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Hiking Monte Testaccio

Climbing Monte Testaccio — a hill made of broken pottery fragments — reveals a story of the hands that crafted the forgotten terracotta

Hiking Monte Testaccio
Monte Testaccio. Image: Nico Avelardi

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I’m standing on top of a hill in Rome, holding hands with a Spaniard. Nothing strange about that, you might say, except, this being Rome, the guy is 2,000 years old and the hill is equally ancient.

Rome is famously the city of seven hills, but this one — the most extraordinary of all — isn’t one of them. Strictly speaking, it isn’t even a hill, and it didn’t exist until the second century BC. Back then, Testaccio was a hive of activity. Two blocks from where the hill now stands was the port of ancient Rome, where olive oil amphorae were shipped in from around the empire to fuel lamps (at this time, no self-respecting Roman used anything other than Italian oil for culinary purposes). 

Mainly hailing from what’s now Andalucia, they’d be decanted and thrown onto a pile. During the reign of Augustus, locals began to smash the amphorae into pieces and pile them up, each shard neatly slotting into the one below. Before long, it was 160ft high.

Centuries passed, and the terracotta dump grassed over. A neighbourhood grew up around it and business premises were gouged out of the hillside. Apartment blocks sprouted around an abattoir built in its shadow. Nobody thought to clear it away — it was part of the landscape. The Monte dei Cocci, they called it: Mount of Shards (25 million of them). And now, here I am, walking up it. 

I’d heard that the hill ‘sings’ as you walk, and while the lower reaches are silent, a gentle clink-clink starts up as I get higher, rising to the full-on sound of breaking pottery as I reach the top. Never have I felt so sacrilegious.

The site is open by appointment only, which means no crowds, no didactic panels, no selfie spots — just you, the hill and whatever you make of it.

Loose shards litter the grass at the top and there are parts where the hill’s sun-bleached terracotta guts are exposed. A startled lizard scuttles across the pile as I pick one up, revealing yet more stacked beneath it.

Some shards are an inch thick, others delicate, straight or curved. There are bits of necks; fragments of handles as heavy as dumbbells. And then, as my eyes adjust to the sea of terracotta, I notice details — a hand-etched scrawl on one piece, finger smears from the potter’s wheel on another. One has a thumbprint so fine I can see the whorl. A cruder piece bears the imprint of a hand. I pick it up, slot my own hand into the print. A man made it, definitely — with stubbier fingers than mine. His work ethic wasn’t great, I think — it’s a thick shard, and you can tell the amphora was thrown together quickly. I crouch there for a moment, hand to hand. It almost feels like we’re touching.

And as I walk down, the pots tinkling under foot, I think of that man, and the 2,000 years that separate us. Spanish and British, meeting in Rome. Talk about the Eternal City.

Open by appointment only, entry costs €4 (£3.50). Visitors must come with an official tour guide (average cost €130/£114 for three hours).

Published in the Rome 2018 guide, distributed with the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)