Roman Settlement Near Tezze di Arzignano?

University of Kentucky
University of Kentucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the University of Kentucky:

Over the summer a team of faculty and students from University of Kentucky discovered evidence of not just one lost community, but two in northern Italy. Using their archaeological expertise and modern technology, the team collected data that indicates the existence of a Roman settlement and below that, a possible prehistoric site.

Many years ago, archaeologist and art historian Paolo Visonà, a native of northern Italy and adjunct associate professor of art history in the UK School of Art and Visual Studies at the UK College of Fine Arts, first learned of a possible ancient settlement from a farmer in Valbruna, near the village of Tezze di Arzignano. While working his family’s land, Battista Carlotto had discovered artifacts that looked to Visonà like ceramics, mosaic, and glass of the Roman Empire.

Curiosity of what lay beneath the farmland was piqued in both gentlemen. With the approval of Carlotto and with little time to waste due to growing development in the area, Visonà began to research historical accounts of the region. Manuscripts found in Vicenza’s Bertoliana Library confirmed Visonà’s suspicion; in the late 18th century witnesses had shared accounts of seeing a Roman city’s remains in the vicinity.

Not wanting to disrupt Carlotto’s working farm, Visonà had to find a way to find evidence of this community while not being invasive to the surroundings. That’s when the expertise of colleague George Crothers, an associate professor of anthropology in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, came to mind. “George had the background to do the type of research that fit the characteristics of this new site, which had never been previously investigated to the extent we wanted.”

“My involvement was to use geophysical techniques and geophysical instruments to find out what we could about architectural features at this site,” Crothers said. “It had not been excavated, the geophysical techniques is one way to look below ground without disturbing it.”

With Crothers’ guidance, the UK team used a magnetometer and ground penetrating radar. A magnetometer measures variations in the magnetic intensity of the soil and can detect objects and features buried in the ground. The ground penetrating radar induces radar waves in the ground and reads the reflection.

Working with two students, Donald Handshoe and Justin Carlson, the UK team analyzed the equipment’s readings to interpret their findings and create a map of what was below the surface.

First, the team confirmed what appeared to be evidence of a road and walls that indicated the presence of Roman buildings. According to the materials found on the surface and during farm work, the settlement could have existed more than 400 years from the first century B.C. to the third or fourth century A.D. The manuscript information indicated that it was very extensive.

“We had 500 years of information that was all scattered and never really put together or even looked at by scientists, which included some very detailed manuscript information by eyewitnesses who actually saw the Roman town on two different occasions when it was uncovered by flooding,” Visonà said.

But as they “dug deeper” into their findings, the instruments’ readings also revealed the presence of large circular features below the Roman site structures.

“The circular ones were a complete surprise — this was totally unexpected because first of all they were large,” Visonà said. “The radar told us those were much deeper than the structures with right angles, which had to be Roman. So we began to differentiate between them. Since the circular features preceded the Roman ones, they could only be prehistoric.”

Based on their research, Visonà suggests that these features could be evidence of huts of an indigenous prehistoric population. Their settlements could date from the Neolithic to the late Bronze Age. The name of the ancient Roman town may have been Dripsinum: ancient sources indicate that the Dripsinates, a sub-Alpine community, lived in this area of northern Italy.

In the future, the UK team hopes to return to do more research at the site. Currently, the UK group is working with the University of Venice Ca-Foscari, which is analyzing some of the materials found at the site.

Visonà and Crothers’ trip was sponsored by a research support grant from the UK Office of the Vice President for Research. The team’s stay was approved and supported by the city of Arzignano, Italy.

To hear Visonà and Crothers talk about their discovery, listen to the UK College of Arts and Sciences podcast “Unearthing Roman Secrets” at:

CJ Online Review: Kaiser, Roman Urban Street Networks

posted with permission:

Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared in CJ-Online last May. See the author’s note 1 for the differences between the two versions.

Roman Urban Street Networks: Streets and the Organization of Space in Four Cities. By Alan Kaiser. Routledge Studies in Archaeology, 2. New York and Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. Pp. xvii + 249. Hardcover, $125.00/£80.00. ISBN 978-0-415-88657-4.

Reviewed by Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, Brandeis University

The bulk of Kaiser’s book focuses on four well-known ancient cities, Pompeii, Ostia, Silchester, and Empúries, in order to provide an innovative consideration of their urban street networks.[[1]] While interest in Roman thoroughfares and traffic movements has been growing in recent years (see the work of Ray Laurence and David Newsome, Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space (Oxford, 2011)), Kaiser claims to have made the first analysis of Roman streets to combine archaeological and philological evidence (xv).

Kaiser’s quantitative methodology for assessing the organization of street space derives from the world of urban geography. Concepts such as “access analysis” and “space syntax” (see Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, The Social Logic of Space (Cambridge, 1984)), provide a way to study accessibility and connectivity across a Roman city. While Kaiser’s study largely confirms older suppositions about the organization of space and street networks, his data create a conversation among these four cities through the comparisons drawn between and among them that is the most valuable feature of the book.

The introduction and the first two chapters lay out the historiography and methodology for the rest of the book. Kevin Lynch’s five elements of an urban network—“paths,” nodes,” “edges,” “landmarks,” and “districts” (Kevin Lynch, Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass., 1960))—serve as the basis for Kaiser’s argument that the Romans came to understand their cities through “paths” (streets) leading from one type of urban environment to another.

Chapter 1, “Textual Evidence for Roman Perceptions of Streets and Plazas,” shows that the Latin names for urban thoroughfares were more culturally charged than today’s words for streets, such as alley and boulevard (45). Modern names of streets are based more on physical characteristics, whereas the Romans tended to divide streets into two types: main roads (via and platea) and side streets (angiportum and semita). The Romans used main streets for social displays and categorized them accordingly.

Kaiser applies precise numeric data to streets in his second chapter “Defining and Analyzing Street Networks in the Archaeological Record,” in order to help us distinguish more clearly the differences between “main streets” and “side streets.” The first index he uses for a street is its “depth” from outside the city in terms of how many other streets or squares one must pass through to move from the city’s edge to the street under consideration (53). A street leading directly from a city gate would have a depth of one. Depth from the forum is his second index, and this involves counting the number of streets away from the forum (54). The number of intersections a street shares with other streets serves as Kaiser’s third index for determining “how well a particular street integrates or segregates the streets of the city” (56). Finally, Kaiser’s fourth index undertakes, to the degree the archaeological evidence allows, to assess wheeled traffic on the street. In a somewhat complex methodology, he compares the number of private residences and commercial buildings along streets in order to hypothesize the distribution of different types of traffic throughout a given city. To give one example of how this data plays out in terms of how he argues that streets can knit cities together: at Pompeii we find that shops are disproportionately concentrated on streets with a lower depth from the city gates.

Each of the subsequent four chapters investigates a single city and puts Kaiser’s analysis to the test. Pompeii (Chapter 3) Ostia (Chapter 4), Silchester (Chapter 5), and Empúries (Chapter 6) all have a majority of their intramural area exposed through excavation. Kaiser proceeds formulaically as he outlines historical background, layout, and topography for each city; discusses the structure of the city’s streets; and then assesses how well we can identify uses of buildings along the streets from the archaeological record. The book includes extensive tables and plans that attempt to represent the various uses of urban spaces. An online supplement offers even more data for the interested reader:

The concluding Chapter 7, “Streets, Space, and Roman Urbanism,” argues that the example of Neapolis/Ciudad Romana illustrates the potential for applying the book’s methodology to urban sites that are only partially excavated. The organization of space at Neapolis differed markedly from the other case studies, since the role of its agora was an integral space through which the traffic moved. Kaiser hypothesizes that this phenomenon resulted from Neapolis’ Greek heritage, a point strengthened when he compares Neapolis to its immediate neighbor, Ciudad Romana, whose sparse remains nevertheless echo the previous case studies. Problems with statistical data are too often just overlooked, which weakens the overall argument of the book. The rigorous statistical analysis throughout the book might have yielded more results if used to explore tensions between the urban ideals laid out in texts and the realities played out on the ground.

Nevertheless, Kaiser’s strongest contributions come from his comparative analyses of Roman cities. Individual chapters will help scholars specializing in each city, but the book as a whole reveals urban dynamics that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Kaiser brings a new and scientific approach to these cities and offers other scholars of Roman urbanism a strong set of tools for exploring other street networks and the placement of buildings along them. It is unfortunate that the book is so expensive and so completely bereft of photographic images of these cities. Kaiser’s approach, however, gives us new perspectives on Roman urbanism, even if some angles he pursues must remain elusive. He convincingly sheds light on many problems that can arise when modern assumptions are used to explain anything in the Roman city.


[[1]] Due to an inadvertent oversight, a version of this review was published in May 2012 by CJ-Online that had some errors and was missing a crucial acknowledgement. I wish to express my gratitude to Jeremy Harnett (Wabash College) both for his earlier review of Kaiser’s book (BMCR 2011.12.57) and for the references he included in his review, all of which greatly helped me understand the quantitative complexities of Kaiser’s work for my own analysis of them.


CJ-Online mailing list

Roman Road Beneath York Minster

From the Northern Echo:

A SOLID link to the real Roman past has been uncovered beneath one of the region’s greatest places of worship.

During construction work for a new visitor development in the undercroft of York Minster a team of archaeologists have unearthed an intact section of Roman road.

The road is believed to have been a backstreet, part of the old Via Quintana, which ran behind the Roman basilica on the site where the medieval Minster now sits.

The backstreet was used for hundreds of years and was frequently patched and repaired, falling into disuse at the same time as the basilica itself.

The Dean of York, the Very Reverend Vivienne Faull, said, “While it was not as grandly paved as the main streets of Roman York, you can imagine that this backstreet, situated as it was between the Basilica and the Praetorium, was exactly the kind of place where the real business of the Empire was done.

“It probably even witnessed the very first Christians on their way to worship.”

The development of new visitor displays in the undercroft has given archaeologists a rare opportunity to investigate York Minster’s earliest layers of history.

And the newly discovered section of road will allow further analysis of the remains found in previous excavations.

The lead member of the York Archaeological Trust team, Ian Milsted, said: “Before this, there had been no archaeological excavations at York Minster for over 40 years, so it’s a huge privilege to be revealing pieces of the past in such an iconic building, all of it contributing to our picture of life in ancient York.’’

The Roman road is one of the many stories about the Minster’s ancient past which will be revealed next February when the archaeological analysis on all of this year’s excavations is released.

This Day in Ancient History: idus decembres

idus decembres

  • Rites in honour of Tellus, the earth goddess which perhaps included a lectisternium (a ‘dinner party’ at which images of the god(s) would ‘dine’ with participants) in honour of Ceres.
  • 405 B.C. — battle of Aegospotami (by one reckoning)
  • 304 A.D. — martyrdom of Lucy of Syracuse
  • 1783 — Death of Samuel Johnson