American Institute for Roman Culture Excavations at Villa delle Vignacce
The roots of the Eternal City, which just celebrated its 2,762nd birthday, go deep and are still being unearthed.
The Villa delle Vignacce archaeological excavation project, made up of a multi-disciplinary collaboration team of specialists: archaeologists, conservator-restorers, architects, engineers, and scientists is authorized by the sovrintendente ai Beni culturali del Comune di Roma.
The American Institute for Roman Culture wishes to thank the Sovraintendenza Comunale di Roma, Umberto Broccoli and his staff, Dott.ssa Paola Virgili, Dott.ssa Greta Mancioli, and Dott.ssa Nadia Agnoli for their guidance and supervision of this important research project.
The Villa delle Vignacce project is solely funded by the AIRC and its sponsors and donors. The AIRC owes a great debt of gratitude to the first private sponsor of the project, who wishes to remain anonymous, the American Express Foundation for their support of the project in 2006 and 2007, and the contributions in time, labor and much needed financing of the Institute’s contributors and project volunteers.
The Villa delle Vignacce complex, built in the second century AD, was the property of Quintus Servilius Pudens, a friend of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The villa is located in a park famed for the well-preserved aqueduct channels that stretch for miles along the Via Appia Antica and was first explored by archaeologists in 1780.
These investigations yielded statues that are now in the Vatican Museums, yet no drawings or documentation were made of the remains. It is only now that this ancient Roman villa and surrounding area in the middle of a suburban park is being properly excavated, documented and preserved.
The American Institute for Roman Culture began excavations at the site in 2006, and work to date has unearthed the ground floor of the villa, nearly four meters beneath the modern level of the park grounds, as well as parts of subterranean floor space below ground level. Discoveries include a lavish bath complex with beautifully preserved mosaic floors, marble columns and capitals, marble veneer, marble-lined fountains, intact ancient heating system, rare second century AD glass-paste mosaics in the original vaulting and staturary. Each of these rare treasures attests to the site’s singular importance as a vehicle for studying and preserving an example of Roman architecture and culture.
At present, the Institute is examining the secondary subterranean spaces, including drainage systems and corridors for activities performed by slaves—an area of the grounds that covers at least five acres. Future explorations will reconcile the relationship between the newly discovered bath complex and the previously known bathing facilities of the sprawling villa complex, unearth the other sections of the villa (including a huge garden area), and relate the history of the villa to what is known about Rome’s suburbium
The Institute views the Villa delle Vignacce site as a laboratory for sustainable design, with a mission to analyze, excavate, and reduce deterioration of the site, create new conservation initiatives, and document and archive the findings for future research and immediate educational purposes, for both the academic and public communities. In addition, the project creates a unique hands-on learning opportunity for students and academics from around the world for conservation efforts dedicated to preserving and protecting this precious site.
Interested in three-dimensional survey methods as an advanced means of documenting at risk cultural heritage sites, the AIRC requisitioned a scan of the area excavated between 2006-2008 using advanced laser technology. This exciting imagery, some of which readers can find on this page.
Using advanced laser technology Professor Gabriele Guidi, Department of Reverse Engineering, Politecnico di Milano and a leader in the application of 3D scanning technology to cultural heritage, helped the AIRC create a laser enhanced plan of the bathing complex “virtualizing” the research conduced year to date. The findings of this scan and the model created were presented at the CAA conference last fall in Williamsburg, VA. An e-Publication will follow shortly.
SEASON ONE, SUMMER 2006:
The results of the first season were both impressive and unexpected. Excavations near the standing remains of the so-called bath complex of the Hadrianic structure unearthed the ground floor of the villa, nearly four meters beneath the modern street-level, as well as parts of a subterranean floor-level beneath it in two main trenches. Finds included a beautifully preserved bath complex, with mosaic floors, marble panels on the walls, intact ancient heating system, and rare second century AD glass-paste mosaics in the original vaulting, which had collapsed onto the marble floor.
SEASON TWO, SUMMER 2007:
The season was very impressive, as we proceeded to unify the two main trenches from season one. In the debris from the rooms, we turned up a well-preserved Hadrianic column, several large fragments of marble columns, and some fragments of statuary and statue bases. The rooms themselves are extremely well preserved, with several phases of mosaic floors. The dating of the structures is difficult, as the stratigraphy is not very well preserved; the villa in this area was heavily mined for decorative and building material in the medieval period.
However, it has been possible to ascertain through our continued work in the Fall 2007 a first phase (second century AD), when the rooms were not used for a bath complex. They were subsequently converted for use as a bath complex in the second century. Finally, the third main phase (possibly third century) saw the abandonment of the northern rooms as a bathing facility, when the bathing activity was shifted to the rooms in the south, where the caldarium proved to be very well-preserved.
SEASON TWO, FALL 2007:
This brief season (September-November), with Institute staff, collaborating archaeologists, and one workman, entailed final documentation of the excavation from the summer, as well as continued exploration of the site to answer certain unresolved questions. This led to the discovery that the initial phase of the structures date back to the first century AD. The main areas were not initially part of the bath complex; they were converted into baths in the second century. They were then transformed into spaces for other uses, including a large latrine, in the third phase, and the baths were shifted to the west, where we uncovered the marble-inlaid rooms of the caldarium. In addition, we uncovered part of a very large fountain, inlaid with white marble arranged in an opus spicatum (herring-bone) pattern.
SEASON THREE, SUMMER 2008:
This continued to explore the areas uncovered in summer 2007 and fall 2007. In order to uncover the praefurnia (furnace rooms) that heated some of the hot rooms and to determine the size of the bath complex we extended Trench At to the south and east. During the course of the excavations, we discovered another intact, circular caldarium (caldarium 2). In addition to the second caldarium, we uncovered evidence of more praefurnia. The previously identified fountain was totally uncovered. Instead of a fountain, it most likely was a cold plunge bath with more marble opus spicatum floor. In the drain of the plunge pool, a small cache of coins emerged. Nonetheless, dating structures continues to be problematic as spoliation of the complex began soon after its abandonment in the sixth century. A.D. Fragments of marble indicate that the hot rooms were lavishly decorated.
To the east of Trench A we also found outlines of more apsidal rooms that remain unexcavated.
In the area of Trench B we extended the trench to the north and east. To the north we found part of what was, in its last phase, a large hall that may have connected this area to the extant remains still further to the north. Again, the stratrigraphy was not well preserved because of rebuilding late in the life of the villa. However cuts in the fourth century floor (?) allowed us to excavate below the floors through the fill debris left by the builders. In the debris we discovered a head of a god (either Aesculapius or Zeus Sarapis), a Roman copy in fine Greek marble that dates to the Hadrianic period, a fine, white marble pilaster capital, fragments from other statues. Because of the cuts, we were able to excavate down to tufa bedrock where we found a drain that intersected with part of the hypogaeum found during the 2007 season. This part of the complex does not appear to have been heated at any period.
On the east side of Trench B, we uncovered part of a corridor (n-s) that was later closed off. The walls of the corridor were covered in yellow and bright read frescoes, which had ancient graffiti incised on the walls. Small white tesserae mosaic floor was still in situ, except where it was cut for a later drain that joins a large one found in the 2007 excavations. The drain runs along one of the earlier walls of the complex in this area.
SEASON FOUR, SUMMER 2009:
In season 4 the Institute enjoyed its most successful season ever. Successful, for the devotion and drive of the students, who were really enthusiastic about all of the new details gleaned from the excavation. Successful, for the further discovery of impressive statuary and marble veneer decoration left behind by looters at the end of the long life of the bath complex. Last year's stunning Aesculapius/Zeus Serapis head was followed this year by an almost perfectly preserved red marble Marsyas statue. Measuring almost 1.5 meters (missing feet, base) from ankles to raised arms, the statue was found resting on mosaic pavement still attached to a massive marble tree brace, essential to the myth of Marsyas' punishment by Apollo. There is more evidence for the extensive bath complex, to the south (where exploration started in seasons 2006-2008), and now to the north, we began exploring around the series of standing structures, always visible in the park. It was here that we found the rich deposit of marble decoration and statuary.