On Friday night, Staff Writer Isa RingswaldEgan attended the Archeology Department’s Professor Francesco de Angelis’s presentation of the past two years of archeological research at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy.

Excavation at one of the grandest and most luxurious remaining imperial villas of the Roman Empire did not stop during the pandemic. Experts and Columbia students alike continued to spend two seasons digging, analyzing, and researching at the site, but have been unable to present their findings until now. Francesco de Angelis’s presentation on these results captured both the lives of those who lived in the villa centuries ago and the seemingly lively environment of the excavation site and its team members. 

There are two main sites that the Columbia team has been investigating, Lararium and Macchiozzo, but the recent work and therefore the presentation focused on Macchiozzo. The site consists of three main buildings—the eastern and western courtyard buildings and the medianum building. 

The eastern and western courtyards are both very similar in layout and measurements, speaking to the organization and skill of the original architects. The organic unitary planning parallels construction at Ostia, another site near Rome, which has a very similar courtyard building. In fact, de Angelis noted several other similarities of the site to Ostia, which suggested possible collaboration between the architects of the two, or even an individual who worked on the construction of both.

The western courtyard building was especially luxurious, featuring a room with a heated floor and several intricate mosaic floor designs. It also had what de Angelis referred to as a “service room,” also sometimes called a kitchen, which was located near the entrance and could have been used for a variety of purposes. In the largest room, the northwest hall, or “room HH,” a number of third and fourth-century coins were of particular interest. 

As the villa was built in the second century and not used as much by later members of the imperial court, these coins prove that the working class of the villa remained there into the third and fourth centuries, much later than was originally thought. Additionally, they found that the plaster in a few of the rooms had been redone, and there was fire damage in the center of a mosaic floor, further indicating this much later use. This later phase of use was greatly downgraded from its original standard, indicated by some of the plaster repairs and makeshift stairs in the building.

A medianum building is generally a sort of corridor building, and the one at Macchiozzo was used by servants and middle-high class merchants who came from town. The archaeology team finally excavated the whole building and found its accurate dimensions of 25 by 11 meters. The western courtyard building has a wall that aligns closely with a wall of the medianum building, which may have been a part of a largely underground path that servants could use to traverse the villa without being seen by its high-class inhabitants. The newly found entrance to the building, “room I,” is placed on the same axis as a nearby staircase leading down to this passage, providing further support for the theory. A strangely placed window in room I, however, is causing confusion for the team.

Some of the walls of the medianum building, as well as those of the other buildings, were decorated with intricate painted designs. The Fragmentary Painting team has used Visible Induced Luminescence (VIL) to identify patterns made by a blue Egyptian pigment which was used at the time to cool the tones of other paints. The use of VIL has allowed archeologists to see previously invisible designs in painted walls, giving more insight into Roman decorative practices. There are several other yet uncovered decorated walls which are heavily calcified and will require much more effort to reveal.

Outside the medianum building is an area which was, at some point in the early fourth century, lowered by approximately 60 centimeters. In this area, there is a semicircular stone structure which researchers had previously posited may have been a flower bed. In the past seasons, however, they have realized that it was probably a stibadium, a semicircular dining table of sorts that was popular in the late Hadrianic and post-Hadrianic periods. This conclusion was reached after finding traces of water-proof mortar used on the outside of the stibadium, where a flower bed would have had water-proof mortar on the inside. This stibadium, along with a few other marble fragments found in the area, are a testament to the extensive and lavish furnishings of the villa, but also to the degradation of the villa in the post-Hadrianic period. Often these stibadia were accompanied by water featured which could flood the area around the guests, but the absence of any waterproofing of the surrounding earth, much less marble flooring shows that this stibadium was not serving the highest level of decadence as the villa did in preceding centuries.

Although much of the world was at a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, research at Hadrian’s Villa persisted. It was exciting to finally see the findings of this exploration, and the new questions raised to be investigated in later seasons. Much learned and much anticipated to come.

Hadrian’s Villa image via World History Encyclopedia