Rome Subway Dig Yields Surprises

The discovery of ancient artifacts is usually cause for celebration and public excitement. But this being Rome, excavation often brings more heartache than joy. Engineers digging up 38 sites in the Italian capital for the construction of much-needed third subway line seem stymied at every turn by some piece of history or another. A $4.7 billion project set to be complete in 2015, the 15-mile subway line is designed to carry 24,000 passengers an hour, hopefully decreasing above-ground traffic congestion and reducing city-center air pollution by nearly half.

That's if, of course, it is ever completed. Each time a relic is found, work stops to study the object's historical significance. And while many of these finds might be museum-worthy, some will be reburied or even destroyed for the sake of the progress. "Navigating Rome's ruins is like a slalom course," says Rome's superintendent of archeology Angelo Bottini. "It is impossible that there will not be situations of conflict." Click here to see video of the project.

So far, archaeologists and subway engineers have been working together, treating the subway construction as a rare opportunity to dig below the historical center of Rome, a city founded in the eighth century B.C. While the engineers are largely frustrated, the archaeologists have not been disappointed. They have found remains of imperial homes complete with full kitchens, down to the pots and pans, along with the remnants of the medieval Via Flaminia road that once crossed the city. Workers found Roman tombs containing the remains of two children still encased in the burial amphorae, pavements from the eighth century and the ruins of a copper factory from the sixth century complete with the original ovens used to melt copper alloy. In some cases, the city archaeologists just photograph and document the artifacts' location and give the go-ahead to destroy them—as they did recently when they found the remnants of a Roman tavern from the Middle Ages. Those artifacts deemed worthy of excavation are removed and will be transferred to Rome's museums or eventually showcased in the subway stations as part of a subterranean museum network. In other cases, like the discovery of the base of an Imperial palace near the proposed Pantheon subway stop, the ruins were reburied for future excavation and the entire subway stop was scrapped.

Enrico Testa, head of Rome's Metropolitane S.p.A., which runs the subway network, is understandably frustrated by the slow progress and bureaucracy involved in doing his job. And he points to the irony of having to stop work everytime some new stone or jar comes to the surface. "There are treasures that would stay buried forever if we didn't have to dig," he says. "But as soon as we uncover them, we have to stop working."

It wasn't always that way. When Benito Mussolini broke ground to build the city's first subway in 1937, he wasn't bothered by historical nuisances. Not only did his workers destroy much of the base of an ancient palace at the Piazza Bocca della Verita, they also chipped a corner off the buried foundation of the Coliseum. Even worse, thousands of pieces of marble and untold ancient relics were reportedly dumped in the countryside after being carried away from dig sites near the Roman forums. Interrupted by World War II and his own death, Mussolini's original subway plans were later altered to avoid historical sites. The first subway line finally opened in 1955 but was only seven miles long, about half what il Duce originally envisioned.

Now, the city's two existing subway lines barely skirt the periphery of the city's historical center and do little to help alleviate the massive traffic problems caused by the city's 2.8 million residents and the 20 million tourists who pass through each year. City buses, which are both victim to and cause of the city's perennial traffic jams, are the least efficient way to navigate the city. The third metro line is seen as an essential remedy to traffic and pollution.

Still, Rome's strict conservation laws, which require every artifact to be studied, may cause unthinkable delays for the project. That's precisely why Bottini sees the subway as a great opportunity—even if some relics will have to be sacrificed. "We know that in some cases the conflict will lead to removal or destruction of ancient ruins," he says. "But we never get to dig in the center of Rome."

Federico Fellini parodied a similar situation in his 1972 film "Roma" in a scene where engineers digging the first subway discovered a large Roman villa filled with perfectly preserved bright frescoes. Within minutes of boring through the ancient wall, the frescoes disintegrated forever after exposure to air—existing for only those few moments just after they were discovered. But Fellini's point was clearly that had it not been for the subway, they wouldn't have been discovered at all. Modern engineers have better preservation methods than Fellini might have envisioned, and the actual train tunnels of Rome's new subway will be built 80 to 100 feet below street level, well under the lowest layer of antiquity. Still, the subway stations and air ducts are closer to the surface, displacing ancient relics. In Rome's striving to exist as a modern city, its most difficult task is finding a way to live with its past.