Earlier this week Candice and I found time to visit two sites that have taken us at least as far back as the 4th century BCE and up through the 7th century CE. Both were fascinating while serving as good platforms for thinking about historic preservation past and future.
On Tuesday, we walked through our neighborhood to get to the Basilica of San Pancrazio, where we had attended Palm Sunday services three weeks ago. We heard a presentation the night before from one of the fellows at the academy on labor practices in the catacombs, and it stirred us to visit the catacombs under the basilica.
San Pancrazio’s catacombs are one of the few in Rome that have been consistently visited through the ages. The fact that they were not lost over the centuries has been attributed to the fact that pilgrims from the cult of St. Pancras consistently visited the site throughout the Middle Ages.
(Pancras) came to Rome together with his uncle Dionysus after his parents’ death and was decapitated in 304 after refusing to sacrifice to the gods. His body was abandoned on the Via Aurelia and was picked up by a Christian matrona, Ottavilla, who buried him in the closest graveyard, that she probably owned. (Wikipedia)
Jenny – whose talk inspired us to visit this set of catacombs – mentioned that this particular site was small but had many of the features found in larger tombs. For a simple definition, catacombs are “human-made subterranean passageways for religious practice. Any chamber used as a burial place is a catacomb, although the word is most commonly associated with the Roman Empire.” Built by “fossors,” the catacombs predate the Christian era. The early Roman custom was cremation, with the ashes placed in a columbarium (of which there are early examples), but Christians tended to favor inhumation, due to the belief in the bodily resurrection at the Second Coming of Christ.
We met up with the volunteer guide inside the basilica. He spoke very little English and we spoke no Italian. However, he was so pleased to be showing the catacombs to visitors and we were so excited to have the opportunity, that we worked through the language barriers and had a very informative tour. Lesson #1 for historic sites: have a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide and you can overcome communication barriers. The catacombs are entered by a door in the basilica floor, located between the nave and a side aisle. Very steep stairs took us down underneath the basilica to the remarkable remains of this early Roman burial site.
We were able to call up information from the site’s Wikipedia page, and that material – along with Jenny’s talk the night before – helped us fill in the tour and ask intelligent questions of our guide. In this part of the catacombs, we visited:
the cubicle of Botrys, from the name of the decedent buried in it: the peculiarity of this grave is that, on his headstone, Botrys declares himself as a christianós, an unusual expression in the Christian graveyards;
the cubicle of Saint Felix, dating back to the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th century, decorated with a linear red style and elements referring to the sea (ships and fishes);
the cubicle of Saint Sophia, housing a white-plastered arcosolium with four graves, that are believed to be the martyr Sophia and her three daughters’. (Wikipedia)
Following our tour, the guide asked if we wanted to see the crypt where the patron saint was buried (his remains having been moved there in the 7th century for easier access for the pilgrims). We quickly agreed, and he led us into a tunnel in the apse that led to the crypt, which is under the altar, followed by a visit to the sacristy which included a wall of ancient inscriptions and markers.
Candice and I found this entire experience to be delightful. Befitting the setting, we were reverential yet inquisitive. Our guide could not have been more welcoming, wanting to ensure that we understood what we were seeing. He also encouraged photographs, so that we could capture this place for future memories. While not one of the major catacomb tours in Rome, it certainly captured and held our interest for the 90 minutes we spent at the basilica.
Yesterday, we took the Roma-Lido train (think Washington Metro with better service and more graffiti) for the 20-minute ride to the archaeological excavations of the ancient town of Ostia Antica. This was the harbor city for ancient Rome, located originally at the mouth of the River Tiber. (Due to silting, it is now three miles from the sea.)
We spent over three hours on-site and could have spent more if we’d had the time. As you’ll see in the photographs, this is an extensive excavation that uncovered a complex and highly-developed city dating back to at least the 4th century BCE.
Rather than write a great deal about its history, I’ll direct you to the link above, which also takes you to other sites, for more detailed information. Ostia is known for its mosaics, amphitheater, baths, and wide range of building types. The tour begins – appropriately given our visit the day before – in the necropolis just outside the city walls.
I have about fifty more photographs I could post, but I hope you have the sense that this is a wonderful step into antiquity. I was also impressed with how the interpretation of the site addresses issues of the changing nature of archaeological and preservation practice. On several signs, the destructive actions of earlier generations are addressed respectfully yet directly, understanding that professional standards and practices change over time as better tools and deeper interpretation come into play. In particular, the treatment of mosaic panels in the gymnasium – which had always been exposed to the elements – are given detailed explanation. The common practices of the 1970s contributed to the deterioration, and so the preservationists and archaeologists who began a new conservation project in 2004 had to factor in this aspect of the site’s history. It was refreshing to see this openness in interpretation.
Candice and I also commented on the fact that except for two or three school groups, we had much of the site to ourselves. In talking with fellows and experts at the academy, I have heard how preservation and conservation funds are drying up in Italy. I do not know the particulars here, and while we saw evidence of ongoing work at Ostia Antica, it seemed as if the site was working to get by with less support – which includes marketing (a key aspect of historic site preservation).
I’m thankful that a colleague sent me a link to “Top Ten Day Trips from Rome” and Ostia Antica topped the list. We would agree. This is a site that is evocative, mysterious, and educational – calling us to reflect both backwards and forwards at the same time.
We need more places like this.
More to come…
Image: Excavated street and buildings at Ostia Antica