Ian Haynes on the Lateran Project

In this week’s blog Ian Haynes, Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University, gives us an insight into his work on the Lateran Project, a collaboration between Newcastle University, the University of Florence,  the Vatican Museums and the BSR. The excavations under San Giovanni in Laterano (known as the Caput et Mater of all churches of western Christendom) have far-reaching implications for the study of the early church, imperial security, and our understanding of the development of Rome more generally.


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BSR award-holders visit the excavations. Photo by Giorgio Lizzul.

‘It was at once a privilege and the pleasingly fitting culmination to a programme of survey and analysis that had repeatedly seen dust-covered members of the Lateran Project squeezing through labyrinthine passageways deep underground. Special access to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran was graciously granted by Mons. Natalino Zagotto (the Camerlengo of the Lateran Chapter) so that the project team could work across the magnificent cathedral late into the night, long after its doors were closed to the general public.

After years studying the Lateran quarter and the sequence of buildings preserved beneath the Archbasilica and its celebrated Baptistery, including the complex’s Constantinian foundations, the team were more than  ready to reappraise the Papal Cathedral’s spacious interior.

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Visualising the Constantinian Basilica – Early work, next come the fittings and the challenge of the fastigium

Laser scanning by Alex Turner and Dave Heslop (Newcastle), photographic survey by Sabrina Amaducci (Florence) and an integrated ground penetrating radar survey by Salvatore Piro and Daniela Zamuner (ITABC, CNR) each yielded highlights, but so too did the opportunity for concentrated uninterrupted observation of some of the least accessible parts of the complex by the naked eye. Scrutinizing possible traces of Constantinian building fabric high up in a bell tower, or even just taking in the glories of the magnificent golden ceilings from the proximity of the organ loft were themselves career highlights.


The team above ground, Salvatore Piro conducts a ground penetrating radar survey in the Archbasilica

Launched by myself (Ian Haynes, Newcastle), Paolo  Liverani (University of Florence) and Giandomenico Spinola (Vatican Museums) almost a decade ago the British School of Rome / British Academy-sponsored Lateran Project had already amassed over 2 TB of survey and scanning data before it embarked on the standing fabric of the Archbasilica.

From the outset the aim had been to analyse every major phase of development at the Lateran quarter, from the palatial housing that dominated the site up until the second century AD, through the remarkable barracks of the imperial horseguard that replaced it under the emperor Septimius Severus, to the foundation of the Basilica by Constantine – the first cathedral, a structure of such pre-eminence that it was to become known as the Caput et Mater of all churches of Western Christendom.  But it was most particularly fortunate that as our analysis of this phase of the sequence got underway we were able to join forces with Lex Bosman (University of Amsterdam), an architectural historian with a profound knowledge of the Constantinian Basilica and its decorative scheme.

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The team below ground

As our analysis of all this data advances following a rigorous programme of building analysis, the team are making extensive use of visualisation as a tool to power ever more refined interpretation and, subsequently, to disseminate project findings.  A series of magnificent concept models and full colour visualisations, have been produced in collaboration with leading architectural visualisation expert Iwan Peverett, and more are soon to follow. The team’s discoveries and the release of our visualisations of the world’s first cathedral will be presented in public for the first time at our Colloquium on St John Lateran, to take place at the British School at Rome from 19 to 21 September 2016.’


The Lateran conference coordinators (left to right) Ian Haynes, Paolo Liverani and Lex Bosman

Ian Haynes (Newcastle University)

Director Christopher Smith writes ‘We are delighted to have been able to support this project, and we look forward to the conference and resulting publication, which will follow on from our work on Old St Peter’s and on S. Maria Antiqua.  Many thanks also to Ian, Paolo and colleagues at the Vatican Museums for guiding generations of BSR award-holders, visitors and indeed staff visit his very special site!’