Appia Antica, new archaeological discoveries in research excavation

Presented the "Appia Regina Viarum" research excavation: archaeological discoveries to gain as much information as possible about the area where one of ancient Rome's most important roads once stood.

The Appia Regina Viarum excavation is a public archaeology project of the Special Superintendency of Rome, which in front of the Baths of Caracalla has brought to light buildings, structures and finds, with important discoveries from the 2nd century to the modern age on the topography and evolution of this area, linked to the history of Rome from its origins. “Today we are presenting a research excavation, aimed not only at finding important remains and artifacts,” explains Daniela Porro Special Superintendent of Rome. "The purpose, coordinated with the candidacy of the Appian Way as a World Heritage Site, is to acquire as much information as possible about the area where one of the most important roads of ancient Rome stood in a program of interventions and initiatives to enhance the Baths of Caracalla and their context. Fundamental is that the Superintendence continues to carry out scientific activities, as in this case by collaborating withRome 3 University, and profitably using European funds."

The great difficulty of the excavation has been the massive upwelling of water, which prevents it from reaching eight meters deep where the ancient paving should be. The discovery of a 10th-century wrought road, however, indicates the presence in medieval times of a major thoroughfare that probably traced the Appian Way and prompts continued investigation. “The oldest structures,” explains Mirella Serlorenzi scientific director of the survey. “They date back to the Hadrianic age, arrive at the Severian age, and are about 30 meters away from the tabernae in front of the Baths, which would correspond to 100 Roman feet, or the width of the Severian Via Nova as reported by the Forma Urbis. Above all, the stratigraphy has returned the continuous transformations of structures from the imperial age, with the superimposition over time of production or housing activities. The amount of information and materials found, such as the papal square coin, the monogrammed ring, and a good-luck engraving found under a column, provides a picture of an area alive and frequented until the early Middle Ages, a period of which there is little evidence in Rome. Thus emerges the transformation of the imperial Urbs into the medieval Christian Rome decisive in the city’s history.”

“The primary goal of the project was to understand the viability of the Appian Way, a strategic junction of ancient Rome, of which a medieval trace has probably been found. But as of now,” explains Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani professor of Medieval Archaeology at Roma 3, “the findings are to be related to the institutions present in the area that the sources tell us about, such as the Basilica of Santa Balbina, the Church of Saints Nereo and Achilleo, the ancient titulus Fasciolae and a xenodochio, that is, an entity intended for the reception of pilgrims, mentioned by the sources at the end of the sixth century on the Via Nova severiana.” Started in 2018 with non-invasive investigations, the real excavation began in July 2022, and the archaeological activities were also combined with opening to the public with guided tours and publishing weekly archaeological reports on Sitar, the Superintendency’s web platform dedicated to archaeological knowledge.

The first mile of the Appian Way

Where did the first mile of the Appia Antica pass? This is a historical question at the origin of the excavation carried out in front of the Baths of Caracalla. Scholars have so far put forward different hypotheses about this route, but only archaeological evidence will be able to confirm the initial route of the first Roman road named after a consul, Appius Claudius Caecus, and its relationship to the imposing Via Nova Severiana built in the early third century AD by Emperor Septimius Severus, which reversed the route. The investigation by the Special Superintendence of Rome financed with European funds provided by CIPE is a public archaeology intervention that did not originate from the construction of buildings or underground utilities, but was functional for research, study and reconstruction of the history of a portion of the Capital through the centuries.

The rediscovered Appian Way

From the beginning of the investigation, the area proved particularly problematic due to the presence of an extensive water table, which prevented it from descending to eight meters, the probable level of the ancient road system. However, from the more than six meters of depth reached, some clues emerged indicating the presence of the Via Nova that began under Septimius Severus right in front of the facade of the Baths of Caracalla. The oldest structures brought to light date from the Hadrianic age to the Severan age, showing the urban evolution of the area when the Baths of Caracalla were built. These are buildings that originated with commercial or residential purposes, yet show an exceptional continuity of use even in the centuries considered to be of greatest decadence and demographic crisis. From these structures to the tabernae in front of the Baths there is a distance of about 30 meters, which would correspond to 100 Roman feet, or the width of the Via Nova as reported by the Forma Urbis, the large marble plan of the city made in the third century. In addition, a cobblestone road dating back to the 10th - 11th centuries has emerged that retraces the same course, reliable evidence of the continuation of the route of the ancient Appian Way into the Middle Ages. In fact, the excavation has above all made it possible to uncover the history of an area believed to have been abandoned since the late empire, to reconstruct its events and the humanity that inhabited it.

Life in the Middle Ages

During Late Antiquity the Hadrianic and Severan structures were transformed, perhaps even with extensions, and were probably used for productive activities. Only a thorough analysis of the materials will be able to indicate more precisely what kind of workings took place there. However, a large deposit of ash, which did not originate from a fire, already gives room for some hypotheses: that this was used as a bleaching agent in a washhouse, or for glass or ceramic processing. Traces of the collapse of these buildings date back to the ninth century, over which, about a hundred years later, a simply wrought road was built, which nonetheless indicates the continuity of life in the area. Sources indicate here one of the oldest Christian tituli (a church corresponding more or less to a modern parish) named Fasciole, probably after the relic of the bandage that fell from St. Peter’s ankles as he was about to leave Rome from the Appian Way.

The mysterious ring

Of extreme interest in this context are the materials that have come to light, which will allow a better framing of the use of the area with more precise dating. Prominent among the oldest finds are a statue head, a column with an auspicious inscription, a tabula lusoria, game tokens, coins, remnants of mosaic and remains of amphorae. Finds dating from late antiquity and the early Middle Ages are of exceptional importance: notable for its rarity is a coin, one of the earliest minted under papal control and datable between 690 and 730, and especially a bronze ring with a monogram, to be dissolved as Anthony or Antoninus and dating from the 6th century. Finally, glazed pottery, remnants and scraps of casting material would confirm the presence of manufacturing activities.

Photo by Fabio Caricchia.

Appia Antica, new archaeological discoveries in research excavation
Appia Antica, new archaeological discoveries in research excavation

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