Posted by: lukelavan | November 12, 2011

Kent Fieldwork Evening 2011

UniKent Archaeological Fieldwork Evening 2011

Recent discoveries and current research of

The Department of Classical and Archaeological Studies

Tuesday 29th November 7-9 p.m. KLT5

An evening of illustrated lectures: free, and open to all.

Dr Francesco Trifilo  Estate agents’ distance meters and ancient gameboards: a report on fieldwork in the Forum Romanum, Rome

Ms Celine Murphy The ‘Three Peak sanctuaries of Central Crete’ Project

Dr Patty Baker     Excavations at Monte San Martino ai Campi, Trentino, Italy

Dr Luke Lavan    Kent work at Ostia 2011: from the Temple of Hercules to Victory Square

The lectures will be held in Keynes Lecture Theatre 5, Keynes College, University of Kent, Canterbury campus. The nearest car park is behind Keynes College.

Places are limited, so to reserve a place please email with the subject line ‘Fieldwork Evening’

Classical & Archaeological Studies, School of European Culture and Languages, University of Kent, Canterbury, KENT

Posted by: lukelavan | October 3, 2011

Thanks and goodbye

It remains for me to thank everyone involved in the Kent expedition to Ostia this year. I am especially grateful to the guys who drove our two buses over the Alps (Zsolt, Joe and Doug), and also to those diggers who ended up doing more than their share of backfill, for various reasons, such as Jay Ingate and Bernard Mulholland. Eddie Luby is, as ever, to be admired for staying back in the camp and providing the team with solid archive support, whilst Doug Underwood has worked himself into the ground on the total station. I am also grateful to the first aiders and supervisors, (Zsolt, Helen, Dan, Sebastian and Bob), who powered the team through to successful completion, and to our friends from the Berlin team, Gunnar and Lena, who looked after stay finds for us which and delivered them to the depot. The generous donations of John Osborn and especially John Beale underpinned our campaign, whilst the grants of the faculty made the purchase of specialist services possible. Finally, I would like to thank the sopraintendenza again, especially Angelo Pellegrino, for what has been a satisfying four years of archaeological work. We are very much looking forward to publishing our results, which, like those of the Berlin team, will hopefully open many new perspectives on life in Ostia in the later centuries of Roman Antiquity.

Posted by: lukelavan | October 3, 2011

All good things must come to an end…

Our two weeks in Ostia have now finished and the team has returned home. The last day on site saw the trenches in the Bivium, the Paleastra, the Foro delle Statua Eroica and the Piazza della Vittora being closed and backfilled, meaning we could leave the site as we had found it. One of this year’s quirkier finds was from the Bivium, where a pawprint on one of the terracotta tiles was uncovered next to a drain. As this trench has been cleaned, the total station has been used to record the geographical points of significant features and findspots to allow an accurate map to be created at a later date. Such records ensure that the information we have revealed during this year’s dig will be available for others to use in the future if needed.

Eddie Luby using the total station by the Piazza della Vittoria

Kent is not the only university conducting an archaeological dig at Ostia Antica; amongst others are the team from Bologna, who are working on the outskirts of the site. They have provided good company whilst we were working in the depot, and on Saturday Luke conducted a guided tour for them of our site. They very kindly offered to do the same for us before we go. Work in the depot has also been completed with all plaster and marble finds being succesfully catalogued and photographed. Illustrator Will Foster has been drawing some of the better preserved examples, including a fragments of decorated pottery, an inscribed slate and some gaming dice. 

Fragment of decorated terracotta, perhaps from roof of small temple

The drawing of finds means that details on the surface of objects that may be difficult to discern in photography or with the naked eye can be recorded and easily referenced. Will has done a great job with our artefacts. Further information on his work can be found at his website:

Die used for gaming

Posted by: lukelavan | October 3, 2011

The Temple of Hercules


One of the highlights of this year’s work has been the rescue excavation and laser survey which we have carried out in the area sacra of the Temple of Hercules. Here the garden service have been busy restoring some of the very crumbly Late Roman walls (here shown after restoration), We are very grateful that the Sopraintendenza allowed us to laser scan them prior to rebuilding, in order to provide a permanent record. They also allowed us to clean this area in order to set the walls into a chronological context. The result has been that we have been able to retrieve coins, pottery and lamps from late surface deposits, which may give us the date at which the area sacra stopped being monumental and in which these walls blocked the view of the altar from the main entrance. It is good to find some intact archaeological layers amidst so much re-deposition and excavation backfill. We are looking forward to presenting the laser scans and wall records to Angelo Pellegrino, the chief of the Ostia archaeological service in the next few weeks. It is good to be able to add to our story of public space the fate of the temple squares.

If you are interested in this topic you may like to consult a recent book by Luke Lavan and Michael Mulryan on the Archaeology of Late Antique Paganism. See for details.

Posted by: lukelavan | October 3, 2011

Victory Square

Surveying the Great Nymphaeum in Victory Square

The excavations of the Nymphaeum in the Piazza della Vittoria have been progressing nicely. Here a small team led by Bob Harp have been recording a heavily restored late Roman fountain, in order to detect traces of its original decoration. Thankfully the large basin preserves not only traces of two phases of mortar lining, but also small parts of its marble decoration, which seems to be in cipollino marble. On the outside of the structure careful cleaning has revealed two layers of painted plaster, and also a level of white-washing, on top of the second phase. We have also seen this in the forum area, raising the possibility that the final phase of decoration of some monumental structures, after their marbles had been removed, was a simple lime paint, perhaps appropriate to the later years of the 5th c. A.D. Recording work by Elisabeth Blanning, Solinda Kamani, Aoife Fitzgerald and Anika Roder will be of great use in refining our understanding here. The small basin, which has largely escaped restoration is shown below.


Posted by: lukelavan | September 20, 2011

Nymphaeum Bivium and Foro della statua eroica

The Nymphaeum Bivium is being excavated by Dan Jackson (above with spray can), supported by Joe Williams. Dan has made a great start, reopening the trench of last year to try to resolve some of the tricky stratigraphic relationships found there. It seems that we have found the front wall of the fountain’s basin, which has long eluded us, and part of its floor. Today a foundation deposit containing a domestic rubbish layer (and not an infant burial as previously thought) was brought to light. We hope that this will provide vital dating clues to primary phase of the structure: a large marble coated fountain, of which Solinda Kamani is painstakingly recording the decoration, which was attached with iron nails and marble dowels.

On the Foro della statua eroica, Zsolt Magyar is continuing his work, assisted by Doug Watson and others. Doug and Jay Ingate have cleared out a huge layer of excavation backfill from the early 20th c. and have exposed the a part of floor of the baths which preceded the foro and a large dump of mortar-filled rubble, intended to fill the bath rooms prior to the building of the new square. In doing so, some well-built early imperial concrete walls have been exposed, along with early medieval tile retaining walls, without any mortar. The decline and fall of Roman building seems to be visible in just one trench. Finds include the remains of excavation pegs from the early 1900s and also a tourist path from more recent times. This trench is bound to develop however, as we dig out the medieval layers.

medieval walls in the foro della statua eroica

In the depot, we have been privileged to enjoy the company of Alessia Rovelli, a coins specialist, and Will Foster, a professional illustrator. They have been struggling for work space, whilst the plaster and marble recording reaches a high-point of intensity. We hope to have all workers involved in this recording back on site in a couple of days, to note decorative traces in the actual walls. In the meantime, Alessia has been able to give approximate dates for many of our coins, although they did not contain a great number of late antique examples. She pointed out that Ostrogothic coins are often only 9mm in size, making it necessary to sieve the soil with even a 5mm mesh, as it comes out of the ground. Will’s work is equally impressive and we hope to have examples of it to post shortly.

Posted by: lukelavan | September 20, 2011

The Maiden Flight of Kent Force 1

John Beale with the helicopter

Today we have enjoyed the visit of two of our patrons, John Beale, who has paid for the bulk of the 2010 and 2011 staff and equipment costs and John Osborn, who has sponsored student placements in both years. John Beale’s donation this year included provision for a photographic helicopter, to take aerial shots of the excavated areas (one step better than a photomosaic). Last year such a craft, piloted by Christian Krug, revealled many features, notably a line of post holes around our small temple in the palaestra. Following the arrival of our new helicopter, Joe Williams put particular effort into training for this as a ground-based pilot, using computer simulations prior to putting the craft into the air, spending many hours with the control box attached to his laptop.

After several days of experimenting on site, Joe finally did get the helicopter airborne, in time to give John Beale a demonstration and to take some initial shots of the palaestra. However, our enthusiasm got the better of us, and around lunch on Saturday disaster struck. The helicopter went a good 100m into the air, far higher than we intended, and then a sudden gust of wind carried it far beyond our part of the city. Joe was inconsolable, and a search by the whole team proved fruitless. However, today we located the craft, in four pieces, in the necropolis, on the southern side of the city.

It seems that we will be able to repair the vehicle, as only the frame appears to be damaged. Tomorrow Alex Sammut will make an inspection of all pieces and we hope to soon have it flying again. Nevertheless, we have learnt our lesson, and will not be taking it out until the high winds of the last few days have subsided. We are grateful to John Beale for the purchase and hope to have some shots of our study areas for the final report using this craft. For the moment all three sites currently under excavation are revealing a wealth of interesting features about which we will update you shortly.

Posted by: lukelavan | September 20, 2011


The palaestra trench has now been completely cleaned. We are ready to context and draw the area, which is being dug by Sebastian Matz, assisted by Judith Wolf and their team. The excavation has revealed a phase of travertine paving for the palaestra, previously unknown, which was replaced by an extensive black and white mosaic right across the square, sometime in the 3rd or 4th c. This mosaic significantly left room for a number of large structures, now lost, which stood against the portico columns. We anticipate that these were perhaps basins, from associated holes in the paving which seem to pass into a drain below.

There is not much further archaeology in the trench, although we did find a 3rd c. layer in a previous test pit in this area, lying over a layer of tufa bedding which may be part of a foundation layer of the mosaic. It seems unlikely that the square was robbed as early as this, given the surrounding sequence of walls. These walls we are currently recording, having benefitted from the keen eye of professor Janet Delaine (Oxford) yesterday, across the whole site, and observations from her student Jennifer on the mortar layers between bricks. With such guidance, Aiofe and Irene, who are contexting the walls, will be able to provide a much stronger documentation. A few scattered post holes suggest the post-classical occupation that we know existed elsewhere in the square. Further digging may tell us what they are.

Posted by: lukelavan | September 19, 2011

From Ostia, with love

I’ve never been to Ostia before; in fact, I’ve never even been on an archaeological dig before. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Kent University’s excavation in Italy this year as an administrator and archivist. Our group is about 25 people in total from all different nationalities and specialisms which makes for a great mix of people. Staying in tents means that everyone has got to know each other pretty quickly over the early breakfasts, evening meals and buses to site. One of the favourite, non-archaeological, parts of the day seems to be the evening shower, when all the sweat and dirt from the day’s work can be washed away.

Arriving at Ostia Antica on the first day, my initial impression was the scale of site and its remains. It can be pretty daunting, especially if like me you are armed only with a guide in Italian and a tourist map! Luckily, I had the expertise of one of my fellow participants Julien, who showed me some Late Antique houses and shops, and explained how to spot them. Shop fronts would have been covered with boards or planks when closed, whereas houses had hinged doorways to close them from the street. These left different marks in the stone thresholds; either an incised line for a shop or ledge with circular holes at either side for a house doorway. The extant decoration inside these buildings is impressive, with the remains of opus sectile floors, marble fountains, bars, wall paintings and mosaics still remaining from when they were inhabited. Walking through the same streets and building entrances as the Ostians of Antiquity really gives you a sense of the city during its working life.

Wall painting, mosaic and bar counter

Seeing the team excavating is especially interesting; there are four sites being worked on at the moment small teams of people. The first step is devegetation which prepares the area and structures. This can be hard work, especially in the hot Roman sun, although it’s a task not necessarily devoid of interest; Faith found a Roman coin in one of the walls of the Foro della Statua Eroica, whilst clearing the ground in the same area also revealed the existence of a walled up room. I’ve also been lucky enough to join Elizabeth, Aoife and Solinda in the depot at the top of the site, where finds are cleaned and catalogued. Fragments of vividly painted wall plaster are brushed free of dirt and then the coloured surface cleaned with acetone. Some of the examples I’ve handled are polychromic, featuring coloured lines and other decorative features; others are important for their reverse sides, which still have the imprints of the craftsmen’s fingers and the lathe walls the plaster was originally attached to.

Cleaning plaster fragments in the depot

Site is hot and dusty, with stones worn smooth from the centuries of people walking over them. This can make it a pretty hazardous place to work, not forgetting the mosquitoes, which seem to have a taste for me in particular, the few scorpions which have been spotted, and the snakes (of which only their shedded skins have been found so far!). There are also some tiny lizards which scamper around the ruins, basking in the sun, which entertain the diggers. The dig is incorporating some pretty high tech equipment – our colleagues at Birmingham University have been laser scanning areas of the city for us, which allows the analysis of details you can’t see with the naked eye. It also means that 3D computer models of the Ostian buildings can be made at a later date which is fantastic for Kent’s Visualisation of the Late Antique City project. Elsewhere trenches are beginning to appear.

Eamonn taking colour photos to project onto the laser scanned images

The bivium has already been excavated in previous years, however the complex nature of the archaeology there means that this year the guys are pulling up the geotextile that sits below the topsoil and protects the evidence below. This will allow them to re-evaluate the archaeology and hopefully draw some useful conclusions. In the paleastra, the trench has revealed what looks like a well and drain. There have also been a few finds already, including pottery sherds and glass tesserae.

Jo Stoner

Posted by: lukelavan | September 19, 2011

Finds Processing

Devegetation has finished and trenches have now appeared at the four excavations sites.  In the palaestra, the main aim of the trenches is to uncover architectural proof of changes to the site in the 3rd and 4th century, particularly the date of the mosaic which covers the whole square. The trenches have revealed the foundation of a series of honorific monuments set against the portico, and a possible early paving, underneath the mosaic. The finds so far have included glass fragments and wall plaster. A large coin was uncovered and a metal fragment that has the shape of a vessel rim. One of the highlights has been the discovery of a possible well or cistern, filled with an enormous amount of ceramic fragments mainly from amphorae. The bottom of the hole has not yet been found, so further digging is required.

Sebastian in the palaestra well / cistern

What is thought to be a third century spoil heap has also been uncovered and the soil sieved for finds. The majority of these are pieces of pottery. The Bivium has already been excavated in previous years, however the complex nature of the archaeology there means that this year the guys are pulling up the geotextile that sits below the topsoil and protects the evidence below the team are trying to draw new conclusions from the archaeology found in the previous year’s excavation. The stratigraphy is very complex, featuring a basin and opus spicatum flooring from a Republican house. This house was then demolished to make way for a portico on the crossroads. This itself was then replaced by the later nymphaeum. There are also several water channels or drains which intersect and cut each other off, creating a series of building phases which are complicated to interpret.

Joe cleaning the ceramic finds

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