Excavating the Untouched History of Rome

Rubina Raja has trained as a classical archaeologist at the University of Oxford and currently holds a professorship at Aarhus University. A DKK 10-million grant from the Aarhus University Research Foundation has enabled her and an international team of researchers to launch the archaeological project of their dreams – excavating the Forum of Caesar in the centre of Rome. 

By Anja Kjærgaard

‘We will continue to dig until we reach “virgin soil”, that is, completely untouched soil that does not contain any traces of human activity’, says Rubina Raja from her work base in Aarhus. Here, in the scenic countryside surrounding Moesgaard Museum, the 45-year-old professor spends the majority of her time as head of centre, researcher and teacher, that is, when she is not attending conferences, lectures or other excavations throughout the world. She can often be found working by a road in the centre of Rome, the Via dei Fori Imperiali. The road cuts across the imperial fora or public arenas built by Roman emperors in honour of themselves. And one of these fora in particular has caught the interest of the Danish archaeologist.

‘The Forum of Caesar was the first of these public arenas. As Caesar was not emperor, naturally, it is not really an imperial forum, but the idea behind the arena is the same, and all subsequent imperial fora would draw on his idea. Therefore, the Forum of Caesar plays a key role in classical archaeology, as it represents innovation in a high-political tension field.

Caesar’s brash, autocratic way of controlling Rome ended up costing him his life, and the forum is an example of his manner of self-presentation – right in the centre of Late Republican Rome’, says Rubina Raja.

In recent years, she and an international team of researchers have been involved in one of the largest archaeological collaborations between Denmark and Italy in recent times – namely the excavation of the Forum of Caesar.

Our Shared Cultural Heritage

Gaius Julius Caesar began construction of the forum in the middle of the last century before Christ. Under the rule of Caesar and later in the imperial era, the old Roman Forum, the central square in ancient Rome, became too small for the self-presentation of the city’s powerful men. This led to an expansion, which has undergone several archaeological excavations in the past. However, an area of about 3,000 square metres has been left untouched – up until now, as it is now the subject of an extensive urban-archaeological project led by Rubina Raja, among others. Eventually, the project will shed new light on the development of Rome from its beginning up until today – a perspective covering about 3,000 years of archaeology.

‘I feel humble when I think about the responsibility that comes with the project. We must draw as much knowledge as possible from the material we find and make it available to the wider academic world as well as to the public. After all, this is our shared cultural heritage’, says Rubina Raja referring, as she often does, to a ‘we’ – because a project like this one never rests on the shoulders of one person.

‘The project is based at the Danish Academy in Rome, which collaborates with the Antiquity Unit[M1]  in the Municipality of Rome, and it is academically affiliated with the basic research centre I am heading, namely the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) at the School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University’, says Rubina Raja.

According to the Danish professor, the Antiquity Unit in the Municipality of Rome is responsible for the practical planning of the project in dialogue with the Danish partners. The unit holds great knowledge of previous excavations in the area, archaeological challenges and infrastructure. The Danish Academy in Rome is also involved in the project; it is represented, among others, by Archaeologist and PhD Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, who is the day-to-day head of the excavation and the link between the Antiquity Unit and UrbNet. Rubina Raja is head of the research part of the project – a responsibility of which she stands in awe.

‘I believe that excavations should be research-based and take as non-invasive a form as possible. After all, archaeology itself is destructive. You can never return what you excavate, so it is a huge responsibility considering that what we remove is cultural heritage. Therefore, I consider the documentation and publication of results equally important’, she says.

But before they are ready to present the results, they must complete the initial preparatory work, which to outsiders may not appear to have anything to do with archaeology.

Various Ways of Conducting Archaeology

The first part of the excavation has involved lots of machinery. Seeing as the site of the excavation is located below the Via dei Fori Imperiali in an area that sees thousands of passers-by every day, traffic and public events, it has been necessary to reinforce certain parts of the area to prevent a collapse.

‘Naturally, the preparatory work preceding the excavation of the Forum of Caesar has been extensive, and it has been done in collaboration with the project partners. Once you have identified the areas that should be the focus of the excavation, you lay down a strategy for the work’, says Rubina Raja, while pointing out that there are many different ways of conducting archaeology – depending on the part of the world and the nature of the archaeology. Archaeology focussing on prehistorical times requires a different approach than for example monumental historical remains, she argues. Likewise, there may be regional differences, where the archaeological approach may be affected by climatic conditions. So there are various ways of doing archaeological work. However, regardless of the approach, planning is always important, as it helps enhance the level of research resulting from the excavation.

‘The planning phase of this project has helped enhance the level of research, as knowledge of past excavations in the area and their findings has given us an idea of what we could expect to find in terms of material, and it has thus enabled us to optimise the implementation of scientific methods of analysis of the various groups of findings’, says Rubina Raja.

A main reason why the archaeological project was launched in the first place was the municipality’s construction work plans for the area by Via dei Fori Imperiali. The planning of this work brought up the excavation of so far uncovered parts of the Forum of Caesar – to the great delight of the Aarhus-based professor, who is also happy that they have been given the chance to work with ceramics found in the area during past excavations. 

‘You need to remember that ceramics were the most frequently used commodity of the time and thus constitute a group of items that provides us with intimate insight into everyday lives at the time’, says Rubina Raja, who is currently working with her research group on putting the final touches on what in her words will become a ‘monumental publication of ceramics findings reflecting the life of Rome through several thousand years’.

About the background for the publication she says:

‘We were lucky to be able to study all the ceramics found during the previous excavation of the area, which so far have not been published. The study of the ceramics findings was coordinated by Postdoc at the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Sine Saxkjær, who is an expert in ceramics, and whose knowledge has been key and will greatly affect our understanding of the ceramics we will find during our excavations’.


Important Interplay Between the Humanities and the Natural Sciences

What also makes the Forum of Caesar excavation an archaeological dream project is the fact that the excavation distinguishes itself from past excavations in the area and in Rome in general by focussing equally on all periods.

‘The excavation will not focus on a specific period in time. What we are interested in is extracting as much information from the soil as possible’, says Rubina Raja, who, as head of the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, is interested in towns and urban archaeology, including especially the interplay between the humanities and the natural sciences, which will benefit this project. According to Rubina Raja, archaeology holds a series of fixed methods, for example the so-called stratigraphic method of excavation that helps you understand the linear development of a site. Even though this method gives you an overview, it can still be difficult for even experienced archaeologists to date various phases.

‘At the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions we have access to some of the world’s best facilities for archaeological dating, and we have developed a research process that also involves various natural science competences right from the start. For the Forum of Caesar project this means that we, even before launching the project, held a method workshop attended by a lot of our natural science collaborators. Among other things, this has caused us to include a specific focus on the soil chemistry, and in February I travelled to Rome with a group of experts to discuss various approaches on site and to gain access to the stratigraphy of other excavations, which would act as a basis for our discussions.

Archaeology Moves Backwards in Time

One thing that is not up for debate is the inevitable truth that archaeology moves backwards in time through history and prehistory.

‘However, archaeological fieldwork can often be scaled. You can choose how much you wish to excavate and how many methods of analysis you wish to implement. But the grant provided by the Aarhus University Research Foundation, the so-called AUFF Flagship, means that we are able to do what I would call a holistic dream project’, says Rubina Raja.

She is proud that the foundation has chosen her project as the first AUFF Flagship, just as she is pleased on behalf of the humanities and humanistic research. And she has delivered significant results.

‘So far the main result of our work has been the discovery that the nature and status of the neighbourhood which under Mussolini was considered unimportant and somewhat slummy, namely the Alessandrino District, which dates from the 16th century, was very different from what we thought, says Rubina Raja and elaborates:

‘The houses in the neighbourhood in fact belonged to the upper-middle class. And this clearly shows that archaeology can also be political. During the reign of Mussolini, the importance of the neighbourhood was played down to justify the removal of ancient elements and thus make room for Mussolini’s parade street in the centre of Rome. This probably would not have been possible today. And it is a blessing in disguise that 3,000 square metres have been left untouched, enabling us to excavate a so far untouched part of the history of Rome.

The next phase of the excavation project will thus focus on no less than the entire period from the 15th century and all the way back to the very first phases.

‘We will go back in time, and it is a huge undertaking, as everything needs to be documented, recorded and published. Even though the level representing the rule of Caesar is still below the surface, when I stand in the Forum of Caesar today I am standing in the middle of history feeling both a sense of awe, responsibility and joy that we expect to have made important findings from the entire history of Rome from the beginning and up until today once the project is complete. 

The Alessandrino District on a postcard from 1856 – well before Mussolini tore down the neighbourhood to make room for the Via dei Fori Imperiali in downtown Rome. To the far left is the area where the south-eastern part of the Forum of Caesar could be found in Antiquity.

Listen to a podcast …

Travel back to the Roman Empire with the podcast series ‘Cæsars Forum’ (in Danish). Listen to the first episode, ‘Rejsen til Rom’, on Spotify, Google Play or your preferred podcast app.