The Source of Trajan’s Aqueduct at Risk – from Men and Fig Trees

It was reported in the Telegraph earlier this month that the documentary researchers who identified and filmed the source of an aqueduct built by Trajan in 109 AD are battling for access to the site with a local farmer, owner of the land on which the ancient site stands.

The film-makers, father and son Mike and Ted O’Neill, visited the site with archaeologists during 2009 and their research was announced in January 2010 (read the full story here).

However, since the end of January, the O’Neills and the archaeologists they are working with have not been able to gain access to the site.

They claim that the farmer has destroyed vegetation above and around the ancient nymphaeum and 13th century chapel at the site, including a mature fig tree, whose roots are now holding the fragile Roman structure together.

On the 4th June the team sent a letter calling for help to Rome’s Superintendents of Archaeology, asking for their intervention.

An inspection of the sitelast week by representatives of Rome’s archaeological superintendents, along with members of the local council, the archaeologist Professor Lorenzo Quilici from the University of Bologna and Italy Carabinieri, did not bring good news.

The inspection only confirmed that the fig tree has been cut down and that the network of its roots are holding together the Roman cement, bricks and the plaster on the walls of the Roman structure.

Ted O’Neill said: This is a loss to art as well as a loss to science because the mysterious (and antique) Egyptian blue paint which lines the roman spring chamber is painted onto that Roman intonaco (plaster).

The use of the expensive ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment indicates the site would have been an important building.

O’Neill adds that there is now likely to be a long drawn-out expropriation process while the landowner, the local council and the archaeological authorities thrash out the matter of access and ownership.

During this time, the fear is that there could be irreversible damage to the inside of the ancient aqueduct’s headwaters.

The Bad Fig Tree?

While the fig tree may seem like an innocent member of the plant kingdom, in fact its roots are a big problem for archaeological structures in Italy’s countryside. Ted O’Neill explains in his blog, The Aqueduct Hunters, that the tree’s roots suck up calcium from the soil. However, they also find calcium in the brickwork and cement of the ancient Romans and, when this is removed, the structure is left in a fragile state. Ironically, at the moment the fig tree’s roots are also holding the plaster, brick and cement together and there is a danger that if the roots are removed, then parts of the structure may collapse.

Yet, it appears the real problem for the site of the headwaters of Trajan’s Aqueduct, also known as the Acqua Traina, is the threat of humans and, until a decision can be made on how best to preserve and protect the site, it’s likely that its condition will deteriorate further.