Monte Testaccio or Monte dei Cocci

It has been the site of rides and riders, has seen hundreds of lovers frolicking over the centuries, and from its top Garibaldi has defended the Roman Republic; and the most incredible thing is that it is a landfill dating back to the Augustan period! Monte testaccio is an artificial hill made up of cocci of amphorae and terracotta vases methodically piled up for centuries.

Mount Testaccio, in Latin Mons Testaceus, popularly known as Monte dei Cocci, is an artificial hill in Rome of about 36 m in height, a real specialized dump of the Roman era. It is in fact made up of neatly arranged layers of shards coming from more than 53 million amphorae for most oils.

The terracotta containers, discharged from the nearby river port on the Tiber, once emptied of the contents, sold on the Capitoline market, were thrown there. The name derives from the Latin term testae, or “cocci“.

The hill is located between the Aurelian walls and the left bank of the Tiber, in the homonymous XX district of Rome, Testaccio.

 

 

History

Monte dei cocci is a unique archaeological site: used as a dumping ground for the imperium river port of the Emporium, from the Augustan period to the middle of the III century, when its use was progressively reduced to a complete halt.

The innumerable amphorae, not being enamelled inside them, could not be reused as food containers after being emptied. Only a small part of these were recycled as construction material, but more frequently they were neatly smashed and then stacked in a huge pile that rose up over the centuries not far from the piers.

The order that transpires in the arrangement of the materials, the fact that at regular intervals had been spread of lime to mitigate the bad odors coming from the decomposition of food residues contained in the amphorae, the presence of a well-designed inclined plane that allowed the wagons to reach easily up to the top of the mountain, suggests that the landfill was anything but improvised and that, on the contrary, it was entrusted in management to the curatores.

Over the following centuries the reason for the accumulation of the pottery was forgotten, so much so that the legends around the hill were unlikely to be legends: those who claimed were the results of the manufacturing errors of the nearby pottery shops, who claimed the remains of the translating cinerary urns from the colombari of the via Ostiense, while a legend told that the hill had been formed of the remains of the great fire of Rome of 64.

 

 

For centuries the mountain was ignored by urban iconography, probably because because of its use as a landfill it was not considered worthy of particular mention; in fact, the name mons Testaceum appears for the first time in an inscription datable to the seventh century, preserved in the portico of the Roman church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin while the original name of the Roman era is unknown, although some studies would identify the ‘antico vicus mundiciei (translatable as “alley of the dump”) of the Hadrian period, located near what will later become the popularly known mountain of cocci.

In 1881 excavations carried out on the site reconstructed the history of the mountain and ascertained the origin of the pieces: thanks to the inscriptions on some of them it was possible to ascertain that most of the amphorae came from the African coasts of Bizacena and from Betica, the current Andalusia dating the oldest exhibit at year 144 and the most recent at 251.

Recent studies have made it possible to ascertain that on each amphora, from the moment of its creation, a stamp was stamped by the manufacturer and that, after being filled, with a calamus brush on them the so-called tituli picti were traced; the name of the exporter, the shipping date, the content, the place of provenance and, sometimes, the destination.

These symbols made it possible to reconstruct the history of commerce in Rome by studying the stratified accumulation of different types of amphorae, their origin and their original content.

 

 

The insulating properties of the clay have been exploited for centuries inducing the Romans to dig at the slopes of the artificial hill numerous caves inside which the temperature is around the year around 10 °. The rooms dug between the pots were used as cellars, storerooms and stables and later, since the Middle Ages, were the headquarters of taverns. In more modern times the grottini were used for restaurants and night clubs.

Even in medieval times the carnival was celebrated there, with cruel and cruel games: tauromachies were set up and the most popular “ruzzica de li porci”: carts of live pigs were thrown down from the hill and when they were crumbling down the people were hunting to the dazed animals.

From the fifteenth century, when the carnival was transferred to Via Lata by the will of Pope Paul II, the mountain became the point of arrival for the Via Crucis on Good Friday, turning into a real “Golgotha”, as shown by the cross still stuck on the top.

Later it will be the favorite destination of the “ottobrate“, the typical Roman festivals, which saw the carts decorated with the “mozzatore”, the women who worked as grape pickers during the harvest period, paraded to the taverns and cellars of the Testaccio: among songs, dances, poetry competitions, games and chat, we were refreshed by the work and above all we “watered” everything with the wine of the Roman castles, preserved in cellars dug on the slopes of the mountain.

An explicit reference to Monte Testaccio is contained in the novel El licenciado Vidriera by the writer Miguel de Cervantes, collected in the work Novelle exemplari (Novelas ejemplares) published in 1613.

“What do you want from me guys, stubborn as flies, dirty like bugs, brave like fleas? Am I the Monte Testaccio in Rome who throws me against shards and tiles? ”

 

 

However, it is necessary to wait until the eighteenth century because the archeological value is recognized on the mountain and on the finds there: the Roman custom of taking material from the slopes of the hill was endangering the habitability of the rooms below so much to move the authorities, in 1742, to issue an edict to protect «… of such an antiquity». This prohibition, for the same reasons, was added two years after the prohibition of grazing herds on Mount Testaccio.

During the siege of Rome in 1849, on top of the cocci was placed a battery of artillery that from this height took easily and insistently targeting the French camped near the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls. Similarly, during the Second World War, an anti-aircraft battery was installed on the top of the hill, placed on concrete bases, the remains of which are still visible.

 

 

Representation of one of the amphorae found by Heinrich Dressel with evidence of the picti tituli and particular of the stamps.

The first organic archaeological researches on the mountain were conducted starting from 1873 by Heinrich Dressel who is responsible for the historical enhancement of the site and an impressive work of cataloging the shards and classification of the amphorae, based on the stamps and tituli picti found on some of they.

 

 

Description

Approximate calculations, which also took into account the progressive erosion of the mountain of the cocci and the removal of part of the material, often used for construction purposes in the past, have allowed to estimate more than 53 million amphorae deposited on the hill over the centuries that have accumulated up to form an artificial hill that today rises to a height of 36 m (54 m above sea level) but which in ancient times had reached a height of eighty meters.

 

 

Mount Testaccio has two distinct peaks: the first that overlooks a plateau oriented along the North / South axis, the second, higher that stands on the ridge facing North-East. The West slope is the steepest and shows signs of numerous removal of material.

The accumulation is about 36 meters high on the ground and 54 m above sea level, over 100 meters wide in the maximum diameter, for a total area of about 22000 square meters that form a sort of scalene triangle with a perimeter of about 1490 meters.

Paths have formed on the hill and a ramp of ancient origin is clearly visible, which was crossed by wagons, before bifurcating at the north-east corner.

 

 

How to get there

Monte dei Cocci is in Via Zabaglia 24, easily reachable from the Piramide metro station (Metro B).
Admission allowed only to accompanied groups (Max 30 people per visit).

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