Thursday, July 4, 2013

Two Lost Cities

Over the course of the last week we’ve headed out twice in opposite directions to explore the histories of two lost cities.  If you don’t want to wade through a raft of academic prose I’ll save you the trouble and give you my serious, semi-informed professional opinion:  WOW!
Our first trip was to the north some 30 miles to the modern town of Pontecagnano.  A modern town which sits atop a very ancient city whose name, sadly, we do not know.  It deserves better.  The area, we now know, was inhabited from at least the Eneolithic (Copper) Age, some 2,000-3,000 years BCE.  The Archaeological Museum that we visited was beautifully arranged in galleries which depicted in chronological order the development of the town.  From this early period come stone tools and artifacts, as well as weapons and tools in copper.   I grew up in West Tennessee and just across the Tennessee River in western Middle Tennessee were some of the most skillful flint nappers anywhere in the New World.  But these Old World implements would have made them cry.  Narrow, delicately wrought celts some 10” long, as well as a huge assortment of spearpoints, arrowheads, drills.  And the knives and swords in copper were not just technically sophisticated but gorgeously decorated.  This was already a very sophisticated culture.  
Little surprise, then, that the Bronze-Age Etruscan settlement which came later (ca. 900 BCE) was a happening place as well.  The settlement itself, sadly, we do not have, probably because it sits squarely under the modern town.  But from several necropoleis (‘cities of the dead’) in the vicinity have been located some 9,000 tombs.  Nope, that’s not a typo, I said nine thousand.  Located, but sadly not all excavated.  My friend Fernando says that the Italian attitude is, “OK, we’ve done 10, that’s enough for government work, let’s go have some pizza.”  Now Fernando is a bit of a cynic, so I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I can’t help bemoaning the tombs that haven’t been explored based on the incredible hoard which has come from the few that have.  You’ve probably read a bit about the Etruscans, enough to know they had a highly developed urban society already from the ninth century BCE.  But you probably associate them with Tuscany, the area of Italy which derives its name from them.  And rightly so, that was doubtless the Etruscan heartland.  But these restless people created colonies in the Po Valley to the north as well as all along the Tyrhennian coastland.  And they had a huge presence in Campania as well, at cities like Capua,Fratte, Eboli, even Paestum.   And Pontecagnono, based just on the evidence we have, was their most important outpost in the south and easily one of their most thriving cities in all Italy.  Why?  Because this town was what we call an entrepĂ´t, a center for the exchange of goods, specifically Etruscan goods for Greek goods, located along the Campanian shore (again, bradyseism has moved the sea several miles to the west).  We now know that Mycenaean Greeks had extensive trade contacts with people in southern Italy at least 400 years before the first Iron Age Greek colonies were founded in Italy.  And the Etruscans had something that gave the age its name: iron, iron in huge quantities, mined from the coastal regions of the Colline Metallifere and the island of Elba.  Iron was the hardest metal known to man at the time.  Imagine the huge technological advantage that proffered for tools and armament.
The forerunners of our Pontecagnanesi had lived in simple wattle-and-daub huts; the Etruscans lived in proper stone houses, often with running water and drains.  They dressed in the latest fashions and ate and banqueted lavishly.  And their women were notorious for their high spirits and liberated status, so much so that later Greek and Roman historians were scandalized (and doubtless titillated).
Of course the real treat for me is that the Etruscans had adopted and adapted the Greek habit of wine banqueting, right along with Greek and Greek-style wine vessels.  In fact, we have more ceramics of Greek manufacture from Etruscan sites than from Greek ones!  And gorgeous stuff, to judge by the displays at Pontecagnano.  Imagine yourself as part of an Etruscan couple here, all decked out in your finery, comfortably settled on a dining couch (rich Etruscans, like the Romans later, ate reclining on couches and let their slaves do all the carving and serving; finger foods were de rigeur among the Etruscans).  Meanwhile, an especially beautiful slave boy (and you will find him attractive whether you are male or female) has mixed with water the local wine, an excellent vintage, in a huge krater (mixing pot) of local or imported Greek manufacture, has poured some of this mixture into a beautifully decorated oenochoe (wine flagon) and is pouring some thence into your kantharos (two-handled drinking cup).  A gorgeous young couple rather scantily clad dances for your pleasure to the accompaniment of flute and tambourine.  If, under the influence of wine and song, you and your spouse feel the urge for some connubial bliss, why just excuse yourself to the other guests and have at it!  And no, I’m not making that up, at least according to the report of one incensed Greek historian.  And the best news of all?  The party continues in the afterlife!  The reason we know so much about Etruscan daily life (sadly, their literary records are scant and difficult to interpret) is that they decked out their tombs for the eternal banquets they expected in the hereafter. Death at the door?  Invite him in and party on, dudes!

Three days later we journeyed southward to the little hill town of Roccagloriosa, “Glorious Rock,” just above the Bay of Policastro and facing, across a river valley, the imposing mass of Monte Bulgheria.  The mountain derives its name from the Bulgars who showed up in the sixth century AD and scared the pants off the locals, giving us by way of a tortuous history, the word ‘booger’, as in ‘scary person’.  Roccagloriosa sprawls out along a ridge almost at the top of Monte Capitenali, with spectacular views of the Mingardo River valley to the west and the Bussento River valley to the east, not to speak of that hulking giant to the south.  The little town itself is a charmer, with three beautiful Medieval churches and two piazzas that provide  spectacular panoramas.  But again it is the nameless ancient town which is especially impressive, in this case a Lucanian town of the fifth century BCE.  Again, habitation here goes way back, in this case all the way to the Neolithic.  But it is the later Lucanians who developed a real city.  We don’t know exactly who the Lucanians were, though we’re relatively sure they were a native Italic group of Samnitic ethnic type and language who probably began to migrate from the mountains of the central Apennines into the lower reaches about this time in search of fame and fortune.  They were a bellicose people but they also had a developed agriculture, proto-urban society, a delicate esthetic sense, a love of Greek culture, and a passion for wine.  In this case archaeology has given us both the town itself and a number of richly furnished tombs.  The town is located at a strategic position ideally situated to control the rich farmlands below.  There was a monumental city wall around three sides (the fourth was naturally fortified by the terrain), a public square, well built stone houses, some with enclosed courtyards, several sanctuaries, including one which evidently attracted pilgrims from all over Lucania to worship Mephitis, goddess of fertility, of the underworld, of earthquakes and other ‘mephitic’ phenomena.
Archaeological artifacts from the town and the necropolis are housed in a small museum as well as an antiquarium.  Here the vessels are lavish (one tomb alone held more than 30 pots) but of local manufacture imitating Greek prototypes.  One tomb held a complete wine service in bronze, beautifully wrought.  One especially wealthy aristocratic lady was buried with a gorgeous necklace with alternating pendants of godheads and lions, not to speak of silver, gold and bronze broaches and the little decorative pins we call fibulae.  And one of the snake bracelets the Romans would later make famous, in this case solid gold and exquisitely wrought with details of the scales and a delicate little serpentine head at each end.  Obviously the Lucanian afterlife was not too shabby either.
But sadly, these two important towns are still largely lost, despite extensive excavation.  How?  For one thing, their artifacts are housed in places that no one visits.  The museum at Pontecagnano is state-of-the-art, splayed out in a modern facility on three floors and six different galleries.  The displays are as well designed and expertly executed as anything you will see in the Met or the Louvre.  And on the day we were there we three were the only visitors they had had all day and the first in three days!  It is easy to blame the Italian government for shortsighted inefficiency, but what else can they do in this case?  The fact is that Pontecagnano is a nondescript, largely Fascist-era town which will never be a tourist destination, and the only people ever likely to visit this wonderful museum are therefore academics.  Meanwhile Roccagloriosa has the opposite problem, a gorgeous milieu which should attract tourists by the hundreds, but a tiny museum (three rooms) with essentially only two displays, plus a slightly larger antiquarium housed in a medieval church.  And no visitors.  On the day we were there I had called and was told the two were open from 10 am to 7 pm.  When we arrived we discovered they were actually only supposed to be open from 5:30 pm till 8.  When 5:30 rolled around the docent showed up but of course she could not be trusted with the key to the museum, that was the job of some otiose political hack who phoned to say he would arrive in 10 minutes and showed up in 45.  The antiquarium had some beautiful displays and a very pleasant if overmatched young lady to give us the tour.  But again I suspect we were the first visitors they had seen in many a day.
      The solution to this problem is obvious:  artifacts need to be recorded digitally and made available on the internet.  The upside of this process is that materials from museum depositories can be digitized and made available at the same time, and material in depositories represents probably 90% of the material extant.  And much of this is painfully difficult to access even for legitimate researchers, much less the enthusiastic layman.
The two towns are also lost in academic politics, sadly.  In my studies I have found a consistent tendency among academics to see all things native in southern Italy as primitive and backward until the Greeks and Romans showed up.  There is a mountain of evidence to the contrary and it grows higher by the year, but far too many scholars are content to parrot the standard paradigm instead of examining for themselves how sophisticated these southerners were and from a very early time.  The Greeks themselves called this part of the south Oenotria, Land of Wine, and everything I have seen suggests that they knew whereof they spoke.  Almost surely viticulture and viniculture were prevalent in this area from the late Bronze Age if not before. And wine has always been, and I hope always will be, both a catalyst and hallmark of culture.