Ancient Roman map puzzle may get new pieces

Image: Roman map fragments
Fragments of the Forma Urbis map reproduced by Giovanni Battista Piranese, an engraving published in his book, "Le Antichita Romane" (1756).Bkmd / Wikimedia Commons
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Several pieces of the world's oldest and largest unsolved jigsaw puzzle, a 2,200-year-old map of Rome made of thousands of marble fragments, could be unearthed next year following construction work for a new metro line near Rome's majestic forum area.

“This is a unique occasion to excavate the Forum of Peace, where the map once stood,” Rossella Rea, director of the Colosseum, told the Italian financial daily, Il Sole 24 Ore.

Carved into marble slabs around 210 A.D., during the rule of the emperor Septimius Severus, the map was originally hung on a wall in the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace), which stood in the middle of an enclosure called Forum of Peace.

The wall still survives today in a building near the 6th-century Church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Rows of holes where the map was attached using bronze clamps can still be seen.

The enormous marble map detailed every building, street and staircase in second-century Rome, until it was partially ripped from the wall, probably to make lime for cement. What was left fell down and broke apart in hundreds of unrecognizable pieces.

Piecing the jigsaw puzzle together — 1,186 fragments which cover only 10 to 15 percent of the original map surface and are now kept in the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums in Rome — has been one of the great unsolved problems of archaeology.

Renaissance scholars identified and assembled some 250 pieces, recognizing important landmarks such as the Colosseum and the Circus Maximum.

Recently, computer scientists and archaeologists at Stanford University have been using computer technologies in an attempt to reconstruct the remaining pieces of the map.

Given the way the map fell from its position on the wall, Rea and colleagues believe that several remaining fragments still lie around the site and can be unearthed during the unique dig.

But more treasures might come to light in an area that Rea considers "the most interesting among the imperial forums."

The centerpiece of the Forum of Peace was indeed the temple. Built in 71-75 A.D by Vespasian, the Temple of Peace celebrated the brutal pacification of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Tons of gold, silver trumpets and gold candelabra were plundered from the Jerusalem temple and paraded through Rome' streets in triumph.

The moment was captured in a frieze carved into the Arch of Vespasian’s son, Titus, which clearly shows the menorah, the seven-branched temple candelabra that was the symbol of ancient Judaism, being exposed through the streets.

Between 75 A.D. and the early 5th century, the treasure, which helped finance the building of the Colosseum, was put on public display right in the Temple of Peace.

Although it is unlikely that fragments from the treasure are unearthed, the archaeologists hope to bring to light other precious remains from the Forum of Peace.

A space for culture and meditation adorned with a gallery of sculptures which had previously occupied Nero’s Golden Palace, the area featured a beautiful garden and large library, with a section entirely dedicated to medicine.

“We have recently found some of the foundation on which Nero’s sculptures stood. They bear the signatures of the artist who carved them,” said Rea.

"We might find some items related to the library, such as the bronze or ivory statuettes which portrayed the authors of the books and marked the various sections of the library. We also hope to recover some other fragments of the Forma Urbis map," Rea added.