Diggin’ the Past: Three Uncommon Must-See Archaeological Sites in Italy

Allie Roos
If you are at all interested in archaeology, or if you just want to see some really awesome old stuff, I’d recommend you spend some time in Italy. Of course, the country is famous for its fabulous food and beautiful shoes, but Italy has so much to offer in terms of history, as well. We owe many aspects of Western Civilization to the Ancient Romans. I found walking in their footsteps to be incredibly enlightening. There is something magical about learning on-location; reading about a site will never be enough for me now. Most people will see the Colosseum and the Roman Forum when they go to Rome, but this ancient city has so much more to offer in terms of incredible archaeological sites. Below are three of my favorite sites located in and around the city of Rome that are definitely worth checking out if you want to tread off the beaten path.

The Necropoli at Cerveteri and Tarquinia

In the ancient world, people often buried their dead outside of the city for fear of the physical and spiritual pollution that the dead brought to the living. The word “Necropolis,” from the Greek νεκρός (corpse/the dead) and πόλις (city), has served as a broad term for these kinds of sites. These burial grounds took on many different physical characteristics depending on the culture and the time period. Prior to the Romans, the Etruscans reigned supreme over the Italian peninsula, creating a diverse culture and trade network with the Greek colonists occupying southern Italy. They left behind plenty of archaeological remains, much of which was corrupted during Roman occupancy. By far the best-preserved remains of this native Italic culture are the extravagant family tombs found at the Necropoli in Cerveteri and Tarquinia.
Prior to our program’s field trip to these sites, I had never heard of them and probably would have missed out on seeing these amazing tombs had it not been for our class visit. Both these sites are relatively close to one another and are totally doable if you are looking to take a quick day trip outside of Rome. In 2004, both Necropoli were declared to be UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Necropolis at Tarquinia hosts an exceptionally monumental cycle of painted tombs described as “the first chapter in the history of great Italian painting.” It is the largest necropolis in the area around and is named for the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia. It is made up of more than 6,000 underground Etruscan tombs that completely cover the extensive hill of Monterozzi. Adorned with scenes of human life that include huntsmen, fishermen, musicians, dancers, jugglers, and athletes, the painted tombs illustrate the wealth and power of their occupants.
The Necropolis at Cerveteri stretches for more than two kilometers. This certainly makes it the most imposing in all Etruria and one of the most magnificent monuments of its kind anywhere in the Mediterranean basin. These monumental tombs are located inside tumuli: dome-shaped structures that were partly cut into the tufa rock and partly built over it.
The purpose of these edifices was to illustrate the desire of a handful of aristocratic families to make a statement about their wealth after their death. The Romans would adopt this practice as well. There was an abundance of luxury goods found in these tombs, such as tableware made of precious metal, goldsmith’s work, illustrated vases, bronzes, and pieces imported from Greece and the Near East, as well as weapons, belts, razors, buckles, and jewelry. The interiors are eerily evocative, imitating the houses where their occupants spent their lives, with several rooms, shaped doors and windows, columns and pillars, beamed and coffered ceilings, furnishings, funerary beds, and sometimes grave goods. Streets intertwine and connect these tombs like they would for an actual town. This evokes the full meaning of Necropolis as a “city of the dead.”
Select tombs at both sites are open for visitors to see and explore. I can honestly say that they were a highlight of my time abroad—definitely two of the coolest places I visited over the course of the semester. Each site also has an accompanying museum that houses the artifacts found at the site. Tickets are € 6,00 to € 8,00 depending on whether you go into the museum. If you are in Rome and decide to go to Cerveteri, you can take a train from Termini Station to Marina de Cerveteri, which will run you about € 12,00 and take about 50 minutes travel time. From Rome to Tarquinia, train tickets are the same price but the travel time is slightly longer, around 1 hour and 30 minutes. These sites are definitely worth checking out and can offer you a unique experience in Italy that many travelers tend to overlook.

Domus Aurea

There are only a few ancient Romans that still remain well-known in modern popular culture. Of course, most people will know Caesar, Brutus, and Antony, but another infamous figure that continues to occupy the modern imagination is the Roman Emperor Nero. A well-known quote regarding this historical figure is “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”
This is in reference to the Great Fire of Rome that occurred in July of 64 A.D. As the story goes: while the city was being consumed by fire, Nero decided that it was the perfect time to practice his music skills. Afterwards, Nero claimed the scorched land as his own in order to build a MASSIVE golden palace. Needless to say, this infuriated the Romans, and it was widely believed that Nero himself set the fire in order to displace the citizens living in those areas so that he could construct his palace.
Nero’s “Domus Aurea” or “Golden Palace” covered part of the slopes of four out of the seven hills that make up Rome: the Palatine, Esquiline, Oppian, and Caelian hills. In its day, it was estimated to cover anywhere from 100 to 300 acres of land. It had around 300 rooms, several groves of trees, pastures with flocks, vineyards, and an artificial lake! The rooms were sheathed in dazzling polished white marble, frescoes, mosaics, and an extensive amount of gold leaf and semi precious stones. What’s more astonishing is that Nero didn’t even live there; he built the Domus Aurea primarily as a space for entertainment and extravagance, spending his nights in a separate palace on the Quirinal Hill. Nero also commissioned the Greek artist Zenodorus to build a colossal 120-foot high bronze statue of himself, dubbed the Colossus. For reference, this statue was slightly TALLER then the William Pitt Union.
So obviously, he was assassinated. Emperor Vespasian took over after a period of political upheaval and set about dismantling the Domus Aurea and Nero’s memory along with it. Remember that artificial lake I mentioned earlier? Well, Vespasian decided to construct an amphitheater on that spot, what we now know as the Colosseum. The amphitheater got its name because of its association and proximity to the Colossus, which Vespasian reimagined as the sun god Sol. The statue has not survived, but the Colosseum has become one of the most recognizable structures in the world.
The part of the Domus Aurea that was located on the Oppian Hill was spared because it housed the imperial family for a time whilst the Flavian palace was being constructed on the Palatine Hill. Later on, Trajan built his bath complex on the Oppian Hill, filling in that section of the Domus Aurea in order to create support for the baths. Thus, the structure was preserved and remained underground until the Renaissance, where a reawakening of interest in Classical Rome inspired painters—including Rafael—to explore the old sites. Climbing down ladders into what they believed were caves, or grottos, they found the rooms of the Domus Aurea, walls still adorned with paintings. Imitating these in their own work, they dubbed the style grotesque (from grotto). Soon, pagan designs were appearing in paintings and frescoes these Christian artists were carrying out for the pope in the Sistine Chapel and the Logge Vaticane. 
Today, you can follow the steps of these famous painters and descend into the remains of the Domus Aurea.  The site is still being excavated, so you are required to wear a hard hat. You have to purchase tickets beforehand from ticketitaly.com. Included with your €23 ticket price is a 75-minute tour, a downloadable e-book, and an optional virtual reality experience. I highly recommend everyone check out this hidden gem! 

Ostia Antica

The word Ostia is derives from the Latin “os” meaning “mouth.” The city of Ostia was named such for its geographical position at the “mouth” of the Tiber River, which empties out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. In ancient times, Ostia served as Rome’s major port city, and today is a popular destination for both beach-goers and history enthusiasts. According to an inscription found in the town, Ostia may have been one of Rome’s first colonies, dating back to the 7th c. BCE. However, more recent archaeological excavation seems to place the true date of habitation around 4th c. BCE. Whatever the foundation date, the port city enjoyed a long life and mentions of its existence remain into late antiquity. For those that are unable to make it down south to Pompeii, Ostia is great alternative. Beautifully crafted mosaics remain in various parts of the town, as well as phenomenally preserved apartment complexes, bathhouses, and inns, as well as the oldest synagogue in Europe, dating to the reign of Emperor Claudius (41–54 CE).
Ostia is also famous for its well-preserved latrines, which I studied during my semester abroad as part of my research on Roman sanitation and hygiene. Sometime during the reign of Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD), street sewers and aqueducts were constructed in Ostia, but it wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) that we start seeing the construction of foricae, or public latrines. The latrines would have revolving/pivot doors and a basin would have lied between the two doors to serve as a washing basin. The Latrine consists of 19 seats with keyhole-shaped openings where the customers would do their business. The sewer runs underneath the seats and would have washed away the waste. A trench runs along the three sides of the room. This would have held running water, either to catch and wash away any bad aims or to rinse the xylospongium, a sponge stick that served as their toilet paper. The sponge would be attached to a stick, which the customer would hold on to when reaching through the bottom part of the keyhole in order to wipe themselves. The best evidence that we have for the existence and use of this instrument comes from Seneca’s account of a German bestiari’s suicide: “while so engaged, [the German] seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body.” Martial also references this spongem, calling it: “infelix damnatae spongae virgae,” or “the unhappy sponge on the doomed mopstick.”
Ostia is not at all far from Rome and can offer tourists a quick, easy, and fascinating experience. Tickets cost € 10, more information can be found at http://www.ostiaantica.beniculturali.it/it/orari-e-tariffe/. I highly recommend anyone traveling to Rome check out this site. It was definitely one of the highlights from my time abroad, and even if you aren’t interested in Roman toilets, the beach is right nearby!
Allie Roos is a senior at Pitt with a double major in Classical Language and History, as well as a minor in Religious Studies and a Certificate in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She’s hoping to enroll in a Classics graduate program after she graduates, and is currently interning at the Study Abroad Office for the 2017-18 academic year. She studied abroad in Sicily during the summer of 2016, and then again in Rome during the spring of 2017.