Ancient Rome

Radar helps find amphitheatre without digging

New combination of techniques leads to important finds at ancient Italica


The combination of traditional and new archaeological techniques at the site of the ancient Roman city of Italica, near Seville, has led to an important series of finds including an amphitheatre and a group of public buildings surrounded by a perimeter wall.

By combining the techniques of resistivity mapping, which measures the degree of resistance to an electric current put up by objects or buildings underground, and ground-based radar, and integrating the information they provide with data gathered from construction debris found just below the surface, it has been possible to make a three-dimensional plan of the site. “One of the most significant aspects of the method we have used is that we now have a complete picture of the buried town without actually having excavated”, says Dr Simon Keay of the University of Southampton, a member of the British team working at the Italica site.

Italica was originally founded by Scipio Africanus in 206 BC but it was rebuilt by the Emperor Hadrian in the middle of the 2nd century AD. The recent studies have shown that Hadrian’s Nova Urbs is in stark contrast to other Roman towns in southern Spain because it is entirely Hellenistic in character. This indicates that the town was invested by the Emperor with great cultural and propagandistic significance.

The British team, whose work has been co-ordinated by the Spanish archaeologist José Manuel Rodríguez Hidalgo, also includes David Jordan, of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory, who devised the computer programme for integrating the results of the various archaeological techniques, and John Crighton of King Alfred College, Winchester.

Dr Keay is also directing the excavations at the Iberian and Roman settlement of Celti in Peñaflor (Seville), where similar techniques are being used. “Celti”, he says, “is a more normal settlement and it is helping us to understand what the development of Roman towns and the process of Romanisation was in Betica (Andalusia). Our work at Italica on the other hand has shown that town to be so much more exceptional than was thought.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 12 November 1991