Friday, July 14, 2017
Ostia Antica - Digging up and Wrapping Up
Ostia Antica is a marvelous site, an absolute delight for lovers of things Ancient and Roman. But it is also a very frustrating place. It could be so much more. Part of the explanation lies in the rather unique way it was excavated and conserved. More about that in a moment but first - in keeping with the History in a Place series - the practical advice.
Although it is fifteen miles outside of Rome Ostia is a very easy place to get to. Cheap too. I will have a few things to say about Roman public transportation by and by. But for a single transit ticket (1.5 Euro) you can hop a bus in Trastevere or anywhere else in town, get to the Porta San Paulo Train Station (also known as Pyrimide) and use the same ticket to ride all the way to Ostia Antica. It would be difficult to get lost, you are at the terminus of the line. Trains run regularly.
It is about a five minute walk to the gates of the site. The site is closed on Mondays. The first Sunday of the month entrance is free. For detailed info go HERE.
You could take a short stroll into the little town to buy sandwiches and such. There is also a cafeteria on site that is pretty good, albeit a hive of busy school kids both times I visited. Bring a water bottle, it gets thirsty out there in the ruins. I would not visit on a rainy day, the whole site is open air.
I have skipped over the "major" features of the site, most of them are not far from the entrance. Don't let my admonition to visit the far corners of Ostia Antica cause you to miss the Theater, the Baths of Neptune and the amazing mosaics in the square behind the theater. The museum is small but nice. It is exclusively sculptures, Ostia had some first rate stuff dug up and not all of it got whisked off to the big museums or to private collections.
There is a major problem with the site. It is huge and the chronically underfunded Italians can't afford to keep it up. So there is little to no signage which makes finding and understanding things very, very difficult. Also, lots of interesting things such as underground Mitraeums are closed off. Why, they don't even have the money to keep the things above ground from falling down...
I would strongly encourage serious visitors to visit THIS SITE and read up. To the extent that you can generate maps that show your specific sites of interest, do it. Paper print outs or for the modern digital types some sort of device that will be readable in the blazing sunlight.
So how did Ostia, the excavation, become far too big to handle? Oh, its a fascist thing to some extent.
Excavations at Ostia were sporadic before 1800. In the 19th century things got going a bit, with prisoners held at the nearby medieval fortress supplying the work force. In the early 20th century the rail line from Rome was under construction, again with a captive labor pool of Austrian POWs. Mussolini inaugurated the Ostia Antica train station in 1924.
Benito as il Duce was very keen on promoting Italy to the status of Great Power, and was always trying to link the modern state to the Glories of Ancient Rome. So it was natural for him to start a very ambitious program of excavations at Ostia, hoping the site would be a centerpiece of international events such as the Olympics or the EUR exposition. (neither happened). But in the late 30's up into the early days of WWII excavations went on at a frantic pace.
It is usually not careful, scientific excavation when you have set up a miniature railway to haul away the spoil!
They just bit off way more than they could chew. Late antiquity and medieval stuff was simply bashed away. Considerable liberties were taken with reconstructing things not as they were but as they could be portrayed as Most Glorious. Record keeping was minimal. The above photo for instance is one of a series that provides most of what is known of the excavations on this part of the site.
So, gee thanks Mussolini. You created a gigantic archaeological Disney Land for we lovers of Roman stuff. But you rather made a hash of it and what remains might be unrecognizable to some ancient inhabitant were they able to Time Travel forward.
Oh, its still great. Worth a visit. But it would be so much better with a hundred more explanatory signs and a pool of ready volunteers willing to roam the site and explain things.
I'm available btw for that duty.