Roman villa’s mosaics are unearthed, again, a century after last dig

  • Elisabetta Povoledo bdnews24.com
    Published: 2020-05-29 15:46:14 BdST

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A perfectly preserved ancient Roman mosaic floor that has been discovered near the northern Italian city of Verona, almost a century after the remains of a villa, believed to date to the 3rd century AD, were unearthed in a hilly area above the town of Negrar di Valpolicella. The New York Times

Italian archaeologists have again unearthed the well-preserved, colorfully patterned mosaic floors of an ancient Roman villa in a vineyard that was last excavated nearly a century ago and then lost to public memory.

The site, near Verona in northern Italy, was known to scholars through photographs taken during an earlier archaeological campaign, in 1922. But the villa was reburied at the time and effectively forgotten.

But not to archaeologists.

Nearly 100 years after the last excavation, a state-funded effort began last year to try to find the long-lost mosaics. At first, it was a bit hit or miss, because the archaeologists who worked a century ago had not fixed the precise coordinates of the villa’s location, according to Gianni de Zuccato, the state archaeologist leading the current excavation.

But on May 18, archaeologists hit pay dirt, uncovering part of a mosaic that de Zuccato knew well from the century-old photographs.

“It was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” he said of the moment when the team at the site unearthed a strip of mosaic, between 3 and 5 feet underground. “I had the sensation of entering a time machine, of coming into contact with reality that’s long gone, so many centuries ago, and yet having the imprint of humankind,” he added.

“I cannot help but think of the people who laid the mosaics, of the people who lived there — not only the aristocrats, but the dozens” of servants and farmhands who lived on the land. “That deeply moves me,” he said.

Although the name of the long-ago owner of the villa is not known, de Zuccato said that the quality of the mosaics suggested he had been well off, possibly a local official or an associate of the Imperial entourage.

The overall layout of the villa, which might have been about 10,000 square feet according to de Zuccato, still has not been mapped out because the excavations have far to go.

In a 2007 book on mosaics in the Veneto region, archaeologist Federica Rinaldi, now responsible for the Colosseum in Rome, used the photographs to date the mosaics to the third or fourth century AD, based on a comparison with other mosaics in the area.

“It’s an important find,” Rinaldi said of the rediscovery. Verona’s ancient inhabitants “had unique tastes in flooring,” she added, and “few villas have been found with such well-preserved and well-executed examples.”

A few mosaics from the villa were first accidentally found in 1887 when work was done on the vineyard, which is near the town of Negrar di Valpolicella, in a part of the Veneto region known for its wine. At the time, the vineyard’s owner was free to profit from the mosaics, and he sold them to city officials in Verona.

They are on exhibit at the city’s Archaeological Museum, alongside mosaics from other ancient Roman villas near Verona, an outpost so important for its temples and monuments in ancient times that it was known as “Little Rome,” de Zuccato said.

The land changed hands and a proper archaeological campaign in 1922 sponsored by the local fine arts authorities excavated an area of around 3,000 square feet that uncovered other mosaics from at least five rooms, as well as the remains of painted walls. The dig was photographed and documented, but the mosaics were not removed, in part because funding never arrived and in part because the restorer dragged his heels.

“The owner of the field grew impatient and decided to rebury the mosaics and farm the land,” de Zuccato said. “He planted a vineyard, and it was all forgotten.”

Local lore among the area’s farmers, as well as scholarly publications, kept the memory of the buried mosaics alive. When a local resident built an underground cellar nearby, de Zuccato grew concerned that further construction could inadvertently put the mosaics at risk.

So the search for the mosaics began. First, archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar, “which didn’t go well because the terrain and the vine roots disturbed the reading,” said de Zuccato, who then began a more traditional dig.

The mosaics were found in an area about 50 yards from where the archaeologists had begun excavating, in a vineyard belonging to two owners. They have been good sports about the dig, de Zuccato said.

The excavation is being carried out in trenches so as not to disturb the vines.

Now, however, the archaeologists have to decide what to do next.

“If we bring everything to light, we have to make sure that we can protect and conserve the site, even before we speak of possibly transferring it to a museum,” de Zuccato said.

“We are mulling over our options,” he added.

c.2020 The New York Times Company