The Via Appia, ‘Queen of Roads’, became a hallmark of the political and cultural presentation of the city of Rome as the centre of the then existing world, and is still seen as an iconic monument of ancient Rome. Since 2009 the department of Classical Archaeology of the Radboud University Nijmegen has started a field work project in close collaboration with the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome, named ‘Mapping the Via Appia’. The project aims at a thorough inventory and analysis of the Roman interventions in their suburban landscape, focusing on parts of the 5th and 6th mile of the road. The stretch starts where the modern Via di Erode Attico crosses the Via Appia antica and ends at the point where the Via di Casal Rotondo crosses the ancient road. Other partners are the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences and the SPINlab of the VU University Amsterdam, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Roma.
The wealth of archaeological monuments preserved both above and beneath ground level as well as the opulent documentary evidence in archives and digital resources (mainly photographs), make a very detailed multidisciplinary analysis of the history of the road and its surroundings possible. At the same time, this huge amount of wide-ranging data poses some methodological challenges and requires the development of new documentation and analysis strategies. The complex architectural design of several monuments, as well as the detailed archival records, have resulted in an archaeological and historical landscape which cannot be studied by only using established recording systems like regional field survey projects.
Part of “Mapping the Via Appia” consists of making an inventory and study of all remains of architectural structures along our stretch of the Via Appia. These include the sometimes huge remains of funerary buildings of the imperial period like Casal Rotondo and the three tumuli, as well as blocks belonging to architectural monuments now entirely lost. Each object is plotted onto the map, described and photographed. If necessary, drawings will be made as extra forms of documentation. If there is scholarly literature on the subject, this is listed in the brief entry written for the database. We try to interpret the object, date it and in that way make it part of the inventory of monuments. In some cases scattered worked pieces can be put together virtually. If this works out well, the inventory can help us in reconstructing the density and chronological development of the monuments erected along the Via Appia.
The two burial mounds are a striking landmark on the fifth mile of the Via Appia. From the 16th century onwards, this stretch of the road has been described as the area of the mythic battle between Rome and Alba Longa in the 7th century BC, based on accounts of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The two mounds have been interpreted as the tombs of the two Roman Horatii brothers who died on the battlefield. In the 19th century, the architect and archaeologist Luigi Canina was commissioned by the Vatican to restore this stretch of the road for the public. Considering the two mounds as important monuments, Canina reconstructed the façades of the two mounds and re-elevated them, since they had become quite flat, as 18th century drawings have shown.
The first goal of our excavation is to get a better grasp of the architecture of the two barrows before Canina’s interventions, as well as their construction date, since Canina’s drawings of his reconstructions raise more questions than answers. Modern authors take on Canina’s internal layout of the two mounds, but dispute his dating into the archaic period. Our excavation results as well as the data of the 2013 geophysical survey by the University of Southampton and the British School at Rome offer some very interesting clues for further investigation.
The second goal of the excavation concerns the use in antiquity of the area around the tumuli, including their relation to the road. The discovery of several burials, including a fairly intact inhumation grave, as well as pottery shards, amphora, oil lamp and bone fragments suggest a burial site in this area. Whether the burial site developed after the construction of the tumuli or already existed before, is a question we will try to answer in the coming years.
Prospecting the hinterland of the Via Appia
One of the sub-projects of ‘Mapping the Via Appia’ concerns an archaeological survey of the areas adjacent to the road itself. The stretch of land immediately bordering the Via Appia was mainly used for burial monuments, some of which can still be seen today. However, the use of the land further away from the Via Appia is still largely unknown and has not been investigated systematically. Therefore, this sub-project can provide many new insights in the use of this suburban area of Rome.
Preliminary studies have shown that the landscape along the Via Appia has a complex history of use. Hence, a combination of techniques needs to be employed in order to comprehend the developments through time and to fill in the archaeological map. Furthermore, this area contains such a high density of artefacts and architectural remains from various time periods that only an intensive and multidisciplinary archaeological survey can result in intelligible patterns. Therefore, various prospection strategies are being tested to establish which is best suited for this complex area.
The field surveys strategies are combined with geophysical prospection techniques and remote sensing techniques, which allow for a study of the sub-soil without archaeological excavation. So far the geophysical techniques that are being used are electrical resistivity/conductivity prospection and the magnetometry, both of which show irregularities in the sub-soil that can indicate the presence of buried walls, ditches, pits, etc. Remote sensing includes the study of aerial photography (both modern and historical) and satellite imaging. Furthermore, historical maps and images are included in research, since these can provide information on archaeological remains that have now been destroyed.
For more information of survey archaeology see:
For geophysical prospection techniques:
For more information on aerial archaeology see:
Coordinator of this sub-project is Jeremia Pelgrom from the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (firstname.lastname@example.org). The geophysical prospection is done in collaboration with VU-univeristy Amsterdam (Henk Kars and Steven Soetens)
Since the Via Appia has been described and studied for many centuries – there are publications edited as early as the middle of the 16th century – a study of both old publications and archive material forms a part of the “Mapping the Via Appia” project. As to archive material, we hope to find documentation of old archaeological research, like that of Luigi Canina, and restoration of monuments. The records of more recent investigations may yield extra information on surveys and digs never published extensively. In a couple of cases documents may pertain to the use or reuse of monuments; one may think of the medieval occupation of monuments like Casal Rotondo. Moreover, travel accounts can also be informative next to drawings, paintings and photographs.
In the Mapping the Via Appia project, a traditional two-dimensional geographic information system (GIS) and relational databases are being employed to accurately store the data gathered during archaeological fieldwork. However, since archaeology inevitably involves the third – vertical – dimension, the Mapping the Via Appia project is at the frontline of interdisciplinary and generic 3D GIS development.