The Synagogue Complex: A History of Excavations
In 1960 construction began on a new highway serving Rome's Leondaro da Vinci Airport at Fiumicino. The
highway would pass just south of the area where the planners thought the ancient city of Ostia ended.
To their surprise, they discovered more ruins-a series of buildings and even an ancient paved road.
The Roman road, the via Severiana, peaks through the grass and dirt, revealing its condition in 1960. To the
immediate left, the excavators would find the synagogue building. Twenty-three years later and to the immediate
right, excavators on the other side of the ancient road would find the complex now known as the Baths of
Musiciolus. The discovery of these ruins pushed our understanding of the Ostia's limits. Until that time,
the town was thought to end near the Porta Marina Baths, the massive piers in the distance that tower over the
horizon. Photo source: Soprintendenza archeologica di Ostia (SAO) Archives #D 1098.
By 1961 a preliminary excavation, the first of a series of four that would be conducted at the site over
the next forty years, was underway.
As the first work commenced, the excavators soon realized the significance of the unexpected find: An
architectural fragment from one of the buildings bore an unmistakable symbol-a menorah.
Above the what would later be identified as the Torah Niche, a sculpted depiction of a menorah appears, the first
clue that alerted the excavators of 1961-62 that they had discovered a synagogue. The original relief sculpture
has been moved closer to the Ostia Museum and lowered from its original height to facilitate easy viewing. The
present fragment is a replica.
This building was the ancient synagogue of Ostia.
During the season 1961-1962, Maria Floriana Squarciapino, Superintendant of Ostia Antica at the time, excavated
the synagogue building. In the foreground workers clear the room now labeled IV.17.1.10. In the background runs
the new airport highway. Photo source: Soprintendenza archeologica di Ostia (SAO) Archives #C 1 P81.
Between 1961 and 1985, excavators would make further discoveries. The ancient road dated to the time of the
emperor Septimus Severus (198-209 CE) and seemed to indicate that the area was vital to the city and well-traveled
at that time. In addition to the synagogue, the excavators would also soon discover a series of street front
shops that faced onto the ancient road, a nymphaeum (fountain complex), and a bath structure. Little has
been published about the road and these buildings, and many questions still remain-such as, whether an earlier
road pre-existed the via Severiana. No final authoritative report of the area exists.
In 2001 The University of Texas at Austin's Ostia Masonry Analysis Project (OSMAP), under the auspices of Anna
Gallina Zevi, current Superintendent of Ostia Antica, began the first systematic analysis of the area to
supplement previous excavations.
Jess Miner, David Gibson and Grant Ingram stare down the north wall of a room in the Synagogue building
(IV.17.1.18). One of the contributions of the 2002 Ostia Synagogue Masonry Analysis Team to the permanent
record of Ostia archives was a series of wall drawings, which the three team members execute here. The
drawings provide a comprehensive look at what types of bricks were used to make the different sections of the
wall and what features make the wall unique (from the presence of a small drain pipe to the sealing up of an
From this investigation we hope to determine more preciselywhen these buildings were built and what the buildings
looked like in earlier phases-plotting the different stages of renovation and rebuilding, and gaining a better
idea of how the synagogue related to and interacted with its neighbors across the street during the three
hundred years when this area flourished.