Looking back at the AAR’s summer 2009: the Gabii Project

GabiiViscontiAn early look at Gabii’s Temple of Juno, from E. Q. Visconti, Monumenti gabini (1835)

The holiday of Ferragosto (15 August) has now come and gone, so perhaps it’s not too early to start taking stock of this past summer at and around the American Academy in Rome. Let’s start 12 miles east of the city—with the field program of the Gabii Project, an unusually promising new major archaeological campaign under the patrocinio of the AAR. The Academy in recent years has extended this “patronage” status to about a dozen significant Roman archaeological excavations, at sites that range from the Forum and Palatine to points as far afield as the island of Jerba in Tunisia. But the Gabii Project is easily the largest of these AAR-affiliated digs.

The Gabii Project is an international, multi-institution initiative under the direction of Professor Nicola Terrenato of the University of Michigan. The Project’s goal is the excavation, study, interpretation, and analysis of Gabii, an ancient city-state in Latium that had a significant cultural influence on Rome, especially in the sphere of religion. It now emerges—thanks specifically to the work of the Project—that Gabii also offers a surprisingly early example for Italy of regular, orthogonal town planning. The details of this important discovery for ancient urbanism are scheduled for publication in the October 2009 issue of the American Journal of Archaeology. See also the end of this post for a video interview on the site of Gabii with Nicola Terrenato, where he explains some of the more significant attributes of the ancient city.

GabiiTerrenatoBeckerGabii Project Director Nicola Terrenato (Michigan), and Managing Director Jeffrey A. Becker (McMaster)

Ancient Gabii was situated on the south-eastern perimeter of an extinct volcanic crater lake, later called the Lago di Castiglione, “lake of the fortification”, after a medieval tower erected nearby. The last two years at Gabii have seen exciting geophysical field survey work by the Project. This summer marked the first actual season of excavation, complete with an archaeological field school for undergraduate and graduate students.


One particularly notable aspect of the Gabii Project—which makes it so valuable to students—is its cutting-edge excavation and documentation methodology, with digital data collection allowing the team to work in the field with both great speed and accuracy.

This summer the Project chose a sector of the slope of the Castiglione crater as the focus of its investigations, with three areas defined within that zone. Each of those areas present a different picture and, on the face of it, seem to represent different points in the occupational history of the site.

The five-week campaign at Gabii, which ran from 21 June through 25 July 2009, turned out to be hugely productive. There was also a welcome symbiosis with the AAR Summer Program in Archaeology, that Nicola Terrenato also directed. The weblog of the Project can be found here while the Facebook groups are here and here.

Gabii2009TeamThe 2009 excavation team at Gabii. Photo courtesy of the Gabii Project

So what did the weeks of excavation yield? Now, much of the summer necessarily was spent clearing a massive amount of silt that had accumulated over time atop the ancient layers, thanks to the tremendous downslope erosion that is characteristic of the site.

But then there started to appear a dizzying complex of stratified architectural features. “In some sectors”, wrote Project Managing Director Professor Jeffrey A. Becker already after Week Four, “the tops of tumbled walls are coming into view, while in others the challenge remains interpreting features cut in the volcanic bedrock of Gabii. We also continue to investigate the network of streets within the urban area, since a main goal of this campaign is to begin to establish a chronological sequence for the urban grid…. The trajectory of Gabii’s urban history is, until now, so dimly understood that in all likelihood there are many new—and possibly even unexpected —chapters to be written”.

DSC_0297Architectural features in an adjoining zone at Gabii revealed by fieldwork in the 1980s

One surprise of the final week of the excavation was the discovery of a late antique burial, with the body literally wrapped in a lead sheet to form a coffin—a practice known for Rome’s northern provinces such as Britain, but exquisitely rare for Italy itself. Expect more surprises from Gabii for summer 2010, and beyond.

Video (ca. 2 mins): Gabii Project Director Nicola Terrenato is interviewed by AAR Mellon Professor Corey Brennan

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