Friday, March 9, 2012

Monte Testaccio

When Caesar Augustus was emperor, about when BC changed to AD, the population of the city of Rome was likely near 1.25 million.   Nearby agricultural areas couldn’t begin to supply that many mouths, so imports from all around the Mediterranean were constantly coming up the Tiber from the ports at Ostia.  Though all the consumables have long since disappeared, one very large remnant can still be seen.

Monte Testaccio,  looking southwest, with the Tiber River at top right.

Just south of the Aventine Hill and across the Tiber River from Trastevere is the section of Rome called Testaccio (tey-stAH-tchō).  From ancient times it was a working-class area, where all manner of goods were off-loaded from barges and warehoused.  The shipping container of choice for bulk goods was the terracotta amphora, which was produced all around the Mediterranean in a variety of shapes.  (Amphora comes from Greek, meaning two-handled jar.)  In order to maintain popularity the Roman Emperors provided free grain and olive oil to citizens, while also supplying the military.  The grain came mostly from Egypt, but at least half a billion gallons of olive oil came from Spain.  When used for dry goods like grain, or liquids like wine, the amphorae could be washed out and reused or smashed and used as a building material.  But olive oil couldn’t be washed out and not only would mortar not stick to it, it also would form a vile, rancid film within the empties.  So the innovative Romans built Monte Testaccio to solve that problem.

Amphorae in a model of an ancient ship's hull. 

Monte Testaccio is a man-made hill nearly 118’ (36 meters) high and about 0.6 mile (1 km) around the base.  It was built between roughly 40 BC and 260 AD, completely from broken terracotta amphorae, at least 25 million of them, the pieces carefully stacked and packed for stability and efficient use of space.  An interesting oddity from antiquity, certainly, but it has turned into an important archeological site because of the economic and societal insights derived from inscriptions on the potsherds.  Because the hill is now a protected area, still being studied, it isn’t open to the public most of the time.  But we were able to join a small group touring the monte one afternoon last week, led by Giovanni Borgianelli Spina, who has made the history of Testaccio his passion.

Giovanni Spina demonstrates the layering of potsherds.
Archeological dating shows the hill was built up to about 40 meters by 170 AD,
 when they started over again from ground level

Testae in Latin means fragment or sherd; cocci means much the same in Italian and as an adjective means earthenware; thus Testaccio.  When we walked around the hill at street level we could easily see areas layered with broken pinkish burnt-orange terracotta.  Exposed edges of the terraced construction show how carefully the pieces were placed.  Once up on the hill, scattered amphora bits were everywhere underfoot—parts of handles, pointed bases, sections of the mouths, and countless curved sherds still bearing the 1900-year-old marks of the potters’ fingers and tools on the inside surfaces.  Although winter weeds and grass covered much of the surface, a few clean areas marked where recent archeological study shafts had been sunk into the hill then refilled.  (For $3300 you can join a Spanish scientific team for two weeks in September 2012, digging, identifying and trying to reassemble amphorae on Monte Testaccio.)   Many sherds have a white coating of lime that was applied to combat mold and smells from rancid oil while the hill was being built. 

Above, southwest side of Monte Testaccio from street level.
Below, on the north side of the hill the carefully stacked and terraced
 amphora pieces could scarcely be more compact.

Potsherds everywhere.
Below, a bit of pigment remains on a section of rim.

The site of a recent archeological shaft.
Above, a white coating of lime shades many pieces.
Below, finger marks left nearly two millennia ago.

In the Imperial Roman era huge warehouses—horrea in Latin—were built along the banks of the Tiber in what is now called Testaccio.  There are a few partial structures remaining today, but they barely hint at the hundreds of thousands of square feet of multistoried, arch-roofed repositories that once existed for grain, wine, olive oil, marble and other imports.  Because Rome didn’t have much in the way of exports, once emptied into bulk storage the terracotta amphorae ended up in homes and shops or were used as building material (sometimes inserted whole to quickly fill volume, as in the Circus of Maxentius).  But from the time of Augustus the unusable ones were being tossed onto a pile behind the storerooms.  The gravimetric study that came up with the estimate of 25 million amphorae in Monte Testaccio found that original small, less dense, disorganized pile at the very bottom, which soon becomes the denser, carefully packed bulk of the hill.  (Another source, widely quoted, claims 53 million amphorae in the hill, but I don’t know how that figure was derived.  Either way, lots of pots.)

The arcades of ancient horrea are preserved along the Tiber.

Inside a section of Imperial Roman warehouse in Testaccio.

By the end of the 3rd century AD, Monte Testaccio was abandoned, emperors and their policies having changed.  In the middle ages there were boisterous pre-Lenten carnevale festivities on the hill, and because the barren monte in the middle of a deserted district reminded clerics of Golgotha, it was arrayed with three crosses at Easter and attended by the Pope.  A cross remains atop the hill today as a reminder of that use.  In the 18th century there was a fine of 50 gold scudi for grazing sheep on the hill.  (Ironically, sheep are used these days to keep down the weeds.)  Otherwise it was mostly a tourist attraction into the 19th century, providing a nice view over the Tiber.  Someone discovered that cool, perfectly ventilated wine cellars could be made by digging into the terracotta hillside, and district festivals were regularly held on and around the hill, fueled in part by wine.  In 1849, Giuseppe Garibaldi mounted artillery on the hill to fend off an attack by French forces.  The gun foundation is still visible.

Atop Monte Testaccio.  A cross marks the summit.

The archeological site's
entrance ramp honors Dressel.
Though earlier private collectors and intellectuals recognized its value, Monte Testaccio has been scientifically studied only since the 1870s, when a Prussian-born archeologist named Heinrich Dressel started sorting and analyzing.  His name has become part of amphora nomenclature, and it turns out that an estimated 80% of the amphorae in the hill are a type called Dressel 20.  They are a bulbous 24” (60 cm) in diameter, hold about 18 gallons (68 liters) and come from one river valley in the south of Spain between Cordoba and Seville.  Nearly all the other amphorae in the hill came from northern Africa but also held olive oil, and are identified with names such as Africanus and Tripolitana.   What Dressel discovered was a well-ordered set of descriptive notations (known as tituli picti) painted on each amphora at the time of shipping which reveal the oil producer, the shipping company, the tare weight and shipping weight of the amphora.  Initials identifying the pot manufacturer are usually stamped into the clay, often at one end of a handle.  A good account of amphorae, with an eye toward modern shipping and marketing methods, can be found at this link.

Dressel 20 amphorae found near the base of Monte Testaccio.
A handle stamped with the producing pottery's initials.

I try to look at history in pragmatic terms; that is, I try to envision how real people accomplished what they did.  So when I learned that a pre-industrial society mass produced tens of millions of nearly identical amphorae over a period of 300 years or so, I wondered how they did it.  The imprints and shippers’ graffiti as well as analyses of the clay of potsherds in Monte Testaccio link the Dressel 20-style amphorae to potteries along the Guadalquivir River in Baetica, Spain, at least 100 of them.  But the same amphorae also carried olive oil to Britain and Gaul, so picking a round production number, 60 million, how hard would those potteries have had to work?  If all 100 were active at the same time, 7 pots a day each for 300 days a year for 300 years would make 63 million amphora.  Not forgetting the digging and transport of raw clay and the cutting and transport of firewood for the kilns.

The big oil amphorae were built in two parts.  The main globular belly was built upside-down on a wheel, leaving a hole where the bottom point would ultimately be to allow for drying air circulation.  Starting with a specified weight of clay and using gages and experience, the potter reliably reproduced the desired shape and size.  The bowl was sliced free of the wheel, and when it had firmed up, the bottom hole was plugged from inside by reaching through, and the base then replaced on a wheel, sitting in a stabilizing bowl.  The separately formed neck and mouth were joined, followed by the handles.  The amphorae were fired in a kiln at between 1200 and 1475°F (650–800°C).

Two bottom tips, with the inside view showing the plug closing the drying hole.

The district of Testaccio embraces its past and the origin of its name with monuments and insignia, and it remains largely a working class neighborhood.  Many of the old wine cellars built into the base of the monte have been turned into clubs and restaurants, sometimes featuring a window into the ancient structure of the hill.   At the nearby district Mercato Testaccio you can buy excellent olive oil, but not in an amphora.

This monument to the amphora welcomes those heading into Testaccio on Via Marmorata.
[The amphora fountain has been moved to the site of the old covered market in Piazza Testaccio.]

Above, a panino shop (pane imbottito means stuffed bread).
Below, a window into the hill in the restaurant Flavio al Velavevadetto.