Research Aims of the Project


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The Rutgers University Archaeological Field School in Italy conducts work to further the research goals of the Upper Sabina Tiberina Project. Our team’s ultimate aim is to assess archaeologically a select cluster of Roman villa sites in the Upper Sabina Tiberina, focusing on the Republican and early Imperial period (third century BCE to third century CE) in order to investigate regional patterns of rural habitation and agricultural exploitation. Our villa sites are situated in an area defined by the Tiber on the east, mountains separating the region from Umbria to the north and the Reatine valley to the East, and the edge of the Galantina torrente to the south. We seek to substantiate archaeologically the point at which the historical characterization of the Sabina in the late Republic and early Empire is perceptible in the rural built environment, providing evidence of agricultural intensification and subsequent economic development. To this end, we are excavating one villa site in the area (Vacone), while conducting survey at other known villa locations.

The first part of our strategy is to excavate the villa near the town of Vacone (the “Villa d'Orazio") as the cornerstone for a comparative regional project assessing the Roman rural habitation in the area in terms of its scale, mode of agricultural exploitation, and diachronic development. This selective excavation at Vacone will be combined with a geophysical survey of the immediate environs of this villa and other villas in the subject group. Research goals include estimating the size of both the villas and the surrounding land they exploited, assessing the choice of villa locations from the standpoint of topography and ecology, and incorporating a GIS database with detailed physical and chronological information about the group villas.

Our team has selected Vacone for excavation based on information derived from earlier interventions by the office of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici del Lazio and our own GPR survey of the central area of the villa. The villa has two standing criptoportici (underground chambers/corridors) built in opus incertum style masonry, which would date it to the late Republican period. The interventions supervised and published by Giovanna Alvino of the Soprintendenza in the 1980s shored up these substructures and carried out limited excavation in the area above each criptoportico. The work on the lower criptoportico uncovered a mosaic floor running along the length of its roof. Several thresholds were also unearthed that appear to open into mosaic-floored rooms in the area between the two criptoportici, presumably part of the villa’s domestic quarter. Our GPR survey of this area, conducted in October 2011, confirmed the presence of anomalies consistent with room walls. Exploration of the upper criptoportico revealed a space for the pressing of wine or oil adjacent to the end of the criptoportico, with a channel running down to a collecting basin in the criptoportico itself. Today the portion of the site between the criptoportici, where we have begun excavation, is on publicly owned land, and the remainder of the villa site would seem to be under local farmland and associated privately owned buildings.

 

Villa at Vacone Site Prior to Excavation

 

Excavations at Vacone in 2012

Our project’s summer 2012 season concentrated in the area immediately north of a mosaic-floored porticus discovered in 1986-7 atop the lower cryptoporticus, where threshold blocks found during the Soprintendenza’s intervention suggested the presence of rooms facing the porticus. Our excavations identified six rooms with mosaic floors along the porticus. We also uncovered a child burial in Room III (which carbon dating revealed to be of the eighth century CE) and found decorative stucco collapse in Room VI.

To view official report click here.

Excavations at Vacone in 2013

This season's work continued the excavation trenches of the previous year. We also began a new trench along the upper cryptoporticus (which has now been identified as a cistern) which revealed more rooms and mosaic. Another new trench in the upper section alongside the cistern continued the previous work of the Soprintendenza in the so-called "work area." In the lower trenches we also found what seems to be a passageway to the (lower) cryptoporticus. These trenches reveald more mosaic and painted wall plaster (some in situ) as well as small finds of bronze implements, nails and two more post-occupation burials (which later carbon dating revealed to be from the seventh and eighth centuries CE).

To view official report click here.

Excavations at Vacone in 2014

Excavations continued the trenches of the previous year. More of the upper work area was revealed, and two large ceramic assemblages were discovered, one in what was possible another work area or storeroom, and another in the passageway from the upper area to the lower cryptoporticus. A few more burials were uncovered, raising our number of burials to five on the site--this would seem to confirm that the site became a cemetery in later periods. More of the "earlier" villa phase was uncovered and explored. A channel cutting across eastern end of the site seems to have been installed with the building of the "later" phase.

 

To view official report click here.

 

 

Excavations at Vacone 2015

From excavations conducted this season, we can say with confidence that the villa overlies a terrace probably constructed as a basis villae sometime around 100 BCE. Further excavation in a sloping passageway linking the residential level to the lower cryptoporticus revealed a side passage into a small round chamber. A constructed opening in the floor of one of the villa’s front rooms opens into this chamber, possibly a refuse dump. Masonry discovered below floor level in several parts of the villa, including another vaulted underground chamber, suggest extensive subterranean construction with more to be investigated in the future.

Excavations also revealed many rooms with multiple building phases, exposed by intrusive early-modern trenches dug through floors. We found a wall separating a Republican scutulatum pavement from a cobble floor, the strongest piece of a growing body of evidence that the earlier villa had a substantially different layout from the later, imperial villa. We have also gained more information regarding the later usage of the site; we located at least three separate cocciopesto or opus spicatum floors that were laid over earlier, imperial-phase mosaics. In conjunction with the apparently incomplete repairs found in three other mosaic floors, these floors suggest a final phase of activity within the house where decoration was no longer a priority.

Work in the area of the olive pressing facility revealed that the zone was built over, perhaps to convert it to the production of wine. A later cocciopesto treading floor emptying into a settling tank was found nearby substantial remains of a dolium. This change in productive capabilities represents an important economic shift for the villa estate.

With an assemblage of over 12,000 ceramic sherds and 80 small finds, we can confidently discuss the site’s chronology. The pottery dates from the first century BCE through the end of the second century CE, though most of the assemblage dates to the final century of this period. Coins, now seven in total, date between Vespasian and Antoninus Pius except for a single Republican as. Taken together, the finds suggest that the villa was abandoned sometime around 200 CE.

Outside of Vacone, in the Upper Sabina Tiberina, the team also conducted geophysical work (magnetometry) at several known and previously unknown Roman sites. From the plans produced from the survey, and observation of finds from the ground, we suspect that most of these sites are villa locations.

Excavations at Vacone 2016

The Upper Sabina Tiberina Project’s fifth season of excavation at the Roman villa in Vacone, Italy exposed two important new parts of the villa, a central peristyle and a second cryptoporticus, and provided new evidence for phasing and changes to agricultural production over the life of the villa.

Excavation on the main terrace revealed the stylobate and the northern corner column of a peristyle. The black and white mosaic pattern that decorated the covered floor of the peristyle, along with its ancient repair in larger red tesserae, was found on three sides of the peristyle. This mosaic and the mortar from the attachment of missing columns along the stylobate allow us to confidently restore a 14.4 m square peristyle with five columns along each side, enclosing an 8 m square courtyard. The peristyle now links rooms excavated at the front and back of the site, improving our understanding of the villa’s overall layout and plan.

Furthermore, investigation of the northeastern limit of the lower cryptoporticus revealed the existence of a second cryptoporticus that had been previously obscured by stone collapse. The new cryptoporticus measures 21.6 x 3.5 m,  and joins with the other cryptoporticus to form an L-shaped cave type of basis villae, confirming our belief that the terrace on which the villa stands was an artificial construction. The far end of this new cryptoporticus ends in an arched doorway exiting towards the villa’s productive area. Excavation inside this damaged structure was deemed unsafe, thus we proceeded to fully document it through photogrammetric modeling.

The completed excavation of several reception rooms within the domestic area yielded substantial painted plaster collapse, now under study. A coin of Commodus dating to 184 CE, the latest coin on the site, was found on the mosaic floor under this collapse, supporting the ceramic data in demonstrating that the villa was inhabited until the end of the second century CE.

Continued excavation in the productive zone of the villa revealed a large wine production area. A pressing floor was built over the olive oil press in a second imperial phase, indicating a change in productive strategies by the villa’s occupants. The floor emptied into a vat with a capacity of about 900 liters.

Lastly, we made advances in site recording techniques through the implementation of photogrammetric ortho-rectified photos and 3D modeling of all excavation trenches and some of the standing remains.

Excavations at Vacone 2017

A major task for the season was the removal of a modern road that overlaid a significant section of the northern area of the villa. Following its removal, we were able to investigate the northern end of the eastern cryptoporticus. Above the cryptoporticus we discovered a well-preserved portico with in-situ wall paintings and mosaics. The mosaic is identical to the mosaic above the southern cryptoporticus, suggesting that the two cryptoportici formed an L-shaped portico along the eastern and southern sides of the villa. Further excavations in the newly cleared area also revealed evidence for the post-Roman life of the site, including a large kiln and a well-preserved burial.

Excavations inside the central peristyle located two in-situ column bases on the stylobate, along with a drain channel positioned to catch rainwater in the courtyard. A well-preserved column collapse showed that the columns were constructed out of wedge-shaped limestone blocks that were then covered over in fluted stucco.

We also continued excavation of a large reception room facing onto the southern cryptoporticus, which is now understood to measure roughly 13 x 8 m, with a black-ground mosaic with inset marble and stone fragments. The size of this room clearly posed structural problems, as a later wall was constructed through the middle of the room to better distribute the weight of the roof. A large mosaic threshold composed of a geometric band of diamonds and hexagons with floral motifs was preserved on the northern edge of this room; we currently hypothesize that this opens onto the as-of-yet discovered atrium.

Excavation in the southern substructures of the villa clarified the relationship of an underground passageway with the southern cryptoporticus and the main villa terrace, and also verified the existence of a well. Work inside the southern cryptoporticus revealed the floor and foundation levels of the structure, as well as its relationship to a series of vaulted rooms abutting the cryptoporticus. Passage between the cryptoporticus and the vaulted rooms was possible in the first instance, but was later blocked.

While excavating these features in the villa, we completed a full photogrammetric survey of the main terrace and standing features, allowing for both 3D modelling and orthophoto planning of the entire site.

 

For a more images of the site and the project, "like" our Facebook page "Villa Romana di Vacone."