The following sections provide a brief summary of fieldwork carried out from the 2005-2009 seasons. More in-depth discussion can be found in the two reports published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. (Thomas and Clarke, 2007 and Thomas and Clarke, forthcoming).
In the first season of field work the Oplontis Project initiated its study of the villa. After archival work in 2005, excavation began with a small sounding at the southern end of the swimming pool in 2006 (OP1). This trench tested our theory that the pool may have been longer in an earlier phase. We knew from excavation reports that the original excavators of the villa had found that the pool had originally been wider; ancient hydraulic cement covered an area between the current pool’s western edge and the eastern portico of the east wing. In our trench, fill debris included fragments of Julio-Claudian terra sigillata (earliest date: 20 BCE) along with many fragments of wall painting and stucco. A fragment of a Fourth-Style painting, the first of many to come, securely dated this fill layer after 45 CE. In addition to excavation data, the initial painting and masonry analysis during the 2006 season discovered numerous undocumented examples of structural and decorative modifications.
From the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2008 workers associated with a renovation of the villa sponsored by the European Community excavated several trenches in the villa’s gardens. The excavation of these trenches is in no way associated with the Oplontis Project. However, since most of them were not excavated scientifically, the Oplontis Project team took on the responsibility of documenting each trench before they were filled in, though stratigraphic dating of the finds was not possible.
In 2007, we expanded one of these restoration trenches and designated it as OP3. This trench, located at the SW corner of the swimming pool, produced further ceramic evidence as well as numerous fragments of the same cocciopesto pavement found in the swimming pool. Excavation here also discovered a significant deposit of demolished wall painting, architectural stuccos, and a segment of a brick column.
One of the more remarkable finds from OP3 was fragment of a Third-Style painted frieze that we know came from room 8. On the basis of visual analysis, John Clarke had noted in his earlier study (Clarke, 1987) that the existing painted decoration of room 8 consists of an original phase decorated in the Third Style of 1-15 CE on the north and south walls with a careful imitation of the Third-Style scheme on the east and west walls. The fragment from OP3 was indeed a piece of that demolished Third-Style wall decorative scheme. Despite the fact that room 8 is 100 meters from our trench and the fragment emerged at the depth of 1.5 m, it is clear now that workmen filled this area to the south of the pool with the plaster from walls dating back as far as 1-15 CE.
In 2007 we also excavated a small (1×1 meter) trench inside the southern wall of the pool (OP4) in order to study the pool’s pavement and sub-pavement. Interestingly, this trench found a Fourth-Style painting fragment below the pavement of the pool’s south end, suggesting that at the very least the pool was repaved after 45 CE.
The 2008 season focused on the excavation of OP5, located to the south of OP3. This trench sought to further explore the southern area of the pool and attempt to date the foundation wall of room 87, the large diaeta to the SW of the swimming pool. The finds here were similar to those from OP1 and OP3 with extensive evidence of demolition. Of great significance here was the documentation of a beaten earth work pavement which coincided with the top of the shuttered section of room 87’s eastern foundation wall. Above the level of the beaten earth pavement the foundation’s construction was in opus reticulatum. The importance of this discovery lies in the presence of a foundation trench for the reticulate section that cut into the beaten earth pavement. Therefore we believe that the material below the beaten earth pavement was deposited before the construction of the reticulate wall. Though the ceramics from below the beaten earth pavement are still undergoing study, numerous pieces of Fourth-Style painting provide a terminus post quem date of 45 CE for this pavement and the reticulate wall. It is also worth noting that the foundation wall went down to a depth of just under 3 meters.
The Oplontis Project continued its systematic study of Villa A at Oplontis in 2009. This was the most prolific season to date, due largely to the funding provided by the National Endowment of the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant and the University of Texas at Austin. Teams from the University of Texas (OP trenches) and the Kent Archaeological Field School (OPK trenches) excavated a total of 8 trenches between May and July of 2009.
The Oplontis Project invited Giovanni Di Maio to continue his study of the geological formations beneath and around Villa A. His analysis of a trench in the north garden (56) traced the formation of that area back to 15,000 BP (before present) in the space of 3 meters. The Oplontis Project commissioned Di Maio to core in three areas to the south of Villa A. The results prove conclusively that Villa A (and probably Villa B as well) were poised on a cliff about 13 meters above the ancient level of the sea.
Collaboration with scientists from the Università di Napoli, Facoltà di Agraria, include analysis of wood samples by Gaetano Di Pasquale and Emilia Allevato, analysis of pollen and seeds by Elda Russo Ermolli, and study of painted representations of flora by Massimo Ricciardi. Pietro Baraldi and Carlo Gorgoni from the Università di Modena are studying pigments and stone/marble respectively.
Fossa A, Room 55
This excavation studied one of two pre-existing pits through the floor of room 55. Fossa B had been excavated by Stefano De Caro and had revealed a possible votive offering. Our excavation of Fossa A was minimal, but cleaning out the pit allowed us to study the floor and the foundations associated with room 55. The study revealed an earlier floor level in the room. Excavation was unable to find the bottom of the southern foundation wall in room 55; for safety reasons it was halted at a depth of 1.5 meters. Very few finds came out of this excavation.
Trench OP6 explored what we now know was an elevated garden in Room 58. Wilhelmina Jashemski had speculated that what had once been a room, perhaps destroyed by an earthquake, was later reutilized as a raised garden. The excavation confirmed that it was never an interior space and was likely constructed as a raised garden. The trench ran along the southern foundation and was bounded by foundation walls to the east and west. The eastern foundation seems to have been a later addition; it is relatively shallow and was likely never meant to support the wall of the room. At a very low-level, over a meter below grade, we discovered a layer full of charcoal and ceramics; initial examination of the pottery by Archer Martin suggests a terminus post quem of about 25 BCE. If this is the case, this stratum is probably associated with the occupation of the first phase of the villa.
OP7 and OP8
These two trenches explored the gardens in rooms 68 (OP7) and 70 (OP8). The trenches were excavated to shed light on the function of these gardens and to discover evidence for their dating. Excavation found very little material. The most important find, in OP8, was a fragment of garden painting. Since it was discovered at a very high level, just below ground level and partially covered by lapilli, the fragment probably belongs to the garden fresco program in room 70 and was overlooked during the initial excavation of the villa. Also of significance were north-south running walls in each trench. In OP7 the wall was located approximately 40 centimeters from the eastern edge of the garden basin. In OP8, it ran right along the eastern basin edge of the garden, and was covered by a cocciopesto step. It is possible that these walls two walls are parts of a single wall running underneath the floor level of the east wing.
This trench, located at the northern-most part of 80, sought to further elucidate the early version of the pool. Excavations by De Caro, andbythe recent restoration project of the villa, found evidence of an earlier pool. De Caro speculated that the current pool had been originally wider and was simply filled and narrowed, perhaps to stabilize the colonnade of porticus 60. This trench allowed us to document the northern limit of this pool. Excavation did in fact discover pool plaster on the north and east walls of the trench. On the east wall (the outside of the current pool’s, 96, western wall) we found the same “double wall” condition documented by Cristina Regis. At the northeast corner of the trench, where the double wall met the north plastered wall, there was a clear repair in the north wall’s plaster where the later construction of the double wall had forced the breakage of the plaster and subsequent repair. The pool was filled in one event using earth and villa debris which included wall painting fragments, architectural stucco, marble, roof tile, and a variety of ceramics (under study by Prof. Archer Martin).
This trench explored the fountain basin first discovered by workmen in the fall of 2007 in room 20. Our excavation uncovered nearly half of the circular fountain. The basin’s foundations were nearly a meter deep. We were able to document what may have been a fitting for a statue at in the southwest section of the fountain. We were also able to document the central cavity where water presumably entered the fountain as well as what may have been two holes for exit pipes on the western edge of the foundations. These exit holes lined up with a trench that probably housed the drainage conduit for the fountain. Any piping was removed in antiquity and filled in with demolition debris. Included with the demolition debris were numerous large fragments of a rounded pluteus, which probably adorned the fountain when it was functioning.
OPK3 documented a water feature found in the eastern side of the north gardens during the original excavations of the villa. The feature abuts the modern stairway that leads from the modern entrance to the site down to the villa proper. Excavation was made difficult by a series of modern electric and water conduits placed directly on top of the feature. Part of the feature—a feeder pipe—is centered within the archway underneath the stairway. Excavation uncovered a canal approximately 5 meters in length and 80 centimeters in width and finished in cocciopesto. The downhill portion of the canal ends at the point where it attached to the feeder pipe at its southwest corner. The rest of the canal runs to the north with a slight curve to the east. The canal continues underneath the unexcavated sections of the villa that lie beneath the modern parking lot. A cross wall, located approximately one meter from the north of the canal feature, divided the canal, but allowed water to pass through a hole at the bottom. The exact function of the canal is not known, but it seems that it may have been an open water feature that was fed by an aqueduct. It went out of use in antiquity when it was filled with earth and debris.
This trench studied the garden within room 32, the peristyle that was the center of the villa’s servile population. What was discovered was evidence of an earlier peristyle that seems to have matched the footprint of the one visible today. We are speculating that this earlier version was contemporary with the villa’s original phase, constructed in circa 50 B.C.E. The trench also produced some evidence from the villa’s earlier history, including fragment of mosaic floor, sections of a demolished opus signinum floor, and the nose broken off of a small marble statue.
The trenches excavated during the 2009 season all preserve evidence of earlier aspects of the villa that were changed at some over time over the villa’s 130 year history. It is our belief that some of these changes may have been the result of damage inflicted by an earthquake, perhaps that of 62 CE. The ongoing masonry study of the villa has discovered several wall patches that may have been repairs after an earthquake. The study of the villa’s wall paintings has revealed similar patches and repairs. De Caro’s argument that the pool in room 80 had been filled in as a result of structural issues is certainly plausible, and it is possible that such issues arose from earthquake damage. Perhaps more convincing is that several of the villa’s water features, including the fountain in room 20 (OPK4) and the canal in the north garden (OPK3) were out of use at the time of the eruption. In both cases they had been buried in antiquity. This may signify damage to the villa’s water supply that may have occurred as a result of an earthquake.
The Oplontis Project continued its systematic study of Villa A at Oplontis in 2010. This season was the second season funded in part by the National Endowment of the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant. Teams from the University of Texas and the Kent Archaeological Field School excavated a total of 9 trenches in May and June of 2010. A particular focus of these trenches was the hydraulics of the villa, including cisterns, drainage, and pools. The following provides a synopsis of each trench.
This trench explored a cistern located in the southeast corner of the north gardens, just north of room 62. An Italian crew partially excavated this cistern in the late 1980’s. The excavations reached a depth of about 1.20 meters and were subsequently left open to the elements. As part of an EU sponsored restoration project in 2008, the cistern was filled in and topped with plastic, pumice stones, and cloth. We reopened the cistern to complete excavation.
Cocciopesto (water-proof concrete) lined the bottom and edges of the cistern. The cistern is limited to two cubic meters of water and probably reached its capacity after a single heavy or just a few rainstorms. It collected water off the room of a portico that ran along the western edge of the villa’s east wing. It likely served to hold water to be used in the gardens and also functioned to help prevent flooding in the south-east in the garden. Once filled, any excess water passed over the gutter and entered a sewer that ran under room 62. A plug in the wall sealed the access to the sewer probably after a demolition event destroyed the colonnade and the cistern went out of use.
Filling the cistern were large sections of a stucco Doric frieze, roof antefixes, roof tiles and wedge-shaped bricks that once formed part of columns. The antefixes are of two main types. The first is similar to the ones currently reconstructed along the northern portico of the villa. The other type was slightly slimmer and was possibly designed for a lighter roof. In addition we also uncovered a terracotta panel that once functioned as a column capital.
OP 10 and 11
Trenches OP 10 and 11 explore the center of the 60 meter swimming pool at the east end of the site. The decision to excavate here was motivated by ground penetrating radar study that found a significant anomaly underneath the pool pavement. At the time the anomaly suggested a possible structure, however, excavation found no evidence of any building. What these trenches were able to do was provide a detailed stratigraphic sequence that includes the pool pavement, the preparatory layers for the pool, and the prehistoric eruption layers and paleosols.
In OP 11, we did discover what seems to have been a re-pavement of the pool with a small drain running through it. We believe that this change in pavement was enough to create the anomaly in the radar reading.
This trench studied the area immediately east of the pool where at one time there seems to have been a drain, possibly to carry run-off water away from the pool. This trench, however, discovered very little save for a stratigraphic profile that includes one of the statue bases that ran parallel to the eastern edge of the swimming pool. Unfortunately excavation discovered no material that could help date the statue base.
OP 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17
These four trenches explored the areas around rooms 86 and 91 that comprise a portico at the south end of the swimming pool. Though the original excavation of the villa partially uncovered this area it never received full documentation. Especially important here were the remnants of a floor in opus sectile that was documented in OP 13. OP 14, 15, and 17 sought to elucidate the plan of this area by uncovering foundations for now missing piers. Excavation suggests that there were at least two pavements in this area and that sections of the floor discovered in OP 13 were robbed out in antiquity.
OP 16 uncovered the undocumented room to the east of 86 and 91 that should be identified as Room 99. The room seems to be a hastily constructed addition to this area, as exploration of a caved-in section of the cocciopesto floor revealed a faulty floor substructure. The room seems to have been bounded by steps on the north and east sides. Remnants of a Doric column—with stucco flutes still preserved—stand at the north-east corner.
The trenches from the 2010 season add further evidence to the theory that the villa underwent significant changes in its late history. The mounting evidence suggests that the villa may have been damaged in the years leading up to the eruption, possibly by the earthquake of 62. If so, such an event would satisfactorily explain the collapsed portico to the east of the east wing, portions of which filled the cistern in OP 9. Similarly such damage may have warranted a repair to the swimming pool. Damage suffered in rooms 86 and 91—as evidenced by multiple building phases in some of the piers—may have resulted in the lifting of the pavement. Room 99 may even be post-earthquake construction.