Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Monte Testaccio - The Ultimate Detritus of Empire

One of the places that I meant to visit on our last trip to Rome was Monte Testaccio. Literally it means "the mountain of shards".

Oh, this is not on very many people's list of Must See things in the Eternal City, but if you are archeologically inclined it is something special.  Simply put, it is a mountain of broken Roman pottery.

It is almost all amphorae.  More specifically, amphorae used to transport olive oil from Spain to Rome.  The river is nearby, with the great warehouses where oil for public and military distribution were received, stored and distributed.  And what to do with the empties?

You tend to see lots of re-use of pots generally and amphorae specifically.  Even at far away Vindolanda up on the Frontier we find them busted up for road surfacing or set into the ground as storage or as a latrine.  But the amphorae in Monte Testacaccio are of a specific type - Dressel 20 if you must know - that tend to break into large jagged shards.  And even the common Roman practice of grinding them up to mix with concrete was not practical due to oil residue.

So, they were hauled off and broken up on the site.  

Nobody knows how old the ones at the bottom are.  But the 53 million amphorae that make up the Mountain of Shards were accumulated over several centuries.  At present it stands 115 feet high but it might have once been larger.  

About 260 AD the storage and distribution of oil was moved somewhere else and the discard pile was complete.

After the fall of Rome this was a desolate spot outside the walls.  Jousting tournaments were held here in the Middle Ages.  For a while it stood in theatrically for Golgotha, with the Pope leading a procession to it every Good Friday and putting up three crosses on its summit.   

In the early modern era it had a series of caves dug into it for cool storage of wine.

So, lets take a visit to The Mother of All Spoil heaps in the year 2017.

You can get very close to the "Mountain" without seeing it.  It is entirely encircled by rather dodgy looking buildings.  Those farther out are auto repair shops.  Those close in and dug into the hillside are mostly an assortment of clubs and music venues.  The graffiti in this neighborhood is epic.

Here we find a truck decked out in vines and a tiki deck.  The sign on it says "Cult Services".  It seems to be audio/video stuff, probably real popular in the artsy neighborhood.

Of course I had to peek in their parking lot.  Washed out bits of amphora all over the place.

But that pales to insignificance when you go around to the north end of the site.  Here a section of the hill has been cleaned of dirt to show you the packed amphora fragments below.

Stacks and stacks.  Too many to count.  Too many to excavate.  Too many to scrub up.

I don't think Monte Testaccio would warrant a special visit unless you come on one of the infrequent days where they unlock the gate and let you climb to the top.  There is still a cross up there by the way.  But it is in an area where there are some other fascinating things - which we shall return to anon - and as an add on visit it is worthy.

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