Put in my place by the past

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Tramping through an archeological dig has so far been the biggest treat of being a guest in Italy.

The Etruscan town of Vulci (vull-chee), about 45 minutes from where I’m staying, was founded in the 9th century before Christ. By the 4th to 6th centuries BC, it was a major trading port in what is now southwest Tuscany. Vulcians traded their sophisticated sculptures, their bronze statues, their fine ceramics around the Mediterranean. The city is now a major dig, thought by some to reveal the most advanced antiquities and the most important evidence of the ancient world we know today.

And so, it was at Vulci that I finally got to voyeur into the past as a pretend archeologist. In high school, I imagined myself as the archetypal archeologist—pith helmet and hiking boots, professional in a many-pocketed desert ensemble, khaki. (I had been reading an Agatha Christie mystery about murder in Egypt.)

In my travels over the years, I never opted for a week at a dig, nor did I come across digs that allowed wanderers. The several-acre site of Vulci, its unearthed roads, public plazas, places of business, government buildings and homes was closed for the winter but not closed to paying interlopers. Such a find. We were given a map at the parking area where we were the only car in sight and invited, for a 9-euro ticket, to wander along the paths and exposed roads of the major dig. We made our way down dozens of steps, down and down into the earth where the archeological diggers had spooned out bedrooms and saunas—sophisticated water systems—storage areas, frescoed hallways, living room flooring of mosaic as neat and perfect-looking as the day it was laid.

The Etruscans—early, early Italians—had obviously been around for a while. They had advanced to great roads and walls made of cut rock so big it was puzzling how they moved it. Entering the town through a 50-foot-high arch staggered my imagination. What kind of engineers had they educated? The town is precisely laid out to accommodate pillared homes with dozens of rooms, open terraces, views toward the Thyrrenean Sea. They made intricate copper, silver and gold jewelry, pottery not merely functional but arty as well—they obviously had reached a level of existence not inferior to ours.

Their burial grounds are caverns deep in the earth—many-roomed labyrinths filled with all the accoutrements of the living—beds, water jugs, jewelry, all the necessities for the next world.

This town supported 20,000 inhabitants several millenia before Christ would come on the scene not too far off at the other end of the Mediterranean. The prosperous Vulci merchants traded with Greeks, middle eastern ports, the Iberian peninsula, coastal Africa. On the Italian peninsula, their territory covered most of the western coast of Italy and across the middle of the boot in a wide swath to Venice in the northeast along the Adriatic Sea.

As it hints in the historical literature written to lure tourists, the impressive Etruscan Vulcians were pressing grapes and olives for their fine dining long before Romulus and Remus were suckling Rome into its childhood.

In fact, Vulci was the template for the Roman Empire’s success with roads, aqueducts, politics, architecture.

And for me, Vulci and its extravagant civilization was a truly informative humbility, as Mr. Rodgers might have said. It’s the kind of place that put 21st-century me in my place; in other words, not quite so important, advanced, sophistiqué as I might have imagined my world to be.

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