Excavations in the so-called Macellum of Ostia

Direction: Prof. Dr. Valentin Kockel und PD Dr. Salvatore Ortisi
Architecture and Standing Remains: Dipl. Ing. Rainer Zahn
Participants: Students from the Universities of Augsburg, Munich, Cologne and Leipzig
Duration: Field seasons 1997-2001; publication in preparation

Funding for this project has generously been provided by the University of Augsburg, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the ‘Commission for the Study of the Ancient City’ of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences

Position, research history and identification of the so-called Macellum of Ostia

Fig. 1

From June to September 1938, Guido Calza, then director of excavations at Ostia, unearthed a significant structure near the crossroads outside the western gate of the republican castrum of Ostia (see overview Plan Fig. 1). Calza soon identified this structure as the macellum, the food market, of Ostia, which had only been known from epigraphic references at the time. This identification remains in use to this day, although the results of Calza’s excavations were never published.

Fig. 2 Fig. 3
Fig. 4 Fig. 5

The structural complex (Fig. 2) consists of a dwelling that provides a northern front, which would originally have had several stories, known in latin as an insula, with a porticus as well as a courtyard to its south (Fig. 3). A ‘podium’ on the western side of this courtyard is today crowned by several columns (Fig. 4).

Calza’s excavations only reached the level then considered to have been the surface during the mid-Empire. Several shallow trenches were backfilled following excavation (Fig. 5). In the early 1950s, Italo Gismondi carried out further excavations in this area. These are included in the plans published in the key publication “Scavi di Ostia” Vol. I (1953).

The current situation includes several modifications, often significant in nature, that were actually caused by past excavations. In order to create a coherent monument, the restoration work that followed excavation of the site included the bricking up of doorways or openings, unblocking of other doorways and reconstruction, sometimes even addition, of marble floors and basins. The podium with columns in particular, now an apparently dominant element of the courtyard, has been shown to be a largely fictional reconstruction

Overall, the remains of the so-called Macellum as visible today, rather than constituting a coherent complex, consist of a complicated series of walls and floors from various different periods.

Excavations carried out by the University of Augsburg

By kind permission of the Soprintendenza di Ostia it was possible to carry out excavations in the so-called macellum of Ostia during five one-month field seasons from 1997 to 2001. These excavations aimed to clarify the evidently complex history of occupation and structural development of this area, and to re-evaluate its traditional identification.

The so-called macellum had been heavily restored immediately after first clearance work. In terms of ground plan, it contains several irregularities and poses numerous questions. Even before the start of this project, it was therefore clear that the structure had a complicated and extensive history of development and redevelopment. As such, the excavations primarily aimed to provide an understanding of the developmental history of the courtyard area and earlier buildings in this area, as well as to identify the main phases thereof, on the basis of a stratigraphic record.

Fig. 6 Fig. 7

The excavation showed that the entire area investigated has a highly complex occupation history of several phases. In different areas, very different and highly differentiated developments were identified. The earliest structure in the area takes the form of a substantial wall made from tufa ashlars (Fig. 6), set onto layers that formed the beach of the lagoon in prehistoric times. High quality finds, including a large number of black-slipped vessels, suggest an important structure. It was built in the 3rd century BC in a prominent position in the imminent vicinity of the western gate of the republican castrum. The building appears to have been abandoned following a fire. In the mid 1st century BC residential buildings covered the area. These developed in several phases. Several surviving opus signinum floors, some decorated with coloured inlays, indicate the existence of one or more high-status domus. These would have had workshops and other rooms with economic function, as shown by simple clay or wooden floors, along Via del Pomerio. In the early Empire, the entire area was restructured. This included the demolition and levelling of the domus. They were replaced by a row of shops or tabernae that are likely to have had several stories (Fig. 7).

Fig. 8a Fig. 8b

Towards the end of the first century, the area developed into its current form. The southern courtyard is bounded by an insula of two phases that is oriented along the via decumana on its northern side. This basic spatial division remained until late Antiquity. Several alterations that could be identified in the archaeological record, however, show that individual rooms or units were modified regularly. Two glass-kilns were built into the north-eastern porticus of the insula in the 5th century. They not only show that this space was still being redesigned in late Antiquity, but also indicate unexpected economic activity at this time (Fig. 8a and 8b).



Fig. 9 Fig. 10

Several of the levelling layers and fills excavated in the area of the so-callled macellum contained large amounts of ceramic material as well as other finds. The material not only provides a good overview of the material culture in use from the 3rd to the 5th centuries, but also makes it possible to draw some conclusions on daily life in the excavated area.

Black-slipped finewares from central and southern Italy, so-called Campana-wares, and amphoras from Italy, Sicily and the Punic cities of North Africa reflect the far-reaching trade networks of Republican Rome. At the same time, they show that the early domus found beneath the “macellum”-compound was occupied by wealthy inhabitants of the city. High-status finds from the excavation include fragments of painted black-slipped ware, as well as punch-decorated beakers and bowls (Figs. 9 and 10). Exclusive vessels made from coloured glass are a typical feature of high-status drinking sets in Roman households of this time.

A typical find of the Imperial period are red-slipped finewares known as terra-sigillata. These were found in large numbers in the occupation layers associated with the tabernae. While practically all material from contexts dating to the early Empire was produced in Italian production centres, North African products dominate the levelling layers dating to the 2nd century. Fineware ceramics, as well as the amphorae found in the levelling layers and fills make it possible to reconstruct developments of trade patterns and networks, processes that it would be impossible to understand solely on the basis of written sources.

Abb. 11
Fig. 12a
Fig. 12b

Aside from the ceramic material, which provides the key to understanding the history of the site, the excavations produced a number of finds. These do not provide direct information on the structure itself, but are of consequence for our understanding of Ostia as a whole. Calza had already identified a number of reused fragments of inscriptions in the pavement of the courtyard, although these have never been published. It is now possible to add to this epigraphic body a well-preserved dedication to Hadrian (Fig. 11). A part of a water-pipe found in situ provides some insights into the early water supply of Ostia. Of particular note, however, is the find of a large body of early imperial fresco-fragments (Fig. 12a and 12b). A fill dating to the 2nd century AD consisted almost solely of such fragments of wall paintings, some of a very high quality. These must be the remains of walls of the fourth style – an important find of domestic decoration from the mid 2nd century. Unfortunately, they fragments cannot be associated with a specific domus, although other excavations have since recovered similar finds.


Early research in the archives of the Soprintendenza had shown that the functional identification of the complex at the hand of its original excavators was not based on any firm evidence. The excavations have shown that the site in its central position within Ostia’s road network was repeatedly redesigned and modified in terms of its spatial arrangement in order to serve very different purposes. Its identification as a macellum can therefore no longer be maintained.

Our excavations identified a complicated continued settlement sequence covering a period of nearly eight centuries. Such chronological depth in research is only rarely found at Ostia to date. In addition, our analysis of the frequently extensive restoration measures and modifications to ancient remains after excavation sheds light on the imagination and wishes of Ostia’s early excavators – a key issue for any research on this ancient port and city.


Ortisi, Salvatore, Das sog. Macellum von Ostia: Aufhöhungen der späten Republik und frühen Kaiserzeit vor dem Westtor des Castrums, Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome 58, 1999, 71-73.

Kockel, Valentin —Ortisi, Salvatore, Ostia. Sogenanntes Macellum (VI 5, 2). Vorbericht über die Ausgrabungen der Universität Augsburg 1997/8, Römische Mitteilungen 107, 2000, 351-363.

Rottloff, Andrea, Gläser und Reste von Glasverarbeitung aus Ostia, ibid. 365-374.

Kockel, Valentin, Fragmente von Wandmalerei aus dem sogenannten Macellum in Ostia (IV 5,2) (mit einem Appendix zur Datierung von Salvatore Ortisi), in: Irene Bragantini (Hrsg.), Atti del X Congresso internazionale dell'AIPMA, Napoli 17-21 settembre 2001 (Napoli 2010), 481-487.

Kockel, Valentin, Fragmente marmorner Architekturverkleidungen aus dem sog. Macellum in Ostia (IV,V,2), Römische Mitteilungen 120, 2014 (in press)