Archaeological Fieldwork: Summer 2020

It was an unusual summer for archaeological fieldwork in Italy, with many teams sadly unable to excavate due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. However, following the necessary precautions, the archaeologists at the BSR were able to continue its rich programme of archaeological surveys in support of its own research programme and those of other colleagues.

Fieldwork in Rome has continued on our ERC funded research project Rome Transformed (led by Newcastle University, with the Università degli Studi di Firenze and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche). In June, Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey was conducted inside the Amphitheatrum Castrense, a 3rd century AD amphitheatre that formed part of the Sessorium.

GPR survey in the Amphitheatrum Castrense, inside the property of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Photo: Francesca Carboni)

With the support of experts from Geostudi Astier and the kind permission of Soprintendenza Speciale Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio di Roma, another geophysical technique, Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT), was also used to survey parts of the Circus Varianus which also formed part of the complex.

ERT inside the Circus Varianus, with the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in the background (Photo: Stephen Kay)
BSR Geophysical Researcher Elena Pomar conducting topographical survey at the Circus Varianus (Photo: Stephen Kay)

Together with the team from Geostudi Astier, ERT was also conducted inside the public gardens in Viale Carlo Felice, with the aim of mapping deeply buried structures alongside the Aurelian walls. The work was conducted with the generous support of the project partners the Sovrintendenza Capitolina.

BSR and Geostudi Astier teams working with ERT in Viale Carlo Felice, next to the Aurelian walls (Photo: Francesca Carboni)

In July, the BSR archaeology team headed into the Sabina to Cotilia, northeast of Rome, to conduct GPR and magnetometry surveys at the so-called ‘Baths of Vespasian’ on the behalf of colleagues at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax.

BSR Archaeology Officer Stephen Kay conducting magnetometry survey at Cotilia (Photo: Elena Pomar)

The site, which lies alongside the ancient consular road of the Via Salaria, is a sprawling complex whose precise function is still unclear but which includes thermal baths and a medieval church.

An excavated section of the Via Salaria at Cotilia (Photo: Stephen Kay)

From the hills of the Sabina, the team then headed across Lazio to the Tyrrhenian coast and the wonderful site of Vulci, an Etruscan and then later Roman city. In 2019 the BSR had conducted a preliminary survey at the site, testing GPR and magnetometry, on the behalf of the University of Gothenburg. The exciting results, shortly to be published in the Bollettino di Archeologia Online, encouraged the team to further extend the GPR survey to map larger parts of the city.

BSR Geophysical Researcher Elena Pomar conducting GPR survey at Vulci (Photo: Stephen Kay)
A paved section of the roads inside the city of Vulci (Photo: Stephen Kay)

40 years on from the excavations at San Giovanni di Ruoti


‘Alastair Small (Rome Scholar 1965-7) began work near the small village of San Giovanni di Ruoti in Basilicata (ancient Lucania) in the 1970s with Robert Buck, and with the encouragement of Dinu Adamesteanu, the great superintendent of the region. The local historian Gerardo Salinardi had drawn attention to the potential of the site, then accessible only by mule. The excavation from 1977 to 1984 revealed a stunning villa site, occupying a beautiful position looking down the Valley of the Fiumara di Avigliano, towards the ever receding hills.

The site produced splendid late Roman mosaic floors (now in the museum at Muro Lucano), and had its own bath building. It was on two floors, with a large absidal building, and perhaps the most significant aspect is its continuity. There appears to have been an early phase which began around the time of Augustus and continued just into the third century, but when the villa sparks back into life in around 300 it continues into the mid-seventh century.


Site tour with Alastair and Carola Small.


Life was not entirely ordered – the disused areas show extraordinary amounts of rubbish and animal remains – but at the same time, San Giovanni di Ruoti remained connected, especially to Adriatic trade.



Alastair speaking at the presentation of the new volume La villa romana e tardoantica di San Giovanni di Ruoti (Basilicata). Una sintesi.

Alastair returned earlier this month to San Giovanni for the presentation of a synthesis of the excavation, produced with Francesco Tarlano.  The volume, La villa romana e tardoantica di San Giovanni di Ruoti (Basilicata). Una sintesi (published superbly by Pisani Teodosio Edizioni) is a sharp, clear and well-illustrated account of this important villa site, summarising work published in the more imposing Phoenix supplements which experts will know (two more volumes are due).

I was privileged to be part of the event, and it was yet another illustration of the passion Italians have for their heritage. Alastair and Carola Small, indefatigable as ever, were at the heart of everything – a tour round the site with an eager audience, talks in the evening in a packed hall; and many memories.  This was a dig which had engaged a community, and archive photos of the 1970s team were eagerly scrutinized for friends and relatives. Some of the Canadian team came too – husband and wife Eric Haldenby and Rosemary Aicher, who met at Ruoti, and Joann Freed who worked on the pottery.  Luisa Troiano, who had moved to America in the 1960s, and whose generosity made the whole project possible, gave a gracious speech and was cheered to the rafters. Everything was managed impeccably by Felice Faraone, whose idea it had all been.

The following day, Alastair, Carola and I travelled to Muro Lucano to see the mosaics and the other treasures of this super museum, directed by Salvatore Pagliuca, who has created a little gem, with a stunning sixth-century grave from Baragiano to gladden my heart.


Salvatore Pagliuca with a group at the Muro Museum.

I stayed in the aptly named and very lovely Dimora di Bacco, where Luigi Nardiello and Giuseppina Matturro were bringing in the vintage from their vineyard. Much in Basilicata has not changed, and perhaps in particular its capacity to run at a different pace from the rest of Italy, just as in antiquity its cultural activity outlasted northern neighbours.  Recently, it has been in the news for its acceptance of large numbers of migrants (in late Antiquity it was the Lombards of course).  It scores extraordinarily highly in tourist satisfaction, but is far less visited than other parts of Italy; and San Giovanni di Ruoti is in need of attention – it must either be restored properly or backfilled. Basilicata goes its own way, but investment is needed.

This story can be multiplied almost endlessly – a small town, well excavated by a super team, with huge local enthusiasm, and revealing unknown treasures.  It is what makes Italian archaeology so very remarkable – it is not just a scientific process, it is also a way in which discovering the past makes new memories, creates new communities, and refocuses older ones. This story stands for the many times I have encountered the impact of archaeology in Italy, and in this instance, much is owed to the BSR’s great friend Alastair Small, for whom the affection in this local community was palpable. Bravo Alastair!’


Christopher Smith (BSR Director)

Digging Pompeii: the 2016 summer excavations

This summer saw the second season of work by the BSR, the Ilustre Colegio Oficial de Doctores y Licenciados en Letras y Ciencias de Valencia y Castellòn. Departamento de Arqueologia and the Museo de Prehistoria e Historia de La Diputación De Valencia at the site of the necropolis of Porta Nola outside the north-eastern gate of Pompeii. Following the success last year of the discovery of a further burial inside the tomb of Marcus Obellius Firmus and the excavation of cremations alongside the city wall, the 2016 season concentrated on two further areas within the necropolis.

The 2016 International Field School saw the participation of 22 students from ten different countries who over the course of five weeks were trained in excavation techniques, ceramic identification and osteology, with a focus on studying cremation burials. Alongside the team, conservators continued work begun last year on the structure of the tomb of Marcus Obellius Firmus as well as conserving the objects being recovered from the site.


Study of the cremations of two Praetorian guards. Photo by Charles Avery.

This summer’s excavation focused on the area immediately behind the tomb of Marcus Obellius Firmus in order to understand its relationship with the smaller gateway into the necropolis and understand whether it formed part of the funerary precinct or delimited the pomerium of the city. The excavation discovered a number of deposits alongside the gate resulting from the cleaning of ustrinum (the place of a funerary pyre), as well as a beaten earth road that led through the gate to the circuit road of the city. As ever with excavations, on the final day an ustrinum was discovered at the very limit of the trench, complete with burnt human bone, ash and large pieces of carbon. This will be investigated in the final season of excavation next year.


Excavation of a vase behind the Tomb of Obellius Firmus. Photo by Stephen Kay.

Elsewhere on the site the excavation of a rectangular structure was completed, built just behind the funerary monument of Aesquillia Polla. Variously described by earlier research as a funerary precinct, garden or ustrinum, the 2016 excavation sought to understand the role of this structure, built in a prominent position opposite the Nolan Gate. Once the excavation had removed layers dating to activity of the early twentieth century, which included the burial of a dog and the loss of several terracotta smoking pipes, the work revealed large deposits of construction material used to raise the level beneath the building. However the 2016 excavation did not record any cremations, supporting the theory of a late construction that was not used before the eruption of AD 79.


A coin of Divo Augusto issued under Tiberius (15 – 16 AD). Photo by Stephen Kay.

The Porta Nola Necropolis Project is extremely grateful for the support shown by the Soprintendenza Pompeii, in particular the Soprintendente Professor Massimo Osanna and the funzionario for the area Dott.ssa Annalisa Capurso. Permission and assistance was also kindly given by Dott.ssa Laura D’Esposito and Dott.ssa Marialaura Ladanza for the osteological study of two Praetorian burials, excavated in the mid 1970s by the Soprintendenza. In the field, the team was kindly supported by the Soprintendenza excavation assistant Sig. Vincenzo Sabini. The project is directed by Llorenç Alapont, Rosa Albiach and Stephen Kay with the support of a team of specialists: Trinidad Pasies (Conservator), Letizia Ceccarelli (Finds Officer), Ilaria Frumenti (Surveyor), Fabio Mestici (Numismatist) and Pasquale Longobardi (Health and Safety Officer). The 2016 excavations were supervised by Pedro Corredor, Tomas Jirak, Monika Koroniova, Adrià Pitarch and Sheyla Sancho. Finally, a huge thank you to all the students who participated in the excavation this year for their tremendous hard work.


Members of the 2016 excavation team. Photo by Llorenç Alapont.

Stephen Kay (Archaeology Officer)



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.

Lateran Project Picture

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!’

20 years of the City of Rome Postgraduate Course

2015 marks the twentieth year of the BSR’s City of Rome Postgraduate Course. The two-month course, aimed at students at Masters or early doctoral level, is led by the BSR’s indefatigable Cary Fellow Robert Coates-Stephens, and gives students from UK universities the most thorough treatment of the ancient city. The course is enjoyable, but at the same time intellectually challenging and rigorous, with at least five contact hours a day including site visits (often led by experts who have been instrumental in the site’s excavation or interpretation), seminars and individual presentations. There are also weekly lectures by leading experts — Amanda Claridge and Filippo Coarelli were among those who shared their knowledge and expertise with students this year. At the end of the course all students submit an assessed essay.

Thanks to the tenacity of our Permissions Officer Stefania Peterlini in 2015 permessi were secured to see the fountain of Anna Perenna, the Villa of Livia, and the Altar of the Fire of Nero. Students were also lucky enough to visit the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Domus Aurea, the Basilica Julia and the House of Augustus, all of which have only recently re-opened.

Here’s what some of the 2015 City of Rome course students had to say:-

The lectures were excellent, giving an otherwise unknown insight into the current scholarship surrounding the study of Rome and current debates’

— Will Rigby, Classics and Ancient History MA, University of Manchester

Robert’s tutelage was incredible, especially in the way he was able to tailor the course to our individual needs. The course was the highlight of my Masters and no doubt will prove invaluable’

— Andrew Lee, MA (Res) City of Rome, University of Reading

[The course] made me think about Rome in a completely new light’

— Mollie Millward-Nicholls, Visual Culture of Classical Antiquity MA, University of Nottingham

Alumnus profile: Dr Carlos Machado (University of St Andrews)

This year we were delighted to welcome back as guest lecturer the familiar face of Carlos Machado, a former City of Rome student himself (2002), who returned to the BSR in 2005-6 as Rome Scholar, and has recently been appointed as a lecturer in Ancient History at the University of St Andrews. Carlos told us about his memories of the course:


Carlos Machado, City of Rome student 2002, Rome Scholar 2005-6.

‘Participating in the City of Rome course was one of the most important experiences in my academic life. Being at the BSR was an amazing opportunity for experimenting with new ideas, talking to great specialists in the field, and experiencing a truly international academic environment (not to mention the food and the weather!). The site visits offered a wealth of information and new insights on famous monuments as well as on those you don’t usually see in books. I will never forget entering through a tiny doorway to find a splendid early Imperial nymphaeum on via degli Annibaldi under the eyes of surprised tourists and passers-by. It was during the course that I finally managed to define the topic of my doctoral dissertation, as each visit gave me more confidence to deal with the material that I wanted to analyse. I also met many colleagues and friends while at the School, forming a network that has helped me in different stages of my career. I returned to the School many times after my course, and I even managed to live in Rome for a few years, but nothing compares to the excitement and the feeling of continuous discovery that I experienced during those two fantastic months’.

It is no exaggeration that this is the most in-depth course on the topography of Rome offered by any of the foreign academies and no surprise, therefore, that many course participants go on to doctorates. The BSR is proud of a course which for many students has continued to be a fundamental part of their own intellectual development. Alumni have gone on to work at the universities of Durham, Exeter, Nottingham, Oxford, Reading, St Andrews, Warwick, Augsburg, Leiden, Santiago de Chile and Sydney, as well as the British Museum, the Museum of London, the Estorick Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the BSR itself.

City of Rome students at Ostia Antica. Photo: Ali Hightower.

City of Rome students at Via Latina. Photo: Ali Hightower.

 See our website for further information about the course: 

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies

Molly Cotton remembered

The Dr. M. Aylwin Cotton Foundation funded fellowship awards, publications grants, and other donations for the study of archaeology, architecture, history, languages and art of cultures in the Mediterranean area for a period of 36 years, from 1972-2008. It’s just one of the lasting contributions to archaeology made by Molly Cotton.

During the 1960s and 70s she played a major role in the British School at Rome’s archaeology activities, training aspiring students. She began by directing excavations of the Roman Republican villas at Posto and San Rocco near Francolise in Campania, and later, she excavated throughout Southern Italy (Gravina, Cozzo Presepe, Monte Irsi, Otranto) as well as closer to Rome along the Via Gabina.

But she wasn’t always an archaeologist.

Born Mary Aylwin Marshall (1902-1984), she trained as a doctor at the London School of Medicine for Women and St. Mary’s Hospital. In 1928 she married Dr Thomas Cotton, a cardiologist, and retired from medical practice, although she remained an honorary medical advisor to the National Children’s Adoption Society until 1936.

Shortly after, Molly went on a trip to Greece and was converted to archaeology.

In 1936 she was one of the first to take a postgraduate diploma at the newly founded Institute of Archaeology, London. She became close friends with Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler, and was assistant director of the pioneering excavations at Maiden Castle conducted between 1934 and 1938. 

During the war years Molly served in the Far Eastern Department of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and on the Foreign Office staff, and in 1946 was awarded an OBE for her outstanding contribution.

In 1948 she resumed her archaeological work, excavating with Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Hod Hill, Verulamium, Colchester and Clausentum. During these years her research focused on the pre-Roman Iron Age of Britain and in particular the classification of hill forts of that period.

It was only after her husband passed away in 1965 that Molly moved to Rome and became closely connected with the British School at Rome, running the activities of the Archaeology department, the ‘Camerone’. She has left behind an important legacy in archaeology both through her foundation and her publications.

In memory of Molly’s outstanding contribution to the British School at Rome and Italian archaeology, each year the BSR hosts a Molly Cotton Lecture, inviting distinguished archaeologists to present on recent research and excavations. This year, the BSR is proud to host a lecture by Cécile Evers, Natacha Massar and Cesare Letta on “The Forum at Alba Fucens: Recent Belgian Excavations and the Fasti Albenses”.

By Stephen Kay (BSR Molly Cotton Fellow)

Images courtesy of the BSR Archive.