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Subway Dig Unearths Rome's Ancient Past

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Subway Dig Unearths Rome's Ancient Past

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Subway Dig Unearths Rome's Ancient Past

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Building a new subway line under any city is a challenge, but plans to build one under the historic center of Rome are forcing engineers to deal with some unique challenges. Construction is also giving archaeologists an unprecedented opportunity to excavate and study the hidden cities lying below street level.

Engineers are surveying planned access tunnels for stations along the projected 15-mile line, which will link the Coliseum and St. Peter's Basilica to the rest of the Rome subway system. They've already discovered a number of significant artifacts, and the historic value of some of the finds forced plans for one station to be abandoned.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Rome is a feast for the eyes, from the remains of ancient temples and stadiums to majestic renaissance churches and baroque palaces. But those are just the tip of the iceberg in a city that's 2,500 years old. The skeletons of countless buildings lie buried layer upon layer underground.

(Soundbite of passing traffic)

POGGIOLI: The central Piazza Venezia, a few hundred yards from the Roman Forum, has been turned into a giant dig. It's the first excavation here in centuries. Archaeologists and subway construction engineers are working hand in hand, meticulously digging and documenting a cross-section of the many subterranean Romes. All bricks and mortar are plastered with white tags covered with scientific data. So far, the dig has reached 18 feet below street level.

Giovanni Simonacci, technical director of the new subway line, describes the architectural history.

Mr. GIOVANNI SIMONACCI (Technical Director, Rome's New Subway Line): (Through translator) There, just below the surface, is Renaissance Rome. Those are the foundations of buildings torn down in the late 19th century. Below that, we have the remains of a medieval road, the Via Flaminia, that once cut through the city, and below that, see the herringbone pavement? We've reached the late Roman period, about 700 A.D. We still have to dig down another 12 feet.

POGGIOLI: Simonacci says in Rome, archaeological remnants can be found only down to 30 feet below the surface. The tunnels for the actual subway line will be further underground, about 90 feet below street level. It's the stations and air vents that will displace antique artifacts.

The many pasts of Rome, grafted onto each other in myriad layers of history, have thus far prevented all attempts to make the city into an interlocking system, a united whole like Paris with its Grands Boulevards. Over the centuries, Rome has refused to be tamed. The new subway line is the latest challenge to the city's obstinate individualism.

Preliminary archaeological soundings began in January at seven central sites, and should be completed by next spring. The purpose of these excavations is to prevent unexpected discoveries during the construction phase that would cause delays or force planning changes and spiraling construction costs. It's the archaeologists who decide whether an artifact can be removed or destroyed.

(Soundbite of digging)

POGGIOLI: Archaeologist Flavia Faidi(ph) has been carefully digging with a small spade around an area of pavement.

Ms. FLAVIA FAIDI (Archeologist): (Through translator) What we have here was probably first a Roman tavern, one of several that flank the old Via Flaminia. Then in the Middle Ages, it was recycled into a metal workshop. There were furnaces here, perhaps for casting bronze.

POGGIOLI: But Faidi says that what's been found on this site is not so historically important that it needs to be kept intact. Once all the documentation work is over, these old walls and foundations will be destroyed. That wasn't the case with the Largo Argentina stop, which would have served key tourist sites such as the Pantheon.

It's been scrapped on orders of the Rome superintendent of archaeology after workers found the base of an imperial Roman public building. Tourists will now have to walk the extra 200 yards from Piazza Venezia. Subway technical director Simonacci says that remnant will remain underground.

Mr. SIMONACCI: (Through translator) There isn't an inch of Rome that doesn't have some artifacts below the street. In 300 A.D., Rome already had one-and-a-half million inhabitants. If we were to bring to light everything they and subsequent generations built, we would have to eliminate all of the streets of Rome. The city of the living wouldn't survive.

POGGIOLI: Lorenzo Petrassi, the archeologist in charge of the excavation here, says one of the most interesting discoveries of the Piazza Venezia site is what archeologists call a looter's hole, built during the Middle Ages. Builders tied to a rope would drop down the well-like shaft and then roam the lower layers like moles in search of bricks, blocks of tufa rock, or slabs of marble from earlier centuries to be used for new constructions.

Mr. LORENZO PETRASSI (Archaeologist): (Through translator) Rome is not like an abandoned city in the desert. It continues to live and grow and be on top of its recycling the construction materials of old. It has always been like this. The aristocrat palaces of the 15th century are filled with marble slabs found in their cellars. The same things happened in the period of the baroque. Rome always feeds on itself.

POGGIOLI: Petrassi, the archaeologist, is convinced that with great prudence and intelligent planning, old Rome will finally be connected with the rest of the city's subway network, and carefully be brought into the 21st century.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The late saxophonist, Michael Brecker, was an A-list studio musician and a bandleader with multiple Grammys to his name. Before he died in January of leukemia, he gathered some musical friends to make what turned out to be his last record, such as guitarist Pat Metheny.

Mr. PAT METHENY (Guitarist): The story would be saxophone player with serious illness makes record, you know, maybe it's going to be ballads or something. This is, like, nothing even close to that. This is, like, Mike Brecker life force times a thousand.

HANSEN: Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Brecker's longtime manager and friend, Darryl Pitt, share memories about Michael Brecker's final sessions, coming up on WEEKEND EDITION. Stay with us.

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