chatr Aryamontri
Instructional Specialist, Department of Classics & General Humanities;
Researcher, Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies
Ms. Wendy Gilbert-Simon of our campus’s Global Education Center handles our logistical and enrollment arrangements. Her contact information: