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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Save Rome’s Colosseum from Contemporary Roman Culture

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Even something as obviously beneficial to world cultural heritage as the restoration of Rome’s most recognizable monument, the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheater, has become steeped in controversy.  Diego della Valle, owner of Tod’s footwear, has threatened to rescind his offer to underwrite the project after allegations of inappropriateness in the contract for the restoration.

The concept of benefactors, although it can be traced to Rome through the etymology of words like “mecenate” (derived from the name of Gaius Maecenas, generous friend and adviser to the Roman Emperor Augustus), is foreign to Rome today, and Saving Roman Culture is often just another way to make money. Thus worthy efforts like Della Valle’s end up under suspicion, Italians unfamiliar with arts patronage asking “what is in it for him?”

After my own experience as President of the American Institute for Roman Culture in the past (until the actions of several board members led me to resign to preserve my own professional dignity) I understand how even honest efforts to Save Rome can be dragged down by a corrupt or mismanaged administration.







Written by Tom Rankin

January 12, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Save Rome

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At the conference Our Future’s Past: Sustainable Cultural Heritage in the 21st Century where I presented a paper recently I was surprised to see a web address in a presentation of one of the other presenters.  The URL is Interestingly, I purchased this domain when I was working as President of the American Institute for Roman Culture, an organization I had co-founded.  At the time I was happy to forward traffic to the AIRC website from my domain but when I left my position there in 2008, I renewed my subscription to the domain but changed its forwarding address.

Shortly after doing so I was informed that someone had transferred ownership of the domain to the AIRC.  My requests to the Institute to return my domain were refused, not in itself a big issue, but their refusal to reimburse me the $239 I had paid in advance for a domain they continue to use seemed pretty low.

I didn’t think of it again until the other day when I saw the URL projected on a screen at this conference.  Since I paid for the domain renewal out of pocket, and the AIRC was (at the time at least) a recognized 501(c)3, shouldn’t I have received recognition for a donation in kind?

Written by Tom Rankin

November 27, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Biking the First Highway

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Biking the First Highway.

Written by Tom Rankin

November 15, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Rome in 4D

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A few years back, as co-founder of the American Institute for Roman Culture, I remember envisioning a variety of mapping tools which might better document the city of Rome and since then Google has come through and then some.  It’s more than mapping really, since the Google SketchUp/Building Maker project involves modeling historical realities from various periods as well as the present reality.  It’s potentially a great tool for envisioning the future as well as the past, a true 4D urban model with time being the fourth demension.

Written by Tom Rankin

September 14, 2011 at 5:23 am

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Rome

Tagged with , ,

Roman History and Environment

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This was first published at

Yesterday I attended the conference “History and Environment in the Ancient Mediterranean”, hosted at the American Academy in Rome and the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae. I felt a bit the outsider, an architect amidst earth scientists and archaeologists, but the discussion was fascinating and I learned a lot.

The intensive discussion of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) brought me back to my undergraduate research on Urban Ecology in the American Southwest, the topic of my Princeton thesis.  At the time, I was investigating the connection between the ability of human culture’s to live within the constraints of their natural environment by designing communities and buildings according to passive solar principles.  My conclusions, as I recall, were that while the Anasazi were skilled at adapting to seasonal (and daily) fluctuations in temperature and moisture, they were unprepared for the trend in lowering of water tables caused by the erosion of soil and the creation of arroyos. Like the frog in the gradually warming water, they didn’t notice the change until it was too late. These concepts of trend and fluctuation were brought up in the talk by Harvard’s Mike McCormick who directs the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization I was fascinated by the existence of this site which “makes freely available on the internet the best available materials for a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) approach to mapping and spatial analysis of the Roman and medieval worlds.”

The conference was organized by William Harris, professor of history at Columbia University, who gave an excellent paper on Deforestation in the Ancient Mediterranean. I had never realized that the principle cause of deforestation in ancient Rome was not clearing land for agriculture, nor harvesting of lumber for shipbuilding and other building projects, nor even the need for heating fuel (although these were all significant);  it was the iron-smelting industry.

The question the conference left me with was this: how relevant is historical climate change to our current predicament? I believe that we can learn something from the innovative techniques adopted by cultures with more immediate restraints (lacking the miracle fuel of petro carbons) but also a far more diluted concentration of human settlement and therefor less potential negative impact. They had little choice but to live sustainably within their local carrying capacity;  those that didn’t, like the late Romans or the Anasazi or the Mayans, didn’t survive. By contrast, today we are coming to terms with global scarcity despite having technical means far superior to those of the ancient world. We have succeeded in overcoming local restraints with simplistic, inefficient means (primarily burning fossil fuels) but have yet to meet the potential for a complex, sophisticated response to our globalized, human-induced environmental challenges.  This is the present-day predicament. Perhaps the real relevance of the study of ancient Rome is not not for what we learn about earlier adaptations to earlier climate stress, as admirable as they are, but simply because encouraging the appreciation of cultural heritage and promoting its preservation we present a “saner” alternative to the contemporary culture based on consumption and runaway growth.  In the age-old battle between simplified pre-conceptions and complex scientific knowledge, the study of history provides data for the reality-based among us, data which may be essential toward solving our current environmental challenges.

Written by Tom Rankin

June 16, 2011 at 5:11 am

Palatine and Velabro

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My sketch from Capitoline Hill

Openings and closings on the Palatine.  While some terraces, towards the Forum are seeing more closures, others, toward Velabro are now accessible to visitors. As is the House of Livia (a nice addition to the House and studio of Augustus which has already been open during limited hours for years.)  Yesterday I was sketching on the Campidoglio during my lunch break and enjoyed the combined view of excavations in the Forum, gardens on the Palatine and amazing roof terraces in the Velabro neighborhood.

Written by Tom Rankin

May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am

Material Reuse in Rome

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The Testaccio hill composed of ancient pottery shards

What do the city of Rome and environmental sustainability have in common? How can Rome aid in our collective global mission to build a new economy, to quote Lester Brown, “that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a  much more diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything”? And how can the solution that emerge in turn aid Rome in continuing its long urban adventure into the future?

To speak of environmental sustainability and Rome in the same paper may seem surprising. By various standards, Rome is dragging its feet in meeting goals such as reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, eliminating waste of water and other materials, and improving air quality by cutting emissions.  This year Legambiente’s Ecosistemma Italia report ranked Rome 75th out of 103 Italian cities it rated for sustainable practices, down from 62nd place the previous year.

There area countless precedents in Rome for the elimination of of waste: one thinks of the artistic tradition of mosaics and the cosmatesque workshops re-using scraps and recycled stone. Or the culinary tradition of the quinto quarto, using every edible part of the animal slaughtered in Testaccio. We also see where disposal of waste is not avoided, in also in Testaccio in the ancient mound of discarded amphora which is Monte dei Cocci, or in contemporary Europe’s largest landfill, Malagrotta, which exceeded its capacity several years ago threatening a crisis in Rome similar to that of Naples. It is interesting that several of these historical precedents were more more visible than their contemporary counterparts, whether the aqueducts marching across the countryside, the mills at the banks of the Tiber, or the dump just outside the city walls. Today cities tend to bury these systems, to hide them or make them invisible, wireless, or to outsource them to distant shores, in each case allowing us to take them for granted and ignore their negative consequences. In Rome, there persists a healthy and visible juxtaposition of daily life and its essential support systems.  For more on this theme:

Written by Tom Rankin

January 9, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Posted in Archaeology

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