San Giuliano Archaeological Research Project (Lazio, Italy)

San Giuliano Archaeological Research Project (Lazio, Italy)


The volcanic landscape of southern Etruria (northern Lazio, Italy), once the heartland of the Etruscan city-states, has existed in the shadows of Rome since the Roman conquest of the region in the fourth century BC. The archaeology of this often-neglected region offers insights into globally relevant questions about the interrelationships between settlement patterns and political centralization. Over 50 years ago, Ward-Perkins (1962) identified a cyclical settlement pattern in the region. Based on his South Etruria Survey, Ward-Perkins suggested that alternating periods of political fragmentation and centralization resulted in two basic settlement patterns: one prioritizing defense, and a second privileging economic integration with a wider polity.


The Etruscans of this region lived primarily in competing city-states, building fortified settlements atop defensible plateaus. After the Roman conquest, settlements moved down to the lowlands, where extensive villa agriculture was practiced near Roman roads. The pattern was reversed sometime between AD 700 and 1100, with habitation shifting back to plateau tops, where small castles paired with villages often reoccupied the edges of former Etruscan cities. This nearly ubiquitous medieval transition to fortified villages, known as incastellamento, extends across the northwestern Mediterranean and has been the subject of much debate. Historians date the transformation in Italy to the tenth to eleventh centuries (Toubert 1973), while archaeologists posit a gradual transition beginning in the eighth century (Francovich and Hodges 2003). Only with the emergence of the modern Italian state did settlements once again move down from Lazio’s fortified plateaus (Ward-Perkins 1962).


We initiated the San Giuliano Archaeological Research Project (SGARP) to provide new archaeological information about these important settlement shifts. We have completed three field seasons (2016, 2017 and 2018) at San Giuliano, a site known for its many rock-cut Etruscan tombs. Despite its repute, the location of the Etruscan urban settlement is currently unknown, and the Roman and medieval periods have not been the subject of systematic investigation. We seek to understand both the rise and fall of the Etruscan urban center and the medieval incastellamento (castle-building with relocation of populations to defensible hilltops) process that reshaped the Italian landscape in the 10th to the 12th centuries. The archaeological surveys and excavations have focused our attention on the Etruscan and medieval periods, which saw the most intensive use and fortification of the San Giuliano plateau.


In the first paper,  an overview of the project’s aims and the results of the first three seasons is provided.  Surveys of Etruscan chamber tombs have documented over 500 tombs. Excavations of three previously-looted chamber tombs dating from the early 6th-early 5th century have yielded an unexpected wealth of data including imported Attic ceramics, locally-produced bucchero, and human skeletal material. SGARP’s strategic excavations of medieval ruins atop the San Giuliano plateau are illuminating the phenomenon of medieval reoccupation of Etruscan defensive sites. Focusing on the plateau’s eastern end—known as La Rocca—the excavations have revealed a fortified zone of substantial organizational complexity. Particular focus of the presentation will be devoted to the discovery and excavation of an intact early Etruscan tomb dating to c. 700 BC.


In the second paper, Vpreliminary analyses of the ceramic evidence recovered from the San Giuliano necropolis are offered. By offering a close examination of the ceramics from the four tombs excavated by SGARP (three chamber tombs from the Etruscan period and one transitional Villanovan-Early Etruscan trench tomb), alongside an overview of the osteological evidence from each burial, this presentation will demonstrate how the careful study of the San Giuliano mortuary assemblages sheds light not only on the people buried in the tombs, but also on shifting communal identities and political allegiances during the early history of the site.


In the third paper,  the issue of the interrelatedness of the city of the living atop the San Giuliano plateau and the city of the dead that lies spread across the surrounding hillsides is tackled. Drone photography and GIS analysis of the tombs surveyed by SGARP are used to create a model that seeks to explain the positioning of the tombs. Specifically, she employs viewshed analysis to the drone-generated DEM landscape model to ascertain the individual intervisibility of each tomb with the plateau. The intervisibilty is calculated in ArcGIS to graphically display the cumulative intervisibility of all the tombs with the plateau.


In the fourth paper, the interior and exterior structure and decoration of the tombs, are described and put  into context with comparative examples from the Etruscan cemeteries of Cerveteri and Tarquinia.  Some theories are offered concerning use and possible class and gender distinction that are suggested by the attention paid to the decoration of certain areas of each tomb. Particular focus is given to the challenges inherent in excavation of archaeological contexts disturbed by tomb robbers who selectively removed the objects deemed valuable for sale on the international antiquities market.


In the fifth paper, the results of her analysis of the human skeletal material from one of the Etruscan chamber tombs excavated by SGARP are presented. Despite the extensive looting of artifacts, the skeletal material did not appear to be intentionally removed from the tomb but was scattered throughout the tomb and the dromos. Significantly, much more skeletal material was recovered than had been expected; from this single tomb a total of 1535 human skeletal elements were recovered. Analysis of this material showed that at least 12 adult individuals and one fetus had been buried in the tomb. This is a much greater number of individuals than was suggested by the two funerary couches carved into the rock of the tomb, which we now interpret as a family mausoleum that was revisited for several generations.


In a response to these five papers and the SGARP project as a whole the perspective of a philologist and a professor of Classics is provided. This response sets the interdisciplinary research done as part of this project in a humanistic perspective. This perspective values not just the scientific methods employed, data being collected, and the academic understanding of the Etruscan and medieval people who lived at San Giuliano, but also the human relationships that such an interdisciplinary project engenders in today’s world. For instance, the project has led to the integration of scholars and students from the United States into the social fabric of the rural local village of Barbarano Romano, and to a shared effort at rescue, preservation, and display of the rich cultural heritage of San Giuliano.




Francovich, Riccardo, and Richard Hodges. 2003. Villa to Village: The Transformation of the Roman Countryside. London: Duckworth.

Toubert, Pierre. 1973. Les structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siecle a la fin du XIIe siecle. Rome: École Française de Rome

Ward-Perkins, J. 1962. "Etruscan Towns, Roman Roads and Medieval Villages: The Historical Geography of Southern Etruria."  The Geographical Journal 128 (4):389-404.