Folders of secrets: the SITAR Project.


We work at the SITAR, the innovative project of the Archaeological Superintendndence of Rome (today called Soprintendenza Speciale per il Colosseo, il Museo Nazionale Romano e l’Area Archeologica di Roma), born in 2007 and that aim at the complete digitization and systematization in a GIS environment of all the archaeological documentation related to the surveys and excavations carried out in Rome from the end of XIX century to present. The work to do is hard and it’s too much for one person, for this reason we are a team of ten archaeologists. What expect us is an huge work, sometimes dusty for sure! We explore forgotten angles of famous palaces of Rome and their subterraneans to collect old and precious documents. 

At first we have to go physically in the archives to collect paper documentation. What you don’t expect is that the archives could be such as astonishing places as the one at the Terme di Diocleziano, or really full of stuff as the one of Palazzo Massimo, but in any case the satisfaction to open folders and find in them archaeological documents from the end of the XIX century is really great, we feel like the explorers of the past. Not all the archives are “user friendly”, and not every documentation is complete or in agreement with actual archaeological common standards, but we believe in this work and we consider this like a real archaeological excavation. After all we are archaeologists and put in order things from the past is part of our mission.


The second step consists in an office data entry work to digitize and systematize the archaeological dataset: acquire by scanner, georeference and digitize plans, extract the data related to the surveys and to the archaeological evidences, and so on. Today the Archaeology is also all of this, not only excavation or pure research, as a lot of post of Day of Archaeologist says. Archaeology is also putting in order data, thinking and planning new ways to achieve the “migration of the century”, from data archived in a physical or old way (just think about floppy!) towards actual digital shapes and, most of all, make the data accessible for everyone not only for specialists. In fact, just from its birth, one of the most important goal of the SITAR is to make this impressive dataset public and searchable. All our work flow into the web platform of the project where it is possible to explore the archaeology of Rome, through a map of the city populated with the representation of the heritage, well known or unknown, discovered by the archaeologists who have worked in the Eternal City. And just to improve the public interest and participation, we are planning new ways for the dissemination and accessibility of the project so…enjoy and follow us!



Day of Archaeology 2015. Templum Pacis (Rome)

24th July was the Day-of-Archaeology 2015, a day that promotes archeology worldwide. A crowds event born on twitter in 2011, virtually brings together archaeologists of the world and shows them at work: a live story of who is and what the archaeologist does, without filters.

An opportunity to share the value of the profession of archaeologists … a tool to imagine how it SHOULD be for our cultural heritage: alive, vital, essential for our everyday life, to know ourselves, in the sense of community, but also to know themselves as individuals.

I’m Francesca Pontani archaeologist and blogger (for ArcheoTime Blog and for ArcheoTime youtube channel) and so I opened my social media “windows” to show the archaeological dig at the Templum Pacis in Rome, the Forum erected by the Emperor Vespasian to celebrate his victories in Palestine.

All this to let everyone to know what an archaeologist is and what archaeologist really do within eight hours of their life on the dig site (7:30 am to 16:30 pm), a small microcosm in which different skills act and work together.

All this to try to promote a new way of living and feel the excavation site: not a place off limits, outside of the daily reality of all of us, but a place “to live in”. It would be nice, in fact, plan the public opening of excavation sites just to see archaeologists at work.


the great hall of the Forum of Peace (Rome)
(copyright Francesca Pontani-ArcheoTime)


A Day by an Archaeologist

The day begins at 7:30 am and tasks are distributed to allow everyone to experience various fields: excavation, survey sections, relief of the elevations, washing and labeling shards, cataloging, study of materials (marble, bone, bronze, clay, etc. etc.).

Sitting on your knees (because you cannot sit comfortably on the ground, as you could ruin stratigraphy) with gentle but firm wrist to take away various stratigraphic levels with the trowel. As you progress with brush and trowel you verse all in the bucket, but always eyes glued to the ground ready to seize upon some fragment / important findings to be delivered immediately to the person responsible for the sector of excavation, to proceed to cataloging.

Filled the whole bucket of earth, it proceeds to screening in more detail to retrieve the recoverable; finally, you go to the wheelbarrow where you verse the whole. Then (if it is your turn) vigorously you grab the wheelbarrow and overturn it into the “dump” of excavation.


There is then the Flotation which is a method of sieving with water of a matrix (archeological site), which allows you to recover organic and inorganic materials from the sediment. The materials with lighter gravity than water are floated. The soil layer is removed and placed in a container that is filled with water. It removes the outcropping through a fine mesh strainer.


the Flotation
(copyright Francesca Pontani-ArcheoTime)

These are the first levels of intervention on the archaeological dig; moments physically demanding but very important for the documentation. This is because the excavation is a destructive process: if the data is not properly documented as they proceed, all will be lost. And that’s why each layer is documented by photographs, floor plans and reliefs in section: to have every little element then able to reconstruct, to the computer, the original situation.


The ceramic fragments collected are then washed and dried. Then each fragment is labeled writing the US (= stratigraphic unit) number, the abbreviation of the archaeological excavation site and the year, so that even if the contents of the cassettes are accidentally mixed, even after time, we still could reconstruct the arrangement of the materials.

Because every little piece, however small, has its dignity and is fundamental to reconstruct History: because this is archeology, not the search for hidden treasures, but reconstruction through clues. Compiling of cards to document ceramics classes (fire, tableware, land sealed, heavy showcase, thin walls, black paint, etc. Etc.), for each class of pottery notes the number of fragments and the type of the fragments present (lips, tracks, walls, loops, etc.): all data is extremely important and fundamental. Then the ceramic materials are bagged and settled into boxes.


Another important clue is the animal bones that give us much information. Here the Temple of Peace, for example, tells us about the type of power supply in the XIth century at the Forum of Peace. In fact during the Middle Ages the Templum Pacis became a residential area. In the bones have been discovered traces of combustion: then they “tell” us that before being eaten, meat was cooked on the barbecue. Then remains of marine and terrestrial molluscs, pigs, sheep, birds were also found – animals show us what Romans ate in the Middle Ages.


… That’s how all these “cold” data can reconstruct the emotions and thoughts … the invisible footprints left behind by the Romans who lived here, what they believed, what they thought, what they ate and how they lived.

The Forum of Peace

The Forum of Peace, also known as Templum Pacis, was built in the 1st century AD by Vespasian to celebrate his victories in Palestine. The cult statue of the goddess Peace was on the top of a high podium with the sacred symbols of the temple of Jerusalem: the Ark of the Covenant and the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum. All objects disappeared along with the statue of Peace, during the looting suffered by Rome in the 5th century AD.


The Forma Urbis Severiana was on that wall (on left)
(copyright Francesca Pontani-ArcheoTime)

Here we are in the great hall that served as a temple, at the end of a wide square porticoes  with bushes and flowers in the middle. The front of the hall was decorated with colossal Egyptian red granite columns (high more than those of the Pantheon), aligned in two rows. Today we see them on the ground because of earthquakes, but even so, they tell us about the power of the Roman emperor: the columns were quarried in Aswan (southern Egypt) and transported in special ships along the Nile, then on the Mediterranean, and to the Tiber River, upstream to the center of the port in the Imperial Rome.


in the great hall of the Forum of Peace and sight of Basilica of Massenzio.
(copyright Francesca Pontani-ArcheoTime)

A fine colored marble floor decorated the hall.

In the Forum of Augustus and Caesar it was administration of justice: but, here, at the Forum of Vespasian it would seem not. In fact the Forum Vespasian was a sanctuary and a place for study and meditation, as well as a public museum, according to the ideal of spreading culture: a rich collection of works of Greek sculptors and painters was distributed within the complex.

Some authors tell us that there was a library at the side of the Peace statue and, above all, the famous Forma Urbis Severiana: a floor plan of the buildings and streets of Rome, engraved on marble, built by Septimius Severus in 203-211 AD.


the floor of the auditorium, made of large circles in colored marble.
(copyright Francesca Pontani-ArcheoTime)

Urban Gardening in Medieval Cities. In a Modern Library.

This year, Day of Archaeology finds me in London in the British Library, sifting through the latest phases of late Roman townhouses. As I wrote in 2013, I am working on the phenomenon of urban gardening in the cities of early medieval Italy, and this summer I’m trying to finish finishing the manuscript of a small book on the subject. The majority of the evidence for where people got their vegetables in Rome, Naples, Brescia and Verona and other cities comes from property documents, which identify houses with gardens in them. This week I have been looking again at how Italian townhouses went from very dense buildings, perhaps with a central courtyard planted with ornamental trees and flowers, to individual houses that had food producing gardens inside or adjacent to the property, such as this one described in a letter from Pope Gregory the Great:

Reg Ep. II, 46 (Sept. 591-Aug 592). To Sub-deacon Sabinus.

We are compelled by our duty of piety to make a decision for the monasteries, with prudent consideration, so that those who are known to have allotted themselves to the service of God, may not endure any need. And for that reason we order you Experience with this authority to hand over quickly and without uncertainty the garden of the dead priest Felicianus. It lies in the first region before the steps of Saint Sabina. Leaving aside any excuse, give it to the convent of Euprepia, in which a community of nuns are known to live, for them to possess with a proprietary right, so that aided by the benefit of our generosity, they may persevere in serving God, with his support also, with secure minds. [Trans J. Martyn]

Pope Gregory here writes as a bishop with concern for the spiritual lives and economic concerns of the professional religious people under his care. He was no longer the Urban Prefect, with oversight of the urban fabric of Rome, an administrative office he held in 573 before he became a monk. What he learned about dealing with abandoned houses in Rome nonetheless surely informed his decision on behalf of the religious women. He endowed a new community of professional religious women with a house and garden in order to help them in their devotion to God, providing for them in a city that was increasingly unreliable. We don’t know exactly when urban markets ceased to function in Rome, but it must have been at some point in the sixth or seventh centuries, as the annona ceased to bring grain and wine to the citizens, and as the monetized economy of the city dwindled to barter and credit systems, rather than coins. The provision of a garden for these women, and for three other religious communities in Rome who received houses with gardens from Gregory, seems to be an effort to provide self-sufficiency for the community.


Domus of the Piazza dei Cinquecento, Rome, after Roberto Meneghini and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, ‘Fasi tarde dell’ isolato,’ Rita Paris, ed. Antiche Stanze (Milan, 1996), fig. 5 p. 176. The areas marked in brown were filled with earth, leaving the rooms in red as a smaller-scale house. The small house comprised former service rooms and part of the private bath, as well as the latrine.

It has long been recognised that the complex political, social and economic changes of the later fourth and fifth centuries meant that fewer people lived in Italian cities, and had fewer resources (monetary and material) to spend upon their city and the upkeep of their townhouses. Things changed, so people reused, or made good with what they had. When houses were abandoned, they were sometimes reallocated to new people, as Gregory arranged in the letter above. Sometimes it appears that houses in ruined states were converted to ‘horti’ – gardens, when they were irredeemable and unclaimed by owners. Legal precepts, in place from the third century, made this possible with the permission of local magistrates. (See the Codex Iustianiani VIII, 10, 3 eg)

As I am sorting through publications of urban archaeology looking for examples of this process, I am confronted by a very consistent pattern of partial abandonment in the fifth century and the deliberate backfilling of parts of houses, or entire houses, with earth in the later fifth and sixth centuries. I have seen examples of this documented at Brescia, at Naples, and at Rome. At Rome, the house I’m looking at today, a domus from the Piazza dei Cinquecento, excavated in 1940s to build Stazione Termini, was partially filled with earth in the late fifth century, reducing a large townhouse into a small suit of rooms surrounded by earth. No archeobotanical studies were carried out in the 1940s excavation, so it is impossible to know whether the earth surrounding the house was used for intensive cultivation, either of ornamental species or of food-producing species, but this kind of complex may very well be what Gregory was providing the nuns with in the same years that this house was abandoned.

I am charting this phenomenon in the second chapter of this book. In subsequent chapters I survey the charter evidence for who grew vegetables where in Italian cities and then review the analysis of Dark Earth as open fields for intensive agriculture within the city. There were fields for onions, cabbages and greens, fruit trees and vineyards in early medieval cities and major households – and institutions – controlled supplies of fresh food for urban residents.

Templum Pacis, Rome


Students from Roma Tre University and the American University of Rome

To celebrate the Day of Archaeology the students of Rome Tre University and the American University of Rome put down their trowels and acted as guides to show off the results of their excavation at the Forum of Vespasian (aka Templum Pacis) in the centre of Rome. As well as passing tourists, the media showed up and also many fellow archaeologists took the time to come and look. Even the weather co-operated! For much of the last two weeks the daytime temperatures have been more than 38C (100F) but after rain during the night, the centre of Rome was much cooler.

The excavated area that visitors could see is just outside the Roman Forum. It was built by the Emperor Vespasian to celebrate his victory at Jerusalem and at one time this area held the sacred items he took from the Temple at Jerusalem, such as the Menorah and the Ark (which unfortunately have long since disappeared).  In one part of the excavation we have reached the marble pavement of the original forum. Overlying this are the remains of makeshift buildings that occupied the space after the forum went out of use.


The Roman marble floor. The central marble piece has been robbed in antiquity.

Today the area is dominated by a wide boulevard that was constructed by Mussolini. In order to create this space all of the 18th and 19th century buildings which had characterized this area were demolished and the ground was leveled using the debris. Looking at the section which separates the dig area from the present ground level, you can get some idea of the tremendous amount of fill that has been removed in order to arrive at the in situ layers of the medieval period. Another difficulty is that the stratigraphy is disrupted by robber trenches, and much of the marble and foundation stonework was removed to be used in later constructions. The very large circular hole in the upper area is caused by a robber trench to extract a large column fragment.


The upper area digging down through medieval layers. The large circular hole is where a piece of a column was robbed.

The vividly coloured marble of the Roman pavement makes an immediate impression but, in many ways, it is the information from the makeshift buildings and sparse remains of the succeeding era which is most interesting. We know so little about the texture of daily life in this period that every small piece of evidence is exciting.

Thank you to everyone who came to visit our dig this morning, on what is the last day of the summer season. Prof Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani and his team look forward to next year’s Day of Archaeology when we can give you all an update.

Best wishes from the Templum Pacis 2015 team and special thanks to Soprintendenza Speciale per il Colosseo, il MNR e l’Area Archeologica di Roma and particularly Dott.ssa Rosella Rea for allowing us to participate in this very special experience.

Love in the Time of Visitor Studies

Love between strangers takes only a few seconds and can last a whole life.”  Simon Van Booy (the greatest exponent of contemporary romanticism in the World) probably did not write this with tourists and archaeological sites on his mind – but to me, it suits the situation just perfectly!

Quite often, tourists approach archaeology as something alien or indecipherable and they find it really hard to actually enjoy it. But if a site or a series of artifacts are presented in a way that live up to their expectations, visitors might change their attitude towards cultural sites forever.

What I do as a job is to find out what makes this potential long-lasting love actually bloom bright and wild as soon as the visitors walk into the archaeological site of Herculaneum.


A view of the archaeological site of Herculaneum

 I have no bow and heart-shaped arrows as weapons but just a pen, a bunch of questionnaires and a lot of patience: today I am going to interview at least 40 tourists who might not be as enthusiastic about answering my questions as I am asking them.

I am an Audience Development Consultant for the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP) a collaborative project between the Packard Humanities Institute and the Soprintendenza (Italian local authority managing the site), supported by the British School at Rome that in the past 10 years has sought to address some of the most pressing threats to the survival of the site.

More and more museums and archaeological sites in Europe are doing what it takes to make visitors want to come and feel welcome and make sure they’re eager to return. Herculaneum is determined to make visitors ‘fall in love’ with its archaeology; and HCP is there to facilitate this process.

But, first things first: who the hell are these people coming and going from the site every day?! In order to answer this compelling question, an Audience Development Program was set up in early 2013.

The initiative I am personally contributing to is a 12-month campaign of questionnaires for independent visitors. The research, which is the first of its kind in Italy, aims to cluster tourists to Herculaneum under different profiles, in order to eventually produce targeted outreach and interpretation campaigns. Together with other shorter studies (targeting non-visitors, organized tours, schools and the local community) the program itself aspires to develop and nurture a relationship between the archaeological site, the local authority managing it and the public over the long term.

What my team does in practice are face-to-face interviews with tourists to the site at the end of their visit. We designed a questionnaire in order to gain information about their type of holiday and the reasons why they decided to come to Herculaneum. We also collect personal impressions, criticism and suggestions. Anything is welcome, as far as it helps us improving the visitor experience onsite.


Me and one of the visitor-interviewee in Herculaneum

I enjoy the work on the field and the whole experience of collecting data as it gives me an everyday different perspective on the site. When you work with archaeology, you are quite likely to forget that an archaeological site or a museum are also places where people come just to have a good time and maybe learn something new.

Visitor studies are then an essential tool not just to center the interpretation and outreach strategy, but also to keep the archaeology and the institution relevant to current societies and future-oriented.

You always need new tips to keep the spark alive!

Gladiators and the Colosseum

For Dr Pier Matteo Barone the Day of Archaeology 2014 was spent teaching students of the American University of Rome about Roman architecture. One great advantage is that the class doesn’t have to stay in the lecture room or look at powerpoint images – they can go and see the real thing!

“Have you seen pictures of monuments like these in your classes? Ever wondered why ancient Rome is so attractive? Or whether you could really sense the ancient Roman gladiators fighting in the Colosseum? In the summer I teach ARC 101, Roman Archaeology on-site, to a group of students made up mostly of Study Abroad students who come to Rome for an intensive fix of Roman archaeology! It’s great because students can discover the richness of Roman archaeology through a combination of academic instruction and on-site visits, getting hands-on experience. The temperature can get pretty hot in Rome in July but it beats being stuck indoors!”

Dealing with the dead of Villamagna, Medieval Italy

I really don’t like dead bodies. But the thing about archaeology is that you never really know what you’re going to dig up, and in my last major dig, there were lots and lots of dead bodies – in the end the team excavated nearly 500 medieval skeletons from the area around a church at Villamagna, near Anagni in central Italy. The results of that excavation (the cemetery and all the rest of the large-scale multi-year project) are now being published; interim reports can be found here. Our book includes an inventory and preliminary discussion of the skeletons, the demography of the cemetery and basic paleo-pathology, a discussion of the isotopes and discussions of the topography and chronology of the cemetery, the burials and the finds. But these dead people won’t lie down and I keep finding myself dealing with them, now well after we’re finished digging. Because ours is the largest collection of excavated skeletons from medieval Italy, I’m hoping that these bones can be further studied by bioarchaeologists who are going to be more able to design and carry out a programme of scientific research that will benefit from such a large sample size, from clearly defined and meticulously recorded stratigraphic contexts. I’m in Rome this week trying to help this project along.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

The team who is going to take over the study of the bones of Villamagna include the indefatigable anthropologist who directed the initial inventory and study of the project, Francesca Candilio, and now a pair of bioarchaeologists, Sabrina Agarwal from Berkeley and Patrick Beauchesne from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Their interests lie in understanding better the general health of the population and how it might have changed over time, looking at oral health, at indications of stress on the body associated with certain kinds of work, at changes in bone density at certain moments of development and during the lifetime, and indicators of disease. Francesca has some ideas about some peculiar bone formations on some of the bones, and has identified some people who suffered fatal wounds, while others lived with their wounds for many years. Through information about nutrition levels, general health and indications of physical labour in this population we can reconstruct these particular aspects of daily life in a rural village for which we have otherwise limited data available from textual sources or other archaeological indicators. I am not a bioarchaeologist, but I remain on board because I want to think about ways in which this kind of information about health and life course can relate to the stratigraphic contexts of the cemetery and the rest of the site.


HRU 4348, the male who died in the 13th century because of a projectile wound to his head, the point of which is still there!

We all met in Rome this week, Sabrina and Patrick flew in from California and I came over from London; Lisa Fentress, the project director, and Francesca are based in Rome. We visited the site, brought some specimens to Francesca’s lab, and collected some of the samples for preliminary work to be done. We went over our data collection practices from the dig and reviewed the anthropological inventories and analysis that the dig team carried out. Francesca explained the methods her lab uses for age-ing and sexing the skeletons, and her binders full of measurements and data. She pulled out some of the interesting pathologies, and weirdnesses in the population, and also showed off one of her favourite head wounds: a guy who was buried in the thirteenth century, inside the monastic cloister, with a ballista point lodged in his cranium.

I feel very pleased that these bones will be taken over by such a competent and interesting team of people. I like Sabrina and Patrick’s approach of social bioarchaeology (Sabrina recently edited a book on the topic), looking not just at health and living conditions of people, especially through the lenses of gender, age, and social status. Francesca has expertise in teeth patterns, looking at migration of populations through dental traits, and will be happy to include Villamagna teeth in her data sets.  I think there is still a lot of work left to be done figuring out this population, and devising a strategy for the archeo-anthropology and bioarchaeology which will exploit the stratigraphic data from the excavation alongside the samples of the skeletons, and I’m interested in thinking this through.

Aside from feeling pleased to shepherd the bones into the hands of another team, there are two issues which really interest me about this research. One: the majority of these skeletons (ballista-point guy not included) came dates from about 1300 to about 1400 (several of the skeletons were dated by C14), so after the monastery was suppressed and the monks expelled. For that period we have very little information about who owned the estate of Villamagna and how the church was administered, so I’m very keen to think more about who takes over a monastery and its estate lands when the institution is suppressed and there is no clear successor to administer the estate. The village and the site of the monastery which we excavated were clearly abandoned about 1300, but this major cemetery with lots and lots of skeletons are clear evidence that the church was still in use, and some priest was involved in burying the dead. The other issue that I’m very excited about at the moment is that in the middle of this phase, in 1348 and 1349, life in central Italy must have changed radically. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in southern Italy, where – by some counts – the population was reduced by half. If I look around me right now and imagine half of the people who surround me dropping dead, my job, my family, and every aspect of my life would be radically different. It may have been so for Villamagna in the fourteenth century and I would like to know whether this was the case, or whether the Black Death didn’t affect this place in particular. We have no indication of Plague Pits, no sense of epidemic-scale deaths, which in itself is might point to the site’s survival relatively unscathed. On the other hand, the site must have been profoundly affected by the three earthquakes which shook southern Italy on 9 September 1349. In Rome, part of the Colosseum collapsed from the quake whose epicentre was located down in the Apennine mountain range—much closer to Villamagna than Rome was. It seems very unlikely that the standing buildings of Villamagna were not destroyed, and thus the population forced to relocate or otherwise reorganise their subsistence. And yet we have only slim indications in the archaeological record of that kind of destruction and rebuilding. Was everything already abandoned then? Or was it restored, only to be abandoned 50 years later? I hope that having a better sense of the population buried here might help shift our thinking about these two catastrophic events and catastrophe in general in a rural village.

A view from above: aerial photography at Portus

This year’s Day of Archaeology coincides with the final day of the 2014 Portus Project field school excavations. This is the second year that the University of Southampton ( and the British School at Rome have run this training course for students from throughout the world. What brings us together is our interest in the maritime trade of Rome in the Mediterranean, the hub of which was the Imperial port of Rome, now a few kilometres inland from the coastline next to Rome’s international airport at Fiumicino.

The final day of excavation for the students was all about recording and checking excavation documentation, as there always seems to be 1 or 2 outstanding context sheets, however hard you try! My role within the project is to support the excavation through surveying, for which we use a range of techniques.

One recording technique that has become fundamental to the excavation, due to its size and complexity, is low level aerial photography. This Friday we were using a cherry picker in order to take oblique photographs of the excavation as well as vertical photographs, both of which are fundamental for standard recording as well as photogrammetry.

Portus Project Cherry Picker photography

Simon Keay (Portus Project Director) and Renato Sebastiani (Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma) viewing the 2014 excavations from a cherry picker

We’ve been using a range of photographic techniques on site this season (see James Milespost. As the project was running an online MOOC at the same time as the excavation, we’ve tried to help participants by providing located 360 panoramic photographs (using a Motrr).

Aerial Photograph using a Motrr

Panoramic aerial photograph of 2014 Portus Project Excavations (taken using a Motrr)

One area that we are exploring is regular low level site photography using a drone. We’re now using a DJI Innovations S800 Spreading Wings for our photography, mounted with a Sony DS-HSX300.

Portus Project DJI Innovations drone

The DJI Innovations Spreading Wings S800 being used to record the Opus Spicatum floor of the Palazzo Imperiale

We’ll be do more recording this forthcoming week, using the drone to photograph the new findings in the shipyard and the Imperial Palace.

Digging in Ancient Rome!

Archaeology students from Universita di Roma Tre and the American University of Rome collaborate to excavate the Forum of Vespasian in the center of ancient Rome. The weather is hot, the site is dusty, but everyone is having a good time. Here is a sample of the comments heard on an average day down at the dig:
“I love having free reign over all the restricted areas.” (Kagan)

“I love feeling like a cage zoo animal with peoples faces swished against the bars to see us.” (Kagan)

“The good thing about being covered in dirt is that people don’t bug you to go to their restaurant.” (Evelyn)

“What did you do today?” (Sadie) “Same thing we do everyday.”(Thomas) “Shoveling digging and throwing rocks.” (Ignatius) “Moving rocks from here to here than from there to here and back. With the occasional waving at tourists. They get real exciting over that.” (Thomas)

“Wow there must have been a lot of pigs in this area at one time. Oink!” (Frangelica)

“Everything is red can we just get a black layer.” (Ellen)

“My back really hurts. But I am learning a lot.” (Melissa)

“Finally today I was able to identify the different layers.” (Evelyn)

“Is this something or is this a rock?” (Ellen)

“Umm I think we found something!” (Thomas)

“Identifying the different pottery is difficult just when I think I figured out which is which I found out I’m wrong.” (Sadie)

The Gabii Project: Archaeology in The Information Age

Racel Opitz demonstrates use of the tablets to students .

Racel Opitz demonstrates use of the tablets to students .

Rachel Opitz doesn’t dig much at Gabii, but rather records. Leading a core team of four, her topography, data entry, and photogrammetric modelling unit is tasked with the construction of a digital database on a large scale.

“We have scale issues,” Rachel chuckles, “Well, they’re not issues because the method works.”

Rachel’s team has implemented strategies and introduced technologies aimed at increasing efficiency within The Gabii Project to support a large open area excavation. They upgrade software and propose new methods nearly every field season. Most recently, Rachel brought tablet technology to the scene, replacing almost all of the paper recording formerly done in the trenches with direct to digital recording on Panasonic ToughPads and Android tablets, linked in real-time to the project’s ARK database and GIS system.

“One of the reasons we were able to open such a large excavation area as is that the recording is just so fast,” Rachel states plainly. “You can answer very different archaeological questions working at this scale”

Several forms of digital recording can be uploaded and processed in real-time using the current configuration.

Several forms of digital recording can be uploaded and processed in real-time using the current configuration.

The Gabii Project isn’t the only dig using digital recording. Excavations at Çatalhöyük and Pompeii—to name a couple high-profile cases—are also making use of similar systems, and such methods have been increasingly adopted in recent years. In Rachel’s opinion, what sets The Gabii Project apart is Program Director Nicola Terrenato’s insistence on using these systems extensively from the beginning.

“More and more people are doing some variant on what we’re doing, and that’s a good thing. Of course we try to stay at the forefront, so five years from now we’ll be doing something totally different.”


You can follow Rachel’s work at: