‘As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The rescued amphora fragment was just a broken pot; but one that lay at the bottom of the sea for 2,000 years. Likelihood is that it comes from a shipwreck, and that in itself would be a tale. But then there are all the individual stories which brought the people on board to that disastrous moment. Who survived, who perished, what else was lost besides oil or wine? Great loves and small progressive steps forward, manacled slaves, families plunged into poverty at a stroke?
I’ve never been to Rome, but if I ever go, I know which place I’d visit first. Forget the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel, I want to stand on Monte Testaccio. A mound of pottery fragments which when whole held olive oil, it’s a mile in circumference, 35 metres high, and comprises an estimated 53 million amphorae, all once handled by people with tales to tell. Through the soles of my feet I’d absorb those oily stories: matriarchs cooking their way through the loss of sons in foreign lands, traders losing everything as a result of shipwreck, and the pot smashers and stackers who raised up that mound fragment by fragment – horny-handed Romans daily risking cuts from terracotta shards as they broke up the amphorae.
The stories don’t end with Rome ceasing to dispose of its pots there. The hill was the scene of jousting in the Middle Ages, while in the nineteenth century Stendhal visited and it became a place of festivity upon which the saltarello was danced. There too Garibaldi defended Rome against a French attack. On Good Fridays it even stood in for Golgotha.
Time made something beautiful out of what started life as a tip. It’s hard to envisage that time will do the same to our rubbish dumps, but it may.