The Sabine Mountains are not far away from Rome. At their edge is Tivoli, the epitome of the amusement park, famous for the fountain complexes of the Villa d’Este, a retreat for rich Romans. Was it the only one? In today’s national park Monti Navegna e Cervia, some 60 km southeast of Rome, are remnants of a Roman villa. So was the region a “normal” hinterland of Rome – or perhaps a competitor of Tivoli?
On Monte San Giovanni, at more than 1000 meters above sea level the highest point in the park, is a small medieval church. But underneath it, the foundations of an ancient shrine were found. Archaeologists suspect it was a holy site dedicated to Herakles.
Herakles (“He who made himself famous through Hera”) is an ancient Greek hero, famous for his strength, who won divine honors and was taken up into Olympus. There he became a god of healing and oracles, as well as the protector of gymnasia (sports sites) and palaces. And he was a protégé of Athena. Like the Greeks, the Romans venerated him as a god, under the Latin name Hercules. Only the stock of myths differs a little.
All of the region’s roads passed this site. Might it have been a central site for the entire region? Researchers face the question whether a shrine in a region settled so thinly can assume the function of a religious center. To this end, we must learn how the region was settled over the last 2,500 years. What meaning did the place have in Antiquity and then later in the Middle Ages? And finally: how did settlement affect the landscape?
When people settle, they intervene in the environment. The geo-scientists investigated how this proceeded in the park Monti Navegna e Cervia, in part by analyzing temperatures and rates of precipitation at various times. Soil studies and sediment analyses made it possible to glimpse what was going on. What role was played by recurrent fire, which in the Mediterranean realm is important for the continued life of forests? The work of the archaeologists was to map the sites of finds in the national park and to evaluate the historical sources. Aside from the shrine, there were and are numerous mills in the area. What was their significance?
After taking a look at the past, the researchers dare to speculate about the future: How will future climate changes affect the landscape of the national park? Models were used to depict climate scenarios and possible changes in the landscape as of 2025 and 2050. Finally, the newly gained knowledge served as foundation for a concept for sustainable use for the national park. Beyond that, the researchers assumed the task of preparing the find sites, laying out archaeological educational paths and hiking trails, and producing informational material for a broad public.