Ostia Synagogue-area Masonry Project
OSMAP is a multi-year project of the Department of Classics of the University of Texas at Austin. It is supported by
the Department's research center, The Institute for the Study of Antiquity & Christian Origins, which is under the direction
of Professor L. Michael White. Dr. White is also the Project Director and principal researcher of OSMAP. The project
received a five-year permit from Dott.ssa Anna Gallina Zevi, Superintendent of Ostia Antica, commencing in 2001.
Overview of the Project
Ostia Antica was the harbor of ancient Rome. From the 2nd century BCE to its decline beginning in the late 5th cent. CE,
Ostia (later Portus) was the principal port for wheat and other goods coming into Rome. It was a lively and cosmopolitan
port city with large ocean going vessels offloading cargo onto the busy wharf before being loaded onto barges to be sent
up to Rome. With this bustle of commercial activity came growth, wealth, and a diverse mix of peoples from all over the
Roman world. Located on the western side of Ostia, along what would have been the ancient shoreline, a new area of suburban
sprawl began to grow up beginning in the late 1st century CE. With the building of a new Roman "superhighway" (called the
Via Severiana) at the end of the 2nd century CE, this area grew further and apparently took on new importance in the life of
the late Roman city.
It was in this stretch that a startling new discovery was made in 1960, when another new highway was being built, this time
to serve Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport at Fiumicino. When they began to dig out the roadbed, far from where they thought
the ancient city ended, they discovered more ruins. The area received preliminary excavation between 1961-1962 under the
direction of Maria Floriana Squarciapino, then Superintendent of Ostia Antica. As excavations began the significance of this
unexpected find was quickly realized, as a carved corbel from the building bore an unmistakable symbol - a menorah. This
building was the ancient synagogue of Ostia. It is without doubt one of the oldest synagogues of the Graeco-Roman world now
known from archaeological remains.
More excavations were performed in 1977-79 under the direction of Carlo Pavolini; they revealed the fašade of another line
of buildings along the northern side of the Via Severiana streetfront. Finally, between 1983-1985 a bath complex was also
partially excavated under the direction of Sra. Squarciapino. To date, however, little has been published about most of these
buildings and no final, authoritative report of the excavation exists. Architectural plans were never completed for new areas
of the synagogue complex that were uncovered in 1981-83, and large areas of these excavations were never incorporated into the
offical plan of Ostia Antica. Beginning in 2001, The University of Texas OSMAP project, working under the auspices of the
Dott.ssa Anna Gallina Zevi, current Superintendent of Ostia Antica, began to supplement these previous excavations by undertaking
a digital mapping and masonry analysis of the entire area using the latest GIS survey equipment and techniques. The result will
be a definitive plan, architectural history, and digital reconstruction of the buildings in this area.
Below is a working plan of the OSMAP survey area (Fig. 1), which, for the first time, integrates all the excavated edifices from the various projects
into one plan. (A larger image is available pdf format.)
OSMAP was initially proposed as a five year project to complete the archaeological and architectural picture of this
extra-urban area of Ostia Antica. The entire region will be explored in the mapping part of this project, the primary goal
is to understand the formation and development of this extra-urban region along the Via Severiana. There are two main building
complexes: the Baths of Musiciolus with its contiguous street-front shops along the Via Severiana and the Synagogue complex
across the street. From the process we expect to be able to determine more precisely when these buildings were actually built
and what they were like architecturally in earlier phases. We will be able to plot more precisely the stages of renovation and
rebuilding over the 300 or more years this area was in service. We will gain a better idea of how the synagogue building related
to and interacted with its neighbors across the street. Finally, using AutoCAD technology we will be able to reconstruct what
the buildings looked like and how they were used.
In a recent review of the significance of the Ostia synagogue, The Dutch archaeologist Leonard V. Rutgers, author of The Jews
of Late Ancient Rome (1995) says:
|[I]t is no exaggeration to say that from an urban and socio-religious perspective, the synagogue was among the most noticeable
institutions in the late ancient city. Even though some scholars continue to maintain that synagogues typically "developed on
the undesirable periphery" of ancient towns, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is undeniable, for example, that the
synagogue of Ostia is located in what now appears to be a deserted spot. Yet even a most superficial look at the general
architectural history of Ostia reveals that it was exactly in the area surrounded by the Ostia synagogue, near the Mediterranean
coast, that the most intensive building activities took place over the course of the third and fourth centuries CE.
This perception has recently been confirmed with the spectular discovery by the joint German-American project of a large
suburban villa running parallel to the Via Severiana and just to the north of the Baths of Musiciolus complex
(as shown in fig. 1 above).
Much of the project design has grown out of Dr. White's previous work (1997; 1999) on the synagogue complex itself, which
had already proposed some needed issues and methods of archaeological research. In particular OSMAP seeks to bring new
approaches from masonry analysis and digital mapping into the research design. In the summer of 2001, the directorial staff
of OSMAP, comprised of Dr. L. Michael White, Dr. Darius Arya, Ms. Susan Gelb, and Mr. Alan Stearman, spent four weeks of
research, consultation, planning and preliminary investigation for the project. Dr. Joanne Spurza joined us for part of the
time in Ostia to consult directly on aspects of the masonry analysis. In conjunction with this, the senior staff undertook
both library research at the Academy and consultation with other projects that have been using similar methods and approaches.
In particular, we met with Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the British School, concerning their digital mapping and masonry
analysis work in Insula I.9 at Pompeii. We were able both to see the computer data-base and field protocols used for the
project at the British School and to undertake on-site work at Pompeii to see the application of their field method in situ.
Also at Pompeii we spent several days observing and working closely with John Dobbins and the University of Virginia's Pompeii
Forum Project, since they, too, are using a combination of AutoCAD digital mapping and masonry analysis as the core methods
for their reinvestigation of the architectural history of the forum. Both consultations gave us valuable insights into how
to set up our project and how to implement it. To date, no similar project design integrating digital mapping and masonry
analysis has been undertaken at Ostia Antica.
During our time in Ostia Antica the staff began to plan for the ensuing seasons by meeting with the members of the Superintendent's
staff and consulting the Ostia Archives for previous work on the region. We were able to identify which areas had not been given
either field or architectural drawings, such as the nymphaeum in the southwest corner of the Synagogue complex, and began to draw
those missing features in order to complete the architectural plan for the region. In addition to creating these plans, we also
established an official numbering system for the entire area along the lower Via Severiana which had been neglected in previous
plans; this "official" numbering system was approved by Dott.ssa Zevi and accepted by Dott.ssa Elizabeth Jane Shepherd, head of
the Ostia Archives. The buildings were given numerical designations consistent with the traditional system of Region, Insula,
Building, and Room, commencing from the last numbered building in the Porta Marina quarter, the Porta Marina baths (designated
IV.10.1-2). The OSMAP survey region, therefore, is now designated as Region IV, insulae 14-17. This new numbering system for
the area is reported in Fig. 7 in the Preliminary Report of the 2001 Field Season, as filed
with Ostia Archives.
Recent studies have also shown some difficulties with previous assumptions regarding the relative chronology of certain types
of Roman masonry, based in some measure on the magesterial work of Blake (1947-1973). Of particular interest is the persistence
of reticulate facing techniques (in the form of opus mixtum types) far later than has sometimes been supposed. Evidence from
other areas of Ostia even shows the resurgence of "earlier" types of opus mixtum in demonstrably later stratigraphic contexts.
Some buildings or phases in the OSMAP survey area were originally dated solely on the basis of masonry typology alone, without
stratigraphic correlations or ceramic analysis. Moreover, walls of a common masonry type were assumed to come from the same phase
of construction. Consequently, the relationships of distinct types and phases of masonry construction must be reevaluated carefully.
The different complexes of our survey area contain at least three distinct types of opus mixtum as well as several distinctive
profiles of opus latericium and opus vittatum. In some instances, there seems to be more than one discernible phase of
construction even within the parameters of a single masonry type. Close examination and calculation of the manner in which
the masonry elements were constructed can help to clarify the nature of these differences in a way that can only be guessed
from visual observation. Consequently, we expect that an additional area of fruitful investigation lies in more detailed study
of the actual techniques of ancient masonry construction. This, too, is a relatively recent area of archaeological investigation
in conjunction with Roman masonry studies, but to date most attention has been focused on the techniques of laying opus latericium
brickwork (DeLaine 1997). How the ancient masons actually went about constructing walls in opus mixtum, or more precisely, a
system of interconnected walls, needs to be given increased attention and should shed additional light on the architectural phases.
Many of these preliminary observations, based on our own field work and recent work by other projects, have been built into the
field design for our masonry analysis data collection.
Our aims and objectives for OSMAP are to assess the discernible phases of architecture in the two buildings of the synagogue
complex in relation to the building complex along the north side of the Via Severiana excavated previously. Archival materials
from the previous excavation projects will naturally provide the base for these studies, since most of the work was never formally
published. These will be supplemented by non-invasive survey of the structures in the region using survey equipment and digital
photography. We plan to use the most technologically advanced approaches to masonry analysis including GIS survey, three-dimensional
mapping, and digital photography. Finally, we expect to correlate masonry analysis and survey data through selective soundings in
order to provide additional stratigraphic controls and masonry correlations. As a result, OSMAP will make significant contributions
in four major areas: (1) creation of definitive architectural plans, drawings, and photographs of the extant architecture,
(2) analysis of the plan and construction history of the two main building complexes, (3) insight into the site formation and
historical development of the Porta Marina f.l.m. quarter, and (4) compilation of a computerized database for Ostian masonry types
comparable to those found in the area of the OSMAP survey.