Posted by: lukelavan | April 18, 2009

Digging at Ostia : reflections of Axel Gering

Some Personal Remarks about the Beginning of the Kent-Berlin Excavation Project.


Ostia, the most important harbour city of ancient Rome, is characterised today by huge imposing trees, the ever present sound of nature and a complete variety of Mediterranean smells, ranging from the pleasant to the not so pleasant. However, other than the archaeology itself, what is most striking about Ostia is the overwhelming silence that surrounds it for the majority of the year – such is the fate of a city that lies in the shadow of Rome. The ancient buildings – many of them amazingly well preserved – are constructed in beautiful natural surroundings. In these buildings, upon careful observation, visitors are able to trace signs of the everyday life of the ancient Romans.


In 1991 I fell in love with Ostia immediately.


Following my original visit, I was eager to return to Ostia for further study. The most compelling reason to journey there was to write my master’s  thesis that I decided would concern urbanism in Ostia. In order to fulfil this, I moved to Rome, to be as near as possible to the object of my desire. After a while the romanticism began to vanish, not least because a scientific analysis started to bring some negative aspects to my attention. Several parts of the excavated city seemed to be rapidly decaying, especially the living quarters in the west of the city, but nobody had shouldered the responsibility of recording and interpreting them. As a result of this, I concentrated my PhD thesis on life in the 2nd century appartments.


Having completed my doctorate, in 1999 I had the chance to start an architectural research project on the ‘Garden Houses’, one of the most famous and avant-garde examples of Roman Imperial architecture (see Literature: RM 2002). However, closer inspection of these 2nd century appartments produced more questions than answers. I realised there were an astonishing number of traces of late antique occupation in these buildings, and throughout the city, which, according to established scholarship, had lost most of its former importance and wealth during the crisis of the 3rd century AD.


This study served to spark my interest in later ‘post-classical’ periods. I intended to develop a new method that would involve a profound reconsideration of old prejudices. Even now, Ostia remains the biggest excavated area of the ancient world; therefore, rather than limiting my research to just one small area such as the Garden Houses, I wanted to extend it to cover the whole of the city as it is more than sufficient to raise and answer many questions about late antique urbanism.


In 2001 I had the chance to study the role of decay, earthquakes and fire-collapse, and what part they played in the rebuilding of the late antique city. As part of my habilitation thesis (see Literature) I started to compare all previously known micro-histories of buildings from late Ostia, as well as other comparably well-excavated metropoleis in the Roman East. Thanks to this broader perspective, it became apparent that instead of a supposed temporary decline, which occurred in some parts of some cities, the opposite was in fact occurring in Ostia; that is, during the 4th and 5th centuries, the standard of living actually began to rise. Therefore, I decided that it was necessary to show that Ostia did not decline, even though it had been tarred with the same brush. As far as private space is concerned, it is now well accepted that Ostia became an elite resort of wealthy Roman senators and the local aristocracy. Yet it still remains less well known that administrative and representative functions, such as monumental displays and processions, for the region and even Rome itself remained concentrated in late Ostia.


My habilitation thesis (2002 – 2007) involved several analyses of the buildings of Ostia, the results of which support a new overall picture of the city. The Decumanus (Ostia’s main street), was turned into a late colonnaded marble street whilst former secondary trade and business streets were converted into pedestrian zones. Close parallels exist only in the splendid metropoleis of the Roman East. Ostia seems the best example of the ‘loss of the middle-classes’ as the city displays an almost complete reorganization of both traffic, public and commercial access ways, and social and functional ‘horizontal zoning’, all of which are also visible at important regional centres such as Aphrodisias, Corinth and Ephesus.


Up until 2005, I had the chance to study almost all of the public buildings, including their micro-histories, along Ostia’s Decumanus (see Literature: RM 2004) with one exception – the Foro Della Statua Eroica. Despite having one of the biggest and most unusual entrances of Roman public architecture, there is very little else to see, even to the trained archaeological eye. However, further investigation will prove otherwise. This is very important, as without further excavation, this plaza cannot be interpreted to the lengths that it deserves and any new perspectives that may arise from it will be sorely delayed and perhaps even lost. However, having said this, a few facts are clear thanks to archive photography. Firstly it is clear that it was a newly built late antique forum which was probably used also as macellum, revealed to us by a surprisingly late renovation inscription dating to 418-420 A. D. Except for a few examples, such as in Rome itself, which are only known by inscriptions, as of yet this is the only example of such a construction in the Roman West!


When I met Luke Lavan at a Congress in Germany during 2006, we decided to meet in Ostia in order to discuss possible research areas and future projects. When visiting Ostia in 2007, Luke was extremely enthusiastic about the site. The Sopraintendente Prof. Pellegrino, when he learnt of Luke’s methods which he employed during his work in Sagalassos, was equally impressed. So the preparations began, both in Kent and in Rome, and now we are looking forward to uncovering further secrets and developing new perspectives and methods of study concerning the late antique city. This information shall make a valid and crucial contribution to late antique studies in Ostia, Rome, the Roman West and urbanism of this period in general.


Axel Gering


Edited by Richard Sadler 13/09/2008


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