AIA News

May 28, 2024

What Happens When You Excavate 15 Tons of Roman Pottery?

by Victor M. Martinez

Managing Legacy Data and Its Storage with the Palatine East Pottery Project

Victor Martinez received an AIA-NEH Grant for Post-Fieldwork Research and Publication in 2023 for the Palatine East Pottery Project. The Palatine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome and includes the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine. The Palatine East Excavation project conducted fieldwork just a stone’s throw away from these famous monuments from 1989-1996 and resulted in over 15 metric tons of Roman ceramics. Artifacts excavated in Italy belong to the Italian government and after excavation must be documented, labeled, and prepared for long term storage to the standards of the local heritage authority. Read on to find out how this AIA-NEH grant supported work to process 400 crates of ceramics.

The pottery under examination here was recovered in fieldwork (now long-since concluded) as part of the Palatine East Excavations. After the conclusion of the excavation phase, all archaeologically significant artifacts were placed in storage at the American Academy in Rome (AAR) for study and eventual publication. The analysis of the pottery, which is still in progress and in its final seasons, now falls under the Palatine East Pottery Project (PEPP) for which J. Theodore Peña of the University of California, Berkeley serves as Director and I serve as Associate Director. The pottery assemblage comprises over 15 metric tons of Roman material, dating from the early first to mid sixth centuries CE. The scale and breadth of this pottery assemblage and its materials directly reflect the scope of the regional and pan-Mediterranean trade that supplied Rome, as well as filling its refuse piles.

A critical part of the research is the proper identification of the amphorae, a comprehensive characterization of the amphora forms, analysis of their composition, and determination of their place of origin. This phase of the research is labor intensive and meticulous, requiring diligent forensic analysis of the pottery—but the major identifications we have already made point to the significant contributions that the completion of this work may produce—for example, our research has led to the first-ever identification of material from Galicia and Aswan in Rome.

An easily overlooked fact of a large-scale field project is that eventually it must be returned. For the Palatine East Excavations and PEPP that required decades of processing finds, a process that had to evolve alongside new technology and comparative research. The catalyst to complete our work was in part because of our host, the AAR—needed to reclaim the storage space for new purposes. With great effort and a dedicated team in summer 2023 we were able to bring our material up to the current standards of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma (SAR) and move the material to its long-term storage under the Palatine Hill.

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