Lost Cities Found


From the minute we decided on our destination cities, Mary knew she wanted to see Ostia Antica.

She is a lover of history and archaeology from way back, and ruins just seem to call out to her.

Ostia Antica was, in its heyday, a thriving port city just outside of Rome. It sits at the mouth of the Tiber (as I tell my students every semester during anatomy week, os comes from the Latin word for mouth – ostium. It’s the name of the opening in your cervix, if you happen to have one) and evidently had a population of some 60,000.

I’d visited Pompeii during my first visit to Italy, and my imagination was completely hooked. I’ve pored through a couple of books and videos by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, and his work has given me much to think about. This trip would definitely include Ercolano, and it turns out that Ostia Antica is a perfect midway stop between those two lost cities. Not having been leveled by Vesuvius, Ostia Antica has more intact features than Pompeii; and it’s a whole lot less crowded to boot.

But so what about ancient cities? The most important part about this excursion was that Mary and I managed to find and utilize local trains to get there and back! And it just took us one dress rehearsal trip over to Roma Termini to make sure we would know where we needed to go to get the metro we needed to get. I can’t say enough about the convenience of Centro Storico, with the train station in easy walking distance. Very helpful if your trip includes any side trips, since choosing to drive a rental car in Italian cities seems akin to thinking it might be fun to ride a bicycle at the Indy 500.

From the train station you take a pedestrian walkway over a busy road and follow the people who seem to look like they don’t live here, being as they have backpacks, sun hats,  water bottles, and maps. Buy your ticket (roughly 10 euro) and walk through the gate, and you’re on Main Street. Or Decumanus Maximus, if you’re in the mood to think in Latin.


This is a suburb of homes, warehouses, merchant trades, great big baths of course, and even a huge amphitheater. If I recall correctly, we encountered the baths pretty early in the day.  It was my first inkling of the mosaic amazements we would see during our entire vacation.


Now, this is no teeny tiny triclinium we’re looking at here; this mosaic has to be twemty feet square, larger than a great number of the floor spaces in the neighborhood.


My question whenever I saw one of these stone area rugs was, How did any of these ever get finished in time for anyone to use them? (Note to self: look for YouTube videos of people demonstrating how this was done.) We are talking tiny tiles here; most of them looked about half an inch square to me.


Moving on, we walked the wide and the narrow streets, through grassy alleys and up and down steep narrow staircases. Sometimes I can’t stop myself from touching one of the bricks, thinking of hands that placed it there roughly two thousand years ago. That slave probably had no idea that a woman from Connecticut currently living in Texas would see his work, but I wish I could tell him it’s amazing and it’s still here.


There were very few restricted areas, which was excellent as we felt we were walking in centuries-old footsteps throughout the town. Thousands of people lived, traded, ate, slept, and died here in its day.


In many of the spaces, the bricks themselves formed decorative elements, arching over doorways or forming patterns in the wall. There were also enough remnants of fancier trimmings to stir the imagination; some of the homes and community facilities must have been beautiful.


Guess we know who lived where. (Although it’s true, many spaces in Ostia Antica were not residential but commercial and storage facilities, and so would naturally lack fancy trimmings and elaborate mosaic floors. Shopkeepers tended to sleep in lofts above their shops.) Just as in other ancient cities, only the wealthy had kitchen facilities, so there were numerous locations with countertops fitted with spaces for amphorae. It’s kind of nice to go in ignorant and speculate about what this room or that room might have been.

Now anyone with a lick of sense would choose a guidebook, or a guide, or even an audio tour; Mary and I make no claims to common sense. I prefer reading up on a space after I’ve seen it, of course necessitating a return visit.


Leaving aside the greenery that has taken its place within the crumbled ruins, I don’t know whether this much vegetation throughout the town would have been present in ancient times, but it was quite lovely on this pleasant May morning. Back in the day it was probably  crowded, noisy, hectic, and smelly – and not always in a good way. It can be very peaceful now.


We could hear birds singing and groups of school kids making the racket kids have made since childhood was invented. Pleasantly enough, our entire Italy visit was colored by poppies. They were everywhere.


Nature softens the edges, no?

Speaking of softer edges, another find on this visit was a few of Rome’s kitties, who even have their own calendar that we saw on every newsstand. In many ancient sites the cats have human caregivers who see to as many spayings and neuterings as possible, and do some feeding and watering of the resident felines. This handsome specimen was quite grumpy at first, but then hung around and let it be known as kitties do that it we might offer a few rubby-dubbies and maybe take a photo.


Which was good, as I missed Marco and Lucy almost as much as missed Travis. Fortunately, dogs go everywhere in Rome and Florence so there was always a doggo to befriend.

Naturally I was checking out the stone work for any motifs I might, um, borrow. Here’s one candidate I think I could manage:


I’m unsure of the symbolism here*, but the design reminded me of a decoration on the outside wall of our Rome apartment:


On the long flight home I sketched that second one and it came out looking like leaves, loaves of bread, figs – fertility symbols again. Must look this up. Nothing like vacation for collecting a bunch of homework assignments you actually feel like doing.

We lunched at the cafeteria onsite and once again I felt amazed by how even the simplest food site in Rome can offer an array of delicious dishes starring so many vegetables and fruits in season. As we came out we noticed an array of amphorae slightly bigger than modern washing machines; these were loaded upright into ships’ holds for transport. Must look up how they got them in and out, and how the heck they drained them of olive oil, wine, dried beans, and all the other things delivered in these huge ovoid jugs.

Since one set of ruins is hardly sufficient for the likes of us, on another day we screwed our courage to the wall and took not one but two trains, the speed demon to Naples and then the local Circumvesuviana to Ercolano Scavi. A stop a little further down the line will take you to Pompeii, but we decided to see Ercolano first and I’m glad. I will say nothing about the local train other than that it brought back images of New York City public transportation in the late 70s and early 80s. ‘Nuff said.

Not laid waste in the same way nor to the same degree as Pompeii; site of more and grander residences than Ostia Antica, Ercolano Scavi is small enough to be covered in a couple of hours and retains architectural and decorative elements beyond anything the other two locations offer.

As so often happens in this part of the world, someone was digging around (going for a well, circa 1709) and uncovered what was part of an ancient structure. Cue decades of digging, looting, disrupting, destroying, theorizing, and all the complexities associated with unwrapping ancient ruins. Today you take the train to “Ercolano Scavi,” meaning the excavation site; walk down a pretty run-down boulevard; catch sight of the sea; and make your way to the site itself.

It’s like a great big hole in the center of town. A great big amazing fascinating heart-wrenching hole.


I’m not an archaeologist nor an historian, but I wanted to step right into my rightful role as Queen of the Universe and buy up the entire “modern” town, relocate all the residents to much better quarters, and find out exactly how big ancient Ercolano actually was. As you can see, upper stories remain intact in the ruins with much greater frequency than in Pompeii. Keepers of the site have had to erect some roofs to protect artifacts.

You walk down stairs and ramps, marveling at how deep seven stories of lava appear. See the blue of the sea in the photo above? Keep in mind that this ancient site was poised at the water’s very edge. One great villa had to close off at least one story of the home because of encroaching sea water. The sea is around 1200 feet farther away now than it was before the 79 AD eruption. That’s a lot of lava.


We wandered around, again having free access to many homes and alleyways and interiors. At one point I had one of those great college-type moments: we were standing in a house I recognized! We were in the House of the Wooden Screen!


Here in the atrium is a beautiful marble table, here the impluvium. See how the entire floor slopes inward so rainwater goes where it is wanted. And in the middle distance, a pair of sliding wooden screens that could be opened or closed, to allow the view straight back to the garden; or closed to sequester the tablinum (dining room) from the rest of the household.

Wallace-Hadrill: “It can be related to a phenomenon well attested in both Vesuvius cities: the tendency, starting around the early first century BC, to shift the focus of the house to the peristyle garden rather than the atrium, and to reduce the atrium to a sort of entrance parlor.” (From Herculaneum: Past and Future, Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2011 – a coffee table book any lover of history should be glad to have.)

Wood, you say? In a town that was immolated in seven stories of lava?

It’s true. In Ercolano Scavi you will find numerous specimens of “carbonized and semi-carbonized wood” that were preserved in the lava. Mary and I were awe-struck to stand three inches away from it, imagining human hands that had slid the doors open and closed as desired.


I think that’s the thing for me about ruins, about history, about travel, about everything really: I am interested in people. I’m probably too shy to strike up a conversation unless you have a dog or a baby with you, but I’ve always been curious about how people live. The recent research at Ercolano Scavi, for instance (and I’ll try to link you to Wallace-Hadrill’s BBC video on Ercolano, but in case I can’t, you can probably run a Google and find it yourself – totally worth it).

Researchers have been carefully examining the contents of the sewers, and along with junk and trash and shards of pottery and whole pots and everything else just tossed out in the course of normal life before distant landfills, they are looking closely at the coprolites – fossilized feces that reveal an enormous amount about life in this ancient city. What people ate: fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, and fish (often whole, as it turns out); what even the poor and the slaves ate (much the same fare, to the researchers’ surprise). These remnants have even helped place the 79 AD eruption in the autumn – rather than the previously supposed summer – because of the presence of pomegranate seeds.

So mothers have been right all along: your poop tells big stories about you. It’s important.

Back on the surface, Ercolano Scavi offers an outstanding glimpse into domestic decoration – another important aspect of human lives, homes, and their place in society. Some of the wall decorations and floor mosaics would – unbeknownst to us – make a perfect prequel to a rainy afternoon we’d soon be spending in a museum.



Of course many people also had elaborately decorated garden spaces, as the gardens were often at the center of the home. The House of the Stags clearly spelled prestige in expensive marble – both colored and pure white – and very fancy mosaic work, even in the garden. Here’s one little upper right-hand corner of a doorway into the house:


Of course the most heart-wrenching aspect of Ercolano is found down where the seashore was at the time of the big eruption. It had been believed that just about everyone had made it out of town, as the volcano had been belching away for a number of hours before the final, killing blast.

I’ll put a skeleton warning here; I’m about to go face to face with some aspects of human existence you may not care to look at.

In the 1980s, excavators discovered over 300 skeletons beneath arches that many have described as “boat sheds,” but Wallace-Hadrill points out that “no trace of marine equipment” has been unearthed there. He speculates that citizens sought shelter there from what may have seemed to them an impending but familiar disaster along the lines of an earthquake. Men, women, children of all social classes bound together forever in horror.

A modern researcher seeking to recreate the charring of their bones estimates temperatures of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine. And a lava flow so inescapable that it completely filled square terra cotta pipes lying on their sides in great stacks awaiting installation into a new & improved bath house.

IMG_6998I think that taking a walk around the work of archaeologists and their dedicated students is a way to be reminded of our humanness in the most profound and visceral manner. We can be so like the ancient Romans in so many ways: full of pride and hubris, so convinced that material wealth is valuable, so willing to exploit other humans for our own comfort and ease. So convinced that life at the top of the heap will last forever.

Such slow learners.

*Thank you, Uncle Dan Hancock, for reminding me that this is the egg-and-dart motif. A classic indeed.







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