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Everyday Roman life explored through international excavation project of ancient town

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Written by
Alex Brent

Dr Emlyn Dodd, Institute of Classical Studies, co-directs an international excavation project of an ancient Roman town, Falerii Novi.

Now in its fourth year, the Falerii Novi Project seeks to unearth secrets of the ancient Roman town of Falerii Novi and gain a greater understanding of how its citizens lived and worked thousands of years ago.  

The project is an international collaboration and brings together researchers and experts from the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, Harvard University, the University of Toronto, and the British School at Rome.  

The project operates under concession of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per la provincia di Viterbo e per l’Etruria meridionale and the Italian Ministry of Culture, with the kind permission of the landowner.  

Up until now, no knowledge has existed of the social and economic lives of the townspeople – the kinds of jobs they had, how they entertained themselves, and what their average day might look like. The settlement was abandoned after the Roman period, and so Falerii Novi is now only grassy fields, albeit with well-preserved ancient walls.  

Through excavation of specific structures at the site – shops, markets, and dwellings – and engagement with recent studies in Roman urbanism, the project hopes to answer questions about daily life in Falerii Novi.  

Archaeologist stands in a dig-site surveying the remains of a structure, while others stand around the site, looking on. The site is a green field with an old building in the distance.

“The Falerii Novi Project combines the strengths of four leading institutes and a deep history of archaeological research on the town and its broader landscape,” said Dr Emlyn Dodd, lecturer at ICS and co-director of the project.  

“By bringing together this consortium we can also offer students crucial archaeological fieldwork experience and training that simply isn’t easy to access these days, all set within a cutting-edge research project. 

“UK students and researchers work alongside a range of international participants and leading specialists. Among other intellectual aims, we hope this can serve as an arena for building the next generation of leading Mediterranean archaeologists.” 

Over the course of four weeks from May to June 2024, the team of over forty academics and students worked to uncover three areas of the ancient town, including shops (tabernae) in its central forum, a meat market (macellum), and a house (domus).  

The excavation uncovered information about ancient structures at Falerii Novi and living creatures and objects. Ceramic and zooarchaeological material (the bones of animals) were processed and studied, which provided insights into cultural and economic activities, such as food production and consumption.  

Ceramic and zooarchaeological remains are dried in the sun in containers next to the old walls of the ancient town of Falerii Novi.

“This season we captured some of our earliest material to date, and in large quantities, so we can really start to flesh out our understanding of the town’s initial phases,” said Dr Emlyn Dodd.  

“We can use detailed geophysical data across the entire townscape to target excavations to answer specific research questions. These findings complement the excellent understanding gained in previous years of the town’s last years and abandonment. We are now finally starting to see the full 900-year chronological arc of urban life at this settlement come into vision.” 

“The project brings together leading specialists and the latest scientific methods in order to investigate, to an unprecedented level, the daily life of a major Roman settlement,” said Stephen Kay, Archaeology Manager at the British School at Rome and co-director of the project. 

“The research will shed light upon the daily habits of its citizens, from their diet through to their commercial activities.” 

The project not only provides discoveries about this ancient town, but how similar communities used resources, how such settlements rose and fell, and the nature of early Roman expansion more generally.  

Overhead view of the Falerii Novi excavation site, showing people working to uncover sections of an ancient structure, with a blue tent nearby, amid some trees and grassland.

“The key thing our project can teach us is how a city develops within its landscape in the ancient past,” said Professor Seth Bernard, University of Toronto, and co-director of the project.   

“We work from a wealth of geophysical study on our site, as well as a stellar understanding of the wider landscape, thanks to over a half-century legacy of survey archaeology in the Tiber Valley. This presents us with one of the finest opportunities for situating urbanism and urban change in its broader context in Central Italy, if not the whole Mediterranean.”  

The project is also valuable for participating students, who receive fieldwork experience and an opportunity to learn and collaborate with an international team of experts and researchers.  

“I am fortunate to have returned as a fieldwork supervisor for the third consecutive year,” said Dr Kelsey Madden, Early-Career Research Associate, ICS. 

“This project continually challenges me in the best ways. The team is truly incredible, and I eagerly anticipate collaborating with them every year. A personal highlight for me this year was the privilege of witnessing our returning members’ growth and confidence in the field. Finding a piece of a terracotta statue did not hurt, either!”  

Archaeologist hand holding up a section of red ceramic showing dancing figures and symbols.

“Being able to work at such an incredibly well-preserved site, and with such a great team of people, both on a personal and professional level, was a privilege from start to finish,” said student Bertie Handley. 

“Meeting people at different stages of their academic journey was illuminating and inspiring. Some of the small finds on the last two days were amazing to excavate, despite the heat!” 

A fascinating and literally ground-breaking exploration of ancient life, the Falerii Novi Project will continue to offer new perspectives and understandings with excavations currently planned through 2026.