Rome revisits archaeology

June 26, 1998

Italian universities and the foreign academies in Rome, including the British School, are key elements of a five-year programme of archaeological exploration in the city that its supporters hope will be free of the bureaucracy which has bedevilled earlier initiatives.

Italian culture minister Walter Veltroni described the alliance as "a new Renaissance for Rome". It would also involve Italian archaeological authorities.

Mr Veltroni said he wants an independent archaeological "super authority", similar to that which already exists for the Pompeii area, to streamline decision-making, . Rome would thus become a single "archaeological park".

The authority would direct work carried out by Italian and foreign archaeologists, and outrank both the state and the municipal archaeological apparatus.

"Rome will have a more advanced instrument to manage its archaeological heritage, overcoming the institutional contrasts of the past," Mr Veltroni said.

His ministry has already earmarked 400 billion lire (Pounds 140 million) for work on Rome's heritage, much of which will be channelled to archaeology.

The project comes in the wake of several important archaeological finds, probably from the time of the Emperor Nero, which have drawn attention to the enormous wealth of material still to be unearthed under the Eternal City.

In March, archaeologists working in the Baths of Trajan, near the Coliseum, discovered a magnificent fresco depicting an ancient city, possibly Nimes or Carthage. A few weeks later, another important painting and a splendid mural mosaic also came to light.

In all these discoveries, archaeologists practically stumbled on the relics in the course of routine work. The Veltroni programme aims at systematic research over the areas of the Domus Aurea, where Nero built his vast villa overlooking the Coliseum, the Baths of Trajan and Titus, near the Coliseum, as well as in the nearby Circus Maximus.

Eugenio La Rocca, archaeological superintendent of Rome's municipal administration, said he felt certain there are many more important paintings to be discovered. "We plan completely to excavate and restore the whole area of the Baths of Trajan and Titus," he said.

According to Andrew Wallace-Hadril, director of the British School in Rome who is an historian/archaeologist and professor at Reading University, "the recent discoveries are certainly of great importance, and we are very keen to be involved in the project.

"We are already discussing plans with the Rome archaeological authorities. Our experience in past projects shows that it profits everyone if a number of teams of different nationalities work together. You get lots of cross-fertilisation, the various teams learn from each other."

The British School traditionally acts as initiator and co-ordinator in bringing British archaeologists to work in Italy. Its director is usually an archaeologist.

There are British archaeological projects under way in Pompeii and in the Tiber valley north of Rome, once inhabited by the Etruscans. "This new project is tremendously exciting," said Professor Wallace-Hadril. "Anything that comes up in Rome is magnified in importance simply because it is in Rome."

His enthusiasm was echoed by Michael Heinzelman, deputy director of the Deutsch Archaeologisch Institut.

"The work on Rome's underground railway has proved that virtually anywhere you dig, interesting material can be found. This should be doubly true in the area around the Coliseum.

"We are already collaborating with the Rome archaeological authorities and are working on projects in the Coliseum and the Palatine Hill. We would be very eager to take part in this new programme," he said.

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