The 13-year-long excavation of a what was once believed to be a “backwater town” in Central Italy has provided strong evidence that the Roman Empire remained powerful even as the fall of Rome, in 476, drew near.

Since 2010 the Interamna Lirenas Project by the University of Cambridge’s Classics Faculty, has been conducting surveys and excavations in what, in modern times, looks like a field of crops, but in antiquity was the Roman town of Interamna Lirenas, according to Popular Mechanics.

“We started with a site so unpromising that no one had ever tried to excavate it,” Alessandro Launaro, the study’s author and Interamna Lirenas Project lead at the University of Cambridge’s Classics Faculty, said in a statement. “That’s very rare in Italy.”

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According to the Cambridge Classic’s website the town was founded in 312 BC as a Latin colony affiliated with Rome both politically and militarily, as part of the Roman expansion into Central Italy. 

Study of the area began 13 years ago with deep radar and magnetometry of the around 60 acres of open fields as part of the programs mandate to study “the long-term relationship between town and countryside as reflecting the broader transformations taking place in Roman Italy from Republic to Empire.” 

“There was nothing on the surface, no visible evidence of buildings, just bits of broken pottery,” Launaro said. “But what we discovered wasn’t a backwater, far from it. We found a thriving town adapting to every challenge thrown at it for 900 years.”

The key to studying the Interamna Lirenas site was pottery. According to Launaro, the lack of imported pottery at the site led scholars in the past to believe the city was declining by the second century. But by focusing on the pottery used by average citizens in the region instead of the imported wares used by the wealthy the team of archaeologists were able reveal that the town thrived well into the 3rd Century with close to 2,000 inhabitants, and once, in 46 BC, even hosted Julius Caesar himself.

The town was located at the intersection of two important routes, the Via Latina which connected Lazio and Campania, and the river Liris. Over the course of their excavations, archaeologists have discovered a large warehouse, which hints at the possibility that Interamna Lirenas was a port town. They also uncovered evidence of a temple, three bathhouses, and a roofed theater that could hold 1,500 people. Launaro said the theater was “a major status symbol. It displayed the town’s wealth, power, and ambition.”

The town was eventually abandoned in 6th century C.E., likely because of the Lombard invasion of Italy, according to Cambridge. Soon after its inhabitants began salvaging materials to build farms elsewhere. Those that chose to stay, along with new inhabitants, spread dirt and debris over what was left of the town in order to make the land suitable for growing crops.

While modern methods of ploughing the earth have damaged the structures that remained buried, they have also helped uncover the thriving civilization that one lay among the crop fields of Central Italy.