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What Is Involved in Roman Archaeology?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 22 April 2018
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Roman archaeology is the study of human artifacts that remain from the Roman period, which, in its broadest sense, is believed to have started in 753 BC with the founding of the city of Rome in Italy by the legendary twin brothers of Romulus and Remus, to its final decay and fall in 44 BC with the death of Julius Caesar. The field of Roman archaeology in general is often classified as the study of a sub-set of Classical archaeology, which includes the study of ancient Greece that preceded the rise of Rome as well as related societies in the European region such as the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Artifacts that are particularly important to cultural studies of the period include sculptures and other artwork and written records of the time period. Equally important, though often more scarce or badly ravaged by the passage of time, is the study of money and its uses from the period and any remaining architectural ruins that still exist.

An archaeologist acts something like a detective in studying the past, where he or she must gather as much evidence as possible about events to assemble a complete and accurate picture of what took place during the time period. With Roman archaeology, a unique advantage often presents itself that is not present in many other arenas of archaeological research. Though most archaeological study focuses on the material remains of past societies to assemble an accurate archaeological record, of secondary, though important, value is the oral history that exists to fill in the blanks in understanding of past practices.

While Rome itself ceased to function as an empire and cohesive society over 2,000 years ago as of 2011, the region upon which the empire was built has been continually inhabited by descendants of the Romans, who have often carried on cultural traditions, religious beliefs, and customs with ancient origins. This oral history is often more complete when a past era being researched had a large degree of literacy. Rome was noted for being a technologically-advanced civilization of its time that carried on the Greek tradition of the value of education and acquiring new knowledge.

The human culture upon which the Roman world was founded is believed to have been populated by three distinct groups of people who merged into one. First among them were the Italic people, who were the rural and semi-nomadic groups native to the region and which included regional warrior or kingship-based territories. The Etruscans are believed to have come to Rome from somewhere in Asia Minor, and brought with them much of the foundational art and city planning skills that formed the foundation of Roman architecture and high culture. The Greeks also populated Rome, initially as a merchant class in control of the seas, and later owning large sections of agricultural land. It is from the Greeks that Roman archaeology displays many of its origins for mythology and for establishing Rome's historical and religious place in the world at large.

The archaeological record is also built up from the study of human remains and everyday implements used by people of the time. This means that much of Roman archaeology also involves the excavation of buried cities and ancient graves. Examining bones, pottery, and even the remains of fragile items like food, pottery, and jewelry that are occasionally preserved and fossilized can often reveal more about a culture than more elaborate and unique artifacts like sculptures or grand halls and meeting places.

The study of Roman archaeology is a complex and vast undertaking not only because of the fact that the period lasted for many centuries, but also because of the size of Roman society. At its peak, Roman civilization stretched from the city of Rome all the way to the British Isles in the west, covering most of Europe in the process, and also included rule over modern-day territory in Egypt and Turkey. All of the various cultures that Rome came to dominate merged to some degree with the empire and can be considered part of its culture and heritage.

It is estimated that, at its height, the Roman Empire spanned an area of territory equal to 2,509,663 square miles (6,500,000 square kilometers). This is close to the size of the entire subcontinent of Australia at 2,941,299 square miles (7,617,930 square kilometers), which is considered to be the world's sixth largest nation as of 2011. Undertaking an effort at Roman archaeology for a civilization so vast in size and which endured for nearly a thousand years is a research effort that may never reach a final conclusion.

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