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Meet Rubina Raja

Excavating the Untouched History of Rome


By Anja Kjærgaard

Rubina Raja is a classical archaeologist educated at the University of Oxford and currently employed as a professor at Aarhus University. With a grant from Aarhus University Research Foundation, she and an international research team have been given the opportunity to realise an archaeological dream project – the excavation of Caesar's Forum in central Rome.

"We excavate until we reach 'virgin'-soil, i.e. the absolutely untouched soil, where no human activity can be detected," Rubina Raja tells from her home in Aarhus. It is here, in a scenic setting at Moesgaard Museum, that the 45-year-old professor of classical archaeology spends a great deal of her time as centre director, researcher and lecturer, when she is not busy at conferences, at lectures or at excavations around the world.

In connection with her work, she often finds herself in a place located near a road in the heart of Rome called Via dei Fori Imperiali. The road cuts through the imperial fora or public spaces that the Roman emperors had made built in their honour. One of these fora is of particular interest for the Danish archaeologist.

"Caesar's Forum was the first of several of these public places. Because Caesar was not emperor, it is, of course, not an imperial forum in that sense, but the idea behind the square is the same, and all subsequent imperial fora drew on his idea. Because of this, Caesar's Forum is absolutely central in classical archaeology. It is a place where innovation took place in a field of high-political tension. Caesar ended up dying for his despotic leadership of Rome, and the forum is an example of his self-staging – this in the middle of urban late republican Rome," Rubina Raja says.

In recent years, she has, together with an international research team, been involved in one of the largest archaeological projects between Denmark and Italy for many years – the excavation of Caesar’s Forum. 

Rubina Raja with PhD students and colleagues at the DialPast/UrbNet PhD course Past Urbanisms in May 2019 at Caesar's Forum. Photo credit: Søren M. Sindbæk    

It is cultural heritage that belongs to all of us

It was in the middle of the last century before our time that the Roman general, Gaius Julius Caesar, commenced the construction of his forum. During the time of Caesar and later in the imperial era, the old Forum Romanum, the central square in ancient Rome, became too small to accommodate all the self-staging that powerful men in the city saw fitting. The result: The expansion, which has been subject to archaeological excavations before, but around 3000 m2 has been left untouched. Until now, where they have become the focus point of a comprehensive urban-archaeological project headed by, among others, Rubina Raja. A project that can ultimately help us understand the development of Rome from the earliest periods and up to present day – a perspective that covers around 3000 years of archaeology.

"I get humble when I think of the responsibility that comes with it. We want to get everything possible out of the material we find in order to make it available to the wider academic world, but also to the public. It is cultural heritage that belongs to all of us," Rubina Raja says and refers, as she often does, to a 'we', because a project like this is by no means a one-person job.

"The project is anchored at the Danish Institute in Rome, which collaborates with the Roman Municipal Department of Antiquities, and the project is scientifically linked to the centre for basic research I head, the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) at the School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University," Rubina Raja says.

According to the Danish professor, the Roman Municipal Department of Antiquities takes care of the practical planning of the project in dialogue with the Danish partners. They have extensive knowledge of former excavations in the area, the archaeological challenges and the infrastructure. Furthermore, the Danish Institute in Rome is involved; archaeologist and PhD Jan Kindberg Jacobsen conducts the excavation on a daily basis and acts as a link between the Roman Municipal Department of Antiquities and UrbNet. Rubina Raja is in charge of the research-related part of the project, and this is not without reverence.

"I am of the conviction that excavation projects should be research-driven and take place in the least invasive form possible. Archaeology is in itself destructive. You cannot return what you excavate, which is a huge responsibility when considering that this is cultural heritage. Therefore, the documentation and publication of the results is of the greatest importance to me," she says.

But before the results are available, preparations must be taken care of, which for outsiders may not directly resemble archaeology.

There is more than one way to conduct archaeological work

The first part of the excavation has been machine-heavy. The excavation field lies under Via dei Fori Imperiali in an area visited by thousands of people on a daily basis, where there is traffic, and where public events are held. Therefore, a large area had to be secured with the reinforcement of important areas in order to avoid a collapse.

The early stages of the excavation. Soil from the 1930's is removed, which uncovers the remains of the Alessandrino district. Photo credit: Giovanni Murro 

"In connection with the excavation of Caesar's Forum, the preliminary work has, of course, been extensive and has taken place in close collaboration with the partners of the project. After identifying the areas it would make the most sense to excavate, you plan how to approach the work," Rubina Raja says. She points out that excavation work takes many forms – depending on the place in the world, and the nature of the archaeology. Archaeology belonging to prehistoric times requires, according to her, a different approach than, for example, monumental relics from historical periods. There may also be regional differences where the archaeological approach may be conditioned by climate conditions. There is more than one way to conduct archaeological work.

No matter the form of the archaeological work, the preliminary phase is always important as it helps to heighten the research level of the excavation.

"The preliminary phase of this project has helped heightening the research level of the excavation as knowledge of former excavations in the area and their findings has shared an insight into what materials to expect, and thus we have been able to optimise the implementation of scientific methods of analysis of the various groups of findings," Rubina Raja says.

Ceramics allows us to get close to the society of the time

It is an important prerequisite for the commencement of the archaeological project that the city of Rome had planned construction work in the area around Via dei Fori Imperiali. In connection with the planning of this work, the excavation of the previously unexposed parts of Caesar's Forum was discussed. This is a great pleasure to Raja, who is also pleased that it has been possible to work with ceramics findings from a former excavation in the area.

"You have to remember that ceramics was the chief commodity of the day, and therefore also the product group that allows us to get the closest to the society of the time," Rubina Raja says, who is currently working with her research group on concluding what, in her words, will be a 'monumental publication of ceramics findings that will reflect the life of Rome through several thousand years. '

On the foundation for this, she says:

“We were lucky to get the opportunity to work with all ceramics findings from the former excavation in the area, which are unpublished. This work was coordinated by postdoc at the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Sine Saxkjær, who is a ceramics expert, and whose knowledge has been essential and will have a major impact on our understanding of the ceramics we find in the new excavations."

Important interplay between the humanities and the natural sciences

"We do not excavate with our focus on a specific period. We are interested in getting as much information out of the ground as possible," Rubina Raja says, who, as the head of the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, is concerned with cities and urban archaeology as well as the interplay between the humanities and the natural sciences, which also benefits this project.

"At the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, we have access to some of the world's best facilities within archaeological dating, and we have developed a research process in which we also incorporate a range of competences from the natural sciences. In relation to the Caesar’s Forum project, this has meant that, before the project even started, we organised a methodology workshop where we invited many of our collaborators from the natural sciences. Among other things, this has meant that we have implemented a special focus on soil chemistry. In February, I was joined by experts in Rome to discuss various scenarios at the site itself, and we were given access to the stratigraphy from other excavations to be used as a starting point for the discussions."

The Caesar’s Forum project is also an archaeological dream project because the excavation itself is distinguishable from other excavations in the area and Rome in general by including all phases equally.

According to Rubina Raja, archaeology has a number of methods, such as the stratigraphic excavation method, through which it is possible to understand the linear development of a locality. Even though this method provides a good overview, it is still possible, even as an experienced archaeologist, to doubt the exact dating of different phases.

Archaeology moves backwards

One thing that is not a topic for discussion is the fact that archaeology moves backwards through history and prehistory.

"But archaeological fieldwork is often scalable. You can choose to excavate more or less or implement fewer or more methods of analysis, but the grant I have received from Aarhus University Research Foundation, the so-called Flagship grant, means that we can accomplish what I would describe as a holistic dream project," Rubina Raja says.

In addition to being proud that the foundation has chosen the project as the first flagship project, she is also pleased on behalf of the humanities and humanistic research. And results are not absent either.

"So far, the biggest result of our work has been that we have been able to ascertain that the part of town, which was perceived as meaningless and a slum area during the time of Mussolini, the so-called Alessandrino district, which dates back to the 16th century, turns out to have had a completely different nature and status," Rubina Raja says and elaborates:

"The houses in this part of town have more likely belonged to the upper middle class. This clearly shows how politically driven archaeology can be. During the time of Mussolini, the importance of the district was downplayed in order to justify removing elements of the past and instead build Mussolini's street of parade in central Rome. This would probably not have happened today. And it is a blessing in disguise that 3000 m2 still exists, where we can now excavate the untouched history of Rome."    

The map shows the imperial fora with the current excavation field highlighted in green and illustrates its central place in the area. Photo credit: The Ceasar’s Forum Project

The next phase of the excavation will deal with nothing less than the period ranging from the 16th century to the earliest phases that exist in the area.

"We will work our way back in time, and we have a huge amount of work ahead of us, as everything has to be documented, recorded and published. Today, when I am standing on Caesar’s Forum, the level of the period in which Caesar reigned lies further down, but I am in the middle of history with a mixture of awe, responsibility and burgeoning joy that when the project is completed, we expect to be able to present important results on the development of Rome from the earliest periods up to present day."    

On AUFF Flagships

Aarhus University Research Foundation has launched a new type of grant under the name "AUFF Flagships". This is a new and ambitious type of grant to support extraordinary research initiatives at Aarhus University. The grant requires collaboration with one or more national and international participants. The excavation of Caesar's Forum is financed by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Aarhus University Research Foundation’s (AUFF) new flagship initiative.