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Master of Scaremonies
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Eternal city reveals new layers during metro dig

By Phil StewartFri Dec 1, 1:24 PM ET

Raffaela La Pasta is not sure but thinks that the still half-buried skeleton she is unearthing in downtown Rome is female, and at least 1,600-years-old. A leg-bone is sticking up through the dirt and the outline of the skull is just visible, even in this pit 8 meters (26 feet) below the surface of the city.
"She's not the only one. There are others we found too," La Pasta said, coolly.

This archaeological site, which has also yielded a trove of Roman coins, pottery and even toys, is just one of dozens being drilled in the eternal city thanks to a metro project that is giving La Pasta and other scientists a rare, deep look below. A few of the finds, like a 2,000-year-old Roman compass La Pasta's team found, go on display at a downtown museum starting on Saturday. Other artifacts will join the exhibition as they are discovered in the coming months, while Rome forges ahead with its plans to punch a tunnel under the historic center to make way for a long-awaited subway line.

"You're standing on top the world's biggest archaeological collection," said the exhibit's curator, Maria Antonietta Tomei, motioning to the earth below.
"And our museum exhibit will only get bigger."

HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?

The project is massive, with a eight-digit price tag just for the first stage of the excavations. At spots throughout Rome, archaeologists are walling off bits of sidewalk, streets and squares trying to find out how to build the subway line -- a daunting, costly task for urban planners. Central Rome is still full of surprises. In June, another group of archaeologists found the skeleton of a woman who they think may have ruled Rome 3,000 years ago -- before Romulus and Remus are credited with founding the city.

The metro line aims to run deep enough underground to avoid disturbing ancient artifacts as it winds it way under an historic center that includes structures like the Forum and the Colosseum which are sensitive to vibrations in the earth. "The issue is not the metro itself, which is going to run far enough below the surface that there is no risk," said Giovanni Simonacci, the Metro C project's technical director.

The problem, he said, is figuring out how to get people from the surface of the city down to the metro line without disturbing an important historic structure.
"We don't know where (the precise entry and exit points) will be yet because we don't know what is down there," he said. "Phase One" of the excavations are meant to reach depths of 11 meters (36 ft) across the city. The target date was originally set for December but has already been pushed back until at least the end of March due to new discoveries.

UNDER THE PIAZZA

It's hard to tell if Mayor Walter Veltroni is squinting because of the sunlight or because he's realizes how challenging his so-called "archaeological metro" project will be. Standing in the middle of Rome's busiest square, Piazza Venezia, Veltroni peers below the ground into what his team of archaeologists have uncovered: a well preserved cellar of a palace built in the 17th century.

The cellar's interior window frames and staircase are intact, just as they would have been before the palace was destroyed to make way for the famous Roman square around a century ago. They had covered right over it.
The archaeologists said they plan to tear down the cellar to find other buildings they suspect are buried even deeper below.

"We don't know what's down there," Veltroni told Reuters, raising his voice over the buzz of Piazza Venezia's traffic. "Now we're naturally more recent. When we go deeper to look for the real Rome, we see what we find."
The metro project could have unforeseen consequences for the city. Veltroni did not rule out turning part of Piazza Venezia into a museum if there was a highly important discovery.

La Pasta said the project could yield more finds than Veltroni and others might imagine. On a dig that she worked on a block away, the team reached a depth of 17 meters (56 feet). They found entire structures, including perfectly preserved sections of 2,000-year-old Roman wall that are now in the Rome metro building's headquarters. "It was a whole new layer of the city," she said.
 
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