A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By DANIEL WEISS
Monday, August 24, 2015
In recent years, Quinhagak, a small southwestern Alaskan village just inland from the Bering Sea, has, along with other coastal communities in the state, witnessed dramatic erosion due to climate change. The area, located at the southern end of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has historically been prone to damaging storms and flooding, but now, melting sea ice is resulting in larger waves and has left the shoreline more vulnerable to storm surges. Land once held firm by permafrost has softened and is now easily eaten away by the tides, with the result that anything previously embedded in the permafrost is released.
Around 2007, carved wooden objects started washing up on the beach near Quinhagak, and the source seemed to be a site several miles to the south known to have once been inhabited. The native Yup’ik people who live in the area generally believe in not disturbing their ancestors’ settlements, but they recognized that this was a special case. Artifacts of their past were in danger of being lost forever, and they believed that if these objects could be recovered, younger, culturally adrift members of the community might forge a deeper connection with their heritage. So they called in Rick Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who has extensive experience excavating in Alaska, to examine the threatened site. “We landed there,” Knecht says, “and right away found a complete wooden doll on the beach. We followed the tide line and saw more and more evidence of wooden artifacts. A couple miles down the beach, we could see where they were coming from.” A dark midden partially concealed carved wooden shafts and half of a bentwood bowl. Knecht could tell that large chunks of earth had calved off, and big, grassy clumps could be seen on the beach with artifacts essentially pouring out of them.
The site has been dubbed Nunalleq, which means “Old Village” in the Yup’ik language. Since 2009, Knecht has led an excavation team there for up to six weeks each summer. He now recognizes that Nunalleq was occupied on and off between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, well before the first contact between the Yup’ik people and Russian traders, which took place in the 1830s. The archaeologists have found tens of thousands of artifacts—most made of wood or other organic materials, preserved only because they had been embedded in permafrost—that are providing a rare glimpse of precontact Yup’ik life. Hundreds of wooden dolls, from simple flat sticks to three-dimensional carvings, and a number of wooden masks, some large enough for use in a masked dancing ritual and some small enough that they appear to have been designed for use as playthings with the dolls, have been found. Carvings in wood and ivory of animals important to the Yup’ik people, such as seals and birds, have also been discovered. “On average, a person might find two hundred pieces a day,” says Knecht. “There’s so much information there.” Among the most striking finds has been evidence of a period of fierce internecine conflict that may have gone on for hundreds of years.
The Yup’ik people are related to the Inuit peoples who live in territories across Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland, and share with them a common origin in Siberia and Asia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Yup’ik had settled in inland areas of Alaska by 3,000 years ago and had established coastal villages by 600 years later, probably because they fished using nets, which allowed them to harvest large quantities of salmon on a predictable schedule. Seal and caribou were the other foundations of the Yup’ik diet, and food was plentiful enough that they could lead a more settled life than could the Inuit in other parts of the Arctic.
Historical accounts and stories from Yup’ik oral tradition suggest that the traditional Yup’ik village consisted of a qasgiq, where men and older boys lived, surrounded by a number of smaller ena, which housed women and boys younger than five. The qasgiq served as a workshop, where kayaks, hunting bows, and other tools were built and repaired, and as an instructional space, where elders shared oral traditions with the young and taught them how to hunt. It was also used as a community center, where gatherings and ritual events were held. Everyone lived in the village during the winter. At other times, some would venture out to camps where the fishing or hunting was particularly good.
The site that Knecht and his team are excavating appears, based on carbon dating of organic material, to have been inhabited for some time around 1300 and then steadily from roughly 1450 through 1650. At the end of this period, the archaeologists have discovered, the site was the scene of a terrible massacre in which attackers set a qasgiq on fire with people and dogs still inside. “We found this burned floor with all this burned stuff on it, riddled with arrow points—absolutely riddled,” says Knecht. “We also found the bodies of people who were dragged out of the house, along with the long grass ropes that were used to do so. Their skeletons are burned and kind of dismembered.” Another human skeleton was found inside the house, with an arm outstretched, apparently attempting to dig out from under a sod wall. The displaced skull of a young woman was found with an arrow tip embedded in the back of it. Also discovered inside the house were the remains of a number of dogs that had perished in the fire. “We found this charred beam right across the middle of a dog,” says Knecht, “and it cooked him so fast, so intensely, that he was pretty well preserved.”
The evidence discovered at Nunalleq fits strikingly well with an episode in Yup’ik oral tradition that describes a time of epic intervillage battles known as the Bow and Arrow Wars. In the story, “the village was destroyed by a war party,” says Ann Fienup-Riordan, a cultural anthropologist who has studied and worked with the Yup’ik people for 40 years. “Their men were out, and there was an encounter. They were put to rout during a battle, and then the winning warriors came down, surrounded the village, burned it down, and killed everybody there, including, in one version, their dogs.” The defeated village in the story is described as being set alongside the Arolik River. The mouth of a river with this name—known for its salmon—is several miles from the excavation site today, but its course is thought to have been much closer when the site was inhabited. Arolik is derived from the Yup’ik word for “ashes,” and Knecht believes the river was named for the massacre that took place alongside it.
The Bow and Arrow Wars came to an end when the Russians arrived in the 1830s, according to Yup’ik oral tradition. The massacre documented by the Nunalleq excavation establishes that warfare was taking place around 1650, nearly 200 years before this encounter, and Fienup-Riordan believes it raged for 300 to 500 years in all. The archaeologists have found evidence that this sustained state of war was so traumatic that it led the residents of Nunalleq to alter the traditional layout of their village. “As the wars heated up,” says Knecht, “they actually took the men’s house and divided it up into apartments so everyone was living in one big building, creating a more fortified setting. It had to be really extreme warfare to actually change your architecture in response to it.”
According to Fienup-Riordan, revenge is the reason typically given in stories for attacks during the Bow and Arrow Wars. Knecht, however, suggests that widespread resource shortages may have set the stage for strife. Just as climate change is taking a serious toll on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta today, a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age put the area under pressure from around 1400 through 1750, overlapping with most of the time when Nunalleq was inhabited. “We think that the Bow and Arrow Wars might be related to stresses on their subsistence menu due to the Little Ice Age, which hit pretty hard in Alaska,” says Knecht. “Some foods may have been harder to get, and the normal hunting areas may not have yielded enough meat, creating pressure to attack other areas and move into them.”
For the Yup’ik people who live in Quinhagak today, seeing the evidence of the massacre at the Nunalleq site—along with other remains of precontact life salvaged by the excavation—has been revelatory. “We had always heard about the Bow and Arrow Wars from my late grandfather—it was a whole eye-for-an-eye type of deal,” says Warren Jones, president of the Quinhagak village corporation, Qanirtuuq Inc., which owns the land containing the dig site and helped fund the excavation for several years before it received a large grant. “But the coolest thing,” says Jones, “was actually seeing the burned structure of the building, seeing arrowheads lodged in the poles. I can see what our elders were talking about when they were telling the story. It’s almost word for word.”
Although the Yup’ik language continues to be widely spoken in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the Yup’ik people still hunt and gather much of their food, the passing on of oral traditions that Jones describes has grown more sporadic in recent decades. This is due in part to the fact that young people now spend their time going to school and playing video games rather than listening to their elders’ stories. But it is also the product of nearly 200 years of interactions with foreign traders, missionaries, and colonizers, all of whom had a dramatic impact on Yup’ik cultural practices.
With the arrival of Russian traders in the 1830s, notes Fienup-Riordan, came the first in a series of smallpox and influenza epidemics that ravaged the native Yup’ik population of the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta, which had previously stood at around 15,000. This may explain why the Bow and Arrow Wars are said to have ceased with the coming of the Russians. The Russian Orthodox Church established a presence in the area and introduced the basics of Christianity, but otherwise had relatively little effect on Yup’ik life. Moravian missionaries who arrived in the southern section of the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta in 1885, after the United States had purchased Alaska, set up a mission and grammar school in Quinhagak by 1903, and had a much greater impact. Tracing their origins to Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic, the Moravians were among the earliest Protestant groups to break off from the Roman Catholic Church. Among the Yup’ik, they focused in particular on wiping out the traditional practice of masked dancing, which they described in their writings as “heathen rites” and tantamount to “idol worship.”
The Yup’ik masked dance ritual was called agayuyaraq, which means “way of requesting,” and was traditionally the last of a series of annual winter ceremonies. According to Fienup-Riordan, everyone from a given village, or sometimes multiple villages, would gather in the qasgiq to watch dancers perform with carved wooden masks that frequently depicted animals or part-human, part-animal beings. The dancers were believed to take on the spirits of the animals portrayed by the masks and would make the animals’ sounds as well as entreat them to offer themselves up to hunters in the coming year. Once used, the masks were typically burned, broken, or left out on the tundra to decay. Yup’ik masks were collected by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century explorers, and their vivid expression of a non-European belief system served as an inspiration to artists such as the Surrealists. Intact masks from the precontact period are extremely rare. However, the archaeologists have found a number of complete masks at the Nunalleq site, the largest of which depicts a creature that is part human and part wolf. These masks may have been undamaged because they had not yet been used in an agayuyaraq when the village was burned to the ground. They may be the oldest complete Yup’ik masks in existence.
The Moravians were especially effective in suppressing masked dancing and other traditional Yup’ik practices because they enlisted native “helpers” to serve as the primary missionaries to the people. This had the effect of deeply embedding within Yup’ik communities the notion that their traditional religious practice was wrong and that all kinds of dancing were sinful. In addition, many community elders, who were the repositories of cultural knowledge, perished in successive waves of epidemics.
Since the 1960s, there has been a revival of dancing—usually without masks—in many Yup’ik communities, particularly those in the northern part of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where Catholic missionaries took a more laissez-faire attitude toward native cultural practices. Until very recently, however, that had not been the case in Quinhagak, where the Moravian influence remained strong and there had been no traditional dancing for more than a hundred years.
The Nunalleq excavation has helped the Yup’ik people of Quinhagak reconnect with their heritage. A number of villagers have taken part in the dig, and native artists have been on hand to sketch artifacts fresh out of the ground and to carve replicas, often within a day. Even some young people have taken up carving. At the end of each season, the archaeologists put on a show-and-tell exhibition to present their discoveries. In discussions with younger members of the community, village elders have explained the purpose of selected artifacts. “When I see the elders recognize an object, and they’re telling the children something,” says Jones, the village corporation president, “it makes my hair raise on the back of my neck. It makes me feel really good.”
In part as a result of their experience with the dig, a group of children from Quinhagak petitioned the elders for and received permission to form a traditional dance group. And so, in 2013, a group of dancers from Quinhagak performed, without masks, first at a large, area-wide dance festival in the town of Bethel, 70 miles to the north, and then during the annual artifact show-and-tell exhibition in Quinhagak. “They were welcoming the pieces back,” says Knecht. “That was the first time there had been traditional dancing in Quinhagak in more than a century. It’s all part of this revival that is growing along with the finds.”
The first dance performed by the youth of Quinhagak was, tellingly, set to a song about a major storm that had hit the area a few years earlier and washed away a portion of the dig site. In the years since Knecht and his team began digging at Nunalleq, climate change has continued to take its toll, and the sea has, thus far, swallowed up almost 50 feet of the site. Fortunately, the ground was lost after it had been excavated, but a single bad storm could wipe out the rest overnight. Erosion and storms have caused problems in Quinhagak as well, destroying an airstrip and making it impossible at times for barges carrying heating oil and groceries to make landfall—major hardships for an area inaccessible by road. Plans are underway to move the village to more secure ground. “I check the weather every day and worry about what might happen to the site and the village,” says Knecht. “It keeps me up at night.” For as long as conditions allow, though, he’ll continue to work alongside the Yup’ik people to preserve what remains of their past.
Daniel Weiss is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
By JASON URBANUS
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Over the past 250 years, perhaps no stretch of land in America has undergone greater transformation than Lower Manhattan. Today, its shoreline barely resembles what the earliest Dutch immigrants encountered in the 1600s. The labyrinthine canyons formed by block after block of modern skyscraper construction were once an idyllic setting of small hills, streams, and wetlands. Lower Manhattan is a palimpsest on which each new era has written its own physical history. With the help of archaeology, it is occasionally possible to reconstruct those faintly visible landscapes of the past. The South Street Seaport is located along Lower Manhattan’s eastern shore, near the place where the East River meets the top of New York’s magnificently sheltered harbor. Today it is a tourist-friendly destination with shops, tour boats, and restaurants, and serves as a refuge from the bustle of neighboring Wall Street. No other place epitomizes the growth and transformation of Manhattan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than the South Street Seaport, when it was the busiest port in the United States.
The 11-block area right around the Seaport, nestled in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, has recently been the focus of a city-led initiative to improve its utilities and infrastructure. The city has long hoped to stimulate the neighborhood’s commercial, residential, and touristic appeal, most recently after it was devastated by a seven-foot storm surge during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The initiative includes installing new curbs, resurfacing the streets, and maintaining and replacing damaged subterranean utility lines. All of these projects permit and, in fact, require that archaeologists be brought in prior to the work. Alyssa Loorya, founder of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, is one of the archaeologists contacted by city officials to evaluate sensitive areas slated for construction. Over the past decade her team has excavated areas along Fulton, Front, Beekman, Water, and Pearl Streets, as well as extensive sections of Peck Slip. “We have covered pretty much every block in the historic district that has been excavated since 2005,” she says. “It’s been really nice to get a whole little picture of the way this area developed.”
Almost none of the land where Loorya’s team has worked existed when the first Europeans arrived in New York Harbor. The original Manhattan shoreline coincides roughly with the line of present-day Pearl Street, three blocks inland. The land associated with Water, Front, and South Streets, which form the backbone of the South Street Seaport, was completely created by human activity. From the late 1600s through the early 1800s, Lower Manhattan’s shoreline gradually crept farther into the East River as part of a deliberate landfilling process. Land, especially waterfront land, has always been at a premium in New York, and it was no different during the city’s early history. The real estate created for the South Street Seaport was extremely valuable, especially to the merchants, ship owners, and shopkeepers responsible for its growth.
The Hidden History of New York’s Harbor
The transformation of the East River waterfront was stimulated by the Dongan Charter of 1680. This allowed the city to collect revenue by selling “water lots,” designated sections of river adjacent to the shoreline. The Dongan Charter originally allowed for the development of an area extending 200 feet into the East River, a distance that was doubled to 400 feet by the Montgomerie Charter of 1731. Water lot purchasers were encouraged to, at their own expense, construct wharves, deposit landfill, and erect buildings on their lots. Lot by lot, the river was supplanted by land and fitted with warehouses, offices, and shops related to the burgeoning shipping industry. As the shallow waters of the original shoreline were eliminated, ships loading or unloading goods in New York no longer needed to anchor offshore and transport goods via smaller boats. They could now dock immediately landside along slips and piers. This new waterfront neighborhood soon became the focus of New York’s mercantile and maritime industry.
Archaeologists working along the Lower Manhattan riverfront over the past few decades have uncovered the methods that colonial New Yorkers used to create new land. The process almost always involved the construction of a wooden retaining device or framework that was sunk into place along the river bottom and filled with debris, gradually forming the foundation for new city streets and blocks. During recent utility work, archaeologists have been able to uncover sections of the colonial timber framing and cribbing in several places beneath the South Street Seaport, notably along Peck Slip and Beekman and Water Streets. In fact, in some places, the 300-year-old bulkheads were still successfully retaining the East River and their removal caused temporary flooding within the trenches. Although the depth of the landfill varies depending upon the original irregular shoreline, it measures between 20 and 35 feet deep in the most extensively filled areas.
In this way, beginning in the late 1600s, the South Street Seaport began to take shape. By the mid-eighteenth century, Water Street had been created, followed by Front Street later in the century, and ultimately South Street by the early 1800s. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, New York and its South Street Seaport had surpassed Boston and Philadelphia to become America’s primary port, and by the 1850s, only London was handling more marine activity.
For archaeologists, the layers of landfill deposits have provided a wealth of information about life at the Seaport during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the landfill process, a tremendous amount of fill was needed in a short amount of time. Owners of the water lots would petition locals to help them with material. Much of what they used, we (and they) would consider garbage. “Even today, New York is still figuring out where to put our garbage,” says Loorya. “[Back then,] there was no garbage pickup, so what do you do with your trash? You dump it in the East River and create land.” The examination of antique garbage is one of the best ways to reconstruct past daily life. Despite the fact that substantial modern construction and utility work carried out over the years has destroyed much of the colonial-era archaeological remains, small pockets of undisturbed fill have helped create an accurate image of the old Seaport. Some trenches provide clues to the Seaport’s creation, while others offer small tidbits of information about the colonial shipping industry and even the origins of certain voyages. In one instance, excavation beneath a section of Beekman Street revealed a large concentration of Caribbean coral, not native to the Northeast. It was likely taken aboard a ship sailing from the West Indies for ballast, and later discarded in the East River as waste. In an area along Peck Slip, among the fill debris, there was a large mass of British-made pottery that was broken but appeared to be entirely unused. Loorya suggests that the high-quality imported cargo was damaged during transit and deposited in the landfill upon arrival in New York.
The Hidden History of New York’s Harbor
Since it was impractical for large quantities of fill to be carted in from outside neighborhoods, most of the debris came from nearby shops and residences. This is proving instrumental in reconstructing the urban topography of the Seaport. Loorya discovered that it is possible to map out the locations of certain industries by the artifacts found within localized fill layers. “We find concentrations of a certain type of artifact that may represent a specific business,” she says. In one area, Loorya’s team found more than 600 ink bottles, some still with their ink and labels surviving, which imply a nearby print shop. Other deposits yielded material from butcher shops, ironworks, tanneries, taverns, and pottery shops. This data is supplemented by hours spent researching New York City archives and scouring old newspapers to try to confirm the locations of certain businesses. In many cases, the archaeology beneath the streets can be directly corroborated by an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century advertisement. In one case, archaeologists discovered a large concentration of shoes during an excavation, which led them to theorize that a cobbler had been located nearby. Its existence was verified by an old advertisement for a shoemaker on the same block. One of the things that became clear for Loorya was the diversity and availability of goods. “You look at some of the ads and what they’re offering, and you can get pretty much everything in New York City, even in the eighteenth century,” she says. “Everything was coming in from all over the world.”
What also becomes apparent is that the South Street Seaport wasn’t solely a commercial district, but was also a place where residences and businesses were often intertwined. Wealthy landowners and merchants who were responsible for filling the water lots built homes in the neighborhood. During the installation of a modern electrical line on present-day Beekman Street, archaeologists unearthed a trove of material in an eighteenth-century residence owned by a wealthy businessman, Robert Crommelin. More than 3,000 artifacts were retrieved from a debris layer in the mansion’s basement storeroom. These finds are helping illuminate upper-class life in postcolonial New York. Faunal remains of lamb, turkey, guinea fowl, and oyster shells, as well as liquor bottles, wine bottles, ornate water glasses, and wine goblets attest to the diet and culinary habits, as well as the aesthetics, of the house’s residents. The finer examples of postcolonial ceramics were decorated with floral, willow-patterned, or patriotic motifs. One of the most important artifacts discovered was a plate commemorating George Washington’s death in 1799. The scene depicts an eagle and a female Liberty figure bearing a shield with 16 stars—the number of states at the time of Washington’s death. A pyramid-shaped stela in the background is carved with the inscription, “Sacred to the memory of Washington.” Coincidentally, another excavation just a few blocks away produced a series of Revolutionary War uniform buttons. The six buttons belonged to British soldiers, at least two of whose regiments, such as the renowned 45th Regiment of Foot, had fought and defeated George Washington in the Battle of Brooklyn, the engagement that was instrumental in keeping New York under British control throughout the course of the war.
Not every trench within the South Street Seaport excavations spawned the copious amount of material recovered at the Crommelin estate, but dozens of small excavations have yielded thousands of personal artifacts, including chamber pots, toothbrushes, tobacco pipes, medicine bottles, and shoe buckles, all of which encapsulate daily life during this expansive period in the history of the area. Taken all together, the archaeological evidence offers a close view of a cross section of colonial New York society. The variety of artifacts demonstrates that not only are wealthy merchants and local industries present in the record of the Seaport, but that they exist side by side with sailors, soldiers, immigrants, slaves, tavern-goers, and lower classes. In the city’s early days the Seaport was truly a hub of interaction, where New Yorkers from different backgrounds came together on a daily basis.
The Hidden History of New York’s Harbor
The recent archaeological work at the South Street Seaport has most importantly underscored New York’s multifaceted and complicated relationship with water. On one hand, its magnificent harbor and rivers are the lifeblood of the city and the source of its wealth and industry, while on the other, Manhattan is geographically under-resourced with naturally occurring fresh water. Since the mid-nineteenth century and the completion of the Croton Aqueduct, this has not been a major problem for New Yorkers, but it was during the city’s first few centuries. Lower Manhattan’s early population found it difficult to access a renewable source of drinking water. Residents either dug shallow wells or relied on the Collect Pond, a freshwater pond just north of today’s City Hall Park. By the late eighteenth century these sources were no longer reliable, since Lower Manhattan’s well water was often brackish and the Collect Pond had become so polluted by local industries that its water was no longer potable. At some point, the city had to address the problem. During recent efforts to upgrade the South Street Seaport’s modern utilities, workers uncovered New York’s first attempt at a public water-distribution system.
In 2006, Loorya was called to investigate the intersection of Beekman and Pearl Streets, where an old wooden conduit had been unearthed beneath the tangled web of modern utility lines. “It all started with the unanticipated discovery of a wooden water main,” she says. “It turned out to be an intact wooden water pipe that was still connected to an adjacent section of pipe by its metal collar.” The two sections of pipe—actually hollowed-out tree trunks—averaged 13 feet long and 9.5 inches in diameter. The tapered end of one was inserted into the opening of the other and secured with an iron bracket. These wooden pipes, which had remained in situ, were part of Manhattan’s first water system in the early nineteenth century, and are the only surviving example of two wholly intact and attached mains. They are also remnants of an interesting bit of early New York history: In 1799, the Manhattan Company, founded by Aaron Burr, had been established to provide lower New York with clean water. The company pumped water through a system of wooden mains, such as the two that were found, for a cost of five dollars per household per year. The venture was not entirely successful. “If you read contemporary newspaper reports about the Manhattan Company, people were complaining about the lack of water pressure and other various things,” says Loorya. This hardly seemed to interest the Manhattan Company, though, as its priorities lay more with establishing itself as a bank than on efficiently distributing water. It eventually sold its waterworks rights, reinvested the money, and is better known today as JPMorgan Chase & Co.
In the late nineteenth century the South Street Seaport began to fall into obsolescence, as larger sea vessels and Erie Canal traffic were better suited to the deeper, more spacious Hudson River side of Manhattan. It was finally revitalized in the second half of the twentieth century with the construction of a tourist-friendly marketplace, only to decline again after 9/11 and in the last decade, in part because of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. During the storm the East River surged past South Street, Front Street, and Water Street before stopping near Pearl Street, the original Manhattan shoreline. Now, the South Street Seaport is the focus of a $1.5 billion redevelopment project. Throughout its existence, despite periods of change, when it has been altered and adapted to meet the city’s needs, the Seaport has remained a subtle remnant of an important era in New York City’s early history. For archaeologists, the ebb and flow of the Seaport’s fortunes has provided a look at the story of how this often underappreciated port developed and the people who made it happen. “History—things that have happened in the past, people who have walked these streets in the past—adds to our knowledge of how we got to where we are today,” Loorya says. “The reality is New York City could not have become what it is without the South Street Seaport.”
Jason Urbanus is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
The Hidden History of New York’s Harbor
By FEDERICO GURGONE
Monday, August 10, 2015
In no other matter did he act more wasteful than in building a house that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill, which he originally named “Transitoria” [House of Passages], but when soon afterwards it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt he called it “Aurea” [Golden House]. A house whose size and elegance these details should be sufficient to relate: Its courtyard was so large that a 120-foot colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there; it was so spacious that it had a mile-long triple portico; also there was a pool of water like a sea, that was surrounded by buildings which gave it the appearance of cities; and besides that, various rural tracts of land with vineyards, cornfields, pastures, and forests, teeming with every kind of animal both wild and domesticated. In other parts of the house, everything was covered in gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl; dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens; there were baths, flowing with seawater and with the sulfur springs of the Albula; when he dedicated this house, that had been completed in this manner, he approved of it only so much as to say that he could finally begin to live like a human being. Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars
In the mid-first century A.D. there was no building in Rome as sumptuous, ornate, or grand as the Domus Aurea, or “Golden House,” a lavish imperial residence and sprawling park covering hundreds of acres in an area known as the Oppian Hill between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills on the city’s northern side. Constructed by the emperor Nero and born from the ashes of the massive A.D. 64 fire that destroyed the city center and cleared the space that it would occupy—perhaps explaining the persistent suspicion held by many Romans that the emperor himself had set the fire—the vast property had hundreds of rooms. There were walls sheathed in polychrome marble, vaults and ceilings covered in vibrant frescoes by the artist Fabullus, and in precious stones, ivory, and gold, and gardens full of masterpieces of sculpture from Greece and Asia Minor. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, who praises the palace’s architects, Severus and Celer, for having the “ingenuity and courage to try the force of art even against the veto of nature,” what was even more marvelous than the spectacular interiors were “the fields and lakes and the air of solitude given by wooden ground alternating with clear tracts and open landscapes.”
Yet the emperor’s extraordinary palace was never finished, and it stood for only four years—on June 9, A.D. 68, Nero committed suicide after being convinced he was condemned by the Senate to die as a public enemy. His death brought to a close the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun with Augustus, and ended a reign distinguished by excessive lasciviousness, cruelty, and violence, and that led to civil war. The next three emperors ruled for only 18 months in total, and all were either murdered or committed suicide. It was not until December of A.D. 69, when Vespasian became emperor, that a period of relative calm that was to last more than a decade began.
Nero’s successors attempted to obliterate not only the emperor’s memory, but also all traces of the Domus Aurea, and to return to public use, land he had seized for his private projects. Soon Vespasian drained the artificial lake and began construction on the Colosseum. The Colosseum actually acquired its name from the giant bronze statue that Nero had commissioned of himself to resemble the Colossus at Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In his continuing effort to banish all memory of the disgraced emperor, Vespasian added a crown to the statue and rededicated it to the Roman sun god, Sol. Around A.D. 128, the emperor Hadrian had the statue moved to the northwest side of what was then known as the Flavian Amphitheater—after the new imperial dynasty founded by Vespasian—thus permanently associating the building with the statue, even after the statue itself was gone. The Domus Aurea was stripped of many of its fine decorations, and its vaulted spaces were filled with earth, providing a level surface upon which the massive public baths of the emperors Titus and Trajan were constructed.
After Rome succumbed to invaders in the sixth century, the Oppian Hill was more or less abandoned, leaving the Domus Aurea undisturbed in comparison with much of the ancient city, and preserving what remained underneath for nearly 1,500 years. Even today the monument is invisible on satellite maps. It was not until the late fifteenth century, when a boy fell through an opening in the side of the hill, that the palace’s decoration became well known. Some of the greatest Italian painters, among them Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, and Raphael, were lowered by ropes into openings that were originally believed to be caves. Instead, they saw what became the main source of knowledge of the ancient Roman styles of painting that would so heavily influence the art and architecture of the Renaissance.
Despite the protection that should have been afforded it by being filled in and covered over so completely, time has not been kind to Nero’s luxurious palace. In the eighteenth century, vineyards covered the Oppian Hill, and in 1871, a large public park incorporating the ruins of the ancient baths was created there. The park was then enlarged during Mussolini’s reign and served as a backdrop for the opening of the newly renovated area around the Colosseum on April 21, 1936—a date that recalls the legendary founding of Rome on the same date in 753 B.C. These decisions were disastrous for the ruins that lay beneath the park. Plant life, including weeds, the roots of ailanthus, acacia, and oak trees, and even a Himalayan pine that, according to very old local residents, was given to Rome by Hirohito, the future emperor of Japan, in 1921, have been infiltrating the cocciopesto (pieces of pottery or brick mixed with lime and sand used as mortar) that holds together the floor of Trajan’s baths and threatens the remains of the Domus Aurea underneath for more than a century. Not only have the plants’ roots, in search of the minerals that abound in ancient mortar, cracked the floor, but chemical compounds released from the roots are also contributing to the cocciopesto’s disintegration.
An ambitious restoration and excavation project led by the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome is now under way. The first priority has been to completely rethink and redesign the park, which is in terrible condition. “Until we have lightened the volume of the park—whose weight increases by up to 30 percent when it rains—by more than half, we are far from any effective solution,” says Fedora Filippi, the archaeologist responsible for the Domus Aurea excavations. “We have had to map and then remove existing trees that are causing the most damage, while documenting the entire excavation phase in detail,” she says. “We can’t just dismantle the garden without taking precautions or we will destroy the palace’s frescoed walls, which have managed to adapt and stay standing over the centuries.” According to landscape architect Gabriella Strano, who, along with agronomist Pier Luigi Cambi and biologist Irene Amici, has worked at the mapping project’s pilot site—the first of 22 planned lots—the weight of the earth covering the archaeological remains is conservatively estimated at 5,500–6,600 pounds per square meter, not including the weight of the trees. One laurel tree, which had stood above the Domus Aurea’s ornate frescoes, was removed and found to have weighed more than 30,000 pounds.
Filippi explains that the existing garden will be replaced at a level more than 10 feet above where it is now, with a subsurface infrastructure designed to seal off the underground architecture from moisture and regulate temperature and humidity. The new garden will also have walkways that will recall the past, says Strano. “The ancient writers Columella and Pliny tell us that Roman gardens were made up of straight avenues crossed at right angles by little paths. These new lines will also suggest to visitors the outlines of the structures underneath, and make it possible to channel rainwater.”
One of the benefits of the effort to conserve and stabilize the surviving parts of the Domus Aurea has been the chance to excavate sections that have never been explored, expanding scholars’ knowledge of the palace and its surroundings’ later history. In 2014 a test site was opened in the palace’s western district. “The area surveyed, totaling more than 8,000 square feet, was part of the Domus Aurea’s peristyle. This was filled in to act as a support for the Baths of Trajan,” says archaeologist Elisabetta Segala. “This excavation has allowed us to deepen our understanding of the fate of this space, especially when the baths were abandoned, after A.D. 539, when the Ostrogoths cut off the supply of water from the aqueducts to the city.” It is also known that in the Middle Ages this area became a necropolis for the humble inhabitants of the Oppian Hill. “We have unearthed nine graves that were made using pieces of cocciopesto from the Trajanic baths,” says Segala. “We have also found traces of agricultural activities, mostly vineyards, orchards, and vegetable gardens, that have damaged the skeletons.”
In addition, a team led by Maria Antonietta Tomei, has found new remains of the palace, including the main entertaining and dining spaces, on the nearby Palatine Hill. In 2009 she identified a circular structure that is likely one of the 12-foot-wide supporting pillars of the round dining room described by Suetonius.
Filippi’s team has further documented the facade of the columned portico that once stretched almost 800 feet and opened onto the artificial lake, according to archaeologist Ida Sciortino of the Italian Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities and Tourism. “To restore its original appearance we have to imagine a monument that’s now missing some of its essential components,” says Filippi. “Brickwork that once covered the walls’ cement core is easily reusable and has been removed over the centuries. This has not only thinned the walls, but also deprived them of proper support. Thus, for structural reasons, we are reconstructing the walls with bricks identical to those used in Nero’s time.”
Scholars are currently working not only to explore but also to conserve the Domus Aurea and its ornamentation, removing salts, mineral deposits, fungal growths, and pollutants that are destroying the frescoes that still cover more than 300,000 square feet—the area of 30 Sistine Chapels. They are also trying to reattach the topmost painted layers of the frescoes to the underlying preparatory surfaces from which they have separated. For Mariarosaria Barbera, former archaeological superintendent of Rome, the work on the Domus Aurea, which will likely not be completed until 2018, is crucial. “The Domus Aurea, a country villa in the urban heart of the empire, is an original experiment to integrate the city and nature,” she says. “It represents an attempt to import the refined architecture of Alexandria to Rome, and to give the city the appearance of a lavish eastern capital, which it would take on in the following centuries. We are experimenting with ways to revive Severus and Celer’s intentions, and to recover the lost relationship between the green of the Oppian Hill and the architecture within it. It’s a tremendous challenge.”
Federico Gurgone is a journalist based in Rome.
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