I’ve been excavating, studying, and teaching in Ostia Antica, Rome’s port city (and exploring Portus, a man-made dual harbor constructed by emperors Claudius and Trajan just north of Ostia) on and off for over over 10 years and frequenting the site for over 20 years. Why? Quite simply because it is a living laboratory and is the clearest reflection of what industrialized ancient Rome looked like.
It was with great dismay that I found much of the ancient city under water this past January and February, which shut down the site for a number of weeks. The site is still reeling from the Tiber River inundation; no solution has been found, yet, to prevent it from happening again. Conservation and site management remain the high priority for the superintendency and MiBACT colleagues of ALES, a conservation division of the Italian Ministry of Culture, and a lot of work visibly is taking place at Ostia today. But more needs to be done at Ostia and Portus (a separate archaeological site).
In the meantime, however, recent investigations and discoveries at Ostia have made headlines worldwide. The director of the territory of Ostia dott.ssa Paola Germoni gave a recent summary of the discoveries in and around Ostia Antica, including my Institute’s own investigations. Overall, the findings were made in little explored areas, like the right bank of the TIber (on Isola Sacra) and our dig site, outside the city walls, part of the suburbium.
My Institute’s study concentrates on the bend of the dried up section of the Tiber River (ultimately this portion of the Tiber River was deviated in the 1557 flood) leaving the active portion of the Tiber River today hundreds of meters away; our dig site in the “suburbium” of Ostia is close to the medieval Gregoriopolis and (much later) Renaissance castle in the Parco dei Ravennati.
The geophysical survey of the area on Isola Sacra by Simon Keay of Southampton and colleagues from Cambridge, on the right bank, opposite the left bank which contains the bulk of the city of Ostia (forum, theater, major baths, neighborhoods, etc.) has yielded a new picture of far more structures than previously understood, and a section of city walls; Ostia was much larger than previously thought is the headline. To be sure, plenty of structures on that side had been previously been revealed and noted in the past and marked on maps before the more recent urban build up there, but not to the extent of this thorough investigation, that should lead to some focused, limited excavation.
What we we summarize from these headlines? Where is archaeology today? The media, and the public still focus on the discovery. It’s part of human nature to explore and literally unearth new information about our collective past. In the case of Ostia, the sheer scale of what’s being explored (warehouses– Keay, ships– Germoni, possible late antique domus in the suburbium of Ostia– AIRC) is, indeed, astounding. And this drive to learn continues, but we must begin to temper this enthusiasm with a dose of reality, for as soon as we explore and unearth, we expose sites and and monuments to new conditions that can rapidly deteriorate them. There needs to be a better plan.
In fact, in light of the recent destructive effect from the unexpected flooding of Ostia (and mind you the site has never been inundated like this before), that we seriously need to rethink about our values and ideas about archaeology and unearthing the past. A huge component that must become more prevalent is preserving that past. This means conservation, investing significant resources in daily maintenance, and engaging a large global audience to participate, with multiple funding sources developed to sustain those efforts (and not just through private sponsorship, making today’s headlines. I’m talking about local community involvement and buy-in). Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves ever more frequently reading about the loss of heritage, and not the discovery of it. (For my own ideas and goals for our Ostia dig in Parco dei Ravennati, have a look at the following video by the US Embassy in Rome.)