This spring, architecture students, professors, and volunteers associated with the Volterra-Detroit Foundation were offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Volterra, Italy, to help digitally archive the first ancient amphitheater discovery in Europe in 150 years.

It all began in 2015 when a construction team was working to expand a neighborhood cemetery where they "stumbled across the remains of what appeared to be a Roman wall," Tristan Randall, strategic project executive at Autodesk, one of the program's sponsors, tells ARCHITECT. Accustomed to "sudden surprises like this, the workers contacted the local archaeology supervisor, who was able to determine that, underneath the site they were excavating, there were remains of a Roman amphitheater," Randall continues. This amphitheater would turn out to be the first such discovery in Europe in more than a century. "It's not just a once-in-a-lifetime event," he says. "Think—six or seven generations. So this is a privilege and an incredible opportunity."

Autodesk Aerial shot of the location of the amphitheater

Over two weeks in April, 13 participants settled into the Etruscan-era town to digitally scan and record the amphitheater, which measures approximately 84 meters (275 feet) long and 66 meters (216 feet) wide, according to Elena Sorge, archaeological superintendent of Tuscany. The structure likely featured three tiers of seating with a 10,000-person capacity, and an access tunnel underneath. This size makes it all the more shocking that the amphitheater was ever lost.

"The majority of amphitheaters known today did not have to be 'discovered,' as their remains were at such scale that they were known centuries ago, like [the] Colosseum," explains University of Detroit Mercy professor of architecture and program lead Wladek Fuchs. "As far as I know, there are no studies of the history of discoveries of the amphitheaters, for exactly that reason—that most of them were never completely lost.”

While the elliptical structure—likely used for various civic events during the first century—is currently buried under as much as 25 meters (82 feet) of earth, the team was able to map the existing typography above the ruins and create a digital 3D model using laser scanning and photogrammatry tools donated by Lake Mary, Fla.–based imaging technology company FARO and Wetzlar, Germany–based camera company Leica. "We mapped the surface of the ground using drones and using terrestrial laser scanners in order to understand the topography and how the shape of the amphitheater relates to the existing ground," Randall explains. "Unfortunately, ground penetrating radar wasn't a good fit just because the site is so deep. However, we were able to validate some of the existing Roman walls that were a little more shallow."

Going forward, the team will turn over the large point cloud data sets of this information to Volterra officials as the municipality undertakes a multiyear, multimillon dollar effort to excavate the structure. The digital maps may help archaeologists relocate roads and drainage to access the amphitheater and to ensure that shifting the existing sediment does not damage ancient walls. With excavation underway, the team plans to return in the fall to continue the digital archiving of the structure.

"The team has scanned the area of the amphitheater and providing sections to resolve the geological issues surrounding the archaeological site, which is critical in preserving the ecology of the surrounding landscape and ensuring safety from eventual landslides," Sorge tells ARCHITECT. "In the future, the team will be essential to the virtual reconstruction of the amphitheater."

While this discovery has created significant opportunities for those involved with the program, which is also sponsored by Carnegie, Pa.–based Case Technologies, its implications are far greater for the city itself. "This finding sheds new light on the history of Volterra during the era of Augustus," Sorge says. "The discovery of a second, much larger public entertainment complex indicates the city was more prominent and more populated than historians realized."

The program, part of an ongoing initiative to create a digital archive of Volterra's historic architecture, has also seen teams in previous years digitally archive and preserve a Roman theater from the first century B.C., an Etruscan gate dating back to the fourth century B.C., and a medieval wall from the 13th century.

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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