Wed, Nov 26, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Car park set to swallow historic site

ANCIENT VS. MODERN Budgetary constrictions are forcing Rome's city government to build a parking lot on top of a recently discovered archaeological find


A view of the escavations where early third century warehouses were recently discovered in Rome. Archaeologists had to put down their tools after exploring only a small part of the site, which will soon be topped by a 200-car parking lot.


In the battle between saving ancient glories and easing modern hassles, score a victory for Rome's commuters.

Frustrated archaeologists said Monday that a sprawling area of recently discovered early third century warehouses will soon be topped by a 200-car parking lot in the Trastevere area near the Tiber River.

Archaeologists had to put down their tools after exploring only a small slice of the 500m2 expanse of storehouses that once served as busy port when Roman traders and armies sailed the Mediterranean during the Imperial era.

While there's money available to build parking spots in this car-choked metropolis, the coffers for archaeological exploration are practically bare.

But archaeologists expressed relief that they will at least be able to rescue three stunning mosaics from what could be thermal baths from the start of the fourth century.

The mosaics were found some 3m above the level of the store-houses, thought to date about a century earlier.

It's not the first time Romans' hunger for more parking lots fared better than archaeologists' thirst for more knowledge. A frescoed, second century Imperial villa was razed on the Janiculum hill to make way for a multistory Vatican parking garage for its 2000 millennium celebrations.

"The fortune, or misfortune, of Rome, is that it continues to live on top of its ancient ruins," said Piero Pruneti, a historian and editor-in-chief of Archeologia Viva, an Italian archaeological magazine.

The mosaics and the store-houses came to light when Rome's public transport company, ATAC, asked archaeologists to do some excavations at the site.

Discoveries of ancient columns, statues and other antiquities are common during construction in Rome, and many companies invite archaeologists to do sample digs in hopes of avoiding surprises that can hold up projects for years.

The mosaics were described as an extraordinary find.

Fiorenzo Catalli, the archaeologist who led the excavation, said the largest of the three mosaics measures 10m-by-10m and depicts romping, mythical sea animals in black and white tiles.

Another, well-preserved but smaller mosaic that is also black-and-white features a lion's head with a flowing mane and a manlike face, surrounded by fish.

The third mosaic, made of bits of colored glass, was done in a geometric design. It has been removed, restored and put in a storehouse in a Rome park until it can be installed in a museum.

But the other two mosaics have been plastered over until a safe home can be found for them.

"We preferred to bury them rather them leave them exposed and not properly cared for," said Catalli, adding that the government's chronically skimpy budget for cultural heritage makes it difficult to guarantee security and upkeep.

In the unlikely prospect that generous funding should come through for extensive excavations, ATAC will have to allow some digging in the parking lot area, Catalli said.

ATAC originally planned a depot for trams but abandoned the plan in favor of the lot because it would have involved underground foundations that could have destroyed the ancient finds.

"The mosaics could belong to a thermal baths area, but that's only a hypothesis," said Catalli. "We can't say for certain because we couldn't complete our exploration of the whole area."

Several amphorae, the long, slender, two-handled jars that ancient Romans used for shipping and storing oil, wine and a tangy fish sauce that was popular with ancient tastes, were also found in the storehouses.

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