Prized rubble of emperors and sultans

July 20, 2001

One of the world's most important Roman sites is in danger of succumbing to years of neglect. Sylvia Smith reports on the project to save Volubilis and excavate its Islamic successor

Spectacularly sited on a foothill overlooking a broad plain, Volubilis is Morocco's most important and popular archaeological site, but its very attractiveness and popularity are the causes of its slow decline. The Roman city of Volubilis, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1997, is suffering from years of neglect and gradually succumbing to the elements.

The tide of 100,000 visitors who flock to the sun-bleached plain each year to marvel at the Roman remains are partly responsible for some damage. Virtually unsupervised hordes of local and foreign tourists trample over the fine mosaics that were laid for the wealthy owners of the city's spacious villas.

But now a five-year plan is under way to conserve the site, manage visitors and excavate the almost unknown Islamic settlement that lies at the foot of the Roman remains.

Scottish architect John McAslan spotted the potential for further work at Volubilis after a 1998 visit. He realised that excavations since the early part of the century had cleared only about a third of the site. No attention had been paid to the periods before and after the imperial city. Moreover, until he set up the Volubilis project, little had been done to conserve the site itself or some of the precious objects found there.

Partly funded by University College London and the British Museum and partly by private contributions, the three-point project skilfully blends strong academic interest in early Islamic settlements, the need for adequate site protection (which involves building Volubilis's first visitor centre) and Morocco's quest to unearth more of its own heritage. The fieldwork is led by US archaeologist Lisa Fentress, Gaetano Palumbo, senior lecturer in archaeology at UCL, and Hassan Limane, director of Museums in Morocco and teacher at the Institute of Archaeology of Rabat.

The research element will allow visitors to get a thorough understanding of the Islamic town that came into being in the 8th century with the arrival of Moulay Idriss, founder of Morocco's first Arab dynasty. In a sense, he refounded Volubilis because some inhabitants had continued to live there after the departure of the Romans. Although he was not the first Muslim to get to the city, he was the first to be readily accepted as ruler without a fight and is certainly the most celebrated.

Fentress, the leading Berber expert involved in the project, says the prospect of exploring the city's second reincarnation is exciting since such sites are extremely rare in north Africa - most have been heavily built over. She anticipates that the excavations will reveal how the city gradually became Islamicised. "I think what we'll find here are houses of an early Islamic classical style. I want to see how and when the changes take place with the arrival of Moulay Idriss. There are a lot of questions and I hope that this site will provide some clues if not direct answers," she says.

The questions that the team hope will be answered range from when pigs, which were part of the Roman diet, were replaced by sheep, to how and when the population converted to Islam.

The Islamic site is covered with 14 hectares of unformed medieval village. It is hardly surprising therefore that the Roman city, which left striking and important public and private buildings, including a forum, a 2nd-century AD basilica and the Arch of Triumph of Caracalla, has eclipsed its Islamic successor. Annexed to Rome about AD44, Volubilis became the main inland seat of provincial government of Tingitane Mauritania.

Probably constructed on what was originally a Carthaginian city dating from the 3rd century BC, Volubilis was a central administrative city for this part of Roman Africa, responsible for producing grain. It was also the major contact point with the Berber tribes that Rome never managed to suppress but cooperated with for their mutual benefit.

Unlike many other Roman cities, Volubilis was not abandoned after the empire lost its foothold. Even Latin was not replaced until the Arabs conquered north Africa in the late 7th century. When the army and administration of Rome left, life went on. There are inscriptions as late as the end of the 6th century still in Latin and dated by the provincial year.

But with the departure of the Romans, technical skill drained away and the aqueduct fell into disrepair. This, Fentress believes, led to the town shifting downhill. "To provide all-year-round running water, the centre of the settlement moved down towards the bottom of the hill where there is a stream. And the original walled town of 50 hectares got reduced to about a third of its size and was fortified."

Archaeologist Omar Karas was the first person to identify the medieval town. He says: "It is really important to know what was going on here. We're using magnetometry to learn about wall lines. We already know where the main street lies, but not much beyond. The whole structure of this town is fascinating. We expect to find a mosque but we don't know where."

One of the most pressing problems for conservationists is the status of Volubilis's wealth of excellent mosaics. The most remarkable are found in three houses. They are complex, well designed and can be amusing (one, for example, shows a flock of ducks and geese pulling a chariot in a race).

Although some of the most exceptional finds, including bronze heads discovered in the mansions, have been moved to the National Archaeological Museum near the Royal Palace in the capital Rabat, there are no plans to move the mosaics. They will remain one of the chief points of interest at Volubilis and are being closely examined.

As the mosaics are made from different types of stone, glass tesserae and pottery laid over a variety of cement and mortar, conserving them is not a simple task. Palumbo, who teaches the masters course in managing archaeological sites at UCL and who is in charge of conservation, says: "Many are overgrown with plants, lichen and moss. They are exposed to the elements. There is also a problem of slippage as the whole upper area is unstable. The houses are not resting on bedrock but are standing on a loose soil base."

The mosaics are being painstakingly checked to classify the sort of wear and tear they have suffered. Palumbo says: "We don't yet know whether we will need to build shelters over the mosaics. But we will take whatever action is considered appropriate once the assessment has been carried out." Four of his students are writing their masters' dissertations on the threat to Volubilis and the possibilities of improving conservation.

Moroccan archaeologists involved in the project feel that the city will gain new fans if a visitor site is built, where information is readily available and objects found at the site are on display. "The local community has to be involved," says Yussef Bokbot, the site manager. "They need to realise the potential of the site."

The project also involves training for three young Moroccan archaeologists. While the academic element of their studies will take place at UCL, the practical side of the course will be based at Volubilis.


Volubilis through the ages

Volubilis is thought to have been built on a Carthaginian city dating from the 3rd century BC. It was taken over by the Romans when Caligula annexed Mauritania in AD44 and became the administrative seat for the province of Tingitane Mauritania.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries its importance grew, due mainly to its exports of oil, wheat and wild animals. Its population at the time is estimated at 20,000.

But by the end of the 3rd century, Berber attacks had precipitated Volubilis's decline. Berber tribes occupied the city until the 8th century, when the Arabs conquered it and it briefly became a capital city.

Volubilis remained populated until the 18th century, but many of its columns and marble plaques were recycled and used to construct the city of Meknes, 4km away. An earthquake in 1755 razed the last remaining buildings.

Initial archeological investigations took place in the late 19th century. And in 1997, Unesco named it a World Heritage Site.

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