Environmental profile of the Ostia Synagogue

A major goal of the 2013 study season was to begin an environmental analysis of the synagogue.  Environmental archaeologist Robyn Veal, an expert in the analysis of ancient charcoal, has joined the team as our environmental advisor.  Last week she came to the lab to oversee the construction of our first flotation tank, which allows us to extract tiny seeds, bones and other small finds from soil samples taken during the synagogue excavations.  Charlene Murphy, who specializes in the recovery, analysis, and categorization of ancient microfloral remains, oversaw the flotation of our soil samples and performed the preliminary processing of the recovered materials.


Andrew Doherty assisted Robyn Veal and Charlene Murphy in the construction of our flotation tank, using materials from four different hardware and hydraulic stores in Rome

We floated samples from several different excavation contexts, including the soil from a drain, several samples from the sand fill underlying the synagogue complex, and soil from a large fill discovered to the east of the complex.  Dr Veal and Dr Murphy were very patient and effective instructors!


Robyn Veal (back left) and Charlene Murphy (back right) oversee the flotation of soil samples

On the following day, Dr Veal set up her microscope to examine some small pieces of glass and fish bones recovered during flotation.  She also provided a digital microscope, which allowed us to view the finds on a computer screen and photograph them.  The demonstration drew quite a crowd–every member of our study season team came over to the computer to see the finds, and a couple of men from Ostia’s road-building crew stopped by for a quick science lesson!  We look forward to collaborating with Dr. Murphy and Dr. Veal in the future!

Examining and photographing small finds from flotation under a microscope


Wanted: Your Photos of the Synagogue

OSMAP has a large collection of archival photos courtesy of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma Archivio Fotografico at Ostia, which give us snapshots of the Ostia Synagogue excavations in the 1960s and subsequent renovations in the following decades.

The Ostia Synagogue during its first excavation season in 1961. (Courtesy of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma Archivio Fotografico at Ostia)

Since its excavation and restoration in the 1960s, thousands of visitors and pilgrims have made the long trek across Ostia to visit the synagogue, and many of you have taken photos of the building complex and its environs.  The structure of all buildings at Ostia undergo changes over the years due to environmental causes, visitors, and various necessary restorations.  OSMAP is more than an archaeological study, it is also a study of the recent social and archaeological history of the Synagogue Complex.  Therefore we wish to expand our photo archive by opening up submissions to the public—that means YOU!  We are particularly interested in photos taken during the 1970s and 1980s. If you have photos of the Synagogue complex that you would be willing to share, please scan them and email them to us.  If you would prefer for your images to remain unpublished, please let us know; otherwise, should your image be published, you will be properly acknowledged.  And please, pass this request on!  Thank you!

Halfway through OSMAP ’12 Excavation Season!

Our excavations have continued to be interesting and productive, despite the heat wave that has held Italy in its clenches—dubbed “Scipione” by Italian meteorologists, as the wind blows up from Africa.  Our team has been grateful for the nearby shade trees which we sit under during paperwork and for breaks, and we have been careful to keep our water cooler full.

Several team members have completed the painstaking task of uncovering a mosaic by carefully peeling back the dirt without causing a single tessera to pop out of place.  The mosaic a white field with black bands at the edge, and is not decorated in any other way.  Some portions of it are missing, so we are eager to preserve what is left—we are applying for permission to have it lifted, restored and reset within the next year.


Kimberly Bauser and Mitch McDavid clean the mosaic with all-natural sponges and distilled water.

The team in charge of pulling back layer after layer of sidewalk pavement in the area between the Synagogue and the Via Severiana may have reached “pay dirt” this week when they uncovered a surface layer that seems to run under the Via Severiana, perhaps pre-dating the construction of that road.


Cavan Concannon kneels on a surface that may pre-date the construction of the Via Severiana.

In other areas of the Synagogue, we have been surprised to discover that one reticulate wall runs much deeper than we had expected, and have also found some features (steps? foundations?) that certainly pre-date the existing structure.  In the next week’s excavations we hope to learn more about these earlier features and perhaps will be able to build a more complete vision of the earlier phases of the building.

2012 Excavation Season Under Way

The 33 OSMAP 2012 team members

Week one of the excavations at the synagogue was a great success.  We have expanded our core staff this year with the hire of an additional ceramicist to expedite the analysis of the pottery, and we now have a full-time assistant for our GIS specialist.  The excavation team is larger than ever before and is comprised of archaeologists who are new to the site as well as a number of OSMAP veterans.

Our 2012 trenches have been strategically placed to answer questions about the building phases of the Synagogue Complex.  By the end of the season we should have a much clearer understanding of the relationship between the Via Severiana and the synagogue, the building phases of the “nymphaeum” (Building 2), and the development and renovations in Room 17 (pantry?), which abuts the Room 16 kitchen.

We have already had a number of interesting finds and surprises this week, and I’ll share one with you here.  Within the preparation layer for the plaster floor in Room 17, one of our eagle-eyed excavators discovered a cluster of objects which included 2 dice, a small 4th century coin, and a ceramic disc game piece.  It seems that one unlucky gambler had a hole in his pocket when he was laying out the new floor!

4th century coin, dice and game piece in situ. The other die was discovered at a slightly higher level in the dirt, so isn’t shown in this photo.

One of two ancient dice found in a floor preparation level, alongside a ceramic disc game piece and a 4th century coin.


Work (and Posting) Will Resume in 2011.

Thanks to everyone who has expressed interest in the Ostia Synagogue Area Project (OSMAP), overseen by UT-Austin. Work has ended on the 2010 season and we will resume all posts in 2011 when we return to the field. Until then, it is our pleasure to announce that summaries of all the previous season are now a part of the on-line archaeological database: Fasti OnLine. Click over to read summaries of work from 2001-2008.

The Project Staff

Approved Room Numbers for Synagogue Site

As noted in our 2001 Preliminary Report, the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici di Ostia (at the time) approved the first official numbering system which locates the synagogue structure at Ostia within its larger urban landscape.

In anticipation of two preliminary field reports which the OSMAP stuff has begun to prepare this spring, we are happy to make this plan available here on the blog, as well.  The plan reflects the final phase of the building as it is known today (chronological dating of the phases will appear on a future top plan, after a final review of archaeological and architectural data).

IV.17.1-2 at Ostia