There are a lot of things historians don't know much about. Ancient Rome is not one of them. Most classical archaeologists would count themselves lucky to add a shard of terracotta to a museum's storage boxes—so when a team uncovers the oldest known temple in the Roman world, it's a Big Deal.
Archaeologists have long suspected that the oldest Roman temple lay at the foot of the legendary Capitoline Hill, but it’s only recently that they've managed to excavate the waterlogged Sant’Omobono site with modern techniques.
“The temple’s much more interesting than anybody expected,” said Albert Ammerman, an archaeologist at Colgate University who worked on the dig. “It’s beautiful down there.”
By looking at imported Greek pottery found nearby, archaeologists have dated the temple to the early sixth century BC. “There is no other temple quite this old,” said Ammerman, though he noted that earlier Romans might have built temples of wood or perishable materials. The other contender for oldest Roman temple would be the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, also on the Capitoline Hill.
In antiquity, Sant’Omobono probably functioned as an emporium: a trading station where merchants from places like Cyprus, Lebanon and Egypt could stop and hawk their goods, rest, socialize—and say a prayer. “The religious dimension sort of sanctifies the trade,” said Ammerman. “It’s like having money that says, ‘In God we trust.’”
In addition to the remains of the temple, archaeologists found what they believe to be votive offerings, including figurines, cups, bronze objects and spears of wood, bone and ivory. “There are hundreds and hundreds of these things,” said Nicola Terrenato, co-director of the Sant’Omobono excavation project. “We’re still in the process of cleaning and cataloging them.”
The archaeologists believe the temple was dedicated to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck. “Fortuna isn’t one of the major deities,” said Ammerman. “You have all these foreign peoples here. The Romans aren’t going to put one of the gods that’s close to their soul here.”
Another surprise was the material of the temple: Unlike other buildings of its time, it seems to be made of imported stone.
“Rome was just about becoming a city at this point,” said Terrenato. “In those days, the Romans were building with a local volcanic stone that was kind of crumbly.” The imported material is of a higher quality. “It’s much more compact,” said Terrenato. “After all these years, it’s kept the edges in the corners.”
Scholars have known about the Roman ruins at Sant’Omobono—better known today as the site of a Medieval church—ever since construction workers stumbled on them by accident in the 1930s. Mid-century archaeologists took a crack at excavating the site, but their methods and recording were haphazard.
“They were trying, but they didn't have the equipment, the experience or the means to be able to do this,” said Ammerman.
“It’s the first time—more than seventy years after its discovery—that it was possible to dig here in a very scientific way,” explained Carlo Regoli, co-field director of the excavation.
Archaeological digs are always taxing, but this one is especially treacherous: The team had to dig 15 feet below the water line.
“Only somebody with modern equipment and certain physical skills can even think about doing this properly,” said Ammerman.
“It’s very complicated and it’s kind of dangerous,” said Terrenato. “It’s a technological challenge, especially since it’s such a small hole and you have to be careful of the architecture and the artifacts.”
Terrenato says he can’t imagine the site will ever be open to the public. Even with the resources of a team of professional archaeologists, they were only able to keep the trench open for three days. “When the trench is open, you have to have pumps running 24/7 and they get clogged by the mud,” he explained. “Once you’re at the bottom, the pressure of the groundwater makes the soil kind of permeable and the water starts gushing in,” said Ammerman. “It becomes risky.”
With the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation, the team will return to the site this summer—and despite the hardships of digging there, they have high hopes. Said Terrenato:“It’s like a little jewel box on the river harbor.”