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Ostia-Forum-Project (OFP) and its activities in the centre of Ostia

Author:
Daniel Martin Beurze Damgaard
Ostia was excavated on a large scale until 1941, but many areas were never scientifically documented until today. Pavements were rarely recorded, even though there are relatively adequate plans of walls. Detailed plans exist only regarding high value floors such as figured mosaics – not ordinary floors such as simple mosaics, mortar beddings, travertine and even marble pavements. The situation is even worse regarding plazas, with prominent examples as the Forum and the surrounding areas, which were never documented in detailed plans showing individual pavement slabs and the various traces of use and reuse (fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Fig. 1

The main aim in a city like Ostia, which had a very problematic excavation-history – especially due to the large-scale excavations from 1938 until 1941, which did not record much stratigraphic information –, is to do maximal detailed recording with minimal invasive excavation-work.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Thus, we started – from the first project in 2002 – with the idea to clean the micro-stratigraphy inside and underneath the modern vegetation layers with maximum care. This has allowed us to gain a similar situation as it appeared to previous excavators. This had to be done in order to do the documentation, which was not done in detail in the early 19th century and until the mid-20th century. After removing the recent vegetation and touristic occupation layers, we found apartly uneven antique surface, which was a product of centuries of robbing activities and the almost pre-scientific excavation methods used in the 1930’s. Fortunately, in some areas we can rely on the excellent plans of Italo Gismondi executed before 1938 and the diaries of Raffaele Finelli up until 1924.

Ostia, and especially its centre, is a very attractive touristic site. The negative side effect of this ‘attractivity’ is a largely uncontrolled flow of visitors, who walk directly on top of previously unrecorded antique surfaces. Considering the irreversible erosion by weather and mass-tourism, it can be defined as an active help for conservation to record the status quo of all exposed antique surfaces with the highest technical standard available today (Fig. 2 and 3).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Thus, we have created, in point-form, some sub-aims supporting the overall aim of the Ostia-Forum-Project:

i) Archaeological surface cleaning. Our first aim is to do large-scale surface cleaning to detect, where previously unrecorded pavements have survived. As aside effect, we have been able to trace and localise former undocumented excavation-activities and define their extents. In the vegetation-layer, we have found a surprisingly rich stratigraphy from post-antique occupation layers to Middle Age robbing-pits and further on to early scientific excavation-activities from the 19th century ending with recent tourist-trample and rubbish-dumps.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

ii) Geophysical analysis. Our second aim is to do large-scale geophysical analyses from 20 cm depth until 160 cm depth to find out where substantial remains of buildings can be detected and where areas of refill and previously undocumented excavations were situated (fig. 4).

iii) Documentation of all antique surfaces. Based on surface cleaning, we try to document all surface-evidence of surviving late antique stratigraphy and pavements.

iv) Strategic stratigraphic sondages. Based on geophysical analyses, our aim is to plan strategic fundamental sondages. By defining the limits of the previously undocumented excavation-work until the 1950’s with the help from old photographs, diaries, and the geophysical plans, it is possible to do minimal invasive excavation-work. Trenches deeper than 30 cm have been executed in previously excavated refill areas, with the purpose of cleaning and draw profiles of the status quo of the excavations from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

v) New documentation-methods. New methods have been developed to document previously unrecorded large-scale surfaces of plazas and buildings. Firstly, this regards the two-dimensional photo-mosaics with highest resolution digital photography. Secondly, three-dimensional recording methods have been used. That is 3-D laser scanning with colour-information and 3-D-ortophotography with the aim to get point clouds of different resolution for wall-painting, graffiti, and minimal surface-traces on one hand, and large-scale brick-walls on the other hand. In order to document large areas in limited time, we have developed a complete digital recording-system based on aerial photography with quadro- and octo-copters and supplementary high-resolution photography from the ground (fig. 5).

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

vi) Grid system and coordinates. In order to put these 3-D-models into a broader framework, a basic grid has had to be established for the entire centre of the city. Because of the dominant orientation of all standing walls along the Decumanus, our grid system does not rely on the magnetic north, but on site-north, which is defined by the northern Cardo behind the Capitolium. This grid will be geo-referenciated with world-coordinates (fig. 6).

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

vii) 3-D reconstructions. Based on the point clouds and all available stratigraphic information, the final aim of the project is to create 3-D-reconstructions of all building phases of the city centre from the 3rd century BC to the 6th century AD. In comparison with existing 3-D-models, we aim to develop a more precise differentiation between the original antique remains, modern conservation efforts and actual damage by erosion, and the hypothetical full reconstruction of its supposed antique shape (fig. 7 and 8).

Fig. 7

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 8

Due to the Stiftung Humboldt-Universität (SHU) and based on a very substantial private donation in 2015/16, the Ostia-Forum-Project (OFP) has been given the chance to develop a 6-year-plan of excavation-, documentation- and publication-efforts until 2022. This involves two new stipendia – one for a Ph.D.- and another for a habilitation-project – and a new ‘Stiftungs-professorship’ along a budget for material, equipment and short-term-jobs (German: ‘Werkverträge’). This will set the framework for the continuous and extended efforts on several aspects of the project’s evolution.

OFP has seven major project-areas, which seek to investigate and analyse the city centre of Ostia, with the aim of creating the aforementioned 3-D-reconstructions of all phases of the centre in a period of almost 1000 years from the 3rd century BC to the 6th century AD. These project-areas consist of topics such as the reconstruction of the pediment of the Roma and Augustus temple, to the reuse, re-erection and collection of statues on the Forum in Late Antiquity and to fine-dating of spolia buildings by coin-evidence (Plans for the future & new cooperations).

A short overview of what has been done by Ostia-Forum-Project and its predecessors: The late antique period of the city centre

Foro della Statua Eroica
One of the first areas, which was cleaned, partly excavated and intensively analysed was the Foro della Statua Eroica (FSE, fig. 9) in 2008-2009. The plaza is located east of the Forum on the other side of Caseggiato dei Triclini. The latest function of the plaza was most likely to serve as a macellum – a so-called meat market – in Late Antiquity. It was erected in the middle of the 4th century AD on top of a Hadrianic bath-complex.

Fig. 9

Fig. 9

There are detected several renovation-phases of the area in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. There have been some speculations that the so-called ‘macellum-reparatum-inscription’, mentioning Aurelius Symmachus, a Prefect of the Annona and Prefect of the city of Rome, to have renovated a macellum in Ostia in the years of 418-420 AD, could refer to this plaza.

The Forum porticoes, MFPand MFW, and the three rooms, MFR (fig. 10)

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

In 2010 and onwards, the focus has been on the Forum’s areas. The first area of interest was the portico located to the southeast (MFP), which was excavated between 2010 and 2012. The area was cleaned, thus exposing the mortar-bedding and marble-pavement. In 2010 and 2011, the apse was excavated and analysed in the attempt to detect its dating and foundation-layers, which enables us to insert it into the portico-context and ultimately the Forum’s context. Furthermore, the Via della Forica (VDF) was also cleaned and analysed, hence connecting the activities from the earlier years at FSE to the Forum’s area. This was done to trace the street VDF and its late antique function between the two plazas, FSE and the Forum.

On the opposite side of MFP north of the Decumanus, the three rooms, MFR, are located. They originate from the large-scale Hadrianic renovation of the northern part of the Forum’s area in AD 120. Several late antique phases were documented in the rooms.

After the three rooms had been excavated and cleaned, it became clear that the rooms were quite important in the late antique cityscape of Ostia. The rooms were adorned with the most precious marbles, such as porphyry, and three statue-bases were unearthed. The central room housed the meeting hall, with the two rooms on either side functioning as display rooms for statues – one in the southern room (S2) and two statues in the northern (S3) (fig. 11).

Fig. 11

Fig. 11

In 2011, the activities moved to the northwest portico, MFW, opposite MFR on the other side of the Capitolium. The portico MFW was also part of the large-scale Hadrianic renovation of the northern Forum’s area. Our excavations uncovered the early Medieval and late antique periods of the portico along with few remains of an opus reticulam wall – most likely stemming from a building before AD 120 (fig. 12).

Fig. 12

Fig. 12

Along the back-wall of the portico, traces of late antique statue bases were discovered here as well, thus indicating that the Forum of Ostia, even in late antique times, was adorned with statues. This is also supported by an inscription from the end of the 4th century AD mentioning the Prefect, Attius Clementinus, to have ordered the moving of statues from a squalid location in Ostia, and placing them in the Forum with the intention of adorning the plaza.

Thus, what we have here, in Late Antiquity, is a kind of representative area of the Forum positioned on either side of the Capitolium. The Capitolium itself was also renovated and maintained throughout Late Antiquity, which is evidenced by its preservation compared to the Roma and Augustus temple in the south end of the Forum, but also by spolia in the fundament. A 2nd century AD inscription has been reused as a support in the fundament-walls of the cella (fig. 13).

Fig. 13

Fig. 13

A turning point of focus
A turning point in our focus occurred in 2013, when we were excavating the southwestern portico, MFD, in the attempt to gain a complete overview of the Forum’s area in Late Antiquity. The portico MFD is located just west of the Roma and Augustus temple in the south part of the Forum. Here we found a high density of late antique coins along a lot of marble cut-offs, thus indicating that this area could have functioned as a workshop in Late Antiquity, where bigger marble pieces were reworked or made into smaller pieces fitting lime-kilns. These observations led us to search for marble-piles in the immediate surroundings of the portico MFD in the attempt to trace a possible source for the marble cut-offs. In 2014, a marble-pile located west of the Ninfeo delle Venere and just south of MFD on the other side of Via del Tempio Rotondo was intensively analysed and excavated (fig. 14).

Fig. 14

Fig. 14

This pile, TDV, could have been the main source of marbles for the workshop on the other side of the street. In the marble-pile, marble fragments originating from the Roma and Augustus temple, the Forum’s basilica and the Tempio Rotondo were unearthed. These utmost interesting finds enabled us to reconstruct the pediment of the Roma and Augustus temple (From late antique reuse to early Imperial pediment sculptures). Hence, eventually our focus changed to the many marble-piles situated in and around the Forum’s area, due to the fact that many of these piles have never been intensively excavated and analysed, and a complete overview of the content of these piles do not exist. Thus, there is a great potential in these piles, and it is therefore possible to analyse the architectural layout of the many marble-buildings in the centre of Ostia based on the stylistic dating of the different architectural marble-elements in the piles. Another interesting aim of this focus is to determine if the different marble-piles are modern (19th-20th century) or ancient (Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages). In that way, it also becomes possible to create the life-history of the different marble-buildings in the centre of Ostia.

In 2015, marble-piles located at the fundament of the Tempio Rotondo (DTR), in the courtyard of the Domus del Tempio Rotondo (DTD), deposits along the Via del Forica(NDF 2) and inside the Caseggiato dei Triclini (CDT 2) were excavated and intensively analysed. This involved the complete sorting of all marbles into architectural categories and subdivided into the different eras (fig. 15 and 16).

Fig. 15

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

Fig. 16

In 2016, the hitherto largest marble-pile detected by OFP was excavated and analysed (fig. 17). It is located just behind the back-wall of the northeastern portico, MFE, and just south of the three rooms MFR. The pile was named TFR 2. The finds from that deposit are still being processed and analysed, but the preliminary results suggest that this pile has an ancient origin, but a very complex life-history. Finds from the early 19th century were deposited on top of the pile after their discovery somewhere in and around the northern Forum’s area. Hence, we had a stratigraphy consisting of finds from the Forum’s area placed on top of the pile in the early 19th century, and in the lower parts of the deposits, the stratigraphy changed and may consist of antique deposit-remains.

Fig. 17

Fig. 17

For now, no results can be provided about its further content and function. However, one observation can be revealed: The deposit and the room, within which the deposit is located, have roughly a 1000-year history, thus very representative for the history of Ostia. The continuous analyses will be published on the project’s website, ostiaforumproject.com. So, be sure to follow up regularly, when we pursue the history and development of the Ostian Forum and the centre of the city from its foundation to the latest phases of Late Antiquity.

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Website: www.ostiaforumproject.com

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