Postcard from Rome, Italy: Few clues for archaeologists of future times

The war against graffiti within the historic center in Rome is constant, but it is amazingly successful. “Divieto d’Avissione.”

The penalties must be high, because most of what is of any interest at all obviously is executed rapidly by stencil or pasted on a wall by someone on the run. The center is pretty much devoid of any authorized street art as well.

That was not the case in ancient Rome:

But, unlike today, Roman graffiti was not forbidden—and it was practically everywhere, from the private dining rooms of wealthy homes (domi, where friends sometimes left messages for the hosts) to the public forum. In fact, according to Kristina Milnor, more 11,000 graffiti images have been found in Pompeii—which is just about the size of the population at the height of the town….

Without this threat of punishment, it seems that graffiti was readily practiced by people at all strata of society, making it perhaps the most valuable text we have from the ancient world. Man, woman, child, slave, poor, rich, illiterate—it did not matter, so long as there was an empty spot on a wall. Which means that, through graffiti, we are able to hear the voices of those who have been traditionally voiceless, granting us the possibility of astounding insights into lives and minds we’ve never been able to access….

Naturally, all of these works have slowly changed ideas on what Roman life was like at the time.

“Why ancient Roman graffiti is so important to archaeologists,” Susanna Pilney, Red Orbit

The majority of these images are fleeting, soon to be eradicated by graffiti police. Surely not Super Papa Francis?

How will archaeologists of the future ever understand what Romans of today think about politics, sex, love, religion?

If the #qwerty from the featured image were all that remained, the keyboard reference would only confuse them. Who could figure out any Latin-based alphabet based on that?

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palatine perch facilitates time travel

If zip codes were used in ancient Rome, Palatine Hill is the one you wanted during those B.C. years. The twins purportedly were born there, and Romulus settled right there in the neighborhood after disposing of his brother Remus.

The legendary she-wolf-nursed founders of Rome gave the city its birthdate a while back. Rome celebrated turning 2,771 on April 21, 2018 – kind of a humbling experience after experiencing events heralding San Antonio’s Tricentennial this year.

Anyway, Cicero (106-43 B.C.) resided there, as did the first emperor of the Roman Empire, Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.). While Augustus’ abode was relatively humble, subsequent emperors erected more elaborate quarters.

The great fire of year 64 left fiddling Nero (37-68 A.D.) some major cleared real estate on the hill available for construction of his new palace, Domus Aurea, or the Golden House, so named because many of its walls were covered with gold leaf. Recent archaeological digs have revealed remnants of the emperor’s over-the-top revolving dining room.

That’s obviously an oversimplified, superficial glimpse of the history of Palatine Hill. But we were really in search of a way to sense some of Rome’s ancient past above the hoards swarming into the Coliseum below. The crowds thin out, and much of the spacious hilltop turns into almost a pastoral setting for contemplating the vestiges of ancient civilization.

Now let us, by a flight of the imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past – an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the later one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimus Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine….

Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, 1930

Analogies often distract me, and the above one does as well. Sorry, Dr. Freud, but you left me on the hilltop without traveling down your desired psychical paths.

Derailed, I flew off to pondering that Palatine Hill is indeed a place where phases of development from 2,000 years ago still exist in the midst of a city creeping toward 3,000,000 people. A peaceful place where your imagination easily can time-travel deep into multiple layers of the city’s past and then fast-forward to view today’s Rome spreading out all around you.

Postcard from Mexico City: Long-buried Aztec deities continue to surface downtown

A life-size figure with skin flayed and liver hanging out sounds alarming, but there is a disarming charm to Mictlantecuhtli. So cute, let’s call him Mickey.

The sculpture represents the Aztec god of death who periodically was bathed in the blood of human sacrifices. But his well manicured hands appear to be politely gesturing “pardon me,” and his smile possesses almost a Mona Lisa-like serenity. And, what a survivor. He was buried in downtown Mexico City for more than 400 years.

Maybe it was the recent exposure to all of the Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons accompanied by traditions designed to encourage the departed to return to earth to their loved ones that made the god of death less terrifying. Plus, I imagine he would be more menacing if I were a perspective blood donor of his bath water.

The destruction of Aztec temples under the order of Hernan Cortes in 1524 was no secret, and, in fact, the reuse of some of their stones for the construction of the Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was a major public relations maneuver demonstrating the might of the Spanish conquistadors. But for centuries, the remains of the city of Tenochtitlan and its Templo Mayor were kept buried below the development of the cosmopolitan city above. Archaeologists poking about and stumbling across remnants of the Aztec civilization were discouraged from their pursuits.

In 1978, electrical company workers digging a little deeper stumbled upon a circular monolith more than 10 feet across. The intact relief of Coyolxauhqui, the daughter of a maternal earth goddess and Mixcoatl, a god of the hunt, war and the Milky Way. Coyolxauhqui plotted against her mother, so a younger sibling, Huitzilopochtli, chopped off her head and limbs. Her depiction in stone shows her severed limbs all akimbo around her torso.

Her brother’s revenge extended to his brothers, all 400 of them. Eliminating much of the competition, Huitzilopochtli emerged to assume a role as a deity of war and the sun. He was the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan, and appeasing him required frequent refueling from human sacrifices, accounting for many of the human skulls found on site.

The twin sanctuaries of the Templo Mayor were dedicated to his worship and that of Tlaloc, the rain god, “he who makes things sprout.” While rain god sounds peaceful, a provoked Tlaloc could cause drought, floods, hurricanes and illnesses. Although he kindly bestowed life in paradise to those who drown or were struck by lightning, Tlaloc, too, needed sacrifices to encourage him to provide the right amount of rain needed for crops.

Back to 1978, weighing in at about eight tons the monolithic Coyolxauhqui proved hard to ignore. Excavation around her revealed a rich minefield of artifacts in amazingly good condition. Numerous buildings near the Cathedral were demolished to provide accessibility, and archaeologists soon discovered the Templo Mayor consisted of pyramids built upon pyramids by successive Aztec rulers over a period of about 150 years.

Designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the Museum of the Templo Mayor opened adjacent to the site in 1987 to display some of the more than 7,000 objects unearthed during the archaeological explorations.

The main ruins of Tenochtitlan cover close to seven city blocks, much of which has not been excavated. Often emerging from adversity, opportunities for additional digs still arise. In the 1990s, work to halt the sinking of the Cathedral as the city’s water table dropped led to numerous finds beneath its floor. More than 20 years after the deadly 1985 earthquake, a damaged building was demolished to reveal the ruins of the Calmecac, the elite school of the Aztec nobility.

Near the museum foyer lies a 12-ton monolith representing Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess. This massive 12 x 13-foot relief was not discovered until 2006 on the grounds of an estate on the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets. As with many of the Aztec deities, she possessed a split personality. Her name means “the one who gives and devours life.” She demanded many human hearts and much blood to keep her in a positive life-giving mood.

The excavation of Tenochtitlan and the adjacent museum provide an incredible opportunity to view relics from the Aztec civilization from one site all grouped together. Its location downtown by the Zocalo offers an understanding of the development of Mexico City from the 1300s, to the conquest and the construction of the Cathedral, to the growth of the surrounding aristocratic neighborhood during the Diaz years and finally into a bustling contemporary city, home to more than 20 million inhabitants.

Pardon us, Mickey and crew. Please look kindly upon us mortals pausing to stare. Surely you appreciate your liberation after centuries underground. And the contemporary temple of a museum reverently sheltering you now is quite palatial.