Monte Testaccio – an urban mountain made of ancient trash

I have walked by Monte Testaccio so many times. I visit the neighborhood to visit my father’s gravesite at the Protestant Cemetery, to shop and eat at the Testaccio market, and to enjoy some of the restaurants and bars in this appealing neighborhood. The site is behind locked gates, and so you need permission from the Sovrintendenza Capitolina to visit it.

The sign at the gates to Monte Testaccio ...
The sign at the gates to Monte Testaccio …

So I jumped at the chance when our friend and all-things-Rome-food-drink-culture-guru Katie Parla set up a tour of the site.  We met her across the street from the archaeological site, enjoyed some fabulous pizzette for breakfast and made a stop at the market.  Katie was incredibly knowledgable about the history of the Testaccio neighborhood, including modern developments. We talked about the wonderful street art ….

A tired and thin La Lupa, expressing the woes of modern Rome ...
A thin she-wolf, expressing the woes of modern Rome, by Roa …

Then, we met the Superintendent’s representative at the gates. He pulled out a giant key ring, found the right one and unlocked the gates…

Monte Testaccio sits behind locked gates ...
Monte Testaccio sits behind locked gates …

… and we began our gentle climb up this little urban “mountain.”

Going up the stairs cut into Monte Testaccio ...
Going up the stairs cut into Monte Testaccio …

As we walked, we passed some houses that have been built into Monte Testaccio and proceeded up a hill of clay sherds that made a musical tinkling sound under our feet.  A most weird and magical sound!

Bits and pieces of broken clay amphorae make a gentle music as you walk ...
Bits and pieces of broken clay amphorae make a gentle music as you walk …

Katie explained that Monte Testaccio is a man-made mountain, built up in ancient times by literally stacking up trash.  Specifically, broken bits of clay amphorae once used to transport olive oil, an incredibly important import to the city, mostly from Spain.  While amphorae were re-used, at some point the olive oil remnants would become rancid, and the amphorae had to be disposed of. A LOT of amphorae, because ancient Rome consumed a LOT of olive oil. We are talking many millions of amphorae.

The bits could not be tossed into the Tiber, which was used for commerce and transportation, and land was at a premium, even in ancient times. So the broken bits were quite literally stacked (probably by slaves) until the dump became an urban mountain. You can clearly see the careful stacking job, still in place after almost two thousand years.

Stacked amphorae bits ...
Stacked amphorae bits …

Later, pack animals carried amphorae up the hill, where they were broken up and stacked.  If you walk around its base, you can see how terraces of stacked amphorae sherds accumulated over time:

The terraces that make up Monte Testaccio can best be seen from the back.
The terraces that make up Monte Testaccio can be seen from the back.

The view from the top of Monte Testaccio is incredible too.

View of the Pyramid of Cestius from the top of Monte Testaccio ...
View of the Pyramid of Cestius from the top of Monte Testaccio …

And, you come to the very top, where a cross has been erected.

The cross at the top of Monte Testaccio.
The cross at the top of Monte Testaccio.

A truly unique and memorable visit to yet another strange and wonderful hidden gem in this ancient city.  If you are interested, Katie has some upcoming tours next month, and you can read here about the archaeological excavations at the site.

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