UWM grad helps uncover Roman history at Pompeii’s neighbor

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., Pompeii was not the only city buried in the ashes.

Stabiae, the site of a cluster of Roman villas belonging to the empire’s elite, was also entombed in dust. Nearly 2,000 years later, a UWM student has helped to uncover it.

Taylor Layton, a December 2016 grad who double majored in history and religious studies, spent portions of the last three years working at the Ancient Stabiae site on the southern coast of the Bay of Naples. His parents took a cruise in 2008 and visited the Stabiae dig. When Layton began to look for an internship in 2014, they suggested the project.

Once there, he was taught how “to make a site sustainable and work with the surrounding community,” Layton said. “I was drawn to Stabiae as opposed to Pompeii, where you’re only going to excavate one thing.”

Taylor Layton breaks for a moment of levity to demonstrate a Roman trumpet in the courtyard of Villa Oplontis at the Ancient Stabiae site in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Layton)
Taylor Layton breaks for a moment of levity to demonstrate a Roman trumpet in the courtyard of Villa Oplontis at the Ancient Stabiae site in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Layton)

Layton completed an eight-month internship at Stabiae during his first year. He learned to use a laser scanner to map areas of the site that may be unsafe for actual excavation. The next year, he was invited back to teach other students how to use the technique. He spent last summer in Stabiae teaching and conducting his own independent research.

Laser scanning is technique that makes archaeological sites safer and quicker to process. Layton and other archaeologists use lasers to map the cracks and crevices of villa walls. The lasers measure the wall elevations and create a visual in just hours or days that could take an artist a year to hand-sketch.

Through laser imaging, Layton said: “We can see clearly there are different stages of architectural construction. We also travel to anywhere in the villa and look at it in three-dimensional space, which is very useful for scholars trying to replicate a Roman atrium or something like that.”

Layton’s own research interests are much smaller. He looks at the household shrines, called lararia, where Romans practiced religious rituals to honor the household’s personal gods.

“Religion is a major component that bypasses the social strata,” Layton said. “I think little by little, scholars are including the people in the peripherals – freemen, slaves. Their accounts are not really in literature; they’re omitted for the simple fact that only a small percentage of the population was literate. When you create the visual fabric of a place like this, it gives a scholar a chance to see what everyone was seeing, not just the wealthy.”

Layton stands in the excavated Villa Di Mistieri at Ancient Stabiae. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Layton)
Layton stands in the excavated Villa Di Mistieri at Ancient Stabiae. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Layton)

Layton himself became interested in history because his personal history is one that’s often overlooked. He is from a native population in Paraguay whose stories are passed down orally. As their territory shrinks due to commercial expansion, Layton worries that they will be left out of the historical record.

Meanwhile, he is helping to make Stabiae a permanent part of the record. Through careful site management – coordinating digs so that the ancient structures remain intact, building roofs to divert water from troubled areas, working with local Italians to encourage community involvement – Stabiae is on track to become an archaeological park similar to Pompeii. Eventually, Layton says, people will be able to tour the site to see places like the Villa San Marco and the Villa Arianna and discover what life was like nearly 2,000 years ago.

Graduation won’t stop Layton’s Stabiae work. He has accepted a position in Washington, D.C., as U.S. marketing manager for the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation.

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