Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hoboventure: Etruscan Exploration


Our arrival was perfectly timed. We were just at the gates of the archaeological park at it opened, with no one to keep us company. The archeopark covers a part of a hilltop town of the Etruscans, called Fufluna. The town was inhabited between 1200 BC (Italian Bronze Age) and 570 CE. Life was based on the economy of fishing, metal smelting and trade. By the appropriate intellectuals (i.e. Etruscologists), it was once the preeminent town of the region. Its domain stretched from the occupied hilltop to the islands of Corsica and Elba and inland to the lost Lake Rimigliano. It was truly a strong city of the Etruscan peoples. 

But the rise of the Romans nearly wiped it out entirely. There were changes in the architecture, as can be seen by the large public areas (baths, temples and plumbing), as well as the construction of a typically Roman road. The housing of individuals changed more slowly. However, it recovered partly. To be used as a mainly metal smelting industrial town. Elba provided iron oxide, and the surrounding hills of Populonia (now called by the Romans) provided the wonder materials of copper, lead, zinc, tin, iron and silver. That means that the town could produce bronze and steel, as well as the luxury of silver. 

Populonia was abandoned by its population in 570 CE. This was partly due to the change in environment around them: the inland lake became silted as farming increased - which means there was a loss in the local food supply  of shellfish and an increase in malaria; and the sourcing of metal changed in quality and ease of access. Also, it was sacked by the barbarian northern Lombard tribe. The population had been decreasing over the centuries anyway. People gradually figured out that lugging themselves up and down a bloody hill was stupid. 

Apparently though, we were stupid enough to have attempted it that morning - with the bikes and all our kit. Matt didn't want to leave our stuff locked up at the side of the deserted road (danger from squirrel gnawing?) so we walked everything up. There was no way we could have ridden - maybe with better bikes. The downhill return was excellent fun. We did find out that hairpin turns on steep descents require braking forces. And braking for an extended period of time with a heavy load means we pooched our hubs for a while. The rear hubs are coaster brakes, and work by expanding an internal ring against the hub, causing enough friction to slow the bike down. The grease inside heats up, becoming less viscous, and oozes out the (poorly sealed) hub. Heat expands everything, making it harder to pedal once done with the gravity-aided motion. We gave our bikes an hour's rest  while visiting the necropolis.

The Etruscans had put a lot of effort into their burial rituals. Set into a nearby hillside, the journey from the city of the living to the city of the dead was a 6 kilometres walk through dense forest  and uneven terrain. The graves were embedded into the rock of the hill: steep tunnels were carved downwards, with steps and an entranceway. Within a small rectangular chamber were one to three beds carved out. Some even had small stone pillows for resting one's head. Once finished, the entrance was sealed with a single block of stone, and the passage way was filled in. The tombs were set side by side, with the tree canopy over head or a rock overhang. The largest series of tombs were placed in a vertical rock face in a large open space. The rock face wasn't natural, but had been carved out over time by the quarrying of the hill for raw materials. Grave chambers were set at intervals all the way up the 50' cliff. I quite felt like shoving all of the visiting school children in one and sealing it again. Matt says one was going to throw rocks at him. I'd let that one live.  

Obviously, we started riding late in the day, at about 1330h. The route took us away from the coast, cutting across a peninsula and cutting out some kilometres. Of course, as soon as one goes inland in Italy, one hits an elevation change. The Apennine Mountains run down the italian boot, and their foothills spread from shore to shore. Eventually, the gradual incline turned into an actual hill. Zut! That was tough. Right at the crest, we were passed by a pair of mountain bikers (it's big here, 'cause the terrain is excellent for singletrack). Very soon after, our lumbering selves caught them up. Matt was about to pass them when I called him off. Partly because I had no way to go faster and partly because I had gotten myself into a high-speed tank slapper. The entire rear end of my bike had started swaying violently and there was no way to stop it. Terrifying. 

The view at the valley was of more hills, luckily less extreme than the first. Slowly, we wound our way to Grossetto. The last few kilometres were a smooth bike lane. It's always nice to end a long day with an easy section. Especially when the bikes and the legs are both pooched. 

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