Ancient Rome didn’t fall so much as scatter and sink. Medieval masons quarried it for its bricks. The Church carted off its marble. Renaissance art lovers collected its frescoes. What preservation did occur happened organically: Walls encased temple columns; an emperor turned a predecessor’s palace into a foundation for his public baths. Century by century, the new grew on the old.
Building a subway line across this palimpsest of history has inspired ambivalence among archaeologists. Some are concerned about what Linea C’s construction might destroy. Others, however, are excited by the rare chance it offers them to excavate in Rome’s historic center. “As urban archaeologists, we can’t decide where to dig,” said Fedora Filippi, who is leading the digs south of Piazza Navona. “We have to gather the opportunities the city gives us.”
Last winter, these opportunities arrived as a patchwork of plywood and tarping—erected to fence off work sites from traffic and tourists—settled over the roads and piazzas of central Rome. Archaeologists took turns in the depths of the dig, while small cranes lowered buckets to pull out 2,000 years of detritus. Caution was justified: the old city had already made itself known. Archaeologists first broke ground in 1999, just outside the Aurelian city walls, seeking a site to slip in the excavator that would dig the tunnels. At their first choice, they found an antique water mill, dating from the 19th century. At their second, they uncovered Roman walls and two children entombed in amphorae.
In the city center, where the digs were hemmed in by trees, traffic, buildings, and the cost of excavation (Linea C doesn’t give breakdowns of its costs, but each kilometer of track in the center is expected to cost $180 million), the finds were generally small: cart-rutted paving stone; shattered frescoes; handfuls of mosaic flooring. When a young archaeologist uncovered a malformed cube of orange-colored ivory—a gambler’s die—her screams of delight had her colleagues scrambling from their pits.
For most archaeologists studying the digs, the greatest discoveries lie in the stretches of dirt between the relics. Each stage in the excavation is a snapshot of ancient topography, and a layer of earth may contain more secrets than the perfectly preserved mosaics below it. Thick clay might mean flooding: a period of abandonment. Scatterings of fingernail-size marble chips suggest an ancient stonecutting workshop.
At a site across the street from the Colosseum, archaeologists uncovered Roman taverns, rough mosaic floors, a few gold ingots, and what looked like a jade pendant. But their attention was focused on a small hole where the paving stones of an ancient road suddenly dropped in a V shape. Nearby, a Roman wall was missing its foundation, hints of medieval builders burrowing underneath the road for imperial marble. “At some point, their tunnel collapsed, dropping the paving stones down with it,” one archaeologist inferred. “Who knows?The next find might be a human skeleton, trapped below.”
In the 19th century, archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani created the first historical-chronological portrait of Rome when he plotted the ancient city onto the modern in a series of 46 detailed topographic sketches. Some 100 years later, in the office of the superintendent of archaeology, Filippi and her assistants worked on an update. On oversize paper, the kind used by draftsmen, they transcribed finds from scientific texts, archival photos, and longhand notes from more than a century of construction work. Filippi was beginning to cobble together a vision of the Roman city below the Baroque church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where her digs were centered.
In her southern pit, she had found a thick foundation capped with a block of marble—a colossal brick from a monumental wall. Plugged into her map, the wall ran perpendicular to a long piece of wall discovered in the 1930’s when a road was enlarged. Nearby basements entombed capitals belonging to columns bigger than those of the Pantheon. “Each piece is a piece of the puzzle,” said Filippi. “It indicates we’re in a public area.”
According to historical records, this area once housed two important sites: the Temple of Good Fortune and the Baths of Agrippa, a complex of public pools and gardens dating back to the early reign of Augustus Caesar. But as of yet, they’ve never been unearthed and their exact location remains in the realm of conjecture.
In her site’s second pit, Filippi uncovered stairs dropping to a swath of pavement that crossed an underground canal. At the hole’s far edge lay a wall built with waterproof mortar. Asked what she made of these puzzle pieces, Filippi danced around the subject and hesitated before finally admitting, “I’m speaking very speculatively here. But we might have found something.”
For a moment, the modern city held its breath.
Stephan Faris is a journalist based in Rome.