RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Archeologists who are excavating a site in Rome say they've uncovered what may be the oldest-known temple from antiquity. Along the way, they've also discovered how much the early Romans intervened to shape their urban environment. And as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the dig has been particularly challenging, because the temple is below the water table.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: We're at the foot Capitoline Hill in the center of Rome, next to the Medieval Saint Omobono Church. Today, the Tiber River is about a hundred yards away. But when the city was being created, around the 7th century BC, it flowed right here, where a bend in the river provided a natural harbor for merchant ships.
NIC TERRENATO: And here, they decide to build a temple.
POGGIOLI: Nic Terrenato teaches classical archaeology at the University of Michigan and is co-director of the Saint Omobono excavation project.
TERRENATO: At this point, Rome is trading already as far afield as Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt. And so they build this temple, which is going to be one of the first things the traders see when they pull into the harbor of Rome.
POGGIOLI: The temple, whose foundations are below the waterline, was probably dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. The archaeological team discovered large quantities of votive offerings, such as miniature versions of drinking vessels, left not by locals, but by foreign traders. Terrenato says in antiquity, temples built on harbors had the function of fostering mutual trust between locals and traders.
TERRENATO: It's like a free trade zone, and the goddess is supposed to guarantee the fairness of the trade.
POGGIOLI: The discovery of the existence of the archaic temple came after years of fundraising in Italy and in the U.S., and it required sophisticated technological know-how. Last summer, an ambitious joint project of the University of Michigan and Rome archaeology officials finally got under way.
ALBERT AMMERMAN: This is like totally mission impossible.
POGGIOLI: Archaeologist Albert Ammerman has excavated numerous sites in Rome. The team used heavy machinery to drill a rectangular hole 15 feet deep. A crane lowered large sheets of metal to keep back the soggy soil. Terrenato says the archaeologists had to fight claustrophobia to be able to spend as much as eight hours a day at the bottom of that trench.
TERRENATO: You're in a very deep hole, and although you know that, in theory, the sheeting is going to hold everything up, you know, there is, like, a primal part of your brain that tells you to get out of there. Because, you know, if the walls come closing in, there's not going to be any way out for you.
POGGIOLI: The foundations of the Temple of Fortuna were visible for only three days. For security reasons, the team could not leave the trench open, and it had to be filled up again.
But digging through the city's many layers, archaeologists have learned a lot. Early Rome - a city of high hills and deep valleys prone to flooding - soon became one large landfill, as the founders chopped off hilltops and dumped them into lowlands to try to make the city flatter and drier.
And as the city grew layer by layer, and more temples were built, archeologists Ammerman says the Romans encroached on their river, diverting the original waterway.
AMMERMAN: This is actually not totally natural. It's the humans are actually changing the river to the way it is here. They had the ability to realize that to make their city go, they have to transform the landscape.
POGGIOLI: As they figured how to cope with their surroundings, the early Romans developed sophisticated engineering and administrative skills, and a collective ability to deal with their challenging environment. It's discoveries like these, Ammerman says, that debunk the idealized image of ancient Rome as a place that never changed, the immutable and eternal city. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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