email a friend iconprinter friendly iconRome's Ruins
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On a typical day at the site, as Mancini and Fontana watch, a backhoe has to stop four times in a single half hour. A harried graduate student jumps into the muddy pit and tosses up treasure: a lamp, several plates and bowls, small terra-cotta sculptures, and countless fragments of amphorae—much of which might date from the third or fourth century b.c.

"This zone is a mess," Davide says. He explains that work began here in June 2003, expecting the project would take a few months. But completion is still nowhere in sight.

A few minutes later, the backhoe stops again. The student hops into the hole and sends up several very large pieces of amphorae, one of which has a glob of something stuck to it. Brightening, Sergio sniffs it. He says that it might be resin used to seal the amphora, a rare find. Davide disagrees. He thinks it might be incense, maybe from the amphora's reuse in medieval times. Regardless, the fragment goes into a plastic bag, which goes into a box next to dozens of other boxes that wait for the truck to take them to a warehouse. Meanwhile, the backhoe driver finishes his cigarette and asks permission to continue digging.

Interruptions such as these cannot be planned for in advance, in part because it is impossible to know what the underground has in store. (Ground-penetrating radar, which works well in rural settings, has difficulty differentiating complex, debris-filled soils in continuously inhabited places.) Beyond that, the length of any delay depends very much on the value assigned to what is found. Some things, like amphorae sherds, can be quickly dismissed. Others, like buildings, may need to be sketched, measured, and otherwise documented. And occasionally, if something is unique, the Italian state may mandate that it be made accessible to the public.

This troubles many Romans. "No one wants the Beni Culturali knocking on their door," Robert Coates-Stevens says, referring to the state ministry that oversees archaeology. Traditionally, private property owners have been loath to report that errant column in the basement. But this could change as people come to think of having a piece of ancient history as an asset rather than a liability.

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