Early this morning, seven to ten alarms went off, alerting the various pods of FSPers to the the arrival of a new day, and a new batch of archaeological investigations. This road trip, with its long days steadily stretched as if on some wonderful ratchet, is sadly nearing its final tooth. Roused from our slumber, we assembled in the Lobby of the Hotel Tarconte wearing faces as faded as the wall paintings of the Etruscan Tomb of the Monkey, dress in palls of disbelief: could it only have been so few days ago that we set out for Tuscany? Could there only be so few hours left on our voyage?
The atmosphere's gloom was only compounded by the tone of the sky, a mess of soggy gray in every quadrant. We stepped outside into the wet, chill air, and we smelled rain. We had been ten hours without WiFi. Teddy Henderson, who was sent to present his oral report on the furniture of the Bocchoris tomb, was nowhere in sight. Things were not looking good.
But it was a matter of small time before our luck reversed itself. Unlike so many other days, when we would embark upon our bus, trusty Carlo our helmsman, as would Helios careening in his chariot across the horizon, this day we marched, slouched and rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, across the town of Tarquinia, summoning up from the wells of our souls the first embers of our vital forces.
As we set foot in the courtyard of the archaeological museum, we were greeted by two strange but familiar faces, calling out in joy from the ramparts. Lo, twas none other than Lucas Dube, face freshly shaved and shimmering with all the glow of a slice of authentic Tuscan mozzarella! By his side stood Teddy, whose absence had already born down sharply on the hearts of our merry band, taking this author as its sorriest victim. He was there, he was prepared, and he had been awake since 3AM, having striven in earnest to add the perfect finishing garnishes to his oral presentation.
Just when it appeared our circumstances could not be improved, did we discover that today, of all days, was National Italian Museum day! This made our entrance free! Quoth Professor Ulrich “This is a good thing. But it is also a bad thing.” This author can only speculate that the latter segment of his evaluation is owed to the fact that our tickets for that day were already paid for with departmental funding.
We entered the museum and took a peek at a few recent excavations from the eighties which upon their initiation, had a apparently caused more than a bit of excitement, including variety of mysterious slabs called “lastrone scala”, speculated to have been parts of stairs leading down into tombs. We proceeded to an outer ring of the courtyard, where Professor Ulrich introduced us to a little geographical history, and our paper topics. How tickling to discover that our own hotel was named for Tarcon, the quasi-mythological founder of the great twelve Etruscan cities, which dominated the region before Roman hegemony!
At the terminus of his talk, Ulrich gestured toward the several Etruscan sarcophagi which flanked us along the corridor, topped with their characteristic humanoid forms reclining as if at a banquet. Il nostro professore made the humorous remark that the aforementioned sarcophagi seemed to position themselves in as much attention to his speech as we students proper. A hearty chuckle was shared by all.
One of the first rooms we entered housed a bit of a throw-back to the infant days of the FSP: an indulgent display of the artifacts of Villanovan culture. FSPers who'd held tight to their memories of the National Museum and the Villa Giulia would recognize hut urns, biconicals and those especially sharp of eye, honed of wit and handsome of face, the trope of a pair of yoked oxen, rendered in miniature behind their driver, laying down anything from a quotidian trench to the pomerium, the boundary demarcating grounds fit to bury the dead from the grounds of the city.
In a later room, a great frenzy went up at the Greek drinking vessels decorated with scenes of symposia. These would prove vital as thematic foils to the funereal banqueting scenes we would inspect later in the day at the Necropolis.
A stern guard repeatedly told us not to take photographs, even without our cameras' flash on, a stipulation which this author ranked with respect to frustration just above “sticky wicket” and just under “swift kick in the teeth.” Later, when perusing the items of the gift shop, he happened upon a bit of a clue as to the restriction: several of the images from the vessels, including one especially vulgar depiction of a man and woman enjoying a spot of transcendental carnal unity, were on sale as posters. The museum, then, may have held some financial interest in keeping us from bringing home the pictures for free.
At some point in our travels along the second level, Mr. Henderson delivered a presentation on his appointed topic so informative, well-structured and entertaining that this author can scarcely recall just at what point he delivered it. Mr. Henderson's presentation was much enriched by his rigorous and comprehensive aptitude in Egyptology, a background with which no doubt his many associates can claim warm familiarity.
On the third level, we were audience to the greatest treat of all: multiple Etruscan tombs, with their wall paintings transplanted, were reconstructed in open, controlled air for our scholarly pleasure. It was here that we sat in awe as Miss Elizabeth Twomey of Louisiana performed her own introduction and interpretation of the wall paintings of the so-called Tomb of the Triclinium. This author was so engrossed by its decorations that he lingered on the site for a full half-hour past the presentation's end.
Just after the clock rang noon, we congregated across the street from the museum. Someone had purchased a little carton of almonds that appeared to be coated in a delightful, sugary glaze, and was passing them around. Miss Cara Labrador sprung upon the moment to seek out some bubble gum, but was rudely turned around by a grumpy newspaper vendor. There is no room on the FSP for bad attitudes, so this author swore to banish the sour interaction from his memory.
After a much longer walk than the first, we found ourselves at the Etruscan necropolis at Tarquina. Famished and pained, we made a beeline for the snack bar, horrified to discover that the previous group to move through had robbed us of all the panini! This author was forced to lunch on paltry potato chips and ice cream, which he did severely–and righteously disgruntled.
The next hour and a half were dedicated to hunting deep down underground into the cool and eerie tombs. Behind a plate of plexiglass, one could spy wall paintings as they were left two and a half millenia ago. Deciphering their meaning lies perhaps beyond even the fiercest of epistemological engines, but the images of dogs and birds, grapes and vines, men and women reclining in relaxed attire, certainly provoke any number of stock Dionysian scenes.
The sentimental dandy that he is, this author found himself as rigidly fixed before not two but three especially violet tombs, lost in a cautious and curious wonder, only interrupted by the entrance of other tourists descending to join him in speculation, tourists no doubt making the most of National Free Museum Day.
As this section of the adventure was wrapping up, a few lucky of us got to hear a few words from Miss Kathleen L. Wahl (no one is quite sure what the L signifies. Perhaps Lazio. Perhaps Larth. Perhaps it is the Roman numeral for 50). While in the Tomb of the Leopards (perhaps Leopard), she had noticed the presence of both a lion and a leopard. Famous for her pep and eagerness to run the mythological calculus, she surmised that the lion might metonymically stand in for Ercole (Heracles to ye unknowing masses) and the leopard just in the way fashion might stand in for Dionysos. The implications of this conclusion are certainly tantalizing. Let us hope there is some elaborate future for her theory! (Can I get a thesis?)
Back on the bus. This author, currently fuming at the fifteen, maybe sixteen mixed nuts he received in a box whose dimensions promised upwards of thirty-five, is also mightily displeased at the proportion of cashews to peanuts. If you, dear reader, count not the nurturing of scholastic camaraderie, the singing of songs and the cracking of many a finely-composed jest noteworthy items for the internet log that is our present endeavor, suffice to say then, by your own lights, nothing important happened until we found ourselves parked ten miles off in the hills. Professor Ulrich stood up, bade us leave our notebooks in our seats, and said that all we needed to know was the name of our location: Norchia.
After a swift hike along a fence running across a field surrounded by scalloped fields and foggy, hyacinth mountains, we arrived at a gigantic ravine, the slopes of which were heavily wooded. Here, just like anything else, were the barest relics of a people whose lives predated all the trappings of life to which we are accustomed. Carved right out of and into the living rock were nearly a hundred spaces of uncertain function. Some which ran straight into the ground may well have been tombs while others might have served commercial or residential purposes. The whole site was dressed in heavy fantasy, as many of the most elaborate structures lay behind thick brush or down long, narrow, uniniviting paths. Professor Ulrich let us loose to explore the heights and depths of the sight, and each of us collected a unique experience.
This author took a chance and ventured over the far side of the ravine, and then down into a second, where he found not only multiple resplendent dwelling places, but also an enormous, imposing and dilapidated old church, from a century whose detection is out of the grasp of his sensitivity. As we rode the bus home to the the Hotel Tarconte, we laughed and shared pictures, ready to eat, do a little reading and head to sleep.
A wedding has taken place in Tarquinia today. This morning we saw a caravan of honking,decorated cars rushing down the road before as we shared almonds in good cheer. As the sun sinks into the ocean, a brass band plays in the street—it might be the final celebration of matrimony. But even as our trip closes out with the setting of the sun and the death of two strangers' former modes of life, we are reminding to unlearn the idea of ending. The sun is at all times rising and at all times setting. These, as one FSPer was heard to say to another, these are the good old days.
Photos (courtesy of Kathleen):