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Chapter 6: The Villa at Site 11 - General Information

Excavation at Site 11 began the summer of 1976, the first year of the project and two years before any work at Site 10.62 The principal reason for starting at Site 11 rather than either of the other two sites, Site 10 and Site 13, was the crop rotation schedule of the Tenuta Tor Bella Monaca / Tor Angela. The area where the surface remains had been recorded and designated Site 11 by John Ward Perkins/Anne Kahane in their survey of 1964 and again in 1972 was the only site location planted in erba medica and therefore a crop of lesser value than the grain and corn of the other fields. Excavation of any site was bound to cause some damage to what was planted there.63

However, by 1976 all surface material at what was thought to be Site 11 had vanished and thus there were no real clues as to where to begin. Even a hurried visit by John Ward Perkins was of no help.64 Nonetheless, immediately after his visit I returned to the area and from the factors of hillside view and the direction of a soft, late afternoon breeze chose where I would lay foundations if I were building my own villa.   Here, then, the grid for digging was set down the next day. The first trench which was opened encompassed a barely visible large block of peperino stone buried in the earth and covered by erba medica. What extraordinary luck was with us! This block proved to be the dislodged threshold to the villa's Phase 2A triclinium and our second trench revealed the triclinium's carpet mosaic (see "Mosiac and Opus Sectile Floors"). Good fortune continued throughout the five seasons of digging at Site 11.

Based on the proximity of other sites identified by Ward Perkins/Kahane and others, the landholding of the Site 11 Villa could not have been more than two or three hectares, at least in the Imperial Age.65 Today this area is defined by a farm road to the south and one to the east leading northward to the Palazzetto Lanza of the present–day tenuta. To the west is a gentle downward slope to a tributary of the Fosso di Tor Bella Monaca, and not far to the north the remains of what is possibly another villa site. There is firm evidence for quarrying of the soft tufa bedrock on the western slope and most likely the terrain was leveled in antiquity to accommodate the construction of even the early farmhouse. However, there was nothing to suggest underlying cuniculi, only bedrock-cut troughs to carry off roof water on the north (see “Site 11: Villa - Plans and Reconstructions”). The ancient Via Gabina would have separated sites 11 and 13 from Site 10; the course of the Aqua Alexandriana (here underground) would have run almost beneath Site 13 just to the east of Site 11. A water head existing today close to Site 13 probably taps into the underlying aquifer of the region and not the modern replacement of the ancient aqueduct. It irrigates several adjacent fields of the present-day tenuta.66

Early on it became clear that there were two major periods for the life of the initial farmhouse and later villa rustica or villa suburbana in the true sense. The changes in masonry made it relatively easy for an assignment of Period 1 and Period 2, each with several phases. Period 1 is represented by quadratum masonry of large tufa blocks (Phase 1A consisted of the soft gray tufa of the site's bedrock; Phase 1B and Phase 1C substituted a harder reddish tufa from a quarry about a kilometer distant). Period 2 (Phase 2A and Phase 2B/C) was throughout typical opus reticulatum.67 Also, there was a marked difference in the floor levels of the living quarters as Period 1 gave way to Period 2.

Period 1 was a “U” plan farmhouse, the wings of the “U” serving for crop processing and storage, and the cross element residential quarters. During the reign of Augustus (see below) this simple farmhouse was transformed into a proper Roman atrium type house / villa with facilities for processing olive oil in Phase 2B/C.

The dating of the various phases is determined not only by stratified pottery and coins, but also by stamped roof tiles (see Anderson's “Brick Stamps”). We can add to this the dating information from the masonry changes just described. Most important for assigning dates to the phases of Period 1 was the discovery of a coin and a stamped black glaze shard just under the tufa wall of one of the rooms built out from the farmhouse's western flank in Phase 1C. Michael Crawford identified the coin as a Republican uncia minted between B.C. 217 – 215 and out of circulation by B.C. 200. The stamped black glaze shard was datable to the same late years of the 3rd century B.C.. Other black glaze pottery (see Joann Freed's “Site 11: Black Glaze Report”) makes reasonable a date for Phase 1A the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. and Phase 1B the middle of the century; Phase 1C can not be later than B.C. 180. Other pottery and stamped bricks (roof tiles) confirm the Augustan period as the time of the transformation of the “U' plan farmhouse to a double-storied atrium type house (see Anderson's “Brick Stamps “report).68 Again from pottery and coins, the installation of a mechanical press for producing olive oil in some quantity is likely the reign of Trajan (see both Anderson's “Brick Stamps” and Joann Freed's “Site 11 Pottery Summary”). The creation of a two room bath suite and garden plunge pool is probably the same Trajanic date (see below).

The function of the villa in Period 2 might well bear on its very design and transformation from a simple “U” plan farmhouse to a two-storied suburban villa rustica. It can be assumed that both convenience and luxury combined with a new economic role would necessitate several resident slaves. These slaves could well have occupied the second storey above the villa's western flank. The owner and family probably had their sleeping quarters in the eastern second storey rooms.

The roof configuration of the villa is indeed unusual. Just beyond the atrium's compluvium a cistern at second storey height would have collected a good portion of the roof's rain water; in turn this cistern drained into a below ground tank (itself a cistern) identified along the villa's western edge.69 This roof hollow beyond the compluvium would also have served as a means of bringing outdoor light to the long room preserved from Period 1. This hypothesis assumes that the long room was always double-storied in height and little altered in the villa's transformation.

At the same time or shortly before the installation of the mechanical press, several rooms along the villa's western flank were made into a two room bath suite, one with a hypocaust and the other with a shallow tub-like pool.70 A rather elaborate portico facing the enclosed western hortus or garden completes this enhancement of pleasant living as does a related large plunge pool in the center of the garden. Drainage or overflow from this pool flowed by means of a channel down the western slope which lay beyond the garden; the source of water for the pool was probably the raised roof cistern contiguous to the compluvium described above (also see “Site 11: Villa - Plans and Reconstructions”).

It seems from the evidence of pottery that the balance of residence and industry changes. Little household pottery was found dating after 180 A.C. Yet it is not likely that the villa was abandoned until the first decades of the 3rd century A.C. (see “Speculations”). Around or before this time, perhaps even the area of the atrium was turned over to oil production and storage as only beaten earth flooring was found here. This, too, may account for the partitioning of the long room by an opus craticium wall and the setting down of a mosaic in the newly partitioned western portion of the room. The rather random stacking of cipollino panels may mean that the long room once had a handsome dado of this material. The removal of the marble dado might mean a change of function for the space or just the tidiness of late squatters.  

When considering the Period 2 Site 11 Villa in the context of suburban Rome, the installation of a mechanical press sets it apart from ordinary country retreats exhibiting only the concerns of “otium.” Like the Site 10 Villa, could that of Site 11 be serving its neighbors in a cooperative venture, this time in the production of olive oil? Do these economic and social shifts mark a new structural organization for Rome's suburbs (see the “Speculations” section of this report)?
All text and images copyright © 2002 by Walter Widrig and Rice University. Last updated May 2007 by dmc-info@rice.edu.