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Archaeological project reveals new insights on world’s first cathedral

Dating back to the fourth-century AD, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome is considered the world’s first cathedral. Archaeologists have now used cutting-edge technologies to examine the history of this church as well as what existed before it was built.

The Lateran Project, supported by the British School at Rome the team and including researchers from Newcastle University, the University of Florence, the University of Amsterdam and the Vatican Museums – has developed first ever holistic picture of hundreds of years of Roman history by using digital mapping, ground penetrating radar and 3D visualisation techniques.

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s own cathedral, was originally built on lands donated by Emperor Constantine ( 306-337) and officially dedicated in the year 324. Positioned on the Caelian Hill, the church would have dominated the Roman skyline at the time.

As research reveals, however, the site had already been in use for centuries. To build his magnificent cathedral, Constantine had swept away the Castra Nova (New Fort), the lavish headquarters of the imperial horseguard constructed over a century before by the Emperor Septimius Severus. In much the same way, Severus had previously destroyed the palatial houses of some of Rome’s most powerful residents to make way for the horseguards’ impressive new home.

This ongoing process of construction on the site meant that over hundreds of years layers of Roman history were laid down, much of it reflecting the changing fortunes and priorities of the Empire.

To build his 4th century cathedral, To build his magnificent cathedral, Constantine swept away the Castra Nova (New Fort), the lavish headquarters of the imperial horseguards constructed over a century before by the Emperor Septimius Severus. Image courtesy of the Lateran project

Working with some of the world’s leading visualisation specialists, the team has reconstructed the splendour of the buildings. It is one of the first projects in the world to have used terrestrial laser-scanning over such a large area to drive archaeological research.

The work has also permitted study of how the different buildings that occupied the site evolved, how different elements relate to one another and has given a sense of the scale the four-hectare site covers.

“There is a large area of space underneath the Lateran that it is possible to walk or crawl through,” explains Professor Ian Haynes, Co-Director of the Lateran Project and Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University. “The archaeology is at varying levels below – at the deepest we were 8.5m below modern ground surface. To access some of the spaces we worked with a group called Roma Sotteranea who specialise in working on buried sites and use exactly the same equipment and techniques as potholers. In some places, it was necessary to rotate the teams on a half hourly basis because otherwise it just becomes stifling.”

The Lateran Project brought to life hundreds of years of Roman history by using non-invasive techniques and innovative visualisation. Image courtesy of The Lateran Project

The construction of the cathedral was a pivotal moment marking the start of the major Christian buildings that came to define Rome and is a potent symbol of the military making way for religion.

In AD312 Constantine’s army fought the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which the old Horse Guards base and several nearby buildings were destroyed. The land was given to the Church and provided the perfect spot for Constantine to set out his new vision for Rome.

“The land may have been given to the Church within weeks of the battle. A decision was certainly taken pretty soon afterwards and work on the Lateran started some years before it did on St Peter’s,” added Professor Haynes. “The cathedral was rebuilt in the 1650s but there is still original Constantine fabric in the walls, while the original foundations are exposed beneath the church.

“There have been various efforts to reconstruct it since then, so we wanted to pull together all of this information to create a digital cathedral that you can walk around. Working with colleagues at the University of Amsterdam and Newcastle-based visualisation specialists, New Visions, we’ve incorporated information from earlier excavations. We also created a simpler model to test the acoustics and to try to understand how sounds would have worked in the basilica.”

Click here to learn more about The Lateran Project

See also “Under the Lateran: From soldiers to saints on the Caelian Hill,” from World Archaeology

Top Image: Construction of the Basilica was a potent symbol of the military making way for religion, and the birth of modern Rome. Image courtesy of The Lateran Project

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