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I had an epiphany on Friday. I went to see the latest excavations in Rome’s Forum of Peace (the Forum of Vespasian) and a new discovery solved a problem that has been a pivotal point of debate since the very beginnings of Medieval archaeology in Italy.

As I rushed down the Via dei Fori Imperiali past thousands of school students striking for climate change and the future, my mind was on how this new discovery might rewrite the past, the history of Rome and early Medieval Italy.

The end of antiquity in the Forum of Vespasian

I have long taken the line that Italy and Rome collapsed dramatically in the later 6th and 7th centuries. What followed was an age when small monasteries clung onto traditions but the economy was reduced to an extraordinary primitiveness. In the early to mid 9th century, the Carolingians re-introduced to Italy and Rome the concepts on which Medieval society was based.

Italian archaeologists tacitly dismiss this hypothesis. The contemporary culture of tradition and continuity has fostered a firm (and understandable) resistance to my view of a calamitous post-classical transformation followed by a Medieval ascendancy based upon the adoption of ideas diffused from northern Europe.

The principal object which helps us to pinpoint this historic period is a lead-glazed pitcher known as Forum ware. This distinctive vessel type is frequently decorated with applied foliage and other simple motifs. The first collection of these pitchers was found in a hoard in the Roman Forum. Then, sherds turned up in excavations of a papal farm called Santa Cornelia on the Via Cassia, a place dated by texts to the 9th century. Santa Cornelia was the first modern excavation of the era in Italy.

Forum Ware

New archaeomagnetic dating of the vessels now confirms these highly visible finds to be roughly mid 9th century. So, surely, these widely distributed pitchers were made in a sophisticated production centre (ie factory), somewhere in Rome?

Well, not so. Riccardo Santangeli Valenziani and his team from RomaTre, forensically excavating the upper levels of a small Roman shop to one side of Vespasian’s temple, found deep early Medieval deposits overlying Roman remains.

This narrow room, improbable as it seemed, was largely filled by a sequence of 8 kilns producing Forum ware.

Prof Riccardo Santangeli Valenziani and team with the earliest Forum ware kiln

Riccardo, a wonderful archaeologist who has been gently sceptical of my reading of the archaeology, nodded uneasily and muttered:

“it’s so primitive”. “

”Just as I imagined,” I replied with a beaming smile.

“I know, I know…” Riccardo replied, patently dismayed.

The earliest kiln was barely more than a trench with a long shallow stokehole. The latest kiln of the 8 excavated had a simple chamber with supports for a small kiln floor. It was worthy of the simplest of Carolingian and 9th-century Anglo-Saxon kilns. The elegantly decorated wasters tossed to one side of the palimpsest of kilns show beyond doubt that in this most modest of settings, Italy’s first glazed wares were produced.

Other kilns for making other objects probably lay close by. Only more excavations will reveal what these were for, Now, though, Forum (of Peace) ware was the work of skilled artisans using lead (from western France) for making a bright, viscous green glaze for Rome’s tablewares operating in conditions that were beyond any doubt…..primitive.

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