Subway Ruins

Rome is Caught in an Endless Struggle Between Preservation And a Modern City’s Needs

News | Marianna Pugliese | May 2007

Archeologist Filippe: “It’s bit of a slalom to preserve the finds.“ Here the foundations of the Stagnum of Agrippa (Photo: Marianna Pugliese)

In a city where traffic rumbles past the Colosseum and football fans celebrate among the remains of the Circus Maximus, relics of ancient Rome’s glory can suddenly emerge and sometimes butt up against the modern city’s needs.

The never-ending struggle between preserving ancient treasures and developing modern infrastructures is moving underground, where archaeologists are investigating and exploring the veiled bowels of the Eternal City in order to build a new, 25-kilometre subway line. The two current lines the "Metro A" and the "Metro B," serving Rome’s 2.8 million inhabitants avoid the city center entirely and leave it congested with traffic and tourists.

The new "Metro C" will serve the heart of Rome, and ease movement throughout all city districts. The project, put off for decades because of funding shortages and fears that work would be stopped by archeological finds, is due to be completed by 2015, with parts opening as early as 2011, with driverless trains carrying nearly 24,000 passengers an hour.

Thus this third line is urgently needed.

"There aren’t sufficient lines to get to all the major attractions," said William Nicholson, a 42-year-old Scot on holiday, "and taxis and buses are even more bothersome."

The fears though have not been unfounded, but improved technology has also eased some of the problems. Archaeological probes are needed only to clear the way for stairwells and air ducts, as the line’s stations and tunnels in the center will be dug at a depth of 25-30 metres below the level of any human habitation ever, thus below the archaeological remains. But the surface has still to be opened up to construct stations and ventilation shafts.

Not all the new finds are significant, and some are either removed or destroyed. The most important are preserved in place. But every find slows the process, and major discoveries will mean engineers will have to reroute exits and stations, dodging the ancient relics. Other times, they simply plow ahead. On many public and private works projects, developers report a find and simply dig through ancient treasures.

At present, 38 archaeological digs have sprung up near many famous monuments and in the sheltered historical center, where the "Metro C" planners have already moved a circular underground corridor to avoid the remains of a Renaissance palace situated by the dig.

"It’s bit of a slalom to preserve the finds and still get the subway done," said Fedora Filippi, the archaeologist who directs a dig in front of the baroque church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. "This is the daily life of urban archaeologists who must deal with difficult and fascinating sites like this one."

Filippi thinks further study is needed. From descriptions of the area by first-century BC Latin and Greek writers including Ovid and Strabo, Filippi knew that the 4-meter-thick wall could well be part of the foundations of the Stagnum of Agrippa, an enormous artificial pool in the gardens of the Baths of Agrippa complex built around 25 BC, or to a temple dedicated to the goddess Fortune, parts of a monumental complex built in that area by Agrippa, general and son-in-law of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.

Other finds are emerging across the city, including Roman taverns found near the ancient Forum, cellars of 16th-century palaces located in the middle of Piazza Venezia, and Roman tombs found outside the walls containing the remains of two children. Among other discoveries made so far during the excavations, teams discovered that the Aurelian Walls, built by the emperor Aurelius in 271 AD to defend the city from barbarian invasions, were twice as high as had been previously thought- around 20 m, rather than the 7-10 m that can be seen today.

Other treasures almost certainly still lie in wait since at some sites archaeologists have yet to hit the Roman strata of soil. At Piazza Venezia the team has only arrived at the late mediaeval stratum by mid April and has already discovered the remains of a 15th-century glass factory significant enough to require a change of plans: the Piazza Venezia station will likely be shifted from the centre of the square to another location, possibly to the entrance of Via dei Fori Imperiali.

To Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni, this is to be expected.  "Wherever they dig," he said, "they are bound to find history."

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