How archaeology works: the latest discoveries in Rome

– What is archaeology?

Have you ever wondered how archaeology works? “Archaeology” comes from the Greek arkhaiologia – “the study of ancient things”. In a city as ancient as Rome, it’s no wonder that over the past couple of centuries, archaeologists have come from far and wide to study “ancient things”. It could be argued that archaeology, more than any other discipline, is the key to understanding Rome.

Archaeologists study ancient artefacts and architecture in order to create a record of human activity in a certain area. For example, archaeological work in the Roman Forum has provided a wealth of fascinating information about the area, revealing the function of buildings and the kind of activity that took place there. Without the work of archaeologists, we wouldn’t know what anything was – the Roman Forum would simply be a mysterious collection of ruins.

– How archaeology works

In the early days of archaeology, archaeologists were mainly interested in digging up treasures – a Greek vase or a
Roman statue. It wasn’t until the 20th century that archaeologists began to study the context of the discoveries, realising just how much you can learn about a place or society from detailed archaeological analysis.

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Archaeologists at work in the Colosseum area

One of the most important parts of archaeology is stratigraphy – a branch of geology that involves the study of layers of rock (strata). During and after excavation, an archaeologist must examine the stratigraphy of a site, considering not only the natural form of the layers but also the influence that human activity has had on the earth. The archaeologist Edward Harris talks of the “extraordinary effect that human society has had on the shaping of the face of this planet” – leaving behind manufactured objects, using certain areas of the earth more than others, and digging into the earth in a way that alters the “natural” form of the layers. Stratigraphy is not just about the earth in its natural state, but about our relationship with the land we inhabit, quite literally transforming the earth over the centuries.-

In order to understand how archaeology works, we have to consider the archaeologist’s task – the scientific study of ancient artefacts and buildings within the layers of the earth, making a detailed written and photographic record of their findings.

– Why archaeology matters

Just as we study history to learn about the past and (hopefullyavoid making the same mistakes in the future, we study archaeology in order to gain greater insight into our own history. Archaeology is essentially the study of human civilization, and without it we would have a much poorer understanding of how we came to be here today.

The value of archaeology is especially clear in a city like Rome, which sits above layers of ancient history. Archaeological excavations in Rome have revealed the story of the city, from the earliest human occupation 14,000 years ago, through monarchies, republics and empires to the present day. Without archaeology we would have no idea what lay beneath the modern city – no clue about the extraordinary subterranean maze of ruins beneath San Clemente or the catacombs of the Appian Way. And on a smaller scale, it’s incredible how much we can learn from a small finding. The discovery of fruit seeds and gaming dice in the depths of the Colosseum, for example, paints a fascinating portrait of the Ancient Romans themselves – people passing the time between gladiatorial shows by snacking on fruit and playing games with dice.

In other words, if you have even the slightest interest in human civilization and society, archaeology matters.

– The latest archaeological discoveries in Rome

The city is eternal, and so is the excavation work. A dream for archaeologists, but a nightmare for the people building the new metro line…

Here are some of the most exciting recent archaeological discoveries in Rome:


How archaeology works the latest discoveries in Rome
An archaeologist at work at Nero’s “Coenatio Rotunda”
  • An Ancient Roman house has just been discovered in the San Giovanni neighbourhood. This 2nd century domus, believed to have belonged to a military commander, was dug up during work on the Metro C line. The house comprises about 14 rooms, a courtyard, the remains of a fountain, and some stunning mosaics. When the new San Giovanni metro station opens, it will contain a display of some Ancient Roman archaeological findings – Rome’s first metro museum!
  • Ancient Roman military barracks were also uncovered nearby. This 2nd century site covers 900 square metres, and is decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Findings include human bones, coins and jewellery.
  • In 2007 there was great excitement when an archaeologist claimed to have discovered the legendary Lupercal cave on the Palatine Hill (the cave where Romulus and Remus were raised by the she-wolf). The cave, which is decorated with seashells and marble, is now considered to be a grotto dating to the time of Nero. Nonetheless, this beautiful cave is a remarkable finding, and its fairly recent discovery makes you wonder what else is waiting to be unearthed in the heart of Rome.
  • The legendary Nero’s  Coenatio Rotunda, a circular dining room that, according to the Roman historian Suetonius,  ‘revolved perpetually night and day in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies’, discovered by the École Française de Rome in Vigna Barberini (Palatine Hill).


Although these sites aren’t yet open to the public, there’s still so much to see in Rome. To discover how archaeology works, we recommend taking an archaeological tour of Rome, and exploring sites such as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill in the company of an expert guide.

Read more: Unearthed in Rome’s New Subway: Extinct Elephants and Persian Peach Pits (New York Times)