A waste dump gets a makeover – as an entertainment district?

10 Jun

Rome is famous for its seven hills, all of them soaked in history and events.  But there is a remarkable 8th hill that I visited last night.

Monte Testaccio is a man made mountain of trash.

More specifically, it was a meticulously planned disposal mound of ancient clay vessels called amphorae, created between the 1st and 3rd century in what used to be Rome’s harbour. The

Mountain of discarded oil vessels in Rome, image courtesy ArchaeoSpain.com

clay vessels were used to store and transport olive oil, and then broken into shards to be discarded.  The remains today show fascinating evidence of the size and activity of ancient Rome’s economy and trade with the rest of the world.

The vast majority of these clay vessels were 70-litre containers, and estimates indicate that about 55 million of them were used to create this 11-story mountain.

But as far as mounds of trash go, this is impressive and one of the largest from the ancient world.  Not only does Monte Testaccio provide a fascinating archeological site, but wine cellars were eventually carved into the side of the mountain, and today it has been converted into one of contemporary Rome’s most vibrant night and jazz club districts.  Many clubs have glass walls at the rear, and you can examine how ancient Rome’s legendary planning even extended to its disposal of waste.

Testaccio Nightclub - Wall of ancient pottery shards visible through arch

The neighborhood of Testaccio itself is off the beaten track for most visitors to Rome, and makes for a fascinating diversion for those who want to wander beyond the well-known sights and soak up some bona fide local vibe.  Still the home of local fresh markets and hole-in-the-wall trattorias, the area is slowly becoming gentrified.  It is also known to locals as the site of an old slaughterhouse, which has been converted into a contemporary museum, school for the arts, and entertainment space.  We attended a swish reception there last night in a bar converted from livestock stalls, and viewed an exhibit in an area that used to…well, it was frankly a bit to grisly for this sensitive soul, as there were still hooks and grapples dangling ominously from the ceiling, and vats below them on the floor. 

Getting back to the mountain – why were millions of these clay containers dumped in ancient Rome? It is speculated that since they were cheap and easy to replace, it was more convenient to dispose of them than reuse.  Ah Rome, even 2,000 years ago you weren’t using a 100-mile diet, and you had a lot to learn about the three R’s.  Although it makes for a rich historical record, this mountain is a though-provoking reminder of the legacy of the garbage leaves even from thousands of years ago.  I somehow doubt that the mountains of plastics and e-waste being created today will be recreational sites in the future.


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