Forum Novum/Vescovio

Excavating part of the amphitheatre at Forum Novum. (2000)

Project leader: Paul Roberts

Department: Greece and Rome

Project start: August 1998
End date: August 2007

Other British Museum staff: Ivor Kerslake, Alexandra Baldwin

Other departments: Photography and Imaging, Conservation and Scientific Research

External partners:
Dr Helen Patterson, British School at Rome  
Professor Vince Gaffney, University of Birmingham  
Dottoressa Giovanna Alvino, Soprintendenza Archeologica del Lazio    

Project funded by:
The British Museum - The Townley Group, Excavation and Fieldwork Committee, Research Board, Caryatid Fund
The British School at Rome
The British Academy
Comune di Torri in Sabina 
Assessorato Culturale per la Provincia di Rieti

Plan of the Roman Villa, revealed by remote sensing (magnetometry) (1997)

Description:

Forum Novum was a small Roman town in the Sabine Hills, 50 km north of Rome. In the middle ages it became a village called Vescovio, which was tiny but had a very important church. The work of the research team was part of the much bigger ‘Tiber Valley Project’ organised by the British School at Rome. This looked at the area around the Tiber between 1000 BC and AD 1300, investigating how human settlement of the area changed over time.

At Forum Novum the team first surveyed the area of the town with surface sherding (picking up dateable pottery from the fields) then geophysics (locating hidden structures below the ground without excavating through scientific techniques such as Magnetometry, Resistivity and even radar). This produced a full map of the town with many features that had never been discovered before. It was then decided where to dig. Excavations comprised a very large suburban villa of the early first century AD, with suites of rooms built around a great colonnaded central garden: A public bath building with its hypocaust (underfloor heating system) still preserved: An immense ceremonial enclosure, once dominated by a tall monument: Several tombs dating to the first century BC containing the remains of cremated bodies and grave goods such as pottery, metal objects and carved bone, once part of a funerary couch. 

One of the most exciting discoveries was the amphitheatre, once used for animal fights and gladiator contests.  Finally, behind the church were found the remains of a building that may have been the original church, dating back to the fifth century AD.

Objectives:

Forum Novum was chosen as a research subject with the aim of understanding more about small cities in Roman times. Many ordinary Romans from the countryside never went to Rome or other big cities, so towns like Forum Novum were very important for providing administration, organised religion, commerce and entertainments.

First the project team had to produce a plan of the town. A total survey of the site recorded all the standing structures, including the ruins of buildings on the Forum (main square), excavated by the Italian authorities in the 1970s. Remote sensing - techniques such as magnetometry and radar were utilised, to detect, record and map buried structures without excavation.  These were then put together to provide the first ever complete plan of Forum Novum. Excavating the tombs near the ceremonial enclosure at Forum Novum (2003) Next, the team wanted to understand the history of the town. How long did the Roman town last and when did it change into an important Christian site? They had the plan of the town but didn’t know exactly what it represented.  More detailed information was needed, so an investigation into some of the significant structures was launched, to discover what the buildings were, when they were built and how long they were used.

Another important aim of the excavations was to provide a context for many of the smaller Roman objects in the British Museum’s collections, such as vases, glass, bone and bronze objects, which had no provenance and no archaeological context. 

By finding similar pieces in the Roman levels at Forum Novum it was hoped to be able to date these Museum pieces more accurately. 

More information:

The British School at Rome: www.bsr.ac.uk/
University of Birmingham: www.arch-ant.bham.ac.uk/
Geophysical survey – radar: www.gpr-survey.com/

Publications:

P. Roberts, 'BMS Digs Deeper', British Museum Magazine 33 (Spring 1999), p.38

P. Roberts, 'Archaeological Adventures', REMUS  7 (Summer 1999), pp. 10-11

P. Roberts, 'L’Anfiteatro di Forum Novum', Archeo 188 (October 2000), p.18

P. Roberts, with V. Gaffney and H. Patterson, 'Forum Novum - Vescovio: studying urbanism in the Tiber Valley', JRA 14 (2001) pp. 59-79

P. Roberts, 'Forum Novum – Vescovio: from Roman town to bishop’s seat',  Lazio and Sabina 1, 2002 (2003), pp.119-26

P. Roberts, with V. Gaffney and H. Patterson, 'Forum Novum (Vescovio): A New Study of the Town and Bishopric', Bridging the Tiber (London, British School at Rome, 2004), pp. 238 – 51

Newspaper articles:

Guardian (17 June, 2000)

Il Messagero (2 July, 2000)


Images (from top):

  • Excavating part of the amphitheatre. (2000). The man at the front of the picture is standing on the level of the arena floor.
  • Plan of the Roman Villa, revealed by remote sensing (magnetometry) (1997).
  • Excavating the tombs near the ceremonial enclosure (2003).