by Nayla K. Muntasser John R. Clarke

As the world struggles with the horrifying toll that the COVID 19 pandemic is taking on lives and livelihoods, from time to time moments of clarity emerge, providing a glimmer of hope that positive outcomes are possible. In a very small way, a decision made over a decade ago that was met with some skepticism within the humanities, has turned out to have been prescient and doubly valuable. Such was the decision by the members of the Oplontis Project, with the support and collaboration of the ACLS Humanities E-Book team, to begin the process of producing a born-digital multi-volume series on the research being undertaken at the ancient Roman sites of Oplontis in Torre Annunziata, Italy. It was uncommon at the time to publish a book on archaeology and art history straight into a digital format; even rarer was the aim to also make the results of the research freely available. Yet today, especially while libraries remain inaccessible, our work is a boon to scholars, with two comprehensive open-access volumes offered online and a third in production.

The Oplontis Project was created within the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin in order to study and fully publish the two ancient Roman structures at Oplontis that had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Although both are called villas, only one, Villa A (of Poppea), is strictly a luxury residence. Villa B (of Lucius Crassius Tertius), is better called Oplontis B, for it is a multi-use complex that incorporates a wine distribution center, storage facilities for agricultural products, some modest residential quarters and possibly a harbor. Villa A and Oplontis B were excavated and reconstructed by the Italian archaeological authorities beginning in the mid-1960’s through 1991, but neither structure had been fully published. The sites were made UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1997.

Once the Oplontis Project received the mandate in 2006 to study both structures further, each year a team of researchers and archaeologists spent 4-8 weeks documenting the villas’ present state, researching archival material and opening exploratory trenches. Excavation campaigns were undertaken in Villa A from 2006 to 2010 and at Oplontis B from 2012 to the present. In 2020, for the first time in fourteen years there was no Oplontis Project excavation and study season, an unexpected hiatus that so many projects around the world have had to accept. So far, two volumes on the research at Villa A are available in the Open Access Humanities E-Book Collection hosted by the University of Michigan on the Fulcrum Platform. 

Readers of the volumes on Villa A at Oplontis will find that the first one provides chapters that place the villa in its historical, geographical and cultural contexts, as well presenting a history of excavations that reveals the complexity of the villa’s excavation and reconstruction as well as the inevitability of our incomplete knowledge of it. Volume 2 provides catalogues of all the paintings, sculptures, pavements and stuccoes in the villa as well as new focused studies of the graffiti, and some previously unstudied motifs on the walls including carpet borders and tiny processional scenes. Scientific analyses include chemical analysis of the pigments in the frescoes, the provenance and composition of the expensive stones used throughout the Villa. There are also digital reconstructions of significant decorative schemes. Volume 3 will present the results of the Oplontis Project excavations, including a study of the ceramic finds, the bones unearthed and miscellaneous small finds. A close study of the masonry informs the two chapters on the architectural evolution and room functions over the life of the villa from about 50 B.C.E to its destruction in 79 C.E. An account of the in the hydraulics of the villa shows the changes over time from the exuberant use of water in the fountains and majestic pool to the damaging effect of the 62 C.E. earthquake. This third volume will also include studies of previously unpublished materials from excavations prior to 2006 and documentation of both the first excavations in the nineteenth century and the most modern attempts at conserving the villa in digital form through the creation of a navigable 3d model.

During the studies of Villa A, the Oplontis Project team noticed a small section of mosaic on the other side of the Sarno canal constructed in the sixteenth century to provide hydraulic power to the flour mills in the area. This canal cut through the seaward façade of the villa complex. This discovery led to a campaign of excavation by archaeologists from the Italian Ministry of Culture between 2014 and 2016 that revealed a series colonnaded terraces descending to the shore. An account of those excavations and a reconstruction of that façade will be included in this volume.

While Villa A with its sprawling layout, cliff-top perch and seaward vista, is typical of the luxury maritime villas that developed along the Bay of Naples, Oplontis B does not fit neatly into any category of Roman building that is known so far. It is, instead, a hybrid of several existing building types. A large courtyard with a two-story tufa colonnade is surrounded by storage rooms on four sides. To the east, on the ground floor is a wide opening that provided access from a north-south road that connected the hinterland to the coast. The southern side of this main core consists of a row of barrel-vaulted storage rooms with spacious apartments above. Abutting the north wall of the building lies a group of row houses built into former shop spaces facing onto a narrow street. They have cooking platforms and latrines on the ground floor and decorative frescoes on the upper story walls. Across the street another row of similar spaces remains only partially excavated, so what lies behind them is not known. To the west is another partially excavated two-story building seemingly not attached to the colonnaded core, but since the rest of it lies under the local school, it is not possible to explore this building further. A detailed account of the row houses, their decoration, and their contents will be available in the forthcoming copy of the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

The 2020 season was to be the last excavation campaign and 2021 was to be a study season. So far, everything has been postponed for a year, so the publication of Oplontis B will also be delayed. However, the study of the over three thousand amphorae found at the site has been completed and should see publication sooner. In the meantime, excavation reports and articles pertaining to Oplontis B can be found on the peer-reviewed online journal FOLD&R (Fasti On Line Documents & Research) at http://www.fastionline.org/excavation/micro_view.php?item_key=fst_cd&fst_cd=AIAC_334.

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