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The University of Southampton
ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Research project: Insula dell’Ara Coeli and the western slopes of the Capitoline

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The Insula dell’Ara Coeli is a 2nd century AD Roman apartment building that stands five floors high at the foot of the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Though usage of digital recording and geophysical research we hope to reconstruct the layout of the Insula and other structures in the Campidoglio area, and contribute to the study of urban topography of one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Ancient Rome.

Laser scanning the insula
Insula front facade

The Insula dell’Ara Coeli is a part of an extensive archaeological area situated on the western slopes of the Capitol that was exposed though demolition work carried out between 1929 and 1933. On that occasion an entire section of the city, mainly comprising of Renaissance structures and churches, was dismantled to reveal a Roman neighbourhood consisting of several buildings of residential and commercial character (Insula dell’Ara Coeli, Casa Cristiana, taberna delle Tre Pile, Caseggiato dei Molini, and a Balneum , among others). Remains are still preserved and accessible, albeit with considerable difficulty, below the road of Via del Teatro di Marcello and the slopes of the Capitoline.

These buildings, cursorily documented at the time of their discovery, have never been the subject of a comprehensive study, and our involvement falls within a wider collaborative initiative of the Sovraintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali, led by Dr. Elisabetta Bianchi, to shed new light on this sector of the topography of ancient Rome through an integrated approach involving new topographic surveys, limited excavation, modern prospection methods and analysis of archival documentation and photographic material.

The Southampton contribution to the project concentrates on the Insula dell’Ara Coeli, a 2nd century AD apartment building that stands at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. It is the only surviving extant example of this type of domestic architecture in Rome, although such structures must have once dominated the cityscape. Yet the insula has never been studied in full: a small-scale excavation and some basic consolidation work were carried out in the 1960s, but much of the building remains uninvestigated. This state of affairs prevents any serious conservation projects from being undertaken, and the site remains open to the elements and inaccessible to the public.

We have undertaken the digital recording of the Insula by means of laser scanning of the standing remains and production of an accessible virtual record of the structure that is to be used for purposes of documentation, further study and planning of the conservation work. This work was conducted in the summer of 2014 by James Miles (Archaeovision), using the X330 Faro Focus scanner and incorporating 205 individual scans. The scan data allows for an insight into the formation of the building and the layout of the rooms in relation to one another. Importantly the scan data is able to identify features that are hard to access and view on site and will be used for future analysis. The virtual model also provides baseline data on the scope and state of the monument that will be used to plan future conservation works. It is hoped that ultimately sufficient funds will be raised to turn the structure into a museum dedicated to the domestic life in Imperial Rome.
In the second phase of the project we will undertake a geophysical survey of the square and street area in front of the Insula dell’Ara Coeli, as well as along the Via del Teatro di Marcello, following the slope of the Capitoline up to the Forum Holitorium. These results will be used to reconstruct possible layout of buildings within the research area and contribute to our knowledge of domestic and commercial architecture of Ancient Rome. Furthermore, geophysical data will help reconstruct the urban topography of one of the oldest and most central neighbourhoods of the imperial capital.

Related research groups

Classical and historical archaeology
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