Monday, February 10, 2014

[tt] LAT: Roman aqueduct volunteers tap into history beneath their feet

Roman aqueduct volunteers tap into history beneath their feet
http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-roman-aqueducts-20140101,0,4120885,print.story
[Thanks to Sarah for this.]

Amateur speleologists in Rome are mapping the city's network of 11 ancient
aqueducts for the first time in modern history.

By Tom Kington
8:00 AM PST, January 1, 2014

ROME--In a verdant valley east of Rome, Fabrizio Baldi admires a
forgotten stretch of a two-tier Roman aqueduct, a stunning example
of the emperor Hadrian's 2nd century drive to divert water from
rural springs to his ever-thirstier capital.

But Baldi, 36, is less interested in the graceful arches than in
where the aqueduct's span ends, hidden in a wooded slope across a
stream, halfway up the side of the valley. Scrambling through thick
brambles, he comes across a large hole in the ground that appears to
be the start of a tunnel.

"Hop in," he says. "This is where the water poured off the aqueduct
and started a 21-mile underground journey to Rome."

Baldi is one of about 80 amateur speleologists who spend their
weekends crawling down underground channels with laser scanners and
GPS in an effort to conclusively map the city's network of 11
ancient aqueducts for the first time in modern history. In doing so,
they have turned up underground stretches that nobody remembered.

The group, which has been exploring underground Rome since 1996, has
completed about 40% of its mission to map the aqueducts.

"The famous arched, over-ground aqueducts we see today are just the
tip of the iceberg; 95% of the network ran underground," says Marco
Placidi, head of the speleologists group, which is sharing its
results with Italy's culture ministry.

Slaking the thirst of the fast-growing imperial capital meant
linking it to springs many miles from the city. The ancient Roman
engineers were equal to the task, supplying a quantity of water that
modern engineers didn't manage to match until the 1930s.

Rome's emperors had the aqueducts built quickly, employing thousands
of slave laborers. In the 1st century, Claudius completed his
60-mile effort in two years.

The structures are unusually solid, with cement and crushed pottery
used as building material. One of the aqueducts, the Aqua Virgo, is
still in use today, keeping Rome parks and even the Trevi fountain
supplied. Others were damaged by invading German tribes in the
waning days of the empire.

The ingenious use of gravity and siphons to accelerate water up
slopes has stood the test of time: Aqueducts built in the 20th
century to supply Los Angeles with water relied on the same methods.

"Interest in what the Romans did underground is growing fast,"
Placidi says. "Experts now understand they are the best-preserved
remains and truly reveal how the Romans made things on the surface
work. This is the new frontier of archaeology."

Dropping into the hole, Baldi disappears down the Anio Vetus
aqueduct, a 3-foot-wide, 5-foot-high tunnel lined with pristine
Roman brickwork. As frogs, spiders and grasshoppers scatter, Baldi
reaches a maintenance shaft, complete with good-as-new footholds dug
into the bricks that lead up to a narrow opening in the woods 10
feet above. Beyond him, the tunnel vanishes into the darkness.

"Some of this walling is a meter thick and tougher than the rock
itself, which is why it has lasted," he said.

The tract of the Anio Vetus aqueduct was mapped by British
archaeologist Thomas Ashby, whose 1935 book, "The Aqueducts of
Ancient Rome," remains a bible for the cavers.

"But Ashby just followed the maintenance shafts along the surface
and didn't get down underground, so where there are no shafts, we
are finding things he didn't," Placidi said.

That includes an underground stretch, just over half a mile long, of
the Anio Vetus dating to the 3rd century BC that fell into disuse
when Hadrian spanned the valley with his arched bridge in the 2nd
century.

At nearby Gallicano, the team stumbled on an unknown 300-yard
stretch of aqueduct burrowed through a hillside with vertical access
shafts ingeniously rising into a second maintenance tunnel above it,
large enough for cart traffic.

"We have found Roman dams we didn't know about, branch lines taking
water to waterfalls built in private villas, and even aqueducts
driven underneath" streams, Placidi said. "We are able to get up
close and [feel we are] right back at the moment the slaves were
digging."

The explorers say they have no fear because they proceed carefully
and use robots where it's too dangerous to go themselves. They
haven't encountered any people living underground, but have found
foxes, porcupines and snakes.

They have also found risque graffiti underneath the San Cosimato
convent near Rome, where the Claudio and Marcio aqueducts run
parallel. The words date to 18th century monks, who were jealously
accusing one another of having liaisons with other monks.

Apart from the aqueducts, the team has been called on to map
chambers deep beneath Palatine Hill in Rome and to explore the
tunnels under the Baths of Caracalla there and at Hadrian's Villa
near Tivoli. Beneath the heart of Rome, Placidi's volunteers
explored the Cloaca Maxima, the massive Roman sewer that still
serves the city.

"It works so well people simply forgot about where exactly it runs,"
Placidi said.

The aqueduct exploration coincides with the gradual crumbling of
many of the above-ground arched structures in the countryside around
Rome.

"Roots are the problem, and many structures have trees growing on
top of them," Baldi said, pointing to a large, collapsed section of
Hadrian's handiwork. "That part was still standing when Ashby was
here," he said.

Today, the valley, where a section of the lane heading to the
aqueduct is still paved with Roman basalt, is unsupervised.

"More people come here to illegally dump rubbish than to see the
aqueduct," Baldi said.

The cavers, young and old, rarely get paid for their work by the
cash-strapped Italian government, even if their results are happily
being collated by archaeological authorities. Placidi combines his
speleology with work as a webmaster; Baldi is an unemployed car
parts dealer.

Placidi predicts that will change. "Now you have amateur cavers
becoming experts on archaeology, but in 20 years' time the
archaeologists will be training up as cavers," he said.

Kington is a special correspondent.
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