Archeologists Uncover New Economic History of Ancient Rome

Agrigento, Italy

University of South Florida researchers are the first to successfully excavate the Roman villa of Durrueli at Realmonte, located off the southern coast of Sicily.

Roman villa of Durrueli

Some of the mystery behind one of Sicily’s largest ancient Roman villas is now solved thanks to a team of archeologists from the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. They’re the first to successfully excavate the 5,000 square meter Roman villa of Durrueli at Realmonte, located off the southern coast of Sicily.

Project director Dr. Davide Tanasi, assistant professor in the USF Department of History, and his students worked alongside USF’s Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST). Together they created terrestrial and aerial 3D scanning of the entire villa, an invaluable tool in guiding the excavation and interpreting the villa’s architectural phases.

Davide Tanasi, PhD, assistant professor in the USF Department of History, leads a team in uncovering the ancient Roman villa Durrueli at Realmonte.


Through a month of excavations, they determined the villa was consistently occupied between the 2nd and 7th century CE and reconfigured to settlement in the 5th century Common Era (CE). That conclusion comes following the discovery of new walls, floor levels, staircase and water channel.

The team found cookware and lamps along with a large quantity of African Late Roman pottery and related materials such as kiln spacers. This leads researchers to believe an important function of the village was to produce pottery, bricks and tiles in industrial scale, helping explain the economic history of Late Antique Sicily.

Parts of the Roman villa of Durreuli at Realmonte were uncovered during a Japanese-led excavation effort in 1979-1985, but the team did not discover such an extensive part of Roman history.

The excavated ancient Roman villa is located off the southern coast of Sicily.


USF worked in conjunction with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage of Agrigento and plans to continue its research next summer. Such an effort is important to USF and Tampa, as it is a sister city with Agrigento, the provincial capital in which Realmonte is located.

Virtualization projects of USF CVAST in Sicily on the Italian news

La Repubblica - Isabella Di Bartolo

To discover ancient Sicily hidden underground for centuries it requires foreigners: Americans, Germans, French, Polish and Swiss. A silent army of archaeologists in working in all the provinces of the Island to uncover forgotten monuments.

Moreover, regional and national government have stopped decades ago to budget funds for archaeological research. Italian universities have always less and less resources to invest, while foreign universities, willing to investigate such unique world heritage, supply funds and manpower under the initiative of Italian brain-drain archaeologists who their country.

Roman villa of Durrueli

This is culturally and economically beneficial for Sicily, which gets for free the results of cutting edge studies undertaken with expensive and innovative equipment by international experts. The last archaeological achievement for the Island is that of Realmonte, where archaeologists of University of South Florida (USF) have carried out sensational discoveries at the Roman villa of Durrueli. A very important site for its mosaics depicting sea deities and for its baths, discovered at the beginning of the '900 during construction works for a railroad and excavated in the 70's by a Japanese team and then forgotten and currently closed to the public despite is proximity with the famous Scala dei Turchi.

Here, thanks to a three-year agreement with the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage of Agrigento, directed by Gabriella Costantino, who is also scientific co-director of the research project, a month of archaeological excavation entirely financed by USF has come to an end.

Students of archaeology, classics and anthropology and Ph.D. students of the USF Department of History have participated to excavation under the supervision of the co-director Dr Davide Tanasi, assistant professor with the Department of History and the Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST), which is an innovative research center of USF specialized in the virtualization of the global culture heritage and its open dissemination on the web. This has been a unmissable opportunity for the Superintendence of Agrigento which granted the authorization to start out the American research project, in which was also involved Dr Michael Decker, world-renowned byzantinist, Chair of the Department of History and Director of CVAST. On the field the American scholars were also supported by the volunteers of the local association Pro Loco of Realmonte.

"The fieldwork started out one week before the beginning of the excavation - says the archaeologist Dr Tanasi - when two staff members of USF CVAST, Jeff Du Vernay and Bart McLeod, carried out the overall terrestrial and aerial 3D scanning of the entire complex, creating a 3D model which representes a formidable research tool for every future project to study and promote the site".

Article published in La Repubblica (August 9th 2017)


The final outcome is the discovery of the secrets of Durrueli: a villa of more of 5,000 m2 built on the beach, with two private bathhouses and a breathtaking view as it was constructed on the top of an artificial terrace by the sea supported my a gigantic terrace wall. A wonder visible to mariners and travelers coming to Sicily, possibly owned by a wealthy aristocrat who lived in Agrigento between the 1st and the 2nd century CE. A new hypothesis could be also be that the villa was the marine part of a still unknown Roman settlement at Durrueli, in this case the owner would not be a wealth man from Agrigento but a powerful citizen of this Roman city still without a name.

"The villa was certainly built for leisure - says Dr Tanasi - with swimming pools and mosaics with marine motifs. But what it is more striking it's that the complex was largely occupied in subsequent eras until the 7th century CE with various architectural transformations which never destroyed the villa itself though.

During Late Antique times, a part of the villa was converted in a facility for the production of pottery, tiles and bricks in an industrial scale as explained by Nuccia Gulli, archaeologist of the Superintendence of Agrigento. But not just that. The destination of one room was changed with a substantial re-flooring as possibly to be used as baptistery. From villa to industrial facility and from that to basilica? Archaelogists don't add anything else and look forward the excavations which will be carried out next summer aimed to uncover a further district of the villa. Yes next summer, as University of South Florida is in Tampa, a city twin sister with Agrigento, where there is a large and influential community of Sicilian-Americans who immigrated in the US from the province of Agrigento and who have dear to promote the cultural heritage of Sicily, which is the place where their ancestral roots are. University of South Florida has already "donated" to Sicily other archaeological projects such as the virtualization of the World Heritage site of Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina and of the archaeological park of Morgantina.

CVAST in the News


Our work is being noticed by a growing number of news outlets. Here are a few recent publications:

Digital Scholarship in Action (DSIA)


On March 2nd in the frame of the 1st edition of the Digital Scholarship in Action (DSIA) promoted by the USF Libraries, faculty and staff of the Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies engaged the audience presenting with their students on the topic of digital humanities.

Participants: Dr Davide Tanasi, Myriam van Walsum, Michelle Assaad, Christine Bergmann, Jack Geier, Alexandr Saxe.

Topic: 'Cognitio ex Machina': Digital Archaeology, Edutainment and Virtual Museums.

Download the presentation: Powerpoint PDF

Presenting CVAST work on the Virtual Karam Collection
Virtual Karam Collection: the originals and 3d prints

2017 PROSE Awards


CVAST Director Michael Decker was recently awarded with an Honorable Mention in the 2017 PROSE Awards with his book The Byzantine Dark Ages.

Read more on the PROSE website.

Nature publication


We proudly announce a new publication in Nature by CVAST scientist Dr. Jen Bright: "Mega-evolutionary dynamics of the adaptive radiation of birds".

Dr. Bright recently joined USF’s faculty as an assistant professor in the USF School of Geosciences and is a member of CVAST. Together with a team of researchers she studied the evolution of birds through a remarkable crowdsourced science effort, Mark My Bird. While at The University of Sheffield, Bright worked to scan and document thousands of birds at the Natural History Museum, London and worked with citizen scientists from around the world to collect wider samples and data.

Read more about the study and how you can participate.