Unravelling the Roman town of Ocriculum (Otricoli) and a bit more besides.

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Cover: ‘Fall’ by Geoff Uglow. Oil on canvas.

My name may be on the cover, but I am not entirely sure how it got to print. Not that it isn’t worthy of publication, obviously, but exactly how do you go about neatly printing and binding ten years of fieldwork, note taking, report writing, background research, photography, illustrations, and animated discussions? It is a little bewildering that it can be done at all. And that just accounts for the academic side of the project. I am very proud of this book and appreciate the incredible amounts of scholarly work, contributed by so many, in order for it to go to press, but I am conscious that it doesn’t tell the full story. I have worked on the Roman site of Ocriculum (Otricoli) for so many years that the memories and the personal experience are as much part of the project as the academic findings.

Ocriculum is a complex site to say the least. It’s a stunning Roman site that straddles the undulating topography of hills, saddles of land and a small valley that opens up to the water’s edge of the River Tiber. It was the first stop north of Rome on the via Flaminia (c. 220BC) and acted as a port (Porto dell’Olio) and road stop for travellers and goods passing up and down Italy.

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Detail of the Carta d’Italia by Jacopo Gastaldi (1569)

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Detail based on the Carta Sabina by Mauro Giubilio (1592) redrawn by Giovanni Maggi (1617)

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Plan of the Porto dell’Olio by Francesco Sforzini (1688)

Ocriculum was partly excavated in the 18th century by the Vatican under the patronage of Pope Pius VI. As a result many of the finely crafted statues, including Augustus, Claudius, Jupiter, Venus and members of the Julio-Claudian family are on display in the galleries of the Vatican Museum under the constant gaze of tourists flooding through the corridors on their way to the Sistine Chapel.

Plan of Ocriculum by Pannini (1784)

Plan of Ocriculum by Pannini (1784)

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Bust of Jupiter, now in the Vatican Museum (Sala Rotonda)

Today, the major monuments of Ocriculum still stand, giving an air of grandeur to the site. The theatre nestles against the slope of a hill and the bath complex sits proud in an infilled valley and once housed the glorious polychrome mosaic, which now endures the footfall of the Vatican Museum tourists in the Sala Rotonda.

Pannini watercolour of the bath house with the octagonal mosaic (c.1784)

Pannini watercolour of the bath house with the octagonal mosaic (c.1784)

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The bath complex as it stands today. Photo Sophie Hay

The amphitheatre is almost invisible from most angles of approach, but once stumbled upon, its impressive rock cut bank that forms half of the seating area, is testimony to the intelligence of Roman construction. Meanwhile, the arcaded Grande Sostruzione (large substructure) dominates the side of a hill and exemplifies the monumental scale of architecture found on the site. The substructure was principally a revetment structure and would have supported the large podium and temple that lay on the promontory above and commanded views across the site and the Tiber valley.

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Reconstruction of the amphitheatre by Pannini (1784)

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The amphitheatre as it is today with the modern town of Otricoli, built on archaic foundations, up on the hill above. Photo Sophie Hay

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The Grande Sostruzione by Ludovico Prosseda (after Guattani)

A section of the via Flaminia has recently been excavated by the Soprintendenza per Umbria and the allure of walking on a well-worn paved road, flanked by the remains of tombs never ceases to leave an impression on the visitor.

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View of the excavated section of the via Flaminia with tombs. Photo Sophie Hay

But the real beauty of Ocriculum, for me, lies in the inconspicuous details. The fact that we discovered part of the Roman temple after brushing aside a caking of chicken droppings in their coop, is but one. Other hidden archaeological gems lie in the fabric of modern farmhouses. There are a few houses on site but none of them are casual in their location. The farmhouse that appears isolated is actually resting on the remains of opus reticulatum walls with existing arches, the floor of a barn is made of opus spicatum and the walls of one farmhouse organically incorporate the remains of a large Roman cistern. No, nothing is casual about the farmhouses of Ocriculum, and that they embrace the archaeology seamlessly, makes the surprises all the more joyous.

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A farmhouse appearing to grow out of the remains of a Roman cistern. Photo Sophie Hay

Sunken trackways bisect the site, exposing traces of arcaded buildings, wells and walls that hang tantalisingly out of the sections. Imagining what they relate to, where they go and what they could tell us about the site is all part of the attraction. The site is neither abandoned nor unkept but has a lovely romantic sense of being overgrown and a little left to the wilds of nature, that leave one with the feeling of discovery. The rolling topography compounds that sense and rearing up over a hill reveals a view across the Tiber Valley; a view that from a few metres back, would have been unimaginable. Meandering along the path that leads through the site reveals new vistas, new monuments and new perspectives at each turn. It is not a site that can be best understood from a map, but is one that has to be walked through to enjoy the games the Roman architects must have been playing with the landscape.

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View through the undergrowth of the bath complex sitting on the infilled valley. Photo Sophie Hay

The view of the town from the River Tiber was paramount and it is no coincidence that the temple lies on a spur of land that dominates the river valley. The approach to Ocriculum by boat is a less considered theme and one we can no longer experience as the river has changed course dramatically. But we should imagine the architecture of Ocriculum spoke just as much to traders arriving along the Tiber, as to those arriving by road.

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View from the location of the temple site looking north into the Tiber Valley and the location of the port of Ocriculum. Photo Sophie Hay

The other secret of Ocriculum is the people. Foremost, is the distinguished family that initially allowed us to roam their lands with our various bits of survey equipment and who welcomed us so warmly and continue to treat me as one of their own. It is a huge honour to be acquainted with the Floridi family and their genuine respect and love for the Roman site rubs off instantly on all those who meet them. I asked Count Floridi to write a preface to the book for this precise reason. Archaeology is important but it is also important to understand the site in its modern context. He writes from the heart and that is what makes this site so special now. It still has meaning on a personal level.

It is for this same reason I suggested the artist, Geoff Uglow (Sainsbury Scholar at the British School at Rome 2002-4) be featured in the monograph. The perception of the site as it is now, through the eyes of an artist who lived there for two years, is as important a document as the archaeological recording of the remains. It is Geoff I have to thank for capturing the essence of Ocriculum; the overgrown but yet, well loved ruins and for making the cover of the book so evocative. These people, together with the locals who brought us fresh jam, handed us cold beers after long hot days, told us stories of hunting wild boar  among the ruins, who made mead, performed gladiatorial battles in the amphitheatre, and who floated the effigy of their patron saint up a candle lit Tiber and just made us feel at home, really make Ocriculum and our project there so special and memorable.

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Artist Geoff Uglow, painting al fresco, a Roman altar that had been brought to the surface by ploughing. Photo Sophie Hay

I think that is why I find it a little hard to comprehend how we managed to package up our project in print. We didn’t, of course. It is not a criticism of the book (heaven forbid!) but there are two strands of the story missing. The development of ideas are often inspired by lively conversation, spotting something in the data that just clicks into place, or studying an old plan that reveals a previously unknown clue. It is the excitement of these turning points shared with others that never make it onto the pages. Although the scholarly work is accounted for, what is not legible in the text is the journey of getting there. Nowhere amongst the bulk of the pages are the traces of the discussions we wrestled with, the problems we had, or the interpretations we laboured over, changed, thought through and changed again. The ‘process’ is missing. For me, these are the most thrilling and exciting moments of a project and embody the joy of writing and working with others.

The other missing part of the storyline is the human experience. Although, by adding Count Floridi’s account and that of the then Director of the British School at Rome, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, we tried to inject a sense of place and people, the rest of the pages lack a link to the human landscape. There are no anecdotes, although there is nothing more excruciating to an outsider than having to endure the recounting of the “do you remember when…” genre of stories, since clearly they won’t. But those stories are all part of the project and are, in this author’s mind, intrinsic to the process of how the publication made it onto the bookshelf. Archaeological fieldwork monographs have adopted a formal, scientific written style. They are scholarly works, after all, but I just wish some local colour could be splashed across some of the content. Just something to remind the reader that there was, and is still, a pulse amongst the ruins.

Who doesn’t read an archaeological account from the turn of the 20th century and find charm, humour and yet, a precise account of the archaeology? My favourite, but perhaps most extreme example, is the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley who often evoked a sense of place, time and conditions and the sense that there were humans in the landscape, then, as now. His asides were witty and the telling of anecdotes seemed to provide light relief, without distraction. He wrote,

“I have proposed to write of the lighter side of our work, and to leave archaeology in the background, but since in all tales the background must needs count for something, let me say a little about the scene in which are cast many of the events that follow”

Woolley 1920 Dead Towns and Living Men p74

Perhaps a compromise is to flip this somewhat extreme style; presenting the archaeology in the foreground but set it against a background comprised of the cast and events that complete the story. I need these missing threads, in much the same way I relish the hidden archaeology on site that make the story more complete. This information is important and should be documented as we are losing a tradition and a richness of the picture of archaeology in progress. Populating the archaeological landscape with humans is what we do on a daily basis, as archaeologists, so we should be more prone to filling it with contemporary lives. It is how places live on. On some small level it is the archaeology of Archaeology.

I am only wrestling with these thoughts now my first co-authored book has been published, and our last word, has seemingly been written. The finality of publishing a book, rather than an article, is daunting. It feels as though the the untold story that I yearn to tell will never get told. The published book also signifies an end to the immediate discussions, the camaraderie of fieldwork and the privilege of working at a site that for me embodies far more than just an archaeological story. That is, perhaps, why I want to believe that we will go back to Ocriculum and reveal just a little more by pulling back some vegetation, by inspecting the eroding cliff edge a little more closely or by talking to the local farmer who has turned up an archaeological find in his field. 

But in the meantime, don’t get me wrong, I am just thrilled and honoured to see my name on the cover of a book about a site I have loved for the ten years I’ve had the privilege of wandering through its ruins trying to understand it better. I think we have achieved that but the history of the site is by no means over, and we will not have had the last word.

All images, other than the author’s photographs are taken from Carlo Pietrangeli’s seminal book on Otricoli: ‘Otricoli: un lembo dell’Umbria alle porte di Roma’. published by Ugo Bozzi Editore in 1978.

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