The Project: methodology

The project intends to study Ostia’s transformations through an innovative methodology, characterized by a combination of archaeology, economics and urbanism, considering both the architectural and urban fabric of the city, and its socio-economic structures, in order to embrace the city as a complex nexus of space and people. The three disciplines are therefore synergistically integrated, providing mutual information necessary for the advancement of research, according to a logic of cross-fertilization.

The archaeological approach intends to adopt a multi-scalar perspective, investigating different aspects of architectural and urbanistic transformations by considering the micro-level of single buildings as well as the macro-urban level. The micro-level, particularly important to furnish detailed information on the multi-layered complexity of Ostia, will be represented by the parcel IV, VI, 1. This parcel has been chosen for the importance and richness of its testimonies, as it offers a complete view of the urban transformations of Ostia from the 2nd c. BC to at least the 5th c. AD, with a multi-layered reality, characterized by the succession of different buildings: a rich atrium-based house (the Domus del Portico di Tufo, the biggest house found in Ostia so far), a commercial building (the Caseggiato a Botteghe) and a late-Antique workshop. The parcel underwent limited archaeological investigation in the past and large areas are completely intact and unexcavated. The exceptionality and great potential of parcel IV, VI, 1 was confirmed by excavation campaigns, carried out in 2019 and 2021 under the direction of M. Cavalieri, J. Richard, M. Marano and P. Tomassini, with the collaboration and support of the Parco archeologico di Ostia antica. The macro-urban level, on the other hand, will address more general problematics that will throw a new light on the causes and modalities of the urban transformations that affected the city during the centuries.

From a methodological point of view, traditional archaeological research implemented with the most advanced techniques of modern archaeology to optimize the scientific output, by integrating:

  • Stratigraphic excavation: complete and accurate archaeological excavation of the parcel of land IV, VI, 1; geomorphological analysis of the ground; geophysical investigation of the unexcavated areas of the parcel; study of the archaeological materials.

  • Building archaeology: detailed study of the building techniques and raw materials; it allows to (I) analyse the vertical stratigraphy in order to give a relative chronology of the building phases and to understand the causes of building transformations, (II) to understand the construction processes (organization of the building sites, quantification of costs, workforce) and (III) to reconstruct the appearance and functioning of a building;

  • Archaeometry: petrographic analyses of building mortars (collaboration with Vienna and Florence, see infra); it allows to characterize the mortars, find common or peculiar features that help identify the work of a workgroup, the sources of supply and the chronology of building techniques;

  • Digital Archaeology: use of the 3D documentation and virtual reconstruction: (I) 3D imaging and photogrammetry with laser-scanner and drone will allow to have a complete and accurate documentation of the studied architectural structures; (II) 3D modelling will be used to perform digital reconstructions of the original appearance of the structures; besides an undeniable didactic purpose and the dissemination of results, reconstructions are intended as a scientific tool analyse different aspects of the functioning of the buildings, as the lighting system, the roofing and the water management.

  • Spatial Archaeology: analysis of how space is structured and organized, on the scale of a single building but also on the integration of the buildings in the general urban fabric. It allows to work on the function and the status of a building (dimensions, number and distribution of rooms) but also on the integration of the road system, the distribution of facilities, the identification of eventual zoning consciousness and the urban planning.


The economic approach starts from the consideration that the archaeological evidence us an exceptional opportunity to follow a pre-industrial and supposedly Malthusian society over several centuries. Based on this, we plan to describe and rationalize the dynamic interplay between economic development and the socio-demographic transformations undergone by Ostia. To do this, economists will collaborate with archaeologists and urbanists to (I) build a unique, large-scale dataset assembling data on the evolution of standards of living, the composition of the Ostian population by socio-economic status, and the structure and organization of urban space. This dataset, whose time-dimension represents a major innovation with respect to the existing data, will allow us (II) to establish a set of stylized facts. In social sciences, a “stylized fact” refers to empirical observations (in this case the archaeological interpretation and other documented data based on historic, epigraphic and osteological studies) used as a starting point for the construction of economic theories. We will try to assess whether the development of the Ostian economy was constrained by Malthusian mechanisms, or experienced period of sustained economic growth. We will then (III) build a theoretical framework to rationalize the stylized facts. We will set up an overlapping-generations model with endogenous fertility (in the tradition of Unified Growth Theory), which will additionally introduce the role of inequality and urban growth. The resulting model is in principle applicable to several pre-industrial societies, but it will lend itself to a quantitative exercise aimed at assessing its adequacy with the Ostian data. Finally, (4) we plan to study the role of corporative institutions (guilds) as a vector of pre-industrial development. This possibility will be explored within a theoretical model grounded on the available archaeological evidence. We will model guilds as endogenous institutions promoting specialization, social mobility and network externalities – all factors that might have rendered Malthusian constraints less binding.


The urbanistic approach, at last, intends to consider the ancient remains of Ostia through the lens of contemporary architecture and urbanism, addressing: (I) the study of the impact produced by ancient Ostian architecture in the conception of contemporary architecture and urbanism; (II) the reciprocal influence between archaeological activity on ancient remains and architectural production of the 20th century, that may be perceived through the analysis of contemporary reconstructions and restorations of ancient structures, that may have been guided not only by the methods and principles of archaeology, but also by a general vision of contemporary architecture and urbanism; (III) the verification of how the discoveries made in the history of architecture and urbanism of the 20th century, together with the archaeological and economic study, can contribute to rethink the contemporary city. The methods used combine those of the history of architecture, with a thorough study of a very rich archival record and urbanism, with the research of effective solutions to rethink modern cities, based on the experience of the past.