This is the third in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Rome, Italy: Landscape and Cityscape in Ancient Rome program this summer with Professor Kate Shea. Sean Cummings ’19 is an Environmental Humanities Major.
After almost four weeks navigating the hustle and bustle of the wild metropolis of Rome, our transition to the coastal region of Populonia at the end of the course came as a huge breath of fresh air (literally and metaphorically). Having grown up in a rural area, I’ve never felt 100% at home in any city, not even one as beautiful as Rome. So, naturally, when I heard our time in Populonia would include a visit to the Baratti Nature Reserve, it felt to me like another step in the right direction.
Our saunter through this heavily wooded area, though brief, yielded a wide array of sights and sounds. A dirt path twisted uphill into a dense forest rich with the scent of bay leaves and earth. Sunlight peeped through a thick canopy to throw spotlights on moths with speckled wings, and birdsong, the first we’d heard in weeks, gave way to the ringing cacophony of cicadas as we proceeded deeper into the trees. I paused, fascinated, to prod the fissure-riddled bark of a cork oak, light and spongy, the same material you’d find in a bulletin board or plugging the mouth of a wine bottle.
Our route led us up the hill to a large clearing dominated on one side by the remains of an ancient Etruscan rock quarry (dating back to the 7th century B.C.E.) and on the other by a few burial rooms hewn into a cliff face. Each was well-preserved: the quarry appeared as though it had only recently fallen out of use, with clearly rectangular cuts, two thousand years old and forever unfinished, still beginning to divide the rock into fresh blocks for construction of tombs further downhill. It was impressive to consider that people carved out perfect blocks of solid stone so large using only pickaxes, chisels, and wedges (not to mention transporting the massive weights once they’d been extracted). The burial rooms in the opposite wall were large enough and clear enough for a person to walk into, and stone benches on which to lay the deceased still lined the walls.
After taking our time to admire this site, we headed back downhill through the forest. The return portion of our walking loop included a different sort of tomb from the ones we’d seen at the top. These had been dug directly into the slope, each with a narrow stone staircase leading down to a dark chamber set deep into the ground (about ten feet deep by my estimation). A sign on the side of the trail told us these were family tombs used over many generations, and that many had included a wealth of artifacts buried along with the dead. We must have passed at least ten such tombs on our walk back down the hill, enough to reveal this place as a popular, or perhaps designated, burial area. Time had begun to reclaim many of these structures – leaves carpeted the steps and moss clung to the walls – but in my opinion this only lent a greater air of mystery and wonder to these ancient funerary quarters.
At last the path opened back up onto the broad, flowery meadow we’d started from, complete with shade-giving pines and a view of beautiful Baratti Bay. Our afternoon from that point on would include a walk down to the beach and a chance to swim in the waters of the Mediterranean (a perfect temperature at this time of year). This was without a doubt one of my favorite days in Italy!