The story of the prehistoric elephant and Rome's lost hill

Rome marks 90 years since an elephant skull was dug up near the Colosseum.

An exhibition at Trajan's Markets in Rome recalls how the skull and left tusk of an extinct elephant species were discovered during excavations to make way for Via dell'Impero in 1932.

The fossilised remains belonged to a straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) a prehistoric species that roamed Europe and western Asia during the Ice Age.

The surprise discovery came about during frantic works to bulldoze a path through the Velia or Velian hill - a spur between the north side of the Palatine Hill and the Oppian Hill - as part of Mussolini's plans to connect the Colosseum with Piazza Venezia.

The new thoroughfare, christened Via dell'Impero but today called Via dei Fori Imperiali, was inaugurated on 28 October 1932 on the tenth anniversary of the March on Rome, and soon became the favoured venue for parades during the fascist regime.

However the price paid by Rome's artistic and archaeological heritage - due to the destruction of the Velia and the rushed nature of the excavation - was very high.

First of all it meant the almost total loss of the garden of Villa Rivaldi, a Renaissance-era palace whose grounds stretched as far as the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum.

Cutting through the Velia yielded rich archaeological finds from the Roman era, in particular the remains of a domus with well-preserved frescoes and numerous statues.

The unearthed treasures were collected hastily and crated off to city warehouses.

The most surprising discovery was made on 20 May 1932, when numerous fossilised remains came to light, among them the elephant skull and tusk.

Antonio Muñoz, director of Rome's department of antiquities and fine arts and supervisor of the works, wrote at the time: "Here, under the Velia hill was the zoological garden of prehistoric Rome".

The remains of the elephant are now on display at Trajan's Markets, alongside archaeological finds, archive film footage and large watercolours of the lost garden of Villa Rivaldi, painted before it was lost forever.

For details of the exhibition, which runs until 5 March 2023, see Mercati di Traiano website.

Cover image: O. FERRETTI, Demolizioni per l'apertura di via dell’Impero con i resti dell'elefante preistorico, olio su cartone (1932) Museo di Roma, MR 812 (© Roma - Sovrintendenza Capitolina ai Beni Culturali - Museo di Roma).

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Address Via dei Fori Imperiali, Roma RM, Italy

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The story of the prehistoric elephant and Rome's lost hill

Via dei Fori Imperiali, Roma RM, Italy