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Mosaics, terracotta sarcophagi, small funerary monuments, and even the remains of a horse’s head – these are some of the discoveries made at the conclusion of the third excavation campaign at site 39 of the Ancient Appian Way. The campaign was led by the University of Ferrara under the scientific direction of Professor Rachele Dubbini, assisted by students from across Europe and colleagues from Unife.
The excavation site covered an area a few hundred metres outside the Aurelian Walls, never previously investigated for research purposes despite its significant historical and cultural importance. The space where the Appian Way crosses the Almone Valley represented the boundary of the city of Rome, and its critical and transitional character is reflected in its religious significance, from the nymph Egeria to the sanctuary of Mars Gradivus, to the meeting of St. Peter with Christ.
“The third excavation campaign,” says Rachele Dubbini, “allowed us to achieve two important objectives of the archaeological project: complete knowledge of a couple of funerary monuments, which we completely emptied of backfill to reach their floors, and the formation of a true community of heritage.”
In addition to the significant findings, the first activity provided insight into the depth of the floor levels of these structures. This information is crucial for planning future excavation campaigns, informing us about the maximum depth we can reach and the main life phases of the funerary complex, from ancient to high medieval times.
The second achieved objective is the establishment of a cultural heritage community, following the principles of the “Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society,” around the archaeological site, both on-site and online. “A fundamental change in perspective, which several archaeological projects in Italy are beginning to adopt,” admits Professor Dubbini, “but at 39 Ancient Appian Way, it is an integral part of the research project to identify new sustainable procedures – also from a social and economic perspective – that make archaeology a central activity for the development of Italian territories.”
“The archaeological investigation carried out in this second excavation campaign of 2023 never ceased to amaze us, both for the complexity of the site and the extraordinary discoveries,” began Director Fabio Turchetta. The excavation activities, always conducted with the valuable contribution of a large group of students from Italian and European universities, focused on the eastern portion of the trench, the area farthest from the path of the Ancient Appian Way.
“From an anthropological perspective, the third excavation campaign revealed unexpected surprises,” says Jessica Mongillo, physical anthropologist at the University of Ferrara. The extraordinary variety of burials confirmed the funerary nature of the site, revealing an intricate system of depositions of different types, responding to symbolic patterns and funerary customs of different eras. A place destined for death but full of life, the same life that will be reconstructed from the bones, analysis after analysis, in specialized laboratories.
“The number of artifact boxes collected in the investigations at number 39 now stands at 245!” explains Francesca Romana Fiano, responsible for artifact processing. “Among these, the majority (74%) belongs to Roman ceramics, including fine tableware and kitchen products, covering a chronological range from the early imperial age to the threshold of the Middle Ages. Two-thirds of the total are transport amphorae, bulky objects whose massive presence is to be understood as material reused in the obliteration activities of funerary buildings. Construction materials follow, providing about 1500 fragments, already screened to select architectural moldings made from this material to reconstruct – starting from the elements in situ – the architecture of doors and facades of funerary buildings characterized by refined craftsmanship.”
“As we conclude the third campaign, we feel that we have built a relationship with the local community and citizens, who now perceive our excavation at 39 Ancient Appian Way as an open, accessible, and stimulating place to visit at least once but to return to often,” says Chiara Maria Marchetti, archaeologist, licensed tour guide, and responsible for cultural events. “The goal of creating a bridge between scientific research and the general public remains the constant commitment of all our initiatives,” Marchetti continues, “and each of them is designed to convey and explain scientific themes in a clear and understandable manner, engaging as wide and diverse an audience as possible.”