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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Archeologists who are excavating a site in Rome say they've


uncovered what may be the oldest-known temple from antiquity.
Along the way, they've also discovered how much the early Romans
intervened to shape their urban environment. And as NPR's Sylvia
Poggioli reports, the dig has been particularly challenging, because
the temple is below the water table.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: We're at the foot Capitoline Hill in the
center of Rome, next to the Medieval Saint Omobono Church. Today,
the Tiber River is about a hundred yards away. But when the city was
being created, around the 7th century BC, it flowed right here, where
a bend in the river provided a natural harbor for merchant ships.
NIC TERRENATO: And here, they decide to build a temple.
POGGIOLI: Nic Terrenato teaches classical archaeology at the
University of Michigan and is co-director of the Saint Omobono
excavation project.
TERRENATO: At this point, Rome is trading already as far afield as
Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt. And so they build this temple, which is
going to be one of the first things the traders see when they pull into
the harbor of Rome.
POGGIOLI: The temple, whose foundations are below the waterline,
was probably dedicated to the goddess Fortuna. The archaeological
team discovered large quantities of votive offerings, such as
miniature versions of drinking vessels, left not by locals, but by
foreign traders. Terrenato says in antiquity, temples built on harbors
had the function of fostering mutual trust between locals and traders.
TERRENATO: It's like a free trade zone, and the goddess is
supposed to guarantee the fairness of the trade.
POGGIOLI: The discovery of the existence of the archaic temple
came after years of fundraising in Italy and in the U.S., and it required
sophisticated technological know-how. Last summer, an ambitious
joint project of the University of Michigan and Rome archaeology
officials finally got under way.
ALBERT AMMERMAN: This is like totally mission impossible.
POGGIOLI: Archaeologist Albert Ammerman has excavated
numerous sites in Rome. The team used heavy machinery to drill a
rectangular hole 15 feet deep. A crane lowered large sheets of metal
to keep back the soggy soil. Terrenato says the archaeologists had to
fight claustrophobia to be able to spend as much as eight hours a day
at the bottom of that trench.
TERRENATO: You're in a very deep hole, and although you know
that, in theory, the sheeting is going to hold everything up, you know,
there is, like, a primal part of your brain that tells you to get out of
there. Because, you know, if the walls come closing in, there's not
going to be any way out for you.
POGGIOLI: The foundations of the Temple of Fortuna were visible for
only three days. For security reasons, the team could not leave the
trench open, and it had to be filled up again.
But digging through the city's many layers, archaeologists have
learned a lot. Early Rome - a city of high hills and deep valleys prone
to flooding - soon became one large landfill, as the founders chopped
off hilltops and dumped them into lowlands to try to make the city
flatter and drier.
And as the city grew layer by layer, and more temples were built,
archeologists Ammerman says the Romans encroached on their
river, diverting the original waterway.
AMMERMAN: This is actually not totally natural. It's the humans are
actually changing the river to the way it is here. They had the ability to
realize that to make their city go, they have to transform the
landscape.
POGGIOLI: As they figured how to cope with their surroundings, the
early Romans developed sophisticated engineering and
administrative skills, and a collective ability to deal with their
challenging environment. It's discoveries like these, Ammerman says,
that debunk the idealized image of ancient Rome as a place that
never changed, the immutable and eternal city. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
News, Rome.