By Melissa Mitchel Rome wasn't built in a day, or so they say. And it's taking more than a month of Sundays for an international team of researchers, archaeologists and others to sift through layers of history to construct a solid understanding of daily life in one area of Rome between the first and sixth centuries. For the past six summers, UI professor Eric Hostetter has directed excavation efforts at a site on the east slope of Rome's Palatine Hill. The focus of the archaeological investigations is a once-grand domus, or mansion, probably built between the third and fourth centuries, in the shadow of the Arch of Constantine. Sponsored by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma and the American Academy in Rome, the Palatine Hill project is fueled by the collaborative spirit and hard work of faculty members, students and professionals from a wide range of disciplines, institutions and nations. The project's home team includes players from fields as diverse as archaeology and nuclear engineering, physics and photography. So far, Hostetter and crew have uncovered 9 tons of pottery sherds - as well as glass sherds, coins, charms, fragmentary inscriptions, a large collection of lamps, bits of sculpture, iron and bronze and other objects - all of which serve as important clues to researchers trying to piece together the social, political and economic history of the city at a time when its population was decreasing dramatically. Discoveries at the site "have revealed a complex picture of urban change, from the early empire down to at least the 10th or 11th century," said Hostetter, who - with six colleagues - recently published a report on the team's work in the Journal of Roman Archaeology: Supplemental Series. Architectural features, frescoes and mosaics indicate that the domus underwent various phases of construction, remodeling and uses throughout its history. And, Hostetter added, "the demise of our Palatine domus is staggered," as well. The ornate, curvilinear rooms on the south side - which were probably used for sleeping, dining and perhaps bathing - appear to have been abandoned first, probably abruptly, during their final phase of remodeling, ending in the later third century," he said. Hostetter said it appears that these rooms were not in use for more than 50 years, but he can only speculate as to why they were so quickly abandoned. "Perhaps the fire of A.D. 283, which swept the north end of the Forum Romanum, created a pressing demand for bricks that halted further construction. Or perhaps material was needed for the construction of the Aurelian walls [circa A.D. 270]. Or yet, perhaps some prominent person who owned the domus fell afoul of the emperor who, in an admonitory and unmistakable political message, forced the abandonment of the site." In addition to remaining architectural features, everyday items - mostly pottery of Italian, African, Gallic, Syrian and other origins - "are beginning to reveal much about shifting patterns of trade, consumption and behavior," Hostetter said. The sherds have been subjected to compositional analysis at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as at the UI. Among the UI participants in this aspect of the project are Sarah Wisseman, director of the UI's Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials (ATAM); Sheldon Landsberger, director of the Neutron Activation Analysis Laboratory; and Eric DeSena, a graduate student in art history who is working under Landsberger's direction. Through the use of neutron activation analysis - a technique developed in Denmark in 1936 - the UI researchers were able to isolate the samples' chemical compositions and categorize them in specific groupings. "In the same way that some humans have red hair or blue eyes, or are short or tall, we can categorize different types of pottery" to try and pinpoint their source of origin, Landsberger said. "We take the samples, put them in vials, place them inside the nuclear research reactor, and when they become radioactive, they emit a gamma-ray spectrum. This is analogous to a spectrum emitted in other traditional chemical analysis," Landsberger said. "Each individual gamma ray corresponds to an element that's become radioactive." From there, he said, the information is processed in a statistical code that will indicate how to classify the material. Much of the statistical analysis has been done by ATAM on 200 selected samples of six different classes of fineware, according to Wisseman. "Fineware is not fancy dinnerware; it consists mostly of jugs, basins, bowls and cups - everyday dishes, with a little slip or decoration," Wisseman said, adding that the name refers to the fine texture of the material. "They were used for the storage and serving of food." The fineware actually represents only a small fraction of the ceramics unearthed at the site, Wisseman said, noting that most of the samples recovered are what is known as transport amphorae - vessels used for the exporting and importing of wine and olive oil. In addition to analyzing sherds from the Palatine Hill site, the UI team also has tested clay samples from the region for comparative purposes. So far, results indicate that "some of the ceramics were made in and around the site; some clearly were imported." To gain further insights about the origin of the ceramics, Wisseman, a part-time potter, also categorized the sherds into groupings of broken handles, rims and other pieces, and photographed them. "My interest is not just high-tech analysis but looking at ancient technologies and trying to get into the mind of the craftsman," she said. "Some of the handles have grooves made by the potters' fingers; others have grooves made by a stick. On some, the bottoms are finished; others are not." Taking it all in and trying to make sense out of it, she said, is "like working a gigantic jigsaw puzzle - it can be absolutely maddening!" Meanwhile, Hostetter and other colleagues continue their attempts to fit together all the other Palatine Hill puzzle pieces. Among the dig's most unexpected artifacts, he said, are the more than 1,000 objects of bone and ivory. Included among the objects are hair pins, needles, combs, jewelry, dice, gaming pieces, knife handles, and the limbs and headless bodies of dolls that are believed to have had ritual significance. "This unusually large collection from firmly datable contexts - apparently debris from a modest industry - will prove invaluable for its chronological reliability and typology and for its sociological value in defining the status and range of production of one workshop," he said. The excavation also has revealed significant information about the Romans' eating habits - Hostetter speculates that "suckling pig was an esteemed dish" - and their botanical preferences - flotation and wet-sieving found evidence of oak, fig, walnut, peach and cherry trees, among others. While the archaeologists and others sifted, sieved and sorted, another UI faculty member was busy snapping away from the sidelines. Photography professor Linda Robbennolt first participated in the project in 1991, when she spent 10 weeks in Rome serving as the staff photographer. The following summer, she sent a student over to continue the task. Last year, with support from the UI's Center for Advanced Study, "I went back for myself," she said. "I'm not an archaeologist. My interest was the process of archaeology and how that relates to the process of art," Robbennolt said. When she first became interested in the project, Robbennolt said she was "in a transition phase." "I had just finished a body of work that lasted 10 years. I had been doing a lot of thinking about that work ... deconstructing, digging through the body." By returning to Rome, she said, "I was hoping to find a little more illumination about my work." Robbennolt added that before she came to the UI, her work was "intensely personal, raw, tough and very funny" - a holdover from her days as a more solitary, studio artist. But since she joined the faculty at Illinois, "just the opportunity to talk to people from other fields" as well as "the concept of studying another process - such as architecture" has changed the direction of her work. Robbennolt is on sabbatical this year, using the time to create new work using three summers of collected material. "When you make art, you make art based on experience. And that takes time."