email a friend iconprinter friendly iconRome's Ruins
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Marco Placidi, a coolheaded speleologist and a founder of Roma Sotterranea, was called in. Using ropes and harnesses, Placidi lowered himself into a dark, 40-foot (12-meter) high room, which archaeologists believe was built sometime after Nero's nearby Domus Aurea ("golden house"), dating from a.d. 65, and sometime before the Baths of Trajan (circa a.d. 109), located above both of these structures. This room, it turned out, is one of the best preserved features from the Roman world, with meticulously flat brickwork and large arches. But for Placidi, the heart-thumping moment came halfway down, when, hanging in midair, he aimed his headlamp at the wall: On it was a mosaic, in perfect condition, showing a group of naked men harvesting and stamping grapes. The "Vendemmia" ("Grape Harvest"), as it was called, is some ten feet long and made of minuscule, vividly colored bits of marble and other stone. "When I dropped down into this hole, I never imagined I'd see something like this," Placidi says. "It was an immense joy."

To an outsider, the randomness of such discoveries is shocking. But for Romans, it is quotidian. In the course of going about his business, someone somewhere bumps up against an artifact that hasn't seen the light of day for hundreds—or thousands—of years. Every year, the city authorizes 13,000 requests for building permits, each of which requires archaeological evaluation. Construction of roads and sewers in Rome's ever expanding suburbs is years behind because the overwhelming number of finds stops work and throws budgets into disarray.

The city of Rome has been trying hard to extend a sewer to the Appian area in the southeast for the past three years but has made little progress, according to Davide Mancini and Sergio Fontana. They run a cooperative of archaeology graduate students called Parsifal, contracted by the city's cash-strapped archaeology office to monitor the work of dozens of construction crews. At any time, Parsifal may be overseeing up to 20 worksites, looking out for artifacts, reporting back to the government, and, if necessary, halting work to analyze finds. Traditional archaeology is painstakingly slow, but Parsifal's experts must be able to spot a precious object and assess its value in the seconds before the shovel plunges in.

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