B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The Ancient Italy Tour for 2008 ran from the 11th to the 27th September. We had a small group - this meant that the participants could all get involved in discussion and we could take it at a more leisurely pace to explore the antiquities. The group included Sandra Douglas, John and Lyn Dun, Deborah Russell, Tracey Shand and Allan Stuckey. The tour leader was Dr Michael Birrell and we had the assistance of a number of local Italian guides: Isa and Antonio in Etruria, Christina in Rome, and Rossana in the Naples area.

In a change from last year we began with a few days in the beautiful small hill town of Viterbo north of Rome. En route we stopped to see a fascinating rock-cut Roman amphitheatre. In the afternoon we wandered around the very picturesque town of Viterbo and visited the 12th Century Cathedral and the Papal Palace.

The following day was devoted to the magnificent Etruscan painted tombs of Tarquinia, a cemetery site located not far from Viterbo. The decorated rock-cut tombs at Tarquinia give a fascinating insight into ancient Etruscan religious beliefs and social life. In the afternoon we went to the Museo Nazionale Tarquiniese, in Tarquinia, which contains a number of beautiful Etruscan sarcophagi and tomb paintings. The following morning we explored the ruins of Cerveteri, the ancient Etruscan city of Caere, concentrating on the remarkable necropolis of rock-cut tombs which are located in a picturesque wooded setting.

The Papal Palace, Viterbo
Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

We spent the next week exploring the archaeological wonders of Rome, with plenty of time to get to know the city and the nearby sites of Ostia and Tivoli. We stayed at the Hotel Nerva, which is very centrally located directly behind the Forum - the area has many good restaurants nearby and it takes 2 minutes to get to the antiquities. Our first day took us to the heart of the ancient Roman state with a walk through the Roman Forum, centre of the Empire - some highlights included the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Temples of Vesta and Saturn. We also toured the Palatine Hill where we saw the recently restored House of Augustus and made our way to the Arch of Constantine, an impressive triumphal arch marking the start of the Sacred Way.

The next day the group was free to explore Rome on their own and there was just so much to choose from! Some members of the group visited the Vatican to see the antiquities in the Vatican Museum and the impressive Sistine Chapel of Michelangelo, and they also visited St Peters Basilica. On the 17th September we walked though the Campus Martius district of Rome visiting some of the most important monuments from the early Empire. We started at the Spanish Steps and walked to the ruined tomb of Augustus, followed by the Ara Pacis, the famous 'Shrine of Peace', recently reopened after a major restoration. Our walk then took us through the Field of Mars to the Pantheon of Hadrian with its enormous concrete dome. In the afternoon we explored the Capitoline Museum and its famous collection of ancient Roman sculpture.

View of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill
The Canopus Lake, Tivoli

Our day trip to Ostia, the old Port of Rome near the mouth of the Tiber River, enabled us to see some of the superb ruins from this very well preserved site. We saw the commercial centre of the city with its theatre and Temple of Ceres, as well as the Roman bath complexes with richly decorated mosaic floors, and the old Forum of the city with its Temple to Jupiter. It had started to rain and we were glad to get to the cafeteria for a well earned break. In the afternoon we retreated back to Rome after first exploring the superb 'Mithraeum of the Baths', cult place of the god Mithras. The change in schedule enabled us to see the Baths of Diocletian and the superb Renaissance church which was subsequently built inside it by Michelangelo.

While in Rome we also visited the Colosseum one morning, and saw the beautiful Palazzo Massimo alle Terme Museum in Rome, home to one of the most impressive collections of ancient Roman sculpture anywhere in the world. Our last day in Rome was an excursion to the superb country retreat of the Emperor Hadrian, built at Tivoli in the foothills east of Rome. We explored the beautiful ruins of the palace which include the famous Canopus Lake, the Maritime Theatre and the exquisite Pecile Lake, as well as the main palace with its stupendous bath complexes. A picnic in the fields enabled us to enjoy the natural scenery.

Having explored much of ancient Rome we headed south by bus to the Bay of Naples - our hotel (the Hotel Forum) was located in modern Pompeii just opposite the ruins. The first afternoon was spent exploring the remains of the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. The buildings here are better preserved than in Pompeii because the area was covered in 20m of hot mud. Highlights included the baths, the superb wall paintings in the private houses and wandering the ancient streets.

Our picnic at Tivoli
Exploring Pompeii

The next day was set aside to explore the world heritage listed remains of ancient Pompeii. We arrived at the site early (it was just across the road!) and had time to wander through the amphitheatre, and see many of the painted frescoes in the private houses. A poignant reminder of the eruption of Vesuvius is provided by the plaster casts of those who died in the inferno. We also saw the famous Villa of the Mysteries with its remarkable wall paintings, before having lunch and returning to explore more of the city. This included the area of the Forum with its many temples and public buildings as well as the Temple of Apollo.

The following day was set aside for rest and relaxation or exploration of the many local sites of interest. Most of the group went to Sorrento and then across to the Island of Capri. I explored more of the ruins of Pompeii (there is always something new to see!). The next morning we headed south by bus to Paestum. Here we toured the awe-inspiring Classical and Hellenistic temples from the ancient site of Poseidonia. These remarkable Doric buildings are extremely well preserved and are located in a beautiful natural setting. After lunch we saw the fascinating local collection of antiquities in the Paestum Archaeological Museum.

Our final day of touring in Italy took us to Naples where we saw the unsurpassed antiquities collection in the Naples Archaeological Museum. Highlights included mosaics and wall paintings from Pompeii, the Farnese Collection of sculpture and many household objects from the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The following morning we returned to Rome and headed immediately to the international terminal - Sandra, Deborah and I returned to Australia but other members of the tour stayed on to explore more sites of Italy.

All in all an excellent tour with an enthusiastic group who always had another questions for their guides and were always eager to learn more about the sites.

Michael Birrell

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