Nine Amazing Archaeological Sites in Italy
Italy is home to world-famous archaeological sites like Rome's Colosseum and the ruins of Pompeii. The area saw civilisations such as the Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Etruscans come and go, all of them leaving remains that are impressing visitors thousands of years later, and wherever you travel, you'll find traces of the ancient world.
Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Torre Annunziata
These separate archaeological sites near Naples together make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and all three of them shared the same fate. They were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, which killed many thousands of their inhabitants, but also preserved their buildings, possessions, and even bodies. Thanks to extensive excavations to remove the volcanic material, you can now get a glimpse into Roman life.
The ruins of Pompeii include a forum, temples, public baths, theatres, mosaics, and a gladiator school. One of the most poignant sites is the Garden of Fugitives, where you can see the casts of some of the victims who could not escape the ash cloud.
The Herculaneum ruins feature remains of well-preserved frescoes and mosaics, as well as shops and mansions — one of the most opulent was the Villa of the Papyri. Many artefacts recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum are in the Naples National Archaeology Museum. Torre Annunziata, situated between Pompeii and Herculaneum, is home to remains of the Roman town of Oplontis, including the remains of lavish seaside properties such as Villa Poppaea, which likely belonged to Emperor Nero.
The area is easily accessible from both Sorrento and Naples by public transport.
Catacombs of Rome
Rome's more than 60 catacombs run for hundreds of kilometres beneath the Eternal City. Constructed between the 2nd and 5th centuries, they contain the tombs of hundreds of thousands of Christian and Jewish citizens of ancient Rome. According to Roman law, burials were not allowed within the city walls, so the tunnels were dug outside the centre of Rome, along main roads including the Via Appia, the Via Tiburtina, and the Via Nomentana.
Most remains have been removed, and only five of the catacombs are open to the public. They include the Catacombs of San Calixto, which contained the tombs of 16 popes and around 50 Christian martyrs. Some still house important early Christian art, including the Catacombs of Priscilla, which has frescoes that may be the oldest images of the Virgin Mary.
Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo
Unlike the catacombs in Rome, human remains have not been removed from this historic site in Sicily. In fact, they are kept on display, and this historic site is now a macabre visitor attraction that might just give you nightmares.
Originally the resting place for friars from the Convent of the Capuchin, the catacombs were later opened to deceased rich local residents from the 17th to 19th centuries — being mummified in a preserved state was seen as a status symbol. There are 8000 corpses in total, around 1250 of them mummified, many in their original clothing. The last person to be mummified, in 1920, was 2-year-old Rosalia Lombardo. When she died, her father asked a local taxidermist to preserve her — she was so perfectly preserved that she has been dubbed "the world's most beautiful mummy".
Amphitheatre of Capua
The ancient Roman town of Capua is in modern-day Santa Maria Capua Vetere, about 25 kilometres north of Naples. The town is best known for the Amphitheatre of Capua, which was the second biggest Roman amphitheatre after the Colosseum in Rome. Built during the reign of Augustus in the 1st century BC, it was later restored by Hadrian. The exterior, which featured 80 Doric arches, is now in a poor state (it was trashed by the Vandals and Saracens), while the impressive interior features well-preserved subterranean passages. Among those to have fought in the amphitheatre were Spartacus, who trained at Capua's gladiatorial school. Elsewhere in town, you can still pass under the Arch of Hadrian, and look along the straight road that runs into town along the route of the Roman Via Appia. Capua is also home to the remains of public baths and a theatre.
Ancient city of Nora
There are plenty of places to get your fix of archaeology on Sardinia. Situated on a headland near the town of Pula, southwest of Cagliari, Nora is an important site with a rich history. A Phoenician trading port in the 8th century BC, it was later a Carthaginian settlement, before being conquered by the Romans in 238BC. Among Nora's ruins are the remnants of Roman baths, cobbled streets, temples, a necropolis, and an aqueduct. There are also remains of houses, mosaics, and the site's grandest attraction, the amphitheatre, which could seat a thousand people and is today still used as a performance venue. Many relics uncovered from these periods are now housed in the Patroni Museum in Pula. Unfortunately, some of Nora is now beneath the waves as this part of Sicily is slowly sinking. You can go snorkelling at Punta del Coltellazzo, on which stands a 16th-century tower, and see some of the sunken areas of the city.
Valley of the Temples
The Valley of the Temples, on the southern coast of Sicily near the modern city of Agrigento, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's actually on a ridge, rather than in a valley. Founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BC, ancient Akragas was a major trading and cultural centre with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. It later fell under Carthaginian rule, before the Romans conquered it. Today, it's a huge archaeological site, and is home to some magnificent remains, including Doric temples. These include the Temple of Concordia, regarded as one of the finest ancient Greek buildings still in existence, as well as the Temple of Juno. Not much remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, although one of its stone giants, or atlases, is still there, lying on the ground. You can see some of the smaller relics unearthed at the site in the archaeological museum.
Rome's Colosseum is the largest ancient amphitheatre constructed and arguably the most famous Roman site of all. Work on the Colosseum began in AD72 under Emperor Vespasian, and was completed nearly decade later under Titus, who inaugurated the venue with 100 days of games, which cost the lives of more than 2000 gladiators. As well as gladiatorial contests, the Colosseum hosted public executions, dramas, and even mock sea battles, and regularly attracted more than 50,000 spectators.
The arena floor measured 83x48 metres, and although its wooden surface has mostly disappeared, you can still see the hypogeum, the underground network of tunnels and cages where gladiators and animals were held before contests. The Colosseum is an awesome sight, and it's no surprise it attracts around six million visitors annually, so it can get busy. To avoid queuing for long periods, try to arrive early in the morning, or to skip the queues completely, take a guided tour, or buy the Roma Pass, which includes free entry to the site. You can also book tickets online in advance.
The large archaeological site of Ostia Antica was once the main port of ancient Rome. Situated near the mouth of the Tiber River (it's now a few kilometres inland due to silting), it was a cosmopolitan, thriving place, but when the Roman empire collapsed the city fell into decline — not helped by an outbreak of malaria — and was eventually abandoned and lay buried for over 1000 years.
Today, there are plenty of well-preserved sights. Walk along the main street, Decumanus Maximus, and you’ll see the remains of taverns, shops, houses, and public latrines and baths. There's also the reconstructed amphitheatre, which today hosts performances. You can see some of the finds uncovered during excavations in the onsite Museo Ostiense. The site is 40 minutes from central Rome (take the Metro to EUR Magliana, then the train to Ostia Antica). It's also about 10 minutes by taxi from Fiumicino Airport, so you could also make a stop there on the way to catching your flight home.
Sassi of Matera
Matera, in the southern region of Basilicata, is home to a troglodyte settlement, where people lived 9000 years ago in cave homes cut into the rock, known as sassi. More elaborate homes were later built on top of them, resulting in a breathtaking cityscape that resembles something out of the ancient Holy Land.
As many as 15,000 people were still living in the sassi 70 years ago, without running water, electricity, or any natural light or ventilation, and the area was rife with malaria, cholera, and typhoid. The appalling poverty endured by the inhabitants led the Italian government to move them from their homes. Today, the Sassi of Matera is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many of the dwellings have been restored for use as homes and holiday accommodation.
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Nick Elvin contributed to this post.