Since antiquity, the Castelporziano estate, 15km as the crow flies from the city of Rome, has been a favoured resort of Rome’s elite, from the Roman emperors to the Roman popes, then Italy’s kings and now her presidents. Its 6,000ha covered in natural and man made forests, extend down to the sea 7-13km south of Ostia.

Here, buried deep in the woods 400m from the modern beach, is an almost continuous string of Roman ruins, the villas of the Laurentine shore, which since 1983 have been the subject of a programme of research and conservation.

Laurentine Shore Project

1. Vicus Augustanus

Located some 300 m inside the boundary of the Castelporziano estate with Castelfusano, the first recorded excavations on the Vicus took place in 1865 by the local landowner Duke Grazioli.

Following the purchase of the estate by the new Kingdom of Italy in 1872 (to remain a royal preserve until 1946) the excavations were taken up again from 1874 until about 1913, during which almost the whole of three blocks and two sides of the forum square were uncovered. The work was systematic, with a railway line to carry off spoil and archaeologists from the state antiquities service on hand, such as Pietro Rosa, Antonio Pasqui, and Rodolfo Lanciani, and may have been well documented at the time. The only records yet found, however, are some photographs taken when a large black-and-white mosaic was lifted in sections and installed in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome in 1903-11 (it was returned to the estate in 2004). Lanciani included a short account in his popular book Wanderings in the Roman Campagna (1909) and sent two brief written reports to the London journal The Athenaeum in 1911-13; a few notes and sketches exist among his personal papers in the Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell’Arte in Rome and in the Vatican Library. Otherwise, the principal sources are the remains still visible on the ground, left exposed at the end of the excavations. Although buried in dense vegetation and under tree cover which has grown up over the site in the last hundred years, many walls are standing to considerable heights.

2. Rome’s Maritime Facade

The Evolution of Ancient Rome’s Maritime Facade: Archaeology and Geomorphology at Castelporziano

Arising from questions raised by the excavations at the Vicus in the 1990s, the project is investigating the nature and chronology of physical changes affecting the litus Laurentinum before, during and immediately after the Roman period.

Archaeological, geophysical and geomorphological survey methods are being combined in the study of a series of transects across the ancient coastline as it is preserved within the Castelporziano estate, one to include the Vicus, which has been the object of detailed archaeological study, another a kilometre further to the south, in association with a late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age site and two fish farms of late republican date. At both points the Roman shore lies partly buried in a sequence of sand dunes and densely forested some 400 metres inland from the modern beach. A third transect, 2 kilometres to the south again, runs through an enormous harbour-villa belonging to the Antonine emperors, in the locality of Tor Paterno.

The study extends beyond the morphology of individual sites in relation to their natural environment to such wider issues as property boundaries, regional building practices, the origins and distribution of building materials, and their despoliation and recycling during and after Roman occupation. Taking advantage of the latest developments in precision dating of sand deposits by luminescence, it is also determining the extent to which the formation of the present dune landscape was episodic and whether the eventual abandonment of settlement in the 5th century AD coincided with major climatic change.

The project is based at Royal Holloway University of London and Loughborough University, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain, in collaboration with the Segretariato Generale della Presidenza della Repubblica Italiana, the Soprintendenza per i beni archeologici di Ostia Antica and the Tenuta di Castelporziano.