Our first field trip outside of Rome was to the city of Ostia Antica, ancient Rome’s port city. Abandoned in the ninth century, the city was once a thriving town at the mouth of the Tiber. After it was abandoned and sacked the city was gutted by roman architects looking for scrap marble and other antiquities. There it laid for over a thousand years, gathering dirt, debris, and burying itself like most forgotten roman artifacts. Small excavations started in 1909 but it was not until 1938, when Mussolini and his obsession with the ancient roman empire, that a large scale excavation of Ostia was ordered. This excavation process continued on and off until the 1970’s. As William MacDonald explains, “Restoration went swiftly forward, partly out of sheer necessity, so great was the quantity of half-wrecked structures from which the protective debris of centuries was removed” (MacDonald, 298). Used as a training tool for archeology students, this excavation caused a break in the community. A debate formed on whether to use historical methods and preserve what was still existing, or to rebuild and use it as a model of what once was.
After many arguments they seemed to have settled on capping off half demolished walls, replacing those that needed it, and restoring only small parts, and what they did is amazing. The city still has its cobblestone streets, markets, temples, and houses in tact. You are able to walk down an ancient street and walk into what was once a bakery, with its large mill stones and brick oven still laying there, untouched. Moving from room to room you are able to look through a senators home while looking at plaques of what they assumed it once looked like.
What is probably the most amazing feature of Ostia Antica is that it is not roped off. We walked through the buildings, crawled into cellars, jumped over walls, and climbed stairs to what would have been a second floor but is now just a concrete cap. Each house is still clearly defined and mosaics are still in tact. It was so different from every museum in America, we were encouraged to venture out, make our own path, touch/experience, and enjoy the environment; instead of being constantly monitored, on a strict corridor, roped off and 10 feet back from anything of interest.
The look but don’t touch policy of modern museums diminishes the visitor experience but this is not the case in Ostia Antica. “In the imperial age Ostia was a city where most buildings were characterized by plain, even brickwork, unmolded window and door openings, and uncomplicated architectural shapes” (MacDonald, 306). But these simple schemes are what lasted and still sit there today. The simple forms and straightforward architecture do not have to be blocked off; visitors are free to explore, climb, touch, and imagine. Essentially, Mussolini created an adult playground, where you are free to run with your imagination.