Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 10: Urban archaeology in Central Italy: from survey to stratigraphic excavation

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Urban archaeology in Central Italy: from survey to stratigraphic excavation.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Saturday 13 April 2024

10. Urban archaeology in Central Italy: from survey to stratigraphic excavation

Stephen Kay – British School at Rome
Emlyn Dodd – University of London
Margaret Andrews – Harvard University
Seth Bernard – University of Toronto

There is a strong tradition of applying landscape archaeology methods to urban space in Italy, with a large number of surveys at urban sites covering a wide temporal and spatial range. A diverse set of methodologies has been used, from traditional fieldwalking with surface collection to advanced multi-technique geophysical prospection, LiDAR, multispectral imaging, aerial mapping and more. More recently, several projects have transitioned from a non-invasive phase to targeted stratigraphic excavation with the aim of clarifying chronological developments and adding greater granularity to our understanding of urban histories. Key questions remain about how to transition from site-scale survey to focused excavation, and how best to integrate approaches. Responding to these questions, recent projects have cast new light on urban life in Italy at different spatiotemporal scales. This panel hopes to take stock of this work with an eye towards both empirical and methodological questions prompted by integrated approaches. We invite proposals from those that are considering how to marry different approaches at urban sites in Italy.

Session schedule 

Saturday 13 April (AM)              Room 3 - Nunn (Level 4)
09:40March separately, fight together: Geophysics and stratigraphic excavations in the Vulci Cityscape Project (Mariachiara Franceschini & Paul Pasieka)
10:00Understanding urban development at the Etruscan town of Vulci through geophysical prospection and archaeological excavations (Serena Sabatini, Irene Selsvold, Anna Gustavsson, Lewis Webb, Kristian Göransson, Stephen Kay & Elena Pomar)
10:20Theory, practice, validation: remote sensing, geophysics and excavation in the pre-Roman city of Falerii (Maria Cristina Biella, Filippo Materazzi & Nicolò Sabina)
10:40The Falerii Novi Project: the multimethodological exploration of a Roman town (Stephen Kay, Emlyn Dodd, Margaret Andrews & Seth Bernard) 
11:00                                               BREAK
11:30Standing on each other’s shoulders? Between survey and excavation at Interamna Lirenas (Alessandro Launaro)
11:50Roman Cosa: small-scale city, large-scale investigations (Allison Smith, Andrea U. De Giorgi & Maximilian Rönnberg)
12:10Revealing the Forma Urbis of Roman Aquinum (Lazio): from non-invasive survey to focused excavation (Giuseppe Ceraudo, Frank Vermeulen,  Veronica Ferrari, Lieven Verdonck, Francesco Pericci & C. Felici)
12:30Landscape archaeology of an Adriatic City: The Municipium of Suasa (Marche, Italy) (Enrico Giorgi)


 March separately, fight together: Geophysics and stratigraphic excavations in the Vulci Cityscape Project
Mariachiara Franceschini – Universität Freiburg        
Paul Pasieka – Universität Mainz

The Vulci Cityscape project aims to achieve a new understanding of the structure and development of the Etruscan-Roman city of Vulci by combining large-scale geophysical prospections with targeted excavations. In 2020, 22.5 ha, slightly more than a quarter of the city plateau, were surveyed with magnetometry. Another monumental temple was identified directly next to the Late Archaic tempio grande. The temple and its immediate surroundings were investigated with additional GPR and, since 2021, stratigraphic excavations have been carried out at the northeast corner of the temple and at a road adjoining it to the north. This paper discusses the methodological challenges and potential of using different geophysical prospection methods in combination with archaeological excavations. Especially between magnetometry and GPR, the different results complement each other. Although the GPR provides a detailed picture, also in terms of depth, some building materials, such as tuff, show up much weaker than in magnetometry. Some anomalies that could not be interpreted in the GPR could only be understood through large-scale excavations, which also provide chronological and historical depth to the results of the prospections. Constantly reviewing the results of the different methods contributes to their continuous development and improvement, and it is only through their complementary use that their full potential is revealed for the study of ancient cities.

 Understanding urban development at the Etruscan town of Vulci through geophysical prospection and archaeological excavations
Serena Sabatini – Göteborgs universitet        Irene Selsvold – Göteborgs universitet
Anna Gustavsson – Göteborgs universitet        Lewis Webb – Göteborgs universitet
Kristian Göransson – Göteborgs universitet        Stephen Kay – British School at Rome
Elena Pomar – British School at Rome

The Gothenburg Understanding_Urban_Identities project aims to investigate urban development at Vulci over the long durée from the Bronze Age until Late Antiquity. The powerful Etruscan town defined the character of the settlement as we know it today, but most of the visible remains belong to the re-organization of the site after the Roman conquest in 280 BCE. To identify suitable study areas, we decided to focus on the eastern edge of the plateau. Two factors indicate this area could have had a key role in pre-Roman Vulci: 1) the strategic position with its direct view of the monumental Ponte Rotto necropolis; and 2) previous excavations on the slopes below, which recorded material dating to various periods including proto-historic ones. The geophysical prospection indicated an urbanised area, with regular buildings and roads in the north-western part, while to the south-east it appeared less urbanised and occupied by alignments partially diverging from the regular organization of the Roman period. The subsequent excavations have focused on the latter area and uncovered a cultic space pre-dating the Roman conquest and possibly abandoned thereafter. The strategy adopted proved to be successful in unveiling intriguing new aspects of the urban development at Vulci.

 Theory, practice, validation: remote sensing, geophysics and excavation in the pre-Roman city of Falerii
Maria Cristina Biella – Sapienza Università di Roma         
Filippo Materazzi – Sapienza Università di Roma 
Nicolò Sabina

During the last 50 years several non-invasive techniques have been applied to the study of pre-Roman cities. Among others magnetometry, GPR and more recently and still ongoing UAV multispectral and thermal remote sensing. Since 2020, new research began at Falerii Veteres (Civita Castellana, Viterbo) under the framework of the Falerii Project with the aim to investigate the pre-Roman city with a holistic perspective. Particular attention has been paid to the Vignale hill, not impacted by modern urbanisation and used for agricultural purposes apparently since the mid-Republican period. Furthermore, only minor excavations have taken place on the hill at the end of the 19th century and it had been systematically surveyed with magnetometry at the end of the last century. Vignale has emerged as an exceptional case study to validate the efficacy of cutting-edge low-altitude remote sensing techniques. Since 2020 areas were systematically surveyed and from 2022 an excavation was opened, guided by the outcomes of the UAV imaging. This paper aims to critically present the comparison between the remote sensing results and those from the ongoing excavation, which is revealing a wide area (about 600 m2 as of June 2023) of the ancient city with an occupation that can be dated from the Middle Bronze Age to the 2nd century BC. Finally, a new experimental UAV multispectral and thermal remote sensing laboratory will be presented.

 The Falerii Novi Project: the multimethodological exploration of a Roman town
Stephen Kay – British School at Rome        Emlyn Dodd – University of London
Margaret Andrews – Harvard University        Seth Bernard – University of Toronto

The largely greenfield site of Falerii Novi presents an exceptional opportunity to investigate an entire intra- and extramural urban area using a wide variety of archaeological methodologies. Its location and history furthermore make the site an excellent case study for broader questions of urbanisation and the impact of urban sites on their surroundings in Roman Italy. Several decades of surface and aerial survey along with geophysical prospection across the ca. 32 ha site provide a robust foundation for a new project focusing on leveraging non-invasive results with targeted stratigraphic excavation. This paper presents some initial results from the Falerii Novi Project (FNP), which began in 2022 to excavate several key intramural locations in order to test and build from past geophysical survey to improve our overall understanding of the site’s chronological and historical development. The project has thus far worked to tie together both survey and stratigraphic methodologies into a coherent and comprehensive city-scale urban archaeology at this important Tiber Valley site. We discuss the challenges and benefits that have so far emerged from our experience of working with both diverse methods. Ultimately, our project aims to move beyond a simple dualistic perspective of strengths and limitations to explore how effective integration of these techniques can build a more complete understanding of the character and impact of urban processes in central Italy.

 Standing on each other’s shoulders? Between survey and excavation at Interamna Lirenas
Alessandro Launaro – University of Cambridge

Archaeological survey and excavation work at different scales, deal with datasets of different nature and pursue rather distinctive ranges of questions – they complement each other. One often follows the other, with targeted excavation contributing a depth of understanding that survey normally cannot. But this is not to say that survey is just a preparatory (if necessary) step to be further validated by excavation. On the contrary, survey provides the broader archaeological context against which the more granular data of excavation need to be framed and understood. Their complementary relationship is thus better conceptualised as part of a circular (rather than linear) progression, with each approach informing and enhancing the other. Fieldwork at and around the Roman town of Interamna Lirenas (Southern Lazio) has shown us the concrete benefits of this dialogue through a combination of extensive geophysical prospection, systematic field survey, and targeted excavation. This paper will review the distinctive nature of these different datasets and how their effective integration enhanced each other’s interpretation, achieving a level of understanding that no individual approach could have ever achieved on its own.

 Roman Cosa: small-scale city, large-scale investigations
Allison Smith – Indiana University        
Andrea U. De Giorgi – Florida State University
Maximilian Rönnberg – Universität Bonn

Despite its small size, Cosa is prominent in the scholarly discourse of the colonial politics that transformed the Italian peninsula during the Middle Republic. Yet, the circumstances of the early foundation, as well as the vision of its founders, remain a matter of dispute. Putative military rationales partially account for the nucleation and growth of a community that, by the time the Second Punic War was over, had no threat in sight. LiDAR and geophysical information, in conjunction with excavation datasets from the bath and commercial areas, coalesce into new discussions of the city’s development, from the colony’s early days to its coming of age in the Augustan and later Imperial periods. New avenues of research investigate the rationales that guided the urban project when ancient Cosans inhabited the site, as well as the economic and environmental drivers that shaped its urban fabric in fundamental ways. Side-lined for too long, the link between the hilltop settlement and the Portus Cosanus, in particular, unpacks exciting new possibilities for the study of the city, its socio-economic evolution, and, not least, materiality. Through this marriage of non-invasive techniques and stratigraphic excavations, a fuller and fresher story of Cosa emerges.

 Revealing the Forma Urbis of Roman Aquinum (Lazio): from non-invasive survey to focused excavation
Giuseppe Ceraudo – Università del Salento        Frank Vermeulen – Universiteit Gent
Veronica Ferrari – Università del Salento        Lieven Verdonck – Universiteit Gent
Francesco Pericci – Università di Siena        C. Felici – Università di Cassino

During the past twenty-five years the Università del Salento developed large scale archaeological investigations within the Ager Aquinas Project. This topographical research to reveal the urbanscape of the Roman city of Aquinum (Castrocielo, Frosinone - Italy), on a partly greenfield site along the Via Latina between Rome and Capua, is characterized by a multidisciplinary approach. From the start a wide range of non-invasive field activities (e.g. aerial photography, artefact surveys) directed the field operations, leading from 2009 onwards to a first phase of excavations focused on the street network, the theatre and a monumental thermal building. In recent years, collaboration with external teams of specialists have carried out intensive geophysical prospections within the city area and their often spectacular results have initiated a second phase of stratigraphic excavations with a great impact on the knowledge of the urbanism in this region. Especially the combination and integration of large-scale geomagnetic surveys and GPR prospections, and the integration of all obtained imagery with other remote sensing data (e.g. LiDAR, multispectral imagery) now shed a new light on many aspects of the character and dynamics of the urban development of the triumviral colony of Aquinum. The presentation will discuss the methodological choices made here, the way techniques are being integrated and assessed, and the most striking results regarding Roman public and private spaces in the city.

 Landscape archaeology of an Adriatic City: The Municipium of Suasa (Marche, Italy) 
Enrico Giorgi – Università di Bologna

The archaeological park of Suasa lies in the heart of the Marche region, in the ager Gallicus (in Regio VI of Italy in the Augustan period). Research at the site by the University of Bologna has been ongoing for more than 30 years, employing aerial photography and geophysical prospection from the outset as a guideline for the archaeological excavations. In the case of the ancient Roman city of Suasa, cropmarks and geophysical anomalies have always been particularly readable and have made it possible to draw the shape of the city by integrating data from the archaeological excavations. Over time, techniques and tools have evolved, therefore the research conducted at Suasa provides an opportunity to reflect on changes in research methods, which have increasingly seen archaeology without excavation. For example, methodologically, it seems that at Suasa the integration of geophysical surveys and aerial photographs shows, in many cases, a better effectiveness of aerial photographs, perhaps linked to the composition of the ground. Moreover, from the point of view of archaeological interpretation, the topography of the city seems not to follow the urban planning patterns widespread in Roman times. These problems seem to be common to Suasa and other similar Roman cities in the mid-Adriatic area and offer an opportunity to reflect on a representative case study in a regional context.