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Regias Revisited

November 6, 2015
Regias Revisited Conference
F. Brown's original excavation plan of the Regia. In red, a GIS rendering of Brown's proposed Regia I, and in blue, extant remains that support this interpretation.
Terracotta Frieze of Minotaur and Feline, Regia, Forum Romanum
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Archaeology is destruction - every turn of the spade destroys layers of earth that preserve moments of the human past. The archaeology archive - the documentation that records excavation - transforms that destructive moment into history. More important than any buried building or fragment of sculpture, this archive preserves the tenuous link between the modern archaeologist and the people of the past.

In 1964, Frank Brown, then Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the American Academy in Rome, began excavations in the Roman Forum, at a site thought to represent the home of Numa - the late 8th century BC successor to Romulus as king of Rome. Known as the Regia, the building was also said to be a temple and thus marked the origins of a mixture of political power with religious practice that was the hallmark of Romans’ particular socio-religious practice. The Regia, then, like the hut of Romulus or the temple on the Capitoline hill, is where Rome might be said to have begun.

Due to ill health, Brown was never able to publish his two-year excavation in the Regia, but he left an extraordinary archive of his work - complete with diaries, photos, drawings and detailed descriptions of findings.  Last week, on the 50th-year anniversary of these excavations, the American Academy in Rome presented Regia Revisited, a half-day workshop presenting two different “excavations” of the Regia archive.

Russell “Darby” Scott, a former student of Brown's and currently professor at Bryn Mawr college, presented a preview of his forthcoming publication of the Regia. A faithful rendition of what Brown thought he had found, Scott’s publication, along with that of Ann Scott’s discussion of the ceramics, presents this archive as the living voice of the excavator - a way inside the mind of Brown and faithful rendering of his hypotheses and interpretations.

These archives are also used to dial back time, reconstructing the destructive act of excavation and reanalyzing it for new meaning. Under the direction of Nic Terrenato and Paolo Brocato, a group of young scholars from the University of Michigan and the Università di Calabria are using new technology to re-examine Brown’s archive and his conclusions. Using the digitized version of the archive, now available on the Academy’s Digital Humanities Center (http://dhc.aarome.org), the team used GIS and ARK - an archaeology storage and analysis software - to compare the excavated results with Brown’s conclusions.

In the 50  years since Brown’s historic project, many analogous examples of “Regias”  - these house-temples -  have been uncovered, most spectacularly at Gabii, presented on this occasion by Marco Fabbri. Brown’s results, examined anew with cutting-edge technologies, now appear to resemble these other contemporary examples. Instead of a unique monument, Brown’s Regia now appears to be part of a 8th-century BC world in which the tribal kings of central Italy began to organize what would become the region’s first cities.

Was the Roman Regia the first of these? And did it really represent a fusion of domestic and religious architecture - the temple-house of the king in which Numa, a real or mythic figure, began those first steps towards Roman state religion? In Brown’s documentation lay the answers to many of these questions, a testament to the archive’s enduring power to shed new light on the past.

The Regias Revisited conference is part of the Academy’s 2015-16 thematic events series, Bodies of Knowledge, on archives, identity and the organization of knowledge. To learn more, visit the AAR website http://www.aarome.org/events/series.