The afterlife of archaeological sites: the example of Monterano

The site of Monterano, looking north

The site of Monterano, looking north

The physical condition in which the database’s archaeological sites find themselves today is highly varied. Since classical antiquity all but the most inaccessible of them have been plundered for reusable building materials. This is even the case at Pompeii, where material was robbed from right after the eruption of AD 79, and then periodically through to the time archaeological excavations began. Sites on exposed hilltops have been subject to the ravages of natural weathering processes. Many low lying sites that were not protected by the authorities have been damaged by deep mechanised ploughing since the mid-twentieth century. At the time of writing, the quantity of sites in the database is 590. More than half of them are covered today with substantial areas of modern habitation, either because they were never abandoned or because abandoned sites were reoccupied at some point from the medieval period onwards. Of these, 224 have totally or almost completely disappeared beneath townscapes that have developed from a constant process of urban renewal over centuries. Often the only indication of their antiquity are stretches of ancient city wall or other forms of monumental architecture that have survived through their incorporation into later structures. Searching for the remnants of ancient architecture along the narrow medieval streets of Italy’s numerous hilltop towns is always fun.

An fascinating example of the unpredictable fortunes that can befall ancient sites after they were abandoned is represented by Monterano, located on a tapering spur of a hill, c. 8 ha in size, in the territory of Canale Monterano in northern Lazio. Prehistoric activity has been documented in the area, and the site is believed to have become an Etruscan settlement in the 7th century BC, perhaps surviving through to the mid-4th century BC. Hardly anything is known of the settlement from this period, but it is suspected to have possessed fortifications (although there is no direct evidence for this); the Etruscan presence is represented by tombs located at the base of the hill. Its fate during the Roman period is unclear, but during the early medieval period it had become the seat of a bishop, and a castle was built on the site. During the later 17th century, under the aegis of the powerful Altieri family, the entire settlement underwent a drastic makeover. The castle, which had undergone numerous architectural changes since it was constructed, was converted into a palace. A very Roman-looking aqueduct was constructed to supply the settlement, and a convent was founded, dedicated to Saint Bonaventure. Much of the monumental architecture from this period survives, but after the settlement was sacked by French troops at the end of the 18th century, it went into decline and was abandoned. Today, it is a spectacular ‘ghost-village’, dominated by the ruins of the castle, the convent church and the aqueduct. Inevitably, it became a popular filming location during the 20th century; a scene for Ben Hur was shot nearby in 1959. Well worth a visit!



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