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A cross stand on top Monte Testaccio, Rome, Italy.

At Monte Testaccio, An Entire Mountain is Made Up of Roman Trash

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Monte Testaccio is an unusual landmark in Rome. It dates back to Roman times and is composed entirely of broken amphora sherds. Considering the enormous number of monumental structures in Rome, it is fair to say that Monte Testaccio does not really stand out, especially when one considers that it is, in effect, an ancient rubbish dump.

The name of the site is translated as ‘Mount of Potsherds’, testa being the Latin for ‘potsherd’. This site has allowed archaeologists to gain some insight about the economy of ancient Rome, especially its trade networks, as the amphora sherds have been used as proxies for such studies.

View of the Testaccio district of Rome, 1625. (Public Domain)

View of the Testaccio district of Rome, 1625. ( Public Domain )

Known also as Monte dei Cocci ( coccio being the Italian word for ‘potsherd’), this is an artificial hill in the Rome, specifically in Rione XX Testaccio, a district in the southern part of the city. Covering an area of almost 20,500 m 2 (220,660.16 sq. ft.), Monte Testaccio rises to a height of 35 meters (114.83 ft.) Another 15 meters (49.21 ft.) may be under the current street level.

Monte dei Cocci. (Public Domain)

Monte dei Cocci. ( Public Domain )

Incredibly, this entire mount is made of broken amphora sherds. Most of the sherds examined by archaeologists so far have been dated to between 140 and 250 AD. Nevertheless, it has been speculated that the first amphora sherds may have been dumped at the site as early as the 1st century BC. Whilst no one knows for certain the number of amphorae that make up this mount, it has been estimated that they may be as many as 25 million complete vessels. Others, however, reckon that the mount is made of twice as many amphorae, i.e. about 53 million vessels.

Why Does Monte Testaccio Have So Many Amphorae?

Some say the amphorae dumped at Monte Testaccio were all used as vessels for the transportation of olive oil. Such amphorae were unsuitable for being re-used, as some of the oil would have seeped into the body of the vessel, making it dirty, and causing it to emit an unpleasant odor. Others have claimed that amphorae which once contained wine or garum (a popular fish sauce in ancient Rome) were also deposited there.

Types of Roman amphorae at Bodrum castle (Turkey). (Ad Meskens/CC BY SA 3.0)

Types of Roman amphorae at Bodrum castle (Turkey) . (Ad Meskens/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

In any case, the site was chosen as a dumping ground for these used amphorae as it is situated close to the Horrea Galbae, which was a complex of state-controlled warehouses that stored goods, including olive oil, that were coming from the provinces into Rome via the River Tiber. After the oil is decanted from the amphorae into smaller vessels, the former were broken up and discarded.

This practice continued until around the latter half of the 3rd century AD. During this time, a new city wall was built, which cut the area off from the river. As a result, the port, along with the warehouses, was moved to a different location. Following this change, Monte Testaccio became redundant as a dumping ground for used amphorae.

Broken amphorae on Monte Testaccio. (Alex/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Broken amphorae on Monte Testaccio. (Alex/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

A New Usage for the Testae Heap

From the archaeological research conducted at Monte Testaccio, it is said that the disposal of the amphorae was not haphazardly done but managed in a highly systematic way. The vessels were broken lengthwise into half so that they could be stacked one on top of the other. One effect of this is that air is able to circulate, thus maintaining a constant temperature, and preventing dampness from forming. These conditions are ideal for the storage of wine. Thus, some Romans have taken advantage of this, building wine cellars that extend deep into the base.

The amphorae fragments were placed in an organized way. (Olive Oil Times)

The amphorae fragments were placed in an organized way. ( Olive Oil Times )

In addition, the amphorae fragments have been used to study Roman trade networks. Before firing, the amphorae would have been stamped, or a mark was incised on their body. After the firing process, tituli picti would be painted onto them. These markings on the amphorae are important, as they provide information about the production, administration, and distribution of the goods stored in them. For example, based on the tituli picti that have been studied, the amphorae on Monte Testaccio are mainly from Spain, Libya, and Tunisia.

Roman tituli picti from amphorae found at Monte Testaccio, Rome. From H. Dressel, Ricerche sul Monte Testaccio, Annali dell'Instituto di Correspondenza Archeologica [1878], plate L. (Public Domain)

Roman tituli picti from amphorae found at Monte Testaccio, Rome. From H. Dressel, Ricerche sul Monte Testaccio, Annali dell'Instituto di Correspondenza Archeologica [1878], plate L. ( Public Domain )

Monte Testaccio has had quite a colorful history after its abandonment by the ancient Romans. During the Middle Ages, for example, the mount was used to represent Mount Calvary during the Way of the Cross on Good Friday. Today, a cross still stands on the top of the mount as a memory of this religious association. In addition, in 1849, the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi used the mount as a gun battery in the defense of Rome against the French.

Whilst the mount became a public park in 1931, it was soon abandoned due to low budget and maintenance problems. Today, this unique site may be visited by the public, though entrance is limited.

Monte Testaccio. (Alex/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Monte Testaccio. (Alex/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

Top Image: A cross stand on top Monte Testaccio, Rome, Italy. Source: Alex/ CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Black, A., 2018. Monte Testaccio. [Online]
Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/monte-testaccio

Colm, 2012. Monte Testaccio: a mountain of Roman amphorae. [Online]
Available at: http://irisharchaeology.ie/2012/04/monte-tesstaccio-a-mountain-of-roman-amphorae/

Colman, D., 2017. Visit Monte Testaccio, the Ancient Roman Hill Made of 50 Million Crushed Olive Oil Jugs. [Online]
Available at: http://www.openculture.com/2017/11/visit-monte-testaccio-the-ancient-roman-hill-made-of-50-million-crushed-olive-oil-jugs.html

Lobell, J. A., 2018. Trash Talk. [Online]
Available at: https://www.archaeology.org/exclusives/articles/2892-rome-monte-testaccio-amphoras

Lonely Planet, 2018. Monte Testaccio. [Online]
Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy/rome/attractions/monte-testaccio/a/poi-sig/1095006/359975

Pasquale, M., 2017. Rome's Monte Testaccio is The World's Most Historical Garbage Heap. [Online]
Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/romes-monte-testaccio-is-the-worlds-most-historical-garbage-heap/

Squires, N., 2015. Roman rubbish dump reveals secrets of ancient trading networks. [Online]
Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/11650703/Roman-rubbish-dump-reveals-secrets-of-ancient-trading-networks.html

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