PEPP - The Palatine East Site and Excavations

[Document modified: 6/3/18]

The Palatine East site is situated on the lower slopes of the northeast corner of the Palatine Hill in downtown Rome.  It lies at the edge of the Colosseum Valley, ca. 40 m southwest of the Arch of Constantine and 100 m southwest of the Colosseum.  Beginning in 1988 it was the focus of a collaborative excavation project by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and the American Academy in Rome carried out under the direction of Professor Eric Hostetter of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  The aim of the project was to elucidate the topography and occupational history of what was at that time a little-studied and poorly understood portion of the Palatine Hill.  The excavations were carried out in ca. two-month long campaigns undertaken each summer from 1988 through 1993.  This was followed by study seasons held during the summers of 1994, 1995 and 1996.  The work involved the participation of archaeologists, specialists of various kinds and students from the United States of America, Norway, Finland and Italy.

Figure 1: Plan of area of Colosseum Valley and adjacent areas showing location of Palatine East site (red rectangle). (after PE I fig. 4)

Figure 2: Satellite image of Forum, Palatine and Colosseum Valley showing location of Palatine East site (red rectangle). (Google Earth, July, 2014)

Figure 3: View of Palatine East site from east as it appears today (Google Earth street view, July, 2014)

Two volumes of final reports have appeared.  Palatine East Volume I, published in 2009 and edited by Eric Hostetter and J. Rasmus Brandt (PE I), reports on the archaeology and history of the northeast corner of the Palatine Hill, the stratigraphy and architecture of the site, the interpretation of the site, and various aspects of project methodology.  Palatine East Volume 2, published in 2014 and edited by Archer St. Clair (PE II), presents the finds from the site other than the pottery, including objects in stone, terracotta, bone, ivory, glass and metal, along with painted wall plaster, inscriptions and coins.  Rather than producing a third volume in the series dedicated to the site pottery assemblage, as initially projected, the decision has been made to present the basic pottery data on the RES ROMANAE website, with a volume of interpretive essays based on these data to follow, to be published in on-line open source format.

Figure 4: Cover PE I.

Figure 5: Cover PE II.

The description of the site that follows is intended to provide users of this website with a general idea of its nature and the nature of the archaeological remains uncovered in the course of the project.  For a full exposition of these users should consult the relevant sections of PE I (especially pp. 15-25, 31-212, 257-263).  Users should also note that Harris matrices for three of the four sectors of the site (Sectors A, B and D) and context (i.e., stratigraphic unit) summaries for these same sectors (neither of which forms of documentation appear in either PE I or PE II) will eventually be presented on the PEPP – Pottery Assemblage Data page on this website.

Excavation was undertaken in two discreet zones separated by a gap of ca. 10 m (corresponding to an area where excavation was precluded by the presence of the tourist path that runs along the east slope of the Palatine).    The first of these zones, located at what is today the foot of the hill, immediately to the west of/inside the modern wrought-iron fence that demarcates the edge of the Area Archeologica Foro Romano/Palatino, was centered on the remains of a large apsidal hall (henceforth the Apsidal Hall) in brick-faced concrete that jutted out from the hillslope as this trended downward from west to east.  This zone was divided into three sectors, termed Sectors A, B, and C, with Sector A embracing the western/upslope portion of the area to the south of the Apsidal Hall, Sector B the Apsidal Hall and the area immediately to its north, and Sector C the eastern/downslope portion of the area to the south of the Apsidal Hall.  The second zone, situated to the northwest of and upslope with respect to the first, was termed Sector D.    Excavation was carried out in this area with a view to exploring the remains of a small, circular structure of apparent Roman date – a fountain, it was revealed - the upper portion of which emerged from the surface.

Figure 6: Plan indicating sectors of Palatine East site. (PE I fig. 8)

In PE I (pp. 21-22) Hostetter and Brandt divide the occupational history of the area investigated into 12 general periods, as follows:

     Period I:         fourth – third centuries BCE

     Period II:        second – first centuries BCE

     Period III:       ca. 1-50 CE

     Period IV:       ca. 50-100 CE

     Period V:        ca. 100-200 CE

     Period VI:       ca. 200-250 CE

     Period VII:      ca. 250-300 CE

     Period VIII:     ca. 300-550 CE

     Period IX:       ca. 550-900 CE

     Period X:        ca. 900-1400 CE

     Period XI:       ca. 1400-1900 CE

     Period XII:      twentieth century CE

It should be noted that this scheme was based in significant measure (though by no means exclusively) on dating information for the pottery deposits from the site provided to the authors by JTP that reflected his understanding of this as of January, 1999.  (See in this regard Peña 2009A.)

The remains in Sectors A-C were dominated by the Apsidal Hall.  This construction, dating to Period VII (250-300 CE), consists of a rectangular hall on an ENE – WSW axis – here assumed to be an E-W axis for ease of discussion - with an apse at its eastern end.  The hall sits atop a row of three N-S barrel vaults that open to the north.  Immediately following the construction of the Apsidal Hall (still in Period VII) an enigmatic series of small rectangular and apsidal rooms was constructed in brick-faced concrete immediately to the south of and abutting the hall (in Sector A).  These rooms appear not to have been finished, and in some cases one room put one or more of the previously constructed rooms in the series out of use.  Fills of modest size associated with the construction of these rooms yielded a moderate amount of artefactual material.  A set of chambers beneath the western portion of the Apsidal Hall and immediately to the west of it and a large E-W construction underneath the northern end of the row of vaults on which the Apsidal Hall is seated (in Sector B) - all in brick-faced concrete and all constructed during Period VI (200-250 CE) - may represent an initial phase of this structure.  The function of the Apsidal Hall remains unclear.  The most plausible interpretation is that it formed part of an elite domus (townhouse).

Figure 7: Apsidal Hall from northwest during excavation (1990).

Figure 8: Apsidal Hall from southwest during excavation (1989).

Figure 9: Row of barrel vaults supporting Apsidal Hall from north during excavation (1991).

Figure 10: Small rectangular and apsidal rooms to south of Apsidal Hall from west during excavation (1991).

Beginning ca. 300 CE and continuing into at least the second half of the fifth century CE, thus, for a period of time equivalent to the first 150-200 years of Period VII (300-550 CE), a series of massive dumps of secondary refuse was deposited in the areas immediately to the north and south of the Apsidal Hall and the row of vaults on which the hall was seated (in Sectors A and B), burying the row of small rectangular and apsidal rooms to the south of the Apsidal Hall, largely filling the row of vaults on which the hall was seated and raising ground level a substantial amount in the area to the north of  the hall (perhaps occupied by a courtyard).   While excavation reached the bottom on this sequence of dumps in the area to the south of the Apsidal Hall (Sector A), the depth of the deposits precluded this either in the row of vaults on which the hall was seated or in the area to its north (Sector B).  A large portion of the artefactual materials recovered by the project came from these deposits.

Figure 11: Excavation of fourth – fifth century CE dump deposits to south of Apsidal Hall from east (1989).

Figure 12: Excavation of fourth – fifth century CE dump deposits in barrel vault from north (1991).

Excavation beneath the western end of the Apsidal Hall (in Sector B) revealed the remains of a barrel vaulted chamber in grotta oscura tufo and some ancillary structures that have been dated to Period I (fourth – third centuries BCE and Period II (second – first centuries BCE).  Elsewhere, excavation beneath the small rectangular and apsidal rooms immediately to the south of the Apsidal Hall (in Sector A) revealed short stretches of drains, amphora fixtures and walls in brick-faced concrete dating to Period III (1-50 CE), Period IV (50-100 CE) and Period V (100-200 CE).  While these structures are fragmentary and difficult to interpret, they may represent the remains of insulae (apartment buildings) and/or tabernae (shops).   Fills of moderate size associated with these structures yielded a substantial amount of artefactual material.

Figure 13: Excavation of fill deposits in small rectangular and apsidal rooms to south of Apsidal Hall from west (1990).

Period IX (550-900 CE), Period X (900-1400 CE) and Period XI (1400-1900 CE) saw the dumping of large quantities of secondary refuse in the areas to the north and south of the Apsidal Hall (in Sectors A and C), into the row of vaults on which the hall was seated and in the area to its north (in Sector B).  In many cases the pottery in these deposits consisted almost entirely of residual material of the fourth and fifth centuries CE, rendering it difficult in some instances to distinguish these deposits from deposits created during Period VIII.

Turning now to Sector D, here the shallow depth of the deposits and the fragmentary nature of architectural remains rendered interpretation difficult.  Sporadic remains of drains, walls, paving and a track can be dated to Period II (second - first centuries BCE) and Period III (1-50 CE).  A small fountain provided with a lunate basin was constructed in Period IV (50-100 CE).  This fixture continued in use with occasional modifications through Period VIII (300-550 CE).  Period IV through Period VIII in this sector saw various other episodes of wall and floor construction, levelling, robbing and the dumping of refuse.  Small to moderate amounts of artefactual materials consisting for the most part of secondary refuse were recovered from various levelling, fill and dumping deposits created during these periods.

Figure 14: Sector D, south-central area during excavation from west (1992).

Figure 15: Sector D, central area during excavation from northeast (1992).

The bulk of the artefactual materials recovered in the Palatine East excavations came from deposits that appeared to consist in the main of secondary refuse, as evidenced by the fact that the pottery tended to be characterized by notably low levels of vessel completeness and high levels of vessel brokenness.  Two sizable deposits, however, appear to consist in substantial measure of primary refuse, as evidenced by relatively high levels of vessel completeness, low levels of vessel brokenness and only a negligible presence of clearly residual material.  These are the following:

D086: A large deposit (ca. XXX kg of pottery) deposited at some point during the period ca. 40/50-80/90 CE.

A105: A large deposit (ca. 513 kg of pottery) deposited inside Space 39, one of the series of small rooms constructed to the south of the Apsidal Hall, ca. 300 CE.

The pottery from A105 has been the subject of a monographic study (Peña 1999), and this material and the pottery from D086 will be presented on the PEPP – Pottery Assemblage Data page.

Also worth noting is the fact that contexts in Sectors A, B, and D dating from the first to the fourth century CE produced an exceptionally large number of objects (over 1500) in bone and ivory (including fixtures for furniture and boxes, spatulas, pins, rings, bracelets, gaming pieces and dice) along with unfinished objects in these materials and bone and ivory manufacturing debris.  It is evident that this represents refuse from one or more bone/ivory carving establishments that were active over a period of several centuries at one or more locations presumably at no great distance from the Palatine East site.  This material has been the subject of a book-length study (St. Clair 2003) and is also presented in PE II (pp. 67-115).